A Quick Run-Down of Every F1 Title Decider So Far

As you may be aware, tomorrow will see the final race of the 2021 Formula One season, and for the first time in many years, we go into the finale with the Drivers’ Championship still on the line: Max Verstappen and Sir Lewis Hamilton are exactly level on points. It’s exciting, if you’re a fan; and if you’re a recent fan it must seem remarkable. The battle for the title hasn’t gone to the wire since 2016, and even then that was only a contest between teammates. In the big picture, however, title-deciders aren’t actually that rare: of the 70 seasons of F1 completed so far, 30 have seen at least two drivers separated by less than the available number of points at the final race – and it’s not just because the early seasons had fewer races. As little as a decade ago, this sort of title-decider was commonplace, or even the norm: between 1994 and 2013 inclusive, 11 seasons came down to the final race, and only 9 didn’t. But it’s easy to forget those old races, so I thought I’d quickly run down (for my own benefit, mostly), every title-decider in F1 history so far, as we wait to see what happens tomorow…

1950: 3 points (3 drivers)
The first championship was an in-house contest between three Alfa Romeo drivers: the experienced Luigi Fagioli and Nino Farina (both GP winners in the 1930s) and young (only 39!) upstart Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio had dominated the 1949 season (along with Alberto Ascari), but didn’t have 1950 all his own way: Farina and Fangio traded wins for the first four races (discounting the Indy 500, theoretically a championship race but not contested by any championship contender), before Fangio pulled ahead by winning the fifth. The veteran Fagioli, meanwhile, had shown impressive consistency, coming second in four races. Arriving in Monza for the finale, therefore, Fangio led on 26 points, ahead of Fagioli on 24 and Farina on 22, with 8 points for a win. However, only the best four races counted for the title (to allow for the reliability problems of the era), which meant that a win for Fagioli would only count for 2 points (as it would have to replace one of his 6-point 2nds) – he could only take the title with both a win and a fastest lap (for which there was a bonus point available). Farina and Fangio, however, could earn the full 8, and a win would ensure either the title. It was a race of attrition, in which only 7 out of 27 cars finished; and although Fangio took pole, he double-retired (his car failed, so he stole someone else’s car, until that also failed), allowing Farina to take the win and, overtaking both his teammates, the title.

1951: 6 points (3(?) drivers)
After an inaugural season hamstrung by mechanical problems, Ferrari returned to the front in 1951, setting up a final-race decider between the two greatest drivers of the era: Alfa’s Fangio and Ferrari’s Ascari. Ascari needed to finish ahead of Fangio in the final race, and to himself be either 1st or 2nd. Ascari’s teammate, José Froilán González, could also have taken the title, had he won the race with the fastest lap, and Fangio not scored – at least I think that’s true, though thanks to complicated rules involving count-backs, race-dropping, and car-stealing (Fangio had a win in Fagioli’s car, leading Fagioli to quit the sport on the spot, while González had had his own 2nd place stolen by Ascari). In any case, it was again the cars that let the Ferrari drivers down, with high tyre degradation leading to an excess of pit-stops; Fangio cruised to victory in both the race and the championship.

1956: 3 points (2 drivers)
It seemed unlikely, going into the final race, that Fangio could lose the title: his rival Peter Collins would have to win the race, with Fangio third or lower, to overtake him. But when Fangio retired, leaving Collins in second place and only a few seconds behind the all-important lead (held by Stirling Moss), it suddenly seemed achievable… except that Collins preferred to lose, and voluntarily handed his car over to Fangio to allow the superior driver to defeat him for the title (and Moss to overtake him for 2nd in the championship standings). Collin’s generosity is particularly striking in light of the fact that Fangio was only in contention at all because Collins had previously given him his car in Monaco – where Fangio had crashed twice, before deciding to simply sit in the garage and relax for twenty laps, before calling Collins in from 2nd so that Fangio could hijack his race. Had Collins simply kept his own cars (and been allowed to do so), his results would have seen him win the title easily; Fangio, meanwhile, had only succeeded in finishing three races under his own steam all year, having also stolen Luigi Musso’s car in Argentina.

1958: 1 point (2 drivers)
Stirling Moss took the fastest lap, and won the race by a minute and a half after backing off in the later stages, but Mike Hawthorn’s second place was enough to win him the title by a single point. As in 1956, the title was essentially abdicated by English politeness – after Hawthorn had been penalised in the Portuguese GP, Moss had demanded that his rival’s points be reinstated, ultimately leading to his loss of the championship.

1959: 4 points (3 drivers)
A win for either Moss or Tony Brooks would have taken the title; indeed, Moss only needed a podium. But Moss retired (he only finished three races that season), and Brooks could manage only third, one place ahead of title-winner Jack Brabham. All three drivers had won 2 of the 9 races; however, in a season when only the best five results counted, only 4 of the 41 drivers to enter races that year (not even counting the Indy 500 competitors) actually achieved 5 whole results, and Brabham was the only man to make the top 5 in at least 5 races. (the only man to finish more races than Brabham was the veteran Maurice Trintignant, who astonishingly finished all 8 races he contested).

(1961: 1 point)
The 1961 season did not go down to the final race in the US; with two races to go, three drivers were in the hunt, but after the penultimate race Phil Hill was champion. It feels worth mentioning this season, however, for one particular reason: the only reason Hill wasn’t forced to wait until his home race to take the title was that his rival, Wolfgang von Tripps, died in the penultimate race, in Italy. In this case, only mortal biology, not mathematics, ensured that the title could not change hands at the last race.

1962: 12 points (2 drivers)
With 20 laps to go, the title was in the lap of Jim Clark – victory in the race, which Clark was leading comfortably, would have seen him end level on points with Graham Hill, and take the title through number of victories. But Clark’s fragile Lotus couldn’t hold it together, succumbing to an oil leak, and handing both race and championship to Hill. It would be the fourth race that season in which Clark would take pole only to retire.

1964: 1 point (3 drivers)
With 1 lap to go, the title was in the lap of Jim Clark – victory in the race, which Clark was leading comfortably, would see him end level on points with Graham Hill, and take the title through number of victories. But Clark’s fragile Lotus couldn’t hold it together, succumbing to an oil leak, and handing both race and championship to Hill – or at least so it seemed until the final few corners, when Ferrari team orders, communicated through frantic trackside waving after some last-moment mental arithmetic, succeeded in moving John Surtees from 3rd place into 2nd, to snatch the title from Hill by a single point. [In fact, Hill finished the season having collected one point more than Surtees – but lost due to the rule that he could only count points from his best six races.] As the three rivals raced for different teams, this was also the first season in which three constructors – Ferrari, BRM and Lotus – entered the final GP with a chance (and a viable chance!) of the Constructor’s Title.

1967: 5 points (2 drivers)
Clark’s five retirements in the season had already cost him the title by the Mexican GP – his chances were blown in his legendary drive at Monza two races earlier (he pitted to replace a tyre and chased back to regain the lead, but ran out of fuel on the final lap). But two drivers were still in the hunt: Jack Brabham needed to win the final race, with Denny Hulme finishing fifth or lower. Unfortunately for him, neither of those conditions came to pass, with Hulme finishing one place behind Brabham, in 3rd, and Clark winning the race by a minute and a half, despite his car having been without a clutch for almost the entire race.

