Baby Steps in a Spacesuit: Even Newer Readings

As COVID ground on, so I bought Kindle SF books – quite a LOT of Kindle books – and read them, and quite often reviewed them on the Amazon site. As I have now done a few times, I am gathering them here in case anyone is interested!

The Last Reef: And Other Stories 4*

by Gareth L Powell

I have recently started reading everything Gareth Powell has written, and these short stories are a welcome addition to my library. The quality is a little uneven – I think some of the stories end too abruptly, and/or the odd story mostly exists to explore something a little too transparently – but there are themes that link stories well (the Reef, eg), and the writing is largely excellent. I liked this collection. You should too 😁

Angel Stations 4*

by Gary Gibson

I think I confused it with another book I have had for years, so never investigated it – and now I have, after becoming acquainted with Gary Gibson via the Shoal Sequence, and I AM glad 😁

Oh, there’s the odd jarring bit – how DO you make humans essentially immortal, and then not be able to heal them of a disease? – but the level of universe creation at work here is such that you are effortlessly swept away. Gibson’s sense of plot is excellent; his characters generally accessible and understandable (thought there is that Vaughn fellow who is just a little TOO omnipotently evil…), and Huge Things vie with mere humans to sweep the story along briskly. Great stuff!!

Echogenesis 4*

by Gary Gibson

Travel to new planets! Meet interesting aliens!! And kill them…

This was an interesting book: a dystopic Earth, seed ships sent out with colonists’ minds encoded in hardware, a colonisation effort stuck in a loop, with sabotaged instructions hampering success…. Well written, exciting, interesting revelations at several places, and – it just ends!? I’ll be looking out for more Gibson: not quite the finished article as a future-noir writer, but great potential 🙂

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt Book 1)

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I have read a fair bit of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s SF by now, but only one of the fantasy books – so dived in and bought the whole Shadows series.

I am glad I did: this was RIVETTING, albeit seriously strange – humans in clans that mimic arthropods?? – but the storytelling sweeps you up and whirls you away, and….

Then the damn thing ended, but I have the rest of them to binge on. VERY good, and I do not say that often.

The Scarab Path (Shadows of the Apt Book 5) 4*

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I am hopelessly enmired in Tchaikovsky’s creation, and have been for a while. Helplessly carried along, as he kills yet another of the folk I have become fond of, or even only used to, and he makes me feel the pathos and the sorrow.

Shadows of the Apt is a stupendous creation; a huge meshed set of stories that covers only part of a strange, magical world. I will soldier on, as Thalric does (I like Thalric), until the end. I will cavil only slightly at the revelation of the Slugs – a little too powerful for my liking, hence 4 and not 5 stars – and hope we see no more of them.

The Air War (Shadows of the Apt Book 8)

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

What a book! Getting back to old friends, introducing new ones – and killing quite a few of them, in the midst of an impossibly well-detailed air war.

Really: the depth of detail, the extent to which even individual dogfights, let alone whole air wing strategies are described, is simply stunning. Adrian Tchaikovsky has outdone himself with this book, and it has been a pleasure to be in his hands as the long story unfolds further 😁

War Master’s Gate (Shadows of the Apt Book 9) 5*

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Horrific! Brutal!! Bleak!!!

But these are good things: Adrian Tchaikovsky has excelled himself here – which is pretty hard to do, given the level at which he is able to create worlds and people – with one of the most bleak descriptions of an all-out war, and its effects on people and places. And he killed some old friends, and introduced a horrific new adversary, that we will doubtless meet in the next book.

This series has been quite a ride: exquisitely created, impeccably crafted into interweaving threads of narrative, with real-seeming characters. That it is a wrench to lose, Adrian!!

Seal of the Worm (Shadows of the Apt Book 10) 4*

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Oh, Adrian…😣

I have rushed through this series – OK, I read fast – because of the steady, inexorable build-up through the books of Something Dreadful This Way Comes.

And it did: The Worm. Nastiest community in the worlds of the Apt; isolated for over a thousand years in the dark, until a petulant Empress unleashes them inadvertently (not a spoiler; read the previous book!).

Adrian Tchaikovsky then proceeds to run his character list down ruthlessly, until he really does get to GRRM-level culling. Noooooooo, I would say to myself, as another bit the dust, got shot in one of several ways, fell out of the sky, was eaten by a centipede….

But a satisfactory ending to a monumental series – which I will remember forever. Sadly, which is why the 4 stars, and not 5.

A Time For Grief (Tales of the Apt Book 2) 5*

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

These stories – previous volume and this – fill out fascinating aspects of the back-stories of a number of characters that probably deserved some more print time. Rogues, miscreants, heroes – they are all here, sometimes more than once. If you’re a fan of SotA, you’ll need these 😁

City of Last Chances 4*

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

As with everything Adrian, this is well worth a read. Strange in places, a sometimes disconcerting narration style, possibly not enough background…and reads like something out of the near-darkest depths of the Shadows of the Apt series, where he really does get the grinder out on your emotions, as he tortures his characters.

Verdict: good, but not up to Shadows of the Apt.


by Alastair Reynolds

Back when you think this is a Victorian Gothic…and then it’s a HG Wells adventure…then a piece of 50s pulp SF…and then….

This is a wonderful, multifaceted novel, written in a variety of styles but with a strong POV element with a slightly archaic narrator – who is both more and less than he seems. The way the story bends to the shifting realities, and then you’re in the Real – whatever that is – and it isn’t like you thought it was, and what will happen to the Doctor and his Object of Affection now?

You won’t guess. Just go along with a very good ride, and marvel at how Reynolds manages to bring the train home. 😁

Arkhangelsk 5*

by Elizabeth Bonesteel

 Ice. Cold. Forgotten and suppressed histories.

I wondered about this, at first, but then the sheer quality of the writing and the depth of inventiveness for the technical details grabbed me, and pulled me in.

This is a GOOD book. Possibly great, but I’ll let history judge 😁 A tale of the crews of two starships, separated by 200 years, interacting after the first has made a colony on a cold and desolate planet – and histories unremembered and hidden, and old conflicts still smouldering. The human angle is superbly well done; so too anything to do with the technical. I liked it – a LOT.

Embers of War 4*

by Gareth L. Powell

Attention! Space Opera!!

I bought this because I’d liked Ack-Ack Macaque, which gradually spiralled from being a passable jape with an ape, to being SO much more than that.

This too: the development of a story from the ashes of an atrocity committed during a war, to a galaxy-changing event that liberates an incredible fleet of ships from a hibernation to…do what?

That’s the next book. I’m looking forward to it B-)

Fleet of Knives: An Embers of War novel 5*

by Gareth L. Powell

 Building to a climax…

Good follow-up to the first novel: the Trouble Dog developing its personality; human crew (the ones that survive, anyway) doing human things, and showing initiative; the Druff—-reproducing, and the Fleet of Knives implacable and deadly. Good space opera! Let’s hope we hear the fat lady sing B-)

Light of Impossible Stars: An Embers of War novel 4*

by Gareth L. Powell

And it ends! Or not?

This has been a very interesting series. Four stars for this one, because all of a sudden new factors were introduced that produced a Deus ex machina type of plot resolution – but it did tie together, and threads that were wandering were pulled together, and the Knives were blunted and turned into ploughshares, and…

Which is all one can ask for, right? A superb series, well written, very well characterised, and I will definitely be looking for more from Gareth Powell.

Stars and Bones 4*

by Gareth L. Powell

 It’s the future, Jim, but not as we know it…

I like Gareth Powell. I am newly come to this author, but I have been making up for it – as I did for Adrian Tchaikovsky recently – by selectively buying stuff from him. So it’s fair to say I had high hopes coming in to reading this, and I was rewarded – largely….

Let me qualify this: I don’t TOO much mind the concept of a very large, non-corporeal alien entity saving Earth from self-sparked nuclear immolation, but…how? How did it do it?

There’s also a talking cat: OK, apparently all pet cats and dogs can now talk thanks to alien magic and high tech, but while Sam the cat is depicted as being as selfish as cats are known to be, he’s also just a bit too bright. However, he’s also pretty central to the plot, even if he does go mysteriously AWOL in an apocalyptic Big Alien encounter – because he comes BACK, and does Good Things.

A Dyson sphere also appears and becomes Very Important. However, and however…it has big holes in it, which is important because it is ALSO claimed to be able to hold onto atmosphere and water, and how would it do that? And where does the gravity come from, given that people are on the inside, and there isn’t that much mass under them, and it isn’t spinning?

OK, OK, I’m a pedant, but I think these are potential holes in the verisimilitude (if one can use the term for something that is purely imaginary), which result in the book not achieving a 5.

HOWEVER: Powell again displays an awesome grasp of storytelling that sweeps one up and away into some VERY unexpected territory, with a Game of Thrones-type of disregard for keeping folk one had become fond of actually alive – and delivers a story close to the calibre of the Ack-Ack Macaque, with an interesting and unexpected twist at the end.

A good book. Not his best, but that’s a high bar. I will continue to indulge my liking for his writing 😁

Light Chaser

by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L Powell

Supernatural again? Really??

I must preface this review with the fact that I like both these authors. Mostly. They both write really well, and I have nearly all of Hamilton’s books, and am starting to collect Powell’s, too. So why a negative review?

While I like Hamilton, this is tempered by a dislike of his invoking the supernatural unnecessarily. The whole Night’s Dawn trilogy was tainted by having resurrected folk popping up all over, so that even though the technology and the writing were superb, the premise was so flawed, in my opinion, that it just sat badly with me.

So too here: WHY does there have to be a supernatural element invoked, on top of what is an ingenious premise – Light Chasers circulating around known or settled space on thousand-year cycles, collecting memories and trading trinkets, with all of the technology described and undescribed, to make it happen? Like Night’s Dawn, I think it would have been SO much better without?!

Oh, you can see Powell’s influence too, with musings on what it is to be human, to be free – but there’s another problem here, and that’s that the book is too SHORT: novelette rather than novel, so that I killed it in a couple of hours. Also meaning that important plot elements get thrust at you complete and ready-wrapped, with no slow development and gradual revelation.

You’ll see what I mean. Great idea, badly developed. A pity!!

Artifact Space 4*

by Miles Cameron

Beware deadly orphans!

