Guards! Guards!: The Graphic Novel

By Stephen Briggs

Rating: 4 stars

This isn’t a review of Guards Guards per se, a book that I’ve read a few times and am fond of, but of the graphic novel. The art here by Graham Higgins is nice, very different from the Josh Kirby stuff that I grew up with, but fitting for the grimy world of Ankh-Morpork and its inhabitants. The only problem is the same problem that afflicts all adaptations of Terry Pratchett: namely that so much of the humour comes from the narrative, the description and the footnotes, much of which is lost here, leaving only the bare dialogue, and the lovely art, to cover it.

However, as I say, this is an affliction of all Pratchett adaptations, and this graphic novel is as good as you can get, Stephen Briggs knowing his job (he also adapted several of the books for the theatre) and Higgins providing some lovely art.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575070714
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2000

Adventures With the Wife in Space: Living With Doctor Who

By Neil Perryman

Rating: 4 stars

I can’t remember where I first discovered Adventures with the Wife in Space, one fan’s rewatching of Classic Who from the beginning with his non-fan wife, but I quickly became hooked, always being pleased when a new episode popped up in my RSS reader. In no small part was this due to ‘the wife’, Sue, whose witty, insightful, often furniture-themed comments were a delight to read. I count myself a fan (even a Whovian), although my knowledge is patchy (although I did read a lot of the Target novelisations as a child) but haven’t seen nearly as many stories as Sue has. And she has my undying respect for sitting through the ‘recons’, something that I’ve never managed.

When I heard that the Perrymans were turning the blog into a book, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. There’ a lot of material in there, and I imagined a lot would have to be cut out to bring it to book length. However, that’s not what this is. Although there are snippets from the blog here, it’s more a memoir of Neil and Doctor Who, as well as the story of the blog.

To be honest, the first section of the book is probably the least interesting to me, which tells of Neil’s childhood and early memories of Doctor Who. In the book, as with the blog, it’s Sue who is the main attraction. She has a chapter to herself where she tells us how she met Neil, but it’s her interruptions throughout the rest of the book, and in the excerpts from the blog, that provide much of the humour and pleasure of the book.

Now, I know I’ll never watch the entire series from beginning to end (especially not the bloody recons!), but I certainly want to go back and re-read the blog from the start.

Book details

ISBN: 9780571298105
Publisher: Faber Faber
Year of publication: 2013

The Airs of Earth

By Brian W. Aldiss

Rating: 3 stars

This collection of short stories emerged as part of the so-called New Wave of science fiction of the ’60s and ’70s, bringing experimentalism, characterisation and ‘literature’ to the genre. I’ve never got on that well with New Wave SF, primarily because the experimentalism is often too much for me. I have no doubt that there’s good stuff here, but it often seems like it requires quite a lot of effort, and multiple readings, to appreciate.

In this collection, Shards is the worst for this, while A Kind of Artistry and O Moon of my Delight try to explore character in diverse circumstances. There are a couple of political stories, Basis for Negotiation telling of British neutrality in a third world war and The International Smile being a, from one perspective, somewhat light-hearted story of political chicanery (although from another perspective, it’s a grim story of political Realpolitik and the lengths that some will go to for power, and a warning as to what could go wrong).

I’m sure fans of the New Wave will enjoy this a lot, and even for someone like me, who prefers the derring-do of golden age SF to the New Wave, there are some stories to appreciate and enjoy.

Book details

ISBN: 9780450013294
Publisher: New English Library
Year of publication: 1963

The Stainless Steel Rat for President (Stainless Steel Rat, #8)

By Harry Harrison

Rating: 3 stars

Slippery Jim DiGriz is back, this time away to the paradise planet (so the tourist brochures say) of Paraiso Aqui, from where a garbled message has come. Now a reformed character, he finds a planet with a fa├žade of democracy but ruled by a brutal dictator. With his psychopathic wife and equally crooked children by his side, he sets out to rig the already rigged election and bring true democracy to this benighted planet.

A fun short novel, it’s nice to see Slippery Jim up to his old tricks again, with his apparently infinite supply of smoke bombs, sleeping gas and other bits and bobs that a straight crook needs.

