Category Archives: Reading

Timothy Caulfield: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

Cover of "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?"

I’d love to feel pure, happy and lighter. Okay, I’m not sure what that would feel like, but it sounds better than I usually feel. Who wouldn’t want to feel like that? Given the warm and friendly vibe on the Goop website—it was, after all, to quote the website, “created to celebrate all life’s positives”—I am expecting a warm and happy vibe at Goop HQ.
I am mistaken. Apparently I am not one of life’s positives.

Timothy Caulfield is a Professor of Law at the University of Alberta, with an interest in Public Health and health policy-making. He’s also good at choosing book titles, since I bought this one on the strength of the title alone. (Spoiler alert: the answer to the title question is “Pretty much, yes.”)

I’d probably have been content if Caulfield had simply spent the book debunking the health, beauty and life-style pronouncements of Paltrow and her celebrity peers. But Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? is actually a much better and more significant book than that—a wide-ranging examination of celebrity culture and its implications.

The book has three sections, entitled “The Illusion of Celebrity Authority”, “The Illusion That You Too Can Be A Celebrity” and “The Illusion That Celebrity Status Is Worth Having”. Which pretty much sums up the content.

The first section deals with what I expected from the title—celebrity advice on diet, “cleansing”, supplements, organic food, beauty products and cosmetic surgery. You’ll not be surprised to learn that most of the advice reviewed is content-free, but Caulfield has some killer statistics—a study by the University of Guelph of herbal dietary supplements which showed that, of the supplement suppliers they tested, 83% had replaced the herb described on the label with some other herb. Even if herbal dietary supplements worked, you wouldn’t be getting what you paid for, fourth-fifths of the time. (But then again, if they worked they’d be held to better regulatory standards.) I also enjoyed the “admittedly small” but “kind of funny” study that looked at the behavioural traits of people who ate organic foods, compared to those who don’t. The “organic” group were more self-righteous and judgmental, and less altruistic, than the “non-organic” group.

But after successfully and entertainingly skewering the usual suspects, Caulfield moves on to the more interesting problem of why people pay attention to celebrity advice in the first place. His thesis is that we are hard-wired by evolution to assess those in our social group, and to follow the lead of those we deem most healthy and successful, because (back in the days we were part of a roaming band of plains apes) those individuals were probably giving us good advice on how to not die before we passed on our genes. But nowadays social media has meant that celebrities look like they’re part of our group—we can (if we’re so inclined) see what they’re having for breakfast, hear what they think about current affairs, and track their love-lives. And their social media presence is designed to portray them as happy and healthy and successful—that pushes all the “leader” buttons in our primitive plains-ape brains, and before we know it we’re undergoing colonic cleanses and having buttock fat injected into our faces, because these beautiful and charismatic folk seem to think it’s a good idea. (I see “we”, but of course you and I are too wise for this sort of thing.)

The other thing that goes wrong when celebrities feel like part of one’s own social group, Caulfield points out, is that the reflex comparison we make between our own lives and the lives of those around us suddenly makes our own lives seem profoundly inadequate. Time was, everyone in the village was as ugly, toothless and destitute as everyone else, and aspirations were correspondingly limited. Now people are comparing their own lives to those of predominantly young, beautiful, wealthy and privileged others, whose public personae have been actively crafted to appear perfect. No surprise, then, that (as Caulfield reports) the more time you spend accessing social media the less happy you are, on average. And you can develop a tendency to do dumb things to yourself, while you strive to match an impossible, fictional standard of youth, health and prosperity. Another killer statistic from Caulfield, this time from the medical journal Paediatrics—approximately 6% of high-school-age boys in that study were taking steroids in order to build muscle mass; another study, from the same journal a couple of years later, reported that 20% of gay teenage boys had used steroids at some time, presumably for the same physique-building purpose.

The second section, “The Illusion That You Too Can Be A Celebrity”, points out how prevalent celebrity aspirations are, and how doomed to failure almost all those aspirants are. Caulfield tells us that, twenty-five years ago, the top five career aspirations of grade-school children were: teacher, banker, doctor, scientist, vet. A recent UK survey replaces those with: sports star, pop star, actor, astronaut and lawyer. (Lawyer? Caulfield, a lawyer himself, suggests that these kids probably aspire to be wealthy, gorgeous, fast-talking movie lawyers, not real lawyers.) More than half of a large group of UK sixteen-year-olds listed “fame” as their primary career goal. Sixteen percent of teenagers in another study thought they were destined to be famous, and 11% were ready to leave school early in order to fulfil that ambition.