I bought this because it kept getting advertised to me by Amazon, and I thought ho, hum; another poor-bullied-patrician-orphan-makes-good-big-ship-drama. And…yes, it is all that, but it is VERY well written, impeccably constructed, and eminently readable. The saga very realistically (as far as I am concerned) delves into just what sort of training our deadly urchin needs to be a starship officer – possibly in TOO much detail sometimes; I was losing track of all of the command locations and functions after a while – and leads one through a LOT of build-up to actual combat. A bit like playing Wing Commander, then! 😁🚀

As for the deadly orphan bit: our hero really is pretty lethal, and well drawn as a person. The society, too – though WHY would a future star-travelling society that uses nanotech use ducats as a currency??

Oh, and as an aside, this is the first book I’ve read in a while that actually uses an imaginative pronoun – and not they, or them – for people known as androgynes. I wish more did!

Silver (Inverted Frontier Book 2) 5*

by Linda Nagata

 Why have I not heard of this person before?!

I have kept being offered books by Linda Nagata by Amazon’s site, based on my other reading – and I eventually succumbed, and bought the first and and second books of the Inverted Frontier set. Of course, now I will have to fill in the back catalogue, as I have found these books to be absolutely enthralling.

Seriously: humanity as what amounts to disembodied intelligences, capable of instantiating as avatars, or splitting off multiple “ghosts” to do things in cyberspace, and then reintegrate. Berserker-type ships called the Chenzeme, which basically kill everyone and everything – except the humans that capture them. Evolved humans that make and then disintegrate Dyson spheres, and spin out gods who play with other human intelligences in vast and barely understood games.

I like Linda Nagata. I will read a lot more of her 😁

The Man In The Maze (Gateway Essentials Book 126) 4*

by Robert Silverberg

Blast from the past

I remember being impressed by Robert Silverberg as a teenager, reading the pulp mags. I was impressed again as a young adult by Lord Valentine’s Castle and the Majipoor Chronicles, and Up the Line – the best time travel book I’d read to that point. Now, I read this, at a much more advanced age, and – it’s marvellous! 4 stars because there’s a faint element of woman as object, but this book has aged VERY well. There’s hardly an anachronistic element, and in fact his invented technologies are remarkably close to what we envision now as being future-feasible. I think it’s time for a re-read of the Old Master 😁

Far from the Light of Heaven: A triumphant return to science fiction from the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author 3*

by Tade Thompson

 Exotics? Exotic what?

You know when you like something, but there’s an element to it that grates? Like finding sand in your ice cream? This book is like that: really good overall, but with annoying elements. That you remember.

Speaking of which, one of the central elements of the story are just that: elements. Exotics, they get called, and they came from asteroids – yet don’t get named. They can also kill people, just by leaking out of someone who has been exposed, or accumulated them. Really?? This is completely unnecessary in an otherwise good book: the author could have made them rare earth elements that ARE known, and though they would not have the same effect on bystanders, could certainly kill miners.

Anyway: I liked the characterisations on the whole, although the one AI that causes all the problems seemed a bit high-powered compared to the ship AI that HAD to have been bigger / more complex…but that’s a spoiler, so let me just say that the story carries you along in a rollicking way albeit with the minor irritations.

And as someone from Africa, I liked the way that African culture and spirituality was woven into the story – even though it also sits a little awkwardly with the story in some respects, like resurrected Chicago gangsters in Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy. I hope Tade Thompson writes some more hard SF: I would read that, because he writes WELL.

Wireless: The Essential Charles Stross 5*

by Charles Stross

Great background on a master

I picked up on Charles Stross via short stories, I think – but then saw none, while I read all his novels. Reading this collection has been revelatory: they are VERY good, and I think his time traveller series is the best thing I’ve read in the genre since Up The Line by Robert Silverberg, temporal anomalies and all. Thanks, Charlie!!

Escape from Yokai Land (Laundry Files Book 12) 4*

by Stross, Charles

He’s back!

Bob Howard, that is – anti-hero, host for an ancient evil known as the Eater of Souls, and employee of that famous British civil service organisation, The Laundry. There are shenanigans involving an animated Hello Kitty, subtle allusions TWICE to Harlan Ellison’s most grotesque short story AND more obviously to a famous old SF story….

And it’s too short. Charles Stross brings back Bob Howard, and puts him in an adventure that took me maybe 40 minutes to finish (I had ice cream in the middle to make it seem longer), and leaves me wanting MORE. I like the Laundry technocyber magic far more than I liked the two most recent books – Charles, please go back there? Please???

Dark Void Magazine Issue 1 4*

by Benjamin DeHaan

A great new find!

Never heard of this ezine before, but – I know about it now 🙂 It’s great: the stories were very good – OK,some of the editing was a a little iffy – and I throughly enjoyed all of them.

There needed to be more, though. Just saying.

Catalyst Gate (The Protectorate) 3*

by Megan E. O’Keefe

Rollicking adventure! But…

Let me say up front that I am reviewing the series here, rather than just this book – and that there WILL be spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want any.

I liked these books: the writing is great, the characters are human enough to be interesting – even the ones that aren’t (human, that is) – the overall plot development is good, and the whole adventure resolves well, with some galaxy-spanning implications. Kudos for that, Megan, and I will be looking out for more from you!


Pedant and spoiler alerts, BTW 🙄

The stories describe the use of gates to travel between star systems, and we are told that communications in- and out-systems use gate technology – yet light speed does not seem to be a factor, although no ships are FTL, meaning characters literally have communications in real time across distances that MUST involve serious lag times before they even get to gates. I mean, communicating between Luna and Terra takes more than a second one way; how then can the book characters have chats across greater distances??

Another niggle was the lack of any idea of using a simple blood test to differentiate the nanite transformed folk or synthetic people from normals: if Campbell could do it in his legendary 60+ year-old tale of reawakened Antarctic monsters, why couldn’t it be done here? Sure, it would have obviating much confusion and shortened the books quite a lot, but if this civilisation can build androids and fix people with nanites, devising a rapid test for whether or not someone is transformed would be child’s play.

There’s also the mention – repeated several times in the second book and in the third – of our sun becoming a red dwarf as it ages. I hate to say it, but it’ll become a white dwarf if it goes along the main sequence, and there’s nothing to indicate it won’t!

All in all, then, a little flawed – but a damn good read. Even if Arden deserves a better pronoun than “they”.

The Quantum War (The Quantum Evolution Book 3) 5*

by Derek Künsken

No! You can’t let that happen??

This is a review of the 3-book Quantum series, rather than of just this one final volume. And it is with a heavy heart that I…

No. No spoilers. This is an astonishingly good series, superbly written, with enough twists and turns to befuddle a Homo quantus (OK, tiny spoiler). I mean, any set of novels that can effortlessly meld quantum physics, theology, molecular biology and forced evolution ranks VERY high in my book – and this does all that. Did I say effortlessly?

Seriously, this is really, really well done: I am a molecular biologist with more than a passing interest in human evolution, who was Jesuit-educated and who has an amateur interest in physics and the quantum world, and this hit ALL the buttons. Con games too, as complicated as you might wish for; profane mermen who are star fighter pilots; time travel that is BELIEVABLE – it is all here, in these three volumes. The first drags a little – I read it twice at a year or so’s interval before starting the second – but it sets the stage for the second, which leads you into a third volume that blows everything you read before into a fine atomic mist, pretty much like what happens to [detail redacted].

I honestly and sincerely liked these books. I think Derek Kunsken is a superbly talented writer. I DO hope this is not the end of the series, though…😩

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Baby Steps in a Spacesuit: New Readings

I’ve done a fair bit of reading in lockdown, so here’s a selection of reviews! It only takes me back to my birthday this year, in fact B-)

The Omega Protocol (Cade Korbin Chronicles Book 4; 4/5)

 Unexpectedly good

So I could have found reasons to dislike this series – derivative, and bit simplistic, unfeasible at several levels – BUT it grabs you and doesn’t let go!

Look, it’s got wildly twisting plot shifts, and I think there’s too much made of a super-villainess who seems near-omnipotent, but there’s that BUT again – it’s seductively compelling and I enjoyed all four volumes.

A great holiday read – but DO read all four. Good twist at the end there B-)

The Vela: A Novel (2/5)

Space Operetta – Lite!

I bought this in some expectation of it being really good – because it has a REALLY good author list, and it sounded like a good idea.

I was VERY disappointed. REALLY disappointed.

Oh, it wasn’t the writing: that was excellent, as I had some reason to expect it would be. Characterisation was acceptable (except for the whiney child of the planetary President – they were just annoying, and then over-competent at what they did). It was the huge, gaping holes in the background to the whole thing that just soured it for me from the start, so that even while I enjoyed the adventure (well – some of it…also a little over-written, with some seriously dubious holes in the physics), I just couldn’t get away from the fact that the whole premise of the story was badly, badly flawed.


The first thing is the central thing: the whole solar system of six planets (six? How big was the Goldilocks Zone on this system, anyway??!) is at risk from decreasing solar radiation because of hydrogen mining from the sun by ONE of the planets.

HYDROGEN MINING: yes, you read it right. I am sorry, without even having to calculate it (and I could, if I tried hard enough), there is no way at all that ONE civilisation which appears to be at a pre-fusion stage of technology (no mention of it), could mine enough H from a STAR in just a couple of hundred years to supply just themselves to make ANY difference at all to its light and/or heat output – which pretty much KOs the central premise of the whole proposed series. And they’re using it to make WATER?! For which they have to mine oxygen: in what form are they doing that? Carbonates, oxides – what??

Second, the system has SIX HABITABLE WORLDS: again, how does this work?? REALLY difficult to have that number in ANY system except maybe a red dwarf with them closely spaced, and they are distantly enough spaced that travel between them is premised upon convenient conjunctions, which sound as difficult as trying to get from Terra to Saturn on a regular basis. And Saturn is NOT habitable, and neither are any of its moons.

It’s a pity: if they’d simply made it a problem with the sun in terms of alien tech sapping its energy, and having habitable moons on gas giants, it might have been believable. As it is – I will not be renewing my option on this franchise (read: I won’t be buying the follow-ups) becauseI simply can’t suspend enough disbelief to read any more of it.

Oh, and UK Le Guin invented feasible alternatives to the use of “they” as a singular pronoun over 50 years ago – as have many others. Pity they weren’t taken up; the non-binary hero becomes even more annoying with “they”.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (4/5)

 It’s probably happening now…

…or it will: the Water Wars. When California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona start fighting over where their water comes from – and the refugees start moving. I’ve been to Phoenix, and marvelled at how a place like that flourishes in the absence of water. Las Vegas too: they have no right to be there, brash and big and water-hungry, with their golf courses and watered gardens.

This is a brutal, stark book. It pulls no punches, and throws a lot in your face – but it’s very good. I don’t give it five stars because it’s just a bit TOO bleak.

