Lockdown by Chip Le Grand (2022) 234 p.

Plenty of people were surprised to see I was reading this, and were happy to express an opinion on what they’d rather do, usually of the arm-in-a-woodchipper variety. Nobody enjoyed the Melbourne lockdowns, even though most of us thought they were necessary, and whatever your political opinions on the matter at the time the prevailing mood now is that it was a shitty period in our lives which we’re just happy to move on from. I totally understand that sentiment, but on the other hand: it was a hugely unprecedented, intensely strange and (not to be a drama queen about it) deeply traumatic time in Melbourne’s history, and therefore in our lives. It would be kind of weird if we never looked back on it at all. It’s a period which deserves thoughtful reflection, a careful examination of the decisions which were made at all levels of government, and a consideration of what it meant as a collective experience. Unfortunately you won’t find much of that in Chip Le Grand’s Lockdown, a book which presents itself as a piece of serious investigative journalism and occasionally manages to accomplish that, but is for the most cherry-picked, agenda-driven and fundamentally shallow, serving only to arrive at the conclusion Le Grand had clearly already settled on when he was on the editorial board at the Age in 2020 and 2021, let alone by the time he was sending this off to the editors in 2022. That conclusion, more or less, is a vague and insipid notion that we went too hard and too far, an unspoken implication maybe we should’ve been a bit more like Germany and Sweden, without actually having the guts to present the facts on what that would’ve entailed or what it would’ve meant for Australia at large.

Let’s begin with that last part, in fact. It’s fair enough that a book focusing on the uniquely long lockdown experience of Melbourne and Victoria should, well, focus on Melbourne and Victoria: but Le Grand comes as close as possible to ignoring the existence of the rest of Australia, continually implying that the policies Victoria pursued were determined in Spring Street alone. Early on he bemoans the existence of a false “binary proposition: either you supported protracted lockdowns in pursuit of COVID-zero – an epidemiological nirvana where you have no local transmission of the virus – or you supported no public health interventions at all.” Describing COVID-zero as a “nirvana” (the first of many weasel words creeping into a supposedly objective book) implies that it was an impossible heavenly dream, automatically presenting it as an un-serious option. It ignores the fact that at the time that policy (framed as “no community transmission”) was unanimously agreed upon by National Cabinet, in June 2020, Victoria was the only state failing to achieve it. Every other jurisdiction bar New South Wales was already joyously revelling in its fruits, and New South Wales was only experiencing outbreaks – about a dozen or so a day, which they would keep under control with contact tracing and then eliminate by October – because Victoria’s hotel quarantine breaches had spread across the Murray. This is merely the first of many times Le Grand implies that Victoria should have pursued a suppression policy, which would’ve required less aggressive interventions, rather than an elimination policy. If Victoria were an island nation-state in the South Pacific, that would be a perfectly valid point. It is not. It is the second-largest state in the federal Commonwealth of Australia, bound not just by geography but by supply lines; while the other states could close their borders to us for non-essential travel, they could not reasonably do so for freight, and if we’d bucked the trend and gone softly on policy and accepted thousands of cases a day, those other states would not have remained COVID-free for long. (This basic fact was made plain in mid-2021, when the hubris of New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian allowed a Sydney outbreak to spiral out of control and ultimately condemned Victoria to another long, hard winter lockdown.) Nor was it a secret to Victorians in mid-2020 that Australia in general, compared to the outside world, was a COVID-free paradise. In July 2020 I watched a BBC News package about pubs reopening, with capacity limits and ordering from QR codes and social distancing remaining in force, all that general anxiety of “living with” a strange new virus nobody was vaccinated against, a bleak mockery of returning to “normal”; and I also looked at Instagram and Facebook and saw my friends and family in Western Australia (or basically any other part of Australia plus New Zealand) gloriously living life as though it were 2019 again. I knew which outcome I wanted Victoria to strive towards. The decision of the state government to agree to a national de facto COVID-zero policy was not just a matter of patriotic altruism: it was an acknowledgement of the fact that the other states would fiercely defend their COVID-free status, and that if we couldn’t get our own situation in hand we would be cut off from the rest of the country indefinitely. To present that policy decision in isolation (and later in the book Le Grand will, irrelevantly, compare Victoria’s death rates to other nation-states) is either naive or dishonest. This Victorian solipsism feeds into Le Grand’s engagement in the very same Sydney/Melbourne-centric thinking that has long plagued Australia and continued to plague us during the actual plague: as Bernard Keane put it at Crikey, a view that Victoria and New South Wales are the only places that matter and “what happens outside the south-eastern corner of the country is seen as a provincial eccentricity at best.” In describing what it meant to lock down Melbourne, Le Grand presents this deeply weird passage:

Before the pandemic, greater Melbourne had just nudged past five million people and was forecast to overtake Sydney as Australia’s most populous city. Not everyone was comfortable with how fast Melbourne was growing and but it was a measure of the city’s success that so many people wanted to come here: to live, to study, and just to have fun. Where the economy of Western Australia is built on digging stuff out of the ground and selling it overseas, are two largest export industries are education and tourism. Put another way, our primary business is bringing people here, in massive numbers, through temporary migration schemes. At least, it was before the pandemic.

It’s extremely dishonest to stick the word export before the word industries and then claim that tourism and education are Victoria’s “primary business” (neither are – or ever were – anywhere close to it). But never mind the bean counting: it’s just deeply weird and very telling to insert an irrelevant sledge at WA into your explanation of why it was bad for Melbourne to lock down.

WA and its premier Mark McGowan came in for plenty of stick from commentators in Melbourne and Sydney during the whole run of the pandemic, as did Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, for their refusal to open their borders to states suffering COVID outbreaks; strangely, Tasmania and South Australia, which also had strict border rules for much of the crisis, never seemed to cop much flak from the press for preserving not only the lives of their citizens, but also their freedom to attend a packed stadium or sweaty nightclub or a university lecture theatre, and to do so in total safety. Tasmania and SA are both smaller states, so there were fewer sad stories of people being refused entry to see dying families etc; but they also had Liberal governments. Draw your own conclusions. Le Grand, predictably, only has harsh words for McGowan and Palaszczuk. (He also later falsely claims that WA “sealed itself off for nearly two years from the rest of Australia;” in 2021 WA’s borders were only closed to the two states recording cases, not the other three, which is why I watched on social media as my friends and family members went holidaying in the Northern Territory and Queensland; but I shouldn’t really be surprised that someone like Le Grand considers Victoria and New South Wales to comprise “the rest of Australia.”) I personally think it’s extremely poor form to say (or actually imply, because he never has the cojones to outright say it) that Melbourne should have just abandoned elimination and run a European-style mitigation policy, but also that it was selfish and un-Australian for the COVID-free states to protect their own. “Parochial” was a word that got thrown around a lot during the pandemic by people in Sydney and Melbourne. That means “having a limited or narrow outlook or scope,” and that shit runs both ways.

And I know I’ve been harping on about this for a while now, but I think it’s indicative of Le Grand’s unexamined bias that permeates every aspect of the book, and this one really annoyed me: possibly the most irritating demonstration of WA-bashing in the book is Le Grand’s sympathy for the two Melbourne Demons supporters who were jailed in Perth after engineering an elaborate plot to travel to the Northern Territory, change their driver’s licenses, and then enter Western Australia in order to attend the relocated AFL Grand Final; across the book Le Grand cracks the violin out for them no less than three times, noting that “the Demons had not won a premiership for fifty-seven years,” as though anybody gives a fuck, and demonstrating that he not only doesn’t care about the majority of Australians who don’t live in Melbourne or Sydney but also has his finger nowhere near the pulse of general public sentiment: the attitude of Western Australians towards those two was that they were reckless fuckheads, and the attitude of Victorians towards them was that they were entitled fuckheads. But just as you can determine Le Grand’s voting habits from the way he talks about Dan Andrews, you can determine which team he barracks for by his repeated use of this incident (of all things!) as a demonstration that WA had lost the plot. It’s weird and it’s telling.