1968: 12 points (3 drivers)
Seeking his second title, Hulme needed to win, with Jackie Stewart no higher than 3rd, and Graham Hill no higher than 6th; Stewart needed to beat Hill by 2 places and be at least 4th, and to be no more than 3 places behind Hulme, or 2nd if Hulme won; Hill needed to come within 2 places of Stewart, and to come at least 5th if Hulme won. But as it happened, all this mathematics was largely irrelevant, as Stewart finished outside the points, and Hulme finished on fire. Hill won the race, and the title.

1974: 3 points (3 drivers)
For the second year in a row, the season ended with the tradition of a driver (this time Helmuth Koinigg) being gruesomely killed by badly-installed safety apparatus at Watkins Glen. As usual, this was not allowed to distract from the events, however, with only Niki Lauda retiring out of respect for the dead (and only after mechanical problems had made clear he would not be enjoying the day in any case). At the front of the championship, Clay Regazzoni was level on points with Emerson Fittipaldi, with Jody Scheckter needing a win and for neither of his rivals to finish. The contest was over almost from the start, however, as Regazzoni struggled with mechanical problems and finished out of the points, Scheckter retired with mechanical problems, and Fittipaldi safely finished 4th.

1976: 1 point (2 drivers)
With five wins, two seconds and a third from the first nine races, Lauda seemed unstoppable again, as he had been the year before. But his crash at the German GP threw everything into doubt, including Lauda’s life – with disfiguring facial burns and badly damaged lungs, the champion was read the last rites. Energised by the thought of James Hunt stealing his title, however, Lauda rose from his deathbed, missing only two races – although he struggled early on in his return, in part because blood from his open scars filled and congealed in his helmet, welding it to his head. A podium position in the penultimate race, however, put him back in pole position for the title, needing only to finish ahead of Hunt, or close behind him, to take a second title. But the Japanese GP was contested in thick fog and heavy rain, with many drivers calling for the race to be abandoned (which would have handed Lauda the title); although it went ahead, four drivers voluntarily retired from the race in order to avoid the excessive risk of death – and Lauda was one of them. Hunt still needed to finish fourth or higher, and was only fifth on the track – until two laps before the checkered flag, when he accidentally overtook two cars to take a podium and (although he didn’t realise it at the time) the championship.

(1978: 13 points)
As with 1961, this season deserves mention despite having been decided three races early: Mario Andretti’s closest rival, Ronnie Peterson, was not in a position to take the title to the final GP (he would have needed a 1st and a 2nd from the final two races) only because he had been killed in the antepenultimate race.

1981: 1 point (3 drivers)
The season came down to the ultimate driving challenge: a number of laps around a car park out the back of a casino in Las Vegas. If Jacques Lafitte did not finish first or second, either Carlos Reutemann or Nelson Piquet would win by finishing ahead of the other (Piquet also need to be at least 5th); if Lafitte did come first or second, the permutations became more complicated, including the possibility (if Lafitte won, Piquet took third and Reutemann came fourth) of all three drivers finishing exactly level on points (Lafitte taking the title through a higher number second-place finishes). Reutemann seemed to have the advantage, taking pole – but his teammate Alan Jones (who refused to assist Reutemann on the grounds that “I am a member of the British Commonwealth” and thus morally prohibited from teamwork) overtook him into the first corner, and he was soon slipping down the grid with serious mechanical trouble. Lafitte never troubled the leaders, and Piquet survived two perils – erratic breaking from Reutemann (Piquet accused him of trying to crash them both out, scuttling his damaged car to take the title) and the unbearable American heat (he was physically sick in qualifying, and collapsed after the race) to take fifth, and the title.

1982: 5 points (2 or 3 drivers)
How many men were in contention for the title going into this year’s jaunt around the car park depends on exactly when you count. Until the list of competitors was finalised, it was three: Keke Rosberg led Didier Pironi by only three points, with John Watson six more behind. The complication was that Pironi had suffered catastrophic leg injuries earlier in the season (in a crash similar to that in which his teammate Gilles Villeneuve had been killed) and had missed three races in a row. Nobody really expected him to make it to the Las Vegas startline, and when the lights went out the contenders were indeed down to only two, with Watson needing victory and a poor race for Rosberg to make up the deficit (Pironi, meanwhile, would never race again). This was the second season in which three constructors went into the final race with a chance of the team title. In the race, Watson suffered a bad start, but fought his way from twelfth back up to second; yet his heroics were irrelevant, as Rosberg’s fifth place would have been enough to secure the title no matter who won the race. Michele Alboreto became the 11th driver to win a race that season, while Ferrari somehow took the Constructor’s title, despite losing both their starting drivers to career-ending (and in one case fatal) injuries. Rosberg became the second man, after Hawthorn, to win a title despite having won only a single race.

1983: 2 points (3 drivers)
For the third year in a row, three drivers were still mathematically capable of winning the title going into the final race – and unlike the previous year, all three would be on the start grid. Prost was two points ahead of Piquet, with René Arnoux six more behind and needing a win. His hopes were over by lap 9, however, when his complicated turbo engine failed; this left Prost, in third, needing to overtake Piquet, the leader; yet his hopes were also soon over, when his complicated turbo engine failed. Piquet, however, was soon slowing himself, putting his title in jeopardy – from first, he fell back to fourth, knowing that the loss of one more place would cost him the title. Fortunately for him, Lauda’s complicated turbo engine then failed, giving Piquet the podium and the championship.

1984: ½ point (2 drivers)
The streak of nail-biting seasons continued with the closest result in history. In 1976, Lauda had lost the title when he refused to race in terrible conditions in Japan, but in 1984 the weather turned the title in the opposite direction. Lauda had spun out in the wet in Monaco, and Prost, struggling with mechanical failure and with a dwindling lead, successfully demanded from the cockpit that the race be stopped, ensuring him the win – a controversial ruling, given that the race director was Prost’s Porsche teammate, and that he did not consult race stewards. The last laugh at the end of the season, however, belonged to Lauda: the early stoppage at Monaco meant that only half points were awarded for that race, costing Prost 4½ points. That meant that at the final race in Portugal, Lauda’s fate was in his own hands: although Prost took the victory, Lauda was able to take second (albeit only thanks to Mansell’s engine failure) and the title, with a historically narrow margin of victory.

1986: 2 points (3 drivers)
Williams had the fastest car in 1986, but suffered from an abundance of drivers – third-placed Piquet had repeatedly taken points from first-placed Mansell, leaving Prost to sneak up to within six points of the title. The final race started well enough, with Mansell in command – but after 63 laps, the title slipped through his grasp due to his failure to crash. A tyre burst, leaving the car out of control and unable to continue, but Mansell successfully, yet disasterously, piloted it to a stop without colliding with anything. Had he suffered a large accident in the process, the race director was standing by ready to red-flag it, handing the title to Mansell; but instead, Mansell watched, unharmed but disinherited, as Prost cruised home to win the race ahead of Piquet and take the title.

1994: 1 point (2 drivers)
Michael Schumacher and Benetton started the season clearly ahead of their rivals Williams; but by the final round, Williams driver Damon Hill had won four of the last five races and was now only a single point behind Schumacher. Schumacher now had only two ways to win the title: beat Hill fairly and squarely on track, or cheat. As we know, however, he never had to make that choice, as fortunately for him he accidentally unaccountably crashed into the side of Hill’s car halfway through the race, putting both drivers out of the grand prix, but ensuring Schumacher became champion.

