On the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

I’m a self-confessed, lifelong Russophile. I read a lot of Russian literature, I love Russian art, I’ve worked there – training cosmonauts at Star City – and I’ve travelled some of its byways, going from St. Petersburg to Archangel, via the length of Karelia, the White Sea and the Solovetsky Islands.

In the past, in political discussions with friends, I’ve often tended to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, not because I like the guy, but because I detest the hypocrisy of the West; of our governments, our military-industrial complex, and of their poodles in mainstream media and propaganda outlets like the Orwellian-named ‘Integrity Initiative,’ and Bellingcat. I always try to take an objective view, and find out the facts and draw my own conclusions. It’s a trait that often gets me into trouble, but it’s a part of who I am.

So when I conclude that the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is the deranged act of a madman who has completely lost the plot, then there is definitely something going on.

So first of all, let’s take a look at some establishing facts, all easily verifiable, even in today’s disinformation jungle.

Firstly, at the break up of the Soviet Union, the West gave Gorbachev a solemn assurance that NATO would not expand eastwards. This was in return for Gorbachev’s pledge not to interfere with German reunification. The West has completely reneged on its assurance over the past three decades. Now I get that this is a complex issue. What do you do, if you have a raft of former Eastern Bloc countries, like Poland and the Baltic States, all clamouring for NATO membership because they fear their Russian neighbour? Well what you do, I’m afraid, is say ‘no,’ because you have given an assurance.

For those who think I’m being harsh or unrealistic, let’s look at a credible ‘what-if’ scenario. With NATO membership not possible, the former Eastern Bloc states may well have formed their own mutual defence pact – let’s call it TATO, for the sake of argument. After a few years, NATO and TATO start to carry out joint military exercises and before you know it, you have the same sort of security landscape as you wanted, without any of the lies and deceit.

Secondly, it is a fact, however much we would like to conveniently ignore it, that there is at least one international precedent for what Putin has done. Twenty-three years ago, Albanian separatists started agitating in a province of Serbia called Kosovo. The Serbian government sent in the military to quell the dissent and the West responded by going into Kosovo and setting it up as a separate state, and bombing Belgrade. Now, when Russian separatists start agitating in the Lukhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine, and the government sends in forces to quell them, and Russia then goes into those places and sets them up as separate states and starts bombing Kiev, the West is aghast.

Why the difference? Well the answer is obvious insofar as by the Western narrative, Serbia was the ‘bad guy’ in the first case, and Russia is the ‘bad guy’ in the second case. But I hope you see my point.

Thirdly, eight years ago, Russia annexed Crimea, then part of Ukraine, to general international condemnation. My take on this at the time was that it was done to avert an humanitarian crisis. There were plenty of stories floating around at that time, that the fascist elements in the Kiev leadership were planning acts of ethnic cleansing against Ukraine’s Russian population. Was there any substance to these stories? Did the Russian intelligence services have hard evidence that something was going to happen in Crimea? I have no idea. But that’s the problem – if you are going to avert an act of ethnic cleansing, say, you have to take action before it happens. Probably, you can never be one hundred percent sure that something would have happened if you hadn’t have acted. Take the example of the genocide in Rwanda. When it happened, the West wrung its hands and bewailed how terrible it all was, but said that obviously it couldn’t have done anything to prevent it, as that would have violated Rwanda’s sovereignty and international law. Well, in 2014, in Crimea, Putin rightly or wrongly grasped that nettle.

My own view, eight years on, is that Putin was probably right. Why? Well after Crimea was annexed, Ukraine cut off the drinking water supply to Crimea, which came from other Ukrainian territories. Now, if you loved the people of Crimea and believed that they had been snatched away unjustly, by a neighbouring monster and you wanted them back, to live in peace and harmony all together in the Ukraine, why would you do that? It is clear evidence of ill-will on the part of Ukraine’s leadership, to its Russian minority.

The question of Ukraine’s desire to join the EU, is also interesting here. EU member states have an obligation, enshrined in the acquis, to properly safeguard the rights and interests of the principal ethnic minorities in their territory. So I just don’t get the position of Ukraine’s leadership. You can either oppress your Russian minority, or you can join the EU, but you can’t do both. They seem to want to do both – can’t they see the impossibility of that?

Incidentally, it is this fundamental principal of the EU acquis, that has led me, well up to this week, at least, to believe that states like Estonia, for example, had nothing to fear from Russia. Their EU membership requires them to do right by their Russian minority, and so long as that happens, then I don’t see that Russia is going to be crossing their border anytime soon. Look: I’m not Estonian, I haven’t lived in the shadow of Russia like the Estonian people have, and I don’t have the cultural background, or the fine appreciation of the weight of history there, to know what other things contribute to that sense of threat. All I can do is report what I perceive as an outsider looking in.

Fourthly, you have to consider the sheer bias in the reporting on Ukraine for the last decade or so, by the West’s mainstream media which has become little more than a mouthpiece for parroting whatever propaganda is fed them by the West’s intelligence services. The work of a courageous band of independent journalists can only go a small way towards redressing this balance. By now, the propaganda has gone on for so long that many of the citizens of western countries believe it all implicitly and, more sadly still, so do their leaders. So when we are fed eight years of stories about Russian separatist and Russian aggression towards the rest of Ukraine, it becomes the truth. The notion that the West could be acting the provocateur, goading Ukraine to waggle a stick in the tiger’s cage is dismissed as fantasy – the delusions of Russia’s stooges.

