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Irontown Blues by John Varley (2018) 289 p.



Back in the 1970s John Varley – not exactly one of America’s most prolific writers – wrote a novel and a bunch of short stories set in what he called his Eight Worlds, a series in which humanity has been evicted from Earth by the mysterious, all-powerful alien Invaders and left to scrape out a living in the remaining worlds of the solar system. He revisited the series in the 1990s with Steel Beach and The Golden Globe, the latter of which is probably my favourite science fiction novel: a delightfully witty romp around this imagined future society narrated by an actor/conman who’s attempting to get to Luna in time to portray King Lear while being pursued by a nearly unkillable mafia hitman. They’re mostly light-hearted books but they’re creative, engaging and a great amount of fun. Varley spoke for years about wanting to eventually write a third book to finish off what he considered his “metals” trilogy, which would be called Irontown Blues and focus on a cop. Twenty years down the track and he’s finally written it, though protagonist Christopher Bach is actually an ex-cop turned private investigator.

It is, unfortunately, a huge disappointment. I probably look at Varley’s previous novels with a touch of nostalgia, but there’s no denying that they’re objectively very good while Irontown Blues is, if one is being generous, objectively lacking in a lot of ways. Very little happens in this book. It starts off appropriately enough with a mysterious dame entering Bach’s pulpy noir-themed office – a key theme of the Eight Worlds series has always been how humanity, reduced to a stub of its former civilisation, clings onto the various cultures of the past. She claims to have been infected with an engineered disease and hires Bach to find out who did it. Bach watches some CCTV footage, visits his mother, follows one red herring to a Chinese restaurant, goes and inspects a mostly empty room, gets kidnapped, and… that’s basically it. That’s all that happens, aside from a central flashback covering events which already occurred in Steel Beach and then an uncompelling climax which more or less repeats what happened in that flashback. (The book is noticeably only about half the length of Steel Beach or The Golden Globe.) Along the way, the Lunar cities Bach moves through feel empty and under-sketched, in stark contrast to the brilliantly painted society Varley used to give us. Half the novel is narrated by Bach’s cybernetically enhanced canine companion, Sherlock – an interesting enough concept which eventually becomes grating and often leads to the same scene being told twice from two different perspectives in a book which already feels like it’s just playing out the clock.

Varley’s written some bad books before – the Gaea trilogy, for example – but this is really the first piece of his writing which has mostly just bored me. It feels like he’d had the concept of “cop story in the Eight Worlds” kicking around in the back of his head for decades and decided to just finally write it, ignoring the fact that the reason he hadn’t got around to doing so yet was because he hadn’t actually thought of anything interesting to flesh it out with. A very disappointing end to an otherwise great series – read Steel Beach and The Golden Globe and leave it at that.


The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) 471 p.


I finished this the same week the IPCC warned the world in very polite terms that we’ve ignored climate change for so long that we now need to shift to an all-hands-on-deck, Hitler-is-on-the-march campaign of intense carbon reduction and clean energy transition, which of course we won’t. The morning after the report was released I woke to the voice of Australia’s environment minister (and former mining industry employee) telling ABC Radio that it would be “irresponsible” to commit to moving away from coal by 2050. These people make me incredibly fucking angry, as do my fellow Australians who keep voting for them because they refuse to believe that something they can’t personally perceive – something which is occurring on a timescale of decades and centuries rather than weeks or months – is actually worth paying slightly higher prices on their power bills or only making 4% instead of 6% on their stock portfolio this year.

So The Overstorey is a timely novel, a Booker-nominated* environmental saga following half a dozen people whose stories become intrinsically linked after they spend time as radical activists in the early 1990s trying to prevent old growth redwood forests from being logged in California. I thought, at first, it was a collection of short stories, these various characters only connected in the sense that their lives had been influenced by trees in some way – but after the first third of the book, it shifts to a more traditional fashion as the characters all slowly come together, join the movement and face down the overwhelming power of state-backed commerce and natural exploitation.

Powers is, first off, a lyrical writer. There are passages in this book that genuinely shine:

She reads to him of how the English first swarmed a continent that rose from the ocean overnight, seeking masts for their leviathan frigates and ships of the line, masts that no place in all stripped Europe, not even the farthest boreal north, could any longer provide… It’s a story to match any fiction: the well-wooded land, succumbing to prosperity. The light, soft, strong, dimensioned boards, sold back across the ocean as far away as Africa. The triangular profit making the infant country’s fortune: lumber to the Guinea coast, black bodies to the Indies, sugar and rum back up to New England, with its stately mansions all built of eastern white pine. White pine framing out cities, making millions in sawmill fortunes, laying a bed of rails across the continent, building and pitching warships and whaling fleets that wander out from Brooklyn and New Bedford into the unmapped South Pacific, ships made of a thousand trees or more. The white pines of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota: split into a hundred billion roof shingles. A hundred million board feet a year, splintered into matchsticks.