1996: 19 points (2 drivers)
It was never likely that Jacques Villeneuve would steal this title in the final race: he not only needed to win, but also needed his teammate, Hill, not to score. He did take pole, but a long shot got longer when a bad start put him in sixth by the end of the opening lap, and all hope was gone once a wheel fell off halfway through the race. Hill won the title; but Villeneuve perhaps had the last laugh, as it was Hill who was then fired by their team.

1997: 39 points (2 drivers)
Williams and Benetton were neck and neck this season in speed, but poor early reliability had allowed Schumacher to build a significant lead. By the final round, however, those problems seemingly behind them, Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve had won three of the last six races and was now only a single point behind Schumacher. This meant that Schumacher now had only two ways to win the title: beat Villeneuve fair and square on the track, or cheat. As we know, however, he never had to make that choice, as fortunately for him a bizarre steering wheel twitch crashed him into the side of Villeneuve’s car halfway through the race, seemingly making Schumacher champion. The story this year, however, was a little more complicated: although Schumacher’s car was wrecked Villeneuve’s was only damaged, and the Canadian was able to limp home holding onto third place, and enough points to finish three ahead of Schumacher and take the title. That margin then blossomed into the largest winning margin of any season that had been decided in the final race, when the authorities disqualified Schumacher from the season entirely.

1998: 14 points (2 drivers)
Schumacher’s run of bad luck in finales continued, but this time affected nobody but himself. Four points behind, he needed a win, and for rival Hakkinen to finish no higher than third – he kept his hopes alive by taking pole, though Hakkinen joined him on the front row. Everything went wrong, however, when Schumacher rolled forward from his starting position on the grid and stalled, earning himself demotion to the back of the grid. Nonetheless, he fought his way back up to third, before more bad luck – a puncture – ended his hopes entirely. Hakkinen won both the race and the title.

1999: 2 points (2 drivers)
In 1999, Schumacher lost the title long before the final race, when he broke a leg at Silverstone; but he returned for the final two races still able to win the title for his teammate, Eddie Irvine. He took pole, while Irvine was fifth – first and fourth would give Irvine the title. Irvine did his part, fighting up to third, but Schumacher was beaten off the line, and never able to regain the lead from Hakkinen, finishing five seconds behind the Finn. Irvine could still have finished level on points with Hakkinen, had Schumacher agreed to let him past, but would have lost on countback in any case.

2003: 2 points (2 drivers)
There were nearly three contenders at Japan in 2003 – but Juan Pablo Montoya’s sixth place at the preceding race now meant that the best he could do was tie Schumacher on points and lose on countback. Kimi Raikkonen, however, was still a live contender: with a 9 point deficit and 10 points for a win, he needed to come 1st and have Schumacher come no higher than 9th. He came close, but failed in both regards: he took 2nd, and Schumacher took 8th. Montoya didn’t finish the race.

2006:  13 points (2 drivers)
A close season was derailed at the end by Schumacher’s continuing bad luck (or karma). Having lead with two races to go, he suffered a retirement in the penultimate race, meaning he suddenly needed a win, with Fernando Alonso scoring nothing. A further mysterious technical failure landed him down in 10th in qualifying; when he tried to force Alonso’s teammate, Fisichella, off the road on lap 6, he made contact and suffered a puncture, leaving him in last place and a lap down. Schumacher put up an impressive fight, making his way back up to 4th, but as Alonso was safely home in 2nd, it was all in vain.

2007: 1 point (3 drivers)
Although 2007 saw the first three-way shootout in over 20 years, it didn’t seem in advance as though it would be a nailbiter: even if Alonso won the race, McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton could take the title simply by coming home immediately behind him; if Alonso did not win (a possibility, with two Ferraris acting as potential spoilers), his chances became even smaller, as he would be behind on countback – 2nd place for Alonso, and Hamilton would only need 5th, and Hamilton had only finished lower than 5th once that season. Raikkonen, meanwhile, was seven points off the lead and only a mathematical consideration. Hamilton’s arithmetic seemed to be wrapped up after qualifying, when he took 2nd (behind Felipe Massa, not a challenger for the title), two places ahead of Alonso. Things came rapidly apart, however: a terrible start left Hamilton in 8th, and a few laps later a gearbox issue left him needing to turn his onboard computer off and on again. By the time it had rebooted, he was down in 18th, and his title hopes were ruined. At the front, Alonso was unable to catch the leading Ferraris, and Raikkonen took the win, catapulting himself from third to first in the rankings. Hamilton, meanwhile, fought back to take 7th, ensuring he would take 2nd in the season rankings from his teammate on countback.

2008: 1 point (2 drivers)
Hamilton again came to Brazil with a strong lead, this time over Massa – fifth place would guarantee him the title, no matter what Massa did. Unfortunately, Hamilton had been having a year of disasterous misjudgments that had turned what should have been a cruise to victory into a nailbiter – multiple collisions and track limits violations had seen him repeatedly penalised, either by the authorities or by physics; most shocking of all was the Canadian GP incident in which he caused a multiple-car collision in the pitlane. As a result, the title seemed only precariously in his grasp: he had finished lower than fifth, or not finished, in almost a third of the season’s races, equal to the number of races he had won. Hamilton chose a cautious approach in the finale, opting for a high-fuel strategy that saw him 4th on the grid; but despite no clear catastrophe occuring, variable weather and complex strategies, and an overtake by Sebastian Vettel with just two laps to go, had forced him down to 6th entering the final lap, and as Massa crossed the in first, he believed he was the champion. Behind, however, the weather was playing one last trick, as Timo Glock attempted to navigate the final lap on dry tyres, when all other cars were on intermediates. Hamilton fought in vain to repass Vettel; but Glock’s car was now undriveable, and both Vettel and then, at the final corner of the final lap, Hamilton sailed past (almost literally), giving Hamilton 5th place, and the title. Glock, meanwhile, didn’t know he’d lost two places until after the race – his visibility was so poor, and his car so far off the racing line, that he hadn’t even seen the cars go past him.

2010: 4 points (4 drivers)
For the first time, after a season in which there had been five championship leaders, and five multiple winners, four drivers still contested the title at the final race – while the constructor’s title was still theoretically in the balance between two teams, neither of which boasted the leading driver. That leading driver was Alonso, six points ahead of closest rival Mark Webber – a margin that a year earlier would have seemed comfortable, but that had been devalued by a major change in points allocations (from 10-8-6(etc) to 25-18-15(etc)). If Webber won, in other words, he would take the title; if Webber came 2nd, a 4th place for Alonso would be enough on countback. Meanwhile, however, Webber’s junior teammate, Vettel, also had a theoretical chance, a further seven points back thanks to a win in the preceding race. If Vettel won, Alonso would need to be at least 4th. Finally, Lewis Hamilton retained a mathematical chance of a second title, but needed Alonso not to score, and the Red Bull drivers to finish low in the points (his own teammate, defending champion Jenson Button, had only been eliminated from contention at the penultimate race). Everything seemed to be going Alonso’s way after qualifying – Vettel took pole, but Alonso was safely in 3rd, with Webber down in 5th – but in the end the strategic challenge of facing two teammates at once was too much to overcome. When Webber pitted early, Alonso responded to prevent an undercut; but in the process of staying ahead of Webber, he gave up the chance to stay close to Vettel; this ought not to have been a problem, as Alonso still needed only 4th – but Renault, and Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, had chosen a clever off-rhythm strategy that put them ahead of the championship leader, and on the angular street circuit of Abu Dhabi Alonso was unable to pass the trio, finishing in 7th. Sebastian Vettel therefore won the title – having been in 4th with two races to go, he became the first champion since Hunt not to have led at any point in the year until the final checkered flag.

