John Crowley’s ninth novel came as another surprise, both for its publication only three years after The Translator, and in still not being the final part of Ægypt.
As it’s title proclaims, by far away the largest part of the book is a pastiche, a full-length, hitherto ‘undiscovered’ prose novel penned by the famous and infamous poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is more than a novel, as it comes with a series of annotations and mini-commentaries by Ada, Countess Lovelace, herself a distinguished if generally unknown Victorian figure: mathematical genius, colleague of Charles Babbage, victim of cervical cancer in her early forties, and Byron’s daughter, who last saw her sire in the flesh when aged two.
The secret in such books lies not merely in the skill with which the writer apes his subject, and I will say now that I am in no position to judge the success or otherwise of Crowley in this regard, but it is also bound up in the story the writer concocts to explain the disappearance and, more important, the ultimate emergence of this literary phenomenon.
It’s this part of the tale with which I intend to start, though it occupies less than a quarter of the pages of the novel.
We meet none of the characters in this part of the book directly: each are represented only by their correspondence, all but a fraction of it in e-mail, some minor, late contributions in letter form.
The principals, in correspondence, are Alexandra Novak (who goes commonly by the name of “Smith”), her lover Thea Spann and her estranged father, Lee Novak (the latter two hold Doctorates, though this isn’t revealed until just before the end). Thea is a mathematician, and Lee is a Film Director and an expert who has studied Byron at length.
Lee, like Byron, has not seen his daughter since she was very young, and is exiled abroad, where he makes documentaries seeking to serve the cause of liberation in repressed countries. Thea is heavily against Smith contacting her father, for reasons that are not disclosed until well into the story, which is because he is a fugitive from American justice, having slept with an underage girl: in short, a Roman Polanski figure.
Let’s park that for a moment. Smith is an editor/researcher for a feminist web-site, strongwoman.org, whose theme is uncovering and bringing to light women such as Ada, who have made great strides in scientific fields in eras where women were not supposed to have an interest in such things. Smith is in London to visit Georgianna, an elderly lady who has volunteered both material on Ada, a pioneer in the very earliest days of what would become computer science, and also financial assistance to the web-site.
To begin with, there are mysterious papers relating to Ada that Georgianna hopes to acquire in strange circumstances: Smith’s role is to more or less pre-vet these for the possibility of trickery.
The majority of the papers relate to Ada’s commentary upon her late father’s almost mythological novel (begun in real life but abandoned unfinished, and burned: Byron’s novel was to have been a product of that famous holiday agreement to write books that led Mary Shelley to compose Frankenstein) but there is one extant page, apparently rescued from a burning that was enforced by Lady Byron.
So the novel exists, and we are reading it, and Ada comments at the end of each chapter, whilst the less frequent e-mail interludes tell of the reconstruction of the book itself from Ada’s encoding of it in mathematical cypher.
Several people have criticised the novel for this section, because Crowley does not set up any dramatic tension over whether or not the book may be found, and its provenance (the two works frequently cited in comparison are A S Byatt’s Possession and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, neither of which I have read). That’s to mistake entirely Crowley’s purpose in constructing his novel thusly.