There is only one place to go to get the real picture of what is happening in the Ukraine, and that is the website of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which has been monitoring conflict situations like the Ukraine for over 50 years and has long been the gold standard for such things. For the past eight years it has even-handedly reported all actions committed, including violations of the Minsk II protocol (signed in 2015 to try and stop the fighting), by all parties in the conflict. This even-handedness means that it is not used as a source by western mainstream media, as to do so would de-bunk the narrative being supplied to it by our intelligence services. Recently, the US, UK and Canada have removed their observers from the OSCE mission in the Ukraine, and have begun to brief against it, which tells you all you need to know about the West’s agenda.

-oOo-

There are other complicating factors that muddy the Ukraine situation further:-

  • Crimea was part of Russia, within the Soviet Union, until the 1950’s, when it was gifted by decree to the Ukraine by Nikita Krushchev, on what is now seen to be the rather flimsy pretext of the integral character of the economy, the territorial proximity and the close economic and cultural ties between the Crimea Province and the Ukrainian SSR. This is largely bullshit. The constitutionality of the decree has been challenged several times since, and Krushchev himself is rumoured as saying that his peers must have been drunk to sign it off.
  • Shortly before Russia annexed Crimea, there was a unilateral referendum held in Crimea that delivered the overwhelming result to secede from the Ukraine and integrate with Russia. Given the high proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea, I don’t think anyone seriously believes that this referendum was rigged. By that measure, what happened to Crimea shouldn’t be regarded as annexation at all, but was rather ‘the will of the people.’ But of course, the legality of remedial secession is still unclear in international law, as evidenced by the debate around a similar referendum in Catalonia in 2017. It is no surprise that Ukraine dismissed Crimea’s referendum, using the same arguments as Spain had done a few years earlier for Catalonia.
  • Then there are the Nazi/fascist angles. It is a fact that there are strong fascist elements attached to Ukraine’s leadership, present in Ukraine’s culture and making up some of the armed forces that are currently fighting against Russia. I think my very strong anti-fascist views are well known from these pages by now, and personally, just the first angle above, is enough for me to want nothing whatsoever to do with Ukraine. I do not subscribe to the doctrine that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ and I wish the West didn’t either. I find it mind boggling that ‘we’ are currently arming Nazi’s to fight against Russia. Going any further than that, however, risks falling down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theorists. Yes it is true that at a UN vote in 2016, only the US, Ukraine and Palau declined to condemn the glorification of Nazism. Yes it is true that during the Trump administration there was a colossal growth in the visibility of fascist tendencies within the US. Yes it is true that there are allegations currently going around about corrupt dealings between the Biden family and Ukraine. But is the current situation in the Ukraine part of a burgeoning plot to bring in a fascist new world order. I don’t think so: I hope I’m not proved wrong.

-oOo-

Whenever a situation like the one in Ukraine emerges, the first question you have to ask is ‘Cui bono?’ – Who benefits? Well Ukraine isn’t benefitting – the country is getting trashed, and that includes the parts under the control of the Russian separatists. Russia isn’t benefitting: Ukraine hasn’t rolled over, so the Russian military will start to suffer setbacks. On top of that there are the economic sanctions for the Russian people to suffer domestically, and for Putin personally his loss of credibility at home and, to the degree he had any left, abroad. Europe isn’t benefitting, we’ve another huge influx of refugees to look after on top of those arriving from Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

No, if you want to know cui bono, you have to look to the West’s military-industrial complex, and the opening up for them of another lucrative theatre for arms sales, the principal drive for which comes from our political leaders, who are to a large extent in the pockets of this complex.

The United States, as the principal member of NATO not part of Europe, has a particular role and is a particular beneficiary here. The United States derives enormous economic benefit from maintaining a cluster of conflict zones around the edge of Europe – Syria, Libya, for example and now Ukraine – that present a large and constant drain on European resources, though military commitments and through the need to aid the large and constant streams of refugees that flow from these zones. Without this drain, these resources could be directed towards further improving innovation, and the competitiveness of European business on global markets, thereby hitting US corporations on the bottom line.

-oOo-

None of what I have described above is rocket science, nor is any of it new. in 2015, eminent American political scientist John Mearsheimer made this analysis.

Which brings me finally back to Putin. Given all that I have outlined above, why the fuck would you give the West exactly what it wanted, unless you’re a madman who has totally lost the plot?

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Finding Yambo

Here’s a short thing, inspired by a Twitter post from the always-interesting Theo Paijmans (@memizon) yesterday, about one of Yambo’s tales of Lovecraft-like derring-do at the North Pole: Manuscript Found in a Bottle (1905).

A quick Google around, and several things struck me simultaneously. Firstly, I’d never heard of Yambo, and there was no article about him in SFE (my usual first go to) either. Secondly, he clearly occupies a similar position in Italy, as a father of science fiction adventure, that Jules Verne does in France. Thirdly, there’s nothing of his in English translation, so far as I could tell. This last is important – if you look at Yambo’s titles, they’re often derivative, mimicking Verne and Poe, inter alia: maybe, you’d be forgiven for wondering, he’s rather too derivative, maybe not even a very good wordsmith. I can’t answer that, not being a fluent Italian reader. But what Yambo also did is illustrate his works, and some of those are very good indeed.

Yambo was the pseudonym of Enrico Novelli, or to give the full form, Enrico de ‘Conti Novelli da Bertinoro (1874 – 1943), a journalist, writer and illustrator from a noble family with Sammarinese roots. He was the son of noted actor Ermete Novelli.

In 1890, aged 16, he published his first fantastical novel Dalla Terra alle Stelle – Viaggio Attraverso l’Infinito (From Earth to the Stars – Voyage through the Infinite), through the Florentine publishing house Salani.

