Category Archives: Reading

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.

Christoph Baumer: The History Of Central Asia

Covers of The History of Central AsiaSima Qian found himself personally affected by China’s wars against the Xiongnu in quite unintended fashion, for in 99 BCE he was castrated on the orders of Emperor Han Wudi …

If I’ve been quiet on the reading front for a while, it’s been because I’ve been working my way through these gorgeously produced volumes. They’re big—almost a foot tall and over 350 pages each—but a lot of that is taken up by colour illustrations. There are beautiful pictures of artworks from dozens of cultures, produced over millennia; landscape photographs of Central Asia’s forbidding scenery; images of archaeological digs (some rather beautifully photographed); and occasional paintings that reconstruct ancient settlements from the archaeological evidence. I.B. Tauris have done the illustrations justice, reproducing them brightly on thick, glossy paper. And they’ve maintained a uniform style over four years and three volumes, resisting the urge to mess with the layout and style, so the three books have the feel of being a single entity.

Christoph Baumer is a Swiss explorer with an interest in the archaeology and history of Central Asia, and over the last decade and a half he has produced a series of books on those topics, both in English and in German.

He has taken on a huge task, trying to distil down such a vast sweep of  history. To sort things into manageable chunks, the books are divided into chapters, sections and sub-sections, proceeding in roughly chronological order. The chapters have very broad themes, like “The Iron Age”; the sub-sections deal with specific aspects of specific cultures. This can make things a little repetitive at times—we see the same alliances and battles several times over, as they are discussed from the viewpoint of each culture involved. But that means the books are good reference sources, because each sub-section is largely self-contained.

Overall, he succeeds. But I think the books would definitely have profited from a glossary, for those of us unable to keep our Sogdians, Bactrians, Scythians and Sarmatians straight, or who aren’t entirely sure where Fergana, Gansu, the Hexi Corridor or the Iron Gates might be. And although there are good maps, there needed to be more good maps—as the borders between regions shift, as nomadic groups migrate, there’s a need for outline maps every century or so, or at least at key historical moments. Trying to puzzle out the current borders of Bactria on a summary map that shows only geographical features and major towns is a bit of trial.

Volume One (published in 2012) is subtitled The Age Of The Steppe Warriors, and it takes us from the first wanderings of prehistoric man up to around 200 BC, by which time the fringes of Central Asia were settling into an established pattern of nation-states. There’s a summary of the current knowledge of human arrival in Central Asia during the Palaeolithic—which species of hominins passed through, and to what extent they either supplanted each other or interbred. When the archaeological evidence kicks in, there’s an eye-watering succession of cultures to deal with, and a degree of speculation about who influenced whom, and which languages these people might have spoken.

Cover of The Tarim Mummies
More about the Tocharians

After that, we begin to encounter cultures known to history, and see how Central Asia would draw in migrants when the climate was favourable, and then pump them back out again when the weather deteriorated. I’ve always been interested in the Tocharians, a little island of Indo-European apparently stranded in the Tarim Basin—Baumer places them in the larger setting of Indo-European migration into, and then out of, Central Asia.

My favourite anecdote from this period describes a legend among the Ossetian people of the Caucasus. It tells of a king who, as a boy, drew a sword from a tree-root, and who, on his death, had his sword thrown into the sea to be claimed by a water-deity. The parallels with the story of King Arthur and Excalibur are obvious. Why do the British and the Ossetians share this story? Baumer points out that the Ossetians are descendants of the nomadic Sarmatian Alans, and that Marcus Aurelius sent 5,500 Sarmatian cavalrymen to Britain in 175 AD, to guard Hadrian’s Wall. So maybe one of Britain’s founding myths originated among the nomads of Central Asia.

Volume One finishes with the incursions of the Greeks into Central Asia—the campaigns of Alexander, and the founding of the exotic and obscure Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.

Volume Two (2014), The Age Of The Silk Roads, takes us up to the end of the first millennium AD. As the subtitle suggests, it deals with the economic and cultural importance of the Silk Roads linking China to Europe and India. The cosmopolitan nature of these trans-continental routes was perfectly illustrated for me by one archaeological find Baumer describes—in the eighth century, in a Buddhist city in the Taklamakan Desert near the southern Silk Road, someone wrote (or perhaps received) a business letter in the Persian language, using the Hebrew alphabet.

