Cozy Cumbrian Thrills: The Coniston Case by Rebecca Tope


This image has no bearing upon the story

Having time to kill yesterday, whilst waiting to see Valerian, I spent sometime in the Library. I glanced at the SF/Fantasy section, then turned to crime, where a very familiar word caught my eye: Coniston.

I’ve never heard of Rebecca Tope, who seems to be one of those very prolific crime fiction writers who turn out a book a year, in long-running series. Her main series is the Cotswold Mysteries, now running at something like twenty books, all centred upon Thea, a professional house-sitter, who encounters murder wherever she sits in a way that immediately makes me think of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.

The Coniston Case is the third of, to date, five books set in the Lake District, so Martin Edwards no longer has a monopoly on my beloved country. Rebecca Tope’s books are rather more concentrated in area, centred upon Windermere and basing themselves around events in nearby villages, all within a ten mile radius.

The heroine of this series is Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown, and you’re right, it’s an awful name and the Simmy bit, with its overtones of antisemitism, is a constant distraction. Simmy is a florist, with a shop in Windermere Village, where she’s assisted by twenty-year old Melanie Todd, hotel-management trainee with an artificial eye, and pestered by self-confident, highly-intelligent schoolboy, the seventeen-year old Ben Harkness.

The ‘gang’ is completed by DI Moxon (revealed in this book to bear the first name of Nolan) who investigates the crimes that Simmy somehow, and very reluctantly, gets involved in whilst selling flowers. Moxon appears to have personal feelings for Simmy, who is probably somewhere around forty, divorced after losing an unborn child, and is nowhere described in the book. Neither are Melanie nor Ben, cometo think of it. It’s that kind of book.

Tope is firmly in the ‘cozy crime’ category. There’s no swearing, no violence, nothing too exciting. It’s all very much what I imagine Midsomer Murders must be like, and it’s meant for an audience that doesn’t want to be upset when reading about death and murder. I’m not a crime fiction buff to begin with, and this is not the kind of crime fiction I would choose, preferring stuff with either a greater or a much lesser connection to reality. With this kind of book, you never really get the sense of the passions and emotions that drive people to take another’s life.

The plot’s not really all that important. It’s set around Valentine’s Day, which has Simmy heartily sick of Red roses. She’s getting a spate of anonymous orders, cash, no sender’s details, cards whose messages upset the recipients something chronic, and gets pulled into a case when one of the recipients commits suicide, and his landlord is found murdered.

All the flower incidents turn out to be red herrings, sheer coincidences, and whilst the suicide is as a twisted result of a joke, the psychological basis is a long way from being convincing. Simmy’s friend Cathy comes up from Worcester because her daughter Joanna is sleeping with her tutor Ben and they’re doing some climate-change project on Coniston Old Man (Ms Tope, in this book, comes over as very much a sceptic). Ben, who carries a knife that we’re meant to assume is the murder weapon, is a self-centred obsessive who has spotted a new seam of copper on the Old Man that he expects will make himself rich, and kidnaaps Kathy for forty-eight hours.

But he’s not the murderer, and he’s pretty incomprehensible when it comes to human motivations, and the murderer himself turns out to be someone occasionally mentioned as a background character, about whom Simmy makes an ‘out of thin air’ deduction right at the very end.

I found it disturbing that in the case of both villains, their girlfriends make an instant decision to stand by them, despite the fact of their crimes being perpetrated against each young woman’s own family. One, maybe, as evidence of the peculiarity of human behaviour, both both? Too much like a trope, and it’s an unpleasant, outdated and pernicious one, that when a woman falls in love, she stands by her man, no matter how much of a moral sludge it makes her.

But you all know why I read the book, right? The same reason I read all six of Martin Edwards’ Lake District Mysteries: because it’s the Lakes. And is Rebecca Tope better at setting her books in South Cumbria than Mr Edwards?

Well, yes, though the difference is merely one of degree. Tope uses the real geography, without making up non-existent places, and unlike Edwards, she’s aware that fells and mountains and lakes exist, and can be seen, overshadowing places. Coniston Village is perpetually under the shadow of the Old Man, and the Yewdale fells.

On the other hand, Tope avoids details, suggesting that she’s getting her background from a map rather than direct knowledge, and there are two straight-out flubs that had me howling. Simmy, who, for reasons not gone into, loathes the Windermere ferry, has to deliver a bouquet in Hawkshead, so drives round Windermere lake at its northern end, going through Ambleside and Rydal, before turning down the narrow road to Hawkshead. All well and good, except that Rydal is some four miles north of Ambleside and to go through it en route to Hawkshead, you haveto drive there and turn round, back to Ambleside.

(Tope also fudges the fact that, since I was a boy and for I don’t know how long before, Hawkshead has been banned to traffic and vehicles have to be left in an out-of-village and correspondingly expensive car park, which complicates the plot.)

The other flub is a reference to the Yewdale fells flaring in the east, which is flat out wrong. The Ywedale fells present impressive looking ramparts above Coniston village, behind which they become a tussocky plateau: they face east and there is nowhere, and especially no road, from which they could be seen to the east.

