Ten of the Best. #4: Pointillist School vs Police School

When Charles L. Harness burst onto the SF scene in 1953 with his novel Flight Into Yesterday (aka The Paradox Men), it was arguably the only thing that could stand comparison with Alfred Bester’s masterpiece of the same year, the winner of the first ever Hugo award – The Demolished Man.  Yet Harness stuck to the day job as a patent lawyer and did not deliver another novel until The Ring of Ritornel (1969), which together with Firebird (1981) comprised his three great odes to galactic cycles, underpinned by the theories contained in historian and philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee’s twelve volume A Study of History (1934-61).

Any number of Harness’s conceits could make it into my top ten.  I almost went for the forensic spider in Ritornel, that when fed the poison, constructs a web of its chemical structure. But topping that even, is the iconic scene in Harness’s novella The Rose (1966), in which the enigmatic artist Ruy Jacques helps fugitive psychiatrist Anna van Tuyl evade the authorities in the Park of the White Roses.

The impending crisis:

Out in the Via an ominous silence seemed to be gathering.  The Security men were probably roping off the area, certain of their quarry.

The set up:

He began to untie the bundled purple dress… …He tossed the gaudy garment at Anna, who accepted it in rebellious wonder.

The proposition:

The pointillists knew how to stimulate white with alternating dots of primary colours… …[They] could even make white from just two colours: a primary and its complementary colour.  Your green dress is our primary; Violet’s purple dress is our complementary… …daub them on the canvas side by side, stand back the right distance and they blend into white.  All you have to do is hold Vi’s dress at arm’s length… 

Ah yes but…

She demurred: ‘But the angle of visual interruption won’t be small enough to blend the colours into white, even if the police don’t come any nearer than the archway.  The eye sees two objects as one only when the visual angle between the two is less than sixty seconds of arc.’

Fortunately the artist relies more on the suggestibility of the mind than the mechanics of the retina, so that’s all right then.

…if our lean-jawed friends stared in your direction… …they’d see you as a woman in green holding out a mass of something purple.  But… …I’m going to stand over there, and the instant someone sticks his head through the archway I’m going to start walking… …normal people in western cultures absorb pictures left to right.  So our agent’s first glance will be towards you and then… …[He’ll] be distracted by the fountain in the centre. And before he can get back to you, I’ll start walking, and his eyes will have to come onto me...

Ruy heads off while Anna at first watches, then closes her eyes…

He was past the fountain… …Now he must stop…only he didn’t.  His steps actually hastened.  That meant…

I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat as I write this.  What pure, priceless SF gold.






Ten of the Best. #3: Hunting Squamp

If I re-read The Fourteenth Voyage today, I’m invariably humming along to Planet Claire by The B-52’s as I go: it seems a carbon copy of Enteropia, the planet upon which Ijon Tichy goes for a vacation after getting his rocket repaired, a third of the way through Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries.

Planet Claire has pink air
All the trees are red
No one ever dies there
No one has a head

Sing The B-52’s in my head.

ENTEROPIA, 6th planet of a double (red and blue) star in the Calf constellation.

Reads Tichy from the Hitchhiker’s Guide-like Cosmic Encyclopaedia he has borrowed from his old mucker, Prof. Tarantoga.

8 continents, 2 oceans, 167 active volcanoes, 1 torg (see TORG).  A 20-hr. day, warm climate, conditions for life favourable except during the whackers (see WHACKER).

Having arrived, Tichy decides to go hunting for squamp, one of the local big game, for which he is kitted out with relish seasoned with pepper and chives, a time bomb and a plentiful supply of laxative.  The idea is to coat oneself in the first, lurk in a likely spot until swallowed whole by said squamp, at which point one sets the second and uses the third to escape out the back, before the second goes off.

