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The Truth by Terry Pratchett (2000) 448 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (2004) 565 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds (2002) 646 p.

Revelation Space, the first novel in a future history Reynolds had been writing in short fiction since the 1980s, ended with the revelation of a dire threat facing humanity’s nascent interstellar society: the provocation of an ancient galactic machinery set in place to wipe out intelligent life. Chasm City, a prequel, told a standalone story in which the threat of that machinery is only briefly touched upon, in an eerie encounter with an alien which describes how its own species has been harried to the point of extinction.

Redemption Ark, which continues the trilogy proper, explores the first real contact between human beings and the alien machines they come to call Inhibitors, as the predators arrive in the same system as the sparsely populated planet Resurgam – where most of Revelation Space took place, and from where the Inhibitors’ warning system was triggered – and begin deconstructing the moons of a gas giant to provide themselves with the raw material to build something else, which the characters surmise will be some kind of gargantuan weapon. One of the things I admire about Reynolds’ universe is that it mostly adheres to the iron laws of science and space-time, and properly instils in the reader a sense of just how vast it is. In a book involving interstellar travel it’s natural to feel like intrastellar distances are no big deal. But the Inhibitors arriving around another planet is as distant from the people of Resurgam as an alien incursion into the moons of Jupiter would be for us, particularly since their isolation from the rest of human-settled space means their technology has regressed and they’re no longer capable of space travel on their own. The only people aware of the Inhibitors’ arrival are the three remaining crew of the enormous spacecraft Nostalgia for Infinity, which arrived in the system in Revelation Space and provided another example of that vast distance: a powerful starship is perfectly capable of showing up and threatening your entire planet with its advanced and powerful weapons, and what is any other government or authority twenty years’ of light travel away going to do about it?

There’s another excellent demonstration of this in Redemption Ark, as protagonist Clavain (from Reynolds’ short stories Great Wall of Mars and Glacier) defects from his own people, the Borg-like Conjoiners, upon learning that they plan to abandon the rest of humanity to the Inhibitors, and then gives chase to their own agent Skade as she attempts to lead a warship to Resurgam first, to recover the advanced weapons secreted aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity. This leads to one of the most inventive setpieces I’ve read in sci-fi, unfolding across subjective years of relativistic high-speed travel, Skade laying traps for Clavain’s ship in her wake, which he then has to devise means to counter. (“He had the feeling that Skade and he were making up the rules of interstellar combat as they went on.”)

It’s been too long since I read Revelation Space to tell whether Reynolds has improved at the things that bugged me or whether I’m just more tolerant of them now; I suspect the latter. He’s still prone to infodumping and could still use tighter editing, though I at least liked his characters better this time, who are less Machiavellian psychopaths and more hyper-competent people who are doing what they genuinely think is best for innocent people in the face of an extinction-level threat. Even Skade, the novel’s most ruthless antagonist, has ultimately altruistic motives – in fact, in their own inhuman way, so do the Inhibitors.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m tired of saving-the-world stories, and prefer a well-told story about smaller stakes affecting only a handful of characters; because of course if something means the world to an individual, well, that’s all that needs to matter to the audience. (A good example of this is the surprisingly fun Star Wars film Solo, which I think I enjoyed more than any of the franchise’s main entries; also The Mandalorian, though that’s superior to the rest of the main series for a number of other reasons too.) I found this reversed with Revelation Space and Redemption Ark: it’s all much more interesting now that the survival of the human race is at stake. Probably that’s just because Reynolds isn’t the best character writer in the world, and the most interesting thing about Revelation Space was its aesthetics of Gothic horror in space. In Redemption Ark he properly begins the story that perfectly matches the universe of eerie dread he’s created. It’s another big thick book, but I think I might just go straight on to the end of the trilogy, Absolution Gap, to wrap up the year.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian (1993) 308 p.

Book sixteen of the Aubrey-Maturin series and book four of their five-book circumnavigation of the globe, The Wine-Dark Sea sees the Surprise move on from the Polynesian island of Moahu for the western shores of South America. In other words it’s another chapter of O’Brian’s giga-novel, and a fairly diffuse one. It begins with strange and unprecedented quirks of ocean behaviour and air pressure which both Aubrey and Maturin are at a loss to explain, but which the reader has probably figured out from the cover illustration, yet which nonetheless marvellously presents another unexpected wonder of the big wide watery world. We then encounter the French revolutionary from Moahu with his dangerously democratic ideas which come to influence the lower decks; Stephen’s mission to attempt to turn the government of Peru towards Britain rather than France; a dangerous escapade for Jack and some officers in a small boat; and probably the book’s most memorable chapter, a naturalising sojourn for Stephen in the Andes featuring llamas, condors, bromeliads and altitude-sickness-inducing heights.