Similarly, the book is set in Cumbria, and Melanie and Ben are both stated to speak with the local accent, but Tope does not define that accent, and except for one phrase that confuses the Worcester-based Kathy, say nothing that suggests anything Cumbrian to their speech. And even that phrase is more Liverpudlian that Cumbrian.

So, my overall verdict is, better than Edwards, but still nowhere where I’d like to see a story set in the Lakes. I have three of those available through Lulu.com, if you’re interested, and whatever their merits as adventures, the locality is impeccable…

Uncollected Thoughts: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


Back from the cinema, my third visit in the last two months, and for me that’s prolific. Between the trailers I’d seen, and my recollection of having two, or maybe three of the Valerian graphic novels in the Eighties, when they were first translated into English, I was looking forward to what I got: good, fast-paced space opera, heavy on the CGI, check your brain at the door stuff, and none the worse for that if that’s what you want to see. Usually, I don’t, but so what?

Based on the critical and financial response to the film so far, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like scoring high on both the Turkey List and the Flop List, which is a damned shame because I’d love to see a sequel. With the exception of one sequence that I’ll come to shortly, I loved what I was watching, and the only drawback was that by deciding I was just too knackered to go yesterday, I deprived myself of the chance to see the film in 3D. That would have been brain-stunning.

The film started off perfectly. Over a soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, we were treated to a sequence that mixed CGI construction and real footage, showing the building of the International Space Station and that first handshake in space as Russian docked with American, and built on that by upping the ante, as the station grew, as the greetings became easier and more direct, as more and more nations expanded into space, before switching to humanity greeting ever more exotic aliens, with everyone bringing more and more pieces to bolt on, until the ISS became Alpha, grew too big for Earth’s atmosphere and was moved out into the cosmos: a centre for an unbelievably shapeless construction that was home to millions of races, species, cultures, all mingling, sharing, interacting.

Bloody hell, it was quite emotional.

But within all apples,there must usually be a worm. There was a planet, of lean, graceful humanoids, a plant of oceans and beaches and peace, destroyed as the bi-product of a war between cultures that didn’t even care that these people existed. One, a Princess, dies and her telepathic emanation takes root on Valerian, en route with Laureline to a mission, but in the meantime relaxing on a holographic beach. Laureline, played by Cara Delivingne, is in a bikini: in fact, she spends much of the film relatively unclad, though the film doesn’t noticably linger on her (I’d have noticed, trust me, I’d have noticed). Valerian, unsurprisingly, is trying to get off with her: they’re partners (Major and Sergeant) not lovers.

I’ve decided not to dwell on the plot because this is not the kind of film where that’s essential, and anyway it’s more of a one-thing-after-another plot rather than a carefully constructed story. Basically, it’s a series of excuses to go wild with the CGI which, being European rather than American, constructs a completely different appearance. There’s no attempt to be shiny, or new, or natural: it’s all metallics, and lived-in griminess, dark corridors and such, and a colour scheme that applies bright, steely shades rather than anything naturalistic, which I found incredibly effective. It’s a space station: it’s supposed to be artificial.

There is a villain and for those who haven’t yet seen the film, he spends a lot of time offscreen, and he’s a pretty evil bastard at the end of it, and he doesn’t seem to be the only one who thinks that way. A lot of people have complained about the absence of a clearly-identified Big Bad that everyone’s conspicuously working against, but that would have been too much of a cliche: finding out what’s going on is a large part of the momentum of the film.

And the relationship between the two heroes has been substantially retained from the comics. True, Valerian is not quite the square-jawed dum-dum leading man, but Laureline is every bit as sceptical, independent and sarcastic as I could hope. True, she needs rescuing by Valerian from one of the more imaginative scrapes I’ve seen in a long time, but that’s only after she’s gone out and rescued him. People criticise Cara Delivingne’s acting, but it was plenty good enough for me.

As I said, there was one sequence that I didn’t like and that was when Rihanna played a cameo as a shape-shifting dancer. All very clever effects, seamless of course, but, come on, it’s bloody Rihanna, and that’s going to date worse that a corded telephone and besides it stopped the film dead. And I mean dead. It’s an intrusion, an insertion, two minutes in the same spot when all the time the film is moving, moving, moving.

At least she got killed off, but that stopped the story again.

So, I liked it. I got what I wanted and expected (except for the 3D). I’ve mentally ordered the DVD already. And I’m wondering where on earth I can put the books as I start collecting them. From the beginning, this time.

 

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e10 – The Late Sarah White


…deep plunging neckline

A change of scene this week, as the Monkey gang move 3,000 miles west (3,251, to be precise) to the Philippines, where it’s raining, and where General MacArthur is negotiating with the Moro guerillas. Why are we here? As the title suggests, our favourite red-headed spy is on a mission in the Philippines, to determine who’s leaking information to the (never defined) other side, and a telegram to Bora Gora has announced that she is dead, of hepatitis.