There’s nothing terribly subtle here, of course, and there are many other more refined Lemian inventions I could have put in my list; the science of Eruntics – teaching English to bacteria, or the Matrix-like horrors of the world of Doctor Diagoras, to name but two but Tichy out squamp hunting left my seventeen-year-old self tickled pink and opened my eyes just that little bit wider as to just how far SF could go.  It was one of the many things that I thanked the man himself for, when I visited his grave in Krakow’s Salwator cemetery, back in 2010.




Ten of the Best. #2: Dr. Doug Jackson

UFO, the early 1970’s TV show that marked Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s first foray into live-action drama, is iconic for a whole slew of reasons: the once-heard-never-forgotten sound of the UFO itself, the Moonbase crews’ purple wigs (but why only the women?), and the perfectly realised design of the SHADO (= Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation) badge, to name but three.  For me though, the most stunning thing that the show pulled off was the casting of Polish actor Vladek Sheybal in the recurring role of Dr. Doug Jackson.

By the time UFO started filming, Sheybal had been a fixture in British living rooms for a number of years, with a regular gig in the Ken Russell productions of the time, and appearing as a villain in almost every spy franchise going (including The Saint, Danger Man, The Champions and Bond, where he played Kronsteen in From Russia With Love).

The character of Doug Jackson evolved from Sheybal’s turn as Dr. Beauville in the earlier Gerry & Sylvia Anderson movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun – aka Doppelgänger – (1969).  In UFO, the evidently versatile Jackson is first introduced adversarially as the International Astrophysical Commission’s chief prosecutor (!) during the Court Martial of SHADO’s Paul Foster, and only gradually is he subsumed into the ranks of SHADO itself.

Channelling the standard Sheybal villain – a thin-faced, goggle-eyed Slav, with a voice as insidious as snake venom, in that accent – Doug Jackson was seldom seen, or so it seemed, unless dressed for the operating theatre, one hand clutching a primed syringe with a drop of some mind-altering drug beading on the tip of its needle. He was the scariest good (?) guy ever.

Of course the payoff in spades was the character’s never-spoken-of backstory: just how did this creepy foreigner end up with the name Doug Jackson?  Perhaps if UFO had gone on for longer than two seasons more would have been revealed.  In a 1992 interview, given not long before his death, Sheybal comments as follows:-

Well, I got the (script of the) first episode, I learned my lines and I went to the studio where Sylvia Anderson – with the big eyelashes and a very beautiful hairdo – was there, and I met all these friends afterwards from UFO for the very time, including Gabrielle Drake. You remember Gabrielle Drake? She was my pupil at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – I once was teaching acting there and she was my pupil, and I was very surprised when she was there in the studio.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I didn’t know who this Dr Jackson was and Sylvia Anderson, after we had finished – or maybe it was while we were filming? – she said, “Would you be at all interested if we feed a script in with Dr Jackson, because we like very much the way that you are doing it.” And then I asked her, “Who is this Dr Jackson?”. “We don’t know,” she said. And that is what happened, so from time to time when they wanted to write in Dr Jackson they would ask my agent if I would be free for, let’s say, next week for ten days to come to the studio to play Dr Jackson.

And then I started forming my opinion about the character, and I came to the conclusion that he’s got lots of colours and whatever, and I think that I developed it while I was playing it. 

For me, the Doug Jackson character is an absolute masterstroke and perhaps all the better for forever remaining an enigma.  From time to time a reboot of UFO is mooted.  If they ever do it, then Sheybal-lookalike Riz Ahmed would get my vote for the part.

Ten of the Best. #1: Temporal

I normally eschew making lists, but at a certain point, having read so many appallingly bad ones by other people/publications that just don’t contain the right things, one starts to get worn down.  The worst trend of all is encapsulated in those increasingly frequent ‘best’ or ‘all time’ lists that contain loads of stuff you’ve never heard of, written in the last five years and, if you’re lucky, a couple of token entries from the last century.

So, like anything really important in life, if you want it done properly, you have to do it yourself.  Here, in no particular order, over the next few weeks, I’ll post a personal list of ten of the most brilliantly bonkers things that SF has thrown at me over the years.