Byron’s ‘novel’, entitled The Evening Land, centres upon Ali, the half-Albanian son of ‘Satan’ Porteous, Lord Sane, a cold, rakehelling, self-interested figure who is set up to remind readers of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Byron himself. Ali, born in adultery, is torn from his native land, and his true love Iman, to become Sane’s heir in England. But Sane is soon murdered (out of chronological order) in circumstances that cast Ali as a parricide, (until his elder half-brother and evil shadow steps forward, much nearer the end, to accept responsibility himself).
Ali’s life and career is framed to reflect that of Byron himself, as Ada’s notes manifest, reflecting themselves the picture of Byron given to her by her mother, who specifically sought to blacken Byron, out of hatred for the end of their marriage.
Smith stands in a similar position to Ada. Her own father, Lee, is an exile, on the run even. But when answers are needed to conundrums and possibilities, Lee is the only Byron scholar Smith knows to whom she can turn for information and advice. And, in a very slow, haltering fashion, towards some kind of r’approchement with a parent she doesn’t know that offers a reverse-image to that of Ada and Byron.
I have some issues with this section of the story. One is in the distant Thea, the mathematician. It’s an odd decision to render almost all this element in e-mails, impersonalising every contemporary thought and movement. Because of the normal way in which they write, Smith and Lee do have components of personalities. But Crowley depicts Thea differently. Her e-mails are unpunctuated, uncapitalised, uninterested. The effect is something of a ‘hippy daze’, creating the image of a person disconnected, unprepared to make the effort to communicate. Whether intentionally, and despite her later help when matters enter her field of mathematics, it creates an atmosphere of total self-absorption. Thea seems utterly heedless of Smith’s aims and ambitions: they are not mathematical, they therefore are irrelevant. What at first seems an affectation rapidly becomes a complete irritant.
Lee, on the other hand, is given plenty of time to establish himself as thoughtful, intelligent, his heart and mind in the right place and, through not trying to get into his daughter’s good books, deserving of doing so. That’s before the details of this heinous crime are revealed.
I have strong opinions on Roman Polanski, and they are wholly negative when it comes to him. This raises a very big mark against Lee Novak. True, the circumstances are different, and the facts are given in such a way as to paint a different picture: no rape, no (enforced) drugs, a truly promiscuous ‘wild child’ who had shagged loads of people. ‘All’ Lee is actually guilty of is sleeping with a willing under-age girl. But then we only get this from Lee himself, without objective confirmation. This is something I find hard to accept, even within a fiction.
But the bulk of the book is made up of Lord Byron’s Novel. How good a pastiche is it? Don’t look to me for an opinion, I’m uncultured and ignorant. It has been praised very highly by people likely to know well enough, and I am not aware of anyone blasting it as weak and ineffectual. The early use of the phrase ‘kick against the pricks’ struck me as anachronistic, but that was again ignorance on my part, since the phrase appears in the King James Bible so is clearly older than I think (it’s about donkeys reacting to drivers’ goads, apparently).
It’s a rollicking, larger than life, ramshackle, episodic and improbable beast of a story, and it doesn’t really end. It’s not the kind of thing I’d read if it really were Lord Byron’s novel, but in Crowley’s hands it is but one level of a layered story, and in context an entertaining read. Overall, my personal response to Lord Byron’s Novel is that it is very clever, too clever perhaps, to have anything but cleverness as its achievement.