You’d think that an episode abut Sarah would be full of her, but Caitlin O’Heaney doesn’t have much to do at all this week. She’s in the undergrowth, taking photos of a MacArthur meeting with the Moros, for no easily discernible reason if she’s supposed to be finding the leaker that’s trying to ruin such negotiations, when the meeting is shelled and she’s last seen about to scream, with a machete at her throat.

And that’s it until the final scene, when Jake, Corky, Jack and Johnny Kimble (remember him from episode 4?) are captured trying to warn the Moros that a fake MacArthur with a truck of fake US troops is about to arrive and slaughter them. And who pops up, dressed in a sleeveless top with the Moro red bandanna around her forehead? Our favourite spy, of course, who has never been dead at all.

In between, it’s once again Jake’s show. Like everyone else on Bora Gora, he’s devastated by the wire announcing Sarah’s death, with the crucial difference being that, of course, he doesn’t believe it. In any other circumstances, this would be a clear case of wishful thinking, but of course heroes are always right about such things, and it’s Philippines ho!

It’s not a good time for Americans in the Philippines right now. They’re responsible for the islands’ security, though by this point MacArthur had resigned from the US Army, and was responsible to the Philippines government as a civilian advisor to the Army he’d organised. Jake and Corky are fobbed off by the Assistant American Attache, Horace Simmons (the bad guy), attacked in both street and bar, set to running and pulled aside by Kimble, who explains what is going on and what Sarah was doing.

Immediately prior to this, there’s an odd and utterly irrelevant cameo from Marta DuBois as Princess Koji, who may be a cast member but who usually only appears in the credits. Koji happens to own the bar where Sarah had been singing whilst under cover, which enables her to haul Jake and Corky out of the kind of brawl that, at home, sends Jake’s debt to Bonne Chane Louie soaring. But she provides no useful information, and does little more than unsuccessfully throw herself at Jake, with her deep plunge neck-line and her wraparound skirt unwrapping itself all the way to her thighs: the woman in seriously gagging for it. But you really do have to question why Miss DuBois is on board as cast when it’s obvious no-one has any idea what to do with her?

It’s finally proven that Jake’s gut feelings are right when Kimble helps disinter the coffin which has got a body in it alright, but it’s not Sarah’s, but that of a bloke who’s been shot (and who, despite having been in the ground for nearly a week, in the tropics, is astonishingly undecomposed).

So it’s down to the race against time that is naturally successful, and here’s Dougie!, i.e., the ‘real’ MacArthur, to continue negotiations with guerillas grateful for having been saved by friendly Americanos. Oh yes.

I’ve barely mentioned Jack so far. There’s a running gag all episode, with a distinctly risque twist, that he’s suffering from an allergy, and Leo the Dog is called upon to perform his new party-piece of sneezing at will over and over, to various choruses of ‘Bless you!’ and ‘Salut!’. Turns out it’s not an allergy but rather a sign that Jack needs a bit of doggie-style nookie. And despite Koji’s state of undress, and Sarah’s fetching close-fitting top, that’s the nearest you’re getting to sex this week.

 

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’


