Stephen Bates, The Poisoner

The Poisoner is a biography and account of the trial of William Palmer, who was convicted of poisoning a friend and suspected of poisoning any number of others in the 1850s.

The Poisoner is the kind of narrative history I like: one that doesn’t try to read like a novel, but will leave the main path and go into detail whatever historical topics the main subject touches on, like gambling, forensics, and insurance fraud. A single story expands into a fuller picture of life at the time. It might be a little dry in places, but I like history to err on the side of dryness.

Cover of The Poisoner

The jacket copy promises “an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s life” but you can’t trust jacket copy. You know the riddle about the guy on the right who always tells the truth, and the guy on the left who always lies? The guy on the left is a book jacket. Anyway. There’s little doubt that Palmer killed John Parsons Cook. The Poisoner’s revision to the standard narrative is that Palmer was not a criminal mastermind. Charles Dickens started a Household Words essay on Palmer by calling him “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock” and explained in typically Dickensian hyperbole that Palmer’s calm demeanor at his trial was the sign of a manipulative and devious mind. This, thought Dickens, was a man with “carefully laid plans” and “secret knowledge of the difficulties and mysteries with which the proof of Poison had been, in the manner of the Poisoning, surrounded.”

I came away from The Poisoner picturing Palmer as the serial poisoner equivalent of a W. C. Fields character. He probably didn’t poison as many people as some think. (People died around Palmer a lot, but in nineteenth-century England people died around everybody a lot.) Anyone who spends time on the internet is likely to have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the idea that the people most incompetent at a task will be too incompetent even to recognize their own incompetence. The concept originally occurred to the psychologists who named it after they heard the story of a bank robber who thought he could make himself invisible to security cameras by rubbing lemon juice on his face. Palmer was, in fact, probably not much more skilled when it came to murder. Maybe Dickens was convinced Palmer had to be a master of deception because it was easier than believing the authorities weren’t very good at detecting poisoners.

Nineteenth century forensic science made poison investigations difficult. Judith Flanders’s book The Invention of Murder discusses a mid–19th century poison panic in which lower-class women were convicted of poisoning family members and acquaintances on little evidence. What struck me when I read that book was how similar the suspects seemed to the accused in earlier witch trials. Many suspects were outsiders who had something “wrong” with them–a reputation for promiscuity, a bad temper, more children than they could support. Accusations often occurred in small communities and might be based on gossip. At trials “experts” testified who had never previously seen wounds or poisonings of the kind in question. In many cases statements were believed or disbelieved based on the witness’s social class.

When I read about nineteenth century criminal investigations what strikes me is their lackadaisicalness. The investigation of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, the first 19th century British murder of note, began with sightseers trooping through the crime scene. From there the police had a very slow learning curve. The authorities of the time tend to come off less like police than like sapient prairie dogs who’d maybe seen some police once from a distance.

Then I look at how many wrongful convictions we have in the modern United States, and I wonder how much we’ve actually improved.

The Palmer investigation was nearly as haphazard. John Parsons Cook’s post-mortem was held at a inn. This was common since inns had large public rooms and it had not yet occurred to the police that, hey, maybe they ought to build more places they could use for postmortems. The supervising doctor didn’t bring his instruments because he hadn’t realized he was expected to actually perform the post-mortem; instead a chemist’s assistant and a medical student did the dissecting. No one objected when Palmer himself horned in even though the victim’s stepfather considered him a suspect. When the student removed the stomach Palmer sort of accidentally on purpose shoved him, spilling the stomach contents. It and the intestines were placed in a sealed jar. The jar then disappeared when no one was looking. When the doctors noticed this Palmer cheerfully said he’d put it by the door because he “thought it more convenient for you to take it away.” Somehow a hole had developed in the seal.

The postmortems didn’t find any strychnine in Cook. The jury convicted Palmer because as soon as Cook’s stepfather challenged him he did everything he could to incriminate himself, including blurting things he could have followed up with “Did I say that out loud?” At the postmortem the supervising doctor heard him say “They won’t hang us yet.” William Palmer didn’t lose a battle of wits to a brilliant detective. He was just a rather stupid person whose luck finally ran out.