And his message is an important one, because even if we’ve heard a message a thousand times before, it’s always worth hearing it again in a beautifully written way. Deforestation, environmental degradation, climate change, the endless human lust for growth: all of these things are connected, and all of these things are leading us towards a world which will at worst be unable to support our own survival and at best be unlikely to contain the wonders of the natural world which we’ve enjoyed over the past few centuries: the redwood forests, the coral reefs, the enormous variety of wild animals.

He’s left in the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.

The Overstorey tends towards the mystical, possibly at the risk of harming its message to a large swathe of readers. I can believe that the human race is turbofucking the planet without believing that trees are sentient, that Manhattan is a less marvellous place now than it was 500 years ago, or that we should (as several characters do) rename ourselves after trees and go live in a forest. It’s still a good and important book, and I finished it with much more appreciation for Powers as a writer than I did for the first third or so. Besides, it’s possibly worth re-examining how much of our disdain for Earth Mother hippie types has been drilled into us by 60 years of capitalist messaging. Considering what the world’s climate scientists keep telling us in increasingly desperate reports, maybe the hippies were on to something.


*I continue to be irritated by the Booker’s decision to open itself to American writers, and was amused when this novel kicked off with a Pulitzeresque intergenerational immigrant family saga in the Midwest. There’s an argument to be made that the Booker only being open to the Commonwealth countries is, like the Commonwealth itself, an imperial anachronism, and that the English language is a more natural jurisdiction for the award. But in a world were most of the moneyed authorial classes who speak English as a first language are going to be found in the US anyway, I think it’s more important to have a major book award which is reserved for the rest of us. Or, as Peter Carey put it, the notion of the Americans opening up the Pulitzer to the rest of the world is inconceivable – so why on earth have we gone and done this?

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The United States by Jeffrey Lewis (2018) 294 p.

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This one, as the British say, does what it says on the tin. Jeffrey Lewis – an American professor of geopolitics and nuclear arms – has written what he terms a “speculative novel” about a North Korean nuclear attack against the United States. The clearest manner in which it doesn’t live up to the title is that it reads more like a very interesting internet long-read or verbal history rather than a very dry commission report, but we’ll obviously forgive him for that.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing and it was on my to-read list before it was even published. Not everybody feels the same way; I can’t find the tweet now but I remember somebody on Twitter ranting about how a book like this was just more fuel to the fire of anti-American sentiment against North Korea. People like that are usually tankies, but it’s fair to say the notion of North Korea attacking the United States seems so far from reality as to be lurid, since it would certainly result in the destruction of North Korea itself. This is based on Cold War thinking and is what’s called “rational actor” theory. It’s not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely right. In this review I won’t go into details about what unfolds in the book (since the details are what make it so compelling) but I will say that Lewis does a superb job of developing the slowly escalating action/reaction series of events in a way which feels entirely plausible to a layperson, up to and including strikes against the United States. My only gripe was the notion that North Korea has delivery systems (or could in 2020 have delivery systems) capable of reaching the United States. Well, I googled around a bit and it turns out that’s my bad for doubting a nuclear scholar – as of 2017, North Korea does indeed have crude ICBMs of some kind. We don’t know how many nuclear warheads they may have and we don’t know how reliable their ICBMs may or may not be, but they do have them. So here we are in the modern age and we have to accept an unprecedentedly totalitarian state with the ability to rain death down on countries across oceans, and even in my lefty peacenik brain, even as a former resident of Seoul, there’s a part of me that has to wonder if the US and South Korea shouldn’t have just invaded in the 2000s and accepted the casualties.

Anyway: this is a good book. The first half is entirely based around the sequence of events leading to this seemingly unthinkable scenario, and Lewis does a brilliant job of painting this, primarily by modelling every step around a real historical event: the shooting down of KAL 007, the sinking of the Sewol, the attack on the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle and his supporters because of Kim’s fear that China was grooming the man as a regent. Other incidents are based not just on Lewis’ speculation but (bear with me) on a reasonable speculation of what North Korean intelligence agents might speculate – like the little-known attack on Dora Farm, in which the US attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein at the outbreak of the Iraq War. One which drew my particular attention was an examination of a nuclear firestorm which develops in Tokyo, partly caused by flammable cladding used in many modern apartment buildings, with Lewis citing not just the Grenfell Tower disaster but a fire in my own city of Melbourne and a subsequent report which found as many as half of Victoria’s modern structures might be at risk. It’s nice to know an American nuclear academic acknowledges that report, even if the Victorian government has mostly ignored it.

Most surprisingly of all – as I read the descriptions of nuclear strike victims towards the end and felt they flowed together, sounded familiar and lacked a certain creative flair – I was surprised to see Lewis reveal in the afterword that every one of them was lifted verbatim from the account of a Hiroshima survivor. “I did this because it is easy, as Americans, to let the slightly stilted grammar of a translation create a false sense of distance between ourselves and the very real people who suffered and died,” Lewis writes. This is an interesting choice, but I’m nonetheless bound to point out that the second half of the book felt weaker and less gripping than the first; when reading about the nuclear strike on New York I couldn’t help but compare it to Whitley Strieber’s much more vivid, multi-chapter description in the 1984 novel Warday. I’ve criticised plenty of books I’ve read lately for being padded, but this is one which, if anything, could have stood to be three times as long.