Cover of Attila King of the Huns
More about the Huns

My favourite Indo-Europeans, the Tocharians, appear again, under their Chinese name, Yuezhi. Having been driven from the Tarim Basin into a long folk-wandering, they finally turn up in India as the founders of another exotic and obscure kingdom, the Kushan Empire. The book also describes how Buddhism evolved as it spread along the Silk Roads, how the Hunnic and Turkic nomads established kingdoms in Central Asia long before they came to menace Europe and the Near East, and how the Arabs, Tibetans and Chinese had a three-way struggle to control the region.

My favourite story from this volume is of the mysterious “fish-scale battle formation” adopted by the Xiongnu defenders of the fort of Zizhi Chanyu, besieged by the Chinese in 36 BC. This formation had not previously been seen by the Chinese, and the surviving description is oddly reminiscent of a Roman legionary testudo. Now, there were 10,000 Roman legionaries captured by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. The Parthians probably put these soldiers to work on their eastern border, well away from the temptation to escape back towards Rome. Is it possible that some of these men eventually percolated right across Asia to sell their services to a group of steppe warriors on the borders of China? Well, maybe. It’s an old hypothesis, but the modern genetic evidence isn’t supportive.

Volume Three (2016) is subtitled The Age Of Islam And The Mongols, and takes us up to about 1500. It does exactly what it says—describing the Islamic Arabic and Turkic empires that occupied the region at the turn of the millennium, the splintering of Islam into multiple sects, and how all of it was eventually overrun by the Mongols.

Cover of The Court Of The Caliphs
More about the Abassids

I could have done with a little more about the flowering of (mainly Persian) science under the benign (to science!) rule of the Abassid caliphs, but there is of course a lot to get through in a work of this sort. Sometimes too much—Baumer is occasionally forced to produce head-melting passages like the following:

While the 1150s and early 1160s were marked by conflicts with the invading Karluks, who killed Ibrahim III ibn Muhammad Khan, towards the end of the twelfth and in the early thirteenth century the western Karakhanid khans increasingly came under the influence of the religious caste of the Sudur. At the same time they were confronted with the aspiring military power of their western neighbours, the Chorasm-shahs, who were also the vassals of the Qara Khitai. The Qara Khitai for their part were hard pressed by the nomadic equestrian warriors of the Naiman under Prince Küchlüg, who had to flee to the west from Genghis Khan.

Got all that? Me neither.

Cover of Tamerlane
More about Tamerlane

The narrative settles down in the second half of the book, as Baumer no longer has to deal with so many competing kingdoms, and is able to settle into the overwhelming dominance of Mongol culture in Central Asia. The narrative ends with the disintegration of the pax mongolica, and the brief but devastating ascendancy of the truly ghastly Timur ibn Taraghai Barlas, known to history as Timur-e Lang, Timur the Lame or Tamerlane.

My favourite story from this volume is of how the Buddhist Qara Khitai’s assault on the Seljuk Turks in Central Asia filtered back to Christian Europe. The knowledge that there was a non-Moslem group out there, somewhere, fighting the Moslems, was probably the origin of the legend of Prester John—a powerful and wealthy ruler of a Christian kingdom in Central Asia, who was going to come to the aid of the Crusaders.

A fourth volume, subtitled The Age of Decline and Revival,  is planned, bringing the story up to the present day. I’m looking forward to it, but if the current publishing schedule is maintained, it’ll be 2018 before we see it.

Paul McAuley: The “Jackaroo” Short Stories

Paul McAuley "Jackaroo" stories

Ever since first contact, when the Jackaroo kicked off a global war on Earth, and swindled the survivors out of rights to most of the solar system in exchange for a basic fusion drive and access to a wormhole network linking a couple of dozen lousy M-class red dwarf stars, aliens had been tricking, bamboozling, and manipulating the human race. In the long run, humans would either kill themselves off or stumble upon the trick of ascendancy and go on to wherever it is the Elder Cultures have gone, but meanwhile they were at the mercy of species more powerful than them, pawn in games whose rules they didn’t know, and aims they didn’t understand.