Conspiracies, criminal masterminds, and brilliant psychopaths are all over pop culture. We’ve built entire TV shows around impossibly skilled assholes like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter, and Pale Imitation of Francis Urquhart. Counterintuitive as it seems, these stories are comforting. No one could blame us for falling prey to the well-directed malice of a master criminal, and no one could blame the police for convicting the wrong guy. Those master criminals are smart. That real police might be fallible or even corrupt, that we’re less likely to be targeted by a genius than randomly endangered by a doofus with an assault rifle… Those ideas aren’t just frightening: they’re indignities.

In Which I Notice a Subgenre

When I wrote my post on Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible I’d intended to make an observation that would have taken the post on too long a detour. The Invincible belongs to a branch of science fiction I’ve never seen acknowledged as its own subgenre. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had already defined it somewhere.[1] I don’t have that many original ideas.) It’s a blend of space opera and horror and for the purposes of these notes–this post is too much a working-out-of-ideas to call it an essay–I’ll call it Spaceship Gothic.

I use the word “gothic” advisedly. Spaceship Gothic isn’t just any horror/science fiction mashup, but a kind with characteristics analogous to Gothic novels’ obsession with architecture and air of doomful cursedness:

  1. A small group of people confined to a spaceship, space station, or enclosed, uninhabited planetary environment.
  2. A dangerous and incomprehensible discovery. A natural phenomenon, transcendent force, or alien life form we can’t understand or communicate with.

Combine #1 with #2, assume nothing good will come of it, and you’ve got Spaceship Gothic. The best-known example is the movie Alien; I’d also cite Forbidden Planet, The Black Hole, and Event Horizon.[2] Novels include Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible and Solaris, James Smythe’s The Explorer, Peter Watts’s Blindsight, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages. On television we have any number of Doctor Who stories and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who” (though I’d argue that later Borg episodes don’t qualify, as the Borg became more communicative and more comprehensible).

The Spaceship of Otranto

The Gothic novel is a genre centered on environment. The hallmark of a Gothic, the thing it absolutely has to have to be Gothic, is a mansion or a castle, isolated and sparsely populated. It’s a genre named after architecture.

The horror genre borrows from the Gothic novel the tendency to strand characters in enclosed locations. Get everyone into an abandoned hospital, a cabin in the woods, or an old dark house. Isolate them with a freak storm, bleak moorlands, a confusing forest, even just a flat tire miles from anywhere. Then you pick them off one by one.

Spaceship Gothic takes this to its logical conclusion. A Gothic needs a house; Spaceship Gothic needs a spaceship. A spaceship is the ultimate closed environment. You might think your Old Dark House is in the middle of nowhere but most of the time a spaceship is surrounded by literally nothing. From the time it leaves its home planet until it reaches its destination, a ship is its crew’s entire world.

Some Spaceship Gothic stories, like Planet of the Vampires or Prometheus, take their crew to a planet. If so, it’s uninhabited aside from an alien ruin, archaeological site, crashed ship, or sparsely crewed or abandoned base. Most space opera treats planets as small spaces, metaphorical islands.[3] Whatever the crew finds planetside, it feels paradoxically claustrophobic: yeah, technically the crew has an entire planet to roam, but where would they go?

Other spaceships are the same deal: abandoned, wrecked, drifting. Few or no survivors. Except for a Curse.

The Curse

Like the heroes of happier space operas, the ones with their eyes peeled for New Worlds and New Civilizations, Spaceship Gothic crews are explorers and solvers of mysteries. They just have less fun solving them. The crew of the Nostromo is reluctantly diverted to an alien crash site. Prometheus is about an archaeological dig. Stanislaw Lem’s novels star scientists encountering unusual life forms on alien planets. The crews in Event Horizon and The Black Hole discover what happened to earlier, vanished space missions.

