I’d rather neglected/forgotten/given up my plan for using this blog for occasional reviews, but was tempted back . . .

Shakespeare in Trouble: a case for Richard Palmer, Investigator

By Chris Crowcroft (AESOP Modern, 2015) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shakespeare-Trouble-Chris-Crowcroft/dp/1910301280/

Digression for a quick history lesson . . . In 1601, in an act of rebellion which was shambolic even by Elizabethan standards, the Earl of Essex attempted to stir up the city of London against Queen Elizabeth, whom he’d offended by failing to crush the rebellion in Ireland and who was clearly coming to the end of her reign with no named successor. (The alleged Catholic sympathies of the wife of the most likely – and eventual – claimant, James IV of Scotland, put fears of a deal with the Old Enemy, Spain, and loss of power in those who had done well out of the Protestant establishment.) One of Essex’s co-conspirators was the Earl of Southampton, an early patron of William Shakespeare, and it was a play by Shakespeare – the politically dodgy Richard II, with its shocking deposition of a monarch – which was funded by some of the conspirators shortly before Essex led his men out on to the streets.

Clearly an awkward moment for the Bard of Avon.

And so . . .The Queen is Not Happy. Richard Palmer, a seedy informer (he prefers the word “investigator”) who was once a gentleman is caught up in the crowd on the day of the abortive coup. He is called up by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister and the hub of her network of spies, and a former university companion, and set to work on unravelling the nature of the relationship between Southampton and Shakespeare and the conspiracy. Shakespeare has fled to Stratford, and Palmer follows his tracks, first investigating the playwright’s writings – including a series of suspicious sonnets (which were, of course, largely unpublished at the time) which seem to shed interesting light on the relationship between patron and poet. On the way back with Shakespeare, Palmer is ambushed and shot at, and there is clearly more to be considered. In Stratford itself, we have met other members of the Shakespeare family (including his daughter Susanna and her to-be husband the physician John Hall), but another character, a dark-haired woman, seems to be a link between many of the characters including Palmer himself.

Palmer’s viewpoint, in fact, holds everything together. We learn that his father’s stubborn adherence to the Old Faith has wrecked the family fortunes. Palmer is university-educated (even if as “a charity case obliged to serve his betters”) and has the typical university man’s disdain for the upstart crows typified by the glove-maker’s son from Stratford. Some of the best asides in the novel are Palmer’s disgust for the amateur doggerel of his quarry and the low-life players he writes for, but, jokes aside (and anyone with a love for the literature of the time will find much to smile at here: there’s a reference to Christopher Marlowe which, probably wisely, I am not going to unpick, but says quite a lot about Palmer), Crowcroft’s picture of Palmer’s time and place is vivid without going too far overboard into the sordid and squalid. The sheer filth of the time is not overlooked, but what comes across is straightforward everyday differences like the time it actually takes to travel from London to Stratford. As for Shakespeare himself, he remains enigmatic, but is also given some good lines in defence of his art. While Palmer develops a growing respect for him, there is also a sense that he is a flawed man, as much out of line in the world of politics and religious dogma as Palmer himself.

Shakespeare in Trouble is in part (indeed, is mostly) a conspiracy thriller/detective investigation with an appealingly convincing private eye who combines the hard-boiled soft centre of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe with the downwardly-mobile disgust of the malcontents found in a somewhat later playwright: John Webster (think that scene in Shakespeare in Love where Our Will comes across a ragged fanboy with pet rat who tells  Shakespeare how much he loves the gory bits in his plays). But while Crowcroft holds his deep knowledge of matters Shakespearian lightly (and in the interest of full disclosure I will admit that we were taught English and History by the same slightly deranged teachers who by god certainly made the whole thing a baroque experience[*]), the novel also dramatises extremely readably the background to the Essex rebellion, the “Dark Lady” question of the sonnets, and other literary-historical questions that have been part of the Shakespeare mystery. However, its delight is that you don’t actually have to know much of this to enjoy the novel. Everything is explained clearly and contextually. What remains a mystery is supposed to remain a mystery. It’s an entertaining and amusing read, and a definitely strong addition to the canon of historical crime-thrillers.

The novel ends with an epilogue a couple of years later with James VI of Scotland now on his way south to become also James I of England and with Shakespeare’s company now renamed the King’s Men. Palmer is now back on the skids, with his only client an Alderman whose kink is reading about what his errant wife is up to. But there’s going to be quite a bit of history to cover, and some interesting relationships between Shakespeare and the new regime to explore. In theatrical and literary terms (and you might need to trust me on this), things start to get really interesting.

May we see Palmer on another case? I hope so.

[*]Those who get what I mean will also welcome the in-joke on page 126.

Lost Cartographies: Tales of Another Europe by Cyril Simsa (Invocations Press, 2014)

Cyril Simsa is an Englishman of Czech descent who lives and works in Prague, and who for many years has been a follower of science fiction, occasionally publishing short fiction in small-press magazines and webzines. (In the interest of full and frank disclosure I have received his fanzines, published his critical commentary, and received this book as a gift at the 2014 London Worldcon). Lost Commentaries is a collection of six stories set in Central Europe which, as he points out in his introduction, was and is a fertile region of Otherness. “We have always superimposed the Other on geography, and Europe has always been a locus of otherness,” he writes (adding, perhaps slyly, “At least in Britain”). I am reminded in reading the introduction of two non-fiction books I’ve read over the past year: Norman David’s Vanished Kingdoms and Simon Winder’s Danubia which, in different ways, emphasised how little we (I) know about Central/Eastern Europe, but the first story, “Inbibing History” sets the tone by clearly echoing Bram Stoker’s remark that by crossing the Danube at Budapest “we were leaving the West and entering the East”. Just as Jonathan Harker, on his way to Castle Dracula, finds the people and geography “picturesque”, “Interesting” and a little frightening, so his contemporary Rosamund Harper, a young geologist stranded by the breakdown of her coach in the Carpathians, finds much to unsettle her. Told alternately through the journals of Harper and Hieronymus Zibrt, the strangely ageless landowner she encounters, “Imbibing History” is about change – the slow, evolutionary change of Darwinian and geological time, and the anxiety of historical time.”[I]t is true, as we hurtle towards the Twentieth Century, a new era is undoubtedly on the horizon,” writes Harper. On her return home, she notes that a novel has just been published in London which manages to get virtually everything she has discovered from her encounter distressingly wrong. The omens for this new era are not good.