There’s another issue here, and that’s Donald Trump. I imagine Lewis had probably been thinking about writing a book like this for quite a while, and the election of an unusually unfit president threw a spanner in the works; but at the same time he seems more than happy to explore exactly how a nuclear crisis scenario would unfold under this particular president. We get a largely accurate (in my view and the view of any sensible person) impression of a president who is part toddler and part angry stepfather, a man with little to no interest in his responsibilities, coaxed and goaded and nudged by various other actors within the executive branch. Perhaps owing to the high staff turnover in the administration and a timeline set in 2020, Lewis opts to use fictional stand-in Francis Kelly for the chief of staff – clearly modelled on John Flynn – and speculates Keith Kellogg will become national security adviser. Together with James Mattis, Nikki Halley and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, much of the US government’s reaction is shown from the perspective of these five figures, as they manage (or struggle to manage) the escalating conflict without Trump’s input. As with other aspects of the book, this picture is largely drawn from careful study of news reports, memoirs, and cabinet leaks; it’s when shit really kicks off and Lewis has to speculate about issues surrounding the use of the nuclear football or the evacuation of the president that it sometimes wavers. In his defence, I’ll say that Lewis is clearly an academic first and a creative writer second, and also that Donald Trump being president puts us all in an utterly insane parallel universe that’s stranger than fiction in the first place. Though I must add that Lewis does a merely average job of mimicking Trump’s tweeting, writing and speaking style; contrary to the belief of every cut-rate comedian in the world, it’s not actually very imitable. The book unwisely ends with a rebuttal by former president Trump attacking the commission as Fake News, Crooked Hillary, Very Unfair, et cetera – the low-hanging fruit we’ve all heard a thousand times at this point and which adds nothing to what came before it. But my criticism is largely from the extent to which Lewis pushes this angle, not that he pushes it in the first place. Trump’s reaction to what’s going on can sometimes seem farcical – but so has most of the last two years. That’s hardly Lewis’ fault.

There are other issues with the book. It does occasionally feel like something that was rushed a bit for timely publication. It gives excessive weight to the lead-up to the attack, and leaves various descriptions of devastated American cities as a sort of afterthought. The nuclear devastation maps and their wordy legends are lifted directly from the Nuke Map website (with appendix credit, but still.) The characterisation of Trump and his advisers often ventures into areas where, as a writer, Lewis’ reach exceeds his grasp.

But warts and all, I thought it was great. It’s not the kind of book for everyone, but if a fiction-as-fact account about North Korea launching nuclear weapons against the United States seems like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, I can guarantee you this is one which is done realistically, compellingly, and with a professional amount of research and  historical comparison underlining every inch of its speculation. It has its flaws, as I’ve pointed out above, but the fact is that this is a 294-page book which I read over the space of two days while I had full days at work plus university assignments due. It is – and I don’t usually use this word – unputdownable.

The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay (2018) 201 p.


This is one of those thrillers where the blurb sets the scene pretty well. It’s a basic premise, opening from the point of view of seven-year-old Wen, a Chinese adoptee daughter of a gay couple who are vacationing in a remote cabin in New Hampshire. She’s catching grasshoppers out the front when a stranger approaches her – a big friendly man, all smiles, whose mere presence is threatening to an adult reader despite no overt signs of trying to lure her away. Soon his “friends” show up, bearing makeshift weapons, and Wen runs for the cabin, and even though all four of them are apologetic and polite, their message is horrifying: in the home invasion stand-off that ensues, the interlopers tell Wen’s family that one of them must be sacrificed to avert the apocalypse.

That’s the elevator pitch. You’d assume that given the scenario, a lot of the novel’s impact would hinge on the are they/aren’t they question of whether the four horsemen of the apocalypse are telling the truth, or whether it’s all a mindfuck. Except we get point-of-view chapters from them fairly early on, and so we know that as far as they know, they are telling the truth. Which makes it tedious, but not as tedious as the page-in-page-out waffling, padding and bloat that results from Tremblay stretching out a concept for a short story – or maybe, with a talented cast and crew, a film – into a 200-page novel. The vast bulk of The Cabin At The End Of The World consists of astonishingly repetitive internal monologues, thought patterns, and back-and-forth arguments between the thinly drawn characters on both sides of the conflict. I started skim-reading it not long after Tremblay thought it was a good idea – in the middle of the intruders’ initial siege of the cabin – to digress from the action at hand and instead give us several pages of expository background about one of the main characters and his upbringing, including (I shit you not) the kinds of authors his parents enjoyed reading. That fact alone should tell you everything you need to know about this book and about Tremblay’s baffling inability to create or maintain narrative tension.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018) 407 p.