All of which is standard for space opera. As I implied, you could probably find a Star Trek episode with the same setup as any Spaceship Gothic story. The difference is in where the stories end up. Space opera is optimistic. The characters find a new life form, a strange gadget, a new scientific phenomenon, or a tricky engineering problem and it’s awesome, in the old sense of “inspiring awe” as well as the new. It’s a mystery to solve. Not all space opera characters succeed, but they could. Theoretically. We can talk to the aliens, we can figure out how the MacGuffin works. The universe is understandable! Human potential is limitless! Spaceship Gothic is what happens when it’s not.

In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break.

If the Curse is an alien it won’t communicate or cooperate. It might be hostile, like the Borg, the eponymous Alien, or any number of Doctor Who villains, but it could be indifferent, or even trying to help. Solaris is, as far as we can tell, benign, but that doesn’t stop it from confusing and disturbing everyone who visits.

Often the Curse isn’t even a life form, just a force like the time warp from James Smythe’s The Explorer, or an impossibly advanced artifact like the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet.

The Curse doesn’t need to hurt anyone itself. Spaceship Gothic being horror, it sometimes leaves most of the cast dead, perhaps with one or two escaping, Ishmael-like, to tell the story. (This is much more common in Spaceship Gothic movies, which tend towards the exploitative.) But the Curse doesn’t necessarily kill them directly. It’s often just a catalyst, the actual villain being some initially-sympathetic character whose character flaws have turned operatic. If there even is a villain. Sometimes the crew just can’t deal with this incomprehensible thing they found and self-destruct like the cast of a Coen Brothers movie.

So What is this Genre Doing?

I nominated two of Stanislaw Lem’s novels, The Invincible and Solaris, as Spaceship Gothics. I’d also add Fiasco and Eden, and maybe the novel that inspired the movie First Spaceship on Venus, though I’ve never read that one (I’m not sure it’s ever even been translated). Lem was interested in randomness, and how people look for order in randomness. He was also interested in the limits of human knowledge, and how people cope when they discover the answers to some questions (what’s Solaris up to? What’s happening on planet Eden?) are beyond their reach. Those themes, and Lem’s specifically pessimistic take on them, led him to write Spaceship Gothics.

Spaceship Gothic is a genre of incomprehensible forces that roll into people’s lives and leave them reeling. Remember how I mentioned the way planets in space opera work like islands? In SF, subjects and settings often stand in metaphorically for things on different scales. When SF talks about the universe it’s often, on another level, dealing with the world, or just our little part of it. Like the characters in SF stories, we’re surrounded by complex forces and systems–economic, legal, physical, ecological. They run our world. In a human lifetime we can only comprehend a fraction of what there is to know about them. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting our lives. No amount of Heinleinian competence can guarantee we won’t get knocked down by a natural disaster, a recession, a chronic disease, or the side effects of climate change.

(To a certain extent, this could be not only a working-out of anxieties, but also a corrective to traditional space opera, which, at its worst, can have a colonialist streak–its admiration for humanity’s potential has sometimes led to the assumption that space opera heroes have the right to control anything they find.)

The good news is that the universe is vast and there is an infinite amount to learn. This is also the bad news.

Traditional space opera looks into infinity and feels a sense of wonder. Spaceship Gothic is what you get when space opera looks into infinity, feels anxious and creeped out, and decides to hide under some blankets until it goes away.

  1. TV Tropes has a page for “Raygun Gothic,” but they’re talking about something completely different and using the word “gothic” with no reference to what it actually means, the same way geek culture uses the word “punk.”  ↩

  2. For movies aimed at such different audiences, The Black Hole and Event Horizon have weirdly similar gimmicks. How many stories are there where a Spaceship crew find a lost ship near a black hole that turns out to be a gateway to hell?  ↩

  3. A lot of Star Trek and Doctor Who becomes easier to understand when you realize they’re distant cousins to the middle part of The Odyssey; it explains, for instance, why most planets seem to have one major city and why most aliens have a single culture.  ↩

Stanislaw Lem, The Invincible

There are two Stanislaw Lems. I’m a big fan of the playful satirist who wrote The Cyberiad and A Perfect Vacuum. The hard science fiction writer, not so much. Not that Lem couldn’t write brilliantly in that mode–Solaris really is a classic–but his track record wasn’t as good.