Leviathan Falls: Book 9 of the Expanse by James S. A. Corey (5/5)


I have been waiting for this book, since I first became aware it was a series, and not a standalone. WAITING for it – while loooong story arcs slowly swung towards their conclusions, and a couple of what felt like books just designed to mark time came past…and now we’re here – and it’s finished! It’s all finished B-(

Look, it’s been an amazing ride, and it finished as well as one could wish for – but it’s FINISHED, and the universe will not be the same again. Oh, there’ll be movies, I am sure – they have to get up to the end of the book series, after all, and we’re not even 2/3rds of the way through the books as far as the TV series goes – but the books are over. They have resolved The Things in the Gateway, wound up The Laconian Threat, sort-of given us a happy ending….

It was a great universe. I will miss it. And the ending is SUPERB!

Logic Beach: Part I by Exurb1a (4/5)

 It’s the Universe, Jim, but not as we know it…

I have chanced upon a couple of pretty weird, standalone books recently, and have been willingly transported to some VERY strange places. This has just happened again- except it appears this is not standalone, but part of a series, and one that I will very willingly submerge myself in.

Let me be clear: this is STRANGE, and very physico-philosophical (it does help to have a decent grasp of modern physics, cosmology and some aspects of philosophy – but then, I read New Scientist B-), and yet very approachable and well written. It details the love of an academic archaeologist for his strange Bulgarian mathematician wife, how she apparently abandons him, and – how the Universe changed. It does it well. I am looking forward to the sequels B-)

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky (4/5)

 Sorceror / Scientist

I really enjoyed this: the spare flesh put onto mysterious bones, so that there’s just enough to understand the background of the Elder, and the clash of cultures that results in everything he says being interpreted against a background of magic, because of a loss of technology. Clever. But I wanted it to be longer!!

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz (4/5)

 Grrl punks and time travel!

I have always been a sucker for clever time travel stories, and this is one such. The premise is very novel: time travel nodes from the Ordovician era?? And having a to-and-fro jump every chapter between an older and a younger protagonist, and having a rather surprising revelation as to who they are – clever.

The book goes into a fair bit of detail discussing theories of time editing, and the protagonists attempt to do a fair bit of their own, and it is all worthy, and Good…and then you think about it a bit, and the absurdities jump out and bite you, and you think “What, really? Historical eras carry on, with time machines embedded in them, with travellers arriving from the future AND NOT INFLUENCING SOCIETY?

Hmmmmm…nope, doesn’t work. But SF is about willing suspension of disbelief, and I’ve disbelieved bigger things, so – I liked it.

Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds (4/5)

 Flawed, but…gripping!

I do like Alastair Reynolds. I will pretty much buy anything he writes, even when the characters speak like old-timey pirates in the far future – and this new adventure in the Conjoiner-Demarchist universe is another great addition to the pantheon.

It is flawed – I think hemi-semi-demi Conjoiners are a bit far-fetched in terms of being near omnipotent, and Scythe (you’ll meet her) is a bit advanced for a civilisation flung precipitately into ruin, but…. Reynolds has a way of grabbing you by the vitals, and pulling you along with him, headlong into the relativistic wolf-filled void, just to see what happens next.

Is good. You read B-)

Ra by qntm (4.5/5)

 Yes, but…

Hate it when that happens: read a book that really submerges you in the plot to the extent that you actually have no real idea what’s going on, but you gamely plod on…and get lost, but enjoy it because it’s written so well. OK, it happened again (first time was with Peter Watts): I am officially boggled by the brilliance of they who are known as qntm, who has constructed a book of surpassing wonder out of…out of…OK, magic that seems to be a kind of mathematical logic, then reconstruction of whole planets and everyone on them, and a recurring space shuttle Atlantis story, and….you’ll just have to read it.

Fine Structure by qntm (5.5/5)

 Quite astonishing

Really, not much like anything I’ve ever read before. Disjointed, bewildering, mesmerising – it gathers you up in a manifold embrace, and whirls you off to…somewhere. A lot of somewheres. Astonishingly well constructed, impressively well and fluently written, exhibiting a casual knowledge of just about all the physics you’ve ever heard of – read it. You’ll remember it 😁

The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (4/5)

 Salvaged my reading week

I had no expectations of this book – so I was VERY pleasantly surprised to meet characters of the same ilk as Martha Wells’ Murderbot, AND AI-written poetry, to boot! The story hung together pretty well, and…a twist I didn’t see coming, came, and everything suddenly got a lot more interesting. Clever, well written, I look forward to more from this author!!

Shards of Earth: (The Final Architecture Book 1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky (5/5)

 Great. Terrible. Frightening. Human.

I had been looking forward to this – a LOT. I am recently new to Adrian Tchaikovsky, and I REALLY like his grander visions.

This does not disappoint. Galaxy-spanning, apocalyptic, space operatic – it has it all. And sassy, irreverent mechanical folk, also a differently abled human with attitude, female clone warriors, weird technology that lets you bend space, or sculpt everything from atoms to planets – I want more. And it’s coming 😁

Ark (Forward collection) by Veronica Roth (4/5)

 It’s the end of the world as we know it…

…and I’m loving…orchids? Appropriate. A great little story. I can see a hole or two, hence the 4 stars (humanity can leave Earth but not nuke an asteroid?!), but beautifully and tenderly written. I will remember it fondly 😍

Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory: (The Murderbot Diaries Book 7) by Martha Wells (5/5)

 It’s a great universe

The Murderbotverse, that is: many things skillfully implied without ever being described; many parallels with our present that have you nodding at how bad something is without consciously acknowledging the analogies…I want more. A LOT more. But thank you, Martha Wells!

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries Book 6) by Martha Wells (5/5)

 Love the ‘bot 😁

All we could expect from Murderbot, and more: many asides, internal dialogues, serious plot twists – and an inherent humanity leaking out through the seams. More, please!

Heaven’s River by Dennis E. Taylor (3/5)

 Too many Bills

You know, I quite liked the first one – bad puns and not THAT likable a protagonist aside. The next – mmmmmmm… This one: a few puns too far, a few too many cutesy “virts” with coffee and cats, and, of course, Bobs…one Bob too far I suppose, even if he ended up as a Borg.

It’s OK. The details are good, even most of the purported physics. Good book for smartish YAs. But OLD YAs? Not so much.

Record of a Spaceborn Few: Wayfarers 3 by Becky Chambers (4/5)

 Title of a strange bunch of books

I was impressed by Long Way…less so by the next one (see, I cannot even remember the title). But THIS one: this is is the sort of thing series and reputations are made with. Well fleshed out, really well written, beautifully structured and laid out – kudos! A really good look at a well imagined society, a glimpse of what happens to generation ships when they basically just end up at a roadside halt – and what happens to their people.

One Day All This Will Be Yours byAdrian Tchaikovsky (4/5)

 Time and again, again, again…

Now I am a an amateur connoisseur of time travel stories – I have been reading them for over 50 years, after all, from everyone from Bob H to Clifford Simak to Harrison, van Vogt, de Camp, Asimov, Anderson – and this is a VERY worthy addition to the pantheon.

I mean, a curmudgeonly farmer with a pet allosaur that eats time travellers; fractured time lines, carousing with Homeric sailors – what’s not to love? It is clever, funny and grim in equal parts and the ONLY thing wrong with it is that it was too short. Or maybe just long enough – I don’t know, I just know that I wanted it to be longer. Great operetta, Mr Tchaikovsky!

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Life in the time of COVID-19

Even as a science fiction fan AND a virologist, who binge-watches zombie series and is trying to write a couple of virus-themed stories…I never saw this coming.

Sure, I’d been scared in 2003 when the original SARS erupted – and even breathed through my sweater for an entire plane trip across Canada with someone trying to cough their lungs out behind, to lessen my chances of getting it. I was very relieved when it petered out, because I – along with many others – had thought that this was The Big One.

And then I tweeted about H1N1pdm in 2009, grimly watching it spread across the world via ProMED News and other media – after I’d got emergency funding in 2006 for pandemic preparedness vaccines here in South Africa because we were all so scared that HPAI H5N1 would erupt; patented plant production of H5 haemagglutinin and published two papers on vaccine candidates – and then watched funding dwindle away as the threat receded, and H1N1pdm just replaced the existing H1N1 as a seasonal virus.

I’ve since kept a keen eye on other virus disease outbreaks, such as MERS in 2012, and the two really serious recent Ebola outbreaks; in West Africa in 2014-2016, and eastern Congo in 2018-2020. However, I saw nothing to alarm me much, as MERS didn’t seem to be spreading very efficiently, and I know that Ebola is VERY unlikely to get to me, from coverage I did of the Kikwit outbreak in 1995.

But this one: the novel coronavirus, soon to be named SARS-CoV-2 (*shudders*), crept up on us quietly…and was suddenly a looming threat, right about the time we were hosting Virology Africa 2020 in mid-February of this year. In fact, we commissioned a special plenary for it after a distinguished guest dropped out – probably to look at preparedness in The Netherlands – given by Professor Wolfgang Preiser of Stellenbosch University. Wolfgang had helped characterise the original SARS-CoV, and was himself gearing up to tackle this new one, given that he runs a BSL3 Medical Virology lab. He appropriately scared us all a bit, and we finished our conference, and went home.

Meantime, by early March Mani Margolin in my and my wife Anna-Lise Williamson’s labs had succeeded in making respectable amounts of putatively trimeric soluble SARS-CoV-2 S protein in both plants and animal cells, as well as demonstrating its cleavage by co-expressed furin. We tried to use this to leverage some money for local vaccine production – detailed here – and went through a roller-coaster ride of submissions, rewrites, resubmissions, including others and then taking them out again…. Only to be told, three months later, that South Africa would NOT be funding COVID-19 vaccine work. So I repurposed some of the proposals, and was finally funded to make an emergency reagent to enable and cheapify local PCR/LAMP-based diagnostic tests. We bunged the expression work into a preprint so we could get the credit for the first published SARS2 S protein expression in plants (yes, yes; we KNOW that Medicago and iBio and Kentucky Bioprocessing are claiming production too), so at least there’s that.

However, we were all under a very strict national lockdown at the time, which has come with all of its own problems. Both Anna-Lise and I are regarded as being at sufficiently high risk for COVID-19 as to NOT be allowed back to work until a very late stage of the lockdown protocols, and have had to run everything remotely. Plus, most of the folk in our labs were not allowed back until this last week, with the exception of a few doing COVID-related work (plant-made protein for us; Anna-Lise also has a crew doing poxvirus-vectored SARS2 vaccines) – so it’s been really hard to get anything done.