Other encounters range from the Seventeenth Century to the dystopian future. In “Journey’s End”, a Flemish trader, waiting for a merchant from East Anglia in order to unload some dubious liqueurs (“The English will drink anything, I find, since they got rid of the Commonwealth”) meets a mysterious woman who is waiting for an unpaid debt. As they converse, it becomes clear what the profession of Ragana (or Anat, Astarte, Ashtharoth) is (something stranger and more uncanny than what Mareliese had first suspected), but the fact that both women are networking over time and space offers a wry contrast between them. “The Feast of Stephen” has a group of alienated young Czechs conjuring up Wenceslas, the Czech patron saint, finding that the myth of the “sleeping hero” who will redeem his country has a darker and more ancient origin. “Wenceslas” and his twelve companions will certainly save the world from global warming and other threats, but only by the logical consequences of allowing the deep past entry into the present. “Under the Waves” stands upon the cusp of two devastating historical events. Ambrose, the young librarian who narrates the story, along with his aristocratic friend Kaspar, encounters a water-sprite living in a pond on the family estate. On the eve of Ambrose’s conscription into the army in 1914, Kaspar opts to join Leocadia in her realm. Somewhat to his surprise, Ambrose survives the war and, a couple of decades later, finds himself, now working for the Prague Water Board in the new nation of Czechoslovakia, before the place where Leocadia’s pond was. “We were all creatures of the past,” he meditates. The immediate future trembles before him.

A further future is explored in “Poorly Formulated Questions,” in which a dictator is tracked down by an agent of the “International Environmental Court” which seeks to hold him accountable for his crimes against humanity – “crimes” which are perhaps crimes in ideological hindsight, or which may be being seductively excused. Finally, in “Queen of Sumava” we are in post-War communist Czechoslovakia. The officer in charge of a unit of border guards, brought up to respect the chthonic spirits of the land as deeply as he is pragmatically committed to the new ideology, has to balance the demands of a political appointee to his unit against his unease with purges and loyalty tests. When they come across a notorious people-smuggler helping a dissident former Minister across the border, a local hill-deity comes to play her own part in events.

Everywhere, the uncanny undercurrents of psychogeography and myth swirl around shifting political and personal borders. In his introduction, Simsa hints that his fictions are, in part, his own explorations of an identity which must reflect that of many modern Europeans (“it was not until I moved to Prague in the 1990s that I realised that I was English after all . . . although my Englishness is very much that of the London suburbs.” History and geography come to unsettling and thought-provoking life in these haunting and well-crafted tales.

May 2015

Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison!: It Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time  (Tor, 2014)

It was a relatively obscure Harry Harrison story (“Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N.”) which contributed to my becoming a science fiction reader. The joke – that “Harpplayer” was colour-blind instead of the slightly more famous Hornblower’s tone-deafness – was in truth a weak one (and it was some years before I actually encountered Hornblower and got the point!), but there was a sense of fun about it which I responded to when, later, I found the Stainless Steel Rat and the adventures of Bill, the “Galactic Hero” – and by then I had read some of the novels ­Bill was reacting against. Yet Harrison was also a writer of fine adventure sf, and his treatment of themes like religion, politics, and overpopulation were refreshingly dissident.

Less  an organised biography, more a collection of reminiscences, Harry Harrison’s memoir often come across like listening to him at the bar take you across his life, from his travels from the USA to Europe and back again, his passion for Esperanto, and his career as a writer ranging from melodramatic “confessions” for the men’s magazines to some of the finest sf of the last century. Sadly, Harrison died before the final touches could have been made to this memoir. Occasionally, chronology slips – In the middle of telling us of his California sojourn, Harrison says that “I was contacted by Alex Cox *. . . He had made the classic Repo Man”. That film was made 1984. But next page, there is an encounter with Gene Roddenberry; “Star Trek was in its early weeks” (p. 215). And dating is sometimes absent – of five anecdotes about HH’s Russian publication, (pp295-307), three are dated and two can only be worked out from context (and the sequence isn’t chronological). So as a book from which we can reconstruct the full details of Harrison’s career, this sadly isn’t the full glass, but as the nearest thing his many fans can get to listening to the man himself, this is a joyful experience.

Early days and his life in the military are full of the detail which was going to find itself transformed into Bill, the Galactic Hero and his career as a struggling writer is given full attention. He talks about writing comic strips – Flash Gordon and Jeff Hawke put bread on the table for a while – and about of ghosting for Leslie (“The Saint”) Charteris. Much of Harrison’s fiction was published by John W. Campbell in Astounding, and, as a writer whose sympathies always lay firmly on the left, Harrison’s admiration for Campbell’s maverick mind and astuteness as an editor – throwing out ideas to be picked up and turned round into fiction – is plain, even as he makes it clear that they were poles apart politically.

He has the raconteur’s eye for detail and the dramatic underpinning of amusing squalor – the broken urinal in the accommodation for a Russian convention, the dreadful food in England in the 1950s – and (not always combined in the same place) a sharply intelligent critical eye. His comments on the transformation of the excellent novel of overpopulation Make Room! Make Room! into the dully obvious Soylent Green are a lesson in themselves. The film’s script, from its meaningless title to its fake shock-revelation, comes in for some justified hammering. But his praise for its visual excitement and Edward G. Robinson’s ability to act a “nothing” script makes you want to see the film again.

Harrison gives us glimpses of far-away worlds, such as the 1957 Worldcon when, “at the so-called banquet, the convention president, John Wyndham, proposed the loyal toast to Her Majesty the Queen. . . . Just like life in a historical novel, spoiled only by those few fen of republican leaning who did not stand up and join in, yet another social discovery.” But he’s also a writer of today, a shaper of the way sf has changed for the better to become more international and more critical. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, when the aims of the recent London Worldcon for “diversity” were much to the fore, it was Harrison and a few of his companions (most notably Brian Aldiss) who created the space for such aims. Harrison’s internationalism, fuelled by his interest in Esperanto but also by the popularity of his work outside the USA and England (Deathworld in particular was an underground hit in Russia under communism) makes him one of the most interesting writers of his time: very much part of science fiction and fandom as it developed after the Second World War, but aware that the war had exploded an old order and a new one waited in the wings, and wryly critical of the way the field could collapse back into insularity.