And yet the statistics on achieving fame and success through sports, music or acting show the chances are slim to negligible. Caulfield reports one study that suggests aspiring rock stars have a 0.0025% chance of making a UK average income for even one year during their involvement in the music industry. An aspiring actor’s chance of becoming a movie star sits around one in 1.5 million—they are more likely to die in an asteroid impact.

And the third section, “The Illusion That Celebrity Status Is Worth Having”, points out that, after the initial rush, those who achieve celebrity status usually end up no happier than the rest of us—the extra toys and access being counterbalanced by the social pressures and intrusions. It contains a spoof letter addressed to “Dear ‘Committed’ Parent at My Kid’s Hockey/Dance/Music/etc. Class” which reads, in part:

I realize that you want the best for your kid. I realize that you believe he/she is uniquely talented. […] Let’s do the math. (1) The chance of making it big is approximately zero. Do not let confirmation bias fool you. Your kid is not going to be a world-renowned star. It is not going to happen. (2) And even if it does happen (and I can’t emphasize this enough, it probably won’t), there is a good chance that he/she will be divorced, broke and unemployed before he/she hits the age of thirty. […] You are, in effect, wishing your kid a life of financial misery, isolation and lost opportunities. Is this a good idea?

So that about covers that.

The final chapter is, appropriately enough given the foregoing, entitled “The Dream Crusher?” In it, Caulfield is unapologetic for any illusions he has shattered, maintaining that a realistic view of celebrity culture can prevent a lot of disappoint, and save a lot of time and money. And he points out that it’s of course fine to contemplate a life spent in sport, or music, or acting if we love these things—but to think of them as a good route to fame, fortune and happiness is a fundamental error.

Caulfield is always entertaining, he’s done a lot of research, and he knows how to critically appraise a research paper. The book has a massive reference section. My only complaint is that references aren’t flagged in the text—you have to take hints from the dates, names, topics and journals Caulfield mentions, and then burrow through an alphabetical reference list for each chapter. Presumably this was an editorial decision aimed at making the text more approachable, but it is ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING. Apart from that, this is a first-class (but intermittently depressing) read.

Spaceflight Before Spaceflight: Two Books

Two books about spaceflight

There does not seem to be any reason why it should not be possible, by the use of a suitably designed multi-stage rocket, to send a projectile into space beyond the Earth’s gravitation. From the scientific and engineering points of view, interplanetary travel may be considered to be a practical possibility. It is the great expenditure of money and the tremendous demands on man-power which it would involve that will delay its achievement. The enthusiasts say that it could be done in ten years; but the problems to be investigated and to be solved are so many and so varied that I am inclined to give a much more cautious estimate and to say that half a century would not be an unduly long time.

Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal, in the Foreword to Across The Space Frontier (1952)

Across The Space Frontier is an expanded version of a series of articles published in  Collier’s magazine on March 22, 1952, under the title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon”. You can find the original articles on-line, courtesy of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Houston Section, who reissued  the Collier’s articles in their Horizons newsletter of July/August 2012 (22.5MB pdf). The Horizons archive is here, and if you’re interested in these classic articles, you should look through the next seven Horizons issues (up to September/October 2013) too, because they include subsequent Collier’s articles on a variety of spaceflight-related topics.

The book was written in the very earliest days of America’s space programme—an operation at that time based mainly around captured German V2 rockets and German rocket scientists brought to the USA at the end of the Second World War by Operation Paperclip.  At the time of writing, the first artificial satellite was still five years away; the unmanned altitude record was a mere 393 kilometres, achieved by the two-stage Bumper-WAC, essentially a sounding rocket attached to the top of a V2; and the human altitude record was 24,230 m, achieved by test pilot Bill Bridgeman in a Douglas Skyrocket aircraft.

At the core of the book is Wernher von Braun’s vision of how space exploration would proceed over the next decade or so, beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell’s iconic paintings. Willy Ley contributes an article on the concept of a rotating space station. and there are essays by other contributors on topics as diverse as the physiology of space travel, the legal issues which might be raised by space exploration, and the astronomical benefits of siting an observatory in space.

What is interesting about this work, in the present day, is to compare the vision with the subsequent reality. The rocketry is not too much different: von Braun’s design for a conical three stage launch vehicle was 265 feet high and 65 feet wide at the base, compared to the Apollo missions’ cylindrical Saturn V, which was 363 feet high and 33 feet wide. Von Braun’s ferry rocket weighed an estimated 7000 tons and would deliver 36.5 tons to orbit, while the Saturn V weighed 3270 tons and delivered 155 tons to orbit. These differences are probably accounted for by structural economies and improved rocket technology—von Braun’s concept rocket was launched using fifty-one rocket motors powered by a mixture of hydrazine and nitric acid; the Saturn V rose into the air supported by just five huge rocket motors running on kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Von Braun mentioned two possible launch sites for his rockets—Johnston Island in the Pacific, and the Air Force Proving Ground at Cocoa, Florida. The former is the one used in the book illustrations and examples; the latter turned into what we know as the Kennedy Space Center.