For the longest time the only version of Solaris in English was a translation of a translation. A few years ago an ebook of a new, direct translation was released. More recently I came across another new Lem translation of The Invincible, which I’d never read.

Cover of The Invincible

The Invincible is Lem in Hard SF mode. It’s very much not Solaris. In fact, of all the Stanislaw Lem novels I’ve read this is the weakest. Lem was famously unimpressed by American science fiction but reading The Invincible it’s hard to understand why. It underachieves in exactly the same way as most “golden age” American SF.

The Invincible’s prose is nothing more than functional. It’s so straightforward it’s a slog to read. That might seem contradictory, but the difference between functional prose and good prose is the difference between a monotonous drone and a song. What’s more fun to listen to: a Beatles album, or your refrigerator? The Invincible is the refrigerator.

It’s hard to tell whether this is more the fault of Lem or his translator. Lem was usually lucky with his translators,[1] but The Invincible often felt off. For instance, at one point the text refers to “shadowless lamps” where Lem probably meant they didn’t have lampshades.

But never mind the prose–Hard SF fans will tell you the ideas are the star! This argument has problems.

First, if described badly enough even the most fascinating ideas can be boring. The Invincible’s opening sets the tone. Before any of the characters even wake up it spends 500 words narrating a starship’s automatic processes, and we’re halfway through the first chapter before we get any dialogue that isn’t tech jargon like “Full axis power. Static thrust.” This novel cares more about things than people.

We’re told 83 men are on board.[2] That statistic is hard to recall. There might just as easily be 47 men, or a dozen, because they have no personalities or distinguishing features, as even the text acknowledges:

It was baffling, because both men were entirely indistinguishable from the others in their clothing, weaponry, and appearance.

Most of the crew don’t have full names and it’s impossible to remember what surname belongs to who, or which characters we’ve seen before, or when, or where. The Invincible feels like a sketch comedy where all the characters are played by the same two or three people.

Some, again, would argue that The Invincible is the kind of book where the ideas are more important than the characters. But the main advantage a novel of ideas has over a nonfiction book is that it can bounce its concepts and themes off of idiosyncratic characters, with their own concerns and opinions, who will send those ideas in unexpected and strange directions. If the characters are flat, the ideas probably won’t bounce far.

Most of The Invincible consists of long dry descriptions of the crew’s investigation of a planet. Their activities sometimes seem to have equal emphasis regardless of whether they lead to any interesting discoveries. Following one methodical search of what appears to be a ruined city:

Rohan contacted the Invincible, informed the commander of what they had learned—which was essentially nothing

Oh. Okay, then.

Lem built The Invincible around ideas that were, for 1960s science fiction, ahead of their time. The planet is inhabited by self-organizing, self-replicating nanites which aren’t truly conscious but display pseudo-intelligent behavior as an emergent phenomenon. Most of the genre didn’t pick up on concepts like this for a couple of decades. But The Invincible doesn’t do anything with them besides argue that the universe is rather complex and incomprehensible, a theme Lem handled better in other books. “Here are some ideas!” says The Invincible. “I’ll just leave them here. My work is done.”

Which is a problem, because, well, the rest of the genre eventually did pick up on emergence and nanotechnology, and did find more interesting things to do with them. Heck, Doctor Who has done more interesting things with them. That’s the other problem with science fiction that only exists to drop a few ideas: science fictional ideas have a sell-by date. Once a SF novel is conceptually past its time it needs to give us some other reason to keep reading it. The Invincible didn’t manage that.

  1. Michael Kandel in particular is brilliant. Lem’s more playful works include wordplay that sounds completely natural in Kandel’s English but must have been hell to translate.  ↩

  2. Literally all men, which only serves to make the crew even more bland and indistinguishable. ↩

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I haven’t posted to this blog in ages. I want to start writing again about the books I read: I don’t feel like I’ve been thinking about any of them as much as I should, and as a result I’ve increasingly gone for books with less in them to think about. Writing blog posts helps me get my thoughts in order.

I’m out of practice again and I expect for some time my writing will be terrible. One reason I haven’t blogged in a while is that everything I wrote seemed clumsy and pompous. Maybe before I can write well again I’ll just have to work through a clumsy pompous phase.