Paul McAuley “Winning Peace” (2007)

Paul McAuley has been writing science fiction since the 1980s, originally as “Paul J. McAuley”. Although his stories feature science-fictional backgrounds that have been intricately worked out, the human story is always front and centre. He works in a variety of sub-genres—writing alternate histories (like Pasquale’s Angel, set in an alternative version of Renaissance Italy), near-future techno-thrillers (like Whole Wide World and The Secret Of Life), cyberpunk (like Fairyland) and stories of far-future humanity (like the Confluence and Four Hundred Billion Stars trilogies). The Quiet War sequence of novels and short stories recently explored the human future of the solar system and nearby stars.

Now, McAuley has produced two novels with a new setting, usually referred to as the “Jackaroo” series—Something Coming Through (2015) and Into Everywhere (2016).

In the Jackaroo universe, the near-future Earth undergoes an escalating series of environmental disasters, economic crises and terrorist attacks that ends in a limited nuclear exchange. In the aftermath of these events, collectively called the Spasm, alien spaceships arrive, piloted by the alien Jackaroo, who announce that they’ve come to help. In exchange for rights to exploit the planets of the outer Solar System, the Jackaroo gift the survivors of the Spasm with the design for a spacecraft fusion drive. and fifteen wormhole connections that give access to the planetary systems around fifteen widely scattered red dwarf stars. Other aliens soon turn up, prominently the !Cha*, an aquatic race who move around in water-filled travel pods that resemble small versions of H.G. Wells‘s Martian fighting machines. The !Cha collect interesting stories, for reasons I won’t reveal here, and their importance increases as the novels progress.

The fifteen new planetary systems prove to be something of a disappointment, though they are littered with the relics of previous alien cultures—ruins, technological fragments, altered biospheres, junk-yards of spacecraft. The wormhole network itself is an artefact of some long-vanished “Elder Culture”, and has been reused by many successor races. Some of the remains of these Elder Cultures are useful to humanity, some are dangerous, and some are merely incomprehensible. These now-vanished cultures appear to have been previous clients of the Jackaroo. The Jackaroo say that they have departed by achieving “ascendancy”, though they never get around to describing quite what ascendency is.

Indeed, the Jackaroo are blandly evasive about almost everything apart from their supposed desire to help. There’s a rumour that they may even have covertly contributed to the onset of the Spasm. The other alien races have various opaque agendas of their own. And access to remnants of Elder Culture technology is both a boon and a menace to the Earth and its colonies.

And that’s pretty much where the stories start. it’s a rich source for potential story lines—the exploration of new worlds, the secret motives of alien races, and the mixed threat and reward of Elder Culture artefacts all provide potential plots. There’s also the appeal of the unusual—these are, in the main, stories of interstellar colonization set in a near-future society. The new worlds are being opened up by people who drive recognizable makes of car, visit chain restaurants we know about, and who share our cultural references. This mixture of the familiar and the alien is compelling, and to some extent it lets McAuley economize on that great bug-bear of science-fiction writing, the data-dump. His Earth is recognizably our Earth, albeit a little altered by war and global warming; his colony worlds have societies that resemble our own in most respects, with a little Wild West frontier spirit stirred in.

Before the novels appeared, McAuley worked out the background to the Jackaroo universe in a series of short stories that appeared in various publications from 2006 onwards, and that’s what I want to talk about here. These eight short stories are pretty widely scattered (across three anthologies, three magazines and one collection, pictured at the head of this post). They’ll probably be issued as a themed collection fairly soon. But at present I suspect I may be one of the few people in the world (apart from McAuley and his agent) to have read them all, which is what motivates this little dissertation.

Short stories are intrinsically difficult to review—too easy to give away the plot. I will note the plot briefly for each story, but what I find most interesting is watching the process by which McAuley generated the core ideas that underpin his two Jackaroo novels so far. There are interesting inconsistencies between the stories. Some are trivial—the number of planetary systems in the Jackaroo gift shifts from a dozen to two dozen before settling down to fifteen, for instance. Some are sorted out when the novels sketch in a more detailed chronology. And others are more revealing, I think, showing the author tweaking the setting to produce the richest vein of potential story lines.