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A man awakens in a forest with no memories. He witnesses what he thinks is a murder. He makes his way to a crumbling country manor called Blackheath, where people tell him that his name is Dr Sebastian Bell. A ball is planned for that evening, to mark the return of Evelyn Hardcastle to her ancestral home. Dr Bell tries to remember what he see, tries to remember who he is. But he soon learns the rules of Blackheath, and that he in fact not Dr Bell but a visitor named Aiden Bishop. Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered tonight, and Bishop must find her killer. The day will repeat itself over and over again; he will wake up in the body of a new “host” each day; if he has failed to solve the murder after eight days and eight hosts, the cycle will start afresh – just as it already has hundreds if not thousands of times.

So it’s a mix of Groundhog Day, The First 15 Lives of Harry August and an Agatha Christie story. The idea is intriguing enough, but falls flat as a novel. It’s clogged with purple prose, bloating up each page to the point where the book easily could have been half the length. And this is a problem, because the story moves slowly enough as it is, particularly when – given the premise – we end up experiencing the same events over and over again from the points of view of different people. As you’d expect, Blackheath has a whole cast of characters, most of them thinly drawn and with names that blend together. (Three of Bishop’s eight hosts are named Dance, Davies and Derby – for God’s sake, man, cut your readers some slack!) The mystery of how and why Bishop ended up time-hopping through Blackheath is resolved, in a sense, but the story behind that would have been far more interesting to explore in depth than the elaborate Christiesque murder plot we get instead. I’ve only ever read one Agatha Christie novel, considered her best, and found the plot laughably stupid – so if that’s what he’s trying to ape I can’t really fault Turton for creating an equally byzantine Rube Goldberg mystery. The problem is that the whole thing is tedious; by the time the killer was monologuing their way through the climax, I was just glad I was nearly done with the book. An imaginative premise – shame about the execution.

The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian (1990) 408 p.

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This one shifts gears a bit; the entire Aubrey-Maturin series is something of a single story, but the last two installments in particular (Desolation Island and The Fortune of War) flowed together like episodes in a TV season. (And how I wish HBO, in this golden age of television, would sink a few million into an Aubrey-Maturin series.) Maybe it’s because everything these days is a trilogy, but I half expected The Surgeon’s Mate, which begins in Halifax after Aubrey, Maturin and Diana have escaped Boston, to find some way to conspire to delay them from returning home, leaving the three books as a sort of trilogy in a single voyage. Nope. They’re back in dear old Blighty in the first hundred pages, before setting off again for – well, I won’t say where.

This volume didn’t grab me quite as much as the last two – possibly because it’s more disjointed, covering a number of voyages and incidents – but by this point in the series O’Brian has very clearly hit his stride, and every book is a delight. The Surgeon’s Mate balances the Jack-at-sea stuff quite well with the Stephen’s-life-of-espionage stuff, and after two books in distant oceans we spend most of this one back in a European sea, but a relatively forgotten one, which feels pleasantly exotic. I understand this is also the point at which the series’ timeline diverges from real life and enters a sort of permanent 1812 for the next ten books or so – but no matter. Another charming volume in a wonderful series.

The World in Winter by John Christopher (1962) 224 p.

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John Christopher, as always, is great for an engaging sci-fi potboiler you burn through in a couple of days. This one’s an apocalyptic story about a calamitous weather event causing a new ice age which renders the northern latitudes inhospitable, similar to the film The Day After Tomorrow, and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s also Christopher’s most nakedly political book, but discussing that will involve spoiling the entire plot, so duck out now if you want to read it.

Scene: London in the early 1960s. Men are men and women are women, and the first act of The World in Winter, while briefly mentioning the news stories about the sun’s radiation dipping, is mostly about the emotionally cold protagonist Andrew, his new friend David, and the love quadrangle that emerges between themselves and their trophy wives Carol and Madeleine: scotch and soda, sitting rooms, suspenders, it’s all very quaint in a Mad Men sort of way, with an emotionally stiff British slant. As the scale of the crisis becomes clear and the British government introduces rationing, David (a senior civil servant) urges the others to emigrate to tropical climes, where he will eventually follow. When the situation worsens, with a military cordon around a snowbound central London and the temperatures steadily dropping, they follow this advice, and the second act follows Andrew, Carol and Madeleine as refugees in Nigeria – the British pound worthless, European migrants lucky if they can get basic labouring jobs, Andrew and Madeleine reduced to living in a slum. The third act follows Andrew after the new normal has set in and he joins a Nigerian hovercraft expedition which is probing back into England for a possible re-colonisation effort, attempting to beat the other African states in a sort of Scramble for Europe. (Yes, hovercrafts. Britain thought they were going to be the Next Big Thing in the 1960s; my only memory of old-school Doctor Who is Tom Baker engaging in a risible hovercraft chase.)

Now, there are plenty of people who consider this a racist book and I can understand why. But I think it’s important to separate product-of-its-time racism (i.e. words like Negress) from a fundamentally racist worldview or assertion. This is, after all, speculative fiction. So what is Christopher speculating, beyond the catastrophic events of a new ice age? It’s obviously a thought experiment in turning the tables, in asking a white reader how they would feel if they were a penniless refugee in a country that resents their presence (even more topical, these days) but also in ultimately asking how a weak and impoverished Britain would feel if the shoe were on the other foot and it was Nigeria colonising London under the guise of aid and charity.

