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A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich (2005) 284 p.

I’ve been getting more interested in history lately, and what I’ve really wanted to read is a history book that covers the entire world – focusing not on one period of time, or one geographic area, but on the entire history of the entire world. That would obviously be a daunting book both to write and to read, and wouldn’t be able to go into much depth, but even a basic analysis would do much to address the hodge-podge absorption of historical knowledge that I (and, I assume, most people) currently have.

A lot of what we know about history we obtain from popular culture, associating it with a certain set of visual motifs (fashion, architecture etc.) The 1890s I associate with London in Victorian England; the 1870s and 1880s with the American West; the early 1800s with the Napoleonic Wars and Australian early settlement, and so on. The further back, the less I know, and the more likely I am to associate a period in time with one particular piece of art or popular culture; the early 1700s, for example, is Pirates of the Caribbean, the early 1600s the plays of Shakespeare, then there’s that whole vague medieval era of knights and castles…

My point is we (or at least I) tend to associate certain time periods with certain places, and history books that focus on only one region reinforce that view. 1812, for example, was the time of Napoleon and the teething problems of American independency, but I have only a dim idea of what was occurring at the same time in Asia and Africa and India and so on. (And I know the precise date of Australia’s European settlement, but can’t even name the year for India or South Africa or even our neighbour New Zealand.) What I want is a book that slowly takes us through the ages and shows us how all these different people related to each other at the time; not just the world of the 20th century, or the history of Australia. Any decent historian, of course, knows that history isn’t about memorising dates, but rather about the way human society works and how we interact with each other. The precise date of a war is not remotely as important as why it was fought, who was fighting in it, and what people thought about it at the time.

I’m now four paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned the book. A Little History of the World is not precisely the book I’m looking for, but it’s a good start. It covers the entire sweep of human history from paleolithic times to World War I (it was originally written in 1935) and, being aimed at children, it’s extremely readable. This recent edition has been by far the best selling book at my store over the last few months, so I figured it was worth a look.

Gombrich has an amicable, conversational style of writing, as though he was holding a child on his knee and telling them a story – and he is telling a story, because he quite clearly states in the opening chapter that that’s all history is. I was lucky enough to have an excellent history teacher in high school who was well aware of what really matters in history, rather than pushing the antiquated John Howard style of teaching, but Gombrich must have been quite the pioneer back in the 1930s. He regularly stops to point out that history is not merely a long flow of empires and political shifts, but that human society can also be greatly altered by shifts in opinion, not just in what people were thinking but in ways of thinking, and that it is a fallacy to assume that people hundreds or thousands of years ago were effectively the same as us:

If you could talk to a gentlemen from the time of the Turkish siege, there would be many things about him that would surpriseyou… but nothing could prepare you for the shock you would have if he were to begin to air his views. All children should be thrashed. Young girls (no more than children) should be married (and to men they barely know). A peasant’s lot is to toil and not complain. Beggars and tramps should be whipped and put into chains in the marketplace for everyone to mock. Thieves should be hanged and murderers publicly chopped into pieces. Witches and the other harmful sorcerers that infest the country should be burnt. People of different beliefs should be persecuted, treated as outcasts or thrown into dark dungeons… And you would hear these opinions not only from the mouth of some coarse or uncouth fellow, but from the most intelligent and pious people in all walks of life and from all nations.

Gombrich then explains the Enlightenment, which is something I had never heard of until I went to university. I consider myself to be a fairly well educated person, but Gombrich’s tale of history fleshed out my knowledge of many things which even now, as a 22-year old post-graduate, I was only vaguely aware of, including Alexander the Great, Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, and the Protestant Reformation. How wonderful it would be if our primary school students were given a broader education than all that clap-trap about Simpson’s donkey. Even high school history in this country – though it admirably teaches students about evaluating sources and taking a broader view of history than just names and dates – focuses almost entirely on the 20th century.

The book is not without its flaws; obviously it can only give a basic outline of human history, and it’s also extremely Euro-centric. That’s a term that usually means Western-centric, but even North America gets short shrift here, with only a few pages dedicated to the American Revolution and Civil War. But as I already pointed out, this is a better education than most young children get, at least in Australia. And more importantly, Gombrich’s grandfatherly voice does an excellent job of instilling a sense of wonder and imagination about the course of human history. A Little History of the World is only intended as a starting point for historical education, but it fulfills that purpose very well, whether you’re starting aged 10 or 50.

Infernal Devices by Philip Reeve (2005) 336 p.