It bloody nearly is! After going behind to Stamford, FC United finally shook off the nervous nellies of the past three games and came through to win by a comfy 3-1. It could have been enough. If Ilkeston, so recently very strong, had taken even as much as a point off Workington, it would have eliminated their prospects, but a 3-0 win keeps them in with the sniff of a chance. On the other hand, Ashton United’s 2-0 defeat at Whitby Town knocks them out of contention at last. So it’s still two points separating the top two, but Workington have only one game left, next Saturday, at home to FC United. It could be a tense title-decider… but FC have one game more to play. On Tuesday night. At home to 14th place Stourbridge. And I’m working…


Reign of the Robots is the third but not quite final part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy.
The Cryptos Expedition returns to Earth after ten long years away in space. It’s an autumnal scene, all greatcoats, full uniform and spitting rain (much to the displeasure of Stripey, who has been brought back by Digby with lack of any forethought on how the little creature is going to survive on Earth), but Spacefleet HQ is deserted. There is nobody on the entire base, and leaves are everywhere.
All communications are dead and there are rats in the canteen. Dan and Co head for London, where they find the city equally empty and unused. They are not aware that they are under surveillance, by something robotic.
At the Space Ministry, they discover that someone has defaced the bust of Sir Hubert Guest by scrawling the date 2002 across its base. ‘Grand Slam’, the ultimate, all-out defence level against planetary invasion, has been activated. Their next stop is Sanctum, the ultimate Government Bunker, impenetrable. But Sanctum has long since been penetrated. The voice that greets them from within, having waited many years for Colonel Dare’s return, is both instantly recognisable and horrifying: it is the Mekon. He has conquered Earth.
And he has had sole control of the planet for nearly a whole decade.
It’s a fine, fast introduction to the story, all the above having been accomplished in only two episodes.
The Mekon is in fine form, confident and sneering, but he has been waiting for Dan’s return the whole time, waiting to rub his arch-enemy’s nose in his triumph, as if it doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, until Dan has to acknowledge it.
We don’t get details of just how the Mekon defeated Earth (these have been left to the imagination of fans, delightedly filling in gaps) but in essence he has triumphed with newly bred Supertreens and Ultratreens, but primarily with mechanical forces, overwhelming Earth with an army of Electrobots.
Dan and Co undergo a tour of what has been done to the planet, their population, now the Mekon can establish rigorous scientific control. The various scenes are couched as historical experience, recreating dimly understood episodes of human history under Treen observation
But what they really are are differently purposed, coldly imaginative concentration camps, though the horrors of the day-to-day of such camps is elided over. It’s intended audience, still a long way from exposure to the realities that informed Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau et al, cannot people those camps with what they were and are. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one which is too much for a children’s SF series.
Finally, the gang are taken to Mekonta, on Venus. Before they go, Stripey is taken away, to be slaughtered. The Mekon has no time for creatures who do not serve a useful purpose. Though animal lovers need not be offended, any more than those who oppose taking children into combat need ultimately be concerned about Flamer Spry’s seeming death: Sardi, the Treen officer who removes the little animal, is not Sardi but Sondar, Earth’s friend and ally, substituted in his place.
(All Treens look alike, to a higher degree than we imagined it would seem. Though it doesn’t say much for the Mekon that he can’t tell he has an imposter in his personal guard when Dan and Digby can recognise Sondar instantly).
The Mekon wants Dan in Mekonta for a specific, and especially cruel purpose. In the House of Silence there are crystal chambers in which he finds the preserved bodies of his friends: Sir Hubert Guest, Hank Hogan, Pierre Lafayette and Professor Peabody: the old Venus Expedition team that broke the Mekon’s power back in 1996. They’re not all dead yet.
But the touch of a switch is all that is needed for a joyous resurrection. The four are not dead and these are not casques, but Cryptosian ‘Suspacells’. Lero left the formula with Sir Hubert, to be discovered after take-off, the Mekon captured it and, in anticipation of Dan’s return, froze his friends They are only one year older than Dan and Digby, not ten!
As before, the Mekon wants to break Dan, turn him to his side, and threats against his friends are the chosen method. Dan reiterates Earth’s commitment to honesty, the need to keep their word once given, both as a good in itself, and because, if they lie to the Mekon, who will trust them after they regain control? With his friends’ backing, Dan refuses to collaborate.
Just as with Rogue Planet, Stranks and Hampson’s major obstacle lies in rendering a story in which it’s plausible that the four members of the Cryptos Expedition can engineer the overthrow of the Mekon, his Supertreens and his overpowering Robots that have held Earth, Mars and Venus in subjugation for nine long years.
The two situations are not directly comparable. Earth’s situation is worse than Cryptos, but Dan has more basic material with which to work. There is a Spacefleet Underground, an echo of the Resistance in France and elsewhere, in the still fresh World War. It not only consists of SF veterans, such as George Bryan (seen in The Red Moon Mystery as senior officer on the Mars Ferrys) but its leaders are the new generation of Spacefleet, Steve Valiant, Mark Straight and Tony Albright, Astral College’s senior boys, ten years on.