2012: 3 points (2 drivers)
After a complicated season in which four drivers alternated at the the championship standings, only two were left in contention in Brazil: Alonso and Vettel. Vettel had a wide lead, and Alonso (in arguably only the fourth-best car) needed a dramatic swing in his favour in Brazil, which seemed out of the question once Vettel qualified four places ahead of him. But Vettel’s hotheadedness, poor luck, and Brazil’s difficult weather conditions resulted in a series of calamities for the German: a bad start; a collision; engine damage and a crack in the car itself that saw the team turn down engine performance and pray for a safety car, just to finish the race without catching fire; a terrible pit stop (caused by the failure of Vettel’s radio). Alonso, conversely, benefited immensely when Hamilton and Nico Hülkenberg crashed out ahead of him, allowing him up to 2nd position. But Alonso could not pass Button for the lead, and Vettel gradually fought back to 7th, the position he needed, before being gifted 6th for safety by countryman Schumacher in his final race. The deployment of a safety car ensured Vettel would survive to the checkered flag, to take the title.

2016: 5 points (2 drivers)
Reigning champion Hamilton found himself 12 points behind his teammate Rosberg heading into the final race: Rosberg knew a podium would guarantee the title, and in a car lightyears ahead of the opposition this would ordinarily have been almost a forgone conclusion. In the last 11 races, each Mercedes driver had finished off the podium only once, and neither of these poor had been due to racing pace (Rosberg having once been relegated to 4th through a penalty, Hamilton having once retired with engine failure). Even a major disaster, like Rosberg suffering a first-lap collision that left him at the back of the grid, had been unable to prevent a podium finish, and the dominance of the Mercedes was only growing: the last three races had been Hamilton-Rosberg 1-2s. Facing long odds, Hamilton tried to skew the game through a cunning strategy: having taken pole on an Abu Dhabi track on which overtaking was exceptionally difficult without a clear speed advantage, Hamilton intentionally drove slowly (defying the repeated commands of his team), bringing the pack together, negating Rosberg’s speed advantage over the cars behind him, and putting him at risk of strategic calls by the other teams, particularly in the event of a poorly-timed safety car. But Rosberg successfully fended off Vettel to the end – resulting in one of the few races of the modern era in which the third driver on the podium finished less than a second behind the winner – and a fourth consecutive 1-2 gave Rosberg his title, at the final last-race showdown in F1 history… so far.

The Quiet Don, by Mikhail Sholokhov (sort of)

A housekeeping digression:

I don’t generally review novels I’ve not finished – for one thing, doing so would be a confession that I’d not just indefinitely paused, but actually given up, reading the book. So I don’t know if I “should” be writing a review now. According to Goodreads, and to common sense and history, I have not actually completed a novel. All I have done is read about half of The Quiet Don.

However, it’s fair to say that there are some confounding factors here. For one, The Quiet Don was published in stages over the course of around a decade and a half. For another, (a somewhat abridged version of) the first half of the novel was published in English as And Quiet Flows the Don, six years before the novel was even completed – and I have a copy of that ‘novel’, that is a ‘novel’ in English translation but not in the Russian original. Since then, in addition to the second half of the novel being published (or the sequel, if you prefer), it’s also been published in sets of three, four, five or more volumes. And finally: the complete novel (or series, if you prefer), is gigantic. And I’m not going to get to the second half for a while. So, although I was reading a complete edition of the entire novel, I’m going to pretend that – like the first generation to read this in English – I’ve finished reading the first installment of a duology.

Further note: consider yourselves warned, this is a STUPIDLY long review, even by my circumlocutious standards…

It’s been a while since I read a proper epic fantasy novel. I must confess, I didn’t realise I’d be reading one now. And yet, just look at what we have here! Mikhail Sholokhov’s seminal The Quiet Don (or even just the first half, as reviewed here) is a colossal, hand-breaking tome, perhaps the heaviest book I’ve read – it may be only 1,400 pages, but they’re big pages (this edition is a full-size ‘trade paperback’ – a hardback minus the hard back). It begins, as every good fantasy novel does, with a map – a series of maps, even. There’s a dramatis personae at the beginning to refer back to (complete with pronunciation assistance), and at the back there are some hefty appendices. The content, likewise, is conventional for the (fantasy) genre: a simple farm boy discovers himself to be a leader of men, and plays an outsize role in world events, at a time of love, death, brutality, apocalyptic war, and the fall of empires. It’s grim, and it’s dark. Events are interspersed with long discussions of morality and political systems, and there’s a fair amount of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding, particularly in depicting exotic cultural traditions; and then there are the subtler touches that mark out traditional fantasy – the random cultural terms left untranslated (distances are measured in verst, for instance (it’s equivalent to 500 sazhen, if that helps)), and the scattering of culturally-relevant songs and poems. It is, in effect, the archetypal epic fantasy.

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The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings is an innovative epic fantasy debut novel of 2015; and it’s hard for me not to pair it with another innovative epic fantasy debut novel, 2008’s A Shadow in Summer. Not because they’re similar, but because they almost completely aren’t.

Both Ken Liu in ‘15 and Daniel Abraham in ’08 burst into the genre (long-form – Liu was an established short story writer) with a distinctive take, each, as it were, pointing in new directions for fantasy. What the two novels have in common is that both seek to take fantasy out of its fauxdiaeval bubble by introducing notes and colours drawn from Asia rather than from Europe: Abraham invoking in a relatively enciphered way southeast Asia, and Liu drawing more transparently from China. Both, in addition, take unusual, and in some ways directly opposite, approaches to narrative. Both novels are, in their own way, creative success stories – certainly, enough to provide inspiration and encouragement to others who wish to explore new dimensions in fantasy. Yet both, in their own ways, have issues.

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The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Warning: this turned out to be a very long review, and much of it is more me wrestling with the genre than talking about the specific book. I really ought to edit it severely (I mean, even more severely than I ought to edit most of my reviews…), but I’ve been waiting to get around to that for the last six months, so I’ve given up and I’ve decided just to publish the damn thing. So, sorry about that.

I’m not a very good reader, these days. I don’t read enough – I still enjoy reading, once I’m doing it, but when it comes to actually starting a book, there always seems to be some more immediately (if less fully) rewarding way to spend the time available. It’s more than that, though: not only do I not read enough at all, I also read too narrowly, being still fundamentally a genre reader. Regular readers of the blog – yes, all both of you – may have noticed me venturing out a little from the genre, and finding reward for it: several of the highest-rated books I’ve reviewed here have been, at least theoretically, outside the SF&F genre. And yet, that’s been a bit of an illusion – most of those novels have been drawn either from the classic novel tradition from which SF&F emerged and to which it owes a continuing debt (The Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t have any dragons in it, for example, but its period setting, abstract ethical ruminations and series of picturesque adventures make it probably a more comfortable read for a modern fantasy fan than for a modern ‘lit-fic’ reader), or else have been, as it were, closely genre-adjacent in themes or genre-sympathetic in sensibilties. The only complete genre-distant novel I can think of that I’ve reviewed here is The Rider, and that… well, it doesn’t really feel representative of, as it were, the ‘mainstream’ in modern English writing.