The answer to both of those, of course, is obvious. But it’s the stuff between the cracks that makes it more interesting, and while reading this in the 21st century you’re constantly waiting for the shoe to drop – for Christopher to say something terribly racist or portray Nigerians as hopeless buffoons. He does brush up against this at times, though nothing depicted as negative (Nigeria having a bribery-riddled culture, an undisciplined civil service or a society rife with tribal affiliations) is presented as something inherent to the race. There was something I couldn’t really put my finger on, though. I did think for a moment near the end of the book that he’d finally showed his hand:

Abonitu turned to look at him. “A black man. Some years ago, in your Parliament, one of your leaders said that all Africans are liars.” But for Epimenedes’ paradox, I would say that also. Abonitu, an African, says that all Africans are liars. There is no paradox, really, of course. To be a liar is not to lie with every word one speaks. And we are murderers, too, and cheats and tyrants. Some of the time.”

On the face of it this seems outright racist, and no less so for Christopher putting the words into the mouth of a well-educated Nigerian character. But this segment comes directly after the expedition has just escaped frozen Guernsey, which has been turned into a petty little kingdom ruled over by a violent, ruthless white man. Neither Christopher the author nor Abonitu the character believes that white men are not also capable of being liars, murderers, cheats and tyrants. This may be a sci-fi potboiler but you still need to read between the lines.

It was during those last few chapters, after the encounter on Guernsey when Abonitu takes control of the shambolic expeditionary force, that it clicked for me. I looked back at a book in which the brutish lout who now rules Guernsey turns out to have been the groundskeeper, tormenting his former employer and governor, a decent chap who’s known simply as ‘the Colonel;’ in which a Nigerian princess is extremely kind and helpful to Andrew and Madeleine, while a lowly bank clerk savours their misfortune; in which the two white British members of the hovercraft expedition are portrayed as rough drunkards with working class accents (“hope you can flogging well swim, china”); in which a British Army captain with only a “slight” Yorkshire accent does his unpleasant but professional duty in tear-gassing the East End oiks who attempt to mob his patrol while he protects those lucky souls behind the barrier in central London; in which Andrew fits quite comfortably into Nigerian society after he luckily secures a well-paid job and gets a penthouse with paid staff.

So, like most Englishmen of his generation, Christopher’s chief subconscious prejudice isn’t race: it’s class. Even at the end of the book, when Andrew ultimately chooses to stay in London and help ward off African colonisation attempts – after he has clubbed Abonitu on the back of the head and taken him prisoner – he and Abonitu still speak to each other cordially and cheerfully as though they’re on the playing fields of Eton in the months before World War I. It’s all very fundamentally 20th century British in a Wyndhamesque sort of way.

And like the works of John Wyndham, The World in Winter both an interesting book and a very entertaining one; dated but still immensely readable. I think I polished this book off in two sittings. I really need to track down the rest of his back catalogue.

Life Itself by Roger Ebert (2011) 415 p.

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I’ve been a reader of Roger Ebert’s writing for a long time, though I can’t remember how long – certainly it must be since at least 2010, since I remember reading his recollections of London when I first visited it myself. I mention that because he’s not a household name in my native Australia in the way that he is, I understand, in the United States, where Siskel & Ebert was a long-running movie review program syndicated nationwide. Australia’s version of this was Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, who after 25 years on our public broadcasters parted ways in 2014; Margaret the enthusiastic bundle of energy, David the stern, pessimistic headmaster figure. It irritates me not so much that they decided to retire, but rather that neither SBS nor the ABC has picked up the slack with a new full-length movie review show, leaving me at the office watching Mark Kermode on our BBC feed reviewing movies which might very well not come out in Australia for another year. Come on, people, what am I paying my four cents a day for?

Anyway: Roger Ebert was famed as a film critic, and while his movie reviews were brilliant, when I really started to find him fascinating as a writer and a person was when I started reading his blog. I understand he mostly took up writing this (and much of it is reproduced in Life Itself) after his thyroid cancer surgery in 2006 robbed him of speech. He covers all manner of topics: his memories of staying in an old London hotel, his walks around that city, his opinions on architecture, his love of physical books. He was an unfailingly honest writer – collected in this memoir are chapters where he talks about his alcoholism, his obesity, his failed relationships. He’s evocative, as when writing about his young days as a newshound working for the Chicago Sun in the 1960s:

“Come on, kid,” Royko said. “Let’s have a drink at the eye-opener place.” It was a bar under the tracks so cramped the bartender could serve everyone without leaving his stool. “Two blackberry brandies and short beers,” he said. He told me, “Blackberry brandy is good for hangovers. You never get charged for a beer chaser.” I sipped the brandy, and a warm place began to glow in my stomach. I had been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in an eye-opener place. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.
“The Blackhawks are really hot tonight,” I observed to Royko.
He studied me. “Where you from, kid? Downstate?”
“Urbana,” I said.
“Ever seen a hockey game?”
“That’s what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights.”

