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Review Round-up: The King's Men and Edison's Conquest of Mars

EdisonGarrett Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) is the sequel to a knock-off. Following the success of War of the Worlds, the Boston Evening Post ran an unauthorised variant called Fighters from Mars (author unknown, but credited to, I kid you not, "H.C. Wells"). Conquest is the sequel - a serialised novel in which, under the championship of Thomas Edison, Earth strikes back. 

Conquest has certain merits as a part of science fictional history: it is a classic Edisonade and it is an early transformative work. However, it is particularly remarkable in how it displays the worst traits of both genres.

An "Edisonade" (term defined by John Clute) is a type of proto-SF based around an inventor and his (invariably a man) works. Everything from Tom Swift to Herbert Strang to "The Steam Man of the Prairies" (which is kind of awful as well, actually). In this case, the term is literal, as Edison - shown here as a scientific, moral and political paragon - invents, well, pretty much everything: spaceships, spacesuits, disintegration rays, asteroid mining, you name it...

That would be fun if the book weren't so terribly, terribly goofy. All the nations of Earth gather together (stereotypes on full display) and build a massive space armada. This is done by pledging all of the world's money and all of its industrial output. The Earthling then head to the Moon as a test run, and find that it is composed of diamonds (which is handy - the mission has already turned a tidy profit and/or crashed the world economy). The fleet meanders by an asteroid (Made of gold! Space is awesome! Economics less so!) and eventually engages the Martians on their homeworld. The battle goes to and fro, but eventually a (beautiful) (princess) human servant on the planet informs Edison of the ONE LEVER THAT WILL DESTROY THE ENTIRE PLANET. Edison et. al. storm the unguarded lever-building, pull the lever and watch all the Martians die. The humans head home triumphant, having taught the Martians a thing or two about genocide.

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'Labyrinths' by W.H. Matthews (1922)

LabyrinthThe earliest structure of any kind to which we find the word labyrinth applied was a huge building situated in the North of Egypt, a land always noted for its stupendous monuments, and was probably constructed more than 2000 years before the commencement of the Christian era.

We live in an age when the use of constructional steel enables the dreams of the architect to materialise in many ways that would astonish the builders of old; nevertheless, the modern citizen, whatever his nationality, can rarely resist a feeling akin to awe when making his first acquaintance with such works as the Pyramids of Egypt. One can imagine, then, what a profound effect these massive edifices must have exerted on the minds of travellers in earlier ages.

We find, as we might expect, many wild exaggerations in individual descriptions and corresponding discrepancies between the various accounts of any particular monument, and this is to some extent the case with regard to the Egyptian Labyrinth.

A fairly detailed and circumstantial account has come down to us from the Greek writer Herodotus.

Continue reading "'Labyrinths' by W.H. Matthews (1922)" »

Completing Dahl: Memories with Food at Gipsy House

This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

Memories with Food at Gipsy House
AKA Roald Dahl’s Kitchen Nightmares

Memories with FoodAfter a few months of feeling… less than enthralled by my selections for this project, Memories with Food at Gipsy House ended up being completely delightful. Thank goodness, right?

Co-authored by Dahl and his wife Felicity, Memories with Food at Gipsy House is just what it says on the package: it’s a bunch of stories about eating delicious meals, plus recipes. Sometimes the recipes are from the stories, sometimes not. It’s an interesting endeavor, peppered with anecdotes by his wife and children and housekeepers and friends about various meals eaten or elusive ingredients procured or the experience of cooking a specific dish.

During Dahl’s sections, his storytelling style reminded me strongly of one of my favorite of his books, My Year. Both have that quality of a beloved uncle rambling at you from his favorite chair by the fire, around 10 PM when he’s had a drop in and should be tottering off to bed but everyone’s begging him for just one more story.

Some of the anecdotes will be familiar to those who have read many of his other works—the Norway stories either repeat or expand on events detailed in Boy, for example, and Piggy the Cook from Going Solo also appears. Not that I minded. Again, that spell of the beloved uncle makes everything enjoyable even when it’s not entirely fresh.

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Where's Pornokitsch? (Nine Worlds / LonCon Edition)

Here's where we are - and how to find us - at the two big London conventions this summer.

Nine Worlds

We're there from Thursday night to Sunday night, doing the wild and crazy ALL OF THE BOOKS thing. Generally speaking, you can find us in the BOOKS room (County C&D), but we're also planning ahead and making sure that we can do lots of other activities (I'm desperate to steampunk-style a Nerf gun and Anne's off to gin tasting...)

As for actually being on programming, Anne will be chairing the following debated:

  • Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks: The Ultimate Deathmatch Smackdown (Saturday, 11.45)
  • Spock vs the Sorcerers, SF vs F: The Genre Deathmatch Smackdown (Sunday, 11.45)

And I'm moderatin', Texas-style:

  • Westerns (Saturday, 15.45)

We are both on:

  • CoffeeKitsch (Saturday and Sunday, 9.15 - 9.45) (Less of a panel, more of a 'have some coffee and hang out with us as we rustle paper around and figure out what we should be doing that day')
  • Wow. So Panel. (Sunday, 17.00)

But, again, we'll be around all weekend - so please, please, please come, introduce yourselves and chat for a bit! If you're a morning person, the CoffeeKitsch is meant to be a chilled-out sort of thing, where we can all introduce ourselves properly and make new acquaintances (also, free coffee).

