Tuesday, February 20, 2018

get in the bach of the fan

It was my birthday at the weekend. No need for congratulation or commiseration, particularly, although if you really want to make some sort of donation I'm sure we can come to some arrangement. No, I mention it because among the splendid array of presents I received was an item that cannot be grasped in the hand, still less worn or drunk or inserted into any bodily orifices, but is nonetheless of inestimable value to the busy father-of-three: a day with no obligations and positive encouragement to get myself out and get up some mountains.

But where to go? I decided I didn't want to go anywhere I'd been before, which actually didn't leave a large number of decent-sized peaks in the Brecon Beacons area, because I've been up most of them at one time or another, But I remembered looking over to the west while trudging up Fan Llia on this previous walk almost exactly two years ago and noticing an interesting bulky mountain just across the valley. This turned out to be Fan Nedd, so I devised the walk below to bag it.

A couple of points to note: Fan Nedd isn't actually the high point of the walk; that's Fan Gyhirych (725 metres, 2379 feet) a couple of miles to the west, which is a more stereotypical Beacons peak: relatively gentle slope on the south side (i.e. the side you walk up, unless you're a nutter) and a big steep gouged-out glacial cliff on the north side. The Pen y Fan range to the east and the Black Mountain to the west (of which the summit of Fan Gyhirych provides spectacular views on a good day) are the same.

This is probably a better walk than the Fan Fawr one, for reasons related to the ones explored here. The crucial factor is that you do it clockwise: this gives you a nice long 4-5 mile walk in along sections of the old Sarn Helen Roman road and the Beacons Way before you hop over a stone wall near the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave network (watch out for sinkholes) and join a vehicle track that takes you most of the way to the summit of Fan Gyhirych. From there you cross over a col to the north-west ridge of Fan Nedd and the steepest bit of ascent of the day before traversing the length of the summit ridge and dropping down steeply back to the Blaen Llia car park. My GPS track log says it was 11.8 miles in total. The altitude profile tells the story, although you need to ignore the height info as that seems to be on the fritz - the high point of the day is 725 metres, not 405 metres. Think of it as height relative to the start point, I suppose.

These are remote hills and nowhere near as frequented as, say, Pen y Fan - we saw, if my recollection is correct, seven other people all day, all near the summit of Fan Gyhirych, and passed near enough for a greeting to three of them. It'd be pretty bleak in bad weather, but as it happened barring a couple of brief flurries of light rain and snow we had dry conditions and good visibility all day. Cloud height is the single most important factor on these walks - it doesn't really matter if it's raining, as long as you've got appropriate clothing, but if you can't see where you're aiming for then you can easily get into trouble.

Going back to what I was saying above, the things that make this a good walk clockwise - a relatively gentle walk in, all the high-altitude excitement concentrated into the second half of the walk, a quick no-messing-about descent off the final summit back to the car park - would make it a bad one anti-clockwise. You'd have a brutal initial ascent straight up the south side of Fan Nedd, and then once you'd got off Fan Gyhirych a long and energy-sapping walk out without the prospect of further excitement to keep you going.

Trig point news: there's one on top of each of the main summits. The one on Fan Nedd has been given a lick of white paint and a dragon stencil, the same as Fan Fawr and Hay Bluff and a few others; the one on Fan Gyhirych hasn't, possibly because it was deemed to be outside of the painting crew's jurisdiction but maybe because it's got a chunk missing at one of the bottom corners and is sitting in a mini-lake and therefore may not have long left before it falls over and goes the way of the one on top of Waun Fach in the Black Mountains.

I took a few photos, which can be found here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

fancy a threesome?

Historic times here at the Electric Halibrary. Let me explain: you will of course recall that at the end of the review of Heather McGowan's Schooling in 2014 I observed that it was the 42nd book in the series with a one-word title. Well, that number has gone up to 54 in the intervening three years, and, fascinatingly, while the 42 comprised 21.65% of the total of 194 books up to that point, the subsequent 12 comprise 22.64% of the total of 54 books I've read since that one. So I'm keeping up a pretty consistent percentage, without putting any conscious thought into the book selection process, or at least not any conscious thought that takes the number of words in the book's title into account.