But Apollo-era technology diverged strongly from von Braun’s vision in other respects—von Braun envisioned incremental progress into space, consolidating at each step; whereas Apollo turned into a race to get to the moon quickly. So all the stages of von Braun’s planned rocket were recoverable and reusable—the first and second stages parachuting back into the ocean, the third stage sporting wings and returning to Earth as a glider, like the Space Shuttle. The goal of initial launches was to deliver construction materials to low Earth orbit, for the construction of a large rotating space station of the sort depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A mission to the moon would then be launched from the space station, delivering a huge multi-storey lander with the intention of setting up a permanent moon base. Instead, Apollo used disposable rocket stages and shot straight for the moon with a tiny and extremely fragile lander.

Ley’s description of a rotating space station is detailed and fascinating, and the only one I’ve seen that takes into account the  real necessity for careful control of the centre of mass of the structure, to avoid wobbling.

Astronaut illustrated by Rolf Klep (1952)For all I love Bonestell’s space art, my favourite painting in the book is by Rolf Klep, who provided an illustration of a space-suited figure, using a small rocket motor to propel himself around the space station. Clearly visible through the helmet visor, the astronaut is sporting a pair of spectacles. Evidently, the initial exploration of space was envisaged as being a task for stereotypical scientists, not the perfect physical specimens who actually ended up doing the job.


The Mars Project was written by Wernher von Braun, and was originally published in German as Das Marsprojekt (1952). The University of Illinois had it translated by Henry J. White and first published it in English in 1953, with repeat editions in 1962 (when von Braun wrote a new preface) and in 1991 (when NASA Adminstrator Thomas O. Paine added a foreword). It formed the basis of an illustrated Collier’s article “Can We Get To Mars?” in the April 30, 1954 edition. The Collier’s article was reproduced in the September/October 2013 edition of the Horizons newsletter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Houston Section. You can download a pdf (6MB) of the relevant newsletter from their archive, and it’s well worth a look for its gorgeous artwork alone.

The Mars Project is a very different beast from Across The Space Frontier. Whereas the latter was aimed at a lay readership, The Mars Project is a technical publication, full of tables, equations and charts. In his spare time, and with his trusty slide-rule, von Braun set out to prove that it was possible to travel to Mars using the known technology of the 1950s. Having worked through the necessary celestial mechanics and rocketry, he concluded that:

… the logistic requirements for a large, elaborate expedition to Mars are no greater than those for a minor military operation over a limited theater of war.

His vision involves the assembly of ten 4000-tonne spacecraft in Earth orbit. Getting the material to orbit would require 950 launches of the “ferry rockets” described in Across The Space Frontier. Because his ferry rockets are fully recoverable, he imagines using 46 of them, with a 10-day turnaround between recovery and launch, to get all the necessary equipment into orbit in just eight months!

His giant interplanetary spacecraft, each about the height of the Statue of Liberty, then set off towards Mars, carrying a total crew of 70. His fuel calculations are based on  hydrazine/nitric acid propellant—but by the time he wrote his 1962 preface, he was pointing out the advantages of liquid hydrogen and oxygen. His calculations concerning the necessary transfer orbits are still valid today, and he correctly pointed out that his astronauts would need to spend more than a year on Mars, waiting for the planetary positions to fall into the correct alignment for their return journey.

Only when he gets us to Mars do his assumptions become invalid. According to the astronomy of the day, Mars’s atmospheric pressure was about 1/12 of Earth’s (we now know it’s only 0.6%). So von Braun is able to get his astronauts to the surface in winged rocket-planes with landing speeds around 200 kph, which can be cranked upright at the end of the mission to return to orbit as conventional rockets. If only Mar’s atmosphere were really that dense! We could have avoided all those awkward parachute/rocket/crane combinations that have actually been needed to get probes safely down to the surface of Mars.

One of the most astonishingly ambitious concepts, in a book full of astonishingly ambitious concepts, is the arrival on Mars. Von Braun imagines his astronauts taking their first landing boat down to the Martian polar ice-cap:

Considering the risk attending a wheel landing on completely strange territory at relatively high speed, it is assumed that the first landing boat will make contact with the Martian surface on a snow-covered polar area, and on skis or runners, minimizing this risk.