What I haven’t really read much of at all, and haven’t reviewed any of for this blog, is writing from what is rather odiously known as ‘literary fiction’ (a term both arrogant and facile) – which is to say, veristic writing about ordinary people in the real world, acting like ordinary people, albeit perhaps in some striking situation. The kind of fiction that we’re all told we need to write – real art.

The Wolf Border seems to tick the boxes. I’m not aware of it itself having won any major awards, but its author certainly appears to fit the profile: first degree in English, second degree in Creative Writing; teaches Creative Writing courses; awards; writer-in-residence; Royal Society of Literature; published poet; literary magazines; Granta list; Booker-shortlisted. The conventional resumé. I read it because I felt I needed to read something like this; because it was recommended to me by several people; and because some of its trappings appealed to me.

[However, the fact that this is the third novel with ‘Wolf’ in the title that I’ve reviewed in the last year is honestly a complete, and slightly embarrassing, coincidence…]

I don’t read a lot in this genre. I’m finding it hard, as a result, to separate out my feelings about this book itself, and my feelings about the genre it represents. My apologies in advance if I’m a little incoherent in trying to set out these two sets of thoughts at the same time…

I think I can say: I can understand why people like and recommend this book. And yet I am not left with any great craving to read more widely in the genre.

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Wolf in Shadow, by David Gemmell


I tried to push the events of the week from my mind. My mother was dying, I was waiting to be fired, and staff, who had joined my team in good faith, were facing redundancy. After the fifth large Armagnac I decided to continue work on the book. I knew I was drunk, and I also knew that the chances of writing anything worthwhile were prettty negligible. But forcing my mind into a fantasy world seemed infinitely more appealing than concentrating on the reality at hand.

That’s Gemmell’s own description of how he came to write Wolf in Shadow, from the foreword to my omnibus edition. Drunk and despairing in 1986, in a cheap and unfriendly seaside hotel that he describes, borrowing a line from Jack Dee, as “the kind of place where the Gideons leave a rope”, he tried to work on Wolf in Shadow, his contractually-obligated saga of a ruthless warlord rising to power among a nomadic horde (the prequel to his iconic 1984 fantasy Legend)… but he found his fingers with a mind of their own. He began writing a paragraph in which a mounted scout was to crest a hill, look down onto the plain, and marvelled at a vast army below… but instead, at the climactic moment of discovery, his fingers wrote out for him: There was no sign of Jerusalem.

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Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Please bear with me; I fear I may commit a heresy.


Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire was published in 1962 to a chorus of… well, mixed but broadly approbative response from seasoned readers. Some critics loved it. Others thought it a load of rot. Most, however, it seems, fell somewhere in between, complimenting its style, craftsmanship and vivid imagination, but regretting its insubstantiality. TIME, for example, lamented that it “does not really cohere as a satire; good as it is, the novel in the end seems to be mostly an exercise in agility”. In a similar way, the New York Times regretted that it was “a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip rather than a book which can be read straight through with pleasure… It is one more proof of Mr. Nabokov’s rare vitality. Unluckily it is not much more than that.”

Since it was published, however, the novel has (as we’re told by academics) managed to get better and better every year, until it can now be regarded as, at the very least, one of the 50 or so greatest works of fiction of all time, or even, according to some experts, the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, taking only the text as it is, rather than what it has become over time, I think the initial response was rather nearer the mark.

Continue reading

Still aten’t dead…

Bloody hell. I hadn’t realised quite how long it had been since I’d written on here! I didn’t even do the obligatory end-of-year “wow, I haven’t written much on here this year, have I?” post…

Well, last year was the worst for my reading in probably a decade, which was partly a problem with me (changing schedules, etc), and partly a problem with the books I tried to read, and partly watching too much TV instead.

And while I’ve done some con-langing, it’s paradoxically been a bit too advanced to be suited to one-off blog posts. Similarly, I’ve had a couple of world-building projects that never got finished, but that felt too big to be worth posting as I went along, before I’d worked out the kinks.

On the positive side, I’m hoping to have three, maybe four book reviews up in the near future. And maybe a political-commentary post, even, though I never seem to get those finished before, you know, the world has moved on…

Sluggy Freelance, chapters 70-71; by Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance debuted in 1997. It hasn’t ended yet. But there was a time when its author, Pete Abrams, was intending to end the comic at least in its current form (until a subscription drive made continuing a more economically viable proposition); and, naturally, and in keeping with the work ethic he’s always displayed (Sluggy is remarkable not only for running over 20 years, but for providing at least some content every day for around the first 15 of them – when Abrams didn’t have the time or inspiration to finish a page, he would put together filler with stick figures or reused art, or bring in guest strips; of course, much of this ‘filler’ itself was more effort than many webcomic artists expend even on their main strips), Abrams wanted to send fans off with a conclusion to at least one of the long-running sagas at the heart of the venerable webcomic.

It’s a story that has run through Sluggy for nearly two decades, and not long ago it seemed as though it might almost be too big to ever bring to a satisfying conclusion. On the one hand, the importance of the storyline to the plot and mood and characters of the comic was so great that it would require a truly epic conclusion, including the deaths or transformations of some major characters (and a lot of minor ones); on the other hand, the story was based upon a mystery, a puzzle to which Abrams had doled out clues throughout the comic year after year, but which a fanatical audience of hundreds of online commenters had never fully cracked – was there really an answer? Would it, after all these years, satisfy both intellectually and emotionally?

Yes, yes it does.

Years ago, I reviewed Sluggy from its beginning up until Chapter 62 (“4U City Red”). In 2018, one great overarching arc of the comic came to an end (or, at least, a conclusion); and so it seemed like it might be time to bring my reviews up to date. Accordingly, I’ve recently reviewed Chapters 63-65, and Chapters 66-69. This will be my last Sluggy review for, I assume, several years to come, as I complete my re-read of this epoch of the comic by reviewing Chapter 70 (“Falling”) and Chapter 71 (“The Heavens and the Earth”), which in effect form a single, immense, set-piece story (almost all of “Heavens”, and a considerable amount of “Falling”, takes place across a single day), albeit one with a clear inflection point at the chapter break.

Here’s the first thing to notice: this story took two years to tell. By comparison, most of the foundations of the comic were laid in, maybe, its first five – and two and a bit years covers everything in the ‘classic’ era from The Bug, The Witch and the Robot through to Dangerous Days Ahead. Now, sure, back then the comic was running seven days a week; in the last few years it was running only five, and later three days a week; but then again, early on most strips were three or four panels, maybe more on Sundays, whereas in recent years a single strip has often been a dozen, sometimes two dozen panels (and the work involved must have increased exponentially, given the vastly superior art now employed).

Let’s be honest: for most of us that sort of comparison – an apparently dramatic slowdown, a turn toward sprawl – will not immediately seem positive. My first thought seeing numbers like that is ‘bloat’. It seems like the way that a late Robert Jordan novel read like it was twice the length of an earlier novel while somehow containing only half the content.

