The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian (1988) 302 p.

The_Letter_of_Marque_cover

It’s true that Jack Aubrey’s expulsion from His Majesty’s Navy at the conclusion of The Reverse of the Medal came about through no real fault of his own, and that for a man who has constructed his entire life and identity around his naval service this would be a terrible blow, even if deserved. His sour mood and self-pity nonetheless feel a little excessive, in my opinion. How many other men in his position would also shortly find themselves skippering their favourite former command, the frigate Surprise, coincidentally released from naval service and immediately bought and outfitted with their best friend’s recent windfall and, given Aubrey’s magnificent reputation, manned with the very best sailors and gunners available? ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey should count himself lucky indeed that he happens to be the protagonist of a series of naval adventure novels whose author is by no means finished with him.

The Letter of Marque is the first novel in the series which sees Jack acting as commander of a “private man-of-war” (a polite term for a privateer) and itching to chart a path back towards pardon and reinstatement. By the conclusion of the novel that return to grace is all but guaranteed, after a spectacularly successful cutting-out expedition and Aubrey’s further good fortune with the death of his trouble-making father resulting in his inheritance of a seat in Parliament. It’s clear that O’Brian intended for this not to be some permanent change in career path, but rather a brief aside; a unique episode in Aubrey’s life which, from the perspective of a historical fiction writer, serves as an examination of the privatised side of harassing enemy shipping, particularly the change in rules, organisation, etiquette and deference which result when Captain Aubrey is no longer a king’s officer.

It’s in this spirit that the series is perhaps beginning what Philip Reeve describes as its transformation from straight historical fiction to historical romance, in the 19th century meaning of the word “Romantic.” O’Brian’s world is as realistic as ever, but there’s a hint of Jack and Stephen becoming celebrities, of a kind, even outside the Royal Navy. After his father’s funeral, before his half-brother returns to school, the young lad asks Jack if he might have an autograph or a souvenir to show his peers; a little earlier, Jack is the guest of honour at a London dinner attended by extremely powerful men who all seem a little in awe of him. This sort of public adulation really did happen in the Nelsonic era, but along with Aubrey and Maturin’s ongoing immense luck, the rather pat resolution of Stephen and Diana’s schism, and the promise of another intercontinental sea voyage in the making (because Aubrey’s particular skills and desires happen to align with the Admiralty’s need for Stephen to be in certain places) all combine to create a sense that we are leaving the more realistic groundings of earlier books beyond the stern horizon, and looking forward to adventures in which our disbelief may have to be suspended a tad more than it was in the past.

I don’t mind any of that one jot. These books are as much a joy to read as ever. The cutting out expedition to the fictional French port of St Martin’s is one of O’Brian’s better battle scenes, as enemy officers on horseback rush down to the quay in the middle of the action and leap aboard the half-hijacked ship – in the ensuing melee, Jack is shot in the back, and thinks at the time that a horse has kicked him, remarking several days later to one of his officers:

“What did he do to you, sir?”
“Well, I am ashamed to say he took a pistol-ball out of the small of my back. It must have been when I turned to hail for more hands – thank God I did not. At the time I thought it was one of those vile screws that were capering about abaft the wheel.”
“Oh, sir, surely a horse would never have fired off a pistol?”

I also particularly liked this deadpan line, after Maturin takes his small boat out to an island in the bay where the Surprise is moored to inspect the local wildlife, and Jack then swims out to help him after observing the doctor has unwittingly let his boat become high and dry:

“…Stephen, have you forgot breakfast?”
“I have not. My mind has been toying with thoughts of coffee, stirabout, white pudding, bacon, toast, marmalade and more coffee, for some considerable time.”
“Yet you would never have had it until well after dinner, you know, because your boat is stranded and I doubt you could swim so far.”
“The sea has receded!” cried Stephen. “I am amazed.”
“They tell me it does so twice a day in these parts,” said Jack. “It is technically known as the tide.”

(Stephen is of course not this ignorant, merely easily distracted from practical matters, and his line about being amazed is the joking banter of close friends; O’Brian wryly reminds us that he grew up on “the Mediterranean, that unebbing sea.”)

And not a comedic line this time, but rather a beautiful description: a conversation Maturin has with a dinner guest who describes to him the sensation of flying in a hot-air balloon, something which has recently come to fascinate the doctor, and a passage which – like the encounter with a blue whale in frigid southern seas in Desolation Island – underscores once again how things we in the 21st century take for granted must have appeared truly marvellous to 19th century eyes:

Stephen devoted his whole attention to his right-hand neighbour, who had made an ascent, and a glorious ascent, at the time of the first enthusiasm before the war. He was too young and foolish, he said, to have recorded any of the technical details, but he did still retain that first vivid sense of astonishment, awe, wonder and delight when, after a slow, grey and anxious passage through mist, the balloon rose up into the sunlight: all below them and on every hand there were pure white mountains of cloud with billowing crests and pinnacles, and above a vast sky of a darker, far darker, purer blue than he had ever seen on earth. A totally different world, and one without any sound. The balloon rose faster in the sun – they could see their shadow on the sea of cloud – faster and faster. “Dear Lord,” he said, “I can see it now; how I wish I could describe it. That whole enormous jewel above, the extraordinary world below, and our fleeting trace upon it – the strangest feeling of intrusion.”

The Aubrey-Maturin series is entirely about the smaller moments. It’s what makes reviewing them so hard: few of them are self-contained as novels and nearly all of them, The Letter of Marque in particular, are heavily influenced by what has come before and what is yet to come. So I find myself again merely plucking out moments I enjoyed or admired, and leaving you with an exhortation to read the series. The Letter of Marque is perhaps one of its weaker entries, but only because it’s such a very high bar to clear. I still enjoyed every sentence of it.

The Stand by Stephen King (1978/1990) 1439 p.

the stand

Stephen King claims in the foreword to this edition of The Stand that it’s never been his own favourite book, but is “the one people who like my books seem to like the most.” It’s his magnum opus, his piece de resistance, his shining star. It’s certainly the longest single book he’s ever written, outweighing It by several hundred pages. I’m referring here to the uncut edition, which I’ve just read; the first copy of The Stand I ever read was a tattered second-hand copy of the original 1978 issue, which – due not to editorial discretion but the financial issue that such a large book wouldn’t recoup its printing costs – excised about 400 pages from King’s original manuscript. The 1990 edition reinserts them, like a literary version of a director’s cut. It’s this edition you’ll find on bookshop shelves today, and this edition that I started reading a month ago. And a big long book deserves a big long review.

IN THE BEGINNING

The Stand, if you’ve never heard of it, is an apocalyptic novel about a horrifyingly lethal virus which ravages the world and kills 99% of the human population. You can probably imagine why I decided to revisit it in 2020.

According to the receipt in my email archive I ordered this from The Book Depository on Sunday March 15. That was the weekend, in Australia at least, that everything changed; that was the tipping point. The week building up to it had been a slow burn of anxiety about events developing overseas and coronavirus cases documented within Australia which no longer felt like isolated incidents that wouldn’t spread any further. Prior to that, it had seemed like a problem for other countries to deal with. Over the past twenty years we’d been fed media stories about SARS and swine flu and bird flu and Ebola and various other prophesied pestilences which never turned out to be anything to worry about – so why would this be any different?

