Category Archives: Reading

Brian Aldiss: The Helliconia Trilogy

Covers of Helliconia trilogy, by Brian Aldiss

This I tell you all. Some disaster happened in the past, in the long past. So complete was it that no one can explain to you what it was or how it came about. We know only that it brought darkness and cold.
You try to live the best you can. Good, good, live well, love one another, be kind. But don’t pretend that the disaster has nothing to do with you. It may have happened long ago, yet it infects every day of our lives.

Brian Aldiss is a British science fiction author and anthologist who produced his first novel, Non-Stop, in 1956, and who has been writing pretty much continuously ever since. I first encountered his work in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was a prominent exponent of the British “New Wave” style of science fiction then being championed by Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard in the magazine New Worlds. I had little patience for the New Wave and its non-stories full of image and metaphor, and so pretty much ignored Aldiss after a few disappointing encounters.

Helliconia Trilogy coverThen, in 1982, he produced Helliconia Spring, the first instalment of what looked very much like a good old-fashioned hard science fiction trilogy—what was promised was a long, detailed exploration of an exotic planet, spanning several centuries. Helliconia Summer followed in 1983, and Helliconia Winter in 1985. (Winter brought with it our first sight of Aldiss’s detailed map of Helliconian towns and geographical features, something that would have been useful when reading the sprawling narrative of Summer. The newer omnibus editions of the trilogy put the map where it should be, right at the start of the work.)

The novels are set on the planet Helliconia, which orbits the star Batalix, a thousand light-years from Earth. Batalix is a little dimmer than our sun, and Helliconia orbits a little farther from it than Earth orbits the sun. It would therefore be a constantly chilly place, if Batalix did not in turn follow a wide, slow, elliptical orbit around a fiercely hot supergiant star, Freyr. Every 2600 years, Batalix dips close to Freyr, and Helliconia undergoes a baking millennial summer; half an orbit later, Batalix is three times farther from Freyr, and Helliconia is locked in a planet-wide winter.

Life on the planet must adapt to this long seasonal sequence of what Aldiss calls the “Great Year”, and during the course of the three novels he gives us glimpses of these adaptations—the plants that put down deep roots to tap geothermal sources in order to survive the winter chill; the mammals that pass the centuries of winter underground, in a glass-like state of extreme hibernation; and the Wutra’s worms, which go through four separate metamorphoses as the long seasons pass.

Humans, too, have their own seasonal cycle, triggered by a virus. In spring, a pandemic called Bone Fever converts the chubby endomorphs who survived the winter into slim ectomorphs, ready for the rigours of summer; in autumn, the same virus induces the Fat Death, and those humans who survive the plague emerge fat and metabolically adapted to cold conditions. The planet also hosts another intelligent race, the minotaur-like phagors, who are cold-adapted to a degree humans cannot match. Phagors dominate Helliconia in winter, enslaving those humans who do not flee to the narrow band of relative warmth at the equator; humans dominate in the summer, enslaving those phagors who do not escape to the high, cold mountains.

Aldiss put a lot of work into the detail of his world, enlisting the help of astronomers, geologists, climatologists, biologists, anthropologists and even philologists in his native Oxford*. And he built himself a detailed map of the planet and its star system, which you can inspect on his website, here. Some reviewers have remarked (often in a negative way) that this means the planet itself is the central character in the novels; the Wikipedia page about the trilogy blithely repeats the same statement. But this is (not to put too fine a point on it) complete bollocks. Aldiss is simply too good a writer to let that happen—in each novel he provides us with a rich and varied cast of well-developed, believable characters. I chose the quote at the head of this page (taken from Spring) specifically to illustrate the relationship between Aldiss’s characters and their world. In his own words, he created

… characters to which an ordinary reader might lend sympathy: people not given over to heroics, though sometimes to heroism; not faultless people, set apart by virtue; but people, men and women, caught in the toils of life, often unclear about where they were going, and involved in their feelings for one another; in short, courageous people without a great deal of insight. And these people would be shown in contrast to the gigantic background of their planet at periods when both the climate and history were undergoing change.

In Spring, he tells the story of the founding of a village by humans still adapting to the thaw, tormented by Bone Fever and conflict with the phagors, and undergoing a dawning realization that much knowledge of the world has been lost during the long winter. In Summer, a king puts aside his beloved queen so that he can marry a child bride, a princess from another kingdom, in order to cement an expedient political alliance—little good comes of it. And in Winter, a victorious army returns home, bringing with it the Fat Death plague, with complex consequences for both the soldiers and their homeland, as the phagors again rise towards dominance in the cooling world.

In the midst of such complex human stories, the planet Helliconia occupies no more than a supporting role—a spectacular backdrop, a lurking threat, and at key moments a deus ex machina, as some new natural phenomenon shifts the balance of power or reverses a character’s fortunes.

Running through it all is Aldiss’s wry (and occasionally bleak) humour. Here’s a sample from Summer, in which he describes how the wild tribesmen of the Kaci return to their homelands at the end of a war:

To the Kaci, peace was relative; they were long accustomed to internecine struggles. They simply hung their crossbows on the back of the hut door and resumed their traditional occupations. These included hunting, blood feuds, potting—they made excellent pottery which they traded with the Madi for rugs—stealing, mining precious stones, and goading their scrawny womenfolk into working harder.

Aldiss also has a great enthusiasm for unusual words, which of course goes down well, chez Oikofuge. Certainly the most important word he introduces is enantiodromia—the process by which things turn into their opposites. It’s a key concept in these novels, recurring over and over again—things constantly cycles through opposing values, just as Helliconia swings from summer to winter and back again. Phagors and humans alternate as rulers of the planet; the same virus causes anorexia in the spring and bulimia in the autumn; characters rise to dominance and are laid low; friends become enemies, and enemies friends; new knowledge is a joy, and then a danger; religion is a comfort, and then a betrayal. Once you’re sensitized to it, enantiodromia pops up everywhere, from the theatre that stages “tragedies dealing with broken teacups, comedies dealing with wholesale slaughter”, to the insects “which, if predatory, disguise themselves as something innocuous whereby to deceive their prey, or, if innocuous, as a poisonous species to deceive their predators.”

Another central theme is Aldiss’s sense that we’re out of harmony with the natural world, and suffering because of it. While his Helliconian characters struggle and adapt to what their world throws at them, they are observed by Earth humans in an orbiting artificial satellite, who collect reams of data about Helliconia’s natural world and its inhabitants. The observers are unable to descend to the planet, because they will die from exposure to the Fat Death / Bone Fever virus, and are unable to return to Earth, because of the distance involved. Instead, they sit as passive observers in their technological cocoon, which Aldiss teasingly names Avernus—a reference to one of the gateways to Hell in Roman mythology. The fate of the Avernus inhabitants, trapped in their unnatural world, is another of the many narrative strands woven through the books.

In the third novel, harmony with the natural world takes on a positively mystical aspect, which I feel is the weakest part of Aldiss’s conception:

[They] had failed to understand the nature of mankind: that it, like the elephant and the common daisy, is no more and no less than a part and function of a living entity. Separated from that entity, humans, being more complex than elephants and daisies, have little chance of flourishing.

Indeed, Aldiss offers us something very close to New Age Gaianism—a spiritual interpretation of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. Gaia is presented as a spiritual Mother Earth, rather than just a planetary homeostatic mechanism mediated by biology. This Gaia is able to communicate with the “Original Beholder”, which is Helliconia’s own governing nature spirit. And the Original Beholder is the explanation for another strange aspect of the trilogy, which is the ability of Helliconians to enter a trance in which they communicate with the dead—the spirits of departed Helliconians are gradually merging with the spirit of the Original Beholder, and therefore remain accessible for (often rather opaque) conversations with their living relatives.

I confess to finding this late development in the Helliconia story a little annoying—I recall shouting “Oh, come on!” to an empty room when I first read it, and I find I’m still unhappy with it on rereading. But I suspect it’s typical of Aldiss that he was never going to let himself be confined to the straitjacket of “hard” science fiction when he felt he had a point to make.

So for me, a flawed classic—but an undoubted, inventive and truly epic classic, nevertheless.