There will be tons of Jurassic London books on sale in the dealer room and the CoffeeKitsch is sponsored by The Kitschies. 

The Nine Worlds programming can all be found here.

Bloggers at WorldConLonCon (WorldCon)

Anne's on the following programming:

  • Truth in Trash (Saturday, 12.00) 
  • Simply the Best [the mandatory awards panel] (Saturday, 16.30)
  • The Editorial View (Sunday, 12.00)

We're both at the Hugo Awards (look for: 'back row', 'dinosaur onesies', 'inappropriate giggling'). 

And, finally, we're teaming up with Justin (Staffer's Book Review), Ana and Thea (The Book Smugglers) for an informal blogger hangout on Saturday, 9 pm in the 'Fan Village'. This is not on the programme (or part of the official programming), we're just, you know, hangin'. Please come along!

If you spot us, please say hi! We look forward to meeting a lot of our online pen-pals in person.

The LonCon schedulematronic doohicky is here.

Fiction: 'The Doorway' by Evelyn E. Smith

"It is my theory," Professor Falabella said, helping himself to a cookie, "that no one ever really makes a decision. What really happens is that whenever alternative courses of action are called for, the individuality splits up and continues on two or more divergent planes, very much like the parthenogenesis of a unicellular animal... Delicious cookies these, Mrs. Hughes."

Continue reading "Fiction: 'The Doorway' by Evelyn E. Smith" »

Guardians of the Galaxy: Who Are These People? And Animal? And Tree?

Star-lord1Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I’m very excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, which opens this Thursday or Friday, depending where you are. But not everyone shares that excitement, because Marvel are taking a calculated risk bringing a set of characters with minimal visibility outside of the established comic audience to cinemas as a summer blockbuster. Even when they launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man, the character was at least somewhat familiar. The Guardians?  Not so much.

For those not in the know - here is a short summary of the Guardians of the Galaxy (and their main opponents) in the film. It is worth noting that some of this might wind up being spoilers and/or none of this might make it to the movie versions’ histories.


Star-Lord: Peter Quill’s origin has undergone a few minor detail changes over the years, but the basics are that he’s an unknowing half-alien, raised on Earth by his human mother. When he was a child his mother died in an alien attack designed to end his father’s bloodline, and via a typically comicbook sequence of coincidence and improbability, he ended up being given the mantle of Star-Lord, a role meant to be some form of interstellar police officer. It was also revealed that his father was J’Son of Spartax, ruler of the interstellar Spartax Empire. Again, because comics.

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Review Round-up: Kill Baxter and Daddy Long-Legs

Human-KillBaxterUK-BlogCharlie Human's Kill Baxter (2014) is the sequel to one of last year's best debuts - Apocalypse Now Now. The titular Baxter has now embraced (or, at the very least, 'admitted') his magical heritage and the powers that be have insisted that he attend Hexpoort, the school for budding wizardly types. There, Baxter is challenged in three ways: survive his training, survive his fellow students and survive the upcoming magical civil war. It doesn't help that, after thwarting a previous apocalypse, Baxter has earned the enmity of the school bully, who is insistent the he and he alone be in the running for 'Chosen One'. Oh, and his girlfriend kind of hates him.

If there are similarities with Harry Potter, I assure you  - they are deliberate, the scene on the train platform is especially pointed. Human's written a wonderfully cutting piece of post-revisionist young adult fantasy, where the mid-century schoolboy story has been booted into the year 2014. The world is a nastily realistic place, with no clear delineation between good and evil and corruption everywhere. Hexpoort is a Hogwarts for a decadent fascist aristocracy - a system where the ruling powers are so desperate for the next generation of child soldiers that they let the students run feral, so long as they remain loyal.

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On The Day of the Triffids

Found in Galaxy, August 1951. Review by Geoff Conklin. Counter-argument by posterity.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Doubleday and Co., New York, 1951.
222 pages. $2.50.

One of the minor miracles - connected with this Collier's serial by science fiction's old British friend, John Beynon Harris, is the fact that anyone familiar with the Harris of the early '30s will wonder how the Harris of the '50s could have learned how to write in so workmanlike a fashion.

As a story, the current opus is what you'd call a good run-of-the-mill affair, not the worst by any means, but also not the best, of the long literature of World Catastrophe tales. It deals with the invention (or development) of some horrid Triffids, and the coincidental occurrence of a display of incredible heavenly fireworks all around the world that makes everyone who looked at them permanently blind.