As a journalist, he illustrated his articles for magazines with cartoon characters that became known as his pupazzetto (puppets). Pupazzetto was also the name of the Rome-based illustrated monthly magazine he took over in 1900. It had been founded by his friend, the journalist Gandolin, in 1896. Under Yambo’s tenure it continued until 1909. Also in 1900, he illustrated the first Italian edition of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

As a children’s writer, Yambo found fame in 1902, with the publication of The Adventures of Ciuffettino – a small boy. There’s a nice illustration from the book here, in the palace of the King of the Slackers. I don’t like the look of that colossal spider’s web! In 1910, he entered the world of cinema, writing, producing, directing and acting in An Interplanetary Marriage – a science fiction comedy.

Yambo is most remembered for his fantastical books and comics. His titles include the ghastly sounding Two Years on a Bicycle (1899); the obligatory Atlantis novel, Atlantide (1901); the obligatory moon novel, The Lunar Colony (1908); A Journey to the Centre of the Invisible Universe (1919); Around the World in Eighty Months (1925). The titular influences of the last two are clear. Many of his tales are of the found manuscript type – the last writings of some vanished adventurer.

He died of a heart attack brought on by an allied aerial bombardment of Florence, on December 29th 1943.

(Thanks to Fondazione Franco Fossati, for some of the information reproduced herein).

A Formative Supernova

During the years I spent as a student in Newcastle upon Tyne, I was a regular reader, indeed, a collector, of Heavy Metal magazine. Thumbing through these old copies the other day, I was struck that one particular issue, that of August 1980, must have been an absolutely formative supernova for late teen me. As you go through life, some of your memories on how particular interests started can become hazy, so revisiting this was amazing. The sheer number of things within this one issue’s pages that evidently sparked lifelong obsessions, interests or at the very least regularly recurring themes for me, was frankly gobsmacking.

Where to begin? On page 4 there is Lou Stathis’s Muzick column, with an erudite deep dive into the art of The Residents. Fucking Hell. This is the place where I first met The Residents. This is where the forty-odd year love affair began! And, wouldn’t you know it, Stathis names them in plain sight, as the four principals of The Cryptic Corporation. Looking back, it seems so obvious!

As happens when you reminisce, questions fire off at tangents. Whatever happened to Lou Stathis, was my first thought when re-reading the piece. A quick Google gives me the sad news: he died of cancer, aged 44, in 1997. What a loss: he was good.

Page 5 now, and we’re onto the Flix column, by the enigmatic Bhob. And what do we have but an equally deep dive into John Parker’s Dementia (1953): The first foreign film made in Hollywood. My reaction to the article was something along the lines of ‘Wow – I must watch that!’ A thought that stayed with me for the next three-and-a-half decades until I finally laid my hands on a DVD version a few years ago. I mean, these days, if I read an article that provokes a similar reaction, I’ve forgotten the title again by the following week! Dementia is the tale of a knife-wielding woman (‘The Gamine,’ played by Parker’s then secretary, Adrienne Barrett in what was practically her only film role) on the run through a nightmarish Los Angeles. The project’s big name was Bruno VeSota, the Orson Welles of B Movies, whose character falls foul of The Gamine’s blade. The film’s music was done by the legendary George Antheil, whom I’ve previously blogged about here.

Dementia‘s Wikipedia entry has some great quotes:-

  • A psycho-social critique of the violence against women endemic to patriarchal society – film scholar John Parris Springer.
  • The first American Freudian film – journalist Herman G. Weinberg.

It’s also the subject of one of my favourite film buff jokes, when you put your copies of Dementia and Coppola’s Dementia 13 side by side and say knowingly, ‘Now all I need are parts two to twelve.’

As for the rest of the issue, it introduced me to three of my lifelong BD favourites: Moebius, pen name of the great Belgian illustrator Jean Giraud (1938-2012), with an interview on page 6; Phillippe Druillet (1944 – ), whose serialised Salammbo featured from page 45; and last but not least Matt Howarth ( – ), whose serialised Changes featured from page 65, and yes it was the Even An Idol Hasta Eat episode! Moebius and Druillet may be the giants, but it has really been Howarth’s Bugtown, and the escapades of the Post Brothers, Monsieur Boche, Caroline the Clone and all the bloody rest of ’em that did it for me the most over the years. And of course, in 1995, Howarth and Stathis collaborated on Stalking Ralph – the Post Brothers contra The Residents, and the theft of Mr. Redeye explained. Wheels within wheels. What joy!

Heavy Metal is inextricably linked, for me, with the Newcastle science fiction scene of the time. The university had a very active SF society – we regularly produced our own fanzine, Psi-Phi and used to get professional writers to come and talk to us. It was usually Bob Shaw, which explains how he was the first pro that I became friends with – a shared love of puns helped: we were regulars in the fan room at cons (back when cons used to have fan rooms) from the 1980’s until the early 1990’s, when I moved abroad and was off the scene for a few years. Bob died before I started attending cons regularly again: such an untimely loss.

There were three good places to acquire science fiction in the area back then. Incredibly, the science fiction buyer at the Newcastle branch of W.H. Smiths had the freedom to get in US imports, so the place was a real goldmine. You can’t imagine such corporate latitude enduring today. There was also an indie SF bookshop – Timeslip – and best of all, Brainstorm in Gateshead (I believe it still exists today, but in Washington). The proprietor of Brainstorm was forever trying to push somewhat dodgy-sounding comics (Tales From the Leather Nun is a title that springs to mind) at us so we were always wary of his recommendations. Which is how I totally failed to buy any copies of issue no. 1 of Viz.

Just When You Thought the Hugo Awards Couldn’t Go Any Lower

I’ve blogged before, here and here about the eye-watering levels of hypocrisy exhibited by the international Science Fiction community, when it comes to fascism. How any group can keep a straight face, while simultaneously showering praise when someone calls out the fascism of our past (thank you Jeanette Ng, at Worldcon 77), and being so completely oblivious to the fascist tendencies of our present (take a bow Worldcon 79), is entirely beyond me.