* For all this fact-gathering, Aldiss sometimes loses the astronomical place; the movement of the two suns in Helliconia’s sky goes awry on more than one occasion.
Among the delightfully rarities Aldiss uses are leggiadrous (“graceful”), deuteroscopist (“seer”), retromingent (“urinating backwards”), ancipital (“double-edged”) and aularian (“pertaining to halls”). But fear not—as with the various words he coins to designate peculiarly Helliconian concepts and objects, Aldiss ensures that you don’t need to understand the word to follow the text; he either makes the meaning clear from context, or leaves it as a sparkly little decoration that isn’t necessary for the story.

Muriel Gray: The First Fifty

cover of The First Fifty by Muriel GrayRight, this is a little odd. I’m not actually going to review this one. It comes up purely in the context of something I found on my hard drive that I’d completely forgotten about.

First, a bit of background. Muriel Gray had been around as a TV presenter and columnist for quite a while when this book was published. The First Fifty: Munro-Bagging Without A Beard appeared in 1991, effectively as a companion volume to her popular series on Scottish Television, The Munro Show, about hill-walking in general and climbing Munros in particular.

Despite its immense popularity among British hill-walkers, I never got into The Munro Show. Gray cultivated a full-on TV persona that was equal parts chirpy and stroppy, which certainly served as an antidote to the ponderous, middle-aged male ambience of a typical Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook—and that was no doubt entirely the point. But it all made me feel … well … really tired after the first few minutes. (And, before you ask, I’m only a year older than she is.) It’s just that I go to the hills for peace and quiet and serenity, and The Munro Show seemed to undermine my whole motivation. Take a look at the opening sequence and see if it induces a sense of serene contemplation:

So, anyway, about four years later I was given a copy of the book, by a friend who had received it as a Christmas gift three years in succession. (In her introduction to the book, Gray had actually predicted that this sort of thing would happen to hill-walkers.) And of course the book turned out to be very much in the style of the TV programme—which meant it, too, was hugely popular but wasn’t really my thing. (This happens to me a lot, though. Looking at you, Game of Thrones.)

What I did notice when I was reading it was that it hadn’t been very well proof-read. This is depressingly common nowadays, but was still a little unusual back in the early ’90s. Mainly, there were two recurring spelling choices that struck me then (and still strike me today) as being … um … well, striking, in a book aimed at a hill-walking readership.

So I sat down and wrote a little piece about it for The Angry Corrie (Scotland’s First and Finest Hillwalking Fanzine), which appeared in March 1996. I think it’s a great testament to the popularity of The First Fifty that, almost five years after its publication, I didn’t actually have to mention the title—from a very brief description, every one of my hill-going readers was going to know exactly which book I was talking about.

So here’s the piece, recently recovered from the depths of my hard drive. Some of my Lachlan stories had been appearing in The Angry Corrie round about that time, so it features Lachlan and his long-suffering narrator (albeit weirdly channelling Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes) in their favourite Dundee pub.


I arrived at our usual table in the Peh and Pint to find Lachlan flicking angrily through a paperback book, his lips set in a pale, wrathful line. At my arrival, he set aside his book, passed a weary hand across his face, and then fixed me with a steady gaze. “Might I ask you a few questions?”

I nodded my assent.

“Thank you. Imprimis: do you know why the fabric Gore-Tex is so called?”

I raised an eyebrow. “But of course. The name derives from that of the manufacturer, WL Gore.”

Lachlan nodded solemnly. “So you would, perhaps, feel that the central letter ‘e’ is an essential part of the name?”

“Indeed. While I have seen the hyphen and the capitals dropped in casual writing, to omit the ‘e’ is to insult the Gore family and their genius.”

“Quite so. Secundus: would you say that the French language has much use for the letter ‘k’?”

I considered this carefully. “Well. One must allow that the placenames of Brittany show some predilection for that letter …”

Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “A region in which the purity of the French tongue has been much diluted by Celtic influences. We speak now only of French of the true Latinate descent, the language of Voltaire and Descartes.”

“Why, with that proviso, I would state that the letter ‘k’ is notably absent from the French.”

Lachlan nodded gravely. “Tertius: do you believe that the word ‘cagoule’ is of French origin?”

“With all my heart. It is no more than the French word for ‘hood’. One must only recall that the French equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan was named Les Cagoulards to …”

Again Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “Doubtless a fascinating tale, but one that is at best tangential to my present theme. May I take it for now that, as a necessary consequence of my second and third points, you would accept that the word ‘cagoule’ should not, in all conscience, be spelt with an initial ‘k’?”

“I recoil at the very thought.”

“As I knew you would. Now. Quartus: given the climatic zone in which the Scottish mountains are located, and the exertions to which those who climb among these mountains are prone, perhaps you may agree with me that the Gore-Tex cagoule is the natural, nay the defining, item of apparel for the Scottish mountaineer?”

“Certainly. The garment’s ability to shed water whilst allowing the microscopic moisture of perspiration to escape unhindered commends it above all things.”

Lachlan sighed and sat back. “I have finished. We are in complete agreement.”

His hand trembling with strong emotion, he raised his book so that I might examine it. I need not give the title here: suffice it to say that the cover bears an image of a thin, spiky-haired, blonde woman, possessed of a certain perkiness of character that some find wearisome. “Is it not then a strange, terrible and above all ironic thing that this book, a bestseller in the annals of Scottish hill-walking publication, should consistently misspell the words ‘Gore-Tex’ and ‘cagoule’ in just the manner we have discussed?” he asked, in the tones of one mortally wounded.

And we fell into a disconsolate silence that lasted for some time.

First published in The Angry Corrie No.26, Feb/Mar 1996

"Gortex kagoul", page 166 of The First Fifty

James Blish: Cities In Flight

James Blish's Cities In Flight coversFrom the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off, and sucked meditatively upon the red and white clover around him.
It was a first time for each of them. Chris had known since he had been a boy—he was sixteen now—that the cities were deserting the Earth, but he had never seen one in flight. Few people had, for the nomad cities, once gone, were gone for good.

James Blish was a science fiction writer whose peak creative years came in the 1950s and ’60s. Among other things, he wrote one of the first serious examinations of religion in a science-fictional setting, A Case of Conscience (1958), and a jaw-dropping and much-anthologized short story, “Surface Tension” (1952), concerning the adventures of an improbable race of microscopic humans who inhabit a puddle of water. My favourite among his novels actually isn’t science fiction—Doctor Mirabilis (1964) is a historical novel that lovingly reconstructs the life and career of the thirteenth-century philosopher and proto-scientist, Roger Bacon. I’m not known for weeping at the end of novels, but I did shed a tear over the last page of Doctor Mirabilis.

However, here I’m going to talk about what’s probably Blish’s most famous work, a tetralogy* of novels collectively called the Cities In Flight series.

Blish had a particular writing style, which he didn’t use all the time, that he called “intensively recomplicated”. In an odd bit of self-reference, the origin of the phrase itself is to some extent intensively recomplicated. Here’s the story: Between 1952 and 1963, Blish wrote reviews and literary criticism of magazine science fiction under the pseudonym William Aetheling, Jr. To make it harder for people to guess his real identity, he (as Aetheling) would occasionally make reference to his own writings (as Blish)—on one notorious occasion even going so far as to review his own novel, A Case of Conscience, in less than glowing terms. In a 1952 piece entitled “Some Missing Rebuttals”, he (as Aetheling) used the phrase “intensively recomplicated story” to designate a “technique used by such men as van Vogt, Schmidt, Harness, Blish, and […] Knight”. Now, the Knight he mentions is Damon Knight, who as well as being a science fiction writer also wrote reviews and criticism of science fiction. And when, in 1956, Knight came to review Blish’s novel, Earthman, Come Home, he borrowed the phrase “intensively recomplicated” from William Aetheling Jr., apparently unaware that he was borrowing from Blish in order to describe Blish’s book.

Knight (a little unfairly) characterized Blish’s “intensively recomplicated” style as “the Kitchen Sink Technique”:

[…] this consists of packing as much as possible of everything into a given space. I mean almost everything: plot, incident, background, allusion, confusion; character usually gets left out.