And yet, that’s not what’s happened here. This story takes two years because it needs two years. Because when you’re building a climax big enough to justify twenty years of assembly, you’re damn right it’s going to be big.

This is a climax that doesn’t come as a surprise – the two previous years had been dominated by set-up for this set-piece, and it’s clear at the end of “Six Months Later” that the next chapter will see us finally arrive at the fireworks factory. “Falling” doesn’t disappoint, although it does have to work hard, both to dig some characters out of the (obviously temporary, and frankly rather strained) positions they found themselves in at the end of “Six Months Later”, and to bring together multiple active players who will have to arrive at the same point at the same time. As a result, the reader may in a few places get impatient (particularly with the whole ‘irritating viral Youtube video’ plotline, and some time-wasting sitcom routines (although I did like the payoff to the mailman joke)); I’ve always felt the paraphernalia of conspiracy and, frankly, institution is a bad fit for Abrams’ core cast (he’s wonderful at understanding people, but a bit simplistic in understanding organisations). I also think that the main arc of the “Silencer” subchapter probably would have worked better as part of “Six Months Later” than as part of “Falling”, where, although really great in its own right, it feels like another detour, and compresses its aftermath too greatly to properly maximise its impact as it should do (although I recognise of course the big logistic reason why it would have been hard to move it any earlier). The main events of the chapter, however, provide a suitably gigantic explosion, a great plot twist, a shocking revelation, and a partial answer to a very-long-running question; we also get a pleasing amount of character work throughout the chapter. It elates us in what it accomplishes, not just because of the victories, but because of the seemingly irrevocable (or at least not quickly revocable) nature of the changes undergone here; and yet it leaves us with dread for what comes next.

What comes next, “The Heavens and the Earth” is an even better chapter –it’s similar in scale to “Falling” if not somewhat longer, and yet it stunningly plays out as an uninterrupted (largely chronological) sequence of scenes, without diversions, almost all in the same location. Abrams walks a very thin line here between a story that is too short, wrapping up confusingly and underwhelmingly, and one that is dragged out too long, frustrating and boring to the reader. Instead, we get something just right – a story that is complicated, and developed slowly enough for those complications to make sense, and yet a story that has almost no filler and almost no detours. Just a single setpiece action-adventure sequence, unfolding over 12 months. It packs in satisfying answers to big questions, emotional twists and turns, a major character death, and big changes with directly personal impacts.

It’s hard to know what to say about “The Heavens and the Earth”: on the one hand, it’s so good it’s hard to nitpick, while on the other, as the twist-filled culmination to decades of plotting, every tiny detail is a spoiler. It could be argued, I suppose, that the final resolution for the villain is perhaps a little too pat, but it’s hard to see, after such buildup, what wouldn’t be. Some things don’t come into play as they might have done – but it’s hard to complain about an author keeping some powder dry for the next chapter. I suppose it’s a little frustrating that one character in particular has become, in effect, a constant red herring, but it’s very understandable why that would have to be the case (and has been the case since the beginning of the comic, with a few exceptions). [One slight worry for the future is that, as various central and peripheral characters have grown in abilities or importance, there may have to be more excuses for keeping them out of situations where the threats are no longer their equal]. On the other hand, the chapter deserves praise for taking what might seem to be an insane and unpredictable shock twist (for anyone who doesn’t read the forums, and hence hasn’t seen it coming for the last ten years), and manages to fill it out to a point where it’s hard to remember a time before it – and, in the process, to show that what seemed like one of the comic’s worst missteps was in fact a triumph of long-term plotting. Abrams also does surprisingly well in wrapping up such a big tangle of plotlines in a way that feels conclusive and satisfying (some fans expected that this would actually prove to be the end of the comic as we know it), while still, on reflection, leaving plenty of dangling loose ends for future stories.

In conclusion, I can only applaud. Something I always assumed would be a disappointment turned out not to be… and Sluggy Freelance now feels like it could happily run for a third glorious decade.


Adrenaline: 4/5. “Heaven and Earth” lasted a year, and a lot of days that year felt like cliffhangers. Because I was reading it in real-time, rather than in archive, I couldn’t race through the pages, but I’ve no doubt I would have done had it been possible. “Falling”, though, while having its own exciting runs, was also dragged down by some lulls.

Emotion: 4/5. I wasn’t reduced to tears, but certainly Abrams manages to wring emotion even out of characters and situations that wouldn’t have been thought capable of producing it. There are big triumphs, some tragedies, and plenty of hope and fear for the future.

Thought: 5/5. As a twisty thriller that’s also the culmination of decades-long mysteries and home to some shocking, recontextualising revelations, this keeps the brain cells working on full power, and rewards attentive readers.

Beauty: 4/5. The art is as good as it’s come to be, with some striking set-piece panels; the writing is as always characteristically uneven, but manages to be funny and moving more than often enough to please.

Craft: 4/5. Bringing this plot arc to a satisfying conclusion would earn a high score by itself; doing it while taking us through some very satisfying character work is truly accomplished. These chapters feel like the author’s vindication: in the past, we may have had some uneven filler plotlines, and the build-up for this finale was at times clunky, but here he proves that he knew what he was doing all along. If I were reviewing only “Heaven and Earth”, I would give this a 5. But I can’t deny that “Falling” is more uneven, with some misjudged running jokes and some pacing problems.

Endearingness: 4/5. Great, great fun.

Originality: 5/5. This isn’t a parody, a pastiche, a variation or homage (as sometimes Sluggy chapters can be) – this is its own story, like nothing else.


Is this the best Sluggy has ever been? No. In that some of its highs have been higher. But “Heaven and Earth” is as good as it’s been for a continuous year-long run, and “Falling” is a more than creditable, if less perfect, companion chapter.

Let’s put it like this: I have no doubts that there are many authors in the world who can do things Pete Abrams can’t do. Certainly, Sluggy Freelance isn’t for everybody. But I think that if you charged those authors with writing these two chapters, there are very few of them who might be able to do it as well as Abrams did.

More people should listen to…

I haven’t been posting much, I know, even by my standards. My reading has hit a brick wall, and while I’ve watched a lot of TV*, I don’t seem able to write about TV much. I think it’s because it takes so long to watch something that I’ve lost hold of my original thoughts by the time I’ve finished. Also, the fact I might conceivably write a book one day – conceivably, I said, albeit perhaps not plausibly! – gives me an angle to examine my thinking about books; the fact I’m never going to be involved in writing a TV show makes it hard to engage in the same way, intellectually.

But anyway, I thought I’d just drop in to say: more people should listen to George Onslow.

That’s a sentence I imagine few people have heard recently.

Onslow, for those (i.e. all normal people) who don’t know, was a French aristocrat-composer of the early 19th century. At first untrained, a life of leisure and wealth allowed him to become self-taught, and to acquire some education from Anton Reicha, the great teacher and theorist (whose other pupils included Liszt, Berlioz and Franck, among many others). In a France dominated by grand opéra, the gigantic and the fashionable, Onslow’s work, cultured and predominately for chamber ensemble, perhaps more German in style, was overlooked in his lifetime, though his publishers ardently promoted him as “our French Beethoven” – and was entirely neglected for a century. Allegdly there is now an Onslow revival, but that just means that the amount of Onslow being played is now slightly greater than zero. [for his own part, Onslow was fairly sanguine about his lack of popularity – his immense family wealth meant that he could vanity-publish all his works, and didn’t much have to care about critical opinion]

I came across Onslow a couple of years ago when I happened to buy a CD of some of his cello sonatas, and was immediately impressed. More recently, I came upon a CD of some quintets, and it’s this that I alluded to when I mentioned Onslow in my recap of 2018. I’ve been listening again recently, and just get more impressed each time…

Comparisons are hard; Onslow in his day was compared, by respected writers and composers (Berlioz, Schumann and Mendelssohn all sang his praises), to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The comparison is valid, but unfortunately needs the caveat “not as good as”. I’d actually say he’s less the French Beethoven and more the French Schubert – though still not as good as the latter.