#1: Temporal

For a brief period in the late 1970’s it seemed as though Trevor Hoyle might be the British SF writer to smash the all-powerful transatlantic hegemony in English-speaking SF of the time.  This was on foot of his magnificent Q. Series (Seeking the Mythical Future (1977), The Gods Look Down (1977), Through the Eye of Time (1978)), the trilogy that bestowed ‘myth-technologist’ Queghan upon the SF world, and furnished Hoyle with his catch phrase The Cup Might Smash…  …And Then Fall.

For me though, Hoyle’s most memorable foray into quantum phenomena comes in Vail (1984) a near-future post-apocalyptic satire set in the UK.  Just get this:-

The boy or youth sighed wearily.  ‘Where have you been living? Never heard of Heisenberg?’

‘A new Bavarian lager?’

‘Cause can precede effect and effect can precede cause at one and the same time. What you do later affects what you do now – it’s all the same.’

‘Not in my world,’ I said, shifting feet.

‘Sure. Remember what Max Born said: “I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actual philosophy.”‘

Two in one day. First a terrorist loonie and now a mad quantum mechanic. Which of us was going off our rocker, the world or me? ‘Suppose I say I’m not going to do the favour, – will you still give me the Temporal?’

‘That all depends on whether you do the favour or not.’

‘But you won’t know till later.’

‘That’s when I’ll decide.’

‘How can you decide later whether or not to give me the Temporal now?’

‘Simple. I won’t have given it to you if you don’t do the favour and I will have given it to you if you have.’

‘You call that simple?’

‘It is to me, squire.’

‘All right.’ I’d made up my mind. ‘Give me the Temporal and I’ll do you the favour, how’s that? Happy?’

‘I thought you’d say that,’ he said, handing me the foil strip.

Temporal is one of SF’s finest conceits – time and space bending quantum mechanical effects in convenient pill form – that later enable our hero Vail to escape an untimely death at the hands of a Watford Gap motorcycle gang.


Remembering the ‘Eiffel Tower in Space.’

Recent weeks have seen renewed discussion in the technical press concerning the proposals of Russian  startup StartRocket to put billboards into Earth orbit.  This is hardly a new idea; none of the previous proposals have come close to fruition, and that the commentary has once again been overwhelmingly negative is no great surprise.

There must have been numerous examples of this sort of display in Science Fiction over the years, but the one that springs most immediately to my mind is that of Demon Prince Lens Larque getting the last laugh, when the moon of the planet Methlen is posthumously rearranged by a series of planned explosions into a sculpture of his leering physiognomy, as occurs at the denouément of Jack Vance’s The Face (1979).

The first serious real world proposals to put something permanently visible into orbit were made in the summer of 1986 by the Eiffel Tower company, with the launch of their ‘Eiffel Tower in Space’ competition – an initiative to celebrate the tower’s 100th anniversary in 1989.  I remember this quite vividly, as I was a member of the team that put together the entry submitted by the company I was working for at the time.  Our entry, La Tour Eiffel de L’Espace, a rather unimaginative copy of the original, but in orbit, was shortlisted, but didn’t win.  The best of the bunch (a proposal from Southampton University in the UK, which didn’t win either) was clearly the ‘space chronometer,’ a kind of orbiting set of hands, which, through ingenious design would enable anyone who could see it to tell the time at their location.

By this point however, the competition was in serious trouble from objectors.  Astronomers led the way, pointing out that the light pollution from such structures could restrict viewing of the night sky.  Earthbound objectors focussed on the unwanted intrusion, pointing out that like as not the first practical implementation, if such things were allowed to go ahead, would be an orbiting Coke bottle.

And this is where the debate remains today – nothing has really changed.  I note that StartRocket’s idea puts forward the use of a constellation of microsatellites, each one of which would function as a pixel in a display, thus enabling different messages or designs to be displayed over a period of time (or indeed for the whole array to be switched off).  As much as I would be amused to see a laughing Putin image in geostationary orbit over Washington DC, I don’t think StartRocket’s innovations do enough to change the arguments against orbital billboards.