I’ll start by finishing book reviews I left half-written months ago. Like this one:

Coverof A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was the best fantasy novel I read in 2014, and maybe the best fantasy novel of 2013, period. It’s among a few books that restored my interest in SF and fantasy at a time when I’d nearly given up on the genres.

Stranger is a secondary-world fantasy about Jevick of Tyom, a young merchant who travels to a foreign country whose language and literature he loves. When the ghost of a fellow islander turns up to dictate her memoirs he’s caught between two religious factions with different ideas about people who can speak with ghosts, and discovers how little he knows the place.

I’ve seen reviews of Stranger complain the early chapters aren’t heavy on plot. This isn’t wrong, but it misses the point: Stranger just isn’t doing what these reviewers expected. The first couple of chapters are first-person immersive fantasy written as memoir, and you might expect that approach to continue through the end of the book, but this novel isn’t satisfied with a single genre or voice. Here’s a paragraph from the chapter when Jevick first sees the Olondrian city of Bain:

I loved the book markets under the swinging trees, the vast array of books on tables, in boxes, stacked on the ground, and the grand old villas converted into bookshops. I loved the Old City also, which is called the “Quarter of Sighs,” with its barred windows and brooding fortified towers, and I loved to watch the canal winding below the streets and bridges and the stealthy boats among the shadows of trees.

This is literary travel writing about an imaginary place. Jevick builds an impressionistic portrait of Bain from the specific details a charmed foreign tourist would notice, “selling” Bain to the reader as in a travel article. Later Jevick wakes after a wild night and sees only Bain’s tawdry side, the opposite of the details he noticed before. When the haunting begins Stranger conveys Jevick’s confusion with fragmented present tense excerpts from his diary. Stranger is an anthology of different kinds of fantasy writing, slipping into whatever style suits the story in that moment.

At the time I read it this was just what I needed. See, SF fandom has this obsession with “transparent prose.” Prose, in this theory, is a clear, clean window through which the reader “sees” a story. The text disappears; the content flows pure and undistorted from the writer’s brain to the reader’s. Which makes no sense, because the prose is what the content is made of. I like good straightforward prose, but most “transparent prose” novels are devoid of personality or voice. They erase their narrators and points of view, posing as stories told by nobody. I’ve given up on popular, much-recommended SF and fantasy novels because they read like neutral Wikipedia summaries of themselves. A Stranger in Olondria restored my enthusiasm for the genres by moving through several styles of writing and doing them all brilliantly.

Those same reviews seemed to feel that Stranger picked up halfway through, and I think that’s because after Olondria’s religious squabbles ensnare Jevick his story enters more familiar territory, resembling the quest fantasies whose heroes learn their world (and teach it to the readers) by traveling it. Jevick gets one take on Olondria from its religious authorities, and another from the cultists interested in his newfound abilities as a medium, and the people and places he encounters as he travels deepen and complicate both sides of the argument. Stranger travels through other genres along the way–history, folktales, poetry. The climax of the novel is the story of Jissavet, Jevick’s ghost. Jevick and Jissavet both write memoirs but their voices are nothing alike. This is partly characterization but also partly structural: Jissavet speaks extemporaneously. She orders her story thematically as well as chronologically, letting one memory remind her of another as people do when recollecting aloud.

It’s a book about books that itself samples many kinds of books. And in saying that I may have just put some people off. Since the audience for novels inevitably consists of people who love books, it’s tempting for stories about books to get overly sentimental. Books change readers’ lives, dude; create worlds in which they escape their miseries. These stories ascribe near-magical powers and omniscient wisdom to our favorite pulped-wood products, sometimes flat-out declaring that books are better than people. I’ve felt this myself sometimes; that’s probably true of anybody who loves books.

A Stranger in Olondria is a novel, so you know it’s going to come down on the pro-book side. But the story it tells is more complicated. Jevick’s books haven’t fully prepared him for life and his story is partly about learning to love them wisely. I won’t get too far into this topic; there’s a review at Asking the Wrong Questions that goes deeper than I can manage. But Stranger’s argument for the value of literacy is more specific and more interesting than most “Books Rule!” stories.