This is a storyteller’s memoir; the reminiscences of a man with much to tell, to be shared with a few drinks and among convivial company. Listening to Harrison’s voice, we are invited into the circle, to become part of that convivial company, and to share his memories. He will be missed.

*Whose excellent Kickstarter-funded adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero has just (December 2014) had its first showing. Made by Cox’s film students at the University of Colorado, this captures the satirical comedy of Harrison’s novel really well. More on it later, I hope, but in the meanwhile Alex Cox’s blog has info about it.

A Message From Mars

This restored film from 1913, billed as the first full-length British science fiction film, is available for view from the BFI website as part of their late-2014 sf film season, and well worth the visit, I might say. It’s not something I knew much about (when watching it, I realised that I had confused it with George Du Maurier’s 1898 novel The Martian), but on consulting the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction discovered that it is in fact based upon a popular play by Liverpool-born Richard Ganthony which apparently had been filmed in New Zealand in 1903 (this version remains lost) and re-adapted in the USA in 1921.

Ganthony’s play was first performed in 1899, so my erroneous connection with Du Maurier’s novel might have something in it. Mars was very much in the news at that time, and numerous authors were fascinated by the planet.. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, itself influenced by the theories of the American astronomer Percival Lowell, was serialised in 1897 and published in book form the following year. The German author Kurd Lasswitz’s Auf Zwei Planeten (Two Planets) also about an older Martian civilization contacting Earth was also published in 1897. In 1901 Nikola Tesla claimed to have received radio signals from Mars; a claim which probably inspired the march by Raymond Taylor, “A Signal From Mars” (http://prints.bl.uk/art/404366/a-signal-from-mars . Edwin L.Arnold’s swashbuckling Lt. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905) is said to have influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “John Carter” series.

Co-written with Wallett Waller and starring actor-manager Charles Hawtry (not my mum’s favourite “Carry On” actor) in what seems to be a typically louche role, A Message From Mars is an entertaining and amusing morality tale. Although billed by the BFI as a science fiction film (a term which of course would have been meaningless in 1913) , there’s little science in it and even the viewer through which the Martians examine Earth is pretty much your standard crystal ball. In fact, what we have is very much a retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Our Martian, Ramiel having committed a crime, is degraded by the “God of Mars” and told that he can only regain his place by reforming Horace (Hawtry), who is seen displaying curmudgeonly and miserly tendencies such as watching a Punch and Judy show and refusing to add anything to the showman’s collection. We see more of Horace when his fiancée Minnie (Chrissie Bell) arrives to be taken to a dance only to discover that he would rather sit by the fire with a whiskey-and-soda and read a magazine. Not surprisingly, she gives him her ring back and heads off to the dance with her admirer Arthur (Frank Hector). We also see a tramp (Hubert Willis) knock hesitatingly on Horace’s door with a letter of recommendation from one of Horace’s friends, saying that he is a good workman and deserves help. Horace’s reaction is to throw the man out.

Discovering the Martian emissary in his room, Horace is (at first unwillingly) forced into re-evaluating his ways by this sinister brooding figure, portentously folding his arms and striking attitudes. Ramiel shows Horace how Minnie is having a grand time at the dance with Arthur, and they witness a man knocked down by a speeding car. The embarrassed Horace is persuaded to help, but not after some petulant hand-in-pockets pretending he’s not there as a concerned crowd gathers around the injured man. Reluctantly he hands over money for the medical bill.  But this is against his will and doesn’t count. So Ramiel punishes his pride by transforming him into a beggar and (with the tramp he threw out) Horace, who earlier has patronisingly tipped a police constable to call him a taxi, is reduced to grovelling for pennies opening the doors of the coaches taking people from the very dance he should have been at with Minnie, and shooed away by indignant authority-figures. When his “mate” collapses, Horace humbles himself by pleading for help. Finding a sovereign in his pocket (magicked there by Ramiel?), he shares it with his partner. His job done, Ramiel returns to Mars. Horace takes the tramp home and feeds him, then is interrupted by the news that a neighbouring house (in a poorer district) is on fire. Horace rescues the children from the house and brings them home for a slap-up feed. Released from his sentence, the Martian is received back into the fold, Minnie, who has persuaded her Aunt Martha (Kate Tyndale), to accompany her back to Horace’s house after having an unexplained premonition that there is good in Horace after all, sees that the change in him and takes her ring back; and all is well.

Moral whimsy rather than science-fiction adventure or speculation, A Message from Mars is nevertheless worth the effort that’s been put into it. Much in the film is only semi-explained, but audiences would have been familiar with the plot from the play, and the tie-in novel published in 1912 by Lester Lurgan, a pseudonym of the prolific Mabel Knowles (better known as “May Wynne”). The acting styles would also have helped audiences pick up the story: as said above, Ramiel is a melodramatic “moral chorus” and Hawtry, rather oddly described as a “young man” (he is much older than Bell but the difference in their ages rather convincingly (to my mind) portrays Horace as someone set in a groove of selfishness) is excellent at displaying his childish sulkiness through facial expressions and posture. We may not be quite convinced by the Martians as Martians but A Message From Mars is a neat and entertaining piece of social commentary which shows the way science fiction-like images were rapidly entering popular entertainment in the early 20th century.

In the course of looking for something else entirely, I came across the following:

“I can only suggest that [two writers] – not their story, but the authors themselves – be piled in the middle of the floor and set fire to.”

Now, oddly enough, this was nothing to do with the Latest Thing to Hit Fandom™ , which can be admirably summarised and discussed at

http://laurajmixon.com/2014/11/a-report-on-damage-done-by-one-individual-under-several-names/

but was written by James Blish under his “William Atheling, Jr.” alias in the fanzine Skyhook (Winter 1952-53 issue) and reprinted in his collected “Atheling” columns The Issue At Hand (1964).

It certainly echoes much of what the mysterious RequiresHate/Winterfox/Acrackedmoon/Benjanun Sriduangkaew/various other internet handles posted over the years. It also raises the question of where and how “robust speech” and “performance criticism”, and genuine exploration of uncomfortable facts become simply unpleasant personal attacks, and where that shades into bullying and harassment, and where the use of a pseudonym may be a cloak not for defence, but for attack.

Blish’s “Atheling” columns were written as thought-out attacks on what he saw (with considerable justification) as the low standard of writing and editing in the science fiction of the time (the early 1950s). Among the stories anatomised were those of a James Blish – having noted that, the recollections of several people reading and writing sf at the time (when I asked a few I happen to be in contact with) were that, while the identify of “Atheling” in the first few columns was something of a mystery, Blish was identified as the author quite quickly – and certainly by the time the book was published in 1964 there was no secret.