Then there’s the working-at-home-by-Zoom-or-Teams scenario…😱 Since early on (eg: March 26th, when lockdown started) I had a baptism of fire, given that I was in fact teaching Viromics at the time, and suddenly had to convert all my lectures into narrated Powerpoints. Given a propensity of Powerpoint on Macs to just NOT RECORD FOR NO GOOD REASON AT ALL, that meant a LOT of do-overs.

Then there were the three-a-day-minimum video conferences with all and sundry, from advising an ad hoc group with the ear of the Minister of Science & Innovation on which vaccine candidates looked the most likely to succeed, so we could licence them, to drawing up a veterinary vaccine response for SARS2, to teaching updates, to talking about COVID-19 to professionals and to civilians (same talk, just cut out fiddly bits like replication) – it went on. And on. And goes on still. I toyed with the idea of requesting buttons for Zoom or Teams that say “You are only coming through in waves”, or “Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying”, given that both are SO common – but restrained myself to just saying it out loud.

On the social side, we had family and friends Zoom cocktail parties, inevitably punctuated with “Can’t hear you!”, “You’re off camera”, “What happened to X?”. That alleviated the lockdown isolation somewhat, although having our daughter and her boyfriend around for two months also helped: turns out they cook well ☺️

We have become experts at getting home deliveries – of everything from bread and milk and meat and vegetables, to new fibre modems, mini-UPS units, masks – we have a very fine collection now – and are probably eating more healthily all day that at any time in the last 30 years.

Favourite mask. I THINK it’s made from a shirt

I have indulged in a lockdown beard – it is the 135th of Covember today, after all – that I keep having to resolve to NOT shave off until it is all over. Or nearly over. Or when we can actually go out of the house with a reasonable expectation of NOT catching SARS2.

Covember beard. With Ché

So we survive, despite me unexpectedly being made Interim Head of my UCT Department, with all of the workload that entails. Fatter, hairier – although The Daughter does a mean haircut – and life trudges ON. Despite our country having stupid policies like no cigarette or alcohol sales during lockdown – the wine stash is getting perilously low – and increasingly desperate times for several industries and many poorer folk.

We hope things work out. We really, really do hope vaccines become available soon – although Cape Bio Pharms is making SARS2 S1 protein in plants as a reagent, which we could [following phrase redacted] if necessary.

See you all on the other side! Hopefully 😨

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Baby Steps in a Spacesuit: Newer Readings

Because I have nothing else to do (ha ha!!), and I have done quite a lot of reading in the last year or two,  I decided to collect my most recent reviews from the Amazon Kindle site. Enjoy!

 A wonderful return: Berserker (Saberhagen’s Berserker Series Book 1) (5 *)

I started reading Berserker stories in collections and in magazines that I got second hand at a local store – and I was immediately assimilated. Seriously, the quality of the writing, the implacable hostility of the big killing machines and the characterisations just sucked me in – and that was 40-50 years ago.

Now I came back – and bought the collection I never had, and it was just as captivating as it was the first time around. Read it. It’s wonderful!

 A culmination…of a sort: The Human (Rise of the Jain) by Neal Asher (5 *)

Any Asher book is a welcome addition to my (now complete) collection, and this one was eagerly awaited: after all, the last one left us hanging with not only one monstrous ship coming out of a black hole, but two – as well as a knot of unresolved storylines for the Jain-enhanced haiman Orlandine, not one but TWO Old Captains from Spatterjay, a resurrected alien who seems to be a Jain offshoot, and more rogue technology than you could shake a stick at.

This time, we get not only the Polity system-ruling AI Earth Central sticking its metaphorical nose in, but also the much mutated Emperor of the Prador, as well as another of this ilk. Mix it all together with the monstrous ships escaping a black hole, and the Jain tech in the accretion disk around said hole, and the galactic stage is set for a truly monstrous and epoch-ending multiple confrontation between huge powers, that can only end in…in…well, you’ll just have to see. There’s enormous devastation on the scale that only Asher can write; there’s despair and loss, and – redemption. The remaking of of not just one Human was great to see.

Oh, and I missed seeing Dragon again, and I STILL do not understand why the Polity uses Imperial measures. But this is a great book, and a very worthy addition to the Polity pantheon.

 A most likable killer. Exit Strategy: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (5 *)

This is a great addition to the Murderbot pantheon: it rounds out the story of Murderbot itself very well indeed, in a white-knuckled fight fest that is as technological as anyone like me could want – and very human at the same time, and EXCELLENTLY written.

The ONLY thing wrong with the book is that, like its predecessors, IT IS TOO SHORT!! I really would like to see more B-)

 Binge-watching cyborg returns! Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel (The Murderbot Diaries Book 5) by Martha Wells (5 *)

I like the Murderbot – I really do. I was eagerly awaiting the first full-length offering, and now it’s here! The same mixture of internal dialogue and terse interactions with the humans that was characteristic of the shorter stories is all here; so too the development of character in terms of the reader rather than ‘Bot becoming aware than ‘Bot really quite likes some its humans…this is good writing.

Idiosyncratic, but very good. I look forward to the sequels.

 It’s a saga, Jim, but…Harbinger (First Colony Book 9) by Ken Lozito (2 *)

I have waited till I finished book 9 before writing this, because…because…because I was hoping I could be more positive, for someone who has obviously tried REALLY hard to write good SF, and has kept at it, and…hasn’t. Almost up there with Stephen Donaldson, then, who I followed through six books before deciding he was an idiot, and why had I bothered?


Let me qualify that: I am pretty forgiving if a plot keeps me engaged, and I really do like me some good Space Opera. HOWEVER. Ken Lozito started with a reasonable premise (elite Black Ops squad, raiding a space station), BUT it got unreal pretty quickly (the whole thing dies? Really??), and then one general gets the whole squad on a colony ship, and…? Is there no security on these things??

And then the…whatevers…that kill humanity, that are a mixture of marine bacteria and some strange virus, FOLLOW them?? Sorry, I’m a microbiologist; that just does NOT work for me.

Worse still: the physics isn’t consistent or even realistic; they seem to have artificial gravity (really? How??) and fusion generators, but solar systems are BIG – and they seem to be able to flit 20-100 million kilometres in hours, rather than weeks!

Lozito is also FAR too fond of people sneering: they do it all the time, which is not too surprising seeing as they are in fact caricatures or cardboard cutouts rather than characters. Don’t get me started on the 1950s depiction of female characters and male characters’ reactions to them….

No. Sorry. The story has obviously not yet finished, but it should have, and I have spent enough money. Goodbye.

 Rocket punk! The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut Book 1) by Mary Robinette Kowal (4 *)

I know the author called it punch-card punk, but I couldn’t resist – because the rocket is so central to this, a story set in an an alternate timeline where the space race got going in the 1950s. If you can call it a race without the Soviet Union, that is, but they are peripheral to the story.

No, the race here is between the male-dominated astronaut corps and the expectation of women – mainly relegated to being “computers” – that they should be allowed to join them. It’s a great story, with a LOT of technical details about flying, rocketry and orbital dynamics – and told from the point of view of Jewish woman and former war-time delivery pilot, who has a near-crippling anxiety problem. This humanises a story that might otherwise be cliched in terms of terrible puns about rockets whenever she and her engineer husband want to get it off, and some pretty cheesy descriptions of that activity too – to the point that I think the author wrote them like that as a parody of 1950s-type writing.

Funny, I got into huge trouble when I tried that…

I was enthralled by it, I loved the detail and the cameo appearances of actual astronauts – and I think it would make a great TV series or major film.

 Boy’s Own Magazine Adventure! The Belt: The Complete Trilogy by Gerald M. Kilby (3 *)

…is how I can best characterise this series of three books. It’s a banging good adventure, reasonably thrilling, begins and ends reasonably well – and is demonstrably and obviously a newbie’s effort at hard science fiction, that does not quite make the mark.

It’s hard to describe, but it’s as if there’s a layer or two just missing. Something you’d expect to be there, but…isn’t. There’s not enough description of the milieu of the story; no technology is satisfactorily described; characterisation is relatively shallow and unconvincing, and the story really is a whiz! bang! pow! type of Dan Dare adventure from 40 years ago.

OK, it grips one a bit; it’s reasonably if a bit simplistically premised, and it isn’t an awful read. But now that I’ve stuck it out, like anything by Stephen Donaldson, I won’t go back.

 So much war…Jupiter War (Owner Trilogy Book 3) by Neal Asher (4 *)

I have read this series with mixed feelings – because, on the one hand, I really like Neal Asher’s Polity series, and on the other, this is so insanely violent as to verge on the pathological.

Oh, it’s good, make no mistake: the action is unremitting; the writing is taut; the characterization is…OK, I suppose – and the story gallops along.

My problem with it is that the WHOLE story – and I go back to the first two books here as well – is really rather depressing. The world that Asher creates is cruel and bleak; the characters are not remotely likeable, and one is never sure whether or not the whole thing will just collapse in a welter of blood. And sharp bits of metal.

Yet…it’s good. It holds your attention, it ends satisfactorily, and (dare I say it) almost everyone-lives-happily-ever-after. Or again, possibly. I think I’ll have to go and re-read the first one, just to brush up on what happened. Which means the second one too. By which time, I’ll have forgotten the third, so…B-)

 I was not expecting this…Spin (Book 1) by Robert Charles Wilson (5 *)

This was an amazing roller-coaster of a book: OK, it jumps all over the place, but eventually you get hold of the narrative, and – it is great! Reasonably ordinary people, dumped into a strange existence that is still oddly ordinary, with time racing past outside a bubble created by an unknowable alien presence…what’s not to like??

Wilson’s characterisations are great, his premises feasible if awe-inspiringly strange (he and Charles Stross should write a book together), and the book is LONG, which always pleases me because I read distressingly fast. I look forward to more of this universe!

 Another chapter…Axis (Spin Book 2) by Robert Charles Wilson (4 *)

This is a great follow-up to Spin: it covers a shorter time span, less breadth of the Spin Universe, but goes into depth about what the Hypotheticals are, and how they interact with the universe – and with humans.

Because that’s the centre of the story: the boy who is made to interact with Hypotheticals, and ends up doing so – spectacularly.

I liked this book a lot. I am now going to binge on Number 3.

 42: Vortex (Spin Book 3) by Robert Charles Wilson (5 *)

This is a great book, as well-written as its predecessors, with flawed but real characters, some mundane and some enormous concepts, and a fitting end to a saga.