Anyway, let’s move away from the negative for a moment and focus on one thing Le Grand does well: the third chapter, Woefully Unprepared, in which he actually engages in the kind of good local investigative journalism the Age used to be useful for. This is a chapter which focuses on two of Australia’s biggest objective failings of the pandemic, certainly the two biggest in Victoria: our inferior contact tracing system and our poorly-managed hotel quarantine system, which together were to blame for the second wave that plunged Victoria back into lockdown while the rest of the country spent the rest of the year in that COVID-zero “nirvana,” or something very close to it. Much anger ensued from the comments of then-prime minister Scott Morrison (already deservedly in Australia’s bad books because he more or less relinquished all responsibility to the states and became the invisible man during the pandemic) that New South Wales had a “gold standard” contact tracing system, which stung in part because it was true: over and over again, New South Wales managed to contain and eliminate outbreaks while Victoria fumbled. Why that was so is extremely complicated in the way that only a situation involving the public health bureaucracy can be – and no doubt a firmer answer will emerge in the inquiries and royal commissions to come – but the short answer is that New South Wales simply had a better-funded and decentralised public health system that understood its local communities better and could more easily scale up a department to handle an obscure practice better-known from the (relatively glacial, compared to a respiratory disease) HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s; whereas Victoria’s health department, after decades of cuts and restructuring by governments on both sides of politics, was blindsided. The hotel security guard issue is a bit murkier (and again, Le Grand only contrasts it against New South Wales, ignoring that other states also used contracted private security guards without issues) but appears to boil down to departmental buck passing. It’s clearly a deeply complex story and I don’t necessarily trust Le Grand’s account to be unbiased, since he certainly isn’t elsewhere, but it’s good nonetheless to see him take a solid crack at it. The contact tracing and hotel quarantine failures are arguably the most impactful public policy catastrophes of our lifetimes, and it feels strange that most Victorians probably still don’t know anything about it.

It’s also good, in theory, of Le Grand to focus on the underexamined vulnerable populations. He opens another chapter with an anorexic who suffered severe deterioration during lockdown, and in discussing outbreaks in aged care homes (a major driver of deaths in the 2020 wave and another major failing of both state and federal government) also argues that in attempting to protect “the elderly” at all costs we robbed them of what made life worth living in their final years. This is a fair point on the face of it, but drifts towards the morally gross yet dismayingly prevalent notion that COVID was only ever a danger to 90-year-olds with but a few years left to go at the nursing home anyway. Le Grand doesn’t deign to give a voice to the 60-somethings or the 70-somethings or the 80-somethings who weren’t in nursing homes, which is most of them; the people at high risk of death from COVID who were living full and active lives but wouldn’t have been if the virus had been running as rampant as it was in most other countries: forced to cut themselves off, pre-vaccination, from the rest of society for their own safety. Nor do we hear from the disabled, the immunocompromised, the cancer patients, the organ donor recipients and all the other people who fit into the category of “vulnerable,” who lived otherwise normal lives but – had they been living in a laissez-faire zone like the US or UK – similarly would have had to withdraw from society. Le Grand simply ignores them, preferring to imagine a more convenient world in which the people we were trying to protect didn’t actually want our help at all. This is not to say that the experiences of the young, the anorexic, and the nursing-home-bound are not worth telling: of course they are. But to fail to balance that with the other side (and in terms of numbers, I’m not sure it is a “side”) is dishonest and frankly gross.

Le Grand further puts his thumb on the scale with talk of “protracted lockdowns.” That was something which only became clear in mid-2021, after New South Wales’ fuck-up. The Victorian government was not sat down at the start of the pandemic and informed precisely what the outcome of its policies would be, in terms of days in lockdown vs days of COVID-zero freedom. Hindsight is 20/20, and from our emergence in the spring of 2020 to the onset of Australia’s FedEx-delivered Delta outbreak in May/June 2021, life in this country was pretty fucking sweet. Unlike in Europe (much of which spent the winter in lockdown or semi-lockdown) or North America, you didn’t have to worry about catching the virus; you didn’t have to enter every situation with a personal risk assessment or a consideration about which disabled or elderly friend or relative you might pass it on to because you went to the pub. I missed out on Christmas 2020 with some extended family in Sydney because they live on the Northern Beaches, a neighbourhood which went into lockdown for a few weeks (Australia’s biggest lockdown, during that period) after an outbreak; but since half of Europe was back in hard lockdown at that point it hardly seemed unfair, and by mid-January the good burghers of Narrabeen and Dee Why were back at their gyms and cafes. Australia’s states and territories had gladly coalesced around the notion that – at least for the time being – COVID-zero was worth preserving and a short, sharp lockdown beat a long, protracted one. (I still remember watching BBC Breakfast – at work, not for fun – and seeing the hosts amazed that Melbourne went into lockdown during the Australian Open for just “a single case;” as British journalist Mike Bird who was based in COVID-zero Hong Kong noted, this suggested people still didn’t quite grasp the whole “pandemic” thing.)

This is something which bothers me a lot about the armchair rear-window critics of Australia and New Zealand’s elimination strategy: a consideration only of COVID deaths vs the costs of lockdown, never taking into account the (considerable) time we spent out of lockdown in a society that was by default much freer than anywhere else in the Western world, and the benefits that came from having that. Le Grand spends several pages on the impact of the snap Melbourne lockdown announced before a Sunday Valentine’s Day in Melbourne in 2021, and fair enough, those would’ve been devastating – but would those business operators have preferred to be in London across that timeframe? A better journalist, when posing the question, might have asked them that, or even asked restaurateurs in London (or Berlin or New York or whatever), instead of just airing the grievances of Melbourne hospitality operators who concede that it was necessary to save lives but ignore that (and this applies to a discussion of any aspect of COVID-zero policy) it was never a choice between lockdown and business as usual. If the virus were rampant, it doesn’t matter if a bar or restaurant or nightclub were allowed to open: you would not be seeing the same patronage you did in 2019. Le Grand himself cites movement data tracked by Jack Thompson at the University of Melbourne, showing that immediately after snap lockdowns it took quite some time for life to return to the city as it had been before. Le Grand presents this as a criticism of the COVID-zero policy rather than a demonstration that people were scared of the virus. What, I wonder, would that movement data have looked like if Victoria were recording hundreds or thousands of cases a day like the rest of the world, in a country where very few people had yet had the opportunity to get vaccinated? I know I certainly wouldn’t have been doing much. As it stands, instead, I spent that summer and spring at beer festivals and movie theatres and restaurants and a very rewarding in-person internship, secure in the knowledge that there was no COVID anywhere near me. It’s perfectly fair to examine the costs of extended lockdowns and ask whether it was a worthwhile transaction; but to consider “lives saved” as your only metric in the positive column, with no consideration of the other benefits, is simply dishonest.

Lockdown contains some good examinations of the failures of the Victorian public service and the Victorian government, and it’s not exactly a polemic; but it’s certainly a book littered with inaccuracies, blind spots, an anti-Labor bias that keeps appearing like rising damp, and a tiresomely predictable failure to consider that the rest of the country exists and matters beyond New South Wales and maybe Queensland. Most annoyingly of all, it increasingly feels like its conclusions were reverse-engineered; a pre-determined outcome informed by the personal opinions Le Grand formed during the lockdowns rather than any of the investigations and interviews he conducted while writing it. There will be better books by better journalists to come about the unique and bizarre experience Victorians endured – but this one, I think, is ultimately destined for the bargain bin and the pulping machine.

The Hundred Days by Patrick O’Brian (1998) 281 p.

The Hundred Days is a good book, just like every Aubrey-Maturin book is a good book, but it has two gigantic elephants in the room I want to discuss and I cannot do that without spoilering the entire series. My opinion on the novel itself its that it’s another chapter in the brilliant, excellent, genius etc long-running metanovel that is the Aubrey-Maturin series. There you go, done and dusted. If you haven’t already read The Hundred Days then stop reading now.