But it was different. No matter how insular and navel gazing a nation is (and we all are, that’s inherent to being a nation, but Australia is particularly so) it was impossible to ignore that the virus had left China and was rapidly spreading across Iran and Italy and New York City. On the morning of Friday March 13, a stone’s throw from my apartment, thousands of interstate and international visitors were gathering at the closed gates of the Albert Park Grand Prix circuit as confusion reigned on both traditional and social media as to whether the event was going to be cancelled or not. (It was, about an hour after it was supposed to begin.) My immunocompromised girlfriend Pippa had gone to the Mornington Peninsula for the weekend with her sisters, one of whom was visiting from New Zealand with her one-year-old son and her husband, who was doing a month-long medical residency in Melbourne. On Saturday March 14, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that all arrivals to the country would soon be required to self-isolate for two weeks, and Pippa’s sister and brother-in-law decided to cut their time in Melbourne short and fly back that Sunday night. (On Thursday 19 March, Ardern further decided New Zealand would close its borders entirely to non-residents; Australia followed suit later the same day.) Pippa returned to our apartment on the night of Sunday March 15 with a car boot full of food from her sister’s pantry – useful, since panic buying had already cleared out supermarket shelves across the nation. On Monday March 16, as Pippa and hundreds of thousands of other people across Australia began working from home, I attended my university campus in the city assuming (correctly) that we would be told our Inside Out course for this semester – in which a cohort of students would regularly visit a jail and learn alongside convicted prisoners – had been cancelled. (My other classes were rapidly moved online the same week, and the following week I was informed my second semester internship with a law enforcement agency had also been cancelled.) I said goodbye to my fellow classmates, washed my hands, mounted my motorcycle – I don’t normally ride into Melbourne’s traffic-choked CBD but I sure as hell wasn’t about to catch a tram that day – and returned home. Since that day, neither Pippa nor myself has left the apartment, except to jog around Albert Park, get our flu shots, or pick up her prescriptions from the Alfred.

In that first week I still felt a palpable sense of fear, anxiety and dread. Leaving the apartment felt like a dangerous, reckless risk. That feeling’s abated as the Australian government has shown a level of maturity and decisiveness I wouldn’t have expected of them, and at time of writing we appear to be close to eliminating the virus within Australia even as it ravages much of the rest of the world. (Amazing what you can accomplish when the conservative party hasn’t yet let the lunatics rise to the top and gut the public service.) But I purchased The Stand on that day in March when it felt like the plague times were very much in vogue, and also when it looked like I was all of a sudden going to have a lot of spare time to read an obscenely long 1,400+ page book. A secondary point is that all that wrangling of dates suddenly feels very familiar. We all move in days, not dates; I had to look up those events I rattled off above because I couldn’t actually remember whether The Weekend That Everything Changed was March 14/15 or 21/22. In The Stand, a bio-engineered virus escapes a government facility on June 13. Over the following pages, day by day and date by date, King slowly leads us through an unfolding pandemic until the 4th of July dawns over an America that is almost as silent and empty as the grave.

DEATH STALKS THE LAND

The opening of The Stand is a classic. (Yet was, inexplicably, on the chopping board for the original publication). In the prologue, a woman is shaken awake by her panicky husband in the middle of the night, and in her disoriented dialogue with him it becomes clear that they’re a military family living on a base – and that something has gone terribly wrong. At her husband’s insistence, they cut and run.

“Sally, honey, don’t ask questions. We have to get away. Far away. You just go get Baby LaVon and get her dressed.”
“But should I… is there time to pack?”
This seemed to stop him. To derail him somehow. She thought she was as afraid as she could be, but apparently she wasn’t. She recognized that what she had taken for fright on his part was closer to raw panic. He ran a distracted hand through his hair and replied, “I don’t know. I’ll have to test the wind.”

By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.

In the opening chapter, Charlie’s family arrives in East Texas, and the AWOL soldier is now sick enough that he’s slaloming across the road. Stu Redman, hero du jour and The Stand‘s de facto main character, flips off the gas station pumps in the tiny town of Arnette right before Charlie Campion ploughs into them. It occurred to me later that if he hadn’t, he and his friends and the Campion family would all have been incinerated in an explosion… yet the world would have lived. Because Charlie and Sally and Baby LaVon have already been infected with a dreadful bio-engineered virus, and Charlie chokes out his last in front of Stu and the other horrified onlookers. It’s too late for the government to lock Arnette down, though it tries to anyway; a sheriff has already stopped by to chat to Stu and the other witnesses, and he passes it on to others in turn. Before long, the military’s secret biological weapon is multiplying its merry way across Texas and America beyond:

Harry, a gregarious man who liked his job, passed the sickness to more than forty people during that day and the next. How many those forty passed it to is impossible to say – you might as well ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If you were to make a conservative estimate of five apiece, you’d have two hundred. Using the same conservative formula, one could say those two hundred went on to infect a thousand, the thousand five-thousand, the five-thousand twenty-five-thousand.

Under the California desert and subsidized by the taxpayers’ money, someone had finally invented a chain letter that really worked. A very lethal chain letter.

On June 19, the day Larry Underwood came home to New York and the day that Frannie Goldsmith told her father about her impending Little Stranger, Harry Trent stopped at an East Texas cafe called Babe’s Kwik-Eat for lunch. He had the cheese-burger platter and a piece of Babe’s delicious strawberry pie for dessert. He had a slight cold, an allergy cold, maybe, and he kept sneezing and having to spit. In the course of the meal he infected Babe, the dishwasher, two truckers in a corner booth, the man who came in to deliver bread, and the man who came in to change the records on the juke. He left the sweet thang that waited his table a dollar tip that was crawling with death.

Chain letters don’t work. It’s a known fact. The million dollars or so you are promised if you’ll just send one single dollar to the name at the top of the list, add yours to the bottom, and then send the letter on to five friends never arrives. This one, the Captain Trips chain letter, worked very well. The pyramid was indeed being built, not from the bottom up but from the tip down – said tip being a deceased army security guard named Charles Campion. All the chickens were coming home to roost. Only instead of the mailman bringing each participant bale after bale of letters, each containing a single dollar bill, Captain Trips brought bales of bedrooms with a body or two in each one, and trenches, and dead-pits, and finally bodies slung into the oceans on each coast and into quarries and into the foundations of unfinished houses. And in the end, of course, the bodies would rot where they fell.

As Project Blue, or Captain Trips, or the superflu, begins to swarm across America, King introduces us to his characters – all of them among those lucky less-than-1% who are naturally immune to the virus. In classic fashion, each of them is already grappling with something unusual in their life as humanity begins to die off en masse. Stu is the aforementioned laconic East Texas feller who works in the calculator factory, and his unusual moment is encountering Patient Zero and subsequently being bundled off to the CDC by the US military. The struggles of the others are more prosaic but no less engaging. Fran Goldsmith is a newly-pregnant college student in Maine; Nick Andros is a deaf-mute drifter who falls into the confidence of a sheriff in a small town in Arkansas after getting the shit kicked out of him by some locals; and Larry Underwood is a one-hit wonder musician who’s coming down from the coke-fuelled high of his overnight success and has fled from debtors back to his mother’s apartment in his native Manhattan. There will be many other viewpoint characters to come, but these are the four at the crux of the The Stand. As Fran deals with her parents’ reaction to her unexpected pregnancy, as Nick finds himself in the odd position of being deputised to deal with the same men who assaulted him, and as Larry grapples with his damaged relationship with his mother, the first indications of the pandemic ravaging the nation begin to pop up in the corners of their stories.

There is one other viewpoint character in these early chapters, largely absent from the original edition: Starkey, one of the brass, The Man, the general in charge of Project Blue at a secret military base in California. We only meet him after the virus has got loose and Campion has fled, and he knows Project Blue is out in the wild. He stands with his hands behind his back surveying a wall of CCTV footage showing the silent, corpse-ridden laboratory where the US government was playing god.