He can be very funny:

The first time I saw him, he was striding toward me out of the burning Georgia sun, as helicopters landed behind him. His face was tanned a deep brown. He was wearing a combat helmet, an ammo belt, carrying a rifle, had a canteen on his hip, stood six feet four inches. He stuck out his hand and said, “John Wayne.” That was not necessary.

And he can be poignant, like the closing lines of his chapter remembering his long-time friend and film critic partner Gene Siskel (who died in 1999), the two of them famed for their Statler-and-Waldorf bickering and arguing:

We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled, “Best Enemies.” It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.

There was a lot of other stuff in here I wasn’t particularly engaged with; he lingers a long time on his childhood, and there are a lot of chapters devoted to his relationship with individual directors or actors who were mostly famous in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to someone who wasn’t an admirer of Ebert’s – or even someone who was. I do, though, recommend perusing his blog. The writing is what it’s all about, really. Who cares about the format?

You can to this day type in any movie and the word “ebert” into Google and, if it was released before his death in 2016, odds are he reviewed it. It makes me sad to think I’ll never be able to know his thoughts on movies that came after that point. But on the other hand, the whole canon of cinema is still sitting there, and Ebert saw ten times as many films as most of us will see in our whole lives. So I can still occasionally catch middling films from thirty years ago late at night on TV, watching them out of the corner of my eye while working on something else, and open another tab to idly check what Roger Ebert thought of some forgotten 1980s potboiler. I appreciate that.

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian (1979) 340 p.

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The entire Aubrey-Maturin series is of course one long story, but up until now the books have been largely self-contained. Each had Jack Aubrey in command of a ship, or a squadron of ships, and ends with the characters either back home in England or safely en route. The fifth book, Desolation Island, broke with that by having the HMS Leopard still stranded in a remote rock in the Southern Ocean, with Stephen Maturin watching as the spy Diana Wogan and her lover Michael Herapath abscond in a passing American whaler – an escape Stephen has actually orchestrated, after planting false documents on Wogan. The Fortune of War is a direct sequel to that book not just because it picks up the same voyage months down the line, as the Leopard limps into Malaya by way of New South Wales, but because – and I’ll try to say this without spoiling anything – Wogan and Herapath return as characters, along with other characters from Jack and Stephen’s past.

It’s an interesting book in that it’s the first one in which Jack never has command of a ship: after Malaya, he and his officers are sent back to England as passengers, and of course from one side of the world to the other, things don’t run smoothly. There is a naval battle about a third of the way through (and another unnecessary one at the end) but The Fortune of War is, perhaps more than any other book so far in the series, very much focused on Stephen. This suits me just fine, since I prefer his flavour of adventure to Jack’s. Much of the second half of the book takes place in a port – I won’t name it, to avoid spoilers, though the funny thing is that it’s in a country which I’d mostly forgotten existed in the world of Aubrey-Maturin, because we tend not to think about it in that early 19th century milieu; it’s far more prominent in both its past and its future, in terms of pop culture at any rate. Anyway, the main characters are thus landbound for about half the book, and O’Brian is brilliant at playing on the strengths of Stephen and the weaknesses of Jack in such a situation. A running joke in the series is that while Jack is a hugely competent sea captain, he can be naive and hopeless on land – and indeed he does make a few critical blunders which endanger Stephen’s careful chess match of espionage. But it’s a bit unfair to Jack as well – he’s not a complete idiot, and after a Stephen-centric book (and a really great long set-piece in the third act) it’s Jack who ultimately has to hatch a plan to extract them both from mortal peril.

I enjoyed this one quite a lot – probably the most since HMS Surprise. Given the way it ends I suspect the next book, The Surgeon’s Mate, caps off a sort of internal trilogy; although it might just be that the story is beginning to run together at this point as O’Brian decided that he’s really writing one enormous meta-novel.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974) 380 p.

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My edition of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, is from a Scottish press and contains an introduction from the chief editor and historian, Hugh Andrew:

Between 1861 and 1865 America was riven by one of the greatest wars in history. The shadow of that war still hangs over the modern United States. The consequences of that war changed the world. Yet because it was a civil war it is little-known outside America. For American readers, the characters and events of The Killer Angels run in their blood. For the rest of us however some explanation is required.

It’s true that I have a relatively hazy idea of how the Civil War played out, in particular its geography; I never quite grasped when I was younger how, as they say, it was “brother versus brother” – were there villages right on the border, or something? The truth is that while we (by which I mean foreigners; maybe some Americans do too) conceptualise the war as North versus South, it was more properly the Union versus the Confederacy, i.e. an existing political entity versus a collection of rebels who were never diplomatically recognised by outside powers. Brother versus brother would not have been an issue for northerners; rather, it was a problem for southerners faced with the choice of joining up with the rebellion or remaining loyal to their “country.” (More on that in a moment.) An interesting case is John Buford, a US Army officer stationed in Utah at the outbreak of the war, and one of the early characters in The Killer Angels. Buford was from Kentucky (a slave-owning border state) with strong family ties to the South. Nevertheless (from Wikipedia):

One night after the arrival of the mail we were in his (Buford’s) room, when Buford said in his slow and deliberate way “I got a letter from the Governor of Kentucky. He sent me word to come to Kentucky at once and I shall have anything I want.” With a good deal of anxiety, I (Gibbon) asked “What did you answer, John?” And my relief was great when he replied “I sent him word I was a Captain in the United States Army and I intended to remain one!”