Blish was a member of the 30s/40s fan group, the Futurians – about whom it was said (by Frederik Pohl) “No CIA nor KGB ever wrestled so valiantly for the soul of an emerging nation as New Fandom and the Futurians did for science fiction”. (Mostly) very young and (mostly) left-wing, the Futurians were addicted to feuds and squabbles, and some of these feuds took bitter and virulent forms.

So nothing changes much . . .

Oddly enough, no-one at Worldcon pulled me into a corner and said “Guess what? Benjanun Sriduangkaew is Requireshate!” I found out when everyone else found out – technically: I was aware that RH still was spreading her poison, and that there were rumours, but it didn’t seem the most important thing in the world and I guess I made no effort to find out what these rumours actually were. What has really interested me about the whole thing is, despite the small-circle controversy and rather pathetic attempts to defend hate-speech and racism because that’s how people talk on the internet and anyway it wasn’t really hate-speech and racism because [I always get lost here], the number of people who have just said:

 

“Who?”

 

Followed by those who said:

 

“Yes, I saw her blog and it was vile so I stopped reading it.”

 

Unfortunately, as is being charted on Laura J. Mixon’s website, a considerable number of people were being targeted and felt that no-one was there to help. Others accepted the political colouring over the racism and hate-speech and made excuses, were taken in, felt that the sometimes valid points that were made justified the fact that they were made in such a way as to close down any sort of debate or discussion. Others genuinely felt that in helping and promoting “Benjanun Sriduangkaew”, they were encouraging the diversity that the literature badly needs, rather than encouraging more mind-games.

And many of us actually didn’t feel in the slightest bit threatened, because we were either not directly involved, or were confident enough in our identities not to be particularly bothered about what some blogger on the edge of our horizons thought of us, when there were real issues to be confronted and dealt with.

And at this point, what was going to be a much longer piece, about the nature of real literary feuds (see my previous post), the school-playground culture of fandom, and how what might have been fun in the more enclosed environment of the 1950s doesn’t wash any more, gets deleted. The discussion over at http://laurajmixon.com/2014/11/a-report-on-damage-done-by-one-individual-under-several-names/ is where real people, affected by this episode (if something going on for over ten years can be called an “episode”) are having their say, and where discussions are beginning to take place about what might actually be done to combine the twin goals of allowing as many voices as possible the chance to speak for themselves and to have proper robust but adult discussions about serious matters. People over there are making points more eloquently than I can.

Oh, and I found this by accident too, though you might guess what I was googling for:

 

“All I believe tells me that I cannot be a part of ANY ORGANIZATION that requires hate of my fellow men as an operational necessity”.  From Reconciliation Road: A Family Odyssey by John Douglas Marshall

This is the first of what may be several pieces which I’m going to post over the next few months. It’s here for two reasons:

First, it was originally delivered as a talk at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow, (and subsequently reprinted in Benoit Giraud’s fanzine The Frozen Frog). The idea behind it was first, the obligatory joke (everyone’s allowed one, and one only) in my M.Phil dissertation on playwright, pamphleteer, and all-round scribbler Thomas Dekker, likening the feuding, squabbling writing trade in the late 16th/early 17th centuries to  20th century sf fandom. On thinking about various things to propose for Worldcon, I thought of Bob Shaw’s Serious Scientific Talks, and thought I’d come up with a Serious Academic Talk. It’s all true.

It’s interesting to think that I was not only (at the time) one of the half-dozen people in the world who knew everything about Thomas Dekker, but also I was apparently inventing Fan Studies. But I tend to do this . . . when I was ten, I invented a character for my First Unfinished Novel who was basically Indiana Jones. Had I been quicker off the mark (and kept the manuscript), I would have made a mint from George Lucas, although I suspect I would then have had to share my proceeds from the plagiarism lawsuit with the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as the adventures of my action-hero archaeologist took place on a remote plateau in the Amazon jungle infested with prehistoric monsters . . .

I’ve always had some affection for this piece, which I’m republishing more or less as was, with just a few obvious typos corrected. As it stands, it’s rather too full of fannish in-jokes which I’m sure went down well at the time, but to point them out and explain them, and to bring up to date references to the “Friends of Foundation” and the like, would create the impression that it’s really a serious work of art, so I shall resist the temptation. I toyed with the idea of bringing some of the targets up to date (interesting that Interzone is here the target of the “harsh critic” jibe), but it wouldn’t have worked. This is, after all, a period piece. There are also some crackingly tortuous and  UN-funny jokes which were inserted by someone impersonating me.

On re-reading it, though, I did feel quite melancholy when I came across the coded reference to Iain M. Banks, and I was amused by the crack at Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” (which I had obviously been listening to). The past week has been full of reviews of the 6cd, 138-track reissue of just about everything that was recorded by Dylan and The Band at that time. But then, why point a finger at Dylan: every 60s muso of any note  once taped singing in the shower has had that “session” issued with various remixes in every conceivable format.

Oh, and the second reason? Simply that I’m currently writing something about fannish squabbles in an altogether more serious mode, and this seemed to be an appropriate place to start. It’s a piece of nostalgia now; warts and all. But it’s a reminder that however serious and important we think ourselves, there were people who could outdraw anyone in the sf/fantasy world when it comes to the showdown.

SEVENTEENTH CENTURY SCHIZOID FAN

I would like to call this meeting of the Society For Fannish Studies to order – and mine is a very large Scotch.

That, I’m afraid, is the standard of humour you are going to get in this talk, but as Ben Jonson, who you are going to meet several times during the course of this session, said “Every man in his humour”. And this, unfortunately for us all, is mine. So let us begin.

The first edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says that “Fandom originated in the late 1920s shortly after the appearance of the first SF magazines”.

Recent researches, however, have tended to cast doubt upon this theory.

An examination of the characteristics of fandom – in which the twin lubricants of ego and alcohol enable a small group of obsessive scribblers and socialisers to engage in various interpretations of the word “intercourse” – reveals an uncanny similarity with the literary world of the early seventeenth century.   Complete investigation would be, of course, the domain of the serious scholar: much needs to be done. But tentative conclusions can be drawn, and it is my suggestion that we here are in fact engaged in an activity which would not be strange to such giants of English Literature as Shakespeare and Jonson.