Just as I was thinking that Jim was having everything his own way, he ran into some serious trouble, that slowed him down (although being the Stainless Steel Rat, not for all that long).

There are a few satirical notes on dictatorship and democracy, but these are kept to the background, leaving the adventure and humour to come to the fore. A fun, if a somewhat shallow, story that’s enjoyable and quick to read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780722145364
Publisher: Sphere Books Limited
Year of publication: 1982

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating: 5 stars

I love The Lord of the Rings. I first read it in my early teens and have re-read it every few years since then. I acknowledge and appreciate the various flaws and weaknesses that it has – being a foundational work of the genre, it’s had more than its share of critical attention – but I will always love it, despite those. Yes, it has effectively no women characters with agency; yes it’s a very conservative book; yes, it portrays entire races as evil and could be regarded as mildly racist, but I still love it.

I love the adventure, I love the world-building, I love the Hobbits and the great love between them (and choose to ignore the modern snark over the relationship between Frodo and Sam). These days, I even love the poetry and Tom Bombadil!

Each time I read the book, I find something new. The latest (2019) read made me aware of just how pastoral Tolkien’s world must have been. He lived in a time where it was perfectly normal to walk for miles a day, across fields and large grasslands because there were no roads. Or, at least, there was a strong collective memory of such a world that he was able to to use to create Middle-Earth. From the urban 21st century, where I would worry about climbing a Scottish hill if there isn’t a clear path, this seems more alien than Orcs, Rings and Nazgul! (Also, everyone in this world always seems to know where north is, and to give and receive cardinal directions without a compass.) The descriptions, especially early in the book, of the Shire, almost make me nostalgic for a world long-gone (almost!).

I’ve never worn the One, but The Lord of the Rings has me in its grasp as surely as the Ring had Gollum.

Book details

ISBN: 9780261102309
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Year of publication: 1955

Cocktail Time

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

The fifth Earl of Ickenham is easily bored. And he has taken it upon himself to spread sweetness and light amongst all those of his acquaintance, or as some of those acquaintances might put it: meddle and interfere in others’ business. This book starts with Lord Ickenham shooting a brazil nut at his half brother-in-law ‘Beefy’ Bastable with a catapult. From then, a long, improbably Wodehousian chain of events is set in motion with, as they say, hilarious consequences.

This book is what happens when an actually clever upper class person gets to be the hero of the story. You get all the wit and madness of a Jeeves book, but with someone who doesn’t have to be prodded along.

Freddie Ickenham is a likeable character, sharp, but not so sharp that he doesn’t let tenuous and improbable chains of events build up before they are neatly untangled and all set straight, with the usual Wodehousian flair.

This is the first of Wodehouse’s ‘Uncle Fred’ books that I’ve read, but on the strength of this one, I’ll certainly be searching out others. Marvellous stuff.

Book details

ISBN: 035230197X
Publisher: Star
Year of publication: 1958

The Hugo Winners

By Isaac Asimov

Rating: 5 stars

This volume collects the short story and novelette winners of the first six Hugo Awards and offers an insight into the minds of the greats of the time. There certainly isn’t a bad story in here, and some are positively excellent. I don’t usually describe each individual contribution to a collection, but this one feels like it deserves to be an exception.

Walter M. Miller’s The Darfsteller won the Best Novelette for 1955 and tells the story of an old actor who acts as janitor in a theatre now that actors have been obsoleted by robot performers augmented by mind imprints of great actors. It’s a tale of a man out of time and is quite heartbreaking. This is nicely augmented by Eric Frank Russell’s Allamagoosa, which is a humorous tale of an item on a list of ship’s stores that nobody knows anything about.

1956’s contributions are Exploration Team by Murray Leinster and The Star by Arthur C. Clarke. The former is a very American tale of an illegal colonist on a new world, battling its native life with only a trio of bears and an eagle as helpmates and friends. He regales the Survey Officer who he rescues with his own brand of libertarianism, arguing that man has become too dependent on robots. Very little needs to be said about The Star as it’s a well-known classic of the genre, and deservedly so.