The Hugo Awards have been presented annually at Worldcons since the mid-1950’s. They’re administered by the current organising committee and voted on by its members. So it probably shouldn’t have come as any surprise, when the organising committee of Worldcon 79 decided to have the 2021 Hugos sponsored by a developer of autonomous killer robots from the military-industrial complex of the most bellicose nation on the planet.

The Hugo Awards have been a zombie dinosaur for some years now. They should have been given a decent burial years ago, once it began to emerge that they had been gamed. But it is a sad tendency of modern times that nothing is ever allowed to run its allotted course any more and die a natural death. Everything is now so precious that it has to be driven onward forever, even after it has started to stink up the armchair in the corner of the living room and eye the grandchildren hungrily.

I’ve often said that I’d love to win a Hugo, so that I could have the pleasure of turning it down. Of course that will never happen; I’ll never be a good enough writer. But I really don’t understand why anyone else would want one now, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other winners over the years, in the full knowledge that a few of them are there not on merit, but because the awards got gamed. Why couldn’t the Hugos have been honourably retired, and a new award instated from a blank slate, hardwired with all the technological checks and balances that are needed in our social-media addled information age?

I really hope that this latest scandal will finally prove to be the last nail in the coffin of the Hugos and that something new and better emerges from their ashes, but do I really think it will happen? I’m afraid not. It’s far more likely that at future Worldcons we’ll see them sponsored by Donald Trump, Skynet or the Daleks.

Thinking Back to September 11th 2001

In August 2000, I began an assignment at UN Headquarters and went to live in New York City. On September 9th 2001, I had just returned there, after taking a break in Ireland.

The morning of Tuesday 11th was gorgeous: all glittering sunshine in the early morning chill, blue sky and the promise of a fine Autumn day. I followed my normal routine, walking to HQ from my home in Midtown East. I had a smoked salmon and cream cheese ‘everything’ bagel and a coffee in the basement around 08:00, and then went up to the 19th floor to work.

Around 09:15 somebody called out, ‘Oh look, the World Trade Centre’s on fire.’

We looked. The WTC, a few km away from our perch facing E 42nd St., was indeed sending out columns of smoke and flame.

Someone went online and soon announced that a plane had crashed into it. What a tragedy we all murmured, imagining a small light aircraft somehow losing control in its vicinity.

I remember distinctly the moment when the second tower was hit. I had just turned away from the window for a second to talk to someone, and when I turned back, the two towers were on fire where there had only been one before. My immediate thought was that burning debris must have blown across from one to the other. Of course, a few minutes later, the online monitor called out the truth.

How can this be? Chorused the Americans in the room. What an incredible coincidence! Two planes in one day.

Hold on a minute, said the rest of us: the Europeans, the Asians and so on. This is no accident.

What do you mean? Responded the Americans, sounding puzzled.

Around an hour later, we got the call from the US State Department that HQ was a target and that we should evacuate. Cue walking down nineteen flights of stairs. A few days later I was told that that call was pure mischief; that the US State Department had a regular track record of screwing with UN heads like that. I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not. In general terms it has the ring of truth about it, but on this particular day, in response to this particular event, it seems too much.

My enduring image of the day, came around lunchtime/early afternoon, when all the masses who lived in Queens and worked Downtown had walked north along empty roads to cross to home over the Queensboro Bridge. It was an extraordinary spectacle.

I worked from home for a couple of days before we were allowed back into HQ. My enduring memory of that time is the constant smell, no, taste, of burnt plastic in the air, like when your TV has blown up. If there was anything lucky about the situation it was that the prevailing northerly winds blow south off the island, so all the smoke was carried out to sea. If the winds had been into the island, the whole of Manhattan would have been uninhabitable.

I met Kofi Annan that week, or maybe the beginning of the week after. He toured the whole building to shake every single person’s hand, to inspire us to keep going in adversity. It was a great gesture.

Saturday September 15th came and I definitely did not want to stay in the city.

I took the train upstate, to go walking in the Bear Mountain State Park. I had to cross the bridge over the Hudson. There was a sign: Sidewalk Closed. I did what any European would do when faced with this message – walk on the road and be careful. I got halfway across the bridge when a jeep, driven by a park ranger, screamed up to where I was. As he started interrogating me, I could only think of two things, one that I was wearing my South Park T-Shirt – not a good choice in the circumstances, and two that this guy was Donald Rumsfeld’s double – could’ve been his son.

So the deal was that what Sidewalk Closed actually meant was No Pedestrians Beyond This Point Under Any Circumstances On Pain Of Something Not Very Nice, and the reason for that was that West Point military academy was not far away and clearly any pedestrian hereabouts after what happened on Tuesday, would be carrying a bomb in their backpack for the purposes of blowing the bridge up.

I was ordered into the jeep and driven to the ranger station, where I had my passport taken away and was locked in a room.

Ah hour later I was let go. I presume it was my diplomatic visa saved me from further grief (thank you UN). Of course now all the margin in my trip planning had gone and I would practically have to jog my route to get to my rendezvous across the park in Harriman in time. An hour later I ran into a bear. Fortunately I must have been downwind and I managed to circumnavigate it without a close encounter. More delays though, Aaarrgh!

An hour after that, I met a party of walkers. ‘There’s reports of a bear in the area. They don’t usually come this close to NYC.’ They said.

‘I know.’ I replied.

I experienced the best and worst of New York City in the weeks that followed.

On the one hand, the tragedy really brought it home to the outsider, that amidst all the glass and high-rise, there are actual communities of people: something that it’s easy to overlook. Every high-rise block that had a fire station at ground level, for example, became plastered with messages: cards, flowers, stuffed toys, from well-wishers and loved ones, mourning the loss of life within the firefighting community.