The most positive present day application of this kind of technology is to have orbital mirrors that can be repositioned to divert sunlight to disaster areas (eg; when earthquakes or tsunamis have occurred) at night-time to make the jobs of rescue workers easier.  In the future, if the Earth suddenly became more vulnerable to strikes from wandering asteroids or meteors for some reason, they perhaps an orbital warning system for incoming objects might also be a good use for the technology.

Stark Enigmas

The best SF short story I read in 2018 was Chike Deluna’s Stark!!! 

Picture this: an implacable spider god, the Lady Genevieve Desdemona, lounges in the bowl of a communications dish, idly watching a cat-burglar go about his business on a neighbouring skyscraper. She sees the thief successfully break into an apartment before, once inside, triggering an impossibly fiendish booby trap, a melange of pendulums, pulleys and automatons called the “Stark Enigma,” that will surely kill him…

It’s a great set-up, and the means by which the thief thereafter cheats death is satisfyingly memorable.

The path by which I reached this point, lounging in front of the fire at home, reading an e-copy of Deluna’s Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, is almost as fascinating.

Many on the Irish SF scene know that from time to time,  I assist the Michaels Scott and Carroll in curating the Irish SF, Fantasy & Horror Writers Pinterest board.  The qualification for inclusion is simple: writers either Irish born or resident in Ireland.  Even so, George Chyke Udenkwo (b. 1967, Newry) is one of the more enigmatic entries, the author of one work, Golgotha Falls: Genesis (2008).

The first thing you notice about Golgotha Falls: Genesis, when you start googling around, is how consistently good the star ratings are.  They hit percentages uncommon even for the big boys and unheard of for most bargain basement self-published doorwedges.  My curiosity was officially piqued.  Coming to the book cold, my first instinct was to expect a little Hiberno-Nigerian Afrofuturism but Golgotha Falls (the titular city) is rather a classic science fantasy setting: an ultra far future megalopolis, ruled by gods, yet with the sort of near future noir vibe more associated with Blade Runner.  The overarching theme of the interlinked stories is the interactions between the human denizens of Golgotha Falls and the implacable spider god Lady Genevieve Desdemona…

As the Lady Genevieve D. does over Golgotha Falls, so Udenkwo leaves clues about himself at various locations over the Internet, in particular a nice little biography here.  From these traces one can glean both that he was dissatisfied with the production quality of the  initial release of Golgotha Falls: Genesis and that he was writing further volumes.

Fast forward to 2012 and another ephemeral website and horror and fantasy author Chike Deluna is offering, inter-alia, several volumes of the adventures of Lady Genevieve Desdemona, the first of which is Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, the content of which, including the short story Stark!!!, corresponds to approximately the first half of the material in Golgotha Falls: Genesis.   The other volumes comprise MotW: The White Book, MotW: The Red Book and MotW: The Blue Book.

Fast forward again to 2018 and Chike Deluna, now based in India, appears to have cracked this self-publishing lark and is offering six or seven excellent looking horror and fantasy novels (but not, so far as I could tell, the Mistress of the Web series) for sale from a shiny new website.  Fair play indeed.  I must add The Cosmic Foot Masseur to my reading list.

Now I can’t say for certain that George Udenkwo and Chike Deluna are the same person.  For all I know, the latter discovered the decomposing remains of the former in an alley somewhere, clutching a portmanteau stuffed with thousands of manuscript pages of the adventures of the aforementioned Lady Genevieve D.  But whatever the truth of it, I did have fun unravelling the thread.  And reader, do yourselves a big favour in 2019 and track down a copy of Golgotha Falls: Genesis or the Mistress of the Web ebooks and get stuck into some of the finest science fantasy out there.


A New Jurisdiction

When a favourite author appends another book to a beloved series after a gap of ten years, I guess it’s OK to have doubts.  Thus I approached Blood Enemies (2017), Susan R. Matthews’ seventh novel in her stunning Jurisdiction cycle, with no little trepidation.  Of course I had a few minor misgivings as to whether the quality of her writing might have dipped after such a long break in output, but mostly, my apprehension stemmed from the fact that the first six books formed such a coherent whole that Andrej Kosciusko’s story was complete, and that any move to open a new chapter on him was doomed to seem forced and be anticlimactic.