The thing is, though, you can be not as good as Schubert and yet still really good, and I think classical music is only just slowly beginning to realise its own vast richness, the depth of its back catalogue – the existence of composers like Onslow, previously dismissed as second-rate and unfashionable, who are nonetheless worthy of happy attention. As Grammophone put it in one review, Onslow “may not be a great composer, but he is certainly an extremely interesting one”.

It may not seem that way at first hearing. Onslow was an experimentalist, but was not a radical: he clearly admired the middle Beethoven, but detested the ‘chaos’ of late Beethoven. His hallmark appears to be, somewhat like Schubert, responding to Beethoven in a way that emulates the master’s passion and ingenuity, while holding on with one hand to the reins of classical restraint. He is considerably more passionate than, say, a Hummel, but more elegant than, say, Schumann. He has a quality I like, not exactly of ‘darkness’, but of a sort of warm, oaky richness, of  a sort many of his contemporaries, while talented, lacked – if Hummel is a sparkling white, and Mendelssohn tends toward, we might say, a bright, drinkable merlot, Onslow (like Schubert) is closer to a rich shiraz. In my limited lexicon, the closest composer I can think of is, oddly, Dvorak – if we imagine Dvorak pulled half a century back in time, and drained of his distinctive Central European character. A semi-classical French Dvorak, as it were. Grammophone rather insightfully speaks of fundamentally Classical works, bathed in a Romantic glow. When he is inspired, particularly with some beautiful tune in a slow movement, his music would not be out of place alongside great works by Schubert or Beethoven, though nothing I’ve heard so far reaches their heights; when he’s less inspired, he’s still perfectly capable.

Last week, I went to a chamber concert at the Proms, with quartets by Schubert, Sirmen, and Haydn. The Schubert was his first quartet, published when he was 15 and written a year or two before that – it’s a remarkable work for a teenage boy in its sophistication. Sirmen was a female composer (and violinist, and singer) who wrote quartets before Haydn invented them – the one played here was her fifth, the only one in four movements, and it’s an appealing, short work that punctured my accreted “oh, a token ‘rediscovered’ woman composer” cynicism, and that provided an interesting look at what, for better and for worse, the quartet was before Haydn took it over. But I’d rank Onslow’s quintets as better than either. And while the Haydn (the Sunrise) may have been just as interesting, if not more so, than the Onslow, I’d certainly pick the Onslow for listenability (late Haydn, I find, while perfectly pleasant, is often a little cold and hard).

Onslow wrote 34 quintets, to go along with his 36 quartets. Unlike almost all his contemporaries and predecessors (other than Boccherini), Onslow wrote most of his quintets for two cellos, although he also provided adaptations for the more common two-viola ensemble. At a performance of his 10th quintet, however, that he happened to be attending himself, one cellist was missing, and the great Domenico Dragonetti (the man who did more than anyone to popularise the double bass) stepped in to play the part on the double bass; Onslow was so impressed that all his subsequent quintets were published with alternative parts for double bass.

It’s this version that I’ve heard. A group called the Elan Quintet were hired by Naxos to release a complete, 16-CD cycle of the Onslow Quintets, most of which have never before been recorded. At, so far, 1 CD a year (though their own website hasn’t been updated since the 3rd (and latest) came out), it would seem they’ve their career made…

Including the double bass seems like a stroke of genius. The music would be perfectly nice, and indeed perhaps rather more polished, with a second cello instead, but the wonderful timbre of the bass, and the addition it makes to the ensemble’s range, perfectly complements that rich warmth, and also helps to give the five voices room to stand apart, without merging into a block of sound. Compared to the harsher sound of the quartet and the viola quintet, it’s remarkable that more composers haven’t explored the cello, or better yet double bass, quintet.

It helps that Onslow’s music must be a joy to play. In addition to his lush, appealing style, there’s a constant curiosity – rather than settling back into a style or a format, he always seems to be trying something different. The parts cross frequently, and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material is well-shared between the players – rather than, as in some (particularly early) chamber music, ending up as a solo violinist with her accompanists – and if I were a second violin or a violist, I’d be overjoyed to get to play this compared to the meagre roles some composers give them.  His movements are less wild than Beethoven sometimes gets, but they are reliably characterful – now tender, now agitated, now aggressive, now playful – and for the most part very busy (without sounding like notes for note’s sake) and often unexpected, so both listener and performers always have something to entice their attention.

Onslow is not one of the great composers – he’s a solid, capable composer with moments of being very good. But he’s a little more interesting than that makes him sound – he’s willing to take some risks. As a result, although his style is immediately and unambiguously of his age, it’s also very individual – you can instantly pinpoint his rough location in time, but if you don’t know him yet you may struggle to think which specific composer he might be. He’s not just an imitator. That quality, of having an individual voice, is surprisingly rare, and combined with his delightful style for listeners, and engaging style for performers, should make him much better known than he currently is. While his reputation may not be strong enough to anchor major chamber recitals, this is music that would merit its place as a fine supporting act alongside almost any great quartet or quintet.

It’s unlikely that picking up some George Onslow chamber music is going to change anybody’s life. But if you like characterful, accessible, but interesting chamber music of the late classical or early romantic period, then you may be pleasantly surprised!



*Continuing this post’s themes of classical music and delightfulness, I’ve now seen all of Mozart in the Jungle. Like Onslow, it’s not one of the true greats, but I found it a reliable pleasure, both funny and moving, despite some tonal missteps in the first season. It also didn’t rest on its laurels, and did some admirable work introducing new and modern music and the music of forgotten female composers in its later season.

The main thing I’ve been watching, however, is a complete binge-watch of all five series of Alias, which I’ve almost finished…

The Lord’s Prayer in Vestan

From the past to the future. Here’s a translation of the paternoster into 26th-century Vestan:

||:|||::: iee1 ô2vo3 fûzo4 :: in āvan5 see6 ::
io nààm shə̀ bá sāwraaza
bòn uud laig in āvan see :||:
gēv dɛ̀7 plɛ̀i8 gə̄iəd ôvo dáála mīmbo9 |
noo fōgev dɛ̀ plɛ̀i vìr ôvo lêze10 glàin11 ::
laig ɛ̀ fōgev dɛ̄dam see :: díí glàin gààs ɛ̀ see |
noo díín lá ɛ̀ plɛ̀i nó bá là êni nee tíítaajhan |
bɛ́ líver ɛ̀ plɛ̀i fən rûie :||:
aamen :::|||:||

(it seems this font can’t handle diacritics over schwa, sorry about that)

Some notes:

1: Vestan, like all Space English, requires all vocatives to be made explicit with a preposed pronoun; the distinctive, irregular lowering of the vowel in this word is a Vestan trait.