What Blish actually does (and the Cities in Flight series is the best example of it) is to layer on complicated detail in passing, with which his characters seem to be completely familiar. The effect on the reader (when this technique works well) is to generate a sense of logical depth to the narrative—a feeling that the characters inhabit a world that is far more detailed than the story has time for. For instance, in describing a compact nuclear generator, many writers would content themselves with the phrase “compact nuclear generator”. Not Blish:

The pile itself, of course, was simple enough to handle; it consisted only of a tank about the size of a glass brick, filled with a fine white froth: heavy water containing uranium235 hexafluoride in solution, damped by bubbles of cadmium vapour. Most of its weight was shielding and the peripheral capillary network of the heat-exchanger.

(I love the “of course”.)

Later, when this dubious object is deliberately detonated, we read:

A blast of pure light blew through the upended cabin, despite the shielding between it and the pile. Even through the top of his head, the violet-white light of that soundless blast nearly blinded Amalfi, and he could feel the irradiation of his shoulders and chest. He would develop no allergies on this planet, anyhow—every molecule of histamine in his blood must have been detoxified in that instant.

This is just magnificent hokum—Blish was trained as a biologist and must have known that it made not the slightest sense, but he chucks it in anyway, as a marvellous throwaway notion, before pressing on with the action before the reader has time to think, Hang on a minute …

The biggest piece of invention in these stories is the fundamental plot element—the “cities in flight”. Blish comes up with an interstellar drive that works better on more massive objects. The “Dillon-Wagoner gravitron polarity generator” (colloquially known as a “spindizzy”) does something to electron spin. Typically, Blish provides an equation that supposedly provides the principle on which the device operates. It’s misprinted multiple different ways in different editions and versions of the books, but it makes no physical sense in any of them. However, in another piece of virtuoso intensive recomplication, Blish actually has his characters point out to each other that the equation doesn’t make sense. In his narrative, though, it nevertheless works—meaning that all of physics will need to be rewritten to accommodate it.

Anyway. The spindizzy drive allows entire cities to take off from the Earth and fly off to other stars at multiples of lightspeed. These nomadic cities roam the galaxy, offering specialist expertise and industry to the inhabited planets, which had been colonized during an earlier wave of exploration. Blish calls these migrant communities the Okie cities—a reference to Depression-era migrant agricultural workers, who were nicknamed “Okies” because so many of them came from Oklahoma.

The migrant cities first appeared in Earthman, Come Home (1955). It was the first published of the series, a fix-up novel built from four short stories that had been published between 1950 and 1953. It follows the adventures of the migrant city of New York under its mayor, John Amalfi, as the city and its inhabitants roam the galaxy looking for work, getting into trouble, and getting out of trouble by causing more trouble. As the series built over the next decade, Earthman, Come Home wound up being placed third in the internal chronology of the books. It’s the first of the series that I read, it’s the most intensively recomplicated, and it’s the fastest paced.

Next came They Shall Have Stars (1956), which is another fix-up novel, interleaving scenes from two short stories—”Bridge” (1952) and “At Death’s End” (1954). These two are the origin stories for the  series—the first tells how the spindizzy drive was invented (during a lovingly described construction project on Jupiter, of all places); the second describes the discovery of the “anti death” drugs which will allow individual humans to live long enough to explore the galaxy while moving at “just” the few multiples of lightspeed that the spindizzy allows. (Blish called these drugs anti-agathics, a term that has escaped into general science-fictional use, and one that has set me running off on a long side-track that I’ll describe in a separate post.)

There then followed a direct sequel to Earthman, Come HomeThe Triumph Of Time (1958), published in the UK as A Clash Of Cymbals. This one, though in places as recomplicated as its predecessors, has none of the brash self-confidence of the two previous novels; instead, it is as mournful and elegiac as its namesake poem by Algernon Swinburne. The flying cities no longer fly; Amalfi, having lived for a thousand years, is tired and regretful for lost loves, and suspects he might be losing his edge; and the Universe is coming to an end. Yes, that’s right—Blish wrote The End Of The Universe into the novel. If you have created infinitely resourceful and potentially immortal characters, and you want to fill them with late-life regret, then only the impending end of the Universe will do the job properly.

And finally, A Life For The Stars was published in 1962, filling the gap between the events of They Shall Have Stars and Earthman, Come Home. I quoted its opening lines at the start of this post. It’s essentially a coming-of-age novel, following the adventures of a boy, Chris deFord, who is shanghaied aboard the city of Scranton as it leaves Earth, and ends up working as city manager of New York under the not-particularly-benign rule of a younger (but by no means young) John Amalfi.

The whole series is leavened with Blish’s wry, dry humour. His description of a preacher “moaning unctuously, like a lady hippopotamus reading A.E. Houseman” is a characteristic example. And there is a satisfying sense of steadily expanding scope, from petty Washington politics, to the exploration of the solar system, to spacecraft setting off for the nearest stars, to cities roaming the galaxy, to whole planets moving between galaxies, and finally a transcendent confrontation with universal catastrophe. But it is very much a product of its decade—fast-talking, wise-cracking heroes who chomp cigars; can-do engineers who navigate between the stars using a slide-rule; scientists who distractedly scribble opaque jargon on a blackboard; sophisticated computers built from vacuum tubes; and poorly drawn female characters whose equality with men is at best partial and at worst patronizing.

It’s fun, and it’s a classic, but perhaps more of a nostalgic classic than a living classic.

* Although the word quadrilogy enjoyed a brief vogue after the release of the Alien Quadrilogy (1979), a boxed set of four films from the Alien franchise, quadrilogy is a hybrid word of mixed Latin and Greek roots—no good can come of it.

The connection to William Ætheling, son of Henry I, is obscure, at least to me.

Kim Stanley Robinson: New York 2140

Cover of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley RobinsonWe’ve got good tech, we’ve got a nice planet, but we’re fucking it up by way of stupid laws.

I’ve written about Kim Stanley Robinson before, when I reviewed his Green Earth. I mentioned his environmentalist and anti-capitalist concerns, his lyrical descriptions of landscape, his long passages where nothing much happens except characters talking to each other about stuff they find important, and his tendency to veer into occasional implausibility so as to get his characters into a situation he wants them to experience and reflect on.

So, there’s more of all that in New York 2140, which is already garnering Robinson’s usual U-shaped profile of reader reviews—five-star raves from those who share his concerns and love his slow and discursive style; one-star denunciations from those who loathe his politics and/or hate his narrative pace.

This one is to some extent a successor to Green Earth; another example of what’s nowadays a recognized subgenre of science fiction, cli-fi—climate-change fiction. It deals with a future New York, flooded by fifty feet of sea-level rise and battered by even more extreme summers and winters than it currently enjoys. And to some extent it’s a revisiting of the flooded Manhattan we glimpsed in his state-of-the-solar-system novel, 2312*—but Robinson has previously said that he tends to “self-plagiarize”, rather than attempt to link his novels together, so it’s probably a mistake to imagine that New York 2140 is in any sense a prequel to 2312.

And in this one, Robinson brings his issues with capitalism in general, and the global finance industry in particular, front and centre. In his New York, the banks and financial traders have simply shrugged off the devastation of climate change, which they see as having merely changed the sort of loans it’s worth risking, and the sort of commodities it’s worth trading.

His New York is richly textured—the buildings of lower Manhattan are now flooded in their lower storeys, but equipped with boat docks from which New Yorkers venture forth into their flooded streets and squares as if travelling through the canals and bacinos of Venice. Overhead, sky bridges link the towers, and airships are tethered to the old mooring masts. Upper Manhattan is still above water, and is home to even more towering skyscrapers. And between the two is the intertidal zone, legally problematic and structurally failing. Everywhere, there are vertical farms and roof gardens.

He tells his story by shifting among a varied cast of point-of-view characters, all of whom live in the old Met Life Tower on flooded Madison Square. There’s the building supervisor, the building manager, a financial trader, an airheaded “cloud star” (read “internet personality”), a couple of coders disillusioned with their jobs programming the financial markets, a couple of vagrant kids, and a policewoman. Their lives weave together in increasingly complicated ways as the novel progresses. The characters are interesting, their interactions are interesting, and they also have a narrative purpose to serve—Robinson needs to pass on a lot of information to us, and having his various experts explain things to his various innocents does the job.