Reading the author’s recap did little to sooth me.  What?  Were they? Did that happen? Was it like that?  Of course one’s recollection of stories read long ago (the sixth book, Warring States, came out in 2006) start to play tricks, but maybe Matthews also straightens out narratives that were more elliptical, and clarifies things that were rather more hinted at, back in the day.

It has always been a constant source of amazement to me that the Jurisdiction, indisputably one of the greatest galactic settings in all SF, is not better known.  Beginning with the perfectly titled An Exchange of Hostages (1997), the series chronicles the travails of tortured torturer Andrej Kosciusko, as he strives to beat the system and provide a better life for the people around him.

Civilised space is divided into a number of ‘Judiciaries’ sponsored by corporations of powerful families.  Kosciusko has the misfortune to be born into one of these (the Dolgorukij Combine) and thus, having graduated from medical school as an incredibly gifted physician, is forced by his martinet father to enrol in military torture school (Fleet Orientation Station Medical aka Fossum). From here, he will emerge as an ‘inquisitor,’ holding the writ to investigate transgressions against the state and enforce the rule of law.

This is the overall arc of the first book.  Naturally Kosciusko excels in his new studies, due to his medical knowledge.  Privately he oscillates between agonising over the position he finds himself in and drinking to forget that he is starting to enjoy the work.  It’s a remarkable debut novel, one of the best.  The whole thing is drenched in the politics of military rank, social caste and race within a milieu dripping with homoerotiscism, slavery and graphic torture.  The only misstep is a ludicrously coy (heterosexual) group sex scene that (unfortunately) is pivotal to the narrative.  Whilst one might charitably assign this to first-timer failure of nerve, what was her editor thinking?

An Exchange of Hostages is followed in rapid succession by Prisoner of Conscience (1998), Hour of Judgment (1999), Angel of Destruction (2001) and The Devil and Deep Space (2002).  There is also a self-published chapbook Jurisdiction, that deals with events between the first two books.  These volumes introduce many memorable supporting characters including Bench Specialist (= Jurisdiction special agent) Garol Vogel, a wonderfully loose cannon amidst all the rigidity, Jennet ap Rhiannon the straight-laced captain of the JSF Ragnarok and Andrej’s cousin Stanoczk, a Malcontent (= one of the order of gay monks that constitute the Dolgorukij intelligence service).  The chronological order of these tales is a little blurred, but sorted out by the two omnibus reissues (Fleet Inquisitor and Fleet Renegade) that preceded publication of Blood Enemies.

As I pen this piece, I’m two thirds of the way through that book.  Matthews deftly finds the one logical strand that could continue Andrej’s story – namely the dissolution of the Jurisdiction into a confederacy on foot of the failure to appoint a new judge (as detailed in Warring States) and the subsequent weakening of the rule of law.  This in turn creates threats against Gonebeyond space, where Andrej is in hiding.

Having given his benign but stifling guardians the slip, Andrej has inadvertently walked in on a covert Malcontent operation to smash the terrorist ring run by one of his younger brothers.  He’s forced to play for time by (slightly) faking the torture of captured cousin Stanoczk, working at his evil brother’s behest, while he tries to find a way to rescue the situation.  Meanwhile, a third brother is poised with five Dolgorukij warships on a separate mission at the edge of Gonebeyond, waiting for word to invade and drag Andrej back to his homeworld.  In other words, Matthews at her convoluted and conflicted best – I needn’t have worried at all.  And another book, Fleet Insurgent, is in the pipeline.  Joy!