In the physics lab a small centrifuge was still turning around and around. Starkey had complained about that. He had complained bitterly. There was something spooky about that centrifuge whirling gaily around and around and around while Dr. Ezwick lay dead on the floor nearby, sprawled out like a scarecrow that had tipped over in a high wind.

They had explained to him that the centrifuge was on the same circuit as the lights, and if they turned off the centrifuge, the lights would go, too. And the cameras down there were not equipped for infrared. Starkey understood. Some more brass might come down from Washington and want to look at the dead Nobel Prize winner who was lying four hundred feet under the desert less than a mile away. If we turn off the centrifuge, we turn off the professor. Elementary. What his daughter would have called a “Catch-22.”

He took another “downer” and looked into monitor 2. This was the one he liked least of all. He didn’t like the man with his face in the soup. Suppose someone walked up to you and said: You will spend eternity with your phiz in a bowl of soup. It’s like the old pie-in-the-face routine: it stops being funny when it starts being you.

Starkey stares at this bank of monitors through intermittent chapters, receiving updates on the unfolding situation, the only viewpoint character at the beginning of the book who truly understands what has been unleashed on his country and on the world. He is not a sympathetic character, but his situation makes him a deeply compelling one. At one point he quotes Yeats: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Starkey’s purpose in the first third of The Stand is to serve as the centre, receiving constant updates on a periphery which is very rapidly falling apart.

THE MAN, MAN

Part of the idea for The Stand came to King after hearing about the 1968 Dugway sheep incident, in which canisters of nerve agent fell off a truck and spread across a ranch in Utah, killing thousands of sheep; had the wind been blowing another direction, they might instead have killed thousands of people in Salt Lake City. The Stand is very much a product of the 1960s and 1970s post-Vietnam distrust of government. Not only is the superflu developed in a lab, Starkey and his higher-ups in the US government respond to its release not by honesty with the public and widespread quarantine and shelter-in-place measures, but rather clamping down on journalists and reporters and telling the public it’s merely a bad strain of the flu and that a vaccine is on the way. As the situation deteriorates, this culminates in soldiers executing members of the fourth estate who dare to disseminate the truth. Even as the virus rips through the government’s plague centres, Stu Redman – still fit as a fiddle, but a prisoner under observation – is almost killed when a sick government operative attempts to tie up this loose end.

I wouldn’t, though, describe King as counter-cultural. In some ways he hews doggedly close to the values of the small-town all-American Yankee that he is. Consider this, the introduction of Randall Flagg, The Stand’s antagonist, and generally considered King’s greatest villain:

He walked south, south on US 51, the worn heels of his sharp-toed cowboy boots clocking on the pavement; a tall man of no age in faded, pegged jeans and a denim jacket. His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature- pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a tract you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the Cl A-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers’ unions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (If You Can Answer These Ten Questions “Yes,” You Have Been SAVED!), the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too. There was a button on each breast of his denim jacket. On the right, a yellow smile-face. On the left, a pig wearing a policeman’s cap. The legend was written beneath in red letters which dripped to simulate blood: HOW’S YOUR PORK?

The vibe works. I get it. But lumping together union advocacy with the KKK – lumping together all pamphlet literature, all non-mainstream sources of information – leaves you with the nagging feeling that King views any kind of deviation from the all-American status quo as inherently dangerous. As the virus rampages across America there are a couple of college protest scenes turned bloody which mostly feel like a nod to Kent State, but also give you the impression King doesn’t think much of those rabble-rousing college kids with their far-out political ideas. (I was ready to chalk this up as blue collar envy and an inferiority complex, but it turns out he did a BA at the University of Maine, so that serves me right for pigeon-holing.) In any case, all of this went over my head as a teenager, but looking at it now it’s impossible not to see The Stand as a product of a very specific time in American history and culture.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

The first third – maybe the first half – of The Stand is a deeply compelling portrait of a world that crumbles to extinction in a matter of weeks. King paints this wonderfully, particularly the phases of PTSD some of his characters go through: Larry sitting numbly on a Central Park bench watching a monkey in the zoo slowly die after his own mother’s death in an overcrowded hospital corridor; Fran blankly eating cherry pie while her father’s body decomposes in an upstairs bedroom; Nick cycling away from Arkansas, still unable to truly grasp what has happened:

He remembered a Walt Disney movie he had seen as a kid, a nature thing. Filling the screen was this tulip, this one tulip, so beautiful it just made you want to hold your breath. Then the camera pulled back with dizzying suddenness and you saw a whole field filled with tulips. It knocked you flat. It produced total sensory overload and some internal circuit breaker fell with a sizzle, cutting off the input. It was too much. And that was how this trip had been. Shoyo was empty and he could adjust to that. But McNab was empty, too, and Texarkana, and Spencerville; Ardmore had burned right to the ground. He had come north on Highway 81 and had only seen deer. Twice he had seen what were probably signs of living people: a campfire perhaps two days old, and a deer that had been shot and neatly cleaned out. But no people. It was enough to screw you all up, because the enormity of it was steadily creeping up on you. It wasn’t just Shoyo or McNab or Texarkana; it was America, lying here like a huge discarded tin can with a few forgotten peas rolling around in the bottom. And beyond America was the whole world, and thinking of that made Nick feel so dizzy and sick that he had to give up.

This is also around the time King writes one of the best horror set-pieces he’s ever done, as Larry turns his back on a dead Manhattan and attempts to leave the island through a pitch-black, corpse-strewn Lincoln Tunnel:

He groaned and fumbled the lighter out again. This time it was much worse. The body his foot had struck was that of an old man in a blue suit. A black silk skullcap had fallen from his balding head into his lap. There was a six-pointed star of beaten silver in his lapel. Beyond him were another half a dozen corpses: two women, a man of middle age, a woman who might have been in her late seventies, two teenage boys.

The lighter was growing too hot to hold any longer. He snapped it off and slipped it back into his pants pocket, where it glowed like a warm coal against his leg. Captain Trips hadn’t taken this group off any more than it had taken the soldier back there. He had seen the blood, the torn clothes, the chipped tiles, the bullet holes. They had been gunned down. Larry remembered the rumors that soldiers had blocked off the points of exit from Island Manhattan. He hadn’t known whether to believe them or not; he had heard so many rumors last week as things were breaking down.

The situation here was easy enough to reconstruct. They had been caught in the tunnel, but they hadn’t been too sick to walk. They got out of their car and began to make their way toward the Jersey side, using the catwalk just as he was doing. There had been a command post, machine-gun emplacement, something.

Had been? Or was now?

When you come to a point in an apocalyptic story like this there isn’t really anywhere left to go. Everyone is dead but there are no monsters or zombies or aliens; no reason for there to be much conflict between survivors when the remains of the world as it was provide food and supplies in abundance. So this is where King abruptly shifts gears and turns his apocalyptic pandemic story into a Biblical showdown between good and evil which he characterises as an American Lord of the Rings. There’s only a little foreshadowing, with the characters beginning to have strange dreams as the plague grips America. One dream is about a kindly old black woman strumming a guitar on a porch in Nebraska; the other is about “the dark man,” already known to the reader as Randall Flagg, who is everywhere and nowhere. It transpires that every survivor in America has been having these dreams, and – though King never uses terms as simplistic as “good” and “evil” – they soon find themselves separated into two camps. Mother Abigail, the 108-year-old pious black woman, leads her people to Boulder, Colorado; while the followers of Randall Flagg coalesce (naturally) in Las Vegas.