“Dust” (2006) and “Winning Peace” (2007), unusually for the series so far, are both set some considerable time after the initial colonization of the Jackaroo gift worlds—a period that won’t be returned to until the events of the second novel. In “Dust”, humans have acquired advanced medical technology—cloning, hibernation, the ability to adopt a neuter gender. In “Winning Peace” an interstellar war has recently been fought between human factions. In both stories, humans have advanced beyond the original planetary systems of early colonization—these old worlds are referred to as the First Empire in “Dust”. Both stories involve the search for Elder Culture technology. In “Dust”, the captain of a spacecraft is convinced, against her will, to mount a mission to rescue an archaeological team who have been exploring Elder Culture ruins on an inhospitable planet; the rescue goes wrong, in surprising ways. In “Winning Peace” a prisoner-of-war, sold into slavery after the interstellar war, is forced by his owner to carry out a mission to retrieve a piece of Elder Culture technology from a brown dwarf star. What he finds and how he tries to escape his owner are the drivers for the story.

These two stories also establish a background in which the fifteen gifted planetary systems of the Jackaroo are intrinsically unsatisfactory for humans—only one contains a habitable world, called First Foot. Elsewhere, people live in “asteroid reefs” and on the moons of warm jovian planets.

In “City Of The Dead” (2008), we move back to the time period of early colonization. The action takes place on the planet First Foot, where a small-town law officer rescues an elderly biologist from the local criminal organization, who are trying to force the biologist to reveal the location of a potentially valuable Elder Culture artefact. This one establishes the sort of setting that will be returned to in future stories—the recognizable present-day technology, punctuated by a few exotic oddities, and the sense of a new frontier, with all the opportunities and hazards that brings. (It’s also available as a stand-alone e-book for the Kindle.)

“Adventure” (2008) also takes place on First Foot during the colonization era, but it’s barely science fiction—it’s essentially a story about how middle age sneaks up on you, until one day you suddenly realize that youth has gone.

Crimes And Glory” (2009) was published in Subterranean Online, and the text is freely available at the other end of my link. It starts as a police procedural on First Foot, in which a policewoman investigates a pair of murders, and it expands to a climax that marks an important transition-point in human access to the Elder Culture wormhole network, the opening of what’s called the New Frontier in the second novel.  In this story McAuley also introduces a couple of concepts that will be important in his later writing. By accessing Elder Culture computer code, humans have been able to get some ancient, derelict spacecraft working again; but they have also found that the code is able to infect the human nervous system, with potentially unpleasant results. As an introduction to the Jackaroo universe, you couldn’t do much better than reading “Crimes And Glory”, so it’s useful to find it freely available on-line. Human knowledge of the “abandoned spacecraft sargassos” and how to utilize them puts this story a little later than the early colonization phase, when humans were reliant on Jackaroo transport shuttles.

“The Choice” (2011) is set on post-Spasm, early-colonization Earth. Elder Culture and alien technology is being used for environmental clean-up. Two teenage boys are accidentally exposed to a piece of this alien technology. Typically of McAuley, the story is as much about the family life of the two boys as it is about the science fiction element .

“Bruce Springsteen” (2012) takes us back to First Foot, and a barman who starts a relationship with a girl he meets in his bar, and who ends up involved in a crime spree. The girl is a Springsteen fan, and the story of the doomed protagonists would certainly make a good Springsteen song. This one also puts in place another important idea—that some Elder Culture technology might have needs and desires of its own.

“The Man” (2012) introduces us to a new world, Yanos. It is tidally locked to its parent star, and humans inhabit only the twilight zone between its hot and cold hemispheres. An elderly woman lives near the ruins of an Elder Culture factory, and scrapes a living by searching for scraps of Elder Culture materials that wash up on a nearby beach. One day, a naked man turns up at her door …

The striking thing about this one is that the fifteen disappointing planetary systems gifted by the Jackaroo in the first seven stories have morphed into fifteen planets, of which Yanos is one. McAuley has apparently felt the need for more worlds on which to set his  stories, without wishing to move the action away from the rich possibilities of the colonization era setting.

And that’s the set-up with which the novels start—multiple worlds being colonized simultaneously, just a few years after the Spasm and the Jackaroo intervention. Within the first hundred pages of Something Coming Through, we hear of several new worlds: Mangala, Hydrot, Nya Loka, Syurga and Tian. So there’s a hint of a great deal more to come.

Several of these stories have appeared in more than one collection. If you’re interested in tracking them down, you can find a list of publications for each story at the ever-useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database, here. Just click on the title of the story to bring up its publication summary.

Addendum: Just a week after I made this post, another Jackaroo short story appeared, at—”Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” (2016). This is the first “post novels” short story. It’s set on First Foot after the opening of the New Frontier, and references characters and events from both novels and “City Of The Dead”. It’s freely available on-line at the other end of my link. (Thanks to Mike for posting a comment to let me know about it.)