One of the few books I managed to review in the last couple of years was Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties That Bound, a social history of medieval British peasant communities. Hanawalt resorted to combing through accident reports to reconstruct these peoples’ lives. There aren’t many primary sources on medieval peasants; they weren’t always literate and didn’t leave many letters or diaries. Their families knew their stories, and maybe passed them down for a few generations, but it’s hard to get the wider world to care about great-grandpa William’s misadventure with the haywain. So the pre-mass-literacy Europeans we know best are the upper classes, those famous and influential enough to be written about. The closer you get to the present the less true that is. The spread of mass literacy meant that more and more people, and more and more kinds of people, sent letters and kept diaries. Our view of 13th-century peasants is almost entirely from the outside, but we can learn more about the point of view of, for example, 19th-century mill workers.

What’s most relevant to Stranger is that literacy doesn’t just preserve the voices of people overlooked by history. It preserves the voices of people no one, even their peers, thought worth listening to in the first place. The stories that survive through oral tradition do so because a community actively chose to pass them along, and the criteria it uses to make those choices aren’t necessarily good. Every family has relatives they don’t talk about and every community has people they’ve decided don’t matter. Jissavet is desperate for Jevick to write her book because the illness she died of made her an outcast. In life no one would listen to her. And maybe no one wants to listen to her now, but writing, unlike speech, can survive without anyone actively paying attention. Barring accident or active censorship, the words will still be there if and when someone wants to listen.

When Jevick returns home, he decides to become a kind of teacher called a tchavi. Traditionally these teachers lived on mountains, making prospective students struggle to reach them like gurus out of New Yorker cartoons. Jevick instead comes into town, teaching anyone who wants to write.

Books are as close as we can get to long-distance mind-to-mind communication. They fulfill their potential when they give minds of all kinds the chance to connect. And writing can communicate across time: if no one wants to hear it now, it will (assuming at least one copy survives) still be waiting, unchanged, for a more receptive audience.

Your Best SF List is Terrible

I like fantasy and SF, as you can probably tell from this blog, but this article that recently appeared in the New Statesman is right: most “best” or “most important” SF/fantasy lists are terrible.

The biggest problem with the fantasy and SF genres is that their critical canon formed around what fans liked when they were twelve. And much of fandom’s tastes never matured beyond that. When someone curious about SF asks for recommendations I cringe, because I know I’m going to see fans jump in to push the Foundation trilogy, or Heinlein’s YA novels, as though any adult would want to read them. If the golden age of SF is twelve, that’s because hardcore fans keep pushing books that would appeal only to twelve-year-olds.

Not that there aren’t enough genuinely good SF novels to fill a real top 100 list… but in a lot of cases online fandom doesn’t seem to remember they exist. Earlier this year I read Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre. At the time it came out it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It’s a great book (once I get my blog going again–it’ll happen someday soon, I swear–I ought to review it) and obviously a major work. But it was out of print for years, and even now is only available as an ebook, and no one talks about it at all.

Lately SF circles have been having a recurring conversation about the improbable maleness of the SF canon. Lists of the best or most important SF often default to a few well-known mid–20th-century male writers–Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, etc.–many of whom were never worth reading in the first place, let alone fifty or sixty years after their time. (Yeah, Foundation was influential once, but there’s no reason for a SF fan to read it now any more than a student of English literature needs to read The Castle of Otranto.) These are the only writers the list-makers have heard of, so they’re the only writers who appear in these lists, so they’re the only writers later list-makers have heard of. It’s a vicious cycle.

But canons aren’t fixed. Ask anyone to name the greatest American novel and chances are they’ll nominate Moby Dick. But Moby Dick flopped when it was new and didn’t find its audience until the 1920s. The SF canon, after 50 years of critical reappraisals, is going to look different, too. I wish I had a time machine so I could see how it looks.