Let’s have a look at the writing scene in the late 16th/early17th centuries. First of all, it was small-scale; even amateur. There were three main reasons for this. The first was simply that it was not gentlemanly to be a professional writer. Real men, like Sir Walter Raleigh, dashed off brilliant verse as part of an all-round sophistication, in between fighting the dastardly Spaniard, searching for non-existent gold mines, and dancing with Queen Elizabeth. John Donne, perhaps the greatest poet of his time was ashamed to be in a situation where he felt he must publish his poems at all, and the fact that the future Dean of St Paul’s was author of arguably the filthiest line in English poetry:

“…were we not wean’d till then?

But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?”

was nothing at all to the fact that he had published anything. If by some mischance you did appear in print, why, then you blamed publishers trying to make a fast buck. “It was abroad a fortnight ere I knew of it,” protested Thomas Nashe about his best-selling Pierce Penniless, which apparently spawned offers of sequels from various unnamed “obscure imitators”, thus launching sharecropping upon an unsuspecting public. He introduced The Terrors of the Night by relating how a friend had asked for a copy of the manuscript and somehow unauthorised copies of this copy had got about, so the author had decided he might as well publish and make some money out of it. The words “Basement” and “Tapes” come into mind.

The second reason was perhaps the foundation of the first. Writing was a scruffy trade (somewhere between beggar and mugger in the popular imagination, and if you were Christopher Marlowe, exactly between), and most of what money circulated within it ended up with the printers and publishers. (So what’s new? you ask: my point exactly.) Market forces ruled even then. Thomas Dekker had problems with his readers:

“One says it is too harsh: another, too supple: another too trivial: another too serious”;

his publishers:

“Go to one and offer a Coppy, if it be merrie, the man likes no light            stuffe, if sad, it           will not sell”;

and Interzone:

“the Aconited sting of a narrow-eyed critic”.

While as early as 1518 Copland was complaining about the ill effects on the book trade of computer games and porn on the Internet:

“Men let theyr children use all such harlotry

That byeng of bokes they utterly deny.”

There is still, however, time to repent and visit the Friends of Foundation table in the Dealer’s Room.

The lack of a copyight law meant that as soon as the writer sold the manuscript he could count on no further income from royalties, while the alternative source of income – from finding a wealthy patron who appreciated your work – was made more difficult by the increasing number of needy writers and would-be scribblers who haunted the houses of the Great with masterpieces in their hands. You could do well in this. James I gave Ben Jonson a pension, later increased by his son Charles I to £100 a year, which was not bad at all when you could live pretty well as a gentleman for £40, while the Earl of Pembroke gave him £25 a year to buy books. Churchyard, however, wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh that he had 16 books out, dedicated to “several men of good and great credit” but none of the rotters had done him the slightest of favours. (Many writers with dreams of a sinecure in the gift of an appropriate Lord ended up grateful for a couple of bob from the local churchwarden: some even developed a nice racket involving a book, a fulsome dedication dwelling upon the wonderful qualities of the dedicatee, a list of the more gullible minor aristocracy, and a pocket printing outfit. This removed the regrettable necessity of writing a different book for each dedicatee, but it was understandably unpopular among those writers who actually wanted to write worthwhile books. This lead to a nice reversal of a scene familiar to us all.

When Person A approaches Person B waving a book, this is usually a sign that Person B has written the book and is being asked to inscribe their name inside it by Person A, who is either under the impression that this makes the book more valuable or is A Serious Collector. (I’m reminded here of the apocryphal writer [Bob Shaw?] who pointed out that anyone trying to sell his signed books would actually get offered less on the grounds that “Look, someone’s scribbled in it.”) A few centuries ago, Person A would have written the book and would be trying to dedicate it to to wonderful, talented and incredibly sexy Person B in the hope of a couple of pounds or – even better – a job.. Thomas Dekker put these words into the mouth of a caricature of Ben Jonson:

“I haue a set of letters readie starcht to my hands, which to any fresh suited gallant,           that but newlie enters his name into my rowles, I send the next morning.”

and said that a Real Poet “did not skrue and wriggle himselfe into great Men’s familiarity”.

On second thoughts, things aren’t all that different. Just think of your freshly printed manuscript and all the editors you’ll be able to meet at a Worldcon! In The Honest Whore, Dekker wrote a wonderfully revealing scene in which the hero, Hippolito, is approached by a poor scholar who is “bold/To expresse my loue and duty to your Lordship/In these few leaues”, interrogates the scholar about how many other lords have been approached by him in similar words, and reassured, gives him a tip and a promise to read the book.

Any would-be writers here may try this approach at their own risk without mentioning my name. Dekker himself, in the end, gave up and dedicated The Guls Horn-Booke (a sort of etiquette primer for “gulls” or those too stupid to come in out of the rain) to its readership in general, despite the fact that “I know that most of you . . . can neither write nor read” because at least these well-heeled Bertie Wooster types compare favourably with “the common Rancke of Dry-fisted Patrons who give nothing” and another pamphlet, News From Graues-End was dedicated to “Nobody” in an attempt to attack the stale fashions of creeping like a drowned rat into the safe haven of a “Benefique Patron”. Neither attempts seemed guaranteed to result in a purse of gold or a well-paid job. Nor did they.

However, this kind of scrounging was almost as important to a writer’s existence as the opportunity to hang around the table at someone else’s launch party. The relationship of writer to readers in the early 17th century can, in fact, only be summed up as – well, that desperate wheedle in Roger Robinson’s voice as he tries to persuade you to donate money to the Friends of Foundation. Unfortunately, most authors lacked Roger’s entrepreneurial skills. What the writer actually did pocket was little enough. Dekker spent seven years in gaol after having been sued by, among others, his tailor. The account books of Philip Henslowe, the theatre-manager of the Admiral’s men, are full of references to small sums paid on account to struggling hacks or to spring someone (usually Dekker) from gaol in return for a quick prologue. Thomas Nashe is described by Middleton as living in a bare chamber hung with rags and sleeping in filthy sheets which looked as if they’d been stolen from the graveyard. Even some best-sellers describing the degradation of a writer’s life didn’t stop Robert Greene from allegedly dying in stinking poverty. John Taylor, the Water Poet, the Lionel Fanthorpe of his age, was as fond as the erstwhile Bron Fane of writing stunts and once persuaded over 800 subscribers to support his verse description of his “Pennilesse Pilgrimage” from London to Edinburgh, the gimmick of which was that he carried neither money nor provisions, thus establishing the tradition of setting out to cons well prepared. Unfortunately, most of Taylor’s subscribers also had their own idea of establishing a tradition, and “Real Soon Now” was the order of the day when it came to settling their debts. At which point, Taylor pubbed his ish again with “A Kicksey-winsey, or, a lery cum-twang” which established a third tradition of a ‘zine with a stupid title. In it, he warned these “sweet youths” that if they didn’t cough up he would place their names “on every pissing post” – one of the earliest mentions, perhaps, of that honourable practice of scrawling abuse on bog walls.