I owe a debt of thanks to Ursula Le Guin for discovering this book at the time I did. I was still in my mid-twenties and had only really begun to open out to SF/Fantasy after first reading Lord of the Rings in 1973/4. I had adopted Roger Zelazny as a favourite author, by means of the first Chronicles of Amber, and was also by that time well into such different writers as Harlan Ellison, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books (I know: forgive me).
I’d read a lot of Le Guin, enough to respect her work if not yet to appreciate it as I do now. I’d also, after a certain naivete about which I’d been very lucky, begun to have a scale in my head for author blurbs. Despite Zelazny being responsible for my first purchase of an R. A. Lafferty novel, I’d already grown to mistrust his recommendations. As for McCaffrey, I’d learned enough to avoid like the proverbial plague any book her imprimatur was on.
But Le Guin… Aah, Le Guin could be trusted. It was her voice that tempted me to purchase the Arrow paperback edition of The Shadow of the Torturer. I knew Wolfe by then, primarily as a writer of short fiction, a constant presence in the anthologies I borrowed and read from the library: distinctive, but not enough to tempt me.
Le Guin’s words made the difference, and it did not take more than a few pages to recognise that I was in the presence of greatness, that in front of my eyes an author was vaulting to the front rank of SF. It would be a long and painful wait for the second volume.
Reading The Book of the New Sun is such an immersive experience that it can often be easy to lose oneself in the fabric of the story and in Wolfe’s glorious portrait of this immensely distant future, couched in the archaic language of the past. For this re-read, I adopted a hitherto untried approach: two chapters at night, before going to bed and, no matter the temptation, only two chapters (except in the case of the last night of The Shadow of The Torturer where, the book having 35 chapters, I read three.)
Breaking the story down to such small portions, read with wide intervals, proved to be instructive. Words I had read dozens of times suddenly become more obvious, when they were part of a limited portion, and I could see more of the hints and inferences that other, more wise readers have exposed down the years, for the benefit of we who have been less perceptive.
Severian’s path towards the Autarchy unwinds more deliberately, its individual paces more clear.
Although he lets slip early on that this is the story of how he, unwittingly, backed into the throne, Severian is in no hurry to set himself in motion. He begins with a scene of great importance to all that follows: night, in the Necropolis, he and three fellow apprentices and friends returning to the Matachin Tower after Severian has almost drowned, swimming in the great, slow river, Gyoll. Severian encounters the rebel exultant, Vodalus, saves his life even, and romantically and in ignorance (is there a difference between the two states?) declares himself a follower.
Several chapters are devoted to the very little Severian knows of his past (he is an orphan), and to the mystery of his Guild – the Seekers after Truth and Penitence, vulgarly known as the Torturers. Spreading these pages over several nights makes clearer things that, in earlier, more driven readings, I overlooked in my haste to reach the next stage.
The Book of the New Sun is set in an unimaginably distant future. Mankind has been to the stars, has formed vast Galactic Empires, has encouraged and raised numerous alien races and, falling gently into decline after innumerable centuries (the entire history of Science Fiction lies behind these books!), returned at last to the single planet, Urth. And Urth itself is dying, slowly. The sun’s light dims, stars are visible in daylight, the Moon shines with a green light (having been terraformed millennia ago, and covered with forests).
Wolfe cloaks his story in the air and the trappings of fantasy, yet this is an SF novel, couched in a real Universe and a real timeline extending all the way back to the times in which this story is being translated. The untranslatable future is made both explicable and obscure by being couched in archaic, obscure, forgotten terms. The Torturers Guild is housed in the Matachin Tower (Matachin: a sword dancer in a fantastic costume). Between torturers and the vivid name, we expect dank apartments, stone and cobwebs. But the Matachin Tower is a converted spaceship, a rocket rooted to Urth, and the slow read enabled me to see more clearly all the references that demonstrate this.
All this is a settled situation. The first step towards breaking it up, to forcing Severian into action, is the arrival of the Chateleine Thecla at the Matachin Tower, to be held pending eventual excruciation. The tall, lovely, slender Thecla is to be allowed comforts, including certain books requested from the Library of the House Absolute. Severian, as Captain of Apprentices, is sent to collect these. It is his first excursion beyond the environs of the Guild, and a foreshadowing of the expulsion that becomes inevitable when, by a chance of fortune, it is he who delivers the books to Thecla in her cell, not his friend, the journeyman, Drotte.
So Thecla sees Severian, where otherwise she would not. She talks to him, and requests the Masters that he be her attendant, a request granted. Severian takes on the role of delivering the Chateleine’s food, and remaining in her cell to talk to her. He is warned against warming her bed (in case she should become pregnant and the Guild be unable to carry out such excruciations as are eventually ordered for her), and in order to reduce his temptations, Severian is sent, with his other friend, the journeyman Roche, to the Witches – in effect, the Guild of Prostitutes.
The Witches offer girls who pretend to be ladies of the House Absolute, sneaking out in the snow to slake their lusts: Severian chooses one who purports to be Thecla, a choice that does little for Master Gurloes’ intent to divert any lust (it is made plain in a later book that Severian and Thecla do become lovers, though at the moment we see only his fascination with her, and a more romantic feeling).
A long winter passes as Severian watches Thecla follow the classic path for those not immediately punished. The longer Thecla goes without punishment, the further she moves from carefully suppressed fear to blooming confidence that she will not be tortured, that friends, even the Autarch, will intercede on her behalf, and deep into plans for what she will do on release.
But Thecla has been taken because her half-sister is the Chateleine Thea, the consort of Vodalus. And the inevitable day comes when Thecla is subjected to excruciation. The machine used delivers the equivalent of an electric shock. Afterwards, Thecla struggles to keep her hands from attempting to throttle herself. Severian smuggles a knife from the kitchen, that he has especially sharpened, into her cell and leaves. When a trickle of blood emerges under the door, he calls Masters Gurloes and Palaemon and surrenders himself.
No sooner has he betrayed his Guild than Severian rediscovers a tremendous attachment to it. He expects, though does not wish for, death, but the Guild are in a legal quandary, having no authority to kill or torture without Warrant. Palaemon’s solution is elegant: Severian must leave the Guild, but he is commissioned to travel to the northern city of Thrax, which needs a carnifex (or executioner).
He also gives Severian the superb executioner’s sword, Terminus Est (this is the line of division).