This volume is a logical follow-on from Axis, though not from an angle you might have expected. It also jumps backwards and forwards across 10 000 years, as two different sets of people tell their stories, until….

Until Wilson takes us on a journey that is staggeringly strange, hugely vast, and utterly fascinating – literally encompassing Life, The Universe and Everything. And the answer is not 42.

 I liked the original: “For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal (4 *)

The author gives us a story premised on an old saying, that involves legacy AI, euthanasia, and – a not particularly well worked out scenario that involves having to kill the AI. Spoiler. Sorry.

But then the author provides *another* story, from which this one was ripped, apparently, which I actually liked better. So OK, two for the price of one…I’ll take it!

 Too short! Auberon (Expanse) by James S. A. Corey (4 *)

Just when you’re getting into it…it stops!! It’s a worthy addition to The Expanse, but it’s just too short. As well written as you might expect, it was just building into something, and – I hope we meet the Governor and the rest of the cast again. Interesting folk!

 Long-range terraforming: Building Harlequin’s Moon by Larry Niven (& Brenda Cooper?) (4 *)

I bought this out of curiosity, as a long-time Niven fan, to see if it was better than some of his other more recent offerings.

It was. Good, but…flawed. For a book this long, a bit less conversation and a bit more backstory would have worked well – although Brenda Cooper’s contribution may have been to make female protagonists more real. IF there are to be sequels, then we can see what happened to Ymir and to Sol system – because we certainly have no idea after this one.

Some of the mechanisms used to advance the plot were also a little contrived. Glass tubes, that are breakable, having to be carried by people? In an environment where there are tugs that can move moons, and nanotech? And surely ceramic would have been better?

But anyway. It’s a good, pretty long story, with the interesting juxtaposition of people who can plan a 60 000+-year project, be around to carry it out, and…OK, you’ll have to read it to find that out. A good book – just not a Ringworld.

 By her bootstraps…Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds (5 *)

One can get very confused, jumping backwards and forwards in time. One can also, given insufficient introduction, not quite know what the hell is going on at all. But – and this is an important but – here Alastair Reynolds manages to spin sufficient of a sparse web to allow the reader to just about grasp what is happening.

And it is complex, and one has to make a lot of assumptions about what one understands, and it is here that knowing something about Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps becomes quite apposite. Someone is sent back to make an aircraft flight, that leaves wreckage and a message that informs where a major installation will be established….

It’s clever. It’s sad. It’s very well written. I enjoyed it. And it REALLY isn’t much like anything else I’ve read by Reynolds, which shows his range.

 This is NOT The Expanse…Lost: Zulu Universe Book1 by Sam Renner (2 *)

…or even close to it. Oh, it has potential – but there are so many jarring elements that stop me enjoying this, I can tell I’ll be reading the next one just because I bought it.

OK, what’s wrong:
1. The book has a space station at the edge of the GALAXY, hundreds of years (not specified how many) into the future. Meaning they would have had MORE than enough time for people NOT to be using paper, watches, cigarette rollers….

2. It reads like something from the 1950s dressed up for the 2020s, with NOTHING in the way of detail for how it is that people GET to the edge of the galaxy, why they would need to get beyond the edge to mine anything – or why there seem to be two nations in the old US and why they should be fighting.

Basically, it is an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt at a space opera.

 String us along: String City by Graham Edwards  (4 *)

This was…unexpected. I thought I was reading something else (by Alastair Reynolds), then by the time I discovered I wasn’t, I was hooked!

This is string theory meets LA detective noir; classic Old Gods vs each other, and our embittered gumshoe. And a most interesting mechanical man.

It’s very hard to peg down, and you shouldn’t bother, because it bounds along and takes you with it in a most entertaining way.

I hope to see more of String City!

 Babylon’s Grind: Babylon’s Ashes – Book Six of the Expanse by James S. A. Corey (4 *)

I hate to say it, because I like The Expanse series so much, but this is another one like Cibola Burn: essentially a potboiler, there to keep the series going while the long story arcs get to where they’re supposed to, with some technological woo-woo to keep the good crew of the Rocinante confused.

I’ll still give it 4 stars, because it’s as well written as the others; I did NOT like the all-conquering ex-Martians, however. I do hope the next one’s better…?!

 Yes, but…Tiamat’s Wrath: Book 8 of the Expanse by James S. A. Corey (3 *)

I have been waiting for this book.

Waiting IMPATIENTLY for this book. And it came, and…

Yes. Well. I am left as I was by Cibola Burn, which is “ho, hum, the story needed a potboiler, I suppose…”.

They’re not really getting anywhere, are they? I mean, we’ve had the threat of the things-between-the-gates for quite some time now, and while they’re now slightly better realised, they’re STILL not real.

So now I wait impatiently for the NEXT one – because I’m a fan, and a junkie, and I will ride this damn story till the END!!

 What? Spiders?! Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (5 *)

This is an extremely gripping book. The way it’s written – alternating chapters give you a view of both sides of any plot development – is great; the plot development is quite startling (there’s a great twist at the end), and you will never feel the same way about spiders again. Or ants. Tchaikovsky invents a whole biotechnology-based arachnid civilisation that is both fascinating and plausible, that I really would like to see more of. Superb book!

 Tour de force! Children of Ruin (The Children of Time Novels) by Adrian Tchaikovsky (5 *)

I thought Adrian’s last book was good – but he’s outdone himself here. Not only has he teamed up humans (sorry, Humans!) and Spiders, but they discover two totally different sets of aliens, and…make it work!

He seems to have an ability to put himself into the brain(s) of whatever species he has invented, in a way that is better than just about anyone else I have read. Larry Niven did it well; AE van Vogt did it well once – and Adrian Tchaikovsky does it superbly well.

This book is great; the series (of 2) is wonderful. I look forward to reading more of him!

It grows on you: Ack-Ack Macaque -The Complete Trilogy by Gareth L. Powell (5 *)

I started the first book with no expectation other than a rollicking good yarn, as the old critics would have it. That’s exactly what I got, and I shrugged off some of the annoying discrepancies (macaques are not big enough to do most of what Ack-Ack did), and ploughed on, deeper into the increasingly marvellous atom punk world.

And on. And on. And suddenly it was the end of the second book, and things were far more complex than they had been, and it more than just a good jape with a monkey, that was a satire of the Battle of Britain.

The end is quite breathtaking. The complexity ramped up until it was easily as good as similarly universe-spanning books I’ve read recently, and I was left with regret once I’d FINALLY closed it off. Cracking good stuff!

 From the Deep South: Austral by Paul McAuley (4 *)

A good book. Not a great one – it’s too simple for that – but a good book. Simply told, good twist in the tale, well imagined future – right down to the sleaziness, short-sightedness and pettiness of people and politics.

 New Space Opera: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt (4*)

OK, maybe Space Operetta, if you’re accustomed to the scale and grandeur of Neal Asher’s Polity series, or The Expanse – but an excellent start! It’s well written, humorous, Politikally Korrekt in the gender spectrum, clever – and has the obligatory Ancient Enemy, cyborgs….

The only thing that didn’t satisfy as much as other Operas was the use of weapons: these hadn’t been thought through well, but it didn’t detract too much.

I look forward to the next one!

 Schrodinger’s Yawn: Schrodinger’s Gat by Robert Kroese (3 *)

What’s that wonderful old English expression? “Too clever by half”. Yes, I understand enough physics to actually read and understand the otherwise mind-numbingly tedious deviations into quantum indeterminacy; yes, I have grimly waded through arguments on the existence or not of free will. Did I want them in a supposedly SF book I paid actual money for?


Really, no.

Look, it was a well-written, reasonably entertaining story, but it’s not one that I would ever read again, or recommend to anyone but the most theological of my friends.

 The rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith. The Instrumentality of Mankind by Cordwainer Smith (5 *)

It was an unalloyed pleasure to find Smith again, close on 50 years after I started reading those wonderful Instrumentality stories – to find he had written more, different stuff that I had never read. And now I have. Truly, a brilliant, sensitive writer.

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Publication subsidies in South Africa – another view

Professor David Hedding from the distance-learning hub that is the University of South Africa, recently published a “World View” editorial in Nature decrying what he calls the “publication payouts” that are given by SOME South African universities to their staff, and suggests that

“…if South Africa hopes to drive innovation, it must stop publication payouts — they are the enemy of research quality”.

In explanation of how this all works, these payments derive from subsidies paid to those universities by SA’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DoHET). These subsidies are proportional to the number of peer-reviewed research publications published in DoHET-accredited journals, were set up as part of a Government Statute, and are intended to reward and to support research at those universities.

Note my emphasis on SOME universities: payments directly to individual academics / researchers is by no means a universal practice; the University of Cape Town, which is the leading research university on South Africa by several objective criteria, does not do this at all – as our Vice-Chancellor was quick to point out on Twitter recently.

Granted, the DoHET subsidy is a blunt instrument, as Hedding makes clear: it does not differentiate between minor local journals and prestigious international publications; it discriminates between local South African and foreign authors by not recognising contributions by the latter, which effectively lessens the “publication units” calculated as accruing to a given institution if many of its publications have international collaborators on them.

However, Hedding makes a number of claims in his piece that misstate the findings of a peer-reviewed publication from UCT, and that reiterate claims made by opponents of publication subsidy that are either simply wrong, or very sweeping in their scope. For example, he makes the argument that inter-institutional and international collaborations are discouraged because of potential loss of subsidy, and cites the findings of this UCT article in support:

“…an informal study of more than 800 articles published by health-science researchers at the University of Cape Town found a negative correlation between subsidies and both citation counts and field-weighted citation impact”.

This subtly misstates the conclusion of my colleagues’ article, which simply found that there was a positive correlation between number of international authors on a paper, with its citation count and field-weighted impact – and that the subsidy formula as it presently exists may penalize the high-citation articles that are most often the result of wide and desirable collaboration, without there being a link between subsidy and lower citation counts as he implies.

He also repeats as facts statements that seem to have undue credence among administrators – possibly because they were stated by senior SA academics in at least one article in the South African Journal of Science – such as

Some researchers salami-slice their research to spread it across more papers. Others target low-quality journals that are deemed less demanding…”.

This MAY happen for researchers who have no incentive or possibly no ability to publish high quality work in good journals, and who get personally rewarded by their institutions for such publications; however, given that this would negatively impact their promotion prospects, it is not a good long-term strategy for anyone. It is also very easy for the institutions that reward academics personally from the subsidy to discourage this strategy for self-enrichment at the cost of scientific quality. All  they have to do is apply some metrics based on the relative international standing of the journals, or the field-weighted article citation impacts, and sub-standard publications will rapidly lose their appeal. Thus, the immediate support of our own VC for Hedding’s viewpoint may have been premature, given the simplistic nature of his straw man.