Follycon Follies

Ah, so the second Follycon has come and gone, thirty years after the first and what a magnificent folly the Majestic Hotel was!  What con-goer would not want to spend the weekend in the company of W. Anderson’s Grand Harrogate Hotel and its idiosyncratic crew?  What’s not to love about a place where the downstairs gents – dark wood panelling, acres of chequerboard tiles, a conference table and a six-seater banquette -exuded more grandeur than a pie, mash and liquor joint; a place begging for LARP campaigns and guerrilla tourism, since half the bedrooms remain out-of-bounds after a mysterious fire, several years ago; a place where every other space aped the throne room at King’s Landing (just don’t get stuck behind a pillar during panels); a place where the lounge bar’s coffee machine had demised and the tea was even more toxic than the insane levels of citra hops in most of the offerings from the real ale bar.  I do hope Eastercon returns to the Majestic soon!

Harrogate is an attractive town, on foot of its Regency/Victorian spa heyday.  Who could forget the sweeping staircases of the Wetherspoons, ensconced in the Winter Gardens, or Betty’s iconic tea rooms – all cast iron and olive brown sandstone.  The excellent Colin Fine guided a walk through the Valley Gardens and Pinewoods on the Friday morning – a welcome opportunity to get some pre-con fresh air and testament to the con’s ambition to offer new and different things.  If I was initially a little taken-aback by the glorified shopping mall that was RHS Harlow Carr; overflow car park no. three heaving with the great and good of God’s own county as we arrived, I did find much to enjoy in the less beaten tracks at the wilder extremities of the site and in the alpine house.  Heck, I even relaxed enough to buy some sweet cicely seeds in the shop.  They’ll tub up nicely – I can almost taste the tempura style fritters already.  Fantastical highlights of the place were the wicker Ferengi gardener and the steampunk bug-hotels.

An area of decline in recent years has been the amount of second-hand books available for sale in the Dealers’ Room.  One can no longer rely on a con for filling a gap or two in one’s collection.  In general, Follycon did nothing to reverse this trend though to be fair, I did snare a few of the original Man from UNCLE tie-ins I was missing.  I had considerably more luck in Harrogate’s excellent Books for All, up on Commercial Street.  Still, at least Follycon had a dealer selling tea – that was a plus.  I should also plug the small and pretty Imagined Things bookshop in the arcade, which hosted SF and Fantasy readings on the Saturday afternoon.  I attended the former and was delighted to meet Christopher Priest for the first time: one of my lifelong literary heroes.  He signed a copy of The Gradual for me.

Another highlight of the con for me was the poetry ‘open mic’ on Sunday lunchtime – I seldom have opportunities to read any of my poetry in public, so I leapt at the opportunity.  I chose The Shrill Carder Bee to read, as it is probably my only poem containing SF imagery.  It seemed to go down well.  And in fact the event was more of a general poetry thing, so I could have brought a few others to read: next time.  This was the only thing I did on the programme this Eastercon: all of the ideas for programme items that I had pitched to the organisers, fell on stony ground.  In general I didn’t mind, if there’s enough new blood coming into our hobby that I’m not needed, then great.  Nevertheless, on seeing how underused the Majestic’s fabulous billiard room was over the four days, it made me a little sad that my offer to run a fiction ‘open mic’ had been passed over.  The space, where passers-by could have dipped in and out as they liked, was tailor made for one.  A similar event I compered for Mancunicon a couple of years back was a runaway success, in far more difficult conditions.

I had high hopes for the Pointless quiz on Saturday evening. Regrettably, Witless, it might better have been called, or Toothpull.  I like the Pointless format on TV but the creators of this panel never satisfactorily solved how to adapt the format to accommodate the live audience participation which they sought.  To be fair, some of the questions were engaging and fun (I particularly enjoyed the ‘fictional religions’ and ‘third books of series’) but the hour could neither overcome the shortcomings of the format devised nor recover from the creaky start, the unconvincing score-keeping and the fact that the man bringing the buckets of saline containing the contestants’ brains, only showed up around half-time.  Still it’s one worth persevering with for the future, if the format can be better adapted to the requirements of a con.