On the other hand, I also experienced hostility from New Yorkers for the first time ever, my European accent being enough to indicate that I was not from there, so maybe I was a ‘bad guy.’

My mission in New York City ended in January 2002. Living in the city in the period between September 11th and then was a pale shadow of the vivid, joyous, multicultural experience that it had been up until that point.

Some Thoughts on the ‘Expanse’ Books

[Spoilers Throughout!]

I abhor long series of books. It’s really hard to get me engaging with any story that’s more than two trilogies long. I’ve no real idea why – maybe it’s fear of the soap opera, maybe a foreboding of diminishing quality. Years ago, I started reading the Thomas Covenant books, and all was fine until The One Tree (the fifth book in the series), which was an unmitigated disaster. I vowed never to read Stephen Donaldson ever again, and only relented when my good friend Bob Ellsworth repeatedly pressed me on the virtues of the four-and-a-half book Gap series (he was right). Another time I started Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and thoroughly enjoyed them until all the tension evaporated after she got off with the chief vampire in, I think, the seventh book. I just couldn’t pick the series up again.

So if I read series, I tend to look for those with an endpoint around the six book mark. I’ve enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s books set in the world of the First Law (though, I haven’t been past Red Country yet). I’ve enjoyed Susan R. Matthews’ Jurisdiction series. And of course I’m reading (though not very often) GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

The biggest exception to my rule has been Talbot Mundy’s Jimgrim cycle, which, I suppose numbers around fifteen books, depending on how you count them.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I approached the eight and counting Expanse books with trepidation. As of writing I’m around half way through the fifth book, Nemesis Games. The first four books have a beautifully simple premise that’s a modern riff on the old ‘aliens send back plans of an [insert MacGuffin] for a scientist to build’ trope.

A long time ago, aliens launched transformative goo (called the ‘protomolecule’) at the primordial Earth, that was intended to use the nascent biological resources there to construct a gate which said aliens could then come through to occupy the place. But the goo got snared by the Saturnian system and never reached its target. Fast forward hundreds of millions of years and humanity, which has colonised a lot of the solar system, discovers said goo and sets of a chain of events that culminates in the building of the gate. The alien originators are long gone, so when humanity goes through the gate they find an interchange of other gates, leading to hundreds of solar systems with habitable planets. They begin to colonise these new worlds.

I loved the first two books (Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War) and their strong Firefly meets Prometheus vibe. The heroes are the crew of the Rocinante, a small Martian warship that they salvaged, led by Holden and his partner Naomi (think in terms of Wash and Zoe running Serenity). The villains are evil corporations trying to exploit the goo. The backdrop is the corrosive politics of the UN (Earth) vs Mars vs the Outer Planet Alliance (OPA) that keeps things on the brink of war. This is all realised through impressive feats of wordbuilding: a stagnating, social welfare clogged Earth, a militarised Mars, and credibly engineered colonies on Ceres, Ganymede and elsewhere. In the later books, the notion that with loads of new Earth-like planets to move to, harsh colonies like Mars, where humanity still needs domes to survive, will experience an exodus, is particularly well realised.

I found the third book, Abaddon’s Gate, a let down as I simply didn’t gel with two of the main PoV characters, Melba and Anna, and the arbitrary death of secondary character Sam Rosenberg really pissed me off. The fourth book (Cibola Burn) was a welcome return to form, though it was a bit repetitive, in that the climax of both books rather depended on a goo ex machina detective Miller saving the day (Miller, the best character in the series so far, was assimilated by the goo at the end of Leviathan Wakes and later appears, ghost-like, to Holden (Holden and Miller (Deceased) anyone?) on many occasions, to help him interpret and interact with the goo-fashioned constructs that are encountered).

Cibola Burn amused me as it had me thinking back to my chemistry teacher at school (are you listening Bob Worley?). While teaching chirality, he regaled us with the science fiction story he wanted to write about humans discovering another planet, that appeared a paradise, but where the optical rotation of all the biochemicals was reversed, so, for example, nothing there could be used as food. Well in Ilus, the planet at the centre of Cibola Burn, I finally got Bob’s world.

So then we get to the fifth book, Nemesis Games and it’s a real, left-field doozy. The overarching story is seemingly put on hold and the crew of the Rocinante is broken up, while we get their backstories. I’m only half way through so… Initially I was aghast, but this radical approach seems to be working for me. It’s also set me thinking as to where the second half of the series is going to go, once we get back to the main story. I assume there will be an alien threat for humanity to unite against and fight, but whether that’s remnants of the original protomolecule alien civilisation, who take exception to humanity using their gates, or whether it’s the mysterious other alien force that did for those aliens, I’m not sure yet. I suppose the latter is the more logical. We’ll see.

Postscript: 22/08/2021

OK so now I’ve read the first eight books, and I’m definitely invested in how this all ends. The fifth book, a read in progress above, turned out to be the strongest of the series to that point, in part because it was so different from what preceded it, in part because it set up Marco Inaros as the principal villain for the next phase of the narrative, and in part simply because it was just very exciting. You did really wonder if all the Rocinante crew were going to make it through the book, because of the personal nature of their stories.

The next book, Babylon’s Ashes, was dull. I get why. When you’re engaged with a multi-book narrative like this, there’s an overarching logic that has to drive it. And here that logic got us to the point where there was an awful lot of politicking going on, that had to be expounded. When you couple that with a highly telegraphed dénouement, the second (of three – Teresa Duarte still to come) ‘redemptive arc of a misguided child’ plotlines, and the fact that said child, the utterly loathsome Filip Inaros, is not terminated with extreme prejudice at any point and makes it to the end of the book, it’s not great. If they set up a tearful reunion with his mother in the last book I shall stop reading. The best thing is the idea, rather shadowing the earlier exodus from Mars, that the Belters are being abandoned by humanity as a whole, as their biological adaptations to low-g mean they can never go and live back ‘down the well’: i.e. on one of the thousand new worlds available for colonisation. The political solution to this is apt.