Severian, still dressed in the garb of his Guild, leaves immediately, anxious both to begin his penitence and to enter the outside world, though it will take the remainder of Shadow before he reaches the Wall surrounding Nessus in the north.
I should mention that Wolfe, throughout the whole story, gives plenty of clues to identify that this story takes place in the Southern Hemisphere, and conscientious readers have identified, with Wolfe’s tacit agreement, that the vast and ancient, sprawling city of Nessus was once Buenos Aires.
Severian’s delight in entering what, for him, is a new world is in inverse proportion to the stir he causes in his torturer’s garb. He is more or less ordered off the street, finding refuge in an inn whose reluctant host puts him in a shared room with a stranger overnight.
The stranger is a Giant, Baldanders by name. Severian is introduced to him in the morning by Baldanders’ companion, and seeming master, Dr Talos, a small, fox-like, talkative man. He and Baldanders are performers: at breakfast, he enlists both Severian and the pallid, scrawny, unnamed waitress at their table, to become members of their troupe. Severian agrees, with no intention of ever returning, and goes off to seek clothing to disguise his Torturer’s garb.
This brings him into contact with Agia and Agilus, twins running a broken-down shop, a meeting that governs most of the rest of the volume. Agia, outside, sends Severian in to speak to her brother, who initially is found wearing a mask. Agilus’s only concern is with Terminus Est, which he seeks to buy, despite Severian’s absolute refusal to sell.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a masked, silent Hipparch (an army officer), challenging Severian to a duel in respect of some unidentified insult, to take place at sundown on the Sanguinary Field.
Severian is in complete ignorance of the purpose and mode of the duel, which is to be fought using the highly dangerous alien plant, the avern. Agia takes him under her wing for the day, escorting him to the Botanical Gardens, where he can pick the avern, and then to the Sanguinary Field for the duel.
On the way to the Gardens, Agia provokes a race between rival fiacres that ends with that carrying Severian and herself crashing into the Pavilion of the Pelerines, a female religious Order responsible for guarding an ancient relic, the Claw of the Conciliator. In the confusion, this goes missing. Agia, who is suspected, is stripped and searched, but Severian is accepted as innocent (he later learns that Agia had indeed stolen the Claw, and planted it upon him).
In the Botanical Gardens, designed by the Autarch’s chief advisor, Father Inire, Severian discovers it to contain many different zones, each of which manipulates time to one degree or another. In the Lake of Birds, where dead bodies filled with lead shot are sunk in its preserving waters, and where the averns grow, they meet an elderly boatman, searching for his ‘Cas’, his dead wife, whose body has moved from where it was sunk, and where it should lay. Severian stumbles and falls into the water.
He is helped out by a young, blonde woman, dressed in rags, without memory of anything save that her name is Dorcas, who has emerged from the lake. Despite Agia’s attempts to send the girl away, Severian allows the helpless Dorcas to follow, and join them.
They are helped to find the avern by a man with a small boat, Hildegrin the Badger, whom Severian recognises as the third of that party long ago in the Necropolis, with Vodalus and Thea. Unwisely, he identifies himself to Hildegrin as that young boy of long ago, though there are no consequences of that decision in this volume.
The avern turns out to be a strange plant that can only be held by its stem, its leaves being both razor sharp and lethally poisonous. Agia leads the disparate trio to an Inn by the Sanguinary Fields, set in a tree top, where Dorcas can clean herself, the trio can have a hot drink and arrange a meal for after the combat.
A strange note is left by someone, probably the waiter Ouen. Severian reads this, against Agia’s urgent attempts to prevent him. It appears to be addressed to one of the two women: Dorcas later identifies it as being for her. The note warns her against the woman with her, and ends with the words ‘You are my mother come again’, though Dorcas, being aged sixteen, cannot possibly have a child that could write.
With the women in his train, Severian attends his appointed duel. The silent hipparch is present and the combat begins, with Severian rapidly learning the rules of avern combat. Not quickly enough: he is struck in his bare chest with a leaf and the hipparch claims victory, and Severian’s goods.
But though he should be dead, indeed may, momentarily have been dead, Severian recovers, the spent leaf falling from his chest. The sight of his revival unmans the hipparch, who flees, killing several spectators who try to stop his flight. Severian collapses.
He wakes the following morning in a lazaret (military hospital). Dorcas, still sleeping, is guarding his things, especially Terminus Est. Whilst Severian gets himself breakfast, he hears stories of a dead duellist being brought in the previous evening, and realises they are referring to himself. Dorcas, now awake, is relieved to find he has not died. That night, she and Severian become lovers.
Prior to that, Severian is hired to act as carnifex for the hipparch. Visiting him in prison to prepare him, Severian is shocked to find the hipparch is Agilus, and that he is in a naked embrace with a woman: Agia. She it was who played the silent hipparch in their shop, the whole duel being an elaborate plot to get their hands on Terminus Est. Indeed, Agilus demands his freedom from Severian, blaming him for entrapping him into this plight. Agia attempts to both seduce and attack Severian, fruitlessly.
The execution goes ahead at noon, Severian’s first public performance. There are no hitches: as Agilus’s head is taken off, he hears Agia scream.
Severian and Dorcas leave the lazaret that evening, prudently forestalling any reprisal from Agia. As they move northwards, behind them they see the Cathedral of the Pelerines leap into the air and burn, borne aloft on the air of the fires. Here, Severian discovers that he is in possession of the Claw, thus requiring him to turn back to return it to the Pelerines.
It seems that possession of the Claw is what restored Severian’s life on the Sanguinary Field, as well as bringing Dorcas back from the dead in the Lake of Birds.
Before they can decide on a course, the pair stumble on Dr Talos and Baldanders, just starting a performance, aided by a voluptuous and ripely beautiful woman named Jolenta. Despite their lack of rehearsal, ‘Death’ and ‘Innocence’ are brought into the play, holding themselves well.
That night, as he tries to sleep, Severian is visited by two aquastors: his former Master Malrubius, now dead, and his three-legged dog Triskele.
In the morning, after the takings are divided, with Dr Talos taking nothing, Severian and Dorcas join the troupe on the final walk to the Gate, in the massive Wall above Nessus. There are crowds funnelling at the tunnel entrance. Jonas, a middle-aged man with a hand of metal, overhears Severian talking about the Pelerines and tells them that the sect have left Nessus already, by this Gate, travelling north. He takes an early shine to the lovely, but self-centred Jolenta, who dismisses him.
Suddenly, confusion overtakes everyone as a military party forces itself in from outside. A carter’s whip catches Dorcas’s cheek: Severian unhorses the man, who is crushed under wheels.
At this point, Severian lays down his pen for this first volume, having taken his reader from gate to gate. If his reader no longer wishes to follow him, he takes no offence: it is no easy road.