And then:

With [ground] vehicles, the crew of the first landing boat would proceed to the Martian equator and there select or prepare a suitable strip for the wheeled landing gears of the remaining two boats.

Yep, that’s just a 5000-kilometre jaunt across “completely strange territory”, with all the gear required to stay alive on the way and build an airstrip when you get there.

Von Braun Mars expedition, by Rolf Klep
Rolf Klep‘s illustration from the Collier’s article

This is a fascinating book, if you enjoy watching a clever man caught pretty much in the act of inventing astronautics, and don’t mind a lot of tables and equations. My only criticism of the University of Illinois’s most recent edition is that they didn’t take the chance to harvest more of the gorgeous paintings used in the Collier’s article. The only one on show is Chesley Bonestell‘s Mars-bound Spaceship Flotilla, which features as the cover art.

Walk The Line: Three Travel Books About Lines Of Latitude

Travel books about latitudeBefore a journey a map is an impersonal menu; afterwards, it is intimate as a diary.

Thurston Clarke, Equator: An Epic Journey (1988)

It’s a rare sub-genre of travel writing, the business of following a line of latitude and seeing where it takes you. Over the years I’ve put together a trio of such books, by very disparate authors. Malachy Tallack is a British journalist and singer-songwriter who wrote about his travels at sixty degrees north latitude in 2016. Long before that, back in 1988, the American historian Thurston Clarke wrote about his efforts to follow the equator around the world. And sandwiched between the two (in time, but not location) is Simon Reeve, a British journalist and television presenter, who between 2006 and 2010 made three travel documentaries for the BBC, in which he travelled around the world along the equator and then on the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. He wrote a book about the Tropic of Capricorn journey in 2008, but his other two circumnavigations remain undocumented so far.

Journeys of Malachy Tallack, Thurston Clarke and Simon Reeve
Source of base map

Malachy Tallack’s 60 Degrees North is subtitled Around the World in Search of Home, and that’s a hint about what you’re getting into with this book, as is the cover blurb that describes it as “brave”.

A bereavement in Tallack’s late teens had sent him back to the Shetland of his childhood, while leaving him with a dislocating sense that there is nowhere he actually belongs. He picks up on the Shetland Islanders’ identification with a sort of circumpolar community, characterized by their high northerly latitude and embodied by the idea of “60 degrees north”—a line of latitude that runs through the Shetland archipelago. So he sets off westward to explore this idea of a community defined by latitude, and to try to find some sort of insight into his own rootlessness. So this is as much a description of a personal journey as it is a travel narrative.

Tallack’s destinations are Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Each of these countries is sampled by visiting one or two places lying fairly close to the 60th parallel. So some pretty small places stand in for some pretty extensive territories—most notably the little town of Fort Smith on the Slave River stands in for the whole width of Canada from Labrador to the Yukon, and the whole of Siberia is represented by a remembered trip to Kamchatka which happened years before the other journeys described in the book.

Tallack is at his best when describing the history of his chosen locations, in long informative passages. And he has an evocative sympathy for those traditional ways of life that are under threat from the standardizing and “civilizing” agendas of modern society—the Greenlanders who feel that their traditional hunting methods are more sympathetic to the natural world than, say, a battery chicken farm; the Evenk herdsmen who demonstrate their reindeer herding skills for the benefit of tourist cameras. He also writes well about the natural world. Here he is on the topic of the wind in Shetland:

It can, at times, seem so utterly unremitting that the air itself becomes a physical presence, as solid as a clenched fist. And on those rare calm days its absence can be shocking and wonderful.

And he’s a keen observer of human nature, from the obsessive urge to tidy exhibited by the staff in a Russian museum (who are thwarted and disappointed when Tallack leaves their leaflets exactly as he found them), to the easy mutual affection of two shopkeepers and their customer in a remote Norwegian village.

But it’s all very melancholy. Tallack spends much of his time alone, and much of his time feeling slightly oppressed. He’s not very keen on cities, and a bit anxious about wilderness (though he does have fond memories of Kamchatka, visited at a time when he seems to have been a little less careworn). And he projects his worries on to others, most notably when he dithers about whether to take a boat trip from the Alaskan town of Seward:

It was a strange sight, this armada, with its cargo of expectant tourists, eager to glimpse something that perhaps even they could not quite specify. For what was this thing that drew them out there? What was it that took them north in the first place? What exactly did they hope to find?

Speaking as someone who’s been on one of those boats, I can report that it’s not complicated, really—we hoped to find spectacular scenery and interesting wildlife. And we did.