But Robinson isn’t shy about just coming out and delivering a bit of a lecture from time to time (and gad, that drives some of his reviewers crazy). In this novel, there are chapters that are narrated, first person, by “a citizen”—who is of course just Robinson, leaning into the story to tell us a bit more about history, geology, economics, rewilding … whatever he feels we might find interesting or need to help us understand the narrative. Robinson even pokes self-referential fun at himself via the words of “a citizen”:

… certain awesome writers fond of lists would have already inflicted this amazing list of coastal cities on the reader …

The “citizen” is impatient and polemical and downright rude as only a stereotypical New Yorker can be, which makes him entertaining as well as informative. And Robinson has made his feelings clear about readers who complain about his “expository lumps” or “info dumps”:

I feel they are bad readers who aren’t getting it, who are in effect being narcissistic, as if nothing could be interesting but dramatized scenes about people interacting. In fact, those scenes are often the most clichéd and boring parts of a novel, and many a novel is boring from start to finish because of that. The world is often more interesting than what people do to each other. That said, novels are about people, so that has to be kept in mind. What I do is give up on the idea of balance, also these various workshop categories like world-building or characters, which in effect pretend to know how fiction works, when they really don’t know how fiction works. Fiction is highly mysterious. So I let myself go crazy and see what happens.

In effect, if you don’t like it, then Robinson would prefer it if you went away and stopped moaning about it; and probably you should stop reading those writers’ manuals, too. It’s an interesting stance, and maybe one only a mature, successful writer with a couple of degrees in English and Literature could adopt.

So Robinson builds another interesting and multilayered world, in his own leisurely, eccentric way. In Green Earth I reported how I found a few of his characters irritating, but this lot seem an amiable enough bunch, and each one interesting in a different way. On top of that there’s a hunt for buried treasure, a building collapse, a kidnapping, a boy trapped in a broken diving bell, an encounter with a ghost, an edgy showdown between police and corporate security, polar bears loose in an airship, a hurricane and storm surge, and a plot to deliberately crash the financial markets and nationalize the banks.

So, as ever, if you like Robinson, you’ll like this. For me, it’s up there with 2312 and the Mars trilogy, in terms of it’s variety and descriptive verve. And if you don’t like Robinson—Why do you keep reading his stuff and making yourself ill with stress like that?

There are some errors, as there always are when you write a book this big and complicated. Robinson repeatedly refers to “neap” tides in contexts that suggest he really means spring tides, which are the tides with the largest variation in water height. And the wrong name is given for the coiner of the word monocausotaxophilia, “a love of finding single causes to explain everything”. That was neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel, but a typo turns him into “Pöpper”. Harmless enough, except that, since Robinson’s novel was published, I see the interesting word has already had a few mentions on social media, but misattributed to philosopher Karl Popper. Sigh.

And there’s one mysterious omission. It seems to be OK for Robinson to write about housing cooperatives and communal dining, to quote Karl Marx, to depict a renters’ revolt, the redistribution of the property and capital of the wealthy, the fall of capitalism and the nationalization of the banks … but amid all his wordy pyrotechnics I never noticed him mention the “s” word. I can’t help wondering if Orbit, his publisher, felt that all this edgy stuff was fine, just so long as he never actually used that word abhorrent to a large fraction of an American readership … socialism.

* Robinson describes how the 2312 version of Manhattan was part of the genesis of this novel in an interview with the Sierra Club.

Elizabeth Allan: Burn On The Hill

Cover of Burn On The Hill by Elizabeth AllanRonnie was a short-legged hunchback and a social misfit; his navigation was pathetic and he was not competent even with a railway timetable. He never carried more than a sandwich, and often not even that, and was entirely dependent on the spontaneous goodwill and hospitality of keepers and shepherds. He only at any time had one pair of boots, and they perpetually in need of repair. It was commonplace for him to be completely lost on the hill; he paid scant attention to advice from more experienced folk and made daft decisions about routes. He took really silly risks in dangerous situations. He fell down places.
And he enjoyed every minute of it.

Reverend Aubrey Ronald Graham “Ronnie” Burn (1887-1972) was (among other things) a scholar of Classical languages, an Anglican minister and (later) a Roman Catholic priest. In the years 1914-1923, he snatched brief holiday trips to the Scottish Highlands, during which he managed to climb all the Munros and Tops listed in Sir Hugh Munro‘s notorious tables of Scottish mountains higher than 3000 feet—a total of 558 hills at the time. He was the first person to achieve this, despite the disadvantages detailed (above) in the introduction to Elizabeth Allan’s book about his feat, Burn On The Hill, subtitled The Story Of The First ‘Compleat Munroist’ *.

Ten of the diaries he kept during his days in the hills turned up for sale on a second-hand book-stall in the late 1970s, were bought by a collector, and eventually gifted to Aberdeen University, where they remain today.

Elizabeth Allan assembled the story of Ronnie Burn’s days in the hills from his diaries, and produced this numbered, limited edition book  in 1995. (My copy is numbered 1692, so it wasn’t that limited an edition.) The diary entries extend to 1927, when (for various reasons) some of the magic went out of the hills for Ronnie, while at the same time a change in his circumstances made it difficult for him to continue his hill activities. Allan has interspersed the diary story with a little of Burn’s life away from the hills—he had many other interests, adventures and disappointments in a long life.

And, to be fair to Burn, he quite obviously wasn’t nearly the incompetent Allan describes above—in the passage I quote, she pretty much makes out that we’re about to read a hill-going episode of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. He sometimes got things wrong, and sometimes made poor decisions (don’t we all), but most of his epic journeys around the remote glens of Scotland went smoothly. To judge from the copious diary extracts Allan provides, it absolutely was not “commonplace for him to be completely lost on the hill”. And he relied on the hospitality of folk in remote Highland houses because that’s what travellers did at the time—he always offered money in exchange for food and accommodation (though sometimes quibbled over the price), and on more than one occasion found that no bed was available because another traveller had arrived before him.

If this were just a book about a man going up and down 558 hills in ten years, it would be as deeply tedious as “Munro round”  and “mountain challenge” books usually are. But it’s interesting for two different reasons:

The first is that Burn himself is interesting—a blindingly fast walker given to very long days on the hill; a staunch Jacobite, two centuries after the 1715 Rising; a scholar given to keeping his hosts out of their beds of an evening, interrogating them for information about the Gaelic language, its stories and place-names; an academic Anglican minister turned Roman Catholic priest, littering his diary with Latin tags and sometimes paying for his accommodation with a little prayer or blessing; and a confident solo walker who nevertheless seemed to be besotted with the disdainful patricians of the Scottish Mountaineering Club (and few patricians were more disdainful than those of the SMC at that time). During the First World War, it was vanishingly unusual to find a fit young man with the leisure to visit these remote parts, and he was on more than one occasion marked down as a German spy by those he met.

A few quotes from his diary will give you a feel for him.

On shooting estates:

Every h-dropping tradesman who has made his fortune thinks he ought to have a deer forest so as to have the pleasure of shooting down defenceless creatures as if they were vermin, or worse; butchered, all of them, to a make a Sassenach’s holiday. Aye, and the keepers are brutalized, being made to hunt out the pretty creatures who have fed at their hand in winter. And this is called sport!

On guidebooks:

This walk is said by Baddeley to be very arduous and only to be attempted by very hardy walkers. It is miled by him (to Strathearn) 17 miles. Really these guide books seem to be written for anaemic women or girls who sit over the fire reading Tennyson.

And, when regaining his feet after a life-threatening 300-yard tumble down steep snow with rocks at the bottom:

Stupidly I forgot to take the angle of the slope with the protractor clinometer that Gilbert Thomson had shown me how to make and use.

The second source of interest in this book is its description of a lost world in the remote glens. These places were still populated, albeit sparsely. This was a time when the local schoolteacher would come up the glen, stay with a family for a month to teach their children, and then move on to another community in another glen. But it was all on the cusp of change. A second Highland Clearance of sorts was about to take place as sheep crofts were replaced with deer forests, and that depopulating influence would be consolidated by the loss of a generation of young men in the trenches. So Burn’s routes are strange and appealing to a modern walker—instead of each glen being a self-contained project, with the day focussed around the necessity of returning to a car parked at the end of a public road, for Burn the glens were stitched together in long routes that crossed the grain of the land. He would leave a house at the head of one glen, walk the ridges, and then descend at the end of the day to seek shelter at the head of the next glen, or the next. The following day, copiously fueled by milk and porridge (he seemed to eat, or want, little else), he would do the same again. Some of his routes through the glens are now simply gone, submerged under the expanded waters of modern hydroelectric projects—I’ve written about one such case in detail, in my post about The Lost World of Loch Mullardoch. So I found it easier to keep track of Burn’s wanderings using a copy of the 1912 Survey Atlas of Scotland, rather than a modern map.