 

Deep Space Nine: s05 e06 – Trials and Tribble-ations


See what I mean?, or, The Camera can Lie

It’s been a long time, since October 13 2015 in fact, since I sat down and watched the two-part opening to Deep Space Nine, ‘The Emissary’, with the intention of watching, and blogging, the series in its entirety. I came at it from the perspective of someone who had, in the late Nineties, watching something like two-and-a-half to three seasons of the show, in the middle of its run, but who had seen neither the beginning nor the end.

Watching DS9 then was partly ritual, as was all television when you were more or less tied to transmission times. On Wednesdays (I think it was, or maybe Thursdays) I would get in from work, doff my jacket and tear off my tie and sprawl on the couch to watch. I think the programme was broadcast from 6.00pm to 6.45 pm, on BBC2: once it finished, I would busy myself about an evening meal.

For a long time though, it’s been evident that my memory has tricked me, has expanded the experience as I drew further from it. It wasn’t two-to-three seasons. It wasn’t even one. Because, after twenty-one months of weekly viewing, and as Ive known for some time, I have finally caught up with that first episode of Deep Space Nine. And I know why I watched it, where I’d had no interest in the past. It’s because it’s this specific story, ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’, because of what it did, because it was an audacious and astonishingly successful merging of DS9 and it’s ultimate parent, Star Trek, the one with no sub-title, the one they now call The Original Series.

I’m old enough to remember watching Star Trek the first time round, just arriving in my teens. It excited me then. It surprises me to think back and realise that my parents must have enjoyed it too, else how would I have seen it at all? I don’t remember them as being into SF in any way. That would be me, alerted by The Lord of the Rings in the back end of 1973 to the infinite possibilities, and devouring books left, right and centre all along the spectrum between Hard SF and Mystical Fantasy thereafter.

Ironically, that interest in SF soured me on the original Star Trek. It was the Seventies, I was at university, I was growing to understand that my political and social instincts were wholly liberal. Between the two, I found it impossible to suspend my disbelief to accept a future that would be governed by the mores of mid-Fifties, middle-America.

I suppose I must have seen ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ at least once, though I don’t remember anything of it. I remember Tribbles: little, hairy balls that shivered and squeaked but showed no signs of actual characteristics. I never could accept them as real because they looked like children’s playthings, to be waved about in the excited hand of a toddler but abandoned not too long after because they simply didn’t do anything.

‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ was conceived as DS9‘s contribution to the Star Trek 30th anniversary, although broadcasting it in the week of the anniversary would have meant it opening season 5. Though the episode is every bit as light-hearted and insignificant as the original episode, it’s one of the most involved episodes ever of DS9 because of the sheer amount of detail that went into it and, of course, the astonishing technical work that made this episode not merely possible but stunningly good – even when set against the standards of today.

The story is simple. It’s framed around an enquiry by Starfleet’s Temporal Investigations Bureau into an incident in which the Defiant, and the entire senior staff of DS0 travel back in time just over one hundred years. Captain Sisko narrates the adventure to agents Dulmur and Lucsly (it is an example of the level of intricate in-joking that these two names are near-perfect anagrams of Mulder and Scully). The Defiant has been on a secret mission into Cardassian space to collect a Bajoran orb, as it turns out the Orb of Time. They also pick up a stranded seeming-human, a trader named Barry Waddle, played by Charlie Brill, a name any old Trekkie would recognise. Brill is not what he seems and uses the Orb to send the Defiant back in time and across two hundred lightyears. When the viewscreens clear, the first thing is comes up is a spaceship. The U.S.S. Enterprise. The ‘Enterprise.

Because the whole point of this story is to dress Messrs Sisko, Dax, Bashir, O’Brien, Odo and Worf up in the Starfleet uniforms of the day, transport them onto the Enterprise and Space Station K7, onto absolutely 99.9% perfect replicas of the stage sets, and have them experience a shadow story created in and around and based upon ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’.