Recent Reading

I have several half-finished book reviews sitting on my hard drive, all of books I liked quite a bit. They’re unfinished partly because my attention span for writing hasn’t been great, but mostly because of impostor syndrome: I’m having a hard time convincing myself these potential posts say anything intelligent or interesting. Since I ought to be getting some practice in, I’ve written a few paragraphs on books about which I have much less to say:

Agatha Christie, Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia

Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and she often accompanied him on digs. Occasionally she worked her archaeological experience into her novels by sending Hercule Poirot off to stumble on murders in random middle eastern countries. She didn’t use nearly enough of her experience for my taste–for all that she knew her stuff, the settings of these novels read like a generic archaeological dig and foreign tourist site and could have been set anywhere in the world.

Trevor Baxendale, Fear of the Dark

This Doctor Who tie-in novel was first published in the years before the current series began. At the time BBC Books published one or two Doctor Who novels every month. I skipped this one at the time because Trevor Baxendale’s novels were always terrible. This one is a short story’s worth of secondhand ideas padded out to a 300 page novel. Here we have all the laziest clichés of late 1990s-early 2000s Doctor Who: Grimdark cynicism. Corporate space marines. Incessant deaths (all so grotesque I’m surprised the BBC republished this book in this more family-friendly era). An alien planet in the far future inhabited by people who talk and think like they’re from 20th century London (and who include, between a starship crew and a mining expedition, exactly one woman). A half-assed monster that is literally called “The Dark” and does evil things because it’s evil.

There used to be a Doctor Who novel just like this almost every month. So much nostalgia. I almost enjoyed it.

Various authors, “Time Trips”

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who novellas as ebooks under the name “Time Trips.” They’re all very weird.

“Into the Nowhere” is about a planet of traps and walking skeletons controlled by a grotesque nerd caricature who turns out to be guarding all the knowledge in the universe, man, which manifests as the tree from the Garden of Eden because it pulled the image from Clara’s mind. The Doctor, while bleeding from his palms, tells Clara not to eat the metaphorical apple because “the entropic chronicle of perpetuity” would depress her.

“The Death Pit” is a fourth Doctor adventure on a golf course with a deadly alien sand trap. It’s perhaps trying just a little too hard to be Douglas Adams, but it’s charming and at times genuinely funny.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about a sentient time war weapon that turns the interior of the TARDIS into a temporally indeterminate English village with occasional giant monsters. The strangest thing in the book is that the owner of the bed and breakfast is patterned after Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” for all the world as though the Doctor might have had her on his mind. Or even remembered her at all. (When I wrote this review for a post on a mailing list I had to Google the episode to remember her name.)

These novellas are the product of writers who are doing their own thing rather than delivering a “standard” Doctor Who story. That’s fine by me regardless of the quality of the results (not that these three are bad). We have all the standardized, formulaic Doctor Who stories we need at this point.

Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze

Like a lot of SF, this is the story of a young man discovering he has a hidden destiny and saving the world from an alien invasion. Because Avram Davidson wrote it, it is much better than that description makes it sound. Also much weirder. There’s an other-dimensional maze that runs all across space and time. At the center the hero has a philosophical discussion with Lao-Tze, Apollonius of Tyana, and Benjamin Bathurst. A villainous John Birch Society-type teams up with the aliens to take over the United States, cut taxes, destroy the welfare state, and outlaw milk pasteurization; he has the idea that he might then use them as contract labor to keep wages down. We get chapters from the point of view of the aliens themselves, humanoids who live and think like hive insects. Plus Ambrose Bierce turns up. It’s all as well written as you’d expect from Davidson. The most significant flaw is a lack of important female characters, but that’s sadly common with older SF.

David Edison, The Waking Engine

Portal fantasies have been out of style for a while but I’ve seen a few new ones lately. This is one of them, as well as an afterlife fantasy–the idea is that when you die you’re serially reborn on a series of China Miévillesque worlds until you finally reach the place that offers True Death.

I found this novel paradoxically both too weird and not weird enough. Too weird because the afterlife world seems like a collection of grotesque and baroque images that give very little idea of how people in this world would actually live their day-to-day lives. Not weird enough because the hero is almost as bland as an everyman can get. It was several chapters before I even had an idea of what he looked like, or what he was wearing. (The book described him lying down after work and waking up dead; I assumed he was wearing a suit and had to rapidly readjust my assumptions when the book mentioned a heavy metal t-shirt.)