Interspersed with all this is the story of Tallack’s life—the loss of his father at the age of sixteen, rootless time spent in Shetland and Copenhagen and Prague, and what seems to have been a rare happy interlude on Fair Isle. So as his travels went on, I found myself hoping they would lead to a homecoming like the one T.S. Eliot described: “… the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” But it doesn’t turn out like that.


So while wishing Tallack well, and hoping he finally finds somewhere to call home, it was with some relief I moved on to Thurston Clarke. Clarke’s book is more in the traditional mode of travel writing. He throws himself into the journey, chatting to everyone he meets, and pretty much winging it on how he’s going to get from one place to another along the equator. He has an easy, upbeat narrative style, an eye for the odd or telling incident, and an ear for an eccentric conversation. And (apart from the odd explanatory note or funny story) he rarely gives any detail of his own life. He’s essentially the antithesis of Tallack, then. You can get an idea of his style from the following line:

The arrival formalities at Brazzaville’s Maya-Maya airport resemble those of a popular New York discotheque.

Remote locations, lots of hassle, quirky lightness of narrative touch. (On this occasion Clarke had arranged to be recognized on arrival, and so was whisked out of the milling crowds into an air-conditioned VIP area.)

Clarke travels around the world, west to east, making the crossing of each continent into a project in itself. Crossing directly from one continent to the next along the equator is a logistic impossibility—ships rarely make such a crossing, and airlines tend to have their trans-ocean hubs a long way from the equator. So between continent-crossings, he allows himself a bit of R&R in the USA or Europe before heading back south to start again. Although he’s travelling independently, with a visa-stuffed passport, a wodge of currency and no fixed plan beyond an aspirational list of “equatorial things to see”, he is not entirely unsupported. He has arranged to give lectures at various universities along the way, which makes him, to some extent, a representative of the USA, allowing him to call on  occasional assistance from US embassies abroad. And the lectures also give him a sort of “official guest” status that he can trade on with obstructive government functionaries. His other solution to obstructive government functionaries, it must be said, is simply to ignore them. In Libreville, the capital of Gabon, he is told that he needs to write and present multiple letters of introduction to various members of the national and local government before he can possibly travel in the country. He promises solemnly to present the letters the following day, and then gets on the next train out of town.

The narrative is, of course, a little out of date at this remove. Zaïre, miserable and disintegrating as it was even when Clarke visited, had not yet descended into civil war. Nor had Somalia. And of Rwanda an aid-worker could say, in all seriousness, “There is no longer a tribal problem here.”

Deep economic hardship is a recurring theme, as are stories of displaced and disorientated populations and individuals, and Clarke works hard both to help us appreciate their plight, and to explain how things got to be the way they are. And there are very long bus journeys, alarming taxi rides, eccentric expats, dumb tourists,  pickpockets, mountain gorillas, a nuclear test site, amoebic dysentery, and a near-death experience at the hands of drunken Ugandan soldiers.

All of it is narrated in a frank and witty style, punctuated by telling  anecdotes. One anecdote must stand for the many—this one’s about Mbakanda, an equatorial town in what was then Zaïre, which when Clarke visited was gradually losing its European residents:

Mbakanda’s legacy of European toilets was shrinking faster than the number of people accustomed to them. Seats and cisterns cracked, and there were no replacements. Those unused to squatting in a field or outhouse became desperate, and thieves stole from occupied houses. Victims of the toilet bandits visited neighbors and found themselves using familiar porcelain.


Reeve’s book, Tropic Of Capricorn, is subtitled A Remarkable Journey to the Forgotten Corners of the World, which perhaps over-eggs the pudding a little, given his considerable harvest of tourist destinations along the way. Although similar in conception to the two other books, it’s different in execution. Reeve is making a television documentary, so he travels with a small film crew, and is handed off from one local fixer to another as the journey progresses.  Like Clarke, he takes the trip a continent at a time, with time off to rest (and get married!) between continents. His television programmes alternate a series of arranged interviews with episodes in which Reeve stands in front of something impressive, being boyishly enthusiastic. So the book necessarily has the same pattern, but without the visuals. And because he’s making a documentary, Reeve strays farther from his chosen line of latitude than do Tallack or Clarke—he speaks about visiting the “Capricorn countries”, and he travels quite widely in search of good stories.

When I’m reading a book with the intention of writing something about it, I tend to mark evocative or dramatic passages as I go along, for later reference. The problem I had with Reeve’s book is that I was three-quarters of the way through and still hadn’t marked a single passage. Part of that, I think, is because of Reeve’s journalistic background. Things are described in a series of short sentences—one thing happens, then another thing happens, then another thing happens. Here’s an example:

Then, with an almighty tearing noise and a deafening crash, the tree collapses to the ground. It is a bit of a shock.
“Bloody hell!” I exclaim.