Books seven and eight describe the rise and fall of the Laconian Empire and they are both exceptional works of science fiction. Persepolis Rising begins around thirty years after the end of Babylon’s Ashes and describes Laconia’s protomolecule-fuelled re-emergence into the rest of human space, as a would-be conqueror, and in parallel the gradual emergence of that alien threat (so plot point confirmed). Tiamat’s Wrath describes Laconia’s, if not fall exactly, then reining-in, and the growth of the alien threat. The latter seems due in large part to the hubris of Laconia’s emperor Winston Duarte, and his insistence of waggling sticks in the alien wasp’s nest. Would they have even noticed us, much less taken retaliatory action otherwise? Maybe; maybe not. Tiamat’s Wrath also gives us the totally wonderful Teresa Duarte, the emperor’s wild card daughter, my new nominee for best character in the series.

Googling around, I note that the Expanse TV show has ceased after covering book six (?). That’s totally understandable. The thirty year gap before the seventh book means that some much-loved characters have died in the interim, and that the Rocinante crew are by our measure, entering late middle-age at best. Of course lifespans (of the privileged at least) in the Expanse universe are significantly longer than ours, so that’s less of an issue in book terms. Probably the TV company didn’t fancy the hard sell of a near-geriatric action crew (or maybe it was just the thought of the snowballing make-up budget to age the leads).

I don’t often give books star ratings, but for a series like this it seems like the thing to do. From books one to eight, in order, I’d give them 4,4,2,3,4,2,5,5.

Satirising Russian Space

‘Have you ever heard of Evel Knievel?’

‘No, I never saw Star Wars.’

I almost never walk out of movies, but I walked out of Armageddon, Bay and Bruckheimer’s 1998 asteroid disaster flick.   It had got to the bit where they had to pick up critical supplies from the Russians: cue ten minutes of mad cosmonautical mayhem, courtesy of Peter Stormare and a leaky, disintegrating, space station.  I’d never seen anything so deeply insulting: I got so angry that I could no longer stay in my seat.

Of course, there was a backstory to my being triggered. Having worked on several collaborative projects with the Russian space programme over the course of my career – principally the British Juno mission, and the two European Space Agency Euromir missions – I’d developed a sincere and abiding respect for all things related to Russian space. Not to mention that once you’ve had the legendary Alexei Leonov pour you a glass of tea from the samovar in the canteen, it changes you.

But my reaction also depended on who was doing the satirising, or at least so I once thought.

America has never been able to accept that the Soviet Union (and later Russia, leveraging that legacy), is the only nation that has ever come close to being able to ‘do’ space properly, by which I mean, breaking free of the cost and time shackles of having everything hand-built by craftsmen, and moving towards a factory production-line approach. When I was a graduate student on the first International Space University summer session, hosted by MIT in the late 1980’s, there was constant sniping about the low cost of the emerging Russian (then Soviet) launch services, which almost invariably dried up when you pointed out the economies of scale you could achieve when you’d been using the same almost identical factory-produced engine for three decades, and when you transported your rocket to the pad on a railcar, not some gargantuan crawler-transporter.

So, for me, that scene in Armageddon was Russian space viewed through the toxic prism of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, which is compelled to belittle the successes of America’s rivals. The fact that the Russians, despite the laughs and the slapstick, still save the day seemed more of a kick in the teeth, not less: why not then show the cooperation in a competent and positive light, and spread a bit of peace and goodwill around the world?

But times and opinions change. A couple of years ago I sat down to read Victor Pelevin’s sci-fi satire on the Soviet space era, Omon Ra (1992). Let’s not beat about the bush – this book makes the scene in Armageddon look like Mary Poppins. But as it was a Russian writer satirising his own country’s former programme, that was OK and I enjoyed it, right? Well actually no. My overarching reaction, to an imaginary Pelevin sitting in a chair opposite me, was How could you! Don’t you understand all the great things that great people were achieving in those times!  So maybe things aren’t so black and white after all.

I can’t close this post without mentioning Space Cadets, the British space reality TV show, that celebrated its fifteenth anniversary a few months ago. Its premise was a cod space mission run by a fictitious Russian space tourism agency, to be crewed by winning contestants following training at the base in “Krymsk” (a brand of Russian champagne – the actual location was in Suffolk).

Of course the show was more a satire on gullible Brits than on Russian space. I mention it, as it led to me working on Danny Boyle’s movie Sunshine as an astronautics advisor to the cast, as the great Prof. Chris Welch, who originally had the Sunshine gig, got double-booked with Space Cadets. I had a fabulous time. Michelle Yeoh gave me the best autograph ever, and the director enlivened proceedings by swanning in 30 minutes late, sitting down and opening: ‘So Nick, tell me about sex in space!’ Cue long digression on Newton’s Laws, bondage and dolphin sex.

Of Dugpas and the Shang-Shang

They had strange looking luggage. It was certainly not Tibetan – or, at any rate, the baskets weren’t…Shaped like flat loaves, to be slung on poles and borne by two men, or to be mounted one on each side of a horse. The two biggest were round, like snake-charmers’ baskets, only much bigger – cart-wheel diameter – with slightly domed lids, and neatly covered with waterproof cloth. Nothing Tibetan about that.

– From The Thunder Dragon Gate, by Talbot Mundy.