The real story here though is that since Exposure follows on the heels of Matter and Stick it's the first time in the entire history of this blog that I've read three monolexic titles consecutively. You can gasp in disbelief all you want, but it's true. Deal with it. There have been eight previous occasions where I've read two consecutively, as follows:

the last book I read

Exposure by Helen Dunmore.

Simon and Lily Callington have a nice enough life - a house in Muswell Hill, three children aged between five and eleven, decent jobs; she works part-time as a teacher, he has a mid-ranking job at the Admiralty. They're not rich but they get by OK.

Simon is fairly unambitious and has no aspirations to ascend into the higher echelons of the organisation where the serious covert intelligence work (or, if you will, spying) takes place, but he does associate professionally with those who do, most notably Giles Holloway, the man who helped Simon get the job in the first place. No doubt Giles had been impressed at Simon's ability to keep a secret, since the two of them had previously been lovers, something even Lily doesn't know about. Since we're in 1960, this sort of thing becoming public knowledge would be a pretty big (and career-ending, and prosecution-inviting) deal.

Giles is a valuable asset, and speaks fluent Russian, which is handy, but he's also a little bit of a loose cannon and quite partial to The Drink. One night these things come together with unforeseen consequences: he's taken home some Tip Top Super Secret documents which absolutely shouldn't have left the office, and while perusing them with a few tumblers of whisky takes a tumble down the stairs from his study and shatters his lower leg. In desperation he phones up Simon from the hospital and persuades him to pop round and collect the incriminating briefcase and sneak it back onto his desk at the office somehow.

Simon manages to accomplish the collection bit, but quickly forms the opinion that getting the briefcase back into the office without being caught red-handed with a load of documents he has no business seeing will be almost impossible. So he dithers a bit and hides the case in the wardrobe. Fortunately Lily is made of more pragmatic and decisive stuff, partly as a result of having been born in Germany and escaping with her mother to England just prior to World War II. So she grabs a spade, pops out to the back garden under cover of darkness and buries the briefcase in a secluded thicket. And just in the nick of time, because some slightly sinister men from some shady government department have come to the front door and would like to have words. And in Simon's case those words are "you're fuckin' nicked, sunshine".

So Simon is in prison, and obviously not bringing in any income, so Lily has to rent out the house to an American family and rent a cottage in a little village on the end of a branch line on the Kent coast. The children start attending the local school and Lily does some housekeeping work for a rich local widower. Meanwhile things are at something of an impasse: the document can't be found, so Simon can't be linked to it directly, although someone has planted a camera in his desk at the office. It can't have been Giles, as Giles is still in hospital and, having survived a brush with gangrene, now discovers that he has galloping lung cancer and hasn't long to live.

It's all very untidy, and Giles' superior, the charming, silver-haired, urbane but slightly sinister Julian Clowde, is determined to tie it all up so that he, in particular, can't be incriminated. Having failed to "get at" Giles in hospital thanks to the intervention of a stereotypically formidable matron, he takes the train to Lily's village to see if he can, hem hem, "persuade" her to be a little more helpful. He has, however, made two crucial miscalculations: firstly, Lily's childhood experiences have left her with a steely determination, and secondly when you threaten a woman's children you enter a WORLD OF SHIT.

Like Restless and Sweet Tooth this comes with some of the trappings of a Cold War spy thriller without actually being one (of the three, Restless probably comes closest). It's very good on the details of post-war Britain: the stifling repressiveness of the class system, the bland farty cabbageyness of the food, the residual suspicion of foreigners, and very good on the details of what it's actually about, which is the fierce irrationality of love (especially for one's own children), the fragility of what seem like firm ideas like "home", the difficulty of really knowing other people, even those one lives with. The plot, such as it is, is all tied up rather neatly at the end, and the climactic episode with Julian Clowde menacing Lily on the beach is a bit of an incongruous swerve into action thriller territory given the fairly glacial pace of what's gone before. It's also worth observing, as this Guardian review does, that the book essentially re-enacts the plot of The Railway Children.