Lastly, am I the only person to wonder if Follycon’s most egregious folly was to allot programme space for TAFF (Trans-atlantic Fan Fund) fundraising?  Our hobby has made great strides in recent years to, for example, provide a safe and welcoming space to people of all genders and sexual orientations, embrace diversity and to be helpful and accommodating to those with disabilities of all kinds.  Why the Hell are we continuing to raise money to subsidise travel to/from a country that seeks to ban the entry of ordinary citizens from several countries on account of their religion?  The least we could do in solidarity, is to freeze all TAFF activities until such time as the US ditches its Fascist policies and returns to being the open democracy we once knew and loved.

Postscript 04/04/2018

A friend of mine has commented to me that there were significant accessibility issues at the hotel.  Indeed, she knew of two attendees who had to leave the con early because of it.  This is not good at all, given how inclusive our hobby strives to be and rather makes me doubt my fulsome affection for the hotel.  If I was oblivious to it all, it was because I was heeding the signage to keep the lifts free for those who needed them and use the stairs; thus I built up no picture in my own head over the weekend as to how accessible (or not) the various zones were.  My friend related the story that accessible access to the Dealers’ Room required a golf-buggy ride right around the hotel’s vast bulk that might take twenty or thirty minutes, if one included the time needed to locate an insured driver from the hotel staff.  Not great at all; though it would be remiss of me not to mention that a programme of renovations/improvements  is underway at the Majestic, so hopefully this wouldn’t happen again.

My First BristolCon

I’ve been aware of BristolCon for some years; the word-of-mouth that it’s a small, happy, friendly convention having reached even the Atlantic shores of Munster.  Having been unable to attend Belfast’s TitanCon earlier this year, a slot in my annual con-going roster had opened up and I was able to break my BristolCon duck as a result.  I’m very glad I did.

It’s nominally a one-day event but a BristolCon Fringe open mic the evening before pleasantly extended the con vibe, even if attendees at that were a little sparse because the local Waterstones had arranged a competing event, offering free beer.  Nevertheless, I was able to read the scene from A Coarse and Violent Gesture, in which the King of the Fairies gets an unwelcome visit from the local paramilitary commander.  It’s one of the stories in my Irish Tales collection, due out next year and seemed to go down well.

One of the best things about BristolCon happened well in advance of the event itself.  A great long list of possible panel topics was sent to attendees, who then voted on the ones they wanted to see at the con.  Whoever came up with this, deserves a medal.  It’s become the norm in recent years, for cons to solicit volunteers for panellists on-line, which has too often resulted in platforms being given to the worst kinds of egregious self-publicists, axe-grinders and authoritarian bigots. Who has made it to the end of an EasterCon in recent years, for example, without wanting to slash their own wrists, having been assailed from all directions by three-and-a-half days of relentless, po-faced negativity?  Giving the members this sort of control over the panel topics is a great way to mitigate the worst excesses of this trend and to celebrate instead the very many positive aspects of our hobby.

The things I enjoyed most about my first BristolCon were the following:-

  • Some actual second-hand books in the dealers’ room (yay!);
  • The brick-out room – a throwback to the old ‘fan room’ which used to be a staple of every con but which has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years.  This one had lego and free coffee.  How about adding an MC next year, to orchestrate impromptu stuff?
  • The free book swap table – every con should have one;
  • Making some great new acquaintances.  This is one of the best reasons to move outside of your regular fandom orbits and go to a new place;
  • The wild west panel, which covered loads of ground but still managed to leave a lot uncovered – ample evidence of the richness of the topic – thereby engendering much discussion in the bar later.  I can feel a blog post coming on to recap some of this, plus to air some of the angles the panel didn’t have time to cover.  On thing I was mulling over was whether there was any (near) contemporary wild west writing containing fantasy, horror or SF elements.  The opening yarn in Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) came to mind and also some Verne, notably The Mysterious Island (1874), which opens with an American Civil War balloon-hijack prison break and The Golden Volcano (1905), set during the Klondike gold rush.