-oOo-

One of the more unexpected things about the fantastical fiction of Talbot Mundy, is the role of some of it in the occult backstory to the TV show Twin Peaks. The ur-text in this regard is an article in Issue #3, from 1993, of the celebrated Twin Peaks fanzine Wrapped in Plastic, which demonstrated that the story of the evil magicians (dugpas) of the Black Lodge, and of their battle with the White Lodge, originated in Mundy’s 1926 novel The Devil’s Guard (a.k.a. Ramsden). I have never seen that article, but in the same vein, there is a nice deep dive into the crossovers between the book and the show by Clayton Barr at Pop Apostle here.

The Devil’s Guard is one of the last of Mundy’s Jimgrim cycle of novels, throughout the course of which, the eponymous hero – American adventurer James Schuyler Grim – makes his long pilgrimage from Palestine, via Egypt, Central Asia, The Subcontinent and Tibet, culminating in a Reichenbach-esque showdown with supervillain Dorje, in a burning monastery beneath the Gobi Desert.

In The Devil’s Guard, Jimgrim and a team of his regulars – reporter Geoff Ramsden, Sikh warrior Narayan Singh and the babu, Chullunder Ghose – set out from northern India to rescue a former associate who has been taken by the Black Lodge. Much of the action takes place close to the border with Tibet, and there are frequent references to the fabled paradise of Shambhala.

Mundy’s familiarity with the idea of Shambhala stems from his association with the Russian-born artist, explorer and mystic Nicholas Roerich, who went on a great expedition to Asia in the late 1920’s to try and locate the place. Whilst Roerich failed, his expedition, and all of the great art and mystical writing that he produced on foot of it, cemented the ideas of seemingly super-powered Tibetan monks in general, and of the place Shambhala in particular, into the public consciousness. Thus, 1933 saw the publication of James Hilton’s famous novel Lost Horizon, in which a group of plane crash survivors disrupt the order of Shambhala (here re-named to Shangri-La). This, in turn became the subject of an iconic movie directed by Frank Capra in 1937.

One can imagine that Mundy was piqued by the success of others, on what he saw to be his patch, and he responded with two new Tibetan-themed works in similar vein – The Thunder Dragon Gate (1937) and his last novel of all, Old Ugly Face (1939). Ostensibly a duology, and collectively known as the Lobsang Pun books, on foot of the presence of His Excellency the Ringding Gelong Lama of that ilk, who has a minor, albeit memorable, role in both volumes, the two works couldn’t be more different.

The Thunder Dragon Gate, stuffed with an intercontinental kaleidoscope of villains, flies by like an Indiana Jones movie. Old Ugly Face (the title being a reference to Lobsang Pun) is, for the most part, glacial. The emotional heart of both books is Elsa Burbage. In the first, she masquerades as the wife of secret agent Tom Grayne, as together, they attempt to smuggle an important monk, known as The Keeper of the Gate, back into Tibet.

In the second, this time under the wing of secret agent Andrew Gunning, Elsa attempts to return to Tom in Tibet, having in the meantime lost the baby that she returned to India to have, and been schooled in the paranormal arts by Pun’s acolyte, Nancy Strong.

The most memorable conceit of The Thunder Dragon Gate is the supernaturally fast moving, venomous and lethal giant spider, the shang-shang. In a dazzling set-piece at a ghastly inn, a group of dugpas (here called Bön Magicians) show up, with some very special custom-made luggage – shang-shang carrying bags no less.

Tibet remained in the reading public’s eye in the decades that followed Mundy’s duology. There was German PoW Heinrich Harrer’s memoir, Seven Years In Tibet (1952); works such as The Third Eye (1956) from the pen of paranormal writer Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, a plumber from Devon; and last but not least, Lionel Davidson’s (he of Kolymsky Heights immortality) fine adventure story The Rose of Tibet (1962).

Most of all though, Mundy’s Elsa Burbage can be seen to be the direct antecedent of Sharron Macready, one third of the Geneva-based agents of NEMESIS, collectively known as The Champions: just one of a seemingly endless number of fantastically-tinged espionage and intrigue shows, spawned by Lew Grade’s ITC in the 1960’s. With an origin story combining elements of Lost Horizon ( survivors of a plane crash) and Mundy’s duology (paranormal powers conferred by monks), The Champions shows that Mundy’s influence on popular TV began a long time before Twin Peaks.

Thoughts on “The Psychotic Dr Schreber”

At best, this book is a gateway drug; at worst, a harmless turd.

-oOo-

I’m a longtime fan of Alex Proyas’s movie Dark City, and in particular Kiefer Sutherland’s, for me, career-defining turn as the wheezing, limping misfit, Dr. Daniel Schreber. The opening minutes of Dark City may be the most thrilling of any movie, ever, as the viewer segues from the tender rescue of a goldfish, that suggests with wonderful economy that John Murdoch cannot have been the murderer of the woman in the next room, to the deranged phone call from Schreber, to the dazzling glimpse of the Strangers riding the elevator, closing in for the kill.

But it is only very gradually that I have become aware of the long and storied mythos that surrounds the real Dr. Daniel Schreber, which eventually led me to D. Harlan Wilson’s book The Psychotic Dr Schreber. It seemed to hold the promise of elaborating how this avatar of Schreber could have fetched up in a distant alien construct, whizzing through space and time.

Daniel Schreber was a German judge. As an adolescent, he had been weirdly abused by his father, the pedagogue Moritz Schreber, who used his son as a testbed for outlandish contraptions that were designed to suppress the urge to masturbate (I fully expected to find that D. Harlan Wilson had made this up, but my fact checking confirmed otherwise!). Schreber entered the public consciousness around the turn of the twentieth century, as the author of an autobiographical work, detailing the lengthy bouts of his insanity, and of his incarceration and treatment in various asylums. Schreber’s memoir was extensively analysed by Freud, inter alia, who penned an equally celebrated commentary on it.