Hedding goes on to suggest that publication subsidies be used to support postgraduate student fellowships, and to extend and develop in-depth researcher-evaluation programmes.

While support of postgrads is always a good idea – and our institutions probably do not do nearly enough in this regard – it is meaningless without support of the researchers who provide their research projects, who are earning the universities money from publications they may well have had to pay page charges for, on work that they had to scrape for money to do in the first place. Moreover, supporting a postgrad student working with someone who doesn’t have the money to support their project is completely pointless.

As for researcher evaluation, this is something that is already done at just about any research-intensive institution I can think of as well as by the National Research Foundation – so embellishing this infrastructure does not seem to be very good use of research publication subsidy. Moreover, Hedding’s claim that the NRF researcher rating

“…programme has done much to boost productivity and, more importantly, quality in South African research

is not borne out by their funding schemes, which go mainly to ring-fenced initiatives such as the SA Research Chairs Initiative and National Centres, then competitive funding calls, rather than to rated researchers. Thus, rating is a paper reward for existing excellence rather than an incentive to achieve excellence, and the level of funding to recognised researchers was always minor compared to a competitive grant – and, as he notes, now is not given at all.

What I disagree with above all, though, is Hedding’s statement that

“…if South Africa hopes to drive innovation, it must stop publication payouts”.

This negates the very purpose of research publication subsidies, which were explicitly intended by the SA Government to support research. It is not the subsidies that are the problem; rather, it is how they are used by the recipient institutions.

For example, my institution – UCT – produced ~1700  “publication units” in 2016 and will receive around R122 000/unit as publication subsidy for a total of  R207 million in 2019. This money conveniently “loses its memory” – a direct quote from a senior finance officer – after entering the University’s financial system, and is thereafter not directly used for supporting research. For example, I have calculated that just 10% of this money would be sufficient to support Open Access publication costs – for the sake of argument, R12 000/article – for ALL of UCT’s peer-reviewed publications in recent years, given an output of ~1700 publication units/yr. The present level of support by UCT for OA / article costs is nothing like that; consequently, UCT authors see little incentive to publish OA despite a stated position of support for such mode of publication by the University, and by funding bodies.

Something Hedding does not mention at all, however, is that there is also considerable subsidy given to SA universities by DoHET for graduated Masters and PhD students. One graduated PhD student is worth ~R360 000, for example, and one MSc-by-dissertation around R120 000 to UCT in any given year (figures for 2019). I am not aware of any institution that rewards academics for income derived from their students graduating; however, the subsidy formula for an institution takes in publication count AND student graduations as part of an integrated package of support – so reward for one should surely mean reward for the other too?

Accordingly, application of a policy whereby researchers who publish work of a given quality are rewarded in their research funds with a significant fraction of the subsidy accruing to the University from that publication, as well as a fraction of the income derived from their students graduating, would go a long way to fulfilling the intention of the subsidy. It would also offset some of the expenses incurred by researchers, including some of their running costs, and in particular financial support of postgrads and publication costs.

As an example, it costs my group >R150 000 per annum to fund the running costs of a single postgrad student project, and probably another R50 000 – R100 000 to support them personally in addition to whatever (generally insufficient) bursary they may receive. As far as the Government subsidy to the University of R360 000 per graduated PhD student and R120 000 per MSc graduate is concerned, given ~4 yrs per PhD project each PhD student brings in R90 000/yr, and a MSc student R63 000/yr per 2-yr project. One publication unit per year – which is a reasonable output per senior PhD student in my group – also brings in R120 000; thus, a PhD student might earn the University R210 000 per annum WITHOUT considering fees, which are ~R35 000/yr. This is roughly the same as the annual cost of a single PhD project to the senior researcher paying for it – and could thus completely fund a postgrad student for both subsistence and research costs, if the subsidies were used to directly defray research costs.

As it is, as group leaders in a Research Unit that produces an average of 10 publications units/yr, I and my two colleagues TOGETHER receive ~R36 000 total/yr from the so-called Faculty Block Grant fund – against publication subsidy income of ~R1 million, and expenditure on publications of up to R90 000/yr that are not covered by UCT OA/APC refunds. Moreover, the University receives PhD / MSc student subsidy for people in my group of 2xPhD + 6xMSc = R560 000. Thus, we generate ~R1.6 million/yr for our University in research-related activities, against a research-reward income from the University of ~R36 000 – and note that this is NOT counting any overheads or other charges paid by us to the institution from research grants, which could be substantial, or patent or licence income from our IP to UCT.

Therefore, while Hedding’s points may be valid when considering ONLY those institutions that pay researchers DIRECTLY for publications in DoHET-recognised journals, they are not valid for research-intensive Universities that do not do this, or who use a proportional-return system that goes into a researcher’s University-administrated funds. It is true that predatory journals are attracting South African authors, and money is being siphoned off from subsidies for these articles – however, DoHET and others are aware of this, and steps are being taken to counter the tendency. He has also completely missed mentioning student subsidies, which are also a substantial income to universities. Consequently, I would like to make the point that publication and postgraduate student subsidies are an extremely valuable, but misused resource – and that universities need to learn to use them for the purpose for which they were intended, rather than having Government and DoHET rethink the concept of the subsidies.










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Water saving at UCT

Despite the fact that we are in what is rapidly becoming a MONUMENTAL water crisis here in Cape Town, and folk are bleating about mass closures of schools, businesses and yes, Universities, at my place of work we do not seem to be doing very much at all. There is no thought of grey water recycling; toilets flush long and voluminously; water flows under the place I park my car unfettered by any thought of collection.

Why is this? Why are we so laggardly, in an institution with a Future Water Institute, and with some of the more imaginative engineers in the country?

I don’t know. What I do know is that on our Upper Campus, we have what amounts to one of the biggest consolidated rainwater collecting surfaces under the control of one administration – and it’s often either flat, and/or has convenient downpipes coming off all roofs.

Link to

Simply rerouting flow from existing downpipes into cheap large-volume storage tanks should be easy – and given that 2 cm of rain in my dog’s bowl translates into 1 000 litres of rainwater from a 50 m2 roof at my home, 5 – 10 kL tanks should be standard everywhere.

That means we have the opportunity to collect an unprecedentedly large volume of runoff from even modest rains – which could be reasonably easily plumbed into circuits for toilets, for example. Given the economies of scale that work at the size of this establishment, and the presence of the engineers and Institute mentioned earlier, UCT could even purify it and supply it to taps.

I have suggested we pool resources in our building – Molecular Biology – and see if we can provide some tanks for rainwater NOW. It would be a good start.

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I always wonder if I’m going to come back

From anaesthetics: I really do wonder, as I fade away into that fuzzy darkness, whether I’ll come back this time.

I’ve had a fair bit of practice, you see: I was counting them up prior to my last adventure in an operating theatre, and I got to fourteen times that I’ve had general anaesthetics, so far.

Fourteen times I’ve counted to ten, or as far as I’ve got before darkness claims me – again.

The first time I could only have been nine or so, in Lusaka General Hospital having my adenoids out, because “That will help your breathing”. Because I breathed loudly, and though my mouth – or so I was told. What I remember most about that time was that there was a delay in taking me through to theatre, and I got so thirsty I was going to sneak off and drink from a tap – and eat toothpaste, because I was seriously hungry too.

Waking up from that was interesting, because my top lip was swollen out like a duck’s beak: a clamp holding my mouth open had slipped, and cut right through the side of my lip, and my throat felt as though it was on fire. I also remember my younger brother lying, still deeply unconscious, with a gobbet of yellow-green mucus crawling out of his nose, after the tonsillectomy he had had just after me. I vividly remember the continuing pain from my throat, the ice cream did little to help, and no-one seemed to want to give me decent pain relief. I still have the scar that they gave me: I used to joke about it being from an attack by a guy with a knife.

The next time I was fourteen, and at boarding school in Zimbabwe. I had managed to break my nose against my own knee while practicing being a hooker in a scrum for the Under 14 B rugby side at St George’s College in Harare. It had been decided above my head that I needed my nose straightened, and “It will help with your breathing”. I walked myself the 5 km or so to hospital to check in – no lifts or taxis – and I was alert right up to the needle going in, and then heard my own voice fade away as the world softly went dark – and then I was awake and in serious pain, with both nostril stuffed full of gauze. A nurse would come and pull it out, half a metre at a time, which created the most exquisite agonies you can imagine. Two days of that, and then I had to walk back to school, nose swollen to three times its size, sinuses full of blood – to get a month off rugby, with no painkillers in sight. My nose is still slightly crooked, and it didn’t help my breathing.

I managed to stay away from anaesthetists for another fifteen years or so, until one day while at work at the University fo Cape Town, PhD newly in the bag, I noticed a little blood in my urine. I got a friend who had been a medical tech in the SA Army to look at it under a microscope, and he confirmed blood. I confidently self-diagnosed myself with bilharzia – I mean, I’d been swimming in every major river and dam in south-central Africa by that time, and had previously been treated for it – and went off to see a newly-minted urological specialist at Groote Schuur Hospital for a consult to confirm.

It took my new friend about forty minutes of the consult to realise I wasn’t medical, and then cautiously took command, and decreed that I should have a cystoscopy. I was not happy when I found out that this entailed having a stainless steel pipe pushed up my urethra; why couldn’t he just do a rectal snip like the last time, I asked? Because you’re bleeding into your bladder, he said, and I reluctantly checked myself in for what was supposed to be an in-and-out, one day stay. I recall being wheeled in to theatre dressed in one of those horrible gowns; it was cold and I was wide awake – because I was not a fan of sedation. Lots of joking around, then I was counting to ten as the lights faded…and I woke up in the semi-dark, in a corridor, freezing under a thin blanket. After what seemed like an age, my cheery surgeon loomed over me, and said: “You want the good news, or the bad news?”

He didn’t in fact let me choose, before he went on with “The bad news is, you had a tumour in your bladder. The good news is, we think we burned it all out!” He nodded cheerily, said “See you later, hey?!” and left me in the corridor – with what I realised dimly was a drip in my arm, and a catheter inserted up my urethra.