And, what’s more, have them appear with, and interact with Messrs McCoy, Scott, Chekhov, Uhuru and most especially Mr Spock and James T. Kirk as they appear in the parent episode.

How they do it is ingenious, and in one instance resolves a minor quibble from the original show (whose writer, David Gerrold, not only approved the notion but got to play an Enterprise crewman in two brief scenes). The MacGuffin is brilliantly conceived: Waddle is actually the original Klingon spy, Arne Darvin, the villain of ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’, whose plan to destroy Federation colonisation by poisoning their grain supplies was defeated by Kirk, who used a Tribble to expose the surgically-altered Darvin as Klingon. Disgraced by his defeat, Darvin, once again played by original actor Charlie Brill, intends to go back in time and change history by killing Kirk, via a bomb in a Tribble.

But we all know that the story, however cleverly put together, how carefully interwoven into the established events, is ultimately just a vehicle for the sheer fun of going back and playing Original Star Trek one more time, and to recreating those days, down to sets, uniforms, hair-styles (Terry Farrell suits the old ultra-sexist micro-skirt and boots: I just wish Nana Visitor hadn’t still been pregnant as I would have loved to see her beamed aboard).

The episode stands or falls on its effects. Film qualities have been matched throughout to almost exact duplication: there are only a few scenes where the lower quality definition of the original stock is evident and even then you have to be looking for it. But what impresses even now is the quality of the digital matching.

Mostly it’s done by inserting the DS9 gang into the background of existing scenes, which is marvellous in itself, especially when Sisko and Dax turn up on the Bridge, but the standout scene has to be the one where Kirk confronts the crewmen who have gotten involved in the canteen brawl with the un-cornish-pastied Klingons. Kirk is on stage right, facing a line of men stage left, ranging towards the perspective point.

From camera front to back these are Scottie, Chekhov, O’Brien, Bashir and a half dozen original extras. O’Brien and Bashir, inserted into the middle – the middle – of a scene, with original footage foregrounded and backgrounded.

There are so many details to what goes on. I’m not going to detail these: you can read them via these links: here and here. The amount of effort, and money, that went into creating a gigantic cosmic in-joke is astonishing, but the outcome is well worthwhile.

This was my first Deep Space Nine, and this is the first time I have seen it since that time I watched it out of curiosity, and it’s delightful how much of it I remembered. It was intended as a one-off, as indeed the episode was, in every respect. But somehow, without knowing anything about these characters, I switched on BBC2 the same time the next week, and for all the rest of the season. Then life changed, and the easy days of coming home from work and doing whatever I wanted went with them, in exchange for better, I’m glad to say.

So, for the next twenty episodes I’ll be in that narrow zone of nostalgia, as I go through real recollections. The Great Deep Space Nine Rewatch. By the time I get back to ‘new’ episodes, it will be the New Year.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: The Solar Cycle


Since the series was completed in 1983, I estimate that I have read Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun at least twenty times, with familiarity breeding not contempt but an ever deeper satisfaction at what I immerse myself in: should I ever be shipwrecked on that infamous Desert Island, there is no question as to the book I would take.
I love the series, originally published in four volumes, but for many years available in two, so much so that I actually have it in three different formats. First, and most beloved, are the original Arrow paperbacks, published between 1980 and 1983, and signed by Mr Wolfe himself, at the long gone Odyssey 7 comics and SF shop in the (now-demolished) Manchester University precinct. Secondly, the massive, one volume paperback edition, published in the mid-2000s under the title Severian of the Guild. And now in the collection of first edition hardbacks published by Sidgewick & Jackson, which I have acquired a year or two ago.
More than anything, The Book of the New Sun has previously deterred me from blogging on Gene Wolfe. Let me remind you that, though he’s never been a bestseller, Wolfe has been one of the finest writers in the world – not finest SF/Fantasy writer, writer – and his books are full of hidden wonders and connections.
I mean that literally. The surface story, the one that you read on the page, is never the whole of things with Wolfe. Sometimes, it’s not even the most important of things. The Book of the New Sun is a superb example of this for, in the final pages, Wolfe’s narrator, Severian the Lame, concludes that all that has come before is a corrected replay of his otherwise ordinary life, a clue from Wolfe to look between the lines – all the lines – and underneath the page for a story full of connections that only the thoughtful, alert reader can tease out.
This is one of the reasons why, after twenty-odd readings in thirty years, I am still not done with this book.
The Book of the New Sun consists of four volumes: ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’, ‘The Claw of the Conciliator’, ‘The Sword of the Lictor’ and ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’. A very rare companion book, consisting of essays upon a huge variety of matters concerning ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ and titled ‘The Castle of the Otter’ (after an early and incorrect announcement of the final volume’s title) is available as part of the omnibus collection Gene Wolfe’s Castle of Days, and in 1987, Wolfe wrote a somewhat reluctant but equally fascinating sequel, The Urth of the New Sun.
Subsequently, he went on to write the related series The Book of the Long Sun (four volumes) and The Book of the Short Sun (three volumes) both set in the same universe and connecting back to The New Sun. The whole twelve book sequence is informally known as the ‘Solar Cycle’. What’s more, The Fifth Head of Cerberus can be seen as an informal preface to the whole sequence, it’s three widely different novellas creating templates for the three series that comprise the ‘Solar Cycle’.
Am I suggesting that in writing Cerberus, Gene Wolfe was consciously creating for himself a template to govern his substantially later writing of the Solar Cycle? No, but I am suggesting that Wolfe is that damned good a writer that he could utilise the pre-existing book as just such a structural template.
The Book of the New Sun began as a long short story, set in the world of the Torturers. It sprung, in part, from the desire to offer a character for cosplayers, fans who attended SF Conventions dressed as characters from their favourite fiction.
But ‘Holy Katherine’s Day’, despite centring upon the death of a young woman held by the Torturers, with the complicity of a young guildsman who, years later, as a Master, receives a letter from the ‘dead’ woman, was merely the wellspring for a book of major proportions, a trilogy.
Having worked out most of the Book, Wolfe found himself with a third volume half as long again as its two predecessor. Unable to cut it without wreaking severe damage, Wolfe enquired as to the commercial viability of making the trilogy into a tetraology. Fortunately, a suitable volume break occurred halfway through the third volume, leaving Wolfe with two slimmer volumes to build up to the right length.
It’s been suggested, inaccurately, that Wolfe had written the entirety of the tetraology before the first volume had been published, and whilst that wasn’t so, the story had been comprehensively outlined in full, and built up in its various parts in sufficient detail for Wolfe to have the virtual totality of it available to him even in the writing of The Shadow of the Torturer.
Over the next few blogs I’ll be writing detailed accounts of each of the four books of The New Sun, before following that with some words about the tetraology as a whole. I’ll be adopting the same approach for The Long Sun and The Short Sun in due course.