A tall white building stretched up to the desert sky, a monolith in the desert, a needle, a monument, every bit as magnificent as the Sphinx or the Great Pyramid. The windows of its eastern face gave off the fire of the rising sun like an omen. In front of this bonewhite desert edifice, flanking its entranceway, were two huge gold pyramids. Over the canopy was a great bronze medallion, and carved on it in bas-relief was the snarling head of a lion.

Above this, also in bronze, the simple but mighty legend: MGM GRAND HOTEL.

(Sidenote: King is well-known for setting his fiction almost exclusively in his native Maine, but an aspect of The Stand I really enjoy is how widely it roams across all of America, and how atmospherically it paints all those disparate locations.)

Going from chillingly realistic story about a 99% lethal government-engineered super-virus to a supernatural tale about a battle between some kind of dark magician and the servant of God is always going to be a disconcerting adjustment. I think I liked it better this time around because I knew it was coming, and because this is such a larger-than-life novel that its events seem writ in stone. (Though possibly that’s just the nostalgia talking). On that same note, King absolutely writes himself into corners here, and relies very heavily on deus ex machina; that’s fine to me now, re-reading a seminal text of my teenage years, but I can’t say how well it would go down for somebody coming to it fresh.

A MATTER OF CHARACTER

Mid-novel change of pace aside, I think The Stand has an undeniably compelling plot. Its characters also loom large in the pantheon of King’s creations, though the ensemble cast exposes a certain flaw in the second half. King has a distinctive writing style and does exposition very well; he also writes very well while sitting inside a character’s head, noting their thoughts and observations and perspectives. By the time all his protagonists have congregated in Boulder, though, there are a lot of scenes of dialogue in which it begins to feel a bit like Stephen King is talking to himself. Characters come to be separated only by their explicit quirks or characteristics, like the waffling sociologist Glen Bateman, or this scene in which good old East Texas boy Stu Redman addresses a crowd at Boulder’s first town meeting and begins to sound like Joe Biden giving an inappropriate stump speech: “Last time I had so many people looking at me was when our little consolidated high school made it to the football playoffs, and then they had twenty-one other guys to look at too, not to mention some girls in those little tiny skirts.”

There are nonetheless two characters I think King develops quite well. The first is Harold Lauder, a fat and awkward teenager who falls in with Fran by dint of them being the only two survivors in their town in Maine. Harold is someone who’ll be uncomfortably familiar to a lot of bookish types in high school: a nerd, a loser, looked down on by everyone, somebody who never fit in, suddenly granted a blank slate by the new world of the apocalypse but unable to quite let go of the vestiges of his petulant, jealous, incel past. His character arc wavers between whether or not he’ll be able to become a decent man or whether he’s irretrievably haunted by high school, and I won’t reveal his fate here. The other is Larry Underwood, a twenty-something musician who makes it big and then fucks it up before crawling home to his mother, and finds himself trying to accomplish that hurdle into maturity and responsibility in the aftermath of the plague, as he finds himself with a duty of care to survivors less well-equipped to manage things than even he is – and constantly beset with the fear that he still isn’t good enough. King is not a character writer and nobody would ever say he writes character-driven stories, but there are some people and some character moments in The Stand that are certainly unforgettable.

A MATTER OF COLOUR

King has a problem with black characters. There’s no getting around this. Whether it’s John Coffey in The Green Mile or the hood kids in The Running Man, his work is littered with evidence that throughout his Maine-bound life he’s had very few encounters with African-Americans and subconsciously views them as fascinating, folksy Others who are fundamentally part of the American fabric yet not quite American in the same way that he or his white characters are. Mother Abigail, in The Stand, is a flagrant example of the Magical Negro stereotype. She is also the one (1) character in Boulder who is identified as being black. There is similarly one (1) character in Flagg’s Las Vegas who is black; you can tell because he talks in jive and dresses “like an Ethiopian pirate.” Other than that, the only black characters we see in The Stand are a Detroit heroin addict who’s part of a quick rush of characters who demonstrate how even those who survived the superflu died by other means in the immediate aftermath; and a truly bizarre vignette at the height of the pandemic in which a junta of black soldiers (wearing loincloths!) publicly execute white soldiers on television. I don’t find it difficult to imagine a handful of American soldiers taking it upon themselves to conduct an ethnic cleansing as society collapses around them, but I do find it difficult to imagine the racial roles would be filled in that order. This is, I suppose, more evidence of The Stand’s genesis in the 1970s, with shades of the Black Panthers and Charles Manson’s calls for race war. It’s nonetheless deeply weird and racist and I can’t believe it saw publication in 1990. This is the most offensive example of King’s subconscious racism, and it feels deeply out of place in a book which otherwise doesn’t go much further than the kind of racial blind spots you’d naturally expect from a baby boomer who grew up in the whitest state in America.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

King talks in the introduction about how he hasn’t reinserted all of the cut 400-odd pages, because some of them deserved to be cut. I think everything in here is great stuff and I’m glad he returned it. What’s more baffling to me – and which he doesn’t discuss, so I don’t know whether it was his decision or the publisher’s – is the decision to superficially update the novel from its original 1980 setting to 1990. Firstly, this is mostly irrelevant, since the events of the novel soon make the calendar meaningless. Secondly, it’s done in the most superficial manner possible, by ctrl+H’ing any mention of years or decades and simply adding ten to them. There are a handful of more deliberate updates – making Bush the president rather than Carter, adding in a reference to Tom Cruise here and there – but for the most part it leaves the characters pretending it’s the year 1990 when it’s very clearly still 1980. At one point Larry needs to call an ambulance for his mother and so he looks up the number of his local Manhattan hospital in the yellow pages. Stu is mentioned to have been “in the war,” except we also know he’s around thirty years old, so I guess he’s a grizzled veteran of America’s 12-hour-long campaign in Grenada. This update wouldn’t be so irritating if it weren’t so unnecessary. Did King or his publishers really think the reading public would balk at a novel set ten years in the past?

IN THE END

The Stand shouldn’t really work. It’s two distinct stories stitched together; it’s sometimes uncomfortably racist; it has characters who seem well-defined in isolation but who blend together once they cross paths; its undeniably bloated (though not nearly as much as some of King’s later works); and it’s weird. It’s an odd, mystical, pseudo-religious and ultimately self-indulgent novel.

And yet it does work – or at least, I love it, and I can’t distinguish between those two very easily. I love the dreadful, spiralling-out-of-control cataclysm of the first half; I love the scenes that implanted themselves in my memory after all these years, like Nick watching the lights go out in Shoyo or Larry sitting on a park bench in a desolate Manhattan; I love the dark magic and ineffable evil of Randall Flagg, which is rarely seen and largely inferred by his fearful minions; I love the sketching of his Western stronghold as an American totalitarian state; I love the novel’s quiet, optimistic coda, as Stu Redman and Tom Cullen and Kojak the dog make their way across the Rocky Mountains in winter, triaging a daunting ordeal into one little problem at a time: a broken leg, sickness, transportation, shelter. There are far too many elements, big and small, of a 1,439-page novel to list here. Suffice to say that I understand why King says it’s the book his regular readers love the most. The Stand is very far from perfect, but it’s undeniably a great novel.

House of Stairs by William Sleator (1974) 166 p.