Lily, who's really the principal protagonist here, is a very engaging and intriguing central character, and you certainly want to keep reading to see what happens next, even if, when you get to the end, you find, on reflection, that not much really has. Exposure probably isn't quite as good as the other two Dunmore novels I've read, Your Blue-Eyed Boy and Talking To The Dead, but it's still pretty good. I should add that I acquired it before Dunmore's death in June 2017, and that wasn't a conscious factor in my decision to read it now, it was just the next cab off the rank.

Friday, February 09, 2018

take a hike, asshole

I saw the countdown of the last 20 or so walks in Britain's Favourite Walks a week or two ago, many of them very familiar to me. It was of special interest as we're off to the Lake District for a week in early April and I harbour ambitions to get out for a day in the mountains at least once during our time there, and, moreover, lots of the most popular walks in this list are in that area, not surprisingly.

Obviously a few quibbles about the selection criteria: I get that you've got to grab the interest of as wide a spectrum of people as possible, from your Nan who just wants a mile or two on unchallenging terrain with a nice view and a nice tea shop at the end, to the more hardcore scrambling enthusiast who'd prefer to shin up Buachaille Etive Mòr in a blizzard. That said it does seem a bit of a stretch to include things like the West Highland Way which at over 95 miles is clearly a multi-day proposition if you're going to do the whole thing and therefore more of a gruelling mini-holiday than what most people would consider "a walk".

Also, a lot of the items on the list are what you might consider destinations rather than walks. A piddling distinction, perhaps, but most people love, say, Rhossili beach (myself among them) without being especially attached to any particular single walk that has it as the main destination. So let's say two people nominated two completely different walks featuring Rhossili as a highlight: do they get considered as two separate items? Or bundled together under the same heading? That consideration is quite pertinent to the slightly surprising number one walk on the list, Helvellyn. The classic walkers' route up here is via Striding Edge, but that won't be for everyone, indeed Julia Bradbury chose to take a different and slightly less gnarly route up via Glenridding Common. So is the winning walk specifically "Helvellyn via Glenridding Common", or is it "any walk that happens to have Helvellyn as its primary objective"? It's slightly unsatisfactory.

Anyway, these are minor quibbles. The top ten featured five walks in Lakeland (only three-and-a-half of them involving serious mountains) and two in Snowdonia, with the remainder dotted elsewhere across northern England. There were only two (number 3, Malham in the Yorkshire Dales and number 10, Mam Tor in the Peak District) that I hadn't done. Here are the ones I had:

1. Helvellyn: I say "slightly surprising number one" just because I'd assumed it'd be one of the country high points like Snowdon or Scafell Pike, but it is obviously a fine and noble mountain, and with a special place in my memory as it's the first serious mountain I ever climbed, back in the late 1980s when I would guess I was about 15 or 16. We climbed it from the Thirlmere side (from the car park here, I think), which is a pretty direct route to the summit but not the most scenic angle of ascent. I've never been back since, which of course means that I've never been across Striding Edge, something I definitely want to rectify before I get too crumbly and decrepit to do it.
2. Snowdon: I can't actually remember how many times I've been up here, but it must be half a dozen or so, most recently in typically grim weather in 2009. Again, there are half a dozen or so "classic" routes up the mountain, and the programme didn't commit to any specific one. I rather like the circular route ascending via the Snowdon Ranger path and descending by the Rhyd Ddu path, not least because it ends at a pub. If you're in a hurry, like at the end of the Three Peaks Challenge, then up the Pyg and down the Miner's is the way to go.
4. Cat Bells: This is the "half" in my three-and-a-half Lakeland mountains, because at 451 metres (1480 feet) it's really only a hill. The walk here has it as the focal point, but if you're serious then it's just the first stop-off on the classic Newlands horseshoe walk, the high point of which is Dale Head at the far end of the Newlands valley, which (as you can see) features a rather splendid summit cairn.
5. Scafell Pike: I've been up here twice, most recently a furious yomp up from Wasdale at about 4am as the middle summit of the Three Peaks Challenge. This is the most challenging of the three walks for several reasons - you're starting in the dark at around 2am which is psychologically quite difficult, although it was a warm dry night when we did it in 2006, and it's the sharpest and steepest of the three ascents and the scramble up onto the summit dome is scree-y and challenging. But it's all worth it to see the sun rise over the trig point at 4:30am before scooting back down to the minibus for a bacon sandwich. The other time was in the late 1980s, probably the second major peak I did after Helvellyn, via the longer (but better) route from the farm at Seathwaite.
6. Tryfan: this is a terrific mountain that I've only been to the top of once, in some fairly stinging wind and rain in the mid-1990s. The picture shows me trying to hold onto a loose-fitting woolly hat next to the Adam and Eve rocks which mark the summit. It was definitely not a day to attempt the leap between the two rocks, though.
7. Buttermere: this is the low-level walk around the lake which we did on a family trip to the Lakes in the late 1980s. I don't recall much about it except there being a rock tunnel at one point.
8. The Old Man Of Coniston: one of our earliest Lakeland peaks, back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
9. Dunstanburgh, Northumberland: the castle is the point here and there's not too much fuss about how you get there, though a walk along the beach is nice. The equally impressive (and slightly less ruined) Bamburgh castle is a couple of miles further north, also right on the beach. We had a family holiday in the area in May 1981 - I can date it this specifically as I recall watching the England v Scotland football match on the TV in our holiday cottage, Scotland winning through a John Robertson second-half penalty.