Predator’s Gold had a cosy and happy ending. Anchorage had escaped Arkangel and found refuge in the green parts of America, the city’s ordeals were over, and Hester was pregnant with Tom’s child. Terrible things had happened to Anna Fang, and there was a dark implication that war was coming to the world… but that would never trouble Anchorage, which was secret and safe.

In Infernal Devices, sixteen years have passed, and Tom and Hester’s teenage daughter Wren is bored of her backwater life and aching for the same adventures her parents had. When a group of Lost Boys arrive from Grimsby, seeking the mysterious Tin Book of Anchorage, Wren is enchanted by their sense of romance and danger, and agrees to help them steal it in exchange for taking her away with them. But as with any of Reeve’s books, charming strangers turn out to be less altruistic than they appear, and it’s not long before the blood and violence comes and Tom and Hester are drawn back across the ocean to rescue their kidnapped daughter.

The largest change here is clearly the shift from Tom and Hester to the younger generation: their daughter Wren, and the slave-boy Theo whom she later meets in captivity. Tom and Hester are still vital parts of the book (and Hester’s character arc is still the most important one) but it still feels something of a shame; Wren is cut from Tom’s mould, a naive character swept up in events beyond her, and Theo is not particularly interesting either. There are two major characters from previous books returning, however, to make up for this. Shrike is found and resurrected in the opening chapter, raised from the grave he was left in on the Black Island in Mortal Engines and turned by the Green Storm towards a hidden agenda; and Pennyroyal also returns, not having been punished by the gods for his actions in Predator’s Gold, but rather having risen to a position of weath, power and luxury. (Speaking of antagonists, Infernal Devices‘ villain of the day is probably the weakest of the series; Nabisco Shkin, a stereotypical cold and cruel slave trader, not as interesting as the megalomaniacal Magnus Crome or the tragic hero Valentine or the pampered show-off Masgard or the dashing yet fascist Wolf von Kobold, from A Darkling Plain).

The first half of the book starts off slowly, as though Reeve himself was having trouble adjusting to the sudden chronological jump. There’s a lot of shuttling back and forth in limpet subs, and we revisit both the sunken city of Grimsby and Caul’s story arc from Predator’s Gold; both of which I felt were covered fairly well in the second book and didn’t need to be repeated. Infernal Devices hits its stride in the second half, as Tom and Hester arrive in the floating pleasure resort of Brighton, where Wren has been sold into slavery. The Green Storm’s assault on the city at the climax of the novel is probably one of the high points of the entire series, sparkling with spectacular imagery as chaos and violence erupts in, around and above Brighton. Featuring airships, fighter planes, cyborg troops, a floating palace under attack, a slave revolt, and several characters running about in the chaos trying to accomplish their own ends, Reeve very successfully brings the big-screen mayhem of a battle to life on the pages. It is awesome, in both the contemporary and the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Not wanting to be caught up in the stampede, Theo pushed Wren into the shelter of one of Pennyroyal’s abstract statues. They huddled together and watched moon-lit exhaust trails billow in the sky around Cloud 9 like skeins of spider-silk as the Flying Ferrets buzzed and tumbled, hurling themselves at the Storm’s airships. It was as if each ship had a seed of fire inside it, and the Flying Ferrets were patiently probing for it with streams of incendiary bullets. When they found it the airship would begin to glow from inside like a MoonFest lantern, then blinding patterns of light would chequer the envelope, and finally the whole thing would become a dazzling pyre, casting eerie shadows from the cypress groves as the wind carried it past Cloud 9.

But the airships were fighting back, and so were the clouds of Resurrected eagles and condors which flew with them. The birds descended in flapping black clouds upon the Ferrets’ flying machines, slashing at the wings and rigging and the unprotected pilots, and as the Ferrets struggled to evade them they made easy targets for the airships’ rocket and machine-cannon. Wings were shredded, fuel tanks blew apart, rotor-blades came flipping and fluttering across the Pavilion’s lawns like bits of an exploding venetian blind. The Bad Hair Day, its wings ripped off, plunged burning into the cable-car station. The Group Captain Mandrake veered sideways into the Wrestling Cheese and both machines crashed together through the flank of a Green Storm destroyer and went down with it, a vast barrel of fire sinking gracefully towards the sea.

Against the backdrop of this greater violence is Hester’s own developing bloodlust, as she raids the Shkin corporation’s headquarters and cuts down those who stand in her way with a passion. At first others begin to question it…

“I’m sure Hester only did what she had to,” said Tom, a little uneasily, because he wasn’t sure of that at all.