* You might wonder about those names. The exclamation mark in !Cha suggests one of the phonetic symbols for a click consonant, and McAuley has now confirmed this in Into Everywhere—the name of the !Cha is pronounced with a “click consonant, halfway between a sneeze and the sound of a cork pulled from a bottle”. He hasn’t so far explained the derivation of Jackaroo. Any connection to the apprentice Australian sheep-men called jackaroos is (so far) obscure.
“The Choice” was also published as a stand-alone, a tiny paperback and e-book in French translation, Le Choix. Because this preceded the publication of the Jackaroo novels, the Goodreads website has adopted the name The Choice for the Jackaroo series as a whole, a name also used by Wikipedia. But McAuley uses the name Jackaroo for this series on his own website, so I’ve followed his lead here.

Two Books About The Mounth Roads

Two books about the Mounth passes

Robert Smith: Grampian Ways
Neil Ramsay & Nate Pedersen: The Mounth Passes

It is clear enough where the Grampians begin; no-one is certain where they end. The limits of the range have been as elastic as the whims of cartographers, so that the word “Grampian” has become an uncertain scrawl on many maps.

Robert Smith Grampian Ways (1980)

These books are about the old Mounth roads—traditional mountain crossings in the southeast Highlands of Scotland, used by cattle drovers (and raiders), soldiers and travellers for centuries. Some are now covered in tarmacadam and have become major roads; some have been so far abandoned that they’re difficult to find on the ground, let alone the map.

I’ve written already about the origin of the mountain name Grampians, and the variable extent of the mountain ranges to which that name has been applied. Both these books tie it fairly firmly to those Scottish hills that have been called “The Mounth”—south of the Dee, east of the Cairnwell pass. And both are careful to mention the names “Grampian” and “Mounth” in their titles—Smith’s book’s full title is Grampian Ways: Journey Over The Mounth; Ramsay and Petersen call theirs The Mounth Passes: A Heritage Guide To The Old Ways Through The Grampian Mountains.

Smith casts his net a little beyond this strict definition, extending his travels as far west as Drumochter, and straying north of the Dee on either side of the Cairngorms—taking in the Minigaig connection to Glen Tromie, and the old tracks connecting Braemar and Balmoral to Tomintoul. Ramsay and Pedersen, on the other hand, keep to the traditional Mounth area, but find more routes to write about—the minor routes of the Elsick, the Stock, the Builg and the Kilbo Path don’t feature in Smith’s book.

That’s not the only difference between the two books. Smith’s was published in 1980, Ramsay and Petersen’s in 2013; Smith’s is a conventional paper book, Ramsay and Petersen’s an e-book that looks to be self-published (it has no ISBN or publisher listed in the colophon); Smith’s is a chatty personal account, running to 260 pages, Ramsay and Petersen’s is almost telegraphic by comparison (56 pages, containing many photographs, on my e-reader).

Robert Smith was a journalist who lived in Aberdeen. He wrote Grampian Ways while he was still working as the editor of the Aberdeen Evening Express. After his retirement in 1984 he went on to write  much more about the history of the area around Aberdeen, which he clearly loved. His obituary, which appeared in the Scotsman newspaper in 2008, gives a good summary of his life and works.

Grampian Ways is personal. Smith had been walking these hills for many years before he wrote it. Although each chapter describes a specific journey on foot over one of the Mounth passes, they’re full of reminiscences about other days in the same hills, too. Smith often stops along the way to chat—we learn not just the names of two children he encounters, but also the name of their dog. He tells us the story behind ruined cottages, fallen bridges, standing stones and old place-names as he goes. He quotes at length from the writings of others who travelled here—Robert Burns, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Queen Victoria prominent among them. And he embeds the tracks in history—where the cattle drovers came from, why they travelled, and where they stopped along the way; which army crossed which pass, and what the result of that was; and where exactly Queen Victoria stopped for a picnic. His writing radiates warmth and affection for the area, its people and its history. He also has an ear for memorable quotations—among other sources, he picks lines from a pseudonymous 1880 essay in the Aberdeen Journal, written by “Dryas Octopetala” and “Thomas Twayblade”*, describing an ascent of Lochnagar, during which “the gale would not permit the uplifting of an umbrella, even on the lee side of the cairn” and “the rain, when you faced it, hit in the face like showers of pease”.