That brings us to the famous Robert E. Lee, a brilliant general in the US Army who hailed from Virginia. (As a foreigner I can never reconcile myself to the fact that Virginia is in the South, which I associate more with climate than history; but it was actually the most populous and important Southern state.) Lee was supposedly opposed to slavery (though that claim is hotly contested today, as discussed below) and was very much against the notion of secession. Nonetheless, his loyalty was first and foremost to Virginia, and he dutifully followed his native state into rebellion. This seems strange from a modern perspective, but it’s key to understanding the Civil War: it was the war itself that cemented the notion of the United States as a single country rather than a union of individual states. As Andrew Hugh puts it in the introduction, “the new [post-war] mood is best shown by the change from the plural to the singular when referring to the United States.” In other words, no longer is it “the United States are sending an ambassador to France;” it’s now “the United States is sending an ambassador to France.” (See also the first 20 seconds of this clip, with Stephen Dillane playing Thomas Jefferson – “Well, I’d rather be in my own country. Would not you?”)

So, anyway, the book itself. I’ve never been particularly interested in the Civil War, but the beauty of Shaara’s writing – like all good historical fiction – is that it makes history no longer seem a distant and settled matter, but something very much present and active. The story is told from only a handful of viewpoints, and aside from the opening chapter, none of them are ranked lower than colonel. Shaara stays very much within their minds, and we’re privy to every passing thought: their plans, their doubts, their worries, their motivations, their goals and desires and evaluations. It seems strange, while reading this, to scroll through Wikipedia articles and see historians criticising this or that general for their bad decisions. The Killer Angels makes the battle seem very much now, very much in play, a thousand possibilities stretching out into the future, influencing the entire war, and these few men tasked with deciding which road to go down. There’s also a subconscious bias in people, I think, to imagine figures from past ages as uneducated hicks because they never, say, witnessed the marvel of a computer. (William Gibson talks about that a bit here, and how he subverted it in The Peripheral.) But these are not stupid men. They know Shakespeare off by heart, they speak multiple languages, they have travelled around the world. One of them, James Longstreet, is a strategist well ahead of his time, advocating for the use of fortified trench warfare a full fifty years before the First World War.

And so the past does not seem past. Yet at the same time, as modern readers, we know a cataclysmic battle is coming and it hangs heavy over the opening of the book. The first shot is not fired against the enemy until page 73, and that first quarter of the book is pregnant with anticipation: not just because we know what’s coming but because Shaara skillfully imbues it with that sense of foreboding, of two great armies on the march, of the night and the rain and the scouts and the preparations, the lay of the land, the civilians fled, the oppressive summer heat. The moment when that first shot is fired, the end of the first act, is a brilliant piece of writing:

Just before dawn the rain began: fine misty rain blowing cold and clean in soft mountain air. Buford’s pickets saw the dawn come high in the sky, a gray blush, a bleak rose. A boy from Illinois climbed a tree. There was mist across Marsh Creek, ever whiter in the growing light. The boy from Illinois stared and felt his heart beating and saw movement. A blur in the mist, an unfurled flag. Then the dark figures, row on row: skirmishers. Long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist. He had a long paralyzed moment, which he would remember until the end of his life. Then he raised the rifle and laid it across the limb of the tree and aimed generally toward the breast of a tall figure in the front of the line, waited, let the cold rain fall, misting his vision, cleared his eyes, waited, prayed, and pressed the trigger.

(Incidentally, this is why I like the use of big blank pages and then PART II or whatever in big letters. It emphasises the sense of drama we desire as humans, of the ending of something and the beginning of something new; of the notion that there are certain moments in life more important than others.)

Why, then, is this beautifully written and deeply affecting novel of war not quite getting top marks from me? There are a couple of reasons. The cast of characters is quite wide, all of them simply referred to by their Anglo-Saxon surnames, sometimes popping up and then disappearing for another hundred pages or so. Many of them blur together. There’s a touch of Patrick O’Brien in the troop movements and tactics and descriptions; a sense that yes, Shaara is a master who knows this stuff back to front, but forgets that his readers may not be quite as interested in the minutiae as he is. Certainly The Killer Angels has more tactical maps than you’d see in the typical historical fiction novel. (It also, mind you, has the only example I’ve ever seen of a tactical map which invoked a sense of narrative frisson: when Buford, a character we have come to admire and respect, is early to arrive with his regiment in Gettysburg in the face of the invading army; a single black arc marked BUFORD, standing alone, with the repeated black marks of the rest of the Union Army on its way to reinforce him, but the positions of the Confederates much closer, and closing. Just a little black mark, a defiant stand, Buford praying the cavalry will arrive in time.)