That one-day visit turned into four days and nights in hospital, with me with a catheter in to allow bladder wall healing, in a backless gown because I’d brought nothing with me, until friends took pity on me a couple of days in when they’d found out where I was. I learned from my specialist that I had had a “Well-differentiated basal cell papillary carcinoma”, and that he had managed to “fulgurate it”, as well as take a biopsy. I learned that having a catheter in was nothing like as uncomfortable as having a catheter taken out, and that some screaming while urinating was quite normal for a couple of days afterwards. The prognosis was all good, however, and check-ups were scheduled for a year’s time – until I got a phone call three months later, just as aI was about to head off to Belgium for three months academic leave to learn how to do molecular biology. It was my now private practitioner surgeon friend, saying they’d made a mistake in the preliminary during-op diagnosis in the path lab, that it turned out from the written report that it was in fact a poorly differentiated basal cell carcinoma, and would I make an appointment ASAP for another cystoscopy? There I was again, then, in a silly gown, with a catheter to protect a newly-biopsied bladder, after swimming back through the darkness – at least in a private hospital this time.

That was the rhythm of my life, set for the next two years: three-monthly cystoscopies with accompanying general anaesthetic, with me refusing any pre-op sedatives because they gave me a horrible hangover, and scheduling everything else around my hospital visits. Then the three-monthlies became two six-monthlies, then one a year later, then…I was told I had been clear for two years, that there was no trace of recurrence, and I wouldn’t need another of those damned procedures. By this time I had met and got together with Anna-Lise – who had been warned by her family not to get close to me, because I was probably going to die sometime soon – and was slowly warming to the idea that I might not die in the near future, and could actually start planning to be around a while.

I was good for close to another twenty years without needing a general, it turned out – until that fateful day in 2006 that I went to an ENT specialist to get an opinion on what to do about my snoring. Which Anna-Lise, having got married to me in the mean time, was worried had developed into sleep apnoea, and was in any case ruining her nightly rest even if she slept in the lounge. I think “heroic” was the word for it: audible from the other side of the house and from down the stairs, and interrupted by ominously silent periods of no breathing at all.

The enthusiastic ENT man turned out to be an old acquaintance from my UCT Mountain & Ski Club days, and I was happy that he seemed to be very clued up on possible solutions. The best of which, it seemed, was a procedure called a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, which involved cutting away the flappy bit at the back of my mouth, tightening up the tissues in my pharynx, oh, and “removing your tonsils, shaving your turbinates and correcting your deviated septum” to boot. Which, it would appear, would improve my breathing through my nose. You see a pattern here?

All this was scheduled for a Friday afternoon in February 2007, and all went well until I met the anaesthetist – who was not the person scheduled to do the op, but “I’ve worked with him before, and he’ll be fine”, I was told. Again we do the count; again, I watch the world fade away – and wake to a ferociously sore throat, and both nostrils packed with what looked like tampons, right down to the strings hanging out. I get told that I’m in the medical rather than the surgical ward, because they ran out of space, and “Doctor has scheduled some morphine; I’ll give you some now, and tell us when you need some more?” I get the first shot, and it’s instant relief. I eat some jelly, and I’m watching the Super 14 rugby at 7 or so that evening after a wifely visit, and the ward sister asks me if I want my morphine now? The pain is beginning to grind again, so I say, “Yes, sure, if he said so?” I get a shot, pain ebbs away, and I feel my eyes closing….

I like telling people that I woke up dead. In fact, what happened is that a passing ward sister noticed me lying at an angle in bed, with my face blue – and not breathing. It was pure luck she looked in, because I wasn’t in the surgical ward, and they don’t check to see if medical patients are breathing very often – and this is why I later hear that it’s a REALLY bad idea to go into hospital on a Friday afternoon – it’s also just after shift change, and weekend staff complement is lower than weekday. She calls for emergency resuscitation, and because my chart shows a 15mg hit of morphine a little earlier, they administer the antidote, and – nothing. They intubate me and rush me to Intensive Care, and – nothing. I was non-responsive, right down to that nasty reflex test they do on the sole of your foot with a sharp probe. So it comes to pass that Anna-Lise gets called at 1 am or so, and is told “There’s been a bit of problem with your husband, and he’s not where you left him…” – so she panics for a couple of hours, then eventually drives herself to the hospital and comes to Intensive Care, to find a couple of very grim-faced medics standing around me, and me there stuffed full of tubes and drips, and lying very, very still.

I was, of course, blissfully unaware of any of this. There was never any circle of light to go towards, or away from; no heavenly voices – nothing, except the world having faded away while the Blue Bulls were staging a late come-back in their match with the Stormers. And then, suddenly, I come back: I seem to awake abruptly from anaesthetics; this time, it was zero to full awareness in a second or two, to find myself in the half-dark, with what looked like three of the Four Horsemen of the Hospital Apocalypse standing grimly at the foot of my bed. And me full of tubes, and things going beep around me, and a sister saying “Doctor, I think he’s awake??” Turns out the three horsemen were the ENT guy, the anaesthetist, and a neurologist – there to tell everyone whether I was brain-dead or not.

I recall beckoning for a notepad, and writing “What the FUCK happened to me??” Anna-Lise, who was hovering nervously near me, burst into tears, then there was general confusion – and the anaesthetist melted away, never to be seen again by me, or anyone close.

Oh, there was much ass-covering, and blaming morphine sensitivity, and delays in getting records, and – but basically, I got overdosed on morphine that I should not have received at all, given that it depresses breathing, and this is NOT what you want after an ENT op. I ended up with a raging throat infection thanks to being intubated on top of fresh wounds, and literally couldn’t function for a couple of weeks. This notwithstanding, my surgeon seemed eager to get me back to work, without any management whatsoever of me or any problems that may pitch up. I went back to work far too soon, in retrospect, because although my throat may have recovered, I had been hard hit by oxygen deprivation. Harder hit than I knew, although Anna-Lise noticed pretty much immediately: effectively no short-term memory, no sense of where I was, a really short temper…. And I repeat, with no management whatsoever, other than visits I organised to my GP and to a neurologist.

I could have sued, I suppose, once I finally got the medical records, and they showed how much morphine I’d had, in just a few hours. However, my ex-brother-in-law, himself an anaesthesiologist, said to me: “What would you want to get? They’ll drag it out as long as they can, you’d have to admit you’re damaged, and what would that do to your career?”

I agreed, reluctantly. I think I’ve got back to being fully functional in the last ten years – I’ve always forgotten people’s names and appointments, and that’s only slightly worse now, and my internal compass has returned, so I know where I am most of the time – and I’ve compensated for memory lapses by rigorously using a cellphone and an iPad as auxiliary memory. I’ve lost nothing in terms of scientific interpretation and memory of what I’ve read, although I do ask people to email me confirmation of anything I agree to in conversation – because if it’s not repeated in print, it’s often as if it never happened. I also find it hard to recognise people I’ve met since 2007 – so if I string out a conversation and act vague, it’s because I’m desperately searching for cues as to how I know you.

I really don’t trust anaesthetists any more – which accounts for why, during my latest encounter with someone wielding a knife, I flatly refused a general anaesthetic, or deep sedation. That adventure was a basal cell carcinoma removal from my nose, which knocked me way worse than I though it should, and still needs clean-up. Oh, I joke about it, saying “I could only afford half a nose job”, or “It was a big guy with a knife – I was helpless!” – but when it dawned on me that I hadn’t had the path result back yet, and people were asking me in a concerned way what the prognosis was, I was close to panic. It’s OK, though; it was all got out, and if you’re going to have BCC, mine was about as good as it can be. Although a little large – meaning my nose is probably ruined forever.

And you know what? I still snore. Possibly not as heroically as I did, but my breathing still isn’t what other people think it should be. And I think I’m going to be OK with that.

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Baby Steps in a Spacesuit: the Good, and the Bad AND Ugly.

Two book reviews here – both offerings I bought via Amazon for the Kindle app on my iPad. And two VERY different opinions.

Treasure Planet (Man-Kzin Wars Series offshoot Book 2) (Kindle Edition)

This book is purportedly a standalone contribution to the Man-Kzin Wars series that I have been following ever since the first one came out, and I was looking forward to it given the high quality of every other one I had read.

Well, that was a few dollars and a few hours wasted, then!

There are a number of things wrong with the book, and only a very few things right.

The first and most glaring fault is that it reads like a bastard offspring of RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island and a Poul Anderson rip-off: Kzin talking like Old Earth pirates, really?? Right down to oo ar matey and shiver my timbers, almost, AND characters like Long John Silver transplanted lock, stock and pegleg into Niven’s Known Space Universe.

Another uncomfortable aspect was the almost random mixture of technologies throughout the book: cutlasses and blasters, high-end self-powering teaching nanotech and having to run around on foot?? No cell-type phones for Wunderlanders, while Kzin seemed to have them, which necessitated people riding around on horses to call for help???

The plot also had holes big enough enough to run an adult kzin through. About the least bad was crew selection, which of course necessitated a flimsy excuse for hiring just about a whole pirate crew – no background checks in Known Space, guys?? And seriously, a tech hoard find like the one described – with transfer discs a la puppeteers – wouldn’t have made an impact in the Known Space timeline as we know it?

The ONLY saving grace in what is effectively a badly-written kids’ book was the description of the library hardware and training software, and the construction of the alien written language – and that was incongruous when laid up against the juvenility of the rest of it. That’s some money and some time I’ll never get back.

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (Kindle Edition)

This was a great book – which I say as an African myself, who has been reading SF since 1966, and who is an avid aficionado of the short story form of the genre.

Seriously: the very varied content and styles of the stories, the reflections of future Africa, were hugely inspiring, and I would encourage any serious fan of SF to dip into this offering. I really enjoyed picking up on the Africa I know – central and south – being served up to me as new and fresh, right down to the slang and the kinds of characters I have known for so many years.

I’m looking forward to the next one B-)

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Chapter 5. Yambuku.


The old man sat on his throne – a repurposed helicopter pilot’s seat – inside the gloom of a large round hut. He wore a triple necklace of sealed ampoules in rough cloth pouches, sewn onto a hide band. He fingered these gently as the prisoner was roughly hauled before him, then forced to his knees by the young men holding his arms. This one was panting and looking around wildly, eyes wide in his sweating face. All he had on was a sleeveless khaki vest and bush camouflage pants; fatigue cap, jacket and boots had long since been redistributed to the old man’s followers.


The young man began to stammer an explanation in halting French, something to do with running away from his unit, trying to get home to Bukavu…the old man cut him short with a peremptory chop of his hand. “You came to steal”, he said, in the same language. The young man shook his head, started to speak. “Enough!” barked the old man. “You came to steal from my people, who have already lost everything. He leaned forward to gaze intently at the now terrified kneeling man, held very firmly by the silent young men, dressed only in loin cloths.