In a way, Burn was ahead of his time—he is quite clear that his outings are driven by the urge to go “Munro bagging”. I was surprised to see him using exactly that phrase, a century ago—I’d always thought of it as a product of the 1980s fashion for table-ticking. Another piece of vocabulary that surprised me was his reference to “doing” a mountain—an oddly dismissive phrase that I again have always associated with those ’80s walkers who seemed to climbed hills only so that they could make a tick in a book or stick a pin in a map.

And that philosophy was to be Burn’s undoing. Once he was “compleat”, the hills seem to have lost much of their appeal for him. At the same time, the families he knew and cared about in the high glens were moving away, and more and more houses were standing empty. His 1927 diary has a definite note of melancholy to it, as he senses the end of an era approaching.

Read this book, then, for a glimpse of a lost way of life, and a lost way of hillwalking.

* No, that’s not a misprint. For reasons best known to themselves, the Scottish Mountaineering Club, keeper of records for all things Munro-related, affect the spelling of “complete” used by Izaak Walton in his book The Compleat Angler. The difference being that Walton was living in the seventeenth century, and the SMC just wish they were living in the seventeenth century. (I actually considered, for about fifteen seconds, using the same spelling in the title of my book The Complete Lachlan, as a sort of hillwalking insider joke, but was put off by the twin fears that people would think I was a) serious and/or b) illiterate.)

Greg Egan: Dichronauts

Cover of Dichronauts by Greg Egan

Geometry might well kill them in the end, but only a rigorous understanding of its principles could make their situation intelligible, let alone survivable.

That quote comes from Part 4 of this novel, but it encapsulates what’s intriguing and (at least potentially) frustrating about the story—it’s about spacetime geometry.

I’ve written about Greg Egan before, when I reviewed his Orthogonal trilogy. Egan has always written about big ideas, and pushed farther into mathematical physics than most of his contemporaries. In the Orthogonal series, his novels were set in a universe in which the time dimension has exactly the same geometrical properties as the spatial dimensions. This is in contrast to our own universe, in which the time axis of spacetime works differently from the space axes, creating a non-Euclidean, hyperbolic geometry which underlies the counter-intuitive physics embodied in special relativity.

In a way, Dichronauts represents a companion volume to the Orthogonal novels—having asked what the world would look like if time worked the same way as space, Egan now flips the problem over and considers a universe in which one of the spatial dimensions is timelike. His new universe’s spacetime therefore has two axes with timelike geometric properties—the time axis itself, and one of the space dimensions. Hence the title of the novel, which isn’t actually explained in the book—fashioned after the pattern of aeronauts and astronauts, its Greek roots give it the meaning “sailors in two times”.

In our universe, the hyperbolic relationships appear when a space coordinate is plotted against the time coordinate—so they show up when position changes over time; if an object has velocity, in other words. An example of that hyperbolic relationship is that, no matter how hard you accelerate, you can never exceed the speed of light, only approach it asymptotically.

In the Dichronauts universe, the same relationships also appear if you plot a normal space coordinate against the timelike space coordinate. That is, when you change position along one space axis relative to position along the other axis—with rotation, in other words. So in the Dichronauts universe, it is impossible to rotate an object from north to east—no matter how hard you try, you can only approach northeast asymptotically, and never rotate any farther. And the spacetime distortions caused by the hyperbolic coordinate system (which in our universe show up as changes in length and clock rates when travelling close to light speed) appear as changes in the shape of rotated objects—as they approach a 45º rotation angle, they grow asymptotically towards infinite length and zero thickness.

Egan talks the reader through some of this material in an Afterword, which can be read with advantage before starting the story, because it contains no real spoilers. And (as with Orthogonal) there is a great deal more background information , including mathematical detail, on Egan’s website. There, he also explains how light cannot travel within a cone surrounding the timelike space axis.

It turns out that self-gravitating objects in this sort of spacetime collapse to form hyperboloids rather than spheres, with the symmetry axis of the hyperboloid aligned along the timelike space axis. So Egan’s alien protagonists inhabit a region near the equator of a huge hyperboloid world orbited by a tiny hyperboloid sun—it’s shown in the cover illustration at the head of this post.

Egan’s aliens live in a world where they can’t see to the north or south; where they can’t turn around but have to walk forwards or backwards in the east-west direction, or “sidle” to the north or south; and where a fall to the north or south can trap them into a runaway lengthening of their bodies as they topple towards a 45º angle with the ground. The restrictions and opportunities afforded by such an environment are worked out in loving detail—doors can only face west or east, for instance, and must pivot upwards, keeping their plane of rotation entirely within the spacelike axes of the world.

Again as in Orthogonal, Egan gives his aliens one truly alien characteristic, and otherwise portrays them as essentially amiable and thoughtful humans. It’s a plan that previously worked well for Hal Clement—trying to tell an engaging story set in a totally alien environment is hard enough, without stirring in an alien culture and alien thought processes, too.

Egan’s alien protagonists are bipartite beings—a large, roughly humanoid creature with eyes, orientated in the east-west direction, called a Walker; and a small, blind, intelligent, commensal organism called a Sider, that is threaded through the Walker’s skull in the north-south direction, and which “sees” in those lightless directions using echolocation. The two share sensory information and thoughts through a nerve linkage. The Walker and Sider who are Egan’s composite point-of-view character bicker cheerfully and engagingly throughout the novel, like a long-married couple.

The main plot driver is the Migration—because of the changing position of their sun, the planet’s inhabitants are forced to move their towns and farms endlessly southwards.* Egan’s story follow the Surveyors, who search ahead in order to plan the migration route. This lets him gradually expand the picture of his strange world and its inhabitants. And when the Surveyors encounter an apparently impassable barrier, the story takes an unexpected twist.

I enjoyed this one very much—in large part because the characters and problems become very engaging as the story progresses, but also because I just liked messing around with the maths. I do think Egan skipped rather lightly over some problems with the physical environment he builds—zeroes and infinities are never too far away. For instance, two objects that are aligned northeast-southwest or southeast-northwest in his world will have a separation of precisely zero, no matter how far they are separated along the north-south and east-west axes. But they will also have zero thickness measured at those 45º angles, no matter how wide they are north-south and east-west, so they shouldn’t collide—the world just seems to go a little indeterminate at those special limiting angles. And it’s not clear what actually happens to a vertical object that falls to the south or north. It gets longer as it topples, certainly, but it shouldn’t be able to get closer to the ground than a 45º tilt. Egan refers to this situation a couple of times but doesn’t get into detail. I think what he envisages happening is that the endlessly lengthening and thinning object breaks up into sections under the differential torque of gravity (like a toppling factory chimney), and then the broken sections fall vertically to the ground with minimal farther rotation. toppling chimney

But these tilted segments should then start to undergo their own asymptotic lengthening …

And do I think there may be a problem with this novel if you’re not a special-relativity junkie, like me. While the odd spacetime of Orthogonal was only an occasional intrusion in the narrative, which could be skimmed over, the counterintuitive spacetime distortion in Dichronauts is front-and-centre, influencing plot and the characters’ behaviour on every page. It may simply be too weird an environment for a reader who doesn’t enjoy playing with maths a little.

So the question is: when I described those exotic spacetime axes, did you perk up and want more detail? Maybe feel the need for a graph? In that case, take a look at Egan’s website, and then go and buy the book.

* Remarkably, and I’m sure coincidentally, Egan’s is not the first novel to describe a society obliged to migrate continuously over the surface of a planet with hyperbolic geometry. Christopher Priest’s 1974 novel Inverted World did the same thing, expanding on a 1973 short story with the same title. But Priest’s planet was a different shape from Egan’s (a pseudosphere), and Egan’s makes actual mathematical sense, whereas Priest’s probably falls into the category of “a cool idea I’d rather not have to justify”. (The ending of Priest’s novel was deeply unsatisfactory for those of us who’d been on the edges of our seats waiting for an explanation.)

Levison Wood: Walking The Americas

Cover of Walking the AmericasI’ve found on these long expeditions that there sometimes comes a point when you grow tired of walking.

