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?

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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.

Kameron Hurley, God’s War (Del Rey, 2014)

It’s the layering of the romantic squalor of biopunk (or theopunk?) in Kameron’s Hurley’s God’s War which makes it so much fun. The world Umayma has been terraformed and settled for 3,000 years by several races, most of whom share a common “religion of the book” but two of which, Nasheen and Cheja, have been at almost constant war for centuries. Occasionally, refugees from other theological conflicts, or even just lost and inquisitive aliens (all, it seems, of common human stock) drop by. Technology, in this far future, is indistinguishable from magic – indeed, scientists are called “magicians” and their powers over bioengineering are based upon hazily-if-at-all-explained control over indigenous insect life. Much of their efforts are devoted to repair of the horrendous injuries suffered by combatants in the war. (There is an entire sub-economy built around trading body-parts.) One such repaired soldier is Nyx, a former “bel dame” (member of a sisterhood devoted to tracking down deserters or infiltrators) who has made one too many deals verging on the dodgy and is now a bounty-hunter leading the obligatory team of outcasts.

Nyx’s team includes Khos, a Mhorian “shifter” (read: werewolf) and Rhys, a Chenjaan refugee whose talents as a magician are sufficient to gain him refugee status but not enough for him to get an independent job. Naturally, a mission is involved – a search for an alien who just might have secret tech which will put an end to the war for anyone who possesses it. Commissioned by the Queen, Nyx nevertheless has her bel dame sisters, who are not averse to some rather nasty torture, to contend with.

God’s War is a slick and inventive adventure novel which seems at time to escape into fantasyland when we get curious about the way the science and technology actually works. Similarly, the role of religion in this far future loses focus when we look at it. The dominant religion (or religions, or sects) is clearly based upon Islam – to the extent that items of clothing from the Islamic world, and many terms associated with it, are used. But the Nasheenians, in particular, have reversed the gender power-relations within Islam as we know it. Little, apart from the term “people of the book”, and a coy reference to “the Prophet”, is spelled out, and it is unclear whether Hurley knows, or is willing or able to tell, just how this religion evolves from present-day Islam, or whether (as did Frank Herbert in Dune) she is using convenient building-blocks from Islam to build her own future. But it’s a well-done future, refreshingly different from many of the stereotypes we’re used to in far-future sf, and most readers in search of a dirty-gritty romp simply won’t care.

It’s good at tensions and undercurrents. Nyx as befits her role as tough foul-mouthed hero, knocks back whisky and is referred to as an atheist by her comrades. Rhys, with whom she shares a sexual chemistry and something approaching love, is devout but occasionally wracked by conscience: and this is another interesting little difference. It’s rare that religious devotion unmixed with hypocrisy is given us in this kind of fiction, and often, when Rhys and occasional other minor characters appear, we get the sense that as well as the slam-bang action scenes, the baroque but bizarre technologies and the rather unconvincing but desolate background of endless war that all go to make this one of the better bits of romantic escapism I’ve had for a while, this is a universe that could actually be lived-in by people who feel. I haven’t read the subsequent novels in the trilogy, but there’s enough here, despite my occasional hesitations as hinted above, to make me want to spend a bit more time knowing about this world.

The Child Eater, by Rachel Pollack (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014)

Rachel Pollack has been off my radar for far too long, and this novel (or two braided novellas that eventually combine) is a welcome return.

In alternate chapters we are in a kind of fantasyland with a boy called Matyas who wants to learn the magic that will give him the secret of flight, and in the present day, with Jack Wisdom, who falls in love with and marries Rebecca, a woman who we the readers know to be some sort of supernatural selkie-like being (her apparent ability to communicate with squirrels is a clue). They have a son, Simon, and the relationship falls apart when Jack comes across his wife holding their baby son above the flames of a fire. We the readers have heard of such folk-tale motifs before, but all Jack can do is assume that there is something appalling going on. Left to bring Simon up on his own, Jack does his best, but when Simon begins to show signs of being able to mind-read, what can he do? Meanwhile, back in fantasyland, Matyas runs away from his father’s inn to a kind of college for wizards, where he becomes servant to the enigmatic Veil and, in running errands for her, learns something about magic, and more about the history of wizardry in this world.

Each story reflects the other, leading up to the identity of the eponymous “Child Eater”, who appears in Jack/Simon’s world as something like a serial-killer out of a Steven King novel. Pollack’s tone, however, is both lighter and closer to fantasy archetypes than King (a kind of Tarot pack plays a significant part in linking the two narratives together and there are, throughout, clever little nods to what Tolkien dubbed the “cauldron of story”) and she is particularly strong with character. Matyas is ambitious, determined, and though not evil neither is he particularly nice. Jack is caring, but not particularly astute. The two seem to complement each other in the same way as their stories echo and intertwine. When Simon falls into the hands of Dr Reina, who offers to cure his mental troubles, there is great danger, but by then each side of the story is beginning to leak into the other, and we get why this is a novel rather than two novellas.

Far too much fantasy now is by-numbers. This isn’t. It’s one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a long while and I can’t understand why people haven’t been enthusing about it to me. Very cleverly done, with a sense of wit and invention that make you realise what you’ve been missing in fantasy.

Just to be awkward . . .  this is nothing to do with sf&f at all . . .