So: at this point O’Brian was steadily cranking Aubrey-Maturin novels out at about one every year or two, and had only just relinquished what he called his “1812b” – a permanent frozen timescape that allowed his characters to sail around the world on adventures, their children growing older, their careers and relationships progressing, while the Napoleonic wars themselves remained frozen in amber. (O’Brian later said that had he know to begin with that Master and Commander would spark such a voluminous series, he would’ve started it far earlier than 1800.)

The Yellow Admiral ended with Napoleon’s escape from Elba; The Hundred Days ends with his final defeat at Waterloo, and with it, the end of the Napoleonic wars entirely. It’s a decision which suggests O’Brian either felt it was time to begin wrapping the series up, or felt he could no longer plausibly draw out that period. Thomas Cochrane – the real-life captain who served as the inspiration for Aubrey – spent his career after the war leading the Chilean colonial navy in its rebellion against the Spanish, and O’Brian has for several books now laid the groundwork for his fictional hero to continue following Cochrane’s path.

This makes one wonder whether O’Brian intended to write another five or ten or twenty books in that vein, or whether he might only write a few more before concluding the series. In actual fact he passed away in 2000, so there’s only one and a half books remaining – Blue at the Mizzen and The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey, published posthumously in 2004 and which I understand effectively ends mid-paragraph. It makes for an odd reading experience, to have the novel end with a triumphant victory and conclusion to the wars which have marked the series’ entire backdrop, with a relatively short way to go until the end of the series itself.

But the really odd part about The Hundred Days – one which will come as a shock to every faithful reader of the series – is the two deaths, and the sudden and rather unnecessary nature of them. Both are quite different, in their inherent nature and in their execution.

Diana’s is relayed to us second-hand, by chatty observers watching the Surprise come into harbour in the opening chapter; by the time we see Stephen and Jack it is clear they have learned of it off-screen. There is some perfunctory third-hand reference to it, but Maturin’s internal thoughts allude to his wife’s untimely demise perhaps only three or four times across the course of the novel. I found this bafflingly – almost callously – surprising, since O’Brian expertly detailed Stephen’s heartbreak in previous books merely from losing Diana to another man. It makes more sense when you understand that O’Brian’s own wife died while he was writing the manuscript, but even so, it felt fundamentally wrong in a way that nothing in the series has thus far.

Bonden’s death – which comes in a relatively minor action in the last 15 pages – is equally shocking and sudden. Obviously this is different from Diana’s because he is a sailor on a man o’ war, a soldier of sorts, and unexpected death is part of his profession. But I don’t recall O’Brian ever before killing off a major character due to the vagaries of war excepting those who had been introduced in the very same book. So Bonden’s death also feels like a reaction to the passing of O’Brian’s wife playing out on the page; had he instead desired to drive home some of the reality of war, confining it solely to Bonden seems an odd choice, especially this late in the game. (Though I suppose there’s something poetical about having him die in what might possibly be the very final hostile action of a decades-long war.)

The Aubrey-Maturin series is so marvellously written, so incredibly well-realised, that it often doesn’t feel like fiction at all. Even when Jack’s career is stymied by coincidence and he’s conveniently kept away from a promotion that would land him at a desk; even when the stars always align and our heroes are saved by last-minute turns of fortune; even as the books steadily become historical romance rather than historical fiction; even through all that, they never feel fictional, if you get what I mean. I never felt like I could see the cogs turning. But the deaths in The Hundred Days are the first time I felt – really, properly felt – that I was reading fiction written by a human being who was making specific narrative decisions. That’s not to criticise those decisions: even aside from being a grieving widower, O’Brian long since earned the right to do whatever he pleased with his characters and with his series. But it’s still an unavoidably odd aspect of reading The Hundred Days.

The other odd aspect is knowing that there are only one-and-a-half books to go, even as we set sail for a new phase of life in South America. That’s even less of a criticism – obviously O’Brian couldn’t predict his own passing – but viewed in totality, it would seem a more fitting ending for the series to conclude when the Napoleonic wars did. (It goes without saying, of course, that if O’Brian had lived to 2010 and written another ten books about Jack and Stephen in Chile I would’ve happily read every one of them.)

Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds (2021) 465 p.

Mild spoilers for the original Revelation Space trilogy from here onwards

I only finished reading the Revelation Space trilogy last year, and found Absolution Gap to be a disappointing conclusion in which Reynolds failed to grasp precisely what made the series so interesting in the first place. After spending three novels (if you include Chasm City) and a raft of short stories creating a fascinatingly bleak and frightening universe – a world of extinct alien civilisations and authoritarian governments and terrifying technological plagues and, ultimately, the accidental provocation of dormant galaxy-spanning machinery which quite efficiently dedicates itself to exterminating humanity – Reynolds appeared to get distracted. Absolution Gap, while it had many good points and is not what I would call a bad book, skimmed over what readers might want to see in a concluding novel about an interstellar apocalypse in favour of a story about a planet of mobile cathedrals and characters nobody cared about.

That was 2003. Reynolds went on to hone his writing skill, to publish many other rightfully acclaimed novels – particularly Pushing Ice and House of Suns – and who are we to say, at the height of his career, that an author should not revisit the series that first made his name? Perhaps he felt unsatisfied with Absolution Gap. Perhaps he felt a missed opportunity; perhaps he wanted to examine what that centuries-long slow motion extinction at the hands of the Inhibitors was like for people other than the characters at the centre of Absolution Gap’s very tight focus. These are reasonable conclusions you might draw from the blurb and the title of the aptly named Inhibitor Phase, and I for one was more than willing to read a do-over after Absolution Gap focused on dull characters in unimportant places which ignored the more interesting aspects of the plot, and culminated in a cheap deus ex machina ending.

Inhibitor Phase – to an almost unbelievable degree – focuses on dull characters in unimportant places, ignores the more interesting aspects of the plot, and culminates in a cheap deus ex machina ending. Worst of all, it’s mostly the same characters, the same places, and the same deus ex machina ending.

Strong spoilers for Inhibitor Phase from here onwards

The novel begins strongly, with our protagonist Miguel de Ruyter in a spacecraft en route to destroy a vessel which has entered the system he calls home. Sun Hollow is an underground settlement of about five thousand souls on a planet with a highly active star, founded by refugees desperate to find a place they could escape the attentions of the Inhibitors; it isn’t specified precisely when in the timeline this novel occurs, but it’s clear the lights have gone out across human-settled space. De Ruyter plans to destroy the incoming vessel lest it alert the Inhibitors to human activity in the system; a ruthless but necessary action. So far, so good – this stacks up with what I expect from humanity’s Inhibitor phase, and all the better when the vessel has a single survivor who turns out to be far more technologically advanced than the post-apocalyptic denizens of Sun Hollow, and uses that power to abduct de Ruyter on a mission to save the world.

Things fall apart when they go to Yellowstone. One of my disappointments with Absolution Gap was that it skimmed over the grand destruction of the centre of human civilisation; it’s interesting to see Reynolds revisit the world and observe it as a dead husk, but less interesting when we go on a diversion to the depths of Chasm City to revisit the criminal underworld which – more than fifty years after the Inhibitors laid waste to the entire system – appears to be getting along just fine. This is jarring, to say the least, and undercuts the sense of predation built up in the first segment in Sun Hollow; in fact it reminded me of the moment in the novel Jurassic Park (wisely absent from the film) when, after it’s been drilled into the reader how terrifyingly dangerous the velociraptors are, the main characters slide down into their breeding nest without a care in the world. And aside from being misaligned on in-universe terms, it also just feels tedious. Really? This again? We’ve been there, done that, and a crime boss in the slums of Chasm City is not remotely as interesting as the Inhibitors.