… and are later appalled by it:

“You enjoy it,” he said. “Don’t you? Like when you killed all those people at Shkin’s place, you were enjoying it…”

Hester said, “They were slavers, Tom. They were villains. They were the ones who sold Wren. They sold our little girl. The world’s a better place without them in it.”

“But…”

She shook her head and gave a cry of frustration. Why could he not understand? “Look,” she said, “we’re just little people, aren’t we? Little small people, trying to live our lives, but always at the mercy of men like Uncle and Shkin and Masgard and Pennyroyal and… and Valentine. So yes. It feels good to be as strong as them; it feels good to fight back, and even things up a bit.”

Tom said nothing. By the light of the instrument panels she could see a fresh bruise forming on his head where it had struck the chart table. “Poor Tom,” she said, leaning over to kiss it, but he twitched away again, staring at the fuel gauges.

Hester fails to understand that Tom does not take issue with her killing – which she can usually justify – but with the disturbing fact that she takes pleasure in doing it.

Unlike most children’s fiction, Reeve’s world is morally grey, and no characters are all good or all bad. Despite Hester’s terrible attributes, she still has good in her, and the reader sympathises with her. Even Tom, when he meets Pennyroyal again, is somewhat capable of hate and anger. And it’s hard to tell what to make of Pennyroyal himself: a liar, thief, scoundrel and all-round selfish bastard, who still manages to seem charming and vaguely likeable, even to the reader. Indeed, at the climax of the novel, he helps the characters escape his burning city alongside him. There’s a character inthe film The Mummy called Benny, who is a snivelling weasel of long acquaintance with Brendan Fraser’s protagonist, and who sells him out at every opportunity and aligns himself with the evil mummy. And yet when they’re all fleeing the City of the Dead at the end, and are escaping from the ol’ descending-roof trick, Brendan Fraser still sticks a hand out and tries to save him. Not because he’s better than Benny, or has forgiven him, but because they’ve been through so much crazy shit together that they still have a sort of ill-defined camraderie. That, in a way, is Pennyroyal.

I mentioned in my review of Predator’s Gold that the actions of the characters have much wider and more complex repercussions than in most young adult fiction, or indeed any fantasy, sci-fi or adventure novels. That’s apparent even more in Infernal Devices, particularly with regards to Hester and the Lost Boy named Fishcake. While much of what happens in the novel revolves around the MacGuffin of the Tin Book, more subtle chains of cause and effect are unfolding in the background. Hester’s betrayal of Anchorage to the Huntsmen, which seemed so neatly resolved in Predator’s Gold when she told Freya, becomes very important towards the climax of Infernal Devices.

When I began this re-read I was particularly interested to see what I would make of the second two books. The series can be easily divided into two halves, one with a young Tom and Hester deeply in love, and one with an old Tom and Hester who have a kid and a marriage built on routine. There is a part of me that wishes we had five or ten books of Tom and Hester in their early twenties, flying around the world getting into adventures on the Jenny Haniver. But Reeve, to his credit, is not interested in pumping out colour-by-number adventure books. He’s interested in writing rich, detailed and exciting adventure books, which also explore deeper themes and have excellent characterisation. There is a faint sense that something has been lost – that if he was going to pass the torch to a new generation of characters, he could have made them as interesting as Hester – but Hester is still there, and still wonderful, and one fascinating character is more than most young adult books can offer. Infernal Devices is yet another beautiful entry in my favourite adventure series of all time.

(And I particularly love the cover for this one, with Tom and Hester flailing at the controls of a submarine. HOW DO YA WORK THIS CRAZY THING?!)

Infernal Devices at The Book Depository

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II by Alan Moore (2004) 224 p.

Volume II of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the advantage that all such sequels have, namely that it begins with the team already assembled and can jump direcly into a story. This volume opens on Mars, where various imagined inhabitants are fighting for control of the red planet, and the first chapter ends with the “molluscs” being routed, and invading Earth – beginning with a space capsule landing at Woking, Surrey.

And so Volume II is largely a retelling of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, with the disparate League being tasked with defending England from a Martian invasion. Moore continues to inject his universe with fictional characters drawn from the collective imagination of mankind, often with a diabolical twist – one particular appearance, in issue five, was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious.

Moore has more space to explore the characters in this issue, and Hyde in particular is more well-developed, yet on the whole I still felt like both characters and plot were far too fleeting. Perhaps it’s one of the constraints of the comic book’s short format, or perhaps it’s Moore’s own fault. I had a similar problem with Watchmen, which despite being magnificent, had only a few truly grand characters; Rorschach, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan dominated that novel, while Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre felt stunted. Similarly, the two main characters in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray – feel less developed than Hyde and to a lesser extent Griffin (whose betrayal seems forced in simply for the sake of it).