The book is illustrated with some rather muddy black-and-white photos (pretty standard for the date of publication), and by some nice full-page maps.

Neil Ramsay and Nate Petersen worked on the Heritage Paths project in Scotland, Ramsay as Project Officer and Petersen as a volunteer. (I’ve already had occasion to link to the excellent  Heritage Paths website when I wrote about the Steplar path recently.) They have previously written about the Mounth roads for Leopard magazine, and they revised and assembled those articles to produce this book. The book also features photographs of the Mounth routes taken by Graham Marr, who maintains a rather gorgeous Flickr page featuring Scottish hill photography.

Each route is described in two ways—first with a potted history of its use over the centuries, topped and tailed by a couple of Marr’s photographs; and then by a brief “route survey”, giving the grid references of the start and finish points and a short text describing the route, illustrated by more photographs. The photographs are excellent, but on my e-book reader are too small to appreciate fully; the same applies to a coloured map of all the routes at the start of the book.

The history necessarily covers much of the ground already trodden by Smith, but there is also a lot of new material. For instance, with reference to Jock’s Road, between Glen Doll and Glen Callater, Smith writes: “There has never been any explanation of how it got its name, or if, in fact, there was ever a Jock at all.” But Ramsay and Petersen report: “Considering the age of Jock’s Road, which has been used for centuries, the name is actually quite recent. A local shepherd in the 19th century, John ‘Jock’ Winter, leant his name to the pass and it stuck.” While Smith refers only to a “bothy” on Jock’s Road, Smith and Petersen give the history of various shelters at that point, culminating in the present bothy which glories in the name of Davie’s Bourach. Ramsay and Petersen are also better at tracing the history of the Mounth routes as record in maps of the area over the centuries—taking advantage, I suspect, of easy access to the National Library of Scotland‘s magnificent on-line map archive, which has featured more than once on these pages.

The “route surveys” are very brief—single paragraphs, in the main, providing no more than the dots to be connected when consulting a large-scale map.

So these are very much complementary works—Smith has the wider scope, a leisurely approach, historical and personal digressions, apt quotations, and more detailed maps. Ramsay and Petersen are more up-to-date, fill in some gaps in Smith’s history, cover routes in the core area that Smith doesn’t mention, provide grid references, and of course have the benefit of being able to easily reproduce Marr’s colour photography.

Glen Clova from Bachnagairn
Bachnagairn in Glen Clova – mentioned by Smith, but not Ramsay and Petersen

* According to the Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature, “Dryas Octopetala” was Alexander Copland, and “Thomas Twayblade” was Thomas R. Gillies. They both turn up listed as members in the Transactions of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society in the late nineteenth century—Copland as a “merchant” and Gillies as an “advocate”. Presumably both were amateur botanists—Dryas octopetala is the Mountain Avens; the Twayblade is an orchid.
Ramsay and Petersen don’t explain what a bourach is. It’s a Scots word meaning “a complete mess, a shambles”. There’s a Gaelic word, buarach, which refers to a fetter tied around the hind legs of a cow during milking. if you picture the process of milking a stroppy cow with its rear legs tied together, you’ll get the idea of what a bourach looks like.

James Shapiro: Contested Will

Cover of Contested WillThere is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveller, and the associate of the great and learned. Yet there is nothing in the known life of Shakespeare that shows he had any one of these qualities.

“James Corton Cowell (1805)”

James Shapiro is a Shakespeare scholar and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Contested Will is his fourth book about William Shakespeare.

This one is about the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” conspiracy theory. Shapiro deals mainly with two of the most prominent alternative candidates, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. He follows the evolution of “Baconian” and “Oxfordian” thinking on this topic. The story involves some pretty famous people: Mark Twain was a Baconian; Sigmund Freud an Oxfordian.

Anonymous film posterHe tells the story well, making considerable effort to put himself in the shoes of the original Baconians and Oxfordians, mindful of the level of historical evidence that was available to them at the time they were thinking and writing about the topic. The whole is leavened with a touch of dry wit. Unfortunately, the book was published too early (2010) to have caught the apotheosis of Oxfordian thinking—a Holywood movie, Anonymous, which was released in 2011. But Shapiro expressed his view on that in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. In a subsequent Huffington Post interview the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, accused Shapiro of “just outright lying” about the level of evidence that supports Shakespeare’s authorship (and undermines the claims for Oxford). Maybe he hadn’t read this book, which sets out the case in detail.