This feeling of treading old ground is unfortunately reinforced by the characters: Miguel de Ruyter turns out to be Nevil Clavain’s long-lost brother. A hyperpig encountered in Yellowstone turns out to be Scorpio. The woman they encounter at the same time turns out to be, by a different name, one of the protagonists of Absolution Gap whose name I’ve forgotten. Characters have never been Reynolds’ strong suit, but the fact he chose to return to this well (after two decades!) suggests that he thinks they are. Particularly annoying is the way the characters elevate Scorpio to an almost Christ-like figure. I read the original trilogy last year, not in the early 2000s when it was first published, and even I can’t recall precisely what he did to deserve that.

Inhibitor Phase, like Absolution Gap before it, is not a bad book. It has some dull stretches and the dialogue and repetition got on my nerves sometimes, but it’s pretty readable and has some good setpieces. But it’s a deeply frustrating missed opportunity – all the more so because it’s a follow-up, eighteen years later, to a book which was also a deeply frustrating missed opportunity.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett (2000) 448 p.

Off-screen between the twenty-third and twenty-fourth Discworld books – Carpe Jugulum and The Fifth Elephant – the clacks system appears, a type of semaphore telegraph system which revolutionises communication. While The Fifth Elephant is a City Watch book which only touches on the clacks system inasmuch as it’s relevant to the plot, it was clearly an idea which interested Pratchett, because it kicks off what might loosely be called the Discworld’s “industrial revolution” phase, in which an increasingly modern Ankh-Morpork is dragged further out of its fantasy origins and into something resembling a modern city. In the coming books we’ll see the introduction of a post office, fiat currency and even the development of steam trains, but The Truth introduces the Discworld’s first newspaper – and unlike the clacks, the entire plot revolves around it.

(It’s true also that Pratchett played with this in the past, but everything would typically go back to normal after e.g. the moving picture industry or nascent rock and roll movement turned out to involve horrible creatures from another dimension. He acknowledges as much in The Truth with the Patrician saying at one point: “I think I might just be persuaded, against all experience, that we have here a little endeavour that might just be pursued without filling my streets with inconvenient occult rubbish.”)

William de Worde is the black sheep of a wealthy family, a young man scraping out a living for himself by sending duplicate “news letters” about the goings-on in Ankh-Morpork each month to various other rulers across the world. When he runs into a group of immigrant dwarfs (or rather, when the runaway wagon containing their printing press runs into him – “stop the press!”) one thing leads to another and they end up mass producing that same news letter on a daily basis. Given the Ankh-Morpork citizenry’s insatiable appetite for rumour, gossip and the smug feeling of seeing their own names in print, this soon becomes an overnight success and a proper newspaper.

The first act of The Truth, as de Worde and his new associates learn on the job and effectively invent the profession of journalism, is a very enjoyable and oddly satisfying little story of its own. Pratchett was a journalist for some fifteen years and is clearly writing about a subject he knows very well: the strange little career which involves simply going and talking to people and writing down what they say. He’s naturally well aware of the quirks around the trade and touches on all of them: the relentless drive to publish something important which nonetheless ends up in the bin the next day, the automatic assumption of Ankh-Morporkers that something “must be true” if it’s in the paper, and the fact that while a free and independent press is indisputably an important thing for a society to have, most people don’t actually appreciate that and aren’t demonstrably interested in de Worde’s more serious stories. There’s a saying in journalism that “what the public is interested in is not always in the public interest,” an injunction meant to warn reporters against e.g. publishing the private affairs of celebrities without a good reason. The flipside, as many characters comment throughout The Truth, is that what’s in the public interest is not always (or even often) what the public is interested in. I’ve worked in a news-adjacent job for over a decade and it’s impossible, after watching thousands of vox pops, not to become disillusioned with the average intelligence and engagement level of one’s fellow citizens.

“That’s what they say,” said the man, tapping his nose. “But there’s a lot we don’t get told.”
“That’s true,” said William.
“I heard only the other day that giant rocks hundreds of miles across crash into the country every week, but the Patrician hushes it up.”
“There you are, then,” said the man. “It’s amazing the way they treat us as if we’re stupid.”
“Yes, it’s a puzzle to me, too,” said William.

The novel isn’t quite so smooth as it transitions into its broader plot. By my count this is at least the fourth attempt by Ankh-Morpork’s powerful elite to remove Lord Vetinari from power, this time by use of a doppleganger to frame him for embezzlement. This part is clearly inspired by Watergate, from the “Committee to Un-Elect the Patrician” to de Worde’s secret meetings in a multi-storey horse stable with a shadowy unseen informant (Gaspode the talking dog) to the noble and empowering story of a newspaper being used to right great wrongs as in All The President’s Men: a story of journalism at its finest as a force for public good. The awkward bit where that doesn’t quite match up, of course, is that the journalists at the Washington Post uncovered wrongdoing by the head of state; whereas de Worde is uncovering wrongdoing by a shadowy cabal in order to reinstate Vetinari as the city’s benevolent dictator. It would perhaps have been more interesting if the plucky journalists of Ankh-Morpork’s newly established fourth estate were holding power accountable in a more direct way, but that would have started pulling the thread of Vetinari’s presence in the series in a way which Pratchett was possibly wise not to attempt. I don’t think Pratchett would actually have professed in real life to believing benevolent dictatorship is the best form of government*; it’s just the corner he’s painted himself into across twenty-five Discworld books, which unfortunately means that when writing a satire of the newspaper industry and Watergate he has to make certain concessions. The villains we get instead are the usual cabal of Ankh-Morpork’s rich and powerful, unsatisfied with the way Vetinari has modernised the city and particularly unhappy with its growing multiculturalism; echoed in turn by the kind of vaguely bigoted man-on-the-street de Worde shares a lodging house with. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, and Pratchett is as good at skewering that kind of narrow-minded racism as ever; it’s just that we’ve seen it done before and it’s not necessarily the most interesting tack for a Discworld book about journalism to take.

(*Fans have often speculated that Moist von Lipwig, who’ll be introduced in Going Postal as a con-man-turned-bureaucrat exploited by the Patrician into reforming Ankh-Morpork’s public institutions, was being groomed by Vetinari as a potential successor; one has to wonder whether, if Pratchett hadn’t been taken from us too young, the “industrial revolution” phase of the series might have culminated in a book introducing democracy and election campaigns.)

There’s still a lot to like about The Truth overall. I remember thinking when I first read it that it was odd it’s almost but not quite a City Watch book, with Vimes and other familiar characters featuring heavily – but on re-reading it I think this works quite well, as we see Vimes through de Worde’s eyes, coloured by the natural friction and distrust between a journalist and a copper. The conversations between de Worde and Vimes all work quite well – Pratchett realises, even if the characters themselves don’t, that the two careers are actually quite similar: they’re both about determining what’s happened and producing a statement of facts. I also enjoyed Mr Tulip and Mr Pin, the oddball bagmen employed by the cabal to deal with the Patrician; the introduction of ‘Piss’ Harry, the entrepreneur grown rich on dealing with Ankh-Morpork’s sewage and rubbish; Otto, the Times‘ vampire photographer who feels like a throwback to Pratchett’s screwball characters in the best kind of way; and the novel’s resolution to the cabal plotline, which is in some ways quite surprising and probably wouldn’t have been the same if it were a City Watch novel.

On the whole The Truth is a pretty solid book – not the strongest in the Discworld’s twenties, but not the weakest either. It’s probably alone in the second half of the series in that it wouldn’t actually make for a bad entry point to the series: it’s not part of any existing arc and begins another phase of transition for Ankh-Morpork and the Discworld as a whole. Next up is a Death/Susan novel, Thief of Time.

Long Voyage Back by Luke Rhinehart (1983) 495 p.

A 1980s apocalyptic thriller of nuclear war survival, Long Voyage Back makes a good companion piece to David Graham’s Down to a Sunless Sea. Both novels – which are very much of the drug store paperback genre – follow a group of survivors in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war who find themselves in a more fortunate starting position than the average joe: Graham’s characters aboard a jumbo jet flying between New York and London, and Rhinehart’s aboard a well-equipped trimaran. This stroke of good luck might at first appear to be the solution to all their problems, and indeed they’re far better off than 99% of Americans; but, of course, their ordeal is only just beginning.