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A short, engaging YA novel from the 1970s about five teenagers who find themselves imprisoned in an inescapable and inexplicable Escher-like construct, enslaved to a machine which dispenses food, slowly turning on each other. Unlike the movie Cell, of which this will no doubt remind many modern readers, the cause and purpose of the teenagers’ predicament is revealed in the conclusion. It’s very much a book of its era, with shades of the Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment and MKUltra – the unethical psychological salad days of the 1960s and ’70s.

I thought I’d read this as a kid but I think it was actually a collection of Sleator’s short stories; I have very strong memories of The Elevator. Between that story and House of Stairs… well, y’know, I’m not an eggshell Tumblr type, but I’ll crack this word out in earnest for the first time in my life and call Sleator fatphobic. He portrays obese people not merely as physically unappealing, but as actively evil and malevolent, and does so with tedious regularity. I started playing armchair psychologist and trying to figure out why, settling on the idea that maybe he came to associate obesity with greed and privilege during Britain’s wartime rationing days, but it turns out he was American. Which is strange, because his fiction feels very fundamentally British in a way I can’t put my finger on. Possibly his writing style reminds me of some of Roald Dahl’s short horror stories. Anyway, aside from Sleator wearing his prejudice on his sleeve, this was a quick and decent YA psychological horror read.

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett (1998) 378 p.

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The curious thing about Carpe Jugulum is that before re-reading I remembered virtually none of it; just fleeting moments, like the meadow with strange clouds or Granny Weatherwax driving the heat of her fever into the iron of an anvil. This stands in stark contrast to Discworld books like Lords and Ladies, or most of the City Watch arc. As a rule of thumb, if I don’t remember the plot, it’s probably not a great book.

Carpe Jugulum (which is of course dog Latin for “seize the throat”) involves a family of modern-thinking vampires descending on Lancre and seizing control in a bloodless (for the moment) coup, by using their mesmeric powers to sway the king and the townspeople into hypnotic obedience; as usual it’s up to Granny Weatherwax’s coven to defend the country and defeat the supernatural menace.

On a comedic level, I can see why it didn’t stick in my mind. The jokes about the Count attempting to indoctrinate his family out of being vulnerable to traditional things like garlic, sunlight etc rather fall flat, particularly when contrasted against the idea that his father, the Old Count, was a “sporting” vampire who always let the villagers win every generation or so and was much loved for it. Pratchett seems to be going for some kind of office management joke or political metaphor about how Good Honest Folk don’t like change and maybe the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, etc – maybe it’s some kind of comment on the Blair government, given the date – but it’s difficult to say because it just doesn’t really work, and mostly feels like outdated, low-hanging fruit.

On a plot level, too, I can see why Carpe Jugulum was unmemorable. An enormous amount of it is dialogue, and while that’s not necessarily such a bad thing with Pratchett, this is one of his books which leans more towards moralising and lecturing as opposed to a genuinely interesting conflict of ideas. One of the most widely quoted lines of Granny Weatherwax’s is paraphrased from this exchange:

“There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that…”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Sin is when you treat people as things.” It’s a good line, a straightforward definition of the nature of evil delivered with Granny’s typical rustic bluntness. But it’s delivered not during some climactic confrontation with the vampires, but rather a conversation she’s having in the rain on the back of a donkey with a priest. The climactic confrontation, in fact, comes about halfway through the book, and leaves Pratchett to spin his wheels for another couple of hundred pages before having a second, rather more lacklustre climax again in the last 30 pages. It certainly lacks the build-up and gravitas of Granny facing down the elf queen in Lords and Ladies, or her own sister in Witches Abroad, and I think very few fans would dispute that the Witches arc peaked a fair bit earlier than Carpe Jugulum. It’s not a bad book, but certainly a forgettable one, and one of the weakest in the otherwise very strong run of Discworld books from 20-30.

Next up is the very first one I ever read, #24, The Fifth Elephant.

Rereading Discworld index

A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher (1965) 220 p.

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(This is a very satisfyingly bad cover – the book takes place in England and the Channel Isles and has nothing to do with America. Bizarrely, this is from a British edition.)

A series of unprecedented earthquakes wreaks havoc across the globe, laying waste to Western Europe and leaving protagonist Matthew Cotter as one of the few survivors on the island of Guernsey, having fortuitously been outside in the middle of the night when the quake collapsed most structures. The earthquake has dramatically changed the landscape and drained the English Channel, and Matthew eventually resolves to trek north across the dry seabed to try to find his daughter in England.

It’s an original conceit for an apocalyptic novel, but unfortunately suffers from being written by somebody who had perhaps at this point in his career written too many of them. Literally the first day after the disaster, Matthew has accepted that this is truly the end of civilisation and is speculating about how things will unfold for the survivors not just in the days and weeks ahead, but the years and generations; I’m sure a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction would do that, but probably not a Guernsey horticulturalist. It’s also only a few days before the other Guernsey survivors are descending into caveman rule, asserting which men “own” which women and so on, and when Matthew gets to the mainland he finds it’s collapsed into brutal anarchy with survivors killing and raping and plundering with abandon, when there’s not even any real scarcity or competition for resources yet. (The vast majority of people are dead; tinned food lies in every ruin for the taking.) This is in stark contrast to Christopher’s earlier novel The Death of Grass, which illustrates how civility and peacefulness can crumble quite quickly when there are suddenly too many mouths and not enough food, i.e. when there is a material reason for them to do so. In A Wrinkle in the Skin it just seems silly.

The Death of Grass is also the superior novel for demonstrating, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction, that most people would be quite willing to hurt others to save themselves and their children; it does so by having the main characters violently attack and kill an innocent family to take their food, flipping the usual cliche of “good people” and “bad people” that you see even in acclaimed post-apocalyptic fiction like The Road. A Wrinkle in the Skin, on the other hand, hews more closely to Christopher’s curiously English outlook I identified in The World in Winter: his conceit (laid out here explicitly, at one point) that in the event of a disaster like this, the middle class would be a steady, civilised hand on the tiller while the working class, if left to themselves, would descend into a violent, anarchic rabble, referred to here as “oiks” or “yobbos.”

It’s a fairly offensive stance, though difficult to tell how much of it is subconscious and how much Christopher would have held to it if anybody had ever challenged him on it. Maybe it was also present in his better novels like The Death of Grass, and I unwittingly passed over it; I read them when I was much younger and before I’d lived in England and realised how pervasive their class structure is even in the 21st century, let alone Christopher’s day. I don’t have any illusions about whether peaceful civilisation could endure an event like this, but I don’t believe that it would disintegrate that quickly, and I certainly don’t believe it would fragment along class lines – that’s a ridiculous English fantasy. (And this is all without touching on the book’s sexism which at times becomes outright misogyny, puzzlingly uncharacteristic of Christopher.)

It’s still a decent book for all that. I try not to judge writers too harshly for being a product of their age, and it really only stuck out here for me because it’s by far the most explicit presentation of Christopher’s class prejudice I’ve yet read. There are some great set-pieces, particularly the trek across the dried-out seabed of the English Channel, and the half-mad Greek captain living in his luxurious beached tanker. There’s an interesting dynamic that develops between Matthew and the young boy he rescues and takes under his wing, with the former feeling a constant guilt for endangering the kid by dragging him across England looking for his own daughter. A Wrinkle in the Skin is a good read; just take Christopher’s prognostications about how the post-apocalyptic chips might fall with a pinch of salt.

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian (1986) 267 p.