The Elektrobots strike! (original art)

Moreover, as the story nears its end, there is an active, and considerably better-equipped Theron Underground, led by none other than Volstar himself, with President Kalon in safety, who will put in Dan’s hands the final weapon that disables the Mekon’s robotic domination of the three planets.
But the key to the Underground’s eventual success has two elements.
The first, and overwhelmingly magnificent of these is discovered when Dan succeeds in escaping the Mekon’s clutches, blasting off from Venus in a Treen ship. He discovers a space zone out of radio range, a dead zone of drifting spaceships, floating derelict and wrecked. Some are of familiar design, others have never been seen before. It is an astonishing Sargasso Sea of Space.
The graveyard includes a Spacefleet X12, a design still on the drawing board when Dan left for Cryptos, fully lit. He heads for it, hoping to find it usable, but discovers it occupied by its original crew, Captain Bob ‘Crusoe’ King and Engineer Angus ‘Friday’ McFarlane, trapped on board a ship damaged in the Mekon’s original attack on Earth, and eking out their lives in isolation. Dan’s appearance, and the chance, suddenly, to strike back and help to rescue the Earth, galvanises the pair, but there is something even better that they need to show Dan first, in the Sargasso.
It is the Anastasia.
I don’t know how many boys, reading The Red Moon Mystery in 1952, really registered that Dan’s personal spacecraft, designed for him by Sondar in gratitude for the first overthrow of the Mekon, had been abandoned and lost. As the story reached its end, Anastasia had been used to tow the Chlorophyll beacon that drew the Red Moon away from Earth, to a rendezvous with the Treen fleet. It was certainly never made anything of, and I, like, most of its audience, would have just assumed that Anastasia had been taken aboard one of the Treen ships. But it had been abandoned, and had never appeared since, until Stranks/Hampson pulled it as a lovely rabbit out of a hat, dry but still fully-functioning in Space, and giving Dan the manoeuvrability he needed.
So the pieces begin to come together. On Earth, Flamer’s uncanny ability to mimic the Mekon (a much less succulent rabbit out of the hat and one that gets harder to accept once we ourselves arrive in an era of Electronic Voice Recognition) disposes of the common or garden Elektrobots, but fails to dispel the more powerful Selektrobots. To end that threat, Dan must ride the Theron Underground guided missile to ensure it hits the satellite which controls the remaining robot army.
It’s a suicide mission, and one that Dan goes on willingly, regretting only that he cannot say goodbye to Digby. But even in heroic circumstances, suicide is not an option, and besides, there is Anastasia.


Sir Hubert insists on taking this mission himself, going out to rescue Dan, who is as a son to him, just as Pop Hampson was father to Frank Hampson himself (sometimes our relations escape into our stories and the feelings cannot help but resonate throughout the drama). Dan guides his rocket to the target, bailing out when it is on course. The satellite is destroyed, bringing an end to the reign of the Robots, as the Selektrobots become so much metal junk.
But debris has struck Dan’s escape capsule. He is floating in space, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. If not for Sir Hubert’s pursuit in  Anastasia, he would be a goner. Even once he has been hauled to safety inside his personal spacecraft, it still seems as if the Pilot of the Future has sacrificed himself to save his planet…
I mentioned above that though Reign of the Robots was the third part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, it was not the last. This is because, on this cliff-hanging note, the story ended, to be succeeded, the following week, by The Ship That Lived. To which, of course, I will be coming next. I shall have more to say on this transition then.
My first exposure to Reign of the Robots was immediately after Eagle‘s death-by-merger into it’s old, and much cheaper, knock-off rival, Lion (which I also read). The Rogue Planet reprints were heavily condensed to make the story’s end coincide with Eagle‘s last issue, and Reign of the Robots kicked off with Lion & Eagle‘s first issue. In black and white. On cheap and nasty paper.
I think I stuck with the title for about nine weeks. I was getting old (fourteen), and I had already replaced most of my weekly comics with football magazines. The time was ripe, and even Dan Dare looked like crap, reproduced like this.
Eventually, I read the (full?) story in the third Dragon’s Dream reprint edition, where the art had been chopped about appallingly whilst trying to compensate for the removal of the Eagle title block on every cover page.
To some extent, these experiences have influenced my response to this story, which I cannot help but see as the weakest part of the Trilogy. There are several factors in this: Reign of the Robots is not so much a continuation of the story in the first two parts as a ‘what they found when they got back’, disconnecting it rather from the overall story-line. It suffers artistically in the return from those beautifully rendered alien planets (the autumnal rain Britain opening, necessary as it is, imposes an emotional damper that permeates all the story). That Earth has been attacked in this manner, that it has been subjected to an unimaginable horror for a decade, makes the story entirely too dystopic, a mood antithetical to Hampson’s whole approach to the Dan Dare series.
And the art itself, overall, is not up to the standard of the previous two volumes. Perhaps this is in part due to the quality of the issues used for Hawk Books’ facsimile reprints (shoot from surviving comics, not the original art). There seems to be a faint blurriness to some pages that doesn’t help the detail, and there are a number of episodes where art is clearly being done outside the studio, probably by Desmond Walduck, though the style differs from what we grew used to in Prisoners of Space, being much cruder.
The Frank Hampson/Don Harley signature block is not in evidence here, indeed no pages are signed until the twentieth episode when Hampson signs his name only at the foot of the second page, but a ‘Frank Hampson Production’ block appears on the twenty-sixth episode and thereafter more frequently, but still irregularly.
We know that Hampson was beginning to think of withdrawing from actual art. His studio was smart and efficient, and in Don Harley he had an extremely worthy first lieutenant. Hampson had ambitions for his series. He wanted to promote a version of it for the American market. He wanted to meet men he admired over there. He wanted to tackle animation. All of these things would take time, but the studio could take the strain, Stranks was reliable, and if he were to step back from the day-to-day art, he could take on a more directorial role, develop ideas, new approaches.
He’d reached an artistic height in Rogue Planet, rich, complex, detailed, beautiful. His studio couldn’t quite match that, but then his studio couldn’t take Dan Dare forward, the way Frank Hampson could. If Reign of the Robots represents a falling off, to me it is most likely because Hampson was expanding his horizons. A brilliant future would lie ahead. If only.