Long Voyage Back‘s protagonist is Neil Loken, a former US Navy officer who now skippers the trimaran Vagabond for an investment banker named Frank Spoor, and has just sailed it up from Florida with Frank’s son Jim for a weekend of sailing in Chesapeake Bay with some family friends. When the war breaks out – the first sign of which is the nuclear obliteration of Washington D.C. just to their north – Neil’s first instinct is to get them out to sea, away from the radioactive dust raining down on the land and the desperate refugees beginning to flock to the seaside towns and harbours, and merely escaping the bay takes up the first quarter of the novel. From there the story develops into a long voyage to reach some safe haven further south, contending with fallout, limited food, conscription orders from the rump of the US military, and power struggles within their own group. Down to a Sunless Sea has an obvious immediacy to its survival situation – a Boeing 747 needs a runway within a matter of hours – but Long Voyage Back is telling a story about the weeks and months that follow the initial war, as the last remnants of landborne civilisation continue to crumble.

Rhinehart manages all this pretty well. He has absolutely no illusions about how the nation-states of Latin America and the Caribbean would react to a flood of refugees pouring out of the nuclear-stricken United States, nor about the kind of situation they themselves would be in: simply surviving the war itself does not mean life in the Global South will blissfully roll on unimpeded when the global economy collapses overnight. When Vagabond docks for a time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, there’s an hallucinatory end-of-days atmosphere among the locals; part drug-induced carnival, part purgatory of fear and violence. (It’s also explicitly said that the entire Caribbean – majority black with a population of wealthier native whites joined by the kind of white Americans who owned private boats – is simmering on the brink of a race war; this probably could’ve been handled with a little more sensitively than Rhinehart writes it, but it’s hard to deny that’s probably how things would go down once the food started running out.) As Vagabond continues to sail further south in an increasingly fruitless search for a place where her crew of American refugees might be welcome, it becomes more and more clear that what might seem like an idle prepper fantasy (“if you had a boat and knew how to sail it, you’d be set”) would by no means be a clear ticket to long-term survival.

Long Voyage Back certainly has its flaws. Rhinehart occasionally leans too far into his own sailing knowledge, leaving the unfamiliar reader all at sea; he’s also not particularly good at writing the sort of run-and-gun action scenes which become more common in the novel’s second half. It also has the typical sort of thin characterisation, clunky dialogue and sexism that you’d expect from pop fiction of the 1980s – though less so, it should be said, than many of its contemporaries. But on the whole I really enjoyed it. It’s rare to see an American novel about nuclear war which spares much thought for what might happen to other countries, and Long Voyage Back mixes that with a solid, page-turning adventure of survival.

The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O’Brian (1996) 262 p.

More than any of the series’ installments in quite some time, The Yellow Admiral beaches us back in in England. Jack is no longer a commodore, that having been a temporary rank, and while awaiting a fresh assignment he’s cooling his heels at his inherited family estate at Woolcombe. Stephen’s family soon joins his own, along with a number of other secondary characters the series has accumulated at this point, giving the opening chapters a rather festive feeling.

This return to terrestrial life is also a reminder of how well-versed O’Brian was with virtually every aspect of the early 19th century, not just the nautical arena. For example, a hot button issue in the village is that several landowners are pushing to enclose the commons – something Jack, whose say as lord of the manor counts for a great deal, is entirely opposed to. He and Stephen go hunting one morning, in one of those lovely little set-pieces O’Brian writes so well – a combination of the sensory experience of a vanished time and place with erudite, wide-ranging conversation – and Jack explains the issue in bits and pieces across the course of their walk. I had a vague idea of what a “commons” was in England, and knew that their “enclosure” was a big deal in the 19th century; but I couldn’t have told you precisely what that meant. I can say I learned more about the issue from Jack and Stephen’s conversation than I ever did elsewhere, and quite an interesting one it is too, being such a clear demonstration of the victory of capitalism over the working class (not that Jack would ever phrase it or even perceive it as such):

They talked about preserving game, poaching, keepers, and deer for half a mile, and then, when another lane branched off, winding through deep furze on either side, they followed it and so reached a white line of post and rail. Jack said, “This is the limit of the common. Beyond the fence our south pasture begins, demesne land. You have only seen a small corner of Simmon’s Lea – another day I hope to show you the mere and beyond – but it gives you an idea…”
“A wonderfully pleasant idea, a delightful landscape indeed; and in the autumn, the late autumn, you will have all the northern duck down here, to say nothing of waders, and with any luck some geese.”
“Certainly, and perhaps some whooper swans. But I really meant an idea of what these unhappy commoners are signing away. You may say they do not value the beauty…”
“I say nothing of the kind: would scorn it.”
“But they do value the grazing, the fuel, the litter for their beasts, the thatch and the hundred little things the common can provide: to say nothing of the fish, particularly eels, the rabbits, the odd hare and a few of Griffiths’ pheasants. Harding does not see them, so long as it is villagers, and on a decent scale.”
“Jack,” said Stephen, “I have been contemplating on your words about the nature of the majority, your strangely violent, radical, and even – forgive me – democratic words, which, with their treasonable implication of ‘one man, one vote’, might be interpreted as an attack on the sacred rights of property; and I should like to know how you reconcile them with your support of a Tory ministry in the House.”
“Oh, as for that,” said Jack, “I have no difficulty at all. It is entirely a matter of scale and circumstance. Everyone knows that on a large scale democracy is pernicious nonsense – a country or even a county cannot be run by a self-seeking parcel of tub-thumping politicians working on popular emotion, rousing the mob. Even at Brooks’s, which is a hotbed of democracy, the place is in fact run by the managers and those that don’t like it may either do the other thing or join Boodle’s; while as for a man-of-war, it is either an autocracy or it is nothing, nothing at all – mere nonsense. You saw what happened to the poor French navy at the beginning of the Revolutionary War…”
“Dear Jack, I do not suppose literal democracy in a ship of the line nor even in a little small row-boat. I know too much of the sea,” added Stephen, not without complacency.
“…while at the other end of the scale, although ‘one man, one vote’ certainly smells of brimstone and the gallows, everyone has always accepted it in a jury trying a man for his life. An inclosure belongs to this scale: it too decides men’s lives. I had not realized how thoroughly it does so until I came back from sea and found that Griffiths and some of his friends had persuaded my father to join with them in inclosing Woolcombe Common: he was desperate for money at the time. Woolcombe was never so glorious a place as Simmon’s Lea, but I like it very well – surprising numbers of partridge and woodcock in the season – and when I saw it all cleared, flattened, drained, fenced and exploited to the last half-bushel of wheat, with many of the small encroachments ploughed up and the cottages destroyed, and the remaining commoners, with half of their living and all their joy quite gone, reduced to anxious cap-in-hand casual labourers, it hurt my heart, Stephen, I do assure you. I was brought up rough when I was a little chap, after my mother’s death, sometimes at the village school, sometimes running wild; and I knew these men intimately as boys, and now to see them at the mercy of landlords, farmers, and God help us parish officers for poor relief, hurts me so that I can scarcely bring myself to go there again. And I am determined the same thing shall not happen to Simmon’s Lea, if ever I can prevent it.”

The neatly sketched outline of the conflict here, and Jack and Stephen’s encounter with another landowner who wants the commons enclosed and is also, unfortunately, a well-connected man in the Admiralty, would in many other novels be the groundwork for the overarching plot; but I thought to myself “I bet he wraps this up within a hundred pages” and in the event it was actually done and dusted by page 75, with the committee hearing itself occurring off-screen, all in that marvellously understated O’Brian way – and with enough time left over for Bonden to get himself into a prize-fight, another glimpse of a vanished 19th century custom.