“If you are as mistaken about the birds as you are about my head for heights, Molina will have no great burden to carry, at all,” reflected Stephen, who had often heard, each time with deeper dismay, of the spidery Inca bridges upon which intrepid Indians crossed torrents raging a thousand feet below them, even hauling immobilized animals over by means of a primitive windlass, the whole construction swaying wildly to and fro as even a single traveller reached the middle, the first false step being the last. “How long does it take to fall a thousand feet?” he asked himself, and as the troop set out he tried to make the calculation; but his arithmetical powers were and always had been weak. “Long enough to make an act of contrition, at all events,” he said, abandoning the answer of seven hours and odd seconds as absurd.

I think this is also the first of the novels I’ve read since revisiting Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is both a better film and a better adaptation than I remembered. The Jack and Stephen of the film are not quite the Jack and Stephen of the books, and yet I still found the actors’ voices slipping into my internal narration as I read, and some uncharitable part of my brain almost wishes Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany’s careers would fall on hard times so they end up on Cameo and we can pay them to read out passages of dialogue.

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds (2001) 616 p.

I first read Revelation Space nearly eight years ago and didn’t much care for it; it had some promising aspects but was weighed down by stilted dialogue, shallow characters and a bloated prose style. But since then I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of Reynolds’ other novels and collections of his short stories – particularly Pushing Ice, House of Suns and Terminal World, all of which ended up on my end-of-year best books lists. He’s never written a truly amazing 10/10 five-star book, but he consistently writes 8/10 four-star books that are engrossing, page-turning potboilers, which is frankly good enough for me in the sea of crap that’s out there.

So I figured it was worth going back and actually finishing the Revelation Space trilogy – which I’ll still do, even though it turns out his second novel Chasm City is set in the same universe but is actually a stand-alone story taking place centuries beforehand. Rather than the blockbuster saving-the-world stakes of Revelation Space, Chasm City is a more personal story of vengeance, as former soldier and bodyguard Tanner Mirabel travels from his war-torn home of Sky’s Edge to the planet of Yellowstone, in pursuit of the man who killed his boss’ wife. (Who, of course, Mirabel was himself in love with – take away the sci-fi setting and Chasm City’s plot is basically a Liam Neeson film). Yellowstone is the epicentre of human civilisation, an almost post-scarcity society of unparalleled wealth and prosperity, but the novel begins with an introductory document greeting incoming travellers awakening after decades of interstellar hibernation:

Dear Newcomer,

Welcome to the Epsilon Eridani system.

Despite all that has happened, we hope your stay here will be a pleasant one. For your information we have compiled this document to explain some of the key events in our recent history. It is intended that this information will ease your transition into a culture which may be markedly different from the one you were expecting to find when you embarked at your point of origin. It is important that you realise that others have come before you. Their experiences have helped us shape this document in a manner designed to minimise the shock of cultural adjustment. We have found that attempts to gloss over or understate the truth of what happened – of what continues to happen – are ultimately harmful; that the best approach – based on a statistical study of cases such as yours – is to present the facts in as open and honest manner as possible.

Let us therefore begin the process of adjustment.

As an “easing” that’s right up there with “are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?” What has occurred, it transpires, is something the locals call the Melding Plague: a virus that warps and mutates advanced nanotechnology, which in a utopian interplanetary society that was heavily dependent on such technology turned out to be a Big Problem. Chasm City, the largest on Yellowstone, is now a semi-post-apocalyptic ruin in which the lucky survivors (of which there are still millions) have removed their swish sci-fi implants and rely on more fundamental technology like bulky mobile phones and honest-to-god steam power. (This clash of high-tech and low-tech clearly fascinated Reynolds, since he returned to it in Terminal World.) The city itself is a decaying wreck, the orbital habitats once known as the Glitter Band reduced to a derelict ring called the Rust Belt, and the amoral upper crust are all addicted to a mysterious drug called Dream Fuel and man-hunting the povvos in their spare time.