It’s the annual Girl Genius Kickstarter plug, this time for the first volume of Book 2.

Agatha Heterodyne has successfully completed her transition from hapless, headache-prone student to establishing herself as The Heterodyne, Mistress of the family town of Mechanicsburg. But Baron Wulfenbach has frozen the town (and himself) in time in an attempt to nullify the menace he sees from Agatha. Everything has changed across Europa. The Wulfenbach Empire has lost control. Gilgamesh is under a strange form of control from his missing father. And Agatha has set out for Paris, to seek aid in freeing Mechanicsburg. Others have different plans for her…

There’s sixteen days to go and already the project is 98% funded (the last one was 398% funded, so you know it’s going to happen. This is the link, so get out there and treat yourselves. This is the funniest, most wide-ranging series going, a Gaslamp Fantasy offering Adventure, Romance and Mad Scientists!

Read and love.


Not on the evidence of tonight. This is what you call a serious wobble. Had FC won away at free-falling Skelmersdale, and Ashton and Workington lost, we would be even now be in the Conference North. But for the first time since November, FC lost, and their two rivals were heartened by wins, and now it looks a lot tighter than it should have been. Workington have cut the gap to two points, with two to play, Ashton have moved to five in arrear with three to play, like us. We still need five points, just from the last nine now. It won’t get decided on Saturday so I won’t be going, especially since I did my right foot today so can barely walk on it. Oh shit.


Maybe he was right…

Perhaps its time to start working upon a retraction.

A few weeks ago, in despair at the hapless performances Manchester United were still putting in after several months under the charge of Louis van Gaal, I announced a fairly public loss of faith.

Since then, results and, especially performances have suggested that such announcement was premature and ought properly to be recanted.

I’ve got to be honest, there have been some seriously encouraging signs. The performance at Liverpool was one of the best games I’ve seen from United in many years (the latter days under Ferguson included). I really don’t remember when I last saw United dominate Liverpool so much – and on their own ground! United’s ability to retain and move the ball around, and the sheer ease with which they continually got it back, whenever it was lost, was awesome.

But that was just one game, and just one game immediately after the performance against Spurs, which everyone agreed was our first truly decent performance under van Gaal. Two swans don’t make a summer.