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We can glean from O’Brian’s foreword, which I avoided reading too closely, that this will be a book which once again cleaves close to the true-life story of Lord Thomas Cochrane by entangling Jack in a financial scandal. Jack’s poor financial sense has thus far been employed by O’Brian as a device to keep him at sea, still searching for prizes and career glory, because by all rights a captain as successful as he is should be an admiral behind a desk by now; but of course that wouldn’t be much fun to read about. It’s therefore something of a surprise (to those of us not particularly well-versed on Cochrane’s biography, or those of us who have declined to read about him to avoid Aubrey-Maturin spoilers) when this particular financial scandal turns out to very seriously threaten Jack’s career. It’s similar to a scene in the last book, The Far Side of the World, in which Stephen yet again falls into the drink but this time does so in a manner which is not mere comic relief but a genuine threat to his life, and then to Jack’s, and leads on to an unexpected and quite memorable new story thread. They’re both very successful subversions of O’Brian’s own long-running plot devices.

I always enjoy Aubrey-Maturin books which are a little more land-based and this was no exception; there’s a chase across the Atlantic in the first act, and I was reminded (since The Far Side of the World was, I think, the first novel in the series with no naval engagements whatsoever) of how much I still struggle to really understand what’s going on in these sequences. O’Brian’s prose is always pleasurable to read, and I like the way he illuminates small character moments amid the action, such as Jack only half-listening to Maturin and Martin while he judges the change in the weather from the shift in the deck and the tilting of his wine. But for me it’s a relief when HMS Surprise returns to England and the remainder of the book plays out in London and Hampshire.

It’s also one of the first books I’ve noticed O’Brian airing what seem to be rather more personal views; he clearly has no love of lawyers, he was possibly successful enough as a writer by now that he makes a lot of comments about the effects of coming into a large fortune by way of a surrogate character who does the same, and he has a level of knowledge of cricket which suggests he certainly learned how to play it at school but probably, like Stephen (and myself), has little regard for it:

“You will never play all this afternoon and all tomorrow too, for God’s love?” cried Stephen, shocked out of civility by the thought of such insufferable tedium drawn out to such unconscionable length.

“He was at the same school as I, though of an earlier generation; he often came down to watch us, and once he told me that cricket was played regularly in Heaven; and that, from a man with his attainments, is surely a recommendation.”
“I must draw what comfort I can from the doctrine of Limbo.”

Several people mentioned to me before I read this one that it also contains one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in all twenty books, and they were right. It struck me that The Reverse of the Medal is a point where, had he so chosen, O’Brian could have appropriately ended the series: a huge display of respect and loyalty for Jack from what seems like half the Navy during a moment of crisis; Jack’s departure from the service and entry into the world of privateering; Stephen’s enemies in espionage exposed and about to be dealt with; the only unsatisfactory note would be Stephen’s unresolved relationship with Diana. Anyway, he kept on writing them, and we’re all very glad he did.

After years adrift, somehow I’ve finally returned to normality and read enough good books this year to reach the magic number. I suspect this is less because of the number of books I read and more because the older I get, the more inclined I am to read books I think I will enjoy rather than the obligatory works of canonical literature that one simply Must Read, but Typically Hates. Anyway, here are the ten best books I read in 2019.

10. The Day After World War III
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“Is it better,” asked Giuffrida, “to have a realistic, long-term plan to address this kind of emergency, and then use every effort we have to preclude ever having to implement it – or to have no plan at all? I agree that the ideal alternative would be to immediately abolish nuclear weapons. Failing to do that, it seems to me that this is a morally prudent action to take.”

A fascinating book from the 1980s which alternates between telling the history of the development of nuclear weapons and an analysis of all the plans and preparations the US had in place (and presumably still has in place) to attack Russia and defend its own populace and infrastructure. Edward Zuckerman maintains a journalist’s detached perspective throughout, never judging, allowing the insanity of the situation we led ourselves into to speak for itself. It might seem like a relic of a bygone era, but in certain key ways it remains very timely, as North Korea and Russia develop greater missile capabilities, India and Pakistan spar over Kashmir, and a totalitarian China looks set to dominate the century. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only times in history when nuclear weapons were ever used against people – but as this decade has made increasingly clear, history is never over.

9. Children of Time
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“There is nothing about what we do that is natural. If we prized the natural we would still be hunting Spitters in the wilderness, or falling prey to the jaws of ants, instead of mastering our world. We have made a virtue of the unnatural.”

A team of human scientists, at the outskirts of settled space, have terraformed a planet and seeded it with the myriad species of Earth. The final step is to introduce a bioengineered virus designed to kickstart and accelerate the evolutionary process in the planet’s newly introduced primates – but just as it’s released, a galaxy-wide cataclysm destroys human civilisation. Millenia later, a refugee ship fleeing the dying Earth stumbles across this terraformed Eden only to find that the viral process went awry and an entirely different species of animal has developed intelligence and built a civilisation. Tchaikovsky’s characters are flat and his writing merely workmanlike, but Children of Time is a fascinating science fiction concept executed brilliantly. A 600+ page novel that I happily polished off in a few days deserves a place on this list.

8. Terminal World
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Up past the pastel flicker of Neon Heights, up past the hologram shimmer of Circuit City. Up past the pink plasma aura of the cybertowns. He could just see them circling around up there, leagues overhead, wheeling and gyring around Spearpoint’s tapering needle like flies around an insect zapper.

And he thought to himself: How the fuck did one of them get down here? And why did it have to happen on my watch?

Reynolds is mostly renowned for his hard science fiction, but Terminal World is more of a noirish sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, with overtones of the film Dark City. It begins in a city called Spearpoint, built on the flanks of an impossibly tall and needle-like mountain, divided into invisible “zones” which somehow prevent different levels of technology from working. The story begins as an “angel,” one of the cybernetically-enhanced humans from the highest echelons of Spearpoint, falls to its apparent death in the 1950s-era streets of Circuit City. It’s actually not quite dead and is carrying a message for the enigmatic Dr Quillion, who soon finds himself on the run, pursued down through Spearpoint’s zones – Neon Heights, Steam Town, Horse Town – and then finally out onto the vast plains of… well, of whatever world it is where this takes place. (It’s never outright stated, but there are enough clues that I guessed about halfway through.) Quillon’s world doesn’t make much sense if you think about it for too long, which is perhaps why so many of Reynolds’ fans found it disagreeable, but I thought it was a thoroughly creative and entertaining steampunk romp.

7. A Farewell to Arms
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“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”

After reading The Sun Also Rises earlier this year and finding it mostly tedious and self-indulgent, it was a pleasure to read a Hemingway novel that actually has a plot. American Frederick Henry serves on the Italian front in World War I, sees his comrades die, falls in love with a nurse while hospitalised, witnesses the terrible defeat at Caporetto, falls victim to the bickering in-fighting which manifests as summary military executions and the first hints of Fascism, and manages to flee with his lover to neutral Switzerland in the dead of night. Like most people, I enjoy Hemingway well enough for writing about precisely the sort of thing he spent his life mythologising and which he’s still renowned for – the drinking, the fighting, the general living of life to its fullest in a vanished early 20th century Europe – and A Farewell To Arms delivers that in spades. But this is also the first of his novels which, in its ending, I found genuinely moving.

6. The Talisman
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On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic.