There was a discussion on Twitter the other day I can no longer find in which somebody referred to Dune – both the recent Villeneuve adaptation and the franchise – as “mostly vibes,” and not as an insult. Alastair Reynolds’ books, I think – certainly the Revelation Space universe – have fantastic vibes; a science fiction approach to the aesthetics of gothic horror that I haven’t seen done this well since twenty years prior in the film Alien. (Yes, it’s weird to think this 2001 book sits almost precisely halfway between 1979’s Alien and us.) I don’t remember much of the plot from Revelation Space, but I remember its atmosphere. I remember the gargantuan, Gormenghast-esque spaceship with a miniscule crew spending decades to travel between stars; I remember the archaeological dig of an extinct alien species whose myths hinted at some terrible and vengeful god; I remember the impression that humanity’s scattered, isolated colonies were all authoritarian dictatorships, their little remaining statecraft consisting mostly of threats and coercion. If you think about the logistics of it too much it falls apart (how do they still have expensive restaurants for the rich and thus currency, or capitalism at all?) but Chasm City’s best aspect is simply the general atmosphere of this husk of a city, its golden age come to an abrupt end, an awful alien place of sulphur and dirt and gross inequality. It’s also in small glimpses we get of Revelation Space’s main plot, which subscribes to the Dark Forest answer to the Fermi paradox; one of the novel’s creepiest moments comes as a character encounters one of the universe’s exceptionally rare intelligent alien life forms, dubbed ‘grubs,’ which explains why its species has become so reclusive and reluctant to contact others:

“Then we did find other grubs. But they weren’t like us. Not like grubs at all, really. They didn’t want to… tolerate us. They were like a void warren but… empty. Just the void warren.”
A ship with no living things aboard it.
“Machine intelligences?”
The mouth smiled again. It was quite obscene, really. “Yes. Machine intelligences. Hungry machines. Machines that eat grubs. Machines that eat us.”

Chasm City is also a dual story, as Mirabel is infected with an engineered virus shortly before departing for Yellowstone, which starts giving him flashbacks to the life of his home planet’s founder: Sky Hausmann, a captain aboard a fleet of five sleeper/generational starships launched from Earth on a journey which will take centuries. As the ships’ societies gradually begin to drift apart and they develop into a sort of cold war, Sky realises that old ghost stories about a mysterious sixth ship trailing the fleet are actually true – a dark and silent vessel has been shadowing them for generations. Suspecting that perhaps the vessels of the fleet broke into outright conflict in the past, only for this to be erased from history, and that this ghost ship is a derelict shell, he leads a small expedition to it and finds something even stranger and more frightening than he could’ve imagined. This is where Reynolds really excels across all his fiction: at creating a sci-fi mystery, a foreboding sense of horror at the unknown dangers of the big, strange galaxy. Chasm City has many of the same issues as Revelation Space – paper-thin characters and overly expository dialogue chief among them – but it’s still a pretty enjoyable dark sci-fi adventure, and I’m looking forward to getting back into the story of the main trilogy with Redemption Ark.

Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois (1999) 580 p.

An alternate history nuclear war thriller in which the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a shooting war, the Soviet Union was obliterated and many American cities were devastated, leaving the country a shadow of its former self, Resurrection Day takes place 10 years later following a plucky Boston Globe journalist investigating the murder of someone with mysterious links to that fateful week in the White House in the October of ’63.

It’s fine, for the most part, but is way too bloated for the story it’s trying to tell, and easily could have been whittled down by several hundred pages.  The post-bomb world also falls apart if you start picking at it; for example, large parts of the surviving United States are only kept fed by British aid. Britain is (by far) a net importer of food, so I’m not sure how generous they’d be after the collapse of global trade that would surely result from the nuclear devastation of much of North America and Eurasia. And on the other hand, much of the plot revolves around a nefarious plan by the British to further neuter the United States and reclaim their place as global superpower, hampered by British SAS troops who… feel bad about that for some reason? As with Whitley Streiber and his novel Warday, Brendan DuBois seems to have a rather skewed view of how gushingly grateful the average Briton is about America’s participation in World War II. And also, for that matter, of how the average Briton talks. The first chapter follows an English colonel and contains “chaps,” “bloody,” “bollocks up” (???), “loo,” “Queen and country” and – this cracked me up – a character whose hand is shaking so badly she “had to put down her teacup.” Cloistered Americans with a stereotypical view of other countries are not the best writers to be speculating on the geopolitics of a post-nuclear-war world, especially when it’s an integral part of the plot. Anyway, Resurrection Day is fine, but unless you have a particular interest in nuclear war fiction I wouldn’t seek it out.

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