“You came to steal, because you heard the stories. You came because you thought we were weak, that we were scared”. He held up a hand again to silence the former rebel fighter. “You will find out how weak we are, my friend. You will find out – and you will be scared”. He sat back, then, and beckoned to behind the throne. A bulky figure loomed up out of gloom, with a full-face visored helmet, rubber apron, and elbow-length gloves. The old man inspected his necklace of ampoules. “This one”, he said, and held one up to the waiting figure. The helmeted figure came forward, gently took the ampoule. He carefully took the neck in the jaws of a pair of pliers he took from his apron, and cracked the neck. He went forward to the kneeling man, nodded to one of the young men behind him in the room. That one, also wearing gloves, stepped up behind the prisoner, took his head in both hands, and roughly tilted it back. The helmeted man deftly slipped the ampoule into the prisoner’s mouth as he involuntarily gasped, then the man holding his head pushed his jaw closed, and his head forward.


“Swallow”, said the old man. “Swallow, then show me your mouth is empty”. The prisoner gulped spasmodically a few times, then strained to open his mouth. The one behind him released his head, as the old man leaned forward to inspect that the ampoule was gone. He nodded, then beckoned to those restraining the prisoner. These let him stand up, and pulled him back. “You will stay with us some more days”, said the old man. “You will stay, then we will let you go back to your friends.” He gazed at him a moment. “You will tell them what happened, and that they must not come. They must not come, because they will die. Now take this thing away”, he said, with a dismissive wave to the guards. He sat back. As the prisoner stumbled out between his guards, he wondered what sickness this one would be.

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What do you say, when liberalism fails?

I have just attended my first University of Cape Town Convocation Annual General Meeting: the first, I will point out, since I was eligible to attend from during my first degree from here, in 1976.

It should have been exciting and joyous: instead, it was depressing, anxiety-inducing, infuriating – and an education in what happens when you let vicious, ignorant people loose to do what they want to, in an academic setting.

To set some background, Convocation meetings are usually (apparently) a fairly boring affair, attended by elderly folk who want to stay in touch with their alma mater.  There are also some 100 000 members of Convocation, given that ALL graduates and all staff are members – so you can see that any meeting would have only a very small fraction of members present.

However, on this specific occasion, attendance of the meeting was WAAAAAY up on the normal, and – according to one participant, who was moved to comment – was probably larger, and more diverse, than probably ever in its history.

This was possibly largely because my former long-time academic colleague, and now recently-retired alumnus Professor Tim Crowe, had taken it upon himself to propose a vote of no confidence in our Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price.

Knowing Tim – and I do, over more than 30 years – I know this was done on purely academic and principled grounds, because he was so anguished over the aparent failure of the UCT Executive to respond effectively to the provocations of the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and Shackville TRC and other protests at UCT from 2015 to 2016.

I did not support him in this, and told him and others so publicly of Anna-Lise’s and my opinions, via this blog – despite my not supporting Max Price and the Executive in some of their actions. This may appear somewhat contradictory, for I am sufficiently dismayed at what has been happening at my four-times alma mater (BSc, Hons, MSc and PhD) to express my anguish and possible desire to leave – but not supporting all of someone’s actions, and signing on to a motion of no confidence, are two different things.

So I went along to the Convocation AGM, and had my orange juice and snacks before the event – and met a considerable number of old friends and current colleagues – and went in a little early and secured my seat, for what I was sure was going to be an interesting, but possibly pretty turgid academic affair.

Oh, how wrong can you be? How very, very wrong.

Because it turned out that the student activists and their academic sympathisers had interpreted the  motion of no confidence in Max Price, as evidence of an elderly white right-wing attempt to torpedo what they saw as their hard-won agreement with the UCT Executive – which they were determined to defend at all costs.

So it was, with the President of Convocation giving his report back, that the hitherto fairly invisible silent protesters – I am told they were there, but unobtrusive – decided to storm to the front of the LT1 in the Kramer Building, and unfurl their placards, and demand to address Convocation.  Stentorian calls of “Cadres, come down cadres, come down!” were heard from one young activist, as the Chairperson, poor Professor Barney Pityana, wondered what to do. Said cadre also took a microphone, and demanded the right to address Convocation – and to his dismay, was shouted down by those present. Again, and again, and again. This HAS to to be be the first time this has happened in such a disruption, because he was quite disconcerted.

Not so disconcerted was the young cadre without her shirt on, who seemed to be revelling in her overexposure – prompting the person next to me to say “#BrasMustFall! –  but more of her later.

Now it turns out that most of what they were protesting on their placards was either way out of date – as in, outsourcing (solved) – or weirdly irrelevant (the sign being held up by topless person), or both out of date AND simply illiterate (“No student should be exculded as a result of historical debt”). However, they protested their chosen signs vigorously and vociferously, despite their apparently wanting the right to protest silently.

Seriously: the irony inherent in protesting loudly and vociferously in support of their rights to protest silently seems to have escaped them – but this was not the only irony.

Oh, we persisted with the meeting, once the cadres had finally agreed to be silent, with The Topless One taking delight in sitting on the desk in the front using her cell phone, while her fellow cadres loyally held their signs.  Professor Pityana managed to get through his report as Presdent of Convocation with only a few jeers from protesters – who, it turned out, had allies in the audience, including among staff – and then it was Max Price’s turn, as Vice-Chancellor, to report.

I think Max won some allies when he came up, because he firmly but respectfully asked to not be masked by the protesters, but to be visible to the audience. The Topless One decided this was impertinent, so she stood close beside him while he gave his report – which was mostly a paean to UCT’s excellence, research and otherwise. We really are an excellent University, if I say it myself as one involved in its research and teaching: best in Africa by a long way, highest number of rated researchers of any University in South Africa…but it did not matter to the young people.

Nothing, it seemed, mattered to the young people – except the disruption by any means of what they saw as the derailment of their agreement with the UCT Executive.

This became obvious when any discussion of the substantive first motion (of 3) in front of Convocation was disrupted by all means possible, right from when it was proposed.

Now I do not agree with Tim and Anna Crowe’s motion, and I made it clear to them and others both directly, and via this blog site: I think it was unnecessarily confrontational, and could have led to our University being unhelmed at a time when the ONLY member of the full-time Executive was Max Price. For the record: Acting DVC Anwar Mall just retired; DVC Research Danie Visser just retired; DVC Sandra Klopper’s contract was not renewed; DVC Francis Petersen will leave to be VC of University of the Free State. That leaves Kgethi Phakeng as brand-new DVC Research, and another brand-new DVC Transformation in Loretta Feris, who – with all due respect – have between them them less service at UCT than most junior people I know.

This does NOT mean I agreed with the policies our Executive followed from 2015 through 2016: I think they were far too lenient, and far too conciliatory, in dealing with amorphous fringe tendencies who took full advantage of their perceived immunity to sanction to become what we saw today.  It also means I condemn in the strongest terms the racist insults thrown the way of Tim and Anna Crowe  – including “Jim Crow!”, and “He’s a racist!” and “Someone who looks like they participated in apartheid” – by protesters and their supporters.

Who were a group of undisciplined, rude, confrontational and radicalised students and even staff, invading a hitherto august academic space, to dominate, marginalise and insult a community that they perceived as elderly, white, right wing and racist.

Truly: I was horrified at the overt, uncensored and gleeful way that these young people saw fit to use racist epithets, without any awareness of the irony or even oxymoronic way that they did so.

Consider: they were flinging racist insults at possibly the second most liberal assembly at UCT (after Senate), who were almost certainly not going to do what they thought we were going to, which was to censure Max Price.

I truly do not think this was going to happen, even after Tim and Anna Crowe managed – with considerable heckling – to propose their motion, and their single proper supporter and former SRC Chair Gwen Ngwenya supported them, despite VERY considerable interruptions from someone at the back who may or may not have been Chumani Maxwele of poo-flinging fame, as well as accusations of “not being black”, and “being a voice for white people”. Even Geoff Budlender, an old-time radical of note who opposed the motion, was heckled, by those too ignorant of history to know who might be on their side.

The fact is, we were not really given the chance to have either a proper debate, or even a vote on the issue. I think the following set of tweets I made capture succinctly what was happening at the time:

I note GroundUp has a very fair report on the meeting; this appears here, and Tim Crowe’s response to the whole affair here.

The protesters were almost unbelievably confrontational, even when faced with one poor person trying to tell her story of the earlier protests as part of the debate: mocking her openly, miming clown tears, cat-calling.  As it is, the whole thing was brought to an untidy end by a motion of closure proposed from the floor, to close the debate on a very clumsily-worded amendment to the motion, that appeared to be more of a personal attack on Max Price and Anwar Mall, and vote on the original motion. This was misunderstood by some VERY vociferous and highly disruptive folk – staff members as well as protesters – who seem not to have any idea of the rules of formal meetings, and attempted yet again to hijack proceedings to push their agenda. It succeeded nonetheless, by a margin of 100+ to 15 – and THEN the meeting dissolved into chaos. Shouting and pushing at the front, endless shouting from the aggrieved amender, students and supporters shouting objections to process – and brought to an end by Barney Pityana’s response of closing the meeting, to a student running down the desks in the theatre from far up behind who confronted him physically.

Altogether, it was a very sad and very unsatisfactory experience. The protesting students did not appear to perceive the contradiction inherent in their insisting on their right to silent protest, and then trying to force their interpretation of protocol on the meeting and its Chair; their apparent assumption that the Convocation was inherently racist and would torpedo their agreement with Max and the Executive was never allowed to be tested, despite the fact it would very probably have been proved wrong – because they disrupted the proceedings.

I have to say that Max impressed me deeply: he was calm, reasonable, conciliatory and facilitative – and firm with people who seemed bent on treating him with disrespect, to the point of insisting that they call him DOCTOR Price. The same cannot be said for Barney Pityana, who totally lost control of proceedings several times, and for the various other UCT functionaries present, who were just hapless.

The whole proceedings just affirmed for me the need to have decent security at such occasions – because I, and many others, sincerely do NOT want to feel threatened and intimidated at an occasion where we wanted to have a serious debate on the state of our University, and the conduct of its Executive. As it was, a considerable number of  people were vilified and insulted freely by racist youngsters, and I am sure left the meeting feeling as deeply disillusioned as I did.

I heard one youngster say, as I left, “There will be no UCT in 2017!”, to the great glee of her fellow cadres. I do hope that is not true – because it will affect her far worse than it will me.

And I leave you with this – because it sums up the evening for me:

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