Walking the Americas recounts the story of Levison Wood’s third epic walking journey—a successor to Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas, and a companion volume to the Channel 4 TV series of the same name. You can find my review of Walking The Himalayas here.

The Nile was a highly specific route—following the river from source to sea; the Himalayas were more diffuse, offering Wood a range of route options, so that he could string together a series of particularly interesting locations; the “Americas” starts with broad choice in the north, and narrows down to some severely limited options in the south.

Wood walks through the historical core of the Americas—Central America. For start and finish points that allow a complete traverse of this isthmus, he chooses two events from the Spanish conquest of the region—the landing of Hernán Cortés on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 1519, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa‘s  journey across the Isthmus of Panama at Darién in 1513, during which his party became the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. As Wood points out, these two men are forever united by a historical inaccuracy in John Keats’s poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which ends:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortés never visited the Darién colony, and Keats clearly conflated his adventures with those of Balboa. (The story goes that, when informed of the error, he left it in so as to preserve the scansion of the poem. That’s poets for you, that is.) Despite the neatness of this poetic link to the geography of the region, it seems logistically more likely that Wood chose his starting point in Yucatán simply because that’s where his walking companion, the photographer Alberto Cáceres, lives. And his destination is clearly dictated by the shape of the isthmus, which has a definite southern endpoint where it joins the continent of South America just beyond the jungles of Darién. Between these two points, he walked 1,800 miles over the course of four months.

Walking the Americas route
Click to enlarge
Levison Wood’s route through Central America (Public Domain base map)

In contrast to companions on Wood’s two previous journeys, Cáceres is able to stay with him throughout the trip, and it’s evident that he’s an invaluable asset—aimiable, upbeat and possessed of an apparently infallible ability to charm Spanish-speaking officialdom.

Wood also seems to be blessed with an easy sociability that stands him in good stead—chatting cheerfully to border guards, drug dealers, gang members, child refugees and pretty much anyone else he meets along the way. I think he describes his approach well when discussing photography, early in the book:

You need to speak to people and get them to relax. You need to spend an hour or so chatting about their life, their passions, their wants and needs, before you even get your camera out. They must trust you, and that cannot be forced. They must like you, and you can’t force that either.

Wood’s impulse to chat only betrays him once, when he and his companion are treated to lunch (in a manner that can’t be refused) by a group of men they believe to be drug dealers. He works very hard to make it clear he is simply a traveller and writer (not a police informant), and then has to work hard again to be sure they understand he is not a rich writer (so not worth kidnapping for ransom). Presumably exhausted by this gruelling process and beginning to relax slightly, he then asks brightly, “So, what do you do?”

After a tense silence that gives Wood ample time to regret his curiosity, he is told that they “grow beans and corn.”

As with previous volumes, the book is a useful companion to the television series. The memorable moments from the series are all here—diving in a cenote used for human sacrifice; walking to the rim of an active volcano; climbing Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, to see the sunrise; walking edgily through gang territories in San Pedro Sula; and the final slog through the jungle of the Darién Gap. But there’s also much background information on the history of the area, and a lot of moments that never made it to the TV screen—a hilarous consultation with the elderly and  eccentric explorer John Blashford-Snell (during which Wood develops a sort of explorer envy because he won’t be able to take a gunboat with him into Darién); the apology he receives from the gang leaders through whose territory he passes, who say that they would have tidied up the graffiti if they’d had more warning of his arrival; the enthusiastic but seriously underequipped and ultimately ill-fated Belgian travellers who are planning to cross Darién before Wood gets there, and who have the potential to blight his carefully negotiated arrangements in that sensitive region; and a poignant visit to Puerto Escosés, the site of Scotland’s failed colony in the New World, and the focus of the seventeenth-century Darien Scheme, a financial venture that ultimately bankrupted Scotland and ended its existence as an independent nation.

And there are snakes, spiders, vampire bats, river crossings, unpleasant injuries, quicksand … and a moment when they get lost and turn up as unwelcome trespassers in someone’s garden.

What’s not to like?

Dave Hutchinson: The Fractured Europe Sequence

Fractured Europe sequence, Dave HutchinsonVery slowly, he turned to put has back to the street, hiding the briefcase with his body. He removed a glove and put his bare hand against the side of the case. It was hot. Not red hot. Not drop-it-right-here-and-run-like-hell hot. But it was still hot. Which, in Rudi’s experience, was a first for a piece of hand luggage.

Dave Hutchinson has been writing for a while. According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, he had four volumes of short stories published during the late ’70s and early ’80s, before he turned 21. But before the Fractured Europe sequence of novels, he had just one previous published novel, The Villages (2001) *. Some of his short fiction is freely available on-line, and he provides links to these stories on his blog.

I got into Fractured Europe at the beginning, with Europe in Autumn (2014). It was briefly reviewed in the periodic “Fortean fiction” section of Fortean Times‘s book reviews, and I was intrigued by what seemed to be an espionage story set in an interesting near-future version of Europe. It was followed by Europe at Midnight (2015) and Europe in Winter (2016).

Europe in Autumn is set in a post-EU Europe. A combination of migrant crises, the endless War on Terror, and a lethal flu epidemic has made countries all across the continent default on their obligations to the European Union by closing their borders. Independence movements have also caused further internal fractures, and then a sort of wave of self-determination has swept across the continent, with ever-smaller statelets and polities coming into (sometimes brief) existence. By the time the novel begins, there is a railway line that operates as an independent nation; a national parks that has declared independence from its parent country; and a group of German football supporters who are attempting to found their own country in four Berlin flat-blocks.

The point-of-view character for much of the novel is Rudi, an Estonian cook working in Krakow, who is recruited by a rather shadowy organization called the Coureurs des Bois—an international courier service which, for a price, will move anything or anyone across any border. This involves all the mechanics of good old-fashioned espionage tradecraft—false passports, faked identities, encoded messages and recognition phrases—and Rudi simultaneously relishes and mocks the John le Carré affectations of his new profession. In fact, much of the pleasure of reading these novels comes from the world-weary humour of Hutchinson’s descriptions and characters—at times, they are very funny indeed. The quote at the head of this post gives you a sample of his understated style.

As a novel, I think Europe in Autumn reveals Hutchinson’s background in short stories and journalism—it is assembled from a series of almost self-contained episodes in Rudi’s career and life, each one a compact little gem containing its own cast of eccentric supporting characters. As the story progresses, Rudi comes under increasing threat from forces he doesn’t understand. Nothing quite makes sense. And Hutchinson is happy to leave Rudi (and us) puzzled—there is no final explanation in which all the loose ends come together:

Rudi sat for hours with the printout […], shuffling the pages, waiting for the movie moment, the moment when the hero claps his had to his forehead and cries, of course! The moment when all becomes clear.
It didn’t happen.

Instead, something quite remarkable happens. In the last fifty pages of the book, Rudi discovers the Big Secret that others have died to discover, or died to protect. Original reviewers of this book quite rightly kept this a secret, but it seems fair enough to reveal it here, given that it’s impossible to review the next two novels without mentioning it, and Hutchinson himself is now describing it in interviews. There is another Europe—a sort of pocket parallel universe, sharing the geography of our Europe, accessible from here at only a few points, and entirely colonized by English people.

I know. I didn’t see that one coming.

This version of Europe seems to have been more or less written into existence by a family of eccentric English cartographers during the nineteenth century, one of whom reports:

My grandfather writes of maps having a power over the land, and theorises that if an imaginary landscape is mapped in great enough detail, it will eventually supplant the actual physical landscape, as a wet cloth wipes chalk from a blackboard.
My great-grandfather, on the other hand, wrote of all possible landscapes underlying each other like the pages of a book, requiring only the production of a map of each landscape to make it real.

Blimey. Didn’t see that one coming, either. From near-future espionage to fantasy in under ten pages, and with very few more pages left to read.

The only word for that is audacious, and Hutchinson pulls it off by a sort of narrative force of will, slipstreaming the reader along through a couple of closing chapters that hint at more complexities than they reveal.

The next book, Europe at Midnight, opens in a very strange place—a country, of sorts, named the Campus; just two hundred miles across, surrounded by mountains, and organised as if it were a sort of gigantic university. The narrator is an intelligence officer in this community, who gradually finds out the he is inhabiting a very small pocket universe, somehow budded off from the parallel Europe (“the Community”) of the first novel.