Conflict: the struggles of the tiny handful of those who did not see the fireworks, and who consequently still have vision, to survive the combined horrors of great gobs of people dying all over the place, and great masses of sentient vegetables trying to attack all humans they can lay their poisonous "whips" on.

The coincidence is not quite as great as it sounds, since '"Wyndham'* suggests that the phenomena are secret war weapons - the Triffids are escapees from a Russian botanical laboratory, the fireworks the result of a cosmic accident to one of the "Earth satellite vehicles" which the competing Great Powers have thrown up above the atmosphere in swift death orbits.

Oh, well, it hasn't happened yet. Meanwhile, you will find some pleasant reading in this book, provided you aren't out hunting science fiction masterpieces.

Friday Five: 5 Films Never to Watch With Family Members

This week's Friday Five is from Sarah Lotz, author of The Three and part of many wonderful writing tandems with many different names (see: Lily Herne, S.L. Grey, Helena Paige). Sarah's been a guest here before and we're delighted to have her back. So with no further ado...

Such happy people

I’m old. Old enough to have seen Star Wars at the cinema when it first came out. Yet I still feel awkward whenever I watch a movie with my parents and a graphic sex scene flashes onto the screen. It’s ridiculous. I wasn’t brought up to think of sex as shameful, I’ve co-written and published a series of porn books (albeit under a pseudonym) and I also have a daughter, so everyone knows I’ve had sex at least once. But still. I can’t help it. And I know I’m not the only one.

There are thousands of potentially parental squeam-inducing movies out there, but the top culprits for me are The English Patient (although that said, I once saw it with a bunch of nuns who were less fazed by the shagging than I was), Y Tu Mamá También (self-explanatory), and Don’t Look Now (the sex scene in this one goes on for days – you can leave the room to make tea, defrost the freezer and change the oil in your car and it’ll still be going on when you return).

So I’m taking it as a given that movie sex scenes + parents = awkwardness, and will concentrate on the top five movies that have traumatised me and my family for other reasons.

Requiem for a Dream 

I was visiting my folks in the UK at the time. All was going great. We were gathered in the lounge, the fire was crackling, no one was sulking, no one was pissed, the take-out curry was en route. We were like a family out of a John Lewis commercial. Time to watch a movie.

‘How about Requiem for a Dream?’ I suggested, stupidly. ‘I’ve been dying to see it for years and it’s got Jennifer Connelly in it.’


Not great.


It wasn’t just the graphic grossness that made Requiem for a Dream such top-notch cringe-worthy family viewing. I’d just published a semi-autobiographical novel based on my experiences living on the streets when I was a teenager (I’d run away from home for various nefarious reasons and my folks didn’t know where I was for months), and during that time I’d taken a truck-load of Class A drugs. As we all sat there, frozen with horror at the sight of Jared Leto’s gangreney bits, it was obvious my parents were thinking: so this is what she REALLY got up to when she was a drug addict. The thieving. The squalor. The lying. The amputation. That horrible dildo thing at the end. 

I will never be able to watch it again without dying a little inside.

Continue reading "Friday Five: 5 Films Never to Watch With Family Members" »

Irregularity: Out now!

Irregularity - Cover - PaperbackIrregularity is about the tension between order and chaos in the 17th and 18th centuries. Men and women from all walks of life dedicated themselves to questioning, investigating, classifying and ordering the natural world.

These brave thinkers dedicated themselves and their lives to the idea that the world followed rules that human endeavour could uncover... but what if they were wrong?

This anthology is published to coincide with Ships, Clocks and Stars, a major exhibition on the story of the quest for longitude at sea National Maritime Museum. The Museum has also our partner for the creation of Irregularity, including access to their archives for materials, imagery and inspiration.

The launch party is at the National Maritime Museum this evening, as part of their Dark and Stormy Late. Hope to see you there!

A huge, vast, immeasurable thank you to all of the contributors: writers, artists, proofreaders, fact-checkers, image-finders and launch-makers. This anthology had a vast army of irregulars (sorry) behind it, and it wouldn't have been possible without them.


  • "Fairchild's Folly" by Tiffani Angus
  • "A Game Proposition" by Rose Biggin
  • "Footprint" by Archie Black
  • "A Woman Out of Time" by Kim Curran
  • "The Heart of Aris Kindt" by Richard de Nooy
  • "An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought" by Simon Guerrier
  • "Irregularity" by Nick Harkaway
  • "Circulation" by Roger Luckhurst
  • "The Voyage of the Basset" by Claire North
  • "The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle" by Adam Roberts
  • "Animalia Paradoxa" by Henrietta Rose-Innes
  • "The Last Escapement" by James Smythe
  • "The Darkness" by M. Suddain
  • "The Spiders of Stockholm" by E. J. Swift

Afterword by Sophie Waring and Richard Dunn, Head of Science and Technology at Royal Museums Greenwich. Illustrations by Gary Northfield and the National Maritime Museum, cover by Howard Hardiman.

Paperback - UK / US

Kindle - UK / US

Hardcover via National Maritime Museum