When Jack and Stephen do return to sea it’s on blockade duty outside Brest, but what sets The Yellow Admiral apart from what I think must actually end up being the majority of the series is this: normal time has finally returned. Real world events are occurring; the pages of the calendar are turning once again; the Duke of Wellington has actually pushed Napoleon out of Spain. For time immemorial (certainly across countless years of my own life, since I only read a few of these a year) the series has been permanently suspended in a vague 1812 or 1813. Careers have progressed, children have aged, relationships have developed, and yet the war in Europe which is at least nominally the cause of all these seafaring adventures has been frozen in amber. But now the clock has begun ticking once again, and while this largely impacts Jack and the Navy by resulting in peace, it nonetheless lends a deeper gravity to the story, even as they languish on blockade duty; makes it feel somehow more real again than the fantasy bubble timeline O’Brian has indulged in for so many years. Indeed, for Jack, the outbreak of peace is in fact alarming and unwelcome for his own career prospects; he is likely to be permanently stranded on the post-captain’s list, never selected for promotion to blue admiral but instead “earning” the informal term of shame which is the book’s title.

“War of course is a bad thing,” he went on. “But it is our way of life – has been these twenty years and more – and for most of us it is our only hope of a ship, let alone of promotion: and I well remember how my heart sank in the year two, the year of the peace of Amiens. But let me offer this reflection by way of comfort: in the year two my spirits were so low that if I could have afforded a piece of rope I should have hanged myself. Well, as everyone knows that peace did not last, and in the year four I was made post, jobbing captain of Lively, and a lively time we had of it too. I throw this out, because if one peace with an untrustworthy enemy can be broke, another peace with the same fellow can be broke too; and our country will certainly need defending, above all by sea. So” – filling his glass again – “let us drink to the paying-off, and may it be a peaceful, orderly and cheerful occasion, followed by a short, I repeat very short run ashore.”

The final act of The Yellow Admiral is greatly concerned with Stephen’s arrangement for Jack to serve, with the Admiralty’s blessing, in a formal-but-informal role commanding the navy of a newly independent Chile, with the help of contacts he made during their South American sojourn in The Wine-Dark Sea. Jack is uneasy about the arrangement, involving as it does his temporary suspension from the post-captain’s list, but warms to it; and indeed as they set sail for the south he even decides to bring his family, who have never been abroad, as far as Madeira. The last chapter of The Yellow Admiral is a rather lovely picture of Jack’s family gaining an insight into the pleasures of the ocean which has kept him away from them for so much of their lives:

In fact his father, knowing that George was afflicted neither with giddiness nor seasickness, took him up shortly after; up, if not to the very head of the mast itself then at least to the topmast crosstrees, going by way of the maintop and placing his feet from below: from this height, the day being fine and clear, George could see for about fifteen miles, a vast expanse of glittering sea to larboard, with some shipping, and the English coast stretching away and away to starboard. “If you look aft you will see the Wight,” said Jack, moving about with the ease of a spider – an enormous spider, truly, but benevolent. George’s look of ecstasy touched his heart: and presently he said, “Some people don’t quite like being up here, just at first.”
“Oh sir,” cried George, “I don’t mind it: and if I may I shall go right up to the very top.”
“God love you,” said Jack laughing. “You shall quite soon, but not until you are perfectly at home up to the crosstrees. There is St Alban’s Head, and Lulworth beyond. We are making about eight knots and steering south-south-west, so about dinner-time you may see Alderney and perhaps the tip of Cape La Hague in France.”
George laughed with joy, and repeated, “Cape La Hague, in France.” When at last he could be prised off the crosstrees and so down through the maintop and by way of the ladder-like shrouds, he slid the last few feet to the deck by the topmast breast-backstay like his father. Dusting his hands he looked up at Jack with a glowing face and said, “Oh sir, I shall be a sailor too. There is no better life.”

That evening hands sang and danced upon the forecastle until the watch was set, ending a day that might have been designed to steal a boy’s heart away. George had been twice to the maintop crosstrees with Bonden; and the only thing wanting for perfection was a whale. Yet an island stretching broad this side of the horizon next morning was a reasonable compensation for a whale: an island with tall mountains in the middle, tipped with snow, although down here it was shirt-sleeves weather, even at breakfast. On the larboard quarter there was another island, perhaps fifteen miles away, and on the bow some others, long rocky thin affairs that the hands told them were the Desertas. Yet though the name had its charm, they had eyes for nothing but Madeira itself, which came nearer and nearer, the coast, often sheer cliff, moved steadily from left to right…

Funchal harbour was opening, a bay full of shipping with a small fort on an island rock, and then the town sweeping up behind it, white-washed houses one above another to a great height, with palm-trees bursting green among them, then vineyards and fields of sugar-cane rising higher still, and mountains beyond them. Stephen came and stood on the forecastle too – the women were busy packing below in their usual rather disappointing way – and with his glass he showed the children not only oranges and lemons, but also quantities of bananas among the sugar-canes, and the inhabitants of the island, dressed in the Madeiran manner, wonderfully strange and gratifying to an untravelled eye.

It’s a lovely chapter, and their arrival in Funchal is worthy of Bach’s prelude; after eighteen books of war, it’s a moment evocative of the new peace.

Then at breakfast one morning, overlooking the harbour, Jack observes a xebec sail in at full tilt. A young lieutenant dashes up to his residence and delivers a letter. Someone more familiar with the precise chronology of the Napoleonic wars might not have been as surprised as me by the sentence in the dispatch, but I was as shocked as Jack himself would’ve been: “Napoleon escaped from Elba the day before yesterday.” Of course I knew that would happen eventually, but didn’t expect it quite so soon; and while for Jack it’s largely important in that it makes him a commodore once more, ordered to take command of every British ship in Madeira and sail to Gibraltar to blockade the Mediterranean, for me the thrill comes from the fact that our main characters are once again playing a key role in a history which is finally back in motion. It’s one of the series’ few true cliffhangers, but also one of its very best endings – and it only works so well precisely because of the peaceful nature of the chapter it concludes, and the fact that O’Brian lifted the needle from the record of history for so much of the series in the first place. Bring on The Hundred Days.

The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell (1978) 681 p.

Singapore in the early 1940s was the linchpin – almost literally – of Britain’s presence in the East Asia. Their entire strategy of naval superiority revolved around it, and its shockingly quick capitulation to the Japanese just a couple of months after Pearl Harbour was the most devastating blow to the British since Dunkirk – making it the perfect setting for the final volume of J.G. Farrell’s excellent Empire trilogy, three loosely collected novels about the collapse of the British Empire.

The Singapore Grip largely revolves around the Blackett family, a British dynasty controlling one half of the rubber firm Blackett & Webb, and led by the bull-headed capitalist Walter Blackett; when his geriatric partner Webb dies, Webb’s idealistic son Matthew leaves his post at the League of Nations and comes out to Singapore to witness colonialism first-hand. Another character who returns like an old friend is Major Brendan Archer, the protagonist of Troubles, who is spending his retirement years residing on the grounds of Webb’s estate with, as in Troubles, an “air of rather gloomy integrity.” Along with this core cast of characters are glimpses into the minds of real-life figures pivotal in the loss of Singapore to the Japanese, particularly Governor Shenton Thomas and General Arthur Percival. What these characters all have in common – from the stiff upper lip Tories like Walter to the more vaguely progressive and somewhat anti-imperialist Matthew – is a dismissive view of the potential of Japanese aggression and a rock-solid belief in the solidity of Singapore and the British Empire, no different to the bullish naivete of the cast of Troubles in the face of IRA success, or the cast of The Siege of Krishnapur in the face of a mass sepoy revolt. Pearl Harbour may have been obliterated and the Japanese Army marching on Malaya, but the Singapore of the Blacketts in the early 1940s is still a world of garden parties, tennis matches, and their preparations for a grand parade to celebrate the firm’s fiftieth anniversary:

“We need to show Singapore in her relationship with the other trading centres of the Far East, holding them in a fair grip. It’d deuced hard to think of anything suitable, I can tell you! All we’ve managed to think of so far is to have Singapore at the centre of the float as a sort of beneficial octopus with its tentacles in a friendly way encircling the necks of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bombay, Rangoon, Saigon and Batavia. Of course, the snag is that the octopus does not have a very good reputation…”

They end up going ahead with the octopus anyway, for a parade which in the event never materialises. It’s not often that Farrell strays from this sort of comedic haplessness, but when he does, he’s as damn good a writer as Britain ever produced, as in this excellent passage which brings the second act to a conclusion:

When the bombs fall, as they will in a few moments, it will not be on the soldiers in their tents or barracks, who might in some measure be prepared to consider them as part of their duties, nor even on black-dreaming Walter whose tremendous commercial struggles over the past decade have at least played some tiny part in building up the pressures whose sudden bursting-out is to be symbolized by a few tons of high explosive released over a sleeping city, but on Chinatown where a few luckless families or individuals, floated this way by fate across the South China Sea, sucked in by the vortex of British capital invested in Malaya, are now to be eclipsed.