The appendix of Volume I contained a pulp fiction short story featuring Allan Quatermain, which I felt was tedious and not worth mentioning in my review, but the appendix for Volume II features a more intriguing “Traveller’s Alamanac” to the fictional world of the League. Since it is populated by fictional characters, it is likewise a world cobbled together from the vast work of human mythology and fiction. This turned out to be rather less interesting than I thought it would be. While Moore draws from sources ranging from The Odyssey to House of Leaves, the simple equation of history means that the vast majority of fictional realms are drawn from works at least several centuries old, and sometimes dating back to antiquity. And so the reader is typically drawn across a series of islands and archipelagos dreamt up as a simple fantasy or allegory by writers and poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and unless the reader happens to be an English Literature major, they’re unlikely to recognise most of the references. A sampling:

“We find an island called Lanternland by some, where great Demosthenes burned midnight oil, and putting in to shore upon my command upon its soil saw men to glow-worms turn: each Lord and Lady dressed with glass and gem that caught the shine of wanton candleflame. Jewelled crest and diamond hem, blazing they pass, no two the same, their radiance divine.

“Not far away an oracle is found: a bottle in a crypt upon an isle where did sweet Bacchus make a vineyard grow. The bottle speaketh with a crackling sound, and I did like its augurs not at all. We sailed south, past the Lotus-eater’s land of yellow sand and endless afternoon. A fellow there his care will soon forget in fragrant blooms, where hides worse slavery yet. Ogygia too we passed and left behind, where fair Calypso walked in violet meads, and so we came to find instead a place, a curious atoll by an island near…”

And so on. Moore’s breadth of literary knowledge is astonishing – he appears to not only be aware of the entire human canon, but to have actually read it all – but crafting as fictional traveller’s guide in which the reader is strung from brief description to brief description is not a valuable use of this knowledge. I actually had trouble finishing the appendices in both volumes, and it made me suspect that without the visual aid of the graphic novel, Moore would not be a particularly good writer.

But then, one can’t review a graphic novel and not fairly take into balance its visual aspect, and Volume II is marvellous, with some lovingly detailed scenes of chaos and terror as Martian tripods stalk the land. Incidentally, Steven Spielberg would appear to have closely copied Kevin O’Neill’s visual interpretation of the Martian tripods for his 2005 film. (Also, was it just me, or is the scene where Hyde tears open the casing of a fallen tripod and tells the Martian inside “Welcome to England!” a direct homage to Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth!” in Independence Day?)

Despite its flaws, Volume II is still a good read, and more entertaining than Volume I – though I suspect this is simply because The War of the Worlds is a timeless classic, and a better story than the fairly generic outing Moore came up with for Volume I. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a solid set of graphic novels, but still doesn’t even begin to compare to Moore’s magnum opus, Watchmen.

The Best Australian Stories 2010 edited by Cate Kennedy (2010) 270 p.

I’ve been trying to write more short stories lately, so I’m reading and studying a lot of them. This was a bit of an impulse buy; it’s an annual anthology I hadn’t heard of before, put out by Black Inc (which also publishes The Monthly and the Quarterly Essay). Black’s main competitor is Award-Winning Australian Writing, which has a fairly clear methodology. Kennedy’s anthology, on the other hand, appears to define “best” by her own discretion.

I don’t mean that as a complaint – the twenty-nine stories gathered in this book are for the most part excellent. First published in magazines ranging from Island to the Harvard Review, they feature some well-known names like Robert Drewe and Nam Le, but are for the most part written by people I’d never heard of. Scanning the names in Award-Winning Australian Writing 2010, and seeing that there’s no overlap, and considering this was the output from a small country in a single year, and reflecting on how most of these stories completely fly under everbody’s radar… well, it’s actually quite depressing from the standpoint of an aspiring writer. I am a very small fish, and this pond is bigger than I thought.

For a reader, however, The Best Australian Stories 2010 is a showcase of considerable talent. The stories are of course firmly in what Michael Chabon would dub the “quotidian plotless” genre, which is not an insult, but does mean that I recommend this only to those who appreciate Serious Literature (which, for the record, I consider to be a genre like any other).