Monday, February 05, 2018

the federer bureau of investigation

A couple of thoughts after watching a bit of the men's Australian Open tennis final the other day. Firstly, I should lay my cards on the table and say that I'm delighted that Roger Federer won, as I'm a big fan and I'd like to see him stay ahead of Rafael Nadal at the head of the overall list of Grand Slam singles title winners. I have no beef with Nadal, I should add, as he is wholly admirable and gives every indication of being a lovely bloke, but it seems right to me that Federer, the best all-round tennis player I've ever seen (not that I am any kind of expert) stays at the top of the list. Even the most ardent admirer of Nadal, and there are many (including a substantial contingent of The Ladies, if you know what I mean, and doubtless a few of The Guys too), would have to admit his tennis is a bit more based on power, supreme fitness and bloody-minded persistence and perhaps doesn't have the aesthetic grace and finesse of Federer's. Plenty of overused clichés are available:  the open-topped sportscar versus the Sherman tank, the rapier versus the broadsword,, the sgian-dubh versus the shillelagh, if you want something a bit more Brit-centric.

Another reason is that despite both players having achieved the career Grand Slam, Nadal's Grand Slam singles record looks a bit more uneven than Federer's as it's more skewed towards the tournament he's won the most, the French Open. Ten out of his sixteen titles were won here, compared with eight out of Federer's twenty being at Wimbledon. So it occurred to me to wonder: what if we built a list of Grand Slam winners ordered by how many singles titles they'd won that were not at their favourite event? The idea is that this would be some crude measure of their versatility across different tournaments, different surfaces, different times of year, all that stuff. So here's the starting list (shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia): everyone who's won more than five Grand Slam men's singles titles.

PlayerTotal Australian OpenFrench OpenWimbledon US Open
Roger Federer206185
Rafael Nadal1611023
Pete Sampras142075
Roy Emerson126222
Novak Djokovic126132
Rod Laver113242
Björn Borg110650
Bill Tilden100037
Fred Perry81133
Ken Rosewall84202
Jimmy Connors81025
Ivan Lendl82303
Andre Agassi84112
Richard Sears70007
William Renshaw70070
William Larned70007
René Lacoste70322
Henri Cochet70421
John Newcombe72032
John McEnroe70034
Mats Wilander73301
Laurence Doherty60051
Tony Wilding62040
Jack Crawford64110
Don Budge61122
Stefan Edberg62022
Boris Becker62031
Frank Sedgman52012
Tony Trabert50212

And here's the re-ordered list if you exclude the one they won the most:

PlayerFavourite tournamentNumber of titlesCorrected number
Roger FedererWimbledon812
Pete SamprasWimbledon77
Rod LaverWimbledon47
Rafael NadalFrench Open106
Novak DjokovicAustralian Open66
Roy EmersonAustralian Open66
Björn BorgFrench Open65
Fred PerryWim / US35
Ivan LendlFrench / US35
Andre AgassiAustralian Open44
Ken RosewallAustralian Open44
John NewcombeWimbledon34
Mats WilanderAus / French34
René LacosteFrench Open34
Don BudgeWim / US24
Stefan EdbergAus / Wim / US24
Bill TildenUS Open73
Jimmy ConnorsUS Open53
Henri CochetFrench Open43
John McEnroeUS Open43
Boris BeckerWimbldeon33
Frank SedgmanAus / US23
Tony TrabertFrench / US23
Jack CrawfordAustralian Open42
Tony WildingWimbledon42
Laurence DohertyWimbledon51
Richard SearsUS Open70
William LarnedUS Open70
William RenshawWimbledon70

Obviously this is very satisfying to me as it places Federer head and shoulders above the others. It also shunts a lot of the oldsters down to the bottom of the list as back in the day travelling from your home country to other parts of the world was a ridiculously time-consuming undertaking and so a lot of people didn't bother. So Bill Tilden drops from 10 to 3 and the serious one-tournament wonders like Sears, Larned, and Renshaw drop to zero. It's harsh, but fair. Let's try another formula - multiply everything together! Hang on, though, anyone who hasn't done the career Grand Slam will get a product of zero; we'd better add one to everything first, just to be fair. So someone who's won all the Grand Slams once will get a Grand Slam Factor or GSF of 16, whereas someone who's won one of them four times will end up with a GSF of 5. That sounds about right; consistency and versatility is what we're trying to reward here.

Player Total Aus French Wim US GSF  
Roger Federer206185756
Rafael Nadal1611023264
Roy Emerson126222189
Rod Laver113242180
Novak Djokovic126132168
Pete Sampras142075144
Fred Perry8113364
Andre Agassi8411260
Ivan Lendl8230348
Ken Rosewall8420245
Björn Borg11065042
Jimmy Connors8102536
René Lacoste7032236
John Newcombe7203236
Don Budge6112236
Bill Tilden10003732
Mats Wilander7330132
Henri Cochet7042130
Stefan Edberg6202227
Boris Becker6203124
John McEnroe7003420
Jack Crawford6411020
Frank Sedgman5201218
Tony Trabert5021218
Tony Wilding6204015
Laurence Doherty6005112
Richard Sears700078
William Renshaw700708
William Larned700078

The biggest casualties are the two-Slam wonders Borg and Tilden, while the consistent three-Slam guys like Rosewall and Lendl get a leg-up. Once again the oldsters get shunted to the bottom of the list, but, I mean, come on, guys, make an effort - if you can't be bothered to live in the right era of history with high-speed travel and communications, not to mention sports psychologists and Lucozade, then I've no sympathy for you.

That said, I expect if you come up with some suitably contorted formula you can probably work your guy to the top of the list. There's a challenge for all you Laurence Doherty fans out there.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

why did the halibut cross the ocean? to see his flatmates

In a shocking and shameful dereliction of duty and a betrayal of everything that this blog stands for, I note that we have only done one halibut-related post in the last FIVE FREAKIN' YEARS, and that one was really just a passing mention before my attention wandered onto the subject of Katy Perry's tits. Oh sure, there's been Halibut Towers this and The Curse Of Electric Halibut that, but that butters no parsnips compared to raw unadorned data about large flatfish of the genus Hippoglossus.

The previous proper halibut post from October 2012 was mainly concerned with the catching of a whopping 186-kilogram specimen off the coast of Norway (as you'll see from the following stories, Norway is pretty much Halibutsville Central when it comes to big ones). In similar vein, today's Daily Mail carries a story about a British fisherman landing the "world's biggest ever halibut" while on a fishing trip to, you've guessed it, Norway. So what you'll be thinking is: wow, I wonder how big that was - the 2012 one made no claim to be a record-breaker but this one must be bigger than that, at the very least. So you'd perhaps be surprised to learn that this one weighed in at a mere 153 pounds, which is a fraction under 70 kilograms. It turns out that this is one of those records where you have to read the small print carefully - it's the biggest "shore-caught" halibut on record, the other monster ones being presumably landed onto boats.