But these are minor flaws. What I felt was really lacking, as you may have already guessed, is the political aspect. It’s impossible to read The Killer Angels in 2018 and not think of the ugly modern white supremacist movement which again, more than ever, idolises Robert E. Lee and valourises the cause of the South. It is amazing to consider that the United States had a black president sitting in the White House while the country was (and is) still adorned with statues of Southern generals (and scant few memorials to slavery), and it only makes sense if you view it through the lens of one’s state being more important than one’s country, which was supposed to have ended in the 19th century. (Certainly I doubt many proud Southerners with a Confederate bumper sticker wouldn’t also consider themselves proud Americans.) What, in other words, were they really fighting for? And of course Shaara does grapple with this to an extent. An early passage:

“Well, Jim Kemper kept needling our English friend about why they didn’t come and join in with us, it being in their interest and all, and the Englishman said that it was a very touchy subject, since most Englishmen figured the war was all about, ah, slavery, and then old Kemper got a bit outraged and had to explain to him how wrong he was, and Sorrel had some others joined in, but no harm done.”

And later, when Union officer Chamberlain comes across an escaped slave:

He felt a slow deep flow of sympathy. To be alien and alone, among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and states’ rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What did he know of the war? And yet he was truly what it was all about. It simplified to that. Seen in the flesh, the cause of the war was brutally clear.

Shaara goes on to write how Chamberlain, who comes from Maine and has barely seen a black man before, is physically revulsed by his black skin – ashamed of himself for being so, but revulsed nonetheless. And it’s good and fine to examine the racism of the Northerners. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery but did not believe black and white society could be integrated; few people today realise that the West African nation of Liberia (Latin for “land of liberty”) was originally founded by Americans encouraging freed blacks to literally go back to Africa. So, yes: that’s a valid thing to examine.

But we hear nothing of blacks in the South. We hear nothing of the freed blacks who were re-enslaved by the Confederate army as it marched into Pennsylvania. We hear that Lee died “perhaps the most beloved general in the history of American war” – George Washington might have something to say about that – and, in Hugh’s epilogue, that after the war he knelt beside a black man at the communion rail of a church in Richmond to pray for reconciliation. We hear that Lee never criticised the Union officers who had defeated him, and that when he died, Jefferson Davis – i.e. the Jefferson Davis who was Confederate president and segregated his states from the Union to preserve the institution of slavery – said “his moral qualities rose to the height of genius.” We don’t hear about how Lee himself owned slaves. We don’t hear about how he fought in the courts to overturn his father-in-law’s will which specified his slaves should be freed, instead keeping them on to help with his plantation’s debts. We don’t hear about even the rumours that Lee personally whipped runaway slaves.

One of the regular left-wing arguments against the celebration of Lee in the South is that he was a “traitor to his country.” I think that’s wrong, not just because it considers unblinking patriotism to be a virtue but because it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the notion of “country” prior to the Civil War, as discussed above. But the other point is that Lee fought to defend slavery. There is no getting around this. You can say that he was fighting for Virginia, but that means indirectly fighting to defend slavery, because that is what the war was about. It is not enough to call Lee a man of his time – slavery was already banned in the North, it had been banned in Europe for more than a generation. Lee was not stupid. He was not blind to the causes of the day. He saw which way the wind was blowing and decided, yes, he was going to kill other men to defend the rights of Southern citizens to keep human beings as property. When the right-wingers of 2018 and the soldiers of 1863 talk about states’ rights, that’s basically the right they’re talking about: the right to keep slaves. The right to deny other people their basic human rights, absolutely and unconditionally, to tear their families apart and trade them like cattle and abuse them and subjugate them.

I’m not saying this makes a novel written from Southern points of view completely unworthy. I’m not saying that Lee himself is not deserving of a sympathetic portrayal, of a writer who really tries to get inside his head; all human beings are deserving of that. I’m saying that by sidelining the fundamental cause of the war – by having only one encounter with a slave, from the Northern side, and by portraying Lee’s greatest failing as an erroneous tactical decision on the final day of the battle – Shaara finds himself on shaky political ground. The fact that I still consider this to be a worthy Pulitzer winner which is one of the best books this year and which I highly recommend to anybody is a measure of how talented a writer Shaara is in the first place.

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why Shaara felt fine with handwaving away the fundamental cause of the war – he was no Southerner, but a New Jerseyan born to Italian immigrants (“Shaara” being a mistranslation of “Sciara.”) One clue as to his interest in Lee is his descriptions of the general’s heart disease, which clearly struck a chord with Shaara, who suffered a premature heart attack at 36 and died of another before his 60th birthday. Certainly his service in the Korean War goes some way towards explaining his focus on the bonds between men, and the eye-rolling that goes on on both sides about “the Cause;” it’s a theme I’ve read often in war fiction, that once the bullets start flying it’s about the men alongside you, and nothing else matters. But the most fundamental reason, I suppose, is that it was the 1970s: only a decade after desegregation, a fundamentally different time and place, when the black story was acknowledged but still marginalised; present, but never the focus, at least not from a white point of view, even if that white point of view