You can tell from the atmospheric opening paragraphs of this 700+ page brick of a novel that it’s going to be the kind of great, pulpy, engrossing adventure that Stephen King can write so well. (It’s actually co-authored with Peter Straub, though I wouldn’t have guessed it from the text alone, which feels very classic King.) The Talisman opens in a bleak, deserted New Hampshire seaside resort at the ass-end of the tourist season, where 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s terminally ill mother has dragged him to live out her final days amid the ghosts of memories of better times. Jack witnesses uncannily intelligent seagulls, sees a bizarre whirlpool open in the grotty beach sand, befriends the janitor at the dilapidated local amusement park – and soon finds himself embarking on a grand cross-country voyage to California, travelling through both the United States and its strange parallel universe counterpart called The Territories, on a fantasy quest to find the Talisman to save his mother’s life. I read this in the form of a 35-year-old foxed and yellowed paperback that I picked up at a second-hand bookstore, which I think is just right for a book like this: a forgotten epic from King’s back catalogue, from his powerhouse decade of the 1980s, which perfectly captures a nostalgic sort of Americana and ranks alongside the early books of the Dark Tower series in proving that he can write urban fantasy just as well as horror.

5. Troubles
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“You don’t know what living in Ireland is like.”
“Oh, yes I do. You forget that I’ve been living here for some time now.”

At the outset of the Irish War of Independence in 1919, Major Brendan Archer comes to stay at the crumbling Majestic Hotel, owned by his fiancee’s upper-class British family in County Wexford. This may not sound like the foundation of a particularly enjoyable novel, but Troubles is underpinned by a mordant satire which manifests itself, subtly or otherwise, on nearly every page. The Majestic itself, a Gormenghast-like relic which is literally falling apart, is both a metaphor for the decaying British Empire and one of literature’s great fictional locales, painted so well it feels like a real place – one which I was eventually sorry to leave. A brilliant cast of eccentric characters bemuse the straight-man Major at every turn; most memorably Edward Spencer, the stiff-upper-lip Tory toff who is gradually driven round the bend by the infuriating successes of Sinn Fein and Ireland’s inevitable journey towards independence. As a comedy of manners, Troubles is a wonderful book, and as a skewering of the imperial fantasies of the British ruling class, it’s more relevant than ever going into 2020, as the old white men of England prepare to tear their country away from Europe in pursuit of a faded dream.

4. Pet Sematary
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He saw Jud across the road, bundled up in his big green duffel coat, his face lost in the shadow cast by the fur-fringed hood. Standing on his frozen lawn, he looked like a piece of statuary, just another dead thing in this twilit landscape where no bird sang.

Even if you’ve never read Pet Sematary you can probably hazard a guess at what it’s about, since Stephen King’s classic works have seeped into so many other parts of pop culture. Big city doctor Louis Creed moves into a rural house in Maine next to a busy highway, with a creepy, misspelled “pet sematary” in the nearby woods – and a wise neighbour who helps Louis with some old local knowledge about the power of that place after his daughter’s cat is killed. Things go horribly wrong, of course, but what impressed me was how much King takes his time: how he slowly builds up an atmosphere of dread, marinating the novel in anxiety about death and mortality long before anything supernatural occurs. Pet Sematary is a masterpiece of horror and one of King’s finest novels.

3. The Last Policeman trilogy
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After this one I have sixteen bags with ten servings per bag. Houdini eats approximately two servings a day, so we should be just about okay for the seventy-seven days remaining. But who’s counting? I stand up and stretch and fill his water bowl. That’s one of the big jokes: Who’s counting?

The answer, of course, is everyone. Everyone is counting.

We’re all going to die one day. For most of us that day is far away in the future, but even for those of us unlucky enough to receive, say, a terminal cancer diagnosis, the grief is tempered by the fact that life goes on for others. It’s a different story if the entire human species gets its collective terminal diagnosis all at once.

Ben H. Winters’ marvellous trilogy – The Last Policeman, Countdown City and World of Trouble – explores just what might happen if humanity learned that an asteroid was going to impact the earth and there was nothing we could do about it. Using mystery fiction as a template, we follow Detective Hank Palace as he solves cases in an increasingly deteriorating United States, with everything coloured by the looming disaster marked on the calendar. Reactions to it are as varied as people are – violence and charity, hedonism and despair, insanity or clear-eyed acceptance – and Winters portrays a steady tick of increasing tension with each passing day, week and month. The perspective never zooms out, never swerves from the viewpoint of our plucky, straight-edge young police officer; but we garner enough from what he sees to witness the broad strokes of a species in its final days. Particularly interesting, given that he’s a cop, are the hints we see of how the state itself adapts: from a police department that begins cutting down on non-essential work, to one which becomes a semi-authoritarian reactionary force, to the final days in which organised government is reduced to an inane repeated message on the emergency broadcast system in an otherwise anarchic America. It’s compelling, fascinating, and page-turning stuff – and by the conclusion of the series, quite touching.

2. Eifelheim
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Whatever had been approaching had arrived.

What if our first contact with an alien species already happened, and the rest of the world never realised it? Michael Flynn originally explored the idea in a 1980s novella, about a historian piecing together primary sources which seem to indicate that a German village was visited at the time of the Black Death by a species of frightening insectile creatures – and that it subsequently vanished from the map. Eifelheim is the expansion of that story into a full-length novel, now almost entirely set at the time of the contact, as 14th century villagers discover a group of stranded interdimensional aliens in their local woods. Knowing that the encounter ultimately ends in the village of Eifelheim never being mentioned in the historical archive again, the reader naturally assumes this contact will end in violence and destruction. But what begins as an uneasy stand-off eventually becomes a cross-cultural bonding of friendship, brotherhood, trust and respect. Eifelheim is not just an excellent first contact novel mixed with a meticulously researched and realised piece of historical fiction: it’s also a deeply poignant and moving tribute to the Christian virtues of charity, hospitality and kindness, and an affecting read for believers and non-believers alike.

1. More Aubrey-Maturin
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Night after night they played there in the great cabin with the stern-windows open and the ship’s wake flowing away and away in the darkness. Few things gave them more joy; and although they were as unlike in nationality, education, religion, appearance and habit of mind as two men could well be, they were wholly at one when it came to improvising, working out variations on a theme, handing them to and fro, conversing with violin and cello.

The specific books in question are The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour and The Far Side of the World, which I read on a flight to Europe, while I was in Italy, and on a flight back to Australia respectively. But the specific novels don’t really matter; they merely form chapters in the enormous 20-book meganovel that is Patrick O’Brian’s marvellous Aubrey-Maturin series. The iterations of this series will be either at the top or near the top of every one of these year-end lists I write in the foreseeable future – and while I’d be tempted to polish off the remaining ten books in 2020, they’re the kind of books you want to savour.

Patrick O’Brian was the kind of maddeningly talented renaissance man who worked as a spy in World War II, spoke multiple languages, wrote biographies of historical figures, made his own wine at his estate in the Pyrenees and, in his spare hours, penned the most tremendous historical fiction novels of all time. This breadth of life experience comes through in his writing. The Aubrey-Maturin series at first glance seems like Dad books for the more well-educated and refined kind of Dad; a bunch of Royal Navy stories set during the Napoleonic wars to entertain the sort of fellow who wears sweater vests and subscribes to National Geographic. But they’re so much more than historical adventure novels. Revolving around the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon, naturalist and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, they cover every topic under the sun: politics, art, history, music, poetry, exploration, depression, the natural world, drug use, brotherhood, love, loss and – among countless other things – the timeless question of how one should live. As Richard Snow wrote more than twenty-five years ago in The New York Times: “On every page Mr. O’Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.”

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) 198 p.

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This sort of reminded me of the Nam Le short story ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,’ set at the Iowa Writers Workshop and featuring an author surrogate whose compatriots keep encouraging him to steer into his ethnic heritage and write nothing but Vietnamese-Australian stories even though his imagination is limitless. Every single story in this collection is about either a) Bengalis, or b) Bengali-Americans at MIT.