The Infinite Jukebox: Spanky and Our Gang’s ‘Sunday will never be the same’


Now that I no longer listen to Sounds of the Sixties, I’ve lost the serendipity of what Sixties music, classic or obscure, I might hear each week. It’s full-time replacement is the YouTube trawl, in which I alternate between the search for obscure singles, the ignored and overlooked that nevertheless contain the spark of what I hear as attractive, and sessions where I concentrate on certain bands who made their mark, such as my long-favourites, The Association.

One song I’ve been returning to recently is Spanky and Our Gang’s ‘Sunday will never be the same’. The band, a six piece who cultivated a fairly eccentric appearance, were part of the mid-Sixties burgeoning folk-rock, or perhaps folk-pop scene, the most successful proponents of which were the Mamas and the Papas  (Elaine ‘Spanky’ McFarlane replaced Mama Cass Elliot). They never had any hits in the UK, but they had three top 30 tracks in America, which got airplay over here, if only as oldies for me in the Seventies.

‘Sunday will never be the same’ was the biggest hit. It showcases the band’s considerable harmonies, with a sweeping, wordless intro over sweet strings that create a big space in which the music sits. It’s harmonious and happy, but that’s not the point of the song. Spanky sets the scene quickly, with half a verse extolling the joys of Sundays on which she meets someone at the park, to walk with hand in hand, and talk till it gets dark.

But already this is a eulogy for something lost, because the opening words are ‘I remember’, and no sooner are we presented with this image of simplicity, this pure enjoyment of the other’s presence, than it’s swept away. It’s the past, it’s over, it’s gone, and Sundays will never be the same.

What else is there needs be said? One of the beauties of Sixties songs is their superficiality, in that what they said was placed on the surface. Depth was not required. A brief word picture of happiness is created, without even using the word ‘love’, and then it’s gone. We don’t know why, we don’t know how, we don’t know what. All we know, and all we need to know is that it isn’t like that and it never will be like that again, and that world that was created between the two can never be recreated. Sundays will never be the same.

The whole world has changed about her. Sunday afternoons no longer warm her inside, instead they’ve turned as cold and grey as ashes. The very paths themselves have changed, and she can no longer stay, the sun has gone and the rain is coming. The park’s a cold place on her own and it is full of memories, children feeding pigeons, images of innocence and fun that tear and dull because all they are are memories and nobody’s waiting for her. Sunday that was so special is now just another day.

Of course it’s simple, of course it’s naive. Would it be any more painful if you brought something more than holding hands into it? Love at its purest is about being with them, when everything is made warm and wonderful because they are there. Each of us brings into this song the details of how it was for us, but we all share in the emotion Spanky sings of: it’s not the same, it never will be again. Nothing stays special.

And that refusal to dig deep, to talk of hand-holding and walks in the park, may now seem naive and laughable, instead deals with the purity of the situation. Every relationship will have a thousand, a million caveats, to negotiate, day in and day out, but songs like this cut through to what lies in the centre, without which no relationship can ever mean anything.

The more sophisticated we get, the further away we get from such things. Songs like this remind us that once, when we were young, a single day could mean everything. But that if Sunday means so much, one day it will never be the same. Love doesn’t even have to end for that to be so.