In a separate narrative strand, we meet another member of the secret intelligence services, but this time working in the future England of our own world. The secret services of Hutchinson’s future Europe are understandably interested in the discovery of the Community, as are the Coureurs des Bois—if only the secret of moving back and forth between our fractured Europe and the (entirely borderless) Community can be mastered, it will open up a whole new world of espionage and smuggling possibilities.

As the two narrative strands move towards each other and finally combine, we find out more about how to get from one Europe to the other—winding paths that take unexpected turns, rivers that are oddly difficult to find, railway branch lines that have only an intermittent existence. And we find out what it’s like to visit a Europe inhabited only by the English:

Everyone in the Community was English. From one end of the Continent to the other. There were only English things here. There were no other languages, only regional dialects. No other cuisines but English. No other clothing styles but English. No other architectural styles but English. It was awful. After a year here I would gladly have lynched someone for a kebab. After two years, I would have committed mass murder for a portion of sweet and sour pork.

The narrative here is less episodic than in the first novel, which significantly reduces its pace, but Hutchinson’s writing is always interesting and entertaining. As the story reaches its conclusion, we begin to see connections with Europe in Autumn, some hints at explanations of events in that novel, and a suggestion that more explanations will occur in the next book.

I’ll close my review of this one with one of my favourite passages, which described the future evolution of a European cultural institution in Hutchinson’s fractured world:

There were five hundred and thirty-two entries in this Eurovision [Song Contest] – up from last year’s five hundred and twenty, but still a long way from the so-far record of six hundred and eight. In its own way, Eurovision was as good a reflector of the current state of the Continent as many Foreign Office briefings Jim had read during his career. Countries, polities, nations, sovereign states, principalities, all wanted to take part – the sundered wreckage of Ukraine and Moldova alone accounted for seventeen national entries – and one could analyse the voting patterns of the various national juries and sometimes see geopolitical trends developing.

By the start of Europe in Winter, the existence of the Community has become common knowledge in Europe—there are trade agreements and exchange visits and vacation trips. But the means of constructing connections between the two universes is still a secret, as is any hint of how someone could map a new universe into existence. Powerful and secret organizations are (as you might expect) very interested in finding this stuff out.

Rudi, the focus of the first novel, reappears, older and more jaded, but still trying to work out exactly what happened to him and why. But his experience is probably best summed up in his own words:

“Have you ever,” asked Rudi, “tried to tie up some of your life’s loose ends?”
“I’ve thought about it,” Forsyth said. “Now and again.”
“A bit of advice. Don’t. Some loose ends are better off left untied. I tried that.”

Hutchinson also returns to his novel-constructed-of-short-stories approach, only more so. Successive sections of the book introduce interesting, complicated, believable new characters, placing them in interesting (and usually stressful) new situations, and only slowly does the reader see where the new narrative is heading and how it is looping back towards Rudi and his quest for truth. Woven through these episodes, familiar characters from the previous novels reappear, and previous locations are revisited. Rudi has some success in his quest, leading to another Big Reveal, but there are also new mysteries.

This one’s certainly the most complex of the three novels, and it probably needs to be read in just a few sittings in order to keep track of what’s going on—definitely not one for the traditional three pages at bedtime before falling asleep.

So these three novels work as a trilogy—there’s a definite story arc between Europe in Autumn and Europe in Winter, with Europe at Midnight forming a bridge. But Solaris, the publisher, refers to them only as a “sequence”, and Hutchinson has said in his blog that he plans another book set in the same world(s), Europe at Dawn. I’m certainly looking forward to another chance to watch Hutchinson juggle multiple story lines laced with dark humour.

And, with an impending Brexit, a threatened repeat of the Scottish independence referendum, and a Europe-wide hardening of attitudes to the plight of refugees, Hutchinson’s description of Fractured Europe seems increasingly prescient.

* In many ways, The Villages prefigures Fractured Europe—there’s an Eastern European setting, a cast of carefully created, eccentric and interesting supporting characters, and a story that sets off in one direction only to veer into High Strangeness. It’s slower paced and less darkly funny than the Fractured Europe novels, but if you like them you’ll probably find The Villages worth a try.

Ginge Fullen: Sic Diximus

Cover of Sic Diximus, by Ginge Fullen

Within 500m I was stopped by an Army patrol. To cut a long story short, I was stopped three more times by the Army and twice by the Police in the space of the next hour. I fobbed them off each time. Two policemen followed me back to the hotel. My local guide Menpong arrived the next morning and I was glad to get out of town and heading to the mountains but I wasn’t too confident that my troubles would stop there.

I’ve written about Ginge Fullen, and my involvement in his Africa’s Highest Challenge expedition, in my post about his previous book, Finding Bikku Bitti. That one described the gruelling conclusion of Africa’s Highest Challenge, when Ginge managed to climb Bikku Bitti, the highest point in Libya—having already spent five years climbing the highest point in every other African country. Conquering Bikku Bitti took three separate Sahara expeditions, during the second of which Ginge almost died.

This book is an altogether more sedate affair, describing his quest to climb the highest point in Bangladesh. Like Bikku Bitti, it required three separate attempts—but this time because there was so much disagreement about where the highest point in Bangladesh actually was.

I not only get a mention in Sic Diximus, my name’s on the cover, along with that of Ginge’s local guide, Menpong. That’s typical of Ginge’s generosity—I’ve mentioned before that he tends to downplay his own achievements while punctiliously acknowledging the contributions of those around him. But I certainly don’t deserve to appear as an author on this one—the adventure is Ginge’s, the story is Ginge’s, the words are Ginge’s, and the (often beautiful) photographs are Ginge’s.

Cover of World Tops and BottomsMy involvement started back in 1996, when I was compiling a set of tables called World Tops and Bottoms for Dave Hewitt’s TACit Press, listing the highest and lowest points of every country and dependency in the world. There were various “problem countries”, and Bangladesh was one of those—no-one seemed to be entirely sure what the highest mountain in Bangladesh was, where it was, or how high it was. One frequently mentioned name was Keokradong, but that name was associated with at least three different hills in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and with a variety of altitudes from 927m to 1230m. Another was Reng Tlāng, on the border between Bangladesh and India, with quoted heights from 957m to 1003m. I couldn’t lay my hands on any useful national mapping, so checked the 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Chart of the area—which showed absolute nothing over 1000m in eastern Bangladesh, except for an unnamed point of 3454ft (1053m) on the border with Myanmar, far from Reng Tlāng and any of the Keokradongs. That point therefore found its way into World Tops and Bottoms— rather dubiously associated with the name “Mowdok”, which seemed more likely to be the name of the whole border range, rather than the specific highest point.

Now we roll forward to 2005, when Ginge was interested in knocking off the highest point in Bangladesh. By that time, a Survey of Bangladesh photogrammetric survey of the region in 2003 had brought up a new name, or rather several new names for one new hill—Tazing Dong, Tajingdong or Bijoy had been announced (with some fanfare in the Bangladeshi press) as Bangladesh’s real highest point, with a height of 987m. (This was almost immediately inflated to over 1000m in popular accounts—Banglapedia briefly topped out at 1280m.) By this time I was in contact with Jonathan de Ferranti, another mountain data-cruncher, who had given me a copy of an early version of the data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), and who had checked the Russian 1:200,000 military topographic maps of the area. We were still seeing no ground over 1000m anywhere in eastern Bangladesh except for the 1053m point marked on the Tactical Pilotage Chart, which corresponded to a spot height of 1052m on the Russian topo map and a highest cell of 1049m in the SRTM dataset. It all looked pretty solid, but no-one seemed to be seeing it but us.

Saka Haphong: TPC, Russian topo, SRTM
Click to enlarge

Got all that? Good. So, at this point, enter Ginge, who just wanted to climb the right mountain. The folks at Guinness World Records were telling him he needed to climb Keokradong *. The Survey of Bangladesh (and surely they should know) were telling him he needed to go up Tazing Dong. And two increasingly irritated cartophiles in Scotland were telling him needed to hop over to the Myanmar border to climb something without a discernible name.