And the book was written on the fly, by candlelight or failing laptop battery, as the journey progressed, and then edited on a tight deadline to be released alongside the TV series. So there are some odd turns of phrase—I’m not sure filter-feeding flamingoes can reasonably be described as “munching” their food; nor do I fancy the idea of being “injected” with morning coffee.

Reeve is not so big on history, but very good on current problems. Of all the books, his does the best job of exploring the plight of indigenous peoples, since he deliberately seeks them out for interview. In Africa and South America, he talks to people displaced from their traditional ways of life to make way for logging, soy plantations and even national parks, and he’s at his best when he talks about the distress he feels on their behalf. He reserves his particular ire for the plight of the Australian Aborigine, however, to which he devotes almost an entire chapter, detailing the ways in which Australia has marginalized its first people.

He’s also good on deploying killer statistics, telling us for instance that, throughout history, perhaps half of all humans have died of malaria, or that the South American War of the Triple Alliance killed an astonishing 90% of Paraguayan adult males in the 1860s. (I’m not sure I needed to know where the world’s “third steepest railway incline” is, though.)

He samples tourist attractions at Iguazu, in the Okavango Delta, the Namib Desert, and the Atacama; gets involved in dangerous activities with South African and Brazilian border patrols; goes to visit a diamond mine in Botswana and a sapphire mine in Madagascar; has uncomfortably close encounters with hyenas, hippos, cheetahs and bees; and meets a rat that’s being trained to help clear minefields.

Through it all he’s constantly engaged with the situations he finds people in, and is always trying to tie those local problems in with the bigger global picture of climate change, shifting markets, and even the fashions in charitable giving:

Charitable Westerners donating their cheap clothes to Africa have undercut the local clothing industry. No Mozambican firm could ever make a T-shirt cheaper than a Western T-shirt donated for free.

Well, that’s obvious when you think about it, but I confess it had never occurred to me.


So these turn out to be three very different books—Tallack’s journey is intermittent and patchy, but layered with emotion; Clarke is the most devoted to seeking out his chosen line of latitude, but also the most laid-back; and Reeve is the most engaged, and has the widest variety of experiences. Of them all, I had the most fun with Clarke, and I suspect his is the only book I’ll go back to and read again.

Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis: Three Novels

Novels by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis

None of us set out to do anything more than be technically ingenious. We succeeded and London nearly died. Surely that’s more than enough to make us redirect our activities. The next time it may be the whole world.

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters (1971)

Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were a writing duo active in the 1960s and ’70s. They wrote for the BBC’s Doctor Who in the ’60s, giving the world the Cybermen in 1966.

Cybermen
Cybermen (meh)

When I was a solitary, bespectacled and distinctly oikotropic child growing up in Dundee in the 1960s, I never found the Cybermen that frightening, to be honest. I was much more worried about their etymologically linked contemporaries, the Cybernauts—trilby-wearing, karate-chopping killer robots from ITV’s television series, The Avengers.

Cybernaut
A cybernaut (yikes)

Anyway, Pedler and Davis went on to invent a fabulously successful television series for the BBC, in the techno-thriller genre—Doomwatch (1970). They tapped into the burgeoning environmental paranoia of the times, and each episode saw the appearance of some new threat to the world (generally produced by careless, malevolent or just plain dumb scientists), which had to be sorted out by a quasi-governmental organization with a formal name that seemed to vary from episode to episode, but which was code-named Doomwatch.
The name pretty quickly entered the lexicon, as a word for any kind of observation intended to avert technological danger—the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage, other than as a direct reference to the TV series, in 1973.

The formula worked so well for them, they cooperated to produce three novels in the same style—Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters (1971), Brainrack (1974) and The Dynostar Menace (1975), all involving some near-future technological threat that endangers civilization. *

The strengths of the novels are in their meticulous technical descriptions, and in their ability to conjure up striking scenarios that remain in the memory. The weakness is … well, the writing. Pedler and Davis can’t really do conversation very well, and either they or their publisher seem to be in the grip of some sort of punctuation famine—there are a lot of missing question marks, a lot of commas where full stops or semicolons might do the job better, and a lot of places in which the insertion of a humble comma would have made the reading a great deal easier.

I recently decided to re-read them, to see if the striking images were still striking, and how well their “advanced technology” stood the test of time.