Did BristolCon live up to its friendly brand image?  Most certainly.  Would I recommend it to anyone else?  Absolutely.  Will I go again?  Definitely; indeed next year.  Apart from anything else it was significantly cheaper for me than attending Octocon, due in no small part to the cost of accommodation in Bristol being around 50% of that for a comparable room in Dublin.

Returning to the wild west theme, here’s a quiz question for you: which SF writer, whom I have previously featured in my blog posts, died from wounds received during the American Civil War?

Liege-killer: 30 Years on, Still the Greatest ever SF Debut?

Liege-killer is the title of Christopher Hinz’s stupendous 1987 SF debut, set amongst the orbital colonies of the inner solar system that house the remains of humanity.  It tells the story of Nick and Gillian, special agents of dubious provenance (a sort of SF equivalent to Vizzini & Fezzik), who are thawed out after two centuries of peace, following the re-emergence of a paratwa (a binary gestalt killer); a grave existential threat to civilisation as we know it.

As atrocity piles on atrocity, Nick and Gillian pursue the cohe-wand (as iconic as any lightsabre) wielding paratwa, the eponymous Reemul, across the colonies.  It develops into one of the great SF rollercoaster rides.

I would unreservedly call Liege-killer the greatest SF debut novel of all time.  My reasoning here is that it stands stratospherically higher than anything else that Hinz ever produced.  Its two sequels; Ash Ock and The Paratwa are poor (more on that anon) and his only other work, the stand-alone Anachronisms, is instantly forgettable (or at least, I’ve read it and I don’t remember a thing about it).

So what makes Liege-killer so mind-bogglingly good?  First of all, it has all the basic ingredients in place; fabulous worldbuilding, a pair of compelling leads and a villain to die for. The existential threat of Reemul; a potential catalyst for regression into the debilitating wars that preceded a fragile two-hundred year peace, is beautifully wrought.  On top of this, Hinz manages to get into the heads of the one mind, two bodies monster and really works out how this sort of binary killer could optimise its assets, giving the set-piece killing sprees a ferocious verisimilitude.

The master stroke of the story, however is the Promethean nature of Reemul.  This is a monster that mankind has visited upon itself and it is this which gives the tale its real punch and resonance.

So what happened to the promise, and to Hinz?  I can only speculate.  I imagine him crafting his first novel for years in some freezing garret, getting it pitch perfect and wowing the first commissioning editor that saw it into drooling submission.  Perhaps a three book deal followed and Hinz faltered, the delays ultimately trying his paymasters’ patience.  Ash Ock was the result – half a novel that ends nowhere, like as not, rushed out to meet a contractual deadline.  It’s a mess.  While this book and The Paratwa do conclude the story after a fashion, Hinz threw the baby out with the bathwater by deciding that it was aliens all along, totally undermining the power of the first book.

I imagine that after Anachronisms, Hinz decided that writing SF novels wasn’t for him and gave up, though he did do some comics work including Helix’s Gemini Blood series in the 1990’s.  There’s a happy coda to the story.  In 2013 the graphic-novel version of Liege-killer, called Binary, was released, penned again by Hinz and drawn by Jon Proctor.  If nothing else it shows that you can’t stop the cream rising to the top.  What the world really needs, though, is a Liege-killer movie.  I hope we get one soon but with one caveat, if it does well and becomes a franchise, get someone to write some fresh stories for the sequels and leave Hinz’s other two books in the dustbin.  Everyone should experience Liege-killer – just resist the temptation to touch the rest.

Postscript, 21/10/2017

It seems that Hinz returned to SF novels in 2012 with the well received Spartan X and also wrote a new paratwa novel in 2016, Binary Storm.  It’s the prequel to Liege-Killer, set in the 21st century and presumably dealing with the events that culminated in Nick and Gillian being frozen.  Someone should update his Wikipedia page, which says none of this 🙂

And I for one will be delighted if he’s exorcised the novel writing demons after an hiatus of twenty years or so and is coming back big time.  If he can re-discover his Liege-killer mojo on a regular basis there could be great things to look forward to.