Being Ginge, he climbed all three. And that’s what this book is about—Ginge sitting down for tea with Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury, Rajah of the Chittagong Hill Tracts; Ginge blagging his way past a military checkpoint and browbeating a Bangladeshi general into giving him a lift; Ginge pitching up at the Survey of Bangladesh head office to tell them they’ve got it all wrong; Ginge betting the army major who conducted the photogrammetric survey that he’d missed a higher mountain … and Ginge nearly dying again, but this time from a dodgy chicken curry.

Climbing Keokradong turned out to be relatively easy—the other two summits required machete work on the way up, and to clear enough space on the summit for a good GPS reading. I’m probably not giving too much away if I tell you that the 1053m point on the Myanmar border turned out to be the highest. For a while after Ginge established “ground truth”, it even seemed as if he might get the chance to name the mountain. We gleefully came up with Sic Diximus, as close as we could get to “We told you so!” in Latin. (The translation came courtesy of my brother-in-law George, who is freakishly still able to speak Latin more than four decades after studying it at school.)

But it wasn’t to be. Unsurprisingly, the Tripura people who live in the remote valley below the mountain did have a name for it—Saka Haphong, meaning “Peak of the East”. And, in true Bangladeshi style, there’s at least one other name, too—topographic maps prepared in British India in the 1930s and 1940s label it as Mowdok Taung.

Since Ginge blazed the way in 2006, the way to Saka Haphong has turned into a popular trekking route, and the summit area is now kept clear by the feet of frequent visitors. Here’s a video impression of what the area looks like nowadays:

It’s a remarkable story. As with his previous book, it’s copiously illustrated with photographs clearly printed on good quality paper. You can have a look at the first few pages (which include a photography of yours truly) on the Blurb site at and

* This sort of out-of-date advice was a recurring theme with Guinness during Africa’s Highest Challenge—their alleged experts seemed just to be pulling up the CIA World Factbook on their computers, rather than looking at, you know, a map or anything. I’m sure (well, I hope) the CIA World Factbook is just chock-full of actual facts when it comes to important geopolitical matters. But among people who are interested in the highest points of countries (and yes, actually, there are several of us) it is wearily referred to as the CIA World “Fact” Book.

Rodney Russ & Aleks Terauds: Galapagos Of The Antarctic

Cover of Galapagos Of The AntarcticThese islands not only play an important role in the Southern Ocean ecosystem, they also have a rich human history—from their discovery around 200 years ago, through an era of exploitation, until finally today, when they are treasured for their intrinsic value as wild and beautiful places.

I picked a copy of this book off a shelf in the small library of the Professor Khromov, the ship we travelled on during our recent trip to Wrangel Island, and was struck by its content and presentation. I made a mental note to track down a copy when we got home to the U.K. I somehow managed not to notice that is was co-authored by the man who was coordinating our trip—Rodney Russ, the founder of Heritage Expeditions, not only owns the Khromov but was on board, running the expedition. His association with the scattered islands south of New Zealand goes all the way back to the 1970s, when he took part in expeditions to the Auckland Islands and to Campbell Island, where he re-discovered a supposedly extinct bird, the Campbell Island Flightless Teal. How cool is that? His co-author, Aleks Terauds, is a biologist and conservationist who has worked extensively in these islands. They wrote Galapagos of the Antarctic together in 2009.

Here are the seven islands and island groups they write about. (For orientation, the large landmass at top centre is the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island.)

Location of New Zealand Outlying Islands
Click to enlarge
Based on a public domain source

Cover of Sub-Antarctic SanctuarySo they’re out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve long been interested in places like that, and over the years I’ve built up a bit of a reference library dealing with remote sub-Antarctic and cool temperate islands—but I have nothing dealing with this part of the world except Mary Gillham‘s Sub-Antarctic Sanctuary, the story of a summer spent on Macquarie in the 1960s.

The book’s a hefty hardback, nicely printed on heavy paper. The layout is beautiful—Fiona Stewart is rightly given a prominent credit for her work on the design. Each chapter is introduced with a pretty shaded-topography map of the appropriate island(s), decorated with some natural objects (leaves, feathers) and a painting of a representative bird—the Campbell Island chapter is graced by one of Russ’s flightless teals, for instance. Below the chapter heading, you’ll find a latitude and longitude, an area, and the altitude of the highest point. Each chapter is split into sections dealing with Geography & Geology, Flora, Fauna and History, and is copiously illustrated with photographs. And the photographs are gorgeous—there were some full-page images of albatrosses that I just sat and stared at for while, smiling gently. Photo credits go mainly to Terauds and to Russ’s sons, Nathan and Aaron, and a very fine job they’ve made of it.

Almost all these islands have gone through an initial period in which they were discovered (usually by Europeans), exploited by the sealing and whaling industry, sometimes colonized by marginal efforts at farming, and then a period in which intensive efforts have been made to restore them to their natural status.

The Chathams are an exception, having been colonized by a Polynesian group, the Moriori, in the fourteenth century. And they now support a population of a few hundred people of European, Maori and Moriori descent. My favourite story from the Chathams is of its Black Robin, which was rescued from extinction during the 1970s, when chicks from a surviving population of just seven birds were “fostered out to other species so that productivity could be increased.” I’d like to have heard a bit more about that, to be honest.

The Bounties are a group of rocky islets, home to seabirds and seals and not much else. With them, we first read about the New Zealand government’s practice of setting up “castaway depots” on their remote islands—huts containing supplies to keep any shipwrecked mariners alive for long enough to be rescued by a navy ship. For a while before the invention of radio, New Zealand made regular checks on all these uninhabited islands—otherwise castaways could spend years waiting for rescue.

The Antipodes Islands were originally named the Penantipodes—they’re not quite on the opposite side of the globe from London. (I, for one, mourn the dropped syllable.) They’ve benefited from having very few introduced species—the only successful European invader has been the House Mouse, which is presumably damaging the native invertebrate population, but is no danger to ground-nesting birds.

Campbell Island wasn’t so lucky—it was big enough to attract an effort at sheep farming (which failed to be economically viable). Once the farm was abandoned, introduced sheep and cattle died out in the harsh climate—as did a population of feral cats. But rats remained a constant danger to birdlife until they were eradicated in 2001. Campbell also hosted a French expedition to observe the 1874 transit of Venus—but it was (almost predictably) too cloudy for good observations to be made.

The Auckland Islands are mountainous and deeply dissected by inlets, so can play host to a wide variety of flora and fauna. They seem to have been visited by Polynesians half a century ago, but were uninhabited when the first Europeans came across them. Perhaps that Polynesian legacy was the stimulus for a doomed colonization attempt by Maori and Moriori from Chatham Island in 1842 (they were joined later by Europeans), which left a legacy of feral pigs and cats that are still disrupting the natural ecology. Russ and Terauds mention plans to eradicate the pigs and cats, but these don’t seem to have progressed since the book was written. The islands also hosted a German transit-of-Venus expedition in 1874, which experienced “the most wretched imaginable” weather—the scientists certainly don’t look very cheerful in the photograph in the book.

The Snares are a paradox—despite their proximity to New Zealand, little effort was made to exploit their resources, they acquired no invasive species, and so are nowadays a teeming and pristine environment with strictly controlled access. My favourite picture from this chapter is of albatross nests in the Snares forest—the only place in the world you find albatrosses nesting under trees.

Macquarie is a long ridge of an island, the farthest south of all the places discussed here, and the only one that belongs to Australia, rather than New Zealand. It has had a permanent research base since the 1940s, run by ANARE—Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions. (This is the place that played host to Mary Gillham during the visit she describes in her book.) Along with its long human presence, it has a long list of invasive species, and a long list of eradication programmes. The last cat on Macquarie was killed in 2000. Russ and Terauds describe the huge problem that 100,000 rabbits were causing, stripping entire hillsides of vegetation. Since their book was written, rabbits have been successfully eliminated and the overgrazed vegetation is making a recovery.

That’s been a whirlwind tour of the seven locations that Russ and Terauds spend 224 pages describing and illustrating in detail. The book finishes with a ten-page bibliography for anyone who wants to hunt down more information.

My only complaint is how inexplicably hard this book is to get hold of—it crops up on the webpages of a few New Zealand booksellers, but no farther afield than that. I had to order my copy directly from Heritage Expeditions. I’m glad I did, though.

  • If you’re interested in tracking down a copy, you can order one from Heritage Expeditions via the book’s webpage.