2: Space English is a tonal language (or family of languages, depending on your point of view). The diacritics in this transcription (into contemporary Detroit Letters – Vestan is natively written mostly in its own script with an archaising and idiosyncratic spelling, largely indecipherable to outsiders) indicate tones.

3: Vestan, like other asteroid dialects, strengthens medial /w/ to /v/; this is a major diffeence between these dialects and the non-asteroid forms of Space English, which instead tend to strengthen /w/ to /ɾ/.

4: the first vowel is a prominent example of the asteroid-wide back vowel chain shift. By contrast, the Asaphian translation of this nominal clause reads i̯ii ɔru fozu.

5: an example of Space English’s occasional conservativism – the final nasal here has been lost in many English languages by this time.

6: our first example of one of the most distinctive grammatical features of Space English: the “see-relative”. Early Space English introduced the clause-ending particle see as an auxiliary marker of various subordinate clauses, including relativisation and comparisons of manner. In the former case, it has generally entirely taken over the relativising function – in āvan see translates to “who is in heaven”. However, while this is true within the Solar System, the more conservative and isolated dialect of the world of Valhalla also retains the original pronoun, and hence has iúús in ávan sēē.

7: another unusual feature of Space English is its retention and regularisation of the dative pronouns to mark recipient arguments of certain verbs (even in the absence of themes). Their use is most widespread in Vestan. In the case of the verb “to give”, all Space English regularly uses the dative: hence, for example, Asaphian gēf dɛ̀s and Valhallan gééf das alongside Vestan gēv dɛ̀ (Modern English “give (to) us”). However, in the case of the verb “forgive”, only Vestan uses the dative: Vestan fōgev dɛ̀, but Asaphian fògef ɛ̀s and Valhallan fógeef as.

8: Space English requires all imprecatives to be marked with the imprecative particle; however, the exact placement of this particle varies somewhat between dialects. Vestan tends to place the particle after a pronominal object of the verb if present, but Penuman prefers to place the particle immediately after the verb, and Asaphian allows single-word adverbs to also precede it: hence Vestan gēv dɛ̀ plɛ̀i gə̄iəd, in a way the middle ground between Penuman gēv plɔ̀iz dɛ̀z jhodɔ́i and Asaphian gēf dɛ̀s gɔ́ɔ́biɔt plɜ̀ɜ̀s. Valhallan, meanwhile, is as usual more divergent, and regularly places the imprecative particle at the end of the clause it modifies: gééf das gáájət ąr hāni kɛɛk pilɔɔs.

9: the word mīmbo or its relation is found in all Space English, but the exact meaning differs. In Vestan, it refers both literally to yeastcakes (the staple food) and metaphorically to the requirements of living, or by extension to money; in Valhallan, however, it refers almost entirely to money. In Asaphian, it can refer to money, or to food, but more specifically refers to the universal basic income.

10: as in several other English languages, the plural has been entirely lost from Space English, and wholly replaced by the use of numerical classifiers, along with numerals and adjectives – lêze is the classifier for most abstract nouns.

11: the merger of post-consonantal /l/ and /r/ is one of the shibboleths of Vestan and Vestan-influenced asteroid dialects. Penuman has grain, Valhallan has krain, and Asaphian has graam. However, it should be noted that the historic contrast is not entirely lost, but is partially preserved through consonant quality and tone.


A brief explanation:

Vestan is a prominent dialect of Space English in the 26th century; it has over two million native speakers and a respected body of media content.

Space English is an English language of the Western family – it diverged from West Coast over the course of the 23rd century, and was at first regarded simply as a ‘broken’ vernacular form of the southern variety of West Coast that was developing at more or less the same time and with which Space English has a number of developments in common. It emerged out of a very particular context: among early FTL pioneers exploring and settling the Solar System, West Coast remained the most common lingua franca; but by the 23rd century the dominance of West Coast had faded considerably, and many pioneers spoke it poorly. The Space English that developed consequently emerged from a process of mild pidginisation (though it is msitaken to regard it as a fully-fledged pigeon or creole), in which the number of vowel and consonant qualities was reduced, morphology was dramatically reduced (derivation) or eliminated (inflection) and a large number of loanwords were introduced. Much more use is made of clause-modifying particles, and the language is tonal. None of these features are unique to Space English, but their rapid and simultaneous adoption lead Space English to diverge quickly and to swiftly be recognised as an independent dialect. Since the 23rd century, it has since itself diverged into a number of dialects (or languages, depending on one’s perspective), aided by the generally insular nature of its speaker-communities.

Despite its name, Space English is not really the language of humans in space; the initial faltering steps that created a young and independent culture spread across the solar system were soon wholly overshadowed by the much larger migrations to extrasolar colonies, and the use of the nascent Space English within the early professional spacetraveller community was overwhelmed by the development of the modern space fleet on a dramatically larger scale and a more militaristic footing. Today, the language of the fleet is Fleet, a new mixed language, with some similarities to Space English but no close genetic relation, and no intelligibility, while the colonies speak a range of languages very similar to those they left behind on Earth – above all, Leewefraaka, with which Space English is not mutually intelligible. Space English has survived in only a few, overlooked places: the handful of colonies remaining in the asteroid belt; on Deimos (and to a lesser extent Phobos and Mars); and on the floating sky-world of Valhalla, which was settled directly from early extrasolar colonies, rather than from Earth. Old Venerean English was never widely spoken and is now only of academic interest; Old Lunar, however, has experienced a slight resurgence as a cultural and domestic second language, though it has few or no native speakers.

A defence:

This, you might complain, is clearly rubbish. There’s no way English spoken only a few centuries from now could be so different! But actually, I disagree. Changes aren’t all created equal, and it’s surprising how small changes can have a big effect in a short period of time. In the case of Vestan, I think that the soundchanges up to the 23rd century give a language that’s very recognisable as English, albeit with an unusual accent; but beyond there, I think that the changes suddenly ‘snap’ those bonds of recognition, at least for me. But this has also happened before. Consider, this English from 700 years ago:

Whylom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duk that highte Theseus;
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne
Now, there’s a word or two might give a modern English speaker pause, and we should recognise that our conservative spelling obscures a few differences in pronunciation (‘silent e’ was not yet silent). But by and large, this is very recognisable and very understandable English. Oh, we might say, you see, English hasn’t changed much in 700 years, and won’t change much in another 500!
But now here’s some English from 1,000 years ago:

Swá ðá drihtguman      dréamum lifdon
éadiglice      oð ðæt án ongan
fyrene fremman      féond on helle
wæs se grimma gaést      Grendel háten
maére mearcstapa      sé þe móras héold

Look how English changed in just 300 (or400) years! Some of this of course is the replacement of some of these words by loanwords by the time of Chaucer, and some is the use of poetic images (and hence unexpected words), but even when the words are perfectly alive today, they’re different enough, and the grammar is different enough, that it’s hard to recognise them. And some of the changes are quite simple: even if you just regularise the definite article, introduce the indefinite, standardise the word order and cut off some suffixes, you get something like “a feond on hell,  the grim gaest hat “Grendel” (a fiend of hell, the grim ghast hight [i.e. “was called”] “Grendel”).

The Vestan I propose above may at first glance seem alien, but it’s actually not that remote – less remote, I’d suggest, than the changes in a few short centuries between Old and Middle English.