Undeterred by this the fisherman carried out one of the primary obligations of the halibut-wrangler, which is to lie down next to the fish and pose for the photo. The canonical measure of halibut size (in contrast to giant squid size, where the standard London bus is used) from the selection of things deemed to be understandable by Joe Public, who has literally no idea how much a kilogram weighs, is some hand-wavey estimate of how many human-meal-sized portions it would yield. You'll recall my scepticism about the number quoted for the 186kg specimen - the claim made here is as follows:
The fish made 160 fillets, which would be worth around £4,000 to a high end fish restaurant
Two obvious thoughts: firstly that is under a sixth of the number of portions claimed for the 186kg halibut, a fish a little over two-and-a-half times as large. Since I found the original estimate implausible, maybe that's OK, though. But, secondly, if you do the price calculation, 160 portions fetching £4000 works out at 25 quid a portion. Can that be right? Well, Waitrose charge £28.99 a kilo for halibut, which works out at between £5 and £7 for a fairly normal-sized portion. Maybe "high end" restaurants (whose suppliers won't be charging as much as Waitrose, don't forget) really do apply that much of a mark-up.

Anyway, the proper world record for catching a halibut, no ifs, buts, maybes or nonsense about having to be standing on the shore, on a Tuesday, wearing a woolly hat and blue underpants, is a gargantuan 233kg specimen (although the Daily Mail, as is their wont, stick bloody-mindedly to various forms of imperial measurement throughout) caught by German fisherman Marco Liebenow back in 2013. "Heavier than a wild gorilla", apparently. A wild one, mind. Wild? I was absolutely livid, etc.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

the last book I read

Matter by Iain M Banks.

Here on Earth we take the whole planet occupation thing for granted. Simply evolve over a series of aeons from single-celled amoebae floating around in the primordial soup and over time progress in a leisurely manner to the current pinnacle of development occupying a comfy wing-backed chair puffing ruminatively on a pipe-stem perusing the paperwork for some complex hire-purchase agreement, all without ever really considering whether we're entitled to be here or not.

On a Shellworld, however, things are a bit more complex: these are artificially constructed worlds (the exact construction methods and the identity of the architects being a bit of a mystery) with various species (depending which Shellworld you choose) acting as custodians and getting to pick and choose who occupies each of the many concentric levels. So you might have humanoids on one level, beating the shit out of each other as humanoids do, and then some giant whale-creatures on the water-filled next level, and some freaky-ass motherfuckers resembling sentient hot-air balloons floating about on the next level, with the whole thing overseen by some gigantic blue lobsters. A bit more like renting a room in a shared house than just casually inheriting an entire planet.

Anyway, this particular Shellworld, Sursamen, has the usual motley selection of occupants, but our main concern is with the Sarl, basically humanoid types who occupy one of the levels, and conform very precisely to humanoid cliché by being bloodthirsty slaughtering warlike types. As we join the action there's a battle going on, during the course of which the current king, Hausk, is mortally wounded and is unexpectedly ushered into the netherworld by his supposed right-hand man, tyl Loesp. Unknown to any of the regicidal mob, the king's son, and the rightful next king, Ferbin, witnesses the whole thing and flees for his life with his comedy manservant, Holse.

Ferbin was never especially keen to be king, although pretty keen on cashing in on the whole playboy prince thing with the drinking and the whoring and the like. But that doesn't mean he'll be happy to hand the throne over to the man who murdered his father. As it happens, though, Ferbin has some other family contacts: his sister, Djan Seriy Anaplian, left home many years previously to join a shadowy organisation called The Culture (ahaaaa, etc. etc.). So he and Holse set off to find her.