First up is Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters, in which a bacterium engineered to digest plastic escapes into central London. The plot is recycled and expanded from the first episode of Doomwatch. There’s much discussion of bacterial cultures and electron microscopy (Pedler’s day-job was in electron microscopy), and lots of scientists having ill-tempered disputes over molecular design. The peril comes from the way the bacterium strips the insulation off electric wiring and ruptures the plastic seals on gas pipes as it spreads through the sewers and tunnels under London. The striking visuals come from the way kitchen work-surfaces, airliner cabins and trendy “wet-look” PVC clothing melt and puddle as the bacteria do their work. The memorable scenarios are the deserted appearance of an evacuated central London, the slow disintegration and failure of a passenger aircraft in flight over the Atlantic, and the long trek through the tunnels of the London Underground that some of the novel’s characters have to make to reach safety after disaster strikes. The Pan paperback has, I think, a near perfect cover photograph by Julian Cottrell—a fancy briefcase with a combination lock (implying privilege and secrecy), is open to reveal a melted model of a Boeing 727 passenger aircraft (echoing two major themes of the novel, melting plastic and aircraft crashes).

The successor volume, Brainrack, has two plot threads—one that kicks off the story, and then peters out; and one that ramps up as the story progresses, to provide the novel’s climax. The early part of the novel raises concerns that computers are becoming so complicated that they can make decisions in ways humans can’t understand. In these days of trained neural networks, that’s now a real worry—for Pedler and Davis to have pointed it out in 1974, in the days when  computers still occupied entire rooms and were programmed with tape and punched cards, was remarkably prescient. The other strand of the story involves the detection of decreasing intelligence (as well as more focal neurological disabilities) in some subgroups of the world’s population. The combination of “too clever by half” computers with dumb operators produces a Perfect Storm during the commissioning of a new nuclear reactor in Orkney, resulting in a core meltdown and a “China Accident” , with a massive release of radiation.

The description of the meltdown, and the story of the protagonist’s escape from the ruined power station, is the high point of the book. On either side of that, things move a little slowly. But the story ends with a dilemma that is familiar to us today, in a different guise—how much present-day technological convenience are we willing to give up, to avoid future disaster?

Finally, The Dynostar Menace. The eponymous Dynostar is an experimental fusion reactor, built aboard an orbiting space habitat. Just before its commissioning run, evidence comes to light that its magnetic field will destroy the Earth’s ozone layer. This is disappointing hocum, of course—merely a McGuffin to set up a powerful dilemma for the characters. In another layer of McGuffin, the Dynostar is already set to be triggered automatically in a computer-controlled sequence that is difficult to stop safely. (This abdication of responsibility to an automatic computer sequence is rendered even less credible by the revelation, early in the novel, that this story is set after the events described in Brainrack.)

Anyway, the reactor trigger sequence must now be shut down by the crew of the space habitat. Who unfortunately start to be murdered by someone among their number who is determined that the automated Dynostar test go ahead as planned, despite the risk to all life on Earth. Cue the search for the cunning, inventive and psychopathic crew-member.

So we have claustrophobia, mounting paranoia, murders and sabotage, and a race against time. There are tense sequences both within the habitat and in space, and the technical depiction of life aboard a space station was fresh and novel back in 1975, drawing as it did on experience from the then-recent 1973 Skylab missions.

But gad, I hate these extremely cunning and inventive psychopathic scientists. They get to do anything they like for as long as it serves the plot, and then can be relied upon for a homicidal melt-down in the closing sequence. And Pedler and Davis struggle to differentiate their various characters well enough for me to keep them straight in my head, let alone to shift my suspicions from one to another as the story progresses. So this is by far the weakest of the three novels.

All the novels are dated by their science and their social milieu. Hulking mainframe computers, wet-look plastic clothes, gay stereotypes—they’re all in there, as well as the obligatory hysterical woman who just needs a good slap to make her pull herself together. Mutant 59 has lasted best, with an unusual plot which is well-explored. Brainrack gets itself muddled between two plot strands, though the central sequence of the reactor melt-down still works. But Dynostar‘s space setting is nowadays too familiar to sustain interest in an otherwise weary and patchy plot.

So if you want a little glimpse of classic 1970s environmental paranoia, take a look at Mutant 59. You can safely leave the other two in the remaindered bin of history.


* They also cooperated on a slim volume entitled Doomwatch: The World In Danger, containing three short stories based on three Doomwatch episodes. Be warned that this was one of a series of early reading texts from Longman’s, known as “Structural Readers”, and so is written in a style not too distant from “Look, John, look. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” This renders it pretty much unreadable, paradoxically enough.

 What Pedler and Davis call a China Accident” is now more commonly known by the name China Syndrome, a term that was popularized by a 1979 film of the same name. The molten reactor core burns through the base of the containment vessel and burrows into the ground beneath—fancifully, it keeps going until it passes right through the Earth and reaches China. (Which tells us that the term was coined in America.)