The Psychotic Dr Schreber is not an easy book. Part modern novel and part literary (and film) criticism, it took a good sixty or seventy pages for it to start to gel with me: not promising, in a work of 140-odd pages and an even briefer read, given the short, snappy chapters and experimental structure.

I began to get on top of the narrative at about the same point as the movie criticism started to kick in: a double plus. And it did indeed provide answers to many of my questions about Dark City. The heart of Schreber’s psychosis, that he was morphing into a woman so that he could be fucked by God, does not make it onto the screen (probably a good thing – not that that’s not a fine subject for a movie in its own right; just not the one that has all the other Dark City stuff going on). But all of the peripheral detail of Schreber’s psychosis is there. He believed that he had been abducted by evanescent men with scorpions for brains, to be their cockhorse: men who melted into a landscape that constantly dissolved and changed around him. The city in Dark City is the mise-en-scène of Schreber’s psychosis made flesh.

The best thing about the book is that it’s not just a Dark City pony; we explore the Schreber-esque in Nietzsche, Twin Peaks, the Phildickian world and other spots. Definitely it seems that if I am going to go any further down this particular rabbit hole, I should read Nietzsche’s Kisses, by Lance Olsen.

The worst thing about the book was the repetitive sexual imagery – of course this sort of content is perfectly fair when Freud has his fingers all over the autobiography of a guy brought up on anti-masturbation devices, who believes he is turning into a woman so that God can fuck him, but boy was it boring. Maybe the author intended it that way.

Postscript – 31/03/2021

Reader, as per the quote at the start, the book was indeed that gateway drug, and I went down the rabbit hole. I’ve Nietzsche’s Kisses on order from the nice people at Banner Books in Ennistymon; my indy bookshop of choice in these strange times.

The Fantastic Fiction of V.A. Obruchev

In this day and age it’s not so uncommon for objects in space, and the features of celestial bodies to have names taken from the realms of science fiction and fantasy, whether they recall the lands or topography within the actual books, or immortalise the authors’ names. When Vladimir Afanasyevich Obruchev (1863 – 1956) had a crater of the moon named after him, it was much less common, but he was honoured thus for his day-job, rather than his fiction.

V.A. Obruchev was an academic; an expert in Siberian geology whose career straddled the end of the Russian Empire and the first few decades of the Soviet Union. He was elected a Soviet academician in 1929.

His fiction can be divided into two groups. The first of these consists of the fantastical adventure stories set in Central Asia, from the Soviet republics, to China, Tibet and Mongolia. Obruchev imbues these stories with a rare verisimilitude, filling them with the geo-, ethno- and topographical detail that he absorbed first-hand over the course of his scientific expeditions to these places. I would go as far as to say that for any writer planning to set a period story in the region, Obruchev is essential background reading.

I’ve not been able to find a definitive bibliography for these works, but the principal text available in English is Kukushkin: A Geographer’s Tales (trans. Vera Bowen, pub. Constable 1961), an abridged version of Obruchev’s original In the Wilds of Central Asia (1956). The eponymous hero is Foma Kapitonovitch Kukushkin, a wheeler-dealer based close to the border with China, who, together with his sidekick Lobsin, goes off on periodic trading expeditions to remote parts, with a bit of gold-digging and tomb-raiding on the side.

Kukushkin is clearly Obruchev’s mouthpiece and his travels are most certainly based on Obruchev’s own experiences, and each episode is accompanied by a fine map. The escapades have wonderful titles like The Ghostly Miners and The Dead City of Khara-Khoto, but the explanations for these supernatural set-ups are generally mundane: either caused by natural phenomena or, in best Scooby-Doo order, people dressing up. I found Kukushkin utterly absorbing, even if the narrative only occasionally soars, as with the story of the outlaw monk The Black Lama, and when Lobsin has to fly to Lhasa, to save his son from a terrible fate.

Obruchev’s other group of fiction consists of two celebrated lost world stories Plutonia (1915) and Sannikov Land (1924). The genesis of both books appears to be Obruchev’s desire to set the record straight as compared with pulp norms, and write proper science. As a result, the first part of Plutonia is a bit of a slog, a bit like some of Hal Clement’s later works, Still River say, where the minutiae of the hard science threaten to swamp the storytelling.

But Obruchev is clearly having a ball, relating the observed phenomena (compass readings, position and movements of the sun) as the explorers unwittingly begin to descend though an opening near the pole, into the hollow earth. After a long catalogue of (scientifically accurate) prehistoric animal descriptions, repeatedly punctuated by the explorers shooting and eating said creatures, I was beginning to lose the will to live. But then Obruchev does the completely unexpected, and tosses the reader a total curveball, that elevates the second half of the story into something quite different and really very good.

I read Kukushkin and Plutonia back-to-back early last year and then took a break before Sannikov Land, as it looked like it was going to be pretty much a rehash of Plutonia, albeit focussing on early man, rather than more distant prehistory. I’ve just started it and so far, that seems to be an accurate take. Sannikov Land, incidently, is a fabled northern continent in the high Arctic; a place long thought to actually exist, on foot of hints in early writings dating back as far as the 11th century.

Things really began to hot up in 1806, when Russian botanist and adventurer Mikhail Adams returned from the north with a mammoth carcass. This precipitated a major expedition funded by the Russian state, led by Latvian explorer Matvei Gedenshtrom, who, in autumn 1810, had an iconic encounter with another northern adventurer Yakov Sannikov at the remote outpost of Ust-Yansk. Gedenshtrom produced a speculative map of the land Sannikov described to him at that meeting. When it was published, the following year, it fixed the place and the name in the public consciousness. As a result, the search for Sannikov Land continued for most of the 19th century. Eventually, the work of a new generation of ‘modern’ Arctic explorers like Toll and Nansen was able to debunk the myth.