Taylor was a Great Man in the history of the written word.

Webster introduced the book of his play The White Devil by blaming its failure on its having been produced in the dead of winter in a dull and shabby theatre (open to the elements) attended by an audience made up of “those ignorant asses (who, visiting stationer’s shops, their use is not to inquire for good books but new books)”. It’s a wonder he didn’t tell us the leading actor had had stage fright and run off to Europe as well, but the quality of the acting seems to have been the only salvagable thing about the whole affair.

Those writers who ended up well-off (and there were precious few of them) were those like Shakespeare who were canny enough to develop some other source of income, such as investng in shares in a theatre. Chrisopher Marlowe got too close to international espionage, and paid the price, as you can read about in Charles Nicholl’s brilliant The Reckoning. John Donne, as we know, became Dean of St Paul’s. One of Dekker’s collaborators, Anthony Munday, was a spy and informer, with a nice line in befriending Roman Catholics and then shopping them to the authorities for not going to Church.   Another, George Wilkins, ran a brothel. Lodge became a doctor and others, such as Marston and the unfortunately-named Thomas Bastard, clergymen. Taylor, whom we have met, was dubbed the “water-poet” because of his trade as a boat-for-hire along the river Thames. he capitalised on this profession in another literary stunt, that of rowing across the Thames estuary in a boat constructed out of brown paper. Although history relates that he didn’t get far, this proves beyond doubt that – as I believe I have said already – that Taylor was a Great Man in the history of the written word.

But, apart from the possibility of appealing to wealthy merchants, the High Aristocracy, or the monarch (and when the monarch was as predatory as Elizabeth I or James I we are only talking about appealing by the pen if we add another two letters to the word) there was little chance of becoming the Terry Pratchett of the Elizabethan world. As today, the remainder market was the most flourishing one: “We commonly see the book that at Christmas lieth bound on the stationer’s stall, at Easter to be broken in the haberdasher’s shop” (John Lyly). Writing could be positively dangerous – witness Thomas Kyd who when a sheet of blasphemous and scurrilous writing was found in his room only managed to escape worse than a spot of torture by remembering that it was in fact left behind by Christopher Marlowe (soon to be the late Christopher Marlowe). Nashe complained about bureaucrats who read a reference to a “rush” in a satire and call for the book’s suppression on the grounds that “it is meant of the Emperor of Russia and that it will utterly mar the traffic into that country”. Something very similar actually happened to George Wither, but then, he was the poet who, when captured during the Civil War, was saved by the persuasive arguments of a fellow-poet on the opposing side who passionately pleaded for Wither’s life on the grounds that, while Wither was still alive, there was no way he could be described as the worst poet in England. But I digress . . .

When best-sellers are reckoned in hundreds rather than thousands – the upper limit for the numbers of copies of most editions printed was 1,250, little more than the circulation of some fanzines today – it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility to suggest that the writer knew personally many of those who bought his books. After all, the actual book-buying public was limited to those who were (a) literate and (b) able to afford books. This cut off, for a start, most of the population (although the ability to read was perhaps more widespread than is usually thought) and virtually all women apart from the Countess of Pembroke who managed to persuade Philip Sidney to write a massive fantasy epic with all the trimmings for her, although “in the tradition of “Sir Philip Sidney, the miracle of the age” would probably not shift many copies of Terry Brooks’s or David Eddings’s novels.

Like the fan milieu today, it was a relatively small and above all intimate scene. And if you look at it closely, you realise how fannish it becomes. Much of the actual writing has the looseness and gossipy nature of fanwriting. Copy out Nashe’s Pierce Penniless – a brilliant amble in which the author writes about what a hard time he is having and sends a begging letter to the devil coursing through the Seven Deadly Sins, sneering at inferior writers, analysing that habit common to seventeenth-century declasse intellectuals and twentieth-century fans (getting pissed) and adding a peculiarly emblematic tale in which personalities of the time are caricatured – in other words, fan-fiction – copy this out, I say, in an updated version with some of the jargon transformed, in mimeo-and-staple or rather too ambitious DTP and you’ve got a typical fanzine article. Add the advice given to fans by Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”, (on when the next issue of the magnum opus should appear) and “Is this a dagger I see before me?” on the critical response fandom will give to your hard-sweated labour of love, and really, what is the difference between then and now?

And what a small circle it really was! Thomas Dekker collaborated with just about every major and minor playwright from (possibly) Shakespeare to the veriest hacks like Munday and Henry Chettle, and including Jonson, about whom we already know his opinion. So fandom is marked by its feuds and cliques? – just who controls the BSFA? What was the KTF style of fanzine reviewing? Why have some fans never read Interzone and thus deprived themselves of the delights of John Clute’s vocabulary? Why is it that although I am related to half of Bingley I have never met D. West? Is there intelligent life at a media convention? – all this is straw in the wind compared to some of the issues dissected by the Nashe-Dekker-Jonson nexus.

Believe me, those people knew how to stomp. Dekker stomped good and hard upon the practice of flattering your reader though he has “no more civility than a Tartar, and no more learning than the most arrant stinkard that except his own name could never find anything in the hornbook.” (Could this be the earliest description of the Average Fan?) He stomped upon critics who “cry excellent at the drawing of that upon which tomorrow they will cast a mewing countenance.” (Now which review column could that refer to I wonder?) he stomped upon egotrippers who “out of a mere and idle vain-glory will ever be pamphleting, though their books, being printed, are scarce worth so much brown paper.” (We all know faneditors like that, don’t we?) John Florio summed us all up, I think. “Readers in these times, are most part sick of the sullens, nd peevish in their sickness, and conceited in their peevishness”: perhaps the best description I have ever come across of people who write letters to the BSFA. The aforementioned Thomas Bastard blew the gaff on why people write Trek tie-ins and sharecropped novels:

I doe it onely for the Printers sake

The simple must have something for their humour

And having something they my booke will buy

Then gayneth he by whom I am no looser

So is he satisfde, and they and I

Robert Greene knew who was really to blame if authors produced garbage:

So Gentlemen, if any condemn my rashnesse for troubling your eares with so many

unlearned pamphlets: I will straight . . . lay the blame on you as well for friendly   reading them, as on my selfe for fondly penning them.