The starlight glints on the silver wings of the Japanese bombers, slipping through the clear skies like fish through a sluice-gate. They make their way in over Changi Point towards the neatly arranged beads and necklaces of streetlights, which agitated and recently awakened authorities are at last and in vain trying to have extinguished. In a dark space between two necklaces of light lies a tenement divided into tiny cubicles, each of which contains a number of huddled figures sleeping on the floor. Many of the cubicles possess neither window nor water supply (it will take high explosive, in the end, to loosen the grip of tuberculosis and malaria on them). In one cubicle, not much bigger than a large wardrobe, an elderly Chinese wharf-coolie lies awake beside a window covered with wirenetting. Beside him, close to his head, is the shrine for the worship of his ancestors with bunches of red and white candles strung together by their wicks. It was here beside him that his wife died and sometimes, in the early hours, she returns to be with him for a little while. But tonight she has not come and so, presently, he slips out of his cubicle and down the stairs, stepping over sleeping forms, to visit the privy outside. As he returns, stepping into the looming shadow of the tenement, there is a white flash and the darkness drains like a liquid out of everything he can see. The building seems to hang over him for a moment and then slowly dissolves, engulfing him. Later, when official estimates are made of this first raid on Singapore (sixty-one killed, one hundred and thirty-three injured), there will be no mention of this old man for the simple reason that he, in common with so many others, has left no trace of ever having existed either in this part of the world or in any other.

One of the reasons I think The Siege of Krishnapur doesn’t work as well as the other two novels in the trilogy is that its cast of amusingly ridiculous caricatures of the British gentry are actually put through hell and back. It’s not quite as funny to see people being paid their just desserts to the point where their ribs are showing from starvation. Farrell wisely ends The Singapore Grip on the 15th of February, 1942, as the British administration surrenders to the Japanese Army and the characters who haven’t managed to escape the island (who are also the more sympathetic among their ranks) are marched to Changi; we know that grim years lie ahead of them, but don’t necessarily want to watch that happen. The appropriate conclusion to this story is not an explanation of what happens to the characters within it – and indeed there are many whose fates are left unexplained or ambiguous – but the fall of the city itself, which was the spiritual if not quite the temporal end of the British Empire in East Asia.

The Singapore Grip is an excellent novel, and the Empire trilogy itself, even including the flawed middle novel The Siege of Krishnapur, is one of the truly great works of British literature in the 20th century. It’s a shame Farrell died so young, particularly as the themes he dwelt upon – delusionally optimistic authorities, a self-serving ruling class, and a complete obliviousness to the notion that other peoples and nations might have divergent interests from those of Britain – are as relevant as ever in the Brexit era.

The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian (1994) 351. p

After seventeen books Patrick O’Brian finally runs out of fiscal and political excuses to keep Captain Jack Aubrey from climbing the career ladder any further. Returning from a four-book mission which ultimately saw he and Stephen Maturin circumnavigate the globe from west to east, Aubrey finds himself promoted to the rank of commodore and placed in charge of a squadron to disrupt the (now illegal) slave trade off West Africa.

Despite the title, this is very much Maturin’s book. He learned of the birth of his daughter Bridget several books ago, in letters received in New South Wales, but meets her now for the first time as he returns to England; now in the care of Clarissa Oakes, as Stephen’s fiery wife Diana has once again absconded for emotional reasons. Bridget is surely at least three years old now; strict chronology is not the series’ strong suit, having been stuck in an ongoing 1812 or 1813 for some six or seven books now, like M*A*S*H* taking eleven years to cover a three-year war. In any case, Maturin is dismayed to realise that his daughter is autistic (the word isn’t used, but to a modern reader it’s obvious) and one of the more heartening sequences of the entire series is when it becomes clear that Stephen’s monoglot Irish manservant Padeen has a particular gift for communing with such children, and Bridget begins to speak to other people for the first time, but only in Irish. Echoes of espionage plots past soon come back to haunt Maturin, however, and he’s obliged to escort Clarissa, Padeen and Bridget to the safety of his relatives in Spain before carrying on to join Jack en route to West Africa.

This book is ultimately another welcome adventure with well-loved characters, even if Jack has been raised to a less exciting middle management position: a story of slavery and marital discord, of yellow fever and Irish revolutionary fervour. There’s a touch of deus ex machina to the conclusion, and even if I didn’t know there are only three books left in this vast series, I might nevertheless conclude that it was past its prime. But being past your prime as an Aubrey-Maturin novel still means you’re excellent.

At first glance it might appear that I’ve once again failed to reach an appropriate-sounding number, however, in two of these entries I’ve actually rolled in four books together, therefore technically making it my top 11 books of the year. You’re welcome.

 

5. The Ministry for the Future


I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive. Inside I am hot beyond all telling, and yet my outside is even hotter. At my touch you burn, though I spin outside the sky. As I breathe my big slow breaths, you freeze and burn, freeze and burn. Someday I will eat you. For now, I feed you. Beware my regard. Never look at me.

A thoughtful and wide-ranging consideration of a possible future; a step away from nihilistic cli-fi dystopia towards an attempt to grapple with how we might work our way to a positive outcome to the crisis bearing down on us all. It would rank higher if it weren’t for the fact that Robinson is very much a science fiction author who very much does not understand human nature or behaviour, and there are multiple chapters here where his reach exceeds his grasp – notably the one about the federal government rep who successfully convinces American red-staters to abandon their towns to re-wilding, which reminded me of the bit in 2312 about how the space elevators all play Philip Glass symphonies. It’s nonetheless an excellent and timely novel, not least for its unforgettably harrowing opening sequence depicting an unprecedented heatwave killing nearly every last soul in a city in India.

 

4. The Pier Falls


On the eastern side of the pier a farmer from Bicester is trying to prise the six-year-old boy from between his parents. The boy can surely see that they are dead. Half his father’s head is missing. Or perhaps he can’t see this. He won’t let go of them and his grip is so tight that the man is afraid he will break the boy’s arm if he pulls any harder. He asks the boy what his name is but the boy won’t answer. The boy is in some private hell which he will never entirely leave.

“If you are writing a short story,” Mark Haddon said on the press junket for this collection, “and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.” The stories in The Pier Falls are almost all remarkable, in the literal sense: they’re actually stories about unusual events, the kind of things you’d talk to an acquaintance about if they happened to you in real life, rather than the plotless and stylised renditions of what it feels like when someone has a wistful recollection about their failed marriage or whatever. From the tragic collapse of an English pier to the fate of astronauts stranded on Mars to an absolutely brilliant magical realist modern-day retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, almost every story in this collection is an unforgettable gem.

 

3. Down to a Sunless Sea


“As of now, you may act independently to take whatever action you may consider necessary to achieve the survival of crew and passengers. Preservation of the aircraft is totally irrelevant.”

A Boeing 747 carrying around 500 passengers on a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London is a few hours out of JFK when a nuclear war suddenly breaks out. With armageddon erupting behind them and ahead of them, the pilot and his crew scramble to find somewhere – anywhere – safe enough to land their precious cargo of human lives. An edge-of-your-seat apocalyptic techno-thriller which, ironically enough, would be a great book to read on a plane.