The Waking Engine also suffers from a problem common to afterlife SF, the temptation to pack the story full of celebrity guest stars–here we get Richard Nixon, Cleopatra and Walt Whitman, with a cameo by Kurt Cobain. The end leaves plenty of plot threads hanging, so I’m sensing yet another series; I’m not sure whether I’ll try the next one.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Like Masters of the Maze this is really good, but not in a way that inspired me to try writing a full review. I read it a few months ago and at the time I was finding most novels hard to get into, but this one eventually built momentum and I finished the last hundred pages in an evening. It’s a discursive, essayistic novel, which is something that’s appealed to me lately.

It’s published as mainstream but is arguably SF in that it plays with scientific concepts in support of a sort of magic realist narrative, and would probably have been a better Hugo award candidate than most of what ended up on the ballot.

Saki, The Unrest-Cure

Despite my good intentions, I haven’t managed to write much lately. I did come up with a short review inspired by a book I wasn’t expecting to dislike.

Coverof The Unrest Cure

I bought The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories because it was an NYRB Classics reprint illustrated by Edward Gorey. The only Saki stores I had ever come across in anthologies were “Tobermory,” “The Open Window” and “Sredni Vashtar.” It turns out there’s a reason for that. Once you’ve read those three stories, you have read all the Saki you will need for the rest of your life.

Judging from The Unrest-Cure Saki had exactly one trick, which he rehashed every time he put pen to paper: brief and often plotless vignettes of upper-class English people being politely horrible to each other. The blurb explains that “Saki’s heroes are enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty and fatuousness of a decorous and doomed world,” by which it means they are assholes. Saki’s favorite story–it is the same story every time; only the details vary–is the tale of a young person who gets one up on an older person through a mean-spirited prank. It felt as though there were more of these in The Unrest-Cure than there were actual pages in the book.

Saki’s saving graces are his dryly understated prose and ability to come up with the occasional genuinely witty line. (i.e., “Children are given us to discourage our better emotions.”) But there aren’t enough of these to make up for the numbing monotony of Saki’s upper-class prank fixation. Get this one if you’re an Edward Gorey fan, but don’t try to read more than one of these stories in a row.

Links to Things

I haven’t posted one of these in a while.

Agatha Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel

As a Miss Marple novel, At Bertram’s Hotel is a dud. It’s a detective novel that doesn’t allow its hero to solve the crime. Miss Marple does some eavesdropping and makes a couple of deductions at the same time as a police detective, but never gets to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. At one point she plays the role of the witness amazed when the brilliant detective explains the surprising truth behind what she saw. That’s just backwards.

What makes At Bertram’s Hotel interesting is what Miss Marple does while she’s failing to detect. Bertram’s Hotel caters to elderly guests who want an environment that reminds them of their youth, and tourists who want to see the London of fifty years ago. Christie belabors how Bertram’s serves proper muffins and poached eggs and seed cake. The rooms are done up in tasteful archaic styles, camouflaging their modern fittings. The staff resemble the happily efficient servants who only ever existed in P. G. Wodehouse novels. The guests resemble the aging gentry who only ever existed in… um, Agatha Christie novels. During her stay at Bertram’s Miss Marple shops for the plain old-fashioned dish towels she has trouble finding nowadays, and visits places she remembers from her youth.

But Miss Marple finds that most of the places she remembers have changed or been built over. Bertram’s out-of-time fittings begin to look unnatural. Even the guests don’t look quite how she expects elderly people to look in the world of 1965. She concludes “that one should not ever try to go back–that the essence of life is going forward.”

It’s generally an error to assume an author’s biography has anything at all to do with her writing. But in this case it’s tempting to draw conclusions from the fact that, when At Bertram’s Hotel was published, Agatha Christie was 75 years old, near Miss Marple’s age. At Bertram’s Hotel feels like Christie letting herself indulge in nostalgia for the old days, then spending the rest of the novel gently scolding herself for doing so.