Why do people feel they need to go looking for alternative authorship for Shakespeare’s plays and poetry? The quotation at the head of this post pretty much says it all. Shakespeare’s life is poorly documented, and what is available is often rather dull and petty—bills and court cases. There’s no hint there of the man who produced the works of epic imagination that have come down to us.

I have scare quotes around the name and date of James Corton Cowell for a very good reason—he didn’t exist. The University of London’s Senate House Library contains the text of two lectures allegedly delivered by Cowell to the Ipswich Philosophic Society in 1805, setting out the Baconian case for the first time. Unfortunately, as Shapiro shows, these documents are a hoax, referring to details of Shakespeare’s life that came to light only decades after the lectures were supposedly delivered. But, hoax or not, the words attributed to Cowell set out the “Shakespeare authorship problem” very succinctly.

Shapiro points out the logical errors from which this supposed “problem” has been concocted.

1. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

For instance, the fact we don’t have documentary evidence that Shakespeare attended school doesn’t mean he never attended school—Shapiro points out that we have no evidence of anyone attending school in Stratford at that time, although we do have evidence that several of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the town went on to university. Presumably they had some schooling before that!

The fact we don’t have any documentation of the books Shakespeare owned doesn’t mean he owned no books. (How many of us alive today could seriously expect to leave a list of our books that could be retrieved four centuries from now?)

2. You don’t need to experience something to write about it

There is a perception today, born out of the demands of readers and the teachings of creative writing classes, that authors should put their personal experiences into their writing. Many people have read Shakespeare with the expectation that his writings say something about him—that the sonnets reveal deep details of his emotional life, and that the plays draw on a wealth of experience of travel. But sometimes authors just do some research and then make stuff up. Shapiro reports that there is very little evidence of any author inserting autobiographical information into their text in the Elizabethan age, and no evidence that readers or audiences expected such stuff.

And anyone who insists that Shakespeare had to have experience of everything he wrote about should deduce that he was a noble, love-lorn, teenage, vicious, scheming, murdering, fat, drunken, woodland sprite, among other things. So any attempt to reconstruct the man from the writing is selective, and the writings are so copious that everyone gets to choose the bits that fit their personal theory best.

3. It’s difficult to fit another author into the historical constraints

We know, for instance, that Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw no inconsistency between the man they socialized and worked with, and the works he claimed as his own. We can see how Shakespeare’s plays were carefully tuned to the buildings in which they were to be performed, and the actors who were to perform them. And we can watch Shakespeare’s style evolve during the course of his career. These are significant problems for anyone who wants to finger Edward de Vere as the author of the plays, for instance, since de Vere died before many of the plays were first performed. Quite a remarkable conspiracy is required if de Vere is to have produced a stock-pile of plays that fit comfortably into the detail of Shakespeare’s later life.

Shapiro lays all this out in detail. Of course, none of it proves that Shakespeare wrote the poetry and plays attributed to him; but then, the burden of proof rests with those who claim he didn’t.

And, on the matter of burden of proof, one of the most remarkable things recorded in this book is that the authorship question has actually been debated in front of judges on more than one occasion. Shouldn’t judges be out, you know, listening to real legal stuff?

In 1987, three US Supreme Court judges heard opposing arguments from Stratfordians (for Shakespeare) and Oxfordians (for de Vere)  in a moot court before a thousand spectators. And one of the first things the Oxfordians were told was that the burden of proof rested with them. There was a unanimous verdict in favour if Shakespeare.

In 1988, three senior judges of appeal in the UK were persuaded to hold another moot court examining the same question, in front of an audience of five hundred. There was another unanimous verdict for Shakespeare.

That about wrapped it up for the Oxfordians’ enthusiasm for (mock) legal recourse. However, in 2014 another authorship trial was staged, this time in Canada, at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. One Supreme Court and two Appeal Court judges gave their time. It was a light-hearted affair, and the lawyer representing Edward de Vere contented himself with trying to cast doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship, rather than advancing specific arguments for de Vere. It was broadcast by CBC Radio, and the recording is still available on-line from CBC. If you have 54 spare minutes and want to hear some of the pro and con arguments rehearsed (along with a few good jokes), you might want to give it a listen.