Eric Brown: Wings On My Sleeve

Cover of Wings On My Sleeve by Eric Brown

A new hydraulic-pneumatic catapult was installed which had to be proofed so that its performance could be checked before it was introduced into service. For the first launch with it we used an Avenger as being an old and well-tried faithful. It was a startling maiden effort. The aircraft was shot off so violently that the engine cut and the folding wings unlocked and folded back. It was a nasty sight from the cockpit.

You can’t get much better than test-pilot memoirs, can you? That’s Eric Brown responding with his customary sang-froid to a typical awkward moment in his career—being launched from an aircraft-carrier catapult in an aircraft with a stalled engine and collapsed wings.

Brown’s interest in flying started in 1936 when, on a visit to Germany, he was taken on an aerobatic joyride by Ernst Udet, the First World War flying ace. Brown went on to fly with the Fleet Air Arm at the outbreak of the Second World War, and was part of the early development of flight operations from aircraft carriers. This led on to a posting to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, where he tested new aircraft and new aircraft launch and landing systems. Under wartime production pressures, there was always a new aircraft to be tested, and Brown was running multiple test programmes simultaneously, to the extent that during one exhausting month he flew thirty different models of aircraft. Towards the end of the war, the fact that he spoke fluent German got him a job picking up abandoned German aircraft and bringing them back to Britain for testing (where they formed the RAE’s “Enemy Flight”). In the post-war period he spent time seconded to both the German Naval Air Arm and the American Naval Air Test Center.

All of this experience meant that he holds a couple of aviation records that are unlikely ever to be beaten, in these more regimented days—the largest number of aircraft types flown (487), and the largest number of aircraft carrier landings (2407).

Wings On My Sleeve is his autobiography, published in 2006, when he was 87 years old.

I chanced upon it in a bookshop in Oban, quite recently, my attention drawn to the aeroplane on the cover—that’s a slightly cartoonish German Messerschmitt Bf 109, but marked up with British roundels. (Close inspection shows the pilot apparently sitting cheerily on the left side of the cockpit, in a single-seat fighter. Brown must have flinched a little when he saw that.) When I figured out it was holding the autobiography of the man who assembled the Enemy Flight, I bought it.

And it’s a marvellous read, full of incident. There’s the occasion when he baled out of a burning aircraft at 1,300 feet, landed in a duckpond, and was then trapped there by an enraged bull circling the pond. The emergency services were of little help until eventually someone found the farmer, who led the bull away. And there’s the time when Brown, through a certain amount of inattention, landed on an aircraft carrier that not only had no deck crew in place and wasn’t properly aligned with the wind, but which didn’t even have arrester wires properly rigged. It’s difficult to know who was the more surprised—Brown or the ship’s captain. And the occasion when he taught himself to fly a helicopter—he had seen one for the first time a few days previously, when he had experienced a twenty-minute flight as a passenger, and had been given a “large orange-coloured booklet” by the American mechanics who had unpacked and assembled his new Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly. What could possibly go wrong?

While assembling the Enemy Flight, he once got a little ahead of the advancing Allied armies, and landed at Grove airfield in Denmark before it had been liberated. As he climbed out of his Avro Anson, he was alarmed to see a Luftwaffe major walking towards him; but then relieved when the major offered his ceremonial sword in formal surrender. Brown and his copilot then spent an uneasy night as guests of the Luftwaffe, while they waited for the Allied army to catch up with them. On another occasion he managed to “informally” take a flight in the Luftwaffe’s notoriously explosive rocket-plane, the Me 163B Komet—he was the only British pilot ever to fly one, since all subsequent tests were performed using the aircraft as a towed glider, the rocket motor being deemed too dangerous to use.

And there’s also the story of how Squadron Leader Tony Martindale manage to get a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mark XI very close to the speed of sound, and lived to tell the tale (but only just):

One day he dived to [Mach] 0.92, at which point he was pulling about 100lb on the control column to recover, when the over-speeding propeller became detached, together with its reduction gear.
The resultant loss of weight at the front end made the Spitfire tail-heavy and it zoomed almost vertically upwards, blacking out the pilot under a force of 11‘g’. When he recovered his sight again Marty found himself back up at about 40,000 feet with his straight-winged aeroplane now having acquired a very slightly swept-back look. It speaks volumes both for the pilot and the Spitfire that Marty somehow managed to land it back at Farnborough on its wheels …

A photograph exists of the aircraft that “Marty” Martindale successfully glided back to base:

Spitfire XI EN 409 which was used in high speed diving trials in 1944
Source

You really can’t get much better than test-pilot memoirs, can you?

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.


A SOCRATIC DIALOGUE

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.)