But there’s no feud like a personal feud and here Dekker’s old hero Thomas Nashe has to take first place, with the battle between him and Gabriel Harvey which produced some fine passages of invective over several years until the Archbishop of Canterbury rather unsportingly stepped into the fray and ordered the offending books burned with strict instructions that the fun was to cease. In Have With You To Saffron Waldon, Nashe manages to dig up so many embarrassing stories about Harvey – his trendy obsession with Italian fashions after a throwaway and probably uncomplimentary remark by Queen Elizabeth “that he looked something like an Italian” (in his bid to impress the court with how up to the minute he was he suddenly developed a strong Italian accent): his hunger-strike in Newgate Prison which lasted all of two hours, and his personal appearance (“skin riddled and crumpled like a piece of burnt parchment and more channels and creases he hath in his face than there be fairy circles on Salisbury Plain” – that it’s a wonder that present-day fans haven’t discovered it as a quarry for their own anecdotes concerning their favourite enemies. Harvey himself wrote about Robert Greene’s “dissolute and licentious living”, his “ruffianly haire, unseemely apparrell, and more unseemelye Company”. (He should see this gathering, is all I can say).

While Gabriel Harvey and his brothers were special enemies of Nashe, everyone despised Thomas Deloney, “the balletting silke-weaver of Norwich” and what Robert Greene called his “trivial trinkets and threadbare trash”. Deloney was, it has to be admitted, a ballad-writer, and this in a time when favourite choruses were a variant of “hey nonny nonny no” or “Down, down, down, a-down, a-down” – how different from today’s sophisticated poetry of popular song such as

doo-wop, doo-wop, shang-a-lang-alang

yo, check it out!

no, no, no no no no no no, no no, no no – there’s no limit

or         awopbopaloobopalopbangboom!

although I wager that even Take That would never revive that ballad which survives in an immortal line quoted by Jonson

Madam, with a dildoe.

Deloney, however, had the last laugh by writing Jack of Newberie and Thomas of Reading and inventing modern middle-class prose fiction.

In any case, all this is as nothing compared to the name-dropping and character-destroying shown by Ben Jonson (again!) in what was admittedly a series of private conversations with the Scottish poet William Drummond which the latter obligingly wrote down for the edification of future generations. Jonson and Dekker had, as we know, earlier sparred as playwrights, Dekker portraying Jonson in a play as an arrogant toady around Great Lords and sneering at his pox-ridden face “like a rotten russet Apple” while Jonson drew Dekker as a grubby hack who would satirize anyone for a consideration. In conversation with Drummond, Jonson – who in truth never minced words where literature was concerned and did have a habit of telling his audiences that what they were about to see was dammed good so would they please stop picking their noses and cracking nuts – summed up Dekker as a “rogue”, claimed to have beaten his colleague Marston “and took his pistol from him”, (whatever that may mean) described other poets as “fools” and “base fellows” “a pedantic schoolmaster” and the like, pointed out that Sir Philip Sidney, the exemplar of the Elizabethan Renaissance Hero, had pimples, conjuring up wonderful images of “the miracle of the age”, “the darling of the human race” in front of the mirror squeezing his zits, and generally managed to produce a fans-eye view of contemporary literary society. Not to mention, of course, a fine series of filthy stories concerning his own sex life and that of Queen Elizabeth.

And all this from a man who ended up creating the scripts for elaborate masques or pageants: reincarnate him at a Worldcon today and he would be the first to organise the parade of Klingon warriors. Jonson indeed was definitely Mr Skiffy of the 17th century. Not only is The Alchemist full of enough jibes at pseudo-science to make you wish with all your heart he had been around to comment upon John W Campbell’s celebrated Dean Drive or the current rash of alien abductions – there is a scene therein in which you only have to substitute little beings with pointy features and big eyes for the disguised rogues when the unfortunate and blindfolded Dapper is persuaded that he is the favoured nephew of the Queen of the Fairies – but with titles like The Magnetic Lady it’s clear that he could have done something with Marvel Comics’ super-heroes as well. However, with Inigo Jones on special effects, Jonson’s masques could well be raided by people fed up with Trek or Babylon 5. Short of ideas for costume events? Why not be the “Sphinx from Love Freed From Ignorance and Folly”, any of the twelve hags from The Masque of Queens, with its wonderful lines

Yet went I back to the house again,

Killed the black cat, and here’s the brain.

(though knowing my own black cat I can’t think that’s much of a trophy)

or its rousing, er, climax “And now, our orgies let’s begin”?

If your tastes lie in the Gothic, try the Skeleton from The Fortunate Isles , or if you’re into Celtic fantasy, how about Arthur or Merlin from Prince Henry’s Barriers? And if you are still not convinced about Jonson’s relevance to hard-core, traditional science fiction, just come back to The Magnetic Lady with Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” in mind, re-read the phrase “She can cranch/a sack of small coal (Act 1 Sc4) . Why not refer to that stirring tale of interplanetary communication News From The New World Discovered in the Moon which gives us the location of the headquarters of the Bavarian Illuminati (“The Brethren of the Rosy Cross have their college within a mile o’ the moon”) and the first mention in English Literature of two phenomena which have plagued our field: the Vacuous Padded Trilogy so beloved of publishers (“And I am for matter of state, gentlemen, by consequence, story, to fill up my great book, my chronicle, which must be three ream of paper at least: I have agreed with my stationer aforehand to make it so big,” and the Letterhack: “I do write my thousand letters a week ordinary, sometimes twelve hundred . . . both to hold up my reputation with mine own ministers in town and my friends of correspondence in the country”.