 

2. Aubrey and Maturin’s circumnavigation


“Killick, there. Clear the decks and bring another decanter of port.”
“Which it is getting wery low, sir,” said Killick. “At this rate we shall have to rouse up your feast day eighty-nine, or be satisfied with grog.”
“Rouse it up, Killick: let us live whilst we are alive.”

Books from the Aubrey-Maturin series unfailingly end up on this list. These four in particular comprise a mini-arc which sees the characters depart England and, via Malaysia and Australia and Peru, ultimately circumnavigate the globe. This is approaching the end of the series entirely, very much at the point where you might call the books historical romance or romantic adventure rather than the purer historical fiction of the early novels, but they’re still an unalloyed delight at all times. They make the reader want to live a more involved and adventurous life; to truly appreciate the beauty in the natural world all around us; to take an Epicurean joy in pleasures as small as a glass of port or as large as imminent fatherhood; to live, as Jack says, whilst we are alive. I will be forlorn when I finish the series, having first begun it with Master and Commander in 2014; but I strongly suspect I’ll just start re-reading them all over again.

 

1. The Revelation Space universe


It was a time of horror.
It is not yet over.

I’m including in this the short story collection Beyond the Aquila Rift, the standalone novel Chasm City, and the sequels to Revelation Space – which I first read in 2014 – Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. They all exist in the same fictional universe and are all really part of one larger work: Reynolds’ imagined future history, mostly occurring between 2200 and 2727, in which humanity has begun colonising nearby stars and has inadvertently become the latest species to provoke a very ancient galactic mechanism designed to exterminate intelligent life.

Reynolds’ work has many flaws, but what I really admire about it is how atmospheric it is: a combination of the aesthetics of Gothic horror with the genuinely frightening notion of how big, cold and apparently empty the galaxy is. It’s not a gee-whiz Star Wars future with dozens of alien races hanging out in a bar, where blasting off in a spaceship is as easy as swinging a leg over a motorcycle; it’s a bleak world of Orwellian governments, horrific nanotech plagues, bizarre religious cults, rarely-encountered alien races which are either extinct or unfathomable, and in which near-light-speed travel between the stars remains a time-consuming matter of relativistic decades.

I distinctly remember the first time I watched the film Alien, and the combined sense of awe and dread as the search party approaches and then enters H.R. Giger’s derelict alien spacecraft. More than anything else I’ve ever seen or read, Alastair Reynolds grasps the frisson of that kind of moment. All the best horror writers know that what’s most frightening is what’s unknown, and there’s nothing more unknown than what might be lurking in interstellar space. Whether it’s Sky Hausmann approaching the silent vessel shadowing his colonisation fleet, the kilometres-long starship Nostalgia for Infinity twisted into a bizarre cathedral-like shape by an alien virus, the mind-boggling scale of the Inhibitors deconstructing entire planets to fashion into vast weapons, or an alien explaining that its race’s naive excitement at finally encountering another intelligent culture was dashed by the fact that they “didn’t want to… tolerate us,” Reynolds has crafted a strange and frightening future which is a fascinating place to visit but absolutely the last place you’d ever want to live.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (2004) 565 p.

I suppose it’s appropriate that the Revelation Space series should end as it began, on a similar note as the original novel Revelation Space: full of interesting ideas that felt half-baked or underdeveloped, hampered by poor characterisation and a bloated, glacial plot.

Absolution Gap begins twenty years after Redemption Ark ended, with the refugees of the annihilated world Resurgam having established a small colony on the oceanic world Ararat, aware that this will only ever be a brief reprieve before the utterly hostile civilisation-destroying machines they call the Inhibitors find them again. Clavain (the previous novel’s protagonist) is called out of hermitude by the hyperpig Scorpio (a supporting character in the previous novel, but very much the main character now) to deal with the mysterious spacecraft that has fallen from the sky into the ocean. Thus begins the next period in their life of travails, which will end a real-time century later orbiting a mysterious planet around a much more distant star.

Revelation Space introduced the first hints of the Inhibitors, and Redemption Ark showed us what they’re capable of: dismantling planets to build gargantuan weapons systems and harnessing the energy of suns to flamethrower entire planets into oblivion. I thought Absolution Gap would be a novel of apocalyptic destruction, a big-screen finale to the trilogy, with Reynolds tearing apart the complex world he’d established over three previous novels and countless short stories. But this is still his hard science fiction universe, where travel between the stars is a slow and arduous affair. One of the aspects I quite liked was that a hundred years after the events of Redemption Ark, people in the outlying star systems are well aware that something nasty has started snuffing out life in the older-settled worlds, but don’t really see it as a problem in their immediate future – because it isn’t. When an Ultra captain mentions off-hand that his ship carrying thousands of refugees was one of the last out of Sky’s Edge – an ominous sentence meaning that one of the more familiar planets in the series has been obliterated – he’s talking about events which occurred forty or fifty years earlier. The awakening of the Inhibitors is not some new and sudden cataclysm, but rather a background threat which most of the adult characters in the novel have been aware of for most of their lives; something which bodes very poorly for the vaguely realised concept of “the future of the human race,” but is possibly or even likely not something which will impact their own lifespans and is therefore not something they think about from day to day. I doubt Reynolds meant it as an allegory in the early 2000s, but it’s impossible to read it now and not think of climate change.

What I didn’t like about Absolution Gap was pretty much everything else. It starts out relatively strongly with twin stories: the mysterious spacecraft on Ararat confronted by familiar characters, plus a storyline with new characters on an Ultra lighthugger called the Gnostic Ascension. The Ultras – the deeply weird, genetically and mechanically enhanced, centuries-old crews of interstellar spacecraft – have always been one of the more interesting parts of the Revelation Space universe, and this one taps back into that vein by introducing a sado-masochistic “queen” who rules violently over the ship and has her crews’ lives at her mercy, really underlining the fact that spacecraft which spend years travelling between stars are really entirely independent little worlds unto themselves. Unfortunately Reynolds then abandons this story and jumps ahead a century to focus on the society and the religion founded by one of these Ultras, resulting in what has to be one of the most annoyingly (and in this case literally) wheel-spinning plots that goes nowhere that I’ve ever seen in science fiction. A good editor easily could have sliced out more than half of the storyline on Hela without losing anything of note. Similarly, back on Ararat, it’s more than 200 pages – almost a third of the book! – before the downed spacecraft storyline goes anywhere.

What’s most frustrating about Absolution Gap is that the resolution of human contact with the Inhibitors (you know, the point of this whole trilogy) is “resolved” in literally the last ten pages with one of the most egregious deus ex machina I’ve ever seen. It’s almost insulting. Reynolds has a single short story, Galactic North, which takes place before, during and after the events of the main trilogy and shows us a little of the world beyond this timeframe; I’ve read it, and so had some vague idea of what to expect, especially since the deus ex machina in question is referenced off-hand in Absolution Gap’s prologue. (In retrospect Galactic North really just feels like laying the groundwork for the idea of a single human travelling near the speed of light so much that they’re skipping through time and only touching down at certain isolated points in history, which Reynolds would explore more fully in the excellent House of Suns.) But both the prologue and the short story – and readers of a standalone trilogy of novels should not be expected to have read the author’s previous Interzone publications anyway – led me to believe that this novel might actually involve the establishment of this human-alien partnership in some way, rather than spending 500+ pages on an obscure religious cult which ultimately amounts to nothing before handwaving the Inhibitor threat away in the last few pages.

It’s a real shame. I liked the Revelation Space universe a lot; I’ll still read the Prefect trilogy, which take place hundreds of years before this one, and I’ll still read Inhibitor Phase, which Reynolds published this year and which I understand involves a smaller-scale story about a group of humans trying to survive during the Inhibitors’ purge of their society. But this was a disappointing wrap-up to an otherwise great series.

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