It turns out that not only is Djan Seriy Anaplian a citizen of The Culture (I can't improve on "AI-moderated anarcho-utopia" from here so I'm just going to re-use it), she is an operative with Special Circumstances, the super-exclusive ultra-badass black-ops division who can kill you just by looking at you. Furthermore, she was on her way to Sursamen anyway in an unofficial capacity to pay her respects to her dead father, and is happy to turn it into something a bit more official. The added complicating factor is that Djan and Ferbin's half-brother Oramen remains on Sursamen, theoretically as Prince Regent, awaiting the occasion of his eighteenth birthday whereupon he will inherit the throne from tyl Loesp, who's been appointed some sort of Lord Protector. The trouble is, as everyone but Oramen knows, tyl Loesp isn't going to let that happen and is going to ensure that Oramen meets with an "accident", probably of the furiously stabby variety, some time before his birthday.

In the meantime Oramen is being kept out of trouble by being sent to oversee the excavations of an ancient city gradually being exposed by the retreat of a gigantic waterfall. This process is exposing some seriously strange shit, and when winter arrives and the whole falls area freezes over this allows excavations to continue behind the falls, whereupon some seriously strange shit is revealed, of the planet-endangering variety. Luckily, Djan, Ferbin, Holse and a small army of Culture drones and sentient missiles arrive at this point and embark on a furious pursuit to the planet's core to try and avert disaster.

Seasoned Banks readers will detect more than a whiff of Inversions here - vaguely mediaeval civilisation, with access to some relatively advanced weaponry (e.g. basic firearms) thanks to some judicious (or foolhardy or meddling, depending on your point of view) nudging by previous Culture involvement, and a badass female Special Circumstances agent. Obviously there is a raft of hard sci-fi stuff that Inversions didn't have - the Shellworlds, all the various alien ships that Ferbin and Djan hitch lifts on, the apocalyptic battle at the end in which (SPOILER ALERT) pretty much everyone dies.

The usual points about the morality of super-advanced civilisations intervening in the development of less-advanced ones are chewed over here (just as they were in Inversions). There's an obvious parallel between the actual physical hierarchy of levels on Sursamen and the implicit multi-level hierarchy of civilisations that runs from the Sarl up through the Oct who administer the day-to-day running of the Shellworlds, the Nariscene who supervise them, the Morthanveld who oversee them and the Culture who in turn consider themselves above all of the others.

Like all Banks' books this is not without flaws: it drags a bit in the middle between Ferbin leaving Sursamen and returning in the company of Djan, in particular during the interlude where they encounter former Special Circumstances agent Xide Hyrlis, whose function seems mainly to be tedious about multiverse theory for a number of pages and then refuse to be of any help whatsoever. And as thrilling as the bit at the end where they blast around the giant turbines and gears at the planet's core is, it all seems a bit compressed (60-odd pages out of 600) and a jarring change of pace given the leisurely unfolding of what's gone before, and the flashing and banging distracts you from the fact that precious few of the Big Questions raised are actually answered. Like, for instance: why do the Iln have such an implacable thing for destroying Shellworlds? And why, if you have such an implacable thing on the go, choose to achieve it by getting yourself buried in silt for several millennia and revived by a suitably advanced civilisation, rather than just, you know, popping off and doing the job straight away?

In the implicit league table of Culture novels that everyone who's read more than one of them keeps in their heads I would say this is in the mid-range along with The Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons - better then Excession which I found a bit tedious, but not as good as Consider Phlebas, Look To Windward or Inversions. It's all good fun and never less than compulsively readable, though, so no complaints.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

dry January? more like DIE January

Another day, another gratifyingly early fulfilment of a New Year's resolution, this one being to really step up the brutal and relentless culling of authors who have previously featured on this blog. It's still January and we've already clocked up one, that one being sci-fi/fantasy author Ursula Le Guin, whose book The Dispossessed featured here just over two years ago and who died yesterday aged 88. That's actually fairly quick work by the usual standards of the Curse of Electric Halibut - only Dibdin, Hoban, Matheson and Salter were knocked off more quickly.

I also need to fill in a missing entry from 2017, since JP Donleavy died on 11th September and I seem to have missed it. Unless I've missed anyone else (which is quite possible) that takes the current count to nineteen.

As it happens January 22nd isn't the earliest start to a year of authorial slaughter; 2017 started as early as January 2nd with the demise of John Berger. The belated inclusion of Donleavy means that 2017 is now the joint-deadliest year on record with four deaths, a record it shares with 2013.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d