On that topic, I found it interesting (in a morbid sort of way) to note that the vast majority of stories in this book deal with generally negative emotions, tones and atmospheres. The pages are full of fractured relationships, horrible events, gnawing uncertainties, wistful regrets and outright depression. Despite coming from a diverse group of authors, the overriding tone is without a doubt one of melancholy. There are moments of appreciative happiness, but these are usually contrasted against enough doom and gloom to make you think you’re watching Australian Story. Some manage a more upbeat nature – notably John Kinsella’s “Bats” and Joshua Lobb’s “I Forgot My Programme So I Went To Get It Back” – but these are relatively few. Even the most enjoyable story in the book, Ryan O’Neill’s hilarious “The Eunuch In The Harem,” is a black comedy, relating a literary feud in the pages of a Sydney newspaper, ending in murder and a darkly comic twist.

There’s nothing technically wrong with this, of course, which is why I’m presenting it as a point of interest rather than a mark against the book. Conflict is vital, melancholy doesn’t prevent a story from being good, and if I was reading a single story I would never have noticed it. But when they’re all stacked on top of each other it has an undeniable cumulative effect. Why so sad?

I notice this dejected tone in a lot of indie Australian films and TV shows as well, particularly on SBS; a sweeping sense of doleful nihilism that’s hard to articulate. It stands in stark contrast to real Australia, which for all its flaws is a land of sunshine and good fortune. Is this tendency to focus on the problems and injustices of life something that’s uniquely Australian? Or is it present in most short stories that receive acclaim – another signal that Serious Literature Is Not Supposed To Be Fun?

I don’t want to come across as a conspiracy theorist, but…

It seems awfully suspicious to me how quickly the US dumped bin Laden’s body.

Maybe it’s psychological. The 9/11 attacks happened when I was 12. Osama bin Laden has been our society’s cultural boogeyman for nearly half my life. For almost ten years, one of the most recognisable faces in the world – ghostly, demonic, more of a symbol than an actual man – has been infuriatingly beyond our grasp. Sketchy reports of his death surfaced at least once a year. He seemed to have disappeared entirely. His name became a by-word not just for evil, but for something that was impossible to find. It seemed like his ultimate fate in the history books would be uncertain, his name followed by a (1957 – ?), his legacy having trailed out somewhere on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And then suddenly, when most of us had given up or forgotten or no longer cared, it was announced that he had been found and killed. And then, before we could even wrap our heads around this news, we were told that his body had been buried at sea.

The US says this was done to avoid creating a gravesite that would become a pilgrimage site for extremists (understandable), avoid the hassle of finding a country that would accept having bin Laden’s body buried on their soil (understandable), and to respect the Muslim tradition of not cremating bodies and disposing of them in a short timeframe. This last one is not so understandable. Why would we give a fuck about treating Osama bin Laden’s corpse with respect? Why would we prioritise that above other concerns, like independent verification?

How did this go down? Dust-off outside Abbotabad, helicopter flight to a US Navy vessel off Karachi, quick DNA sampling and dental extraction, and then tossed over the side like a Big Mac wrapper? How many people actually came into contact with that corpse? Who was the highest-ranking official who did?

I find it very… well, either “suspicious”‘ or perhaps merely “unsatisfying,” that a body we invested ten years of effort into locating – dead or alive – was so rapidly destroyed.

Maybe it’s because we had such stark images of Saddam Hussein’s capture, trial and execution in comparison, but bin Laden’s imageless death feels somehow wrong. This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. I’m not saying he should have been taken back to the US and stuffed and put in a museum, but it couldn’t have hurt to have kept him in cold storage for a month or two. That would allow independent DNA verification (instead of whatever the CIA tells us), would allow high-ranking military figures and US government officials to inspect the body, and – most importantly – would go a long way towards discrediting exactly the kind of conspiracy theory that I’m sort-of-suggesting here.

Maybe more information will emerge in the coming weeks. I hope it does. I don’t want to go about accusing Obama of manufacturing some kind of fake emotional closure on the issue. Obama is a worse president than Bush and an appalling disappointment to any honest leftist, but he’s still above that. But if this rapid burial isn’t suspicious, it is, at the very least, sloppy and careless. Because now these conspiracy theories are going to start appearing like cockroaches in spring – and not without cause.

Update, May 5: Aaaand further details are released. Apparently it was less of a life-or-death firefight and more of a brutal massacre, and the US can’t release photos of bin Laden’s corpse because of that classic catch-all excuse, “national security.”

Obama also says: “There are going to be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see Bin Laden walking on this earth again.” Um, we didn’t see him walking the earth before, either. That’s the whole point of wanting to see photo evidence of this event.

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