No short fiction awards were presented in 1957, but 1958 gives us Avram Davidson’s Or All the Seas with Oysters. This was the somewhat unmemorable, to be honest, story of the owner of a bicycle shop who learns more about safety pins, clothes hangers and bicycles than is good for him. This is probably the weakest story in the collection for me.

1959 goes back to having two offerings, with Clifford D. Simak’s The Big Front Yard and Robert Bloch’s The Hell-Bound Train. The former was another very American story, all about protecting property, enterprise and pulling a fast one, as a door to another world opens inside a handyman’s house. The latter is a fun deal-with-the-Devil story whose steps are signposted throughout, but is fun to follow along.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is 1960’s sole contribution, but what a contribution. The novelette that would form the basis of the novel of the same name, it hasn’t got the depth and nuance of the expanded version, but it still brings a tear to the eye. A fabulous piece of writing.

Finally, in 1961, we get Poul Anderson’s novelette The Longest Voyage about a renaissance-era voyage of circumnavigation around a world and the tales of a sky ship that reach them. This was a lovely story, that I found to be slightly marred by the portrayal of the ‘savages’. It felt very much like a tale of civilised white people coming upon a race of ignorant savages, who had to be Taught A Lesson. This may be a bit harsh, as Anderson’s travellers don’t make any particular racist comments on the civilisation they encounter, other than noting that their skin is a little darker than their own, but their portrayal as either innocent or greedy, while the sailor officers are gentlemen is a little disturbing, although, of course, I may be being over-sensitive. It goes without saying that the usual product-of-their-time filter needs to be applied to all the stories here.

The editor of this anthology is Isaac Asimov, who puts his own stamp on the book through his little introductions to each story, wherein he describes the author and his frustrations at having to hand the awards out and not be the recipient of one. Some might find Asimov’s tone grating, but I like it and find it a great bit of glue to hold these stories together.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140019056
Year of publication: 1962

The Space Trilogy

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

This volume collects three short novels by Arthur C. Clarke under a general ‘colonising the solar system’ theme.

The first, Islands in the Sky (4*), is one that I remember reading as a teenager and being disappointed by. Upon re-reading, however, I really enjoyed it. Part of the problem that I had with this book first time round was the cover blurb, which made it sound awfully exciting. And, with the best will in the world, it isn’t. A teenager wins a TV gameshow trip to anywhere in the world, and through a legal loophole manages to wangle his way to the innermost of the space stations that girdle the earth. The book tells of the various adventures that he had there. This is all good, enjoyable stuff, but it’s also a book where problems are solved with solid Clarke-ian engineering, by sensible men who probably smoke pipes. I wish I could go back and warn my younger self to ignore the blurb on the back and appreciate the book for what it is.

Then we have The Sands of Mars (4*), about half of which isn’t actually set on the red planet at all, but on the ship taking our protagonist there. There’s a lot of description of life on a spaceship, the sorts of problems that might occur, then similar sorts of things on Mars itself. Again, very solid engineering and science, apart from the big whoppers of life and (something Clarke ruefully acknowledges in the foreword), there being no mountains on Mars! This book also has more of a story than ‘Islands in the Sky’, introducing politics between Mars and the homeworld.

The final book, Earthlight (5*) is the best of the three. It retains an everyman narrator, in common with the others, but has a much stronger story, with conflict brewing between Earth and the Federation that comprises Venus, Mars and the outer moons. Central to this conflict is that heavy metals are rare in the solar systems, and that Earth is hoarding them, preventing the colonists from getting access to them. However, a discovery on the moon could change everything, and war may be inevitable. While being set mostly in a lunar observatory, full of scientists, this book is still pacier and more political than the other books, and filled with some marvellous turns of phrase.

All three books here were written before the start of the space age. While they get some things right, there’s obviously a lot that they got wrong, most notably the extent to which human space exploration and colonisation throughout the solar system would have progressed. Still, all three books are optimistic visions of humanity achieving greatness despite the odds, and very enjoyable reads.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857987805
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2000

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