Writing what you know is fine, but doesn’t it get tedious after a while? Anyway, these stories are all perfectly written and even memorable, but nothing contained in them stirred my heart in any way. Bonus points to ‘The Third and Final Continent,’ however, for being the rarest of things in contemporary fiction: a positive, optimistic and happy short story.

World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (2014) 307 p.

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Time’s up. The Last Policeman took place about eight months before an asteroid was scheduled to strike the earth and wipe out all life, with the veneer of civilisation still mostly holding up in Concord, New Hampshire, the hometown of our protagonist, Detective Henry Palace. Countdown City jumps forward to three months before the impact, and sees things really start to fall apart, with Palace and some of his fellow police officers eventually abandoning an increasingly lawless Concord for the safety of a rural farmhouse. World of Trouble, the third and final volume in the trilogy, brings us into the very final week as Palace strikes out for Ohio to take on his final, self-imposed detective case: tracking down his missing sister.

The first two books in the series had the fascinating allure (and accomplished execution, on Winters’ part) of seeing how society begins to crumble when everybody is faced with the knowledge of their impending extinction. World of Trouble is the point at which that morbid fascination begins to turn properly, bleakly desperate. There’s a pervasive sense of loneliness; despite the title, the novel takes place almost entirely in a mostly abandoned town, with only a handful of characters compared to the larger casts and backdrops of the previous two books, the presence of any kind of government or civil society reduced to a repeated and frankly redundant message on the emergency broadcast system: “Do not drink the water in the Muskingum River watershed…” There’s a sense of the world holding its breath, the calm before the storm, the last few days of dreadful anxiety before it really, finally happens.

World of Trouble caps off the trilogy more relevantly than just taking us into the final days of the ever-present countdown. Palace’s younger sister Nico is his only living relative and it makes sense for his final “case,” such as it is, to focus on tracking her down, combining his personal story and his truncated career as a detective in a rather satisfying way. It’s also important because it’s a loose end in the broader plot: for the first two novels, Nico claims to be part of an underground organisation which believes it can help free an imprisoned scientist who can then travel to Britain to adjust a nuclear missile to destroy or divert the incoming asteroid. Palace maintains this is wishful thinking bullshit (why, he asks, would the US government not want to do this itself?) but it can’t be denied that in his limited contact with Nico’s organisation, he’s seen for himself that they have access to impressive equipment in this deteriorating world: namely, a functioning internet connection and a helicopter. Clearly something is going on, and Palace is no more immune to desperate hope than anybody else. Might Nico have been right all along? He mostly just wants to see his sister again, but for the reader, the real driving force in the narrative is the question of whether it might just be possible to save the world after all.

Obviously I won’t spoil the answer to that, but I will say that I found the conclusion to be satisfying, affecting and well-earned. The trilogy as a whole is an accomplished work of science fiction which is greater than the sum of its already very compelling parts. Highly recommended.

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) 323 p.

alas babylon.jpg

Another entry in my growing fascination this year with nuclear holocaust, particularly in those early days of the late 1940s and the 1950s, when people had just seen the world ripped apart by war and had every right to be pessimistic about what was going to happen next. Alas, Babylon was a popular and influential book in its day, at the tail end of the 1950s, a time of rising tensions with the USSR and increasingly powerful bombs and sophisticated delivery systems. The novel focuses on the fictional town of Fort Repose (based on the real town of Mt Dora in central Florida, where author Pat Frank retired after a long journalism career) and how its residents survive a brief nuclear war and its aftermath.

This is not what I’d call a “post-apocalyptic” novel. We’ve been conditioned to think that Trump or Putin pressing the button means life on Earth is wiped out. The most extreme example of that in nuclear fiction is probably Alas Babylon’s contemporary, On The Beach, an exceptionally depressing 1957 novel set in Melbourne in which a nuclear war wipes out all life in the northern hemisphere and the population of the southern hemisphere is left to watch it slowly drift south and kill off each latitude month by month. I’m no expert but I don’t think anybody has ever been able to assess with total confidence whether a nuclear winter event would actually occur and whether it would actually wipe out humanity. It’s probably not true now (only a fraction of America and Russia’s nuclear weapons are armed at any given moment these days) and it probably wasn’t true in the late 1950s , when the technology was less advanced. But anyway, that’s not the point. Alas, Babylon reminded me of the later novel Warday, in that it sets out to demonstrate how even a limited nuclear exchange which still leaves, say, half the population of combatant nations alive is still a horrific outcome which basically unravels them as functioning states. There’s still some limited suggestion of federal government after the bombs drop in Alas, Babylon, but it’s mostly on the emergency broadcasting system or dropping leaflets from planes. Most of Florida’s big cities have been wiped off the map, and the citizens of Fort Repose are on their own.

And this is where Alas, Babylon is actually quite an optimistic book. It eschews the every-man-for-himself tribalism of later apocalyptic fiction for a more hopeful view of how people would behave in a long-term crisis. Most people are not ready to tear out their neighbour’s throat even when the chips are really down – the guy from the next town over, maybe, but not your milkman or your banker or your kids’ school principal. Maybe Frank’s thumb is on the scale a bit, given that nobody in the book ever really faces a scarcity of anything other than luxuries; I don’t know what Florida’s population was in the 1950s, but find it hard to believe a small town doing somewhat okay wouldn’t be swarmed with hungry radioactive refugees if warheads rained down on today’s Florida. But, hey, it’s speculative fiction, and if Frank wants to speculate that civic pride and lingering patriotism would enable the people of this small town to work together for the common good, that’s fine by me.

In many ways this book reminded me of Frank’s contemporaries in the world of 1950s science fiction: John Wyndham and John Christopher, and not just because his attitude towards women is risibly dated. (His views on race, at least, are a bit more progressive, likely because Frank himself was not a Southerner.) The protagonists of Alas Babylon are cut from the same cloth as the protagonists of Wyndham’s books, and specifically John Christopher’s grim famine novel The Death of Grass: they endure an unimaginable catastrophe and the end of their way of life with stoicism, because both they and the men writing them had already endured the Second World War, whether on the home front or in uniform. I don’t mean that as a shallow commentary on The Youth These Days, of which I am one; times change but people don’t, and I believe my own generation would do just fine if forced to undergo a state of total war against fascism today, except of course in the 21st century the fascism is calling from inside the house. Anyway, the point is that this generation was in fact unlucky enough to have to go through an unprecedented crisis, and I think that kind of formative, shared experience is demonstrated in the kind of characters they write: men who already have that awful experience under their belt, which serves them well when they have to face down something even worse, and who accept that they just have to buckle down and get a difficult job done.

And much of Alas, Babylon is about exactly that: getting a job done. It’s about a small street at the edge of Fort Repose which becomes a sort of extended family, and all the various troubles they have in securing fresh water, regular food, medical supplies, security, information etc. It reminded me in that sense of Earth Abides, George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel of viral apocalypse, in that it takes a sort of Boy Scout enjoyment in jury-rigging solutions to problems when modern conveniences are stripped away, and slowly rebuilding a healthy community. It has an odd plot structure, almost as though it was originally written as a serial; a violent confrontation which would probably serve as the climax in any other book is treated as just a particularly difficult problem, and the novel goes on about securing salt and why the fish stocks are declining for another forty or fifty pages afterwards. There’s nonetheless something very readable and engaging about it. I don’t think it’s a great novel, but it’s certainly more sensitive and perceptive than most sci-fi novels of its era, and I enjoyed it a lot.

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