For that matter, four swans still only represent a warm spell, but this last one was the Derby, the Bitters, the reigning (for not much longer) League Champions, and not unincidentally, winners of the last four Derbies in succession.

And we went a goal behind incredibly early, when City were easily on top.

But United came back. They dug in, they took control of the game, they came back and they played City out of the game. It was 4-1, a stupendous turnaround, and even though City pulled one more back, that was when United were down to ten men, all subs used and Michael Carrick taken off to avoid aggravating a knock.

This isn’t a recantation. Not quite yet. I’m slow to change my mind, without substantial evidence to support it, and we have Chelsea, the putative Champions, away from home next weekend. Let’s wait till then.

But it’s looking very good. It’s looking as if everyone understands what to do at last, as if van Gaal has finally allowed himself to realise that Ander Herrera is the business, that pace is United’s friend and their natural state. Win at Stamford Bridge, and I’ll cover this blog with mea culpas. I don’t mind admitting I’ve been wrong, when I’ve been wrong.

And even if we lose, it’s still looking very good for our immediate future. The glory days may not yet be back. But maybe you no longer need a Time Machine to see them.


Only the people have been removed to increase your viewing pleasure.

There are people who have enjoyed Fortitude from start to finish, have even looked forward with unbearable anticipation, week-by-week, to the inevitable uncovering of answers. The Distinguished Thing is now here in its entirety (pace R. Fiore) and they have professed themselves to be satisfied, even though Fortitude‘s final episode was devoid in anything resembling an answer. To anything.

At least we know what kind of story it was. It was an old-fashioned horror story, all Weird Tales, dark sub-Lovecraftian things coming from a hideous past to destroy the modern world. All that stuff about investigating Charlie Stoddart’s death, and Billie Pettigrew’s, and killing off DCI Morton after just over eleven episodes for no apparent reason, that was all a smokescreen, a sub-plot meant to distract our attention away from the real meat of the story, and it would have worked too but for, no, not those pesky kids but rather the dramatic ineptitude of devoting roughly eleven-twelfths of the series to it.

Even in its last episode, the series was incapable of varying from its glacial pace. There have been some episodes since I stopped blogging Fortitude weekly where I have sweated and groaned and howled at the sheer length of time episodes were taking: five minutes of story drawn out over forty-five minutes of screentime that felt like three hours! Even in the thrilling climax I was stealing glances at the clock and gasping in shock that only another ten minutes had gone by.

I’m not going to start trying to elucidate things for you: let that be done by someone who cares and who can bend their mind around some of the truly awful ideas and appallingly empty acting this show has boasted. There’s the lovely Elena, wandering around like a plague victim, clearly the latest victim of the mammoth-hatched primordial parasite wasp menace, looking like death warmed up and on the biggest bender of all time, and sweet, innocent ten-year old Carrie can get a croquet mallet to the back of the skull and a pair of kitchen knives to the stomach. For what? For the puerile cliche of lovelorn Sheriff Dan being forced to shoot her.

There’s Governor Hildur deciding to forgive, take back and snog the face off of cheating husband Eric (some actors have all the luck), for no better reason than that he brought her ice cream truck back. I’d say that the last tie to reality snapped and shattered at that out-of-left-field moment, except the last shard of reality had spent the whole of the last four episodes sat in that fucking cupboard with Ronnie, who ended up being burned to buggery, like the mammoth.

And that was it, and it was all as senseless as that. The faithful viewer who has put up with this pretentious load of wank had to put up with there not being an ending. Because, of course, there’s going to be a second series. And, like Broadchurch‘s second series, there is nothing left for them to do except repeat the first all over again. After all, the mammoth’s graveyard is still there under the snow…

If you want to watch twelve more episodes of poorly written, ineptly acted, pretentious and idiotic writing, I can’t stop you, any more than I could stop you walking face first into a high speed woodchipper, though I suggest that woodchipper would be far less painful, and would certainly involve wasting far less of your time. I won’t be there. I’ve heard there’s some very exciting footage of paint dripping on Channel 5 that night and I’m intrigued as to how it will develop.