But enough of such finely-honed analysis. To end with, there’s that fine old fannish stand-by – booze! As I’ve said, Nashe had something to say on this, analysing the eight kinds of drunkenness – “the first is ape drunk, and he leaps, and sings, and holloes, and danceth for the heavens, and is called the Great White Hope of British Literature ” – no, sorry, I seem to have got my quotations mixed up – and concluding that “He that plies any one of them hard, it will make him to write admirable verses . . . though he were never so very a dunce before.”   Dekker advised would-be gallants not to pretend to be too drunk to pay their share of the bill, nor to quibble about details when the “terrible reckoning” is presented – advice that, when I join you later at the bar – I can only second. Nashe retells the story that his friend Robert Greene met his end through too much Rhenish wine and pickled herring, and he describes Greene as having “in one year pissed as much against the walls” of Christ’s College, Cambridge as the three Harvey brothers did in three. The poet Drayton was something of an exception. One anonymous playwright wrote of him that he “wants the true note of a poet of our times, and that is this, he cannot swagger it well in a tavern.” Jonson, however, (it had to be Jonson!) made up for it by taking Sir Walter Raleigh’s son to France and ending up with the young Raleigh plying him with drink and exhibiting the sodden poet through the streets in a cart “drunken, and dead drunk, so that he knew not where he was.” You can never trust those neos.

I’ll leave the last word, though, with Thomas Dekker who, when he described observing a great hall full of

“a Ging of good fellows in whom there is more brotherhood . . . The ragged Regiment: Villains they are by birth, Varlets by education, Knaves by profession, Beggar by the Statute & Rogues by Act of Parliament . . . the idle Drones of a Country, the Caterpillars of a Commonwealth and the Egyptian lice of a Kingdom . . . they hold these solemn meetings in four several seasons of the year at least, and in several places to avoid discovery.”

was obviously describing a Convention. It’s quite clear that fandom has a longer and more distinguished history than at first appears. Is this not a tradition to be proud of?

James Goss, et. al. Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks (BBC Books, 2014)

Doctor Who: Tales of Trenzalore (BBC Books, 2014)

George Mann, Doctor Who: Engines of War (BBC Books, 2014)

Like the show itself, “Doctor Who” spin-off books are a mixed bag which you try to keep up with from a sense of duty. The Shakespeare Notebooks appealed because of the obvious conceit that both the Doctor and the Bard of Avon are figures who have a massive appeal but whose personality and inner character you cannot really touch. The book itself is a mixed bag among mixed bags, an “edited account” of collisions between the Doctor and Shakespeare with rather too many jokes along the lines of discovering that some of the great speeches were actually written by the Doctor. We get some interesting bits of Shakesperiana (such as a reminder that there was nothing underhand about the willing of his “second-best bed” to his wife). But there are also things that were probably a good idea in the pub, such as the retelling of the very first Who episode in Shakespearian verse. And Ben Jonson’s name is usually spelled without the “h”.

Yet in there is also a rather good version of Macbeth told as an episode of Doctor Who (is it an actual script which went the rounds? It is certainly far better that the last episode I watched at time of writing –for the record, the very bad “Robot of Sherwood”.) The Doctor and two companions stumble upon Macbeth and Banquo on a “blasted heath” and as they blurt out who they’ve actually come across they are taken for the “three witches” and inadvertently set up the “prophecies” that fuel the play. So they spend the rest of the play in various guises as minor characters as they try to sort it all out. Of course, there is a character called “The Doctor” in Macbeth, so oo-ee, it could all be true!

That would have made a very good episode (far better than most of the current season, which started with high hopes and has ended up what Who so rarely has been: not just bad in a gloriously tacky way, but DULL); much of the rest is at various stages of “amusing”. The “Tales” and the novel by George Mann featuring the John Hurt “War Doctor” pass the time well enough. The whole “tiny town of Christmas” is too twee for my tastes, but Engines of War fleshes out the outline we know from the series and tells you more about the “War Doctor’s” motivations. However, no great surprises and in each we have annoyingly similar incidents of situations being set up then a character is cracked across the head “and it all goes black”. Maybe reading several spin-off novels in succession is a bad idea.

S Spencer Baker, Slabscape: Reset (Blip Books, 2010)

Slabscape: Reset spends the first three very short chapters (the first is two sentences; the second is blank) describing somebody falling. The astute reader will remember The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s plummeting whale and bowl of petunias, and be tempted to consider Baker as an imitator of Douglas Adams – and indeed a joke about half-way through about “banging the rocks together” might simply justify that. It’s probably best, in fact, that Blip, who seem to be a very small Liverpool publisher, haven’t flagged this novel with an “in the great tradition of . . .” banner. That said, though, there’s a lot to like here. Our protagonist turns out to be a “reset”, a regenerated and somewhat rebuilt body of the original Louis Drago, whose downloaded hologram is also present on the Slab, a kind of space habitat established to seek out and make contact with the alien consciousness which aeons ago had infected human minds and instilled in us all our existential doubts and anxieties. Dielle, our protagonist, comes, naively and Dent-like, to understand his place in the network controlled by Slabwide Integrated System, or Sis (a vast AI/Internet), and the economy of slab (which can broadly be summed up by the fact that Kiki, the beautiful “nurse” who has brought him to consciousness, is also his manager, and that all his experiences are distributed throughout Slab for the entertainment of its inhabitants. The fact that some of these experiences can be highly embarrassing is somewhat mitigated that he does get a share of the royalties. The other fact that the very attractive women who are angling to have sex with him are doing so because of the royalties they’ll get in the subsequent “sumecasts” feeds back into the “highly embarrassing” category.

The plot involves what seems to be a war with aliens and the discovery of what looks like an identical copy of Slab some way ahead of the Slab Dielle has found himself on. As Dielle is getting used to this new environment, so is Louis, who has the advantage of keeping his memories as an unscrupulous late-21st century wheeler-dealer billionaire. While by the time we are half-way through the novel, the shift of point-of-view between Dielle and Louis begins to look a bit clumsy, the contrast between innocence and experience adds fun, and by the end of the book it’s clear that some of the other characters we meet (such as Slab’s President) and the Slab economy itself have roles to play in a scenario which is not (for there is at least one book to follow) altogether clear.

While some fans of Douglas Adams and Red Dwarf might feel that they have read it all before, and some of the humour (particular where sex is involved) is a bit giggly, Baker has done a good job in building an imaginary creation of his own and the result is a readable and amusing novel which all too quickly and horribly wraps you up in the realisation that the murky anarcho-capitalist amorality in what we are reading is not too unlike our Own Dear Interweb. Book two is due out shortly. I’ll be keeping an eye out.