Stuart Maconie, The People’s Songs (Ebury Press, 2013)

Stuart Maconie is always worth reading, even though in his book Pies and Prejudice he’s wrong about Chester and Harrogate . . .and specifically he’s a music presenter in the old fashioned sense. That is to say, he loves the stuff he’s playing; he’s genuine and he has a wide taste in music . In this book he takes 50 (or 49: there’s a reason which is to do with the fact that the listeners to his radio show were to choose the 50th) songs which mean something to the British psyche: not great songs, but songs which reflect something about what it feels to be British. Some of these songs are songs which you hate at the time, or despise because they’re commercial, but after the passage of years they become first a guilty pleasure and finally you actually like them. This is pop music which “which wears its demotic, romantic, exhibitionist heart on its sleeve”.

He begins with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet again” a song of utmost sentimentality that nevertheless captures the anxiety and fragile hope of a nation at war. Then there’s Winifred Atwell, a Caribbean woman singalong piano tunes were mammoth hits and whose 1953 “Coronation Rag” was something of a praise-song to the new Queen Elizabeth and who is probably not even known enough today to be unfashionable.(Like the later Millie of “My Boy Lollipop”, here because the song symbolized the growing fashion for Caribbean styles of music like blue-beat, file under “novelty” and forget. Maconie also lists Cliff Richard’s anemic “Move It”: the first British rock-and-roll hit. It’s not that he’s wrong to note its importance – indeed he’s right; I guess that my quibble is that Cliff’s “brooding, animal presence” (Maconie’s words, not, I hasten to add, mine) is overshadowed by Hank B. Marvin’s guitar. Though Maconie notes that Marvin’s influence “cannot be overstated either”, I think more could have been made of how Cliff’s early hits are carried by Marvin’s guitar – and the Shadows’ instrumentals were wonderful mini-symphonies. Rightly, perhaps, the influence of Joe Meek and the Tornadoes “Telstar” is brought to the fore, as pioneering electronic music and the science fiction influence. Nice to see Delia Derbyshire getting a name-check in this context, too.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” sums up psychedelia, and “Shipbuilding” the ”Falklands” years, though the Who’s “5.15” is maybe not the best song to encapsulate the mod movement (Also from Quadrophenia, “Cut My Hair” is a better song though Maconie’s choice was the single, and he’s talking about singles rather than album tracks) and in fact Maconie says little about the song itself. Any of the Who’s first three singles might have been better here. And there’s Bowie’s “Starman”. The thrill which hit a generation of 14 years-olds when Bowie sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” straight to camera and “smiles flirtatiously, points and twirls a beckoning finger at every mesmerised, outsider kid in the land” is one of those moments in pop history, like buying the Velvet Underground’s first album when it was first released, or being at the Sex Pistols’ first gig, that even people who weren’t there remember vividly. I certainly wasn’t there, and had encountered Bowie much earlier*, but yes, this all makes sense to me.

Many of the later songs I have yet to have opinions about (read: they don’t resonate with my life particularly strongly), and there are always quibbles (see above) about some. Maconie’s point, I’ll re-emphasise, is that these are not always great songs – “Things Can Only Get Better” is probably debased by being picked up as the “New Labour” theme song, though it isn’t a desperately good song in the first place. The point is, though, that is was such a “song for the moment”, as the Specials’ “Ghost Town” (a better song: at least, I can still remember how it goes) encapsulated the discontent of the Thatcher years. But this is a neat social-history-told-in-music of the past fifty or sixty years, and an entertaining read as well as being a good soundtrack.

*all right, if I must be snobbish: through hearing “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” (David Bowie and the Lower Third) on pirate radio in the 60s. Maconie references pirate radio through “Whiter Shade of Pale” and, more lengthily, through Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” describing the liberation given by offshore stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London. My quibble here is that Maconie is describing more fully the phenomenon of “songs about radio” and the sentiment offered by Elvis Costello in “Radio, Radio” (“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me”) It could have been interesting to look at some of those songs which became hits through being played on the pirates, or even those which were played endlessly and never became hits, such as the Bowie track, or David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, or anything by Kaleidoscope or Episode 6 or Eclection.

, , , was going to be the title of this blog until I changed my mind. But I may still use it for editorial-y stuff.

The idea of this blog is to find a place for reviews and short essays. I thought it  would be an interesting idea to present reviews of books (mostly sf&F, but not always) which come my way and see how many I could put up over the next twelve months and what it showed about my reading. Then I realised that writing about everything I read would be not a pleasure but a chore (and I tend to re-read, so what to do about that?) plus I have at least one major research project on, which involves a hell of a lot of reading and re-reading, not all of which would be relevant to  this kind of blog (and the thing is, that  for those projects I’m writing,  I don’t always want to write again for the blog). So this is  going to be hobbyist material — stuff I’m reading because I want to and part of the pleasure is writing the quick summary of reaction and maybe —maybe coming back to things later.

Though, just to be awkward, reviews and short essays I’ve published in the past in places which may not be found by anyone who’s likely to see this blog may find there way here, just so I can give them another airing and/or a more permanent place. Just to keep up with the times, I’ll also post links to reviews I’ve published elsewhere on the Web, in Strange Horizons, for instance

Then of course, I had a kind of existential thing about blogging and the internet generally and delayed the whole thing. At the moment I feel that a lot of harm is being done on the internet, and my tolerance for idiocy is becoming shorter; so I am not going to look kindly on examples of contraventions of common  courtesy. And that is all I have to say on that subject, save that this is me, and I am not speaking on behalf of any organisations I am involved with.

So, slowly but surely material is going to appear. This is an experiment, and it is unfinished (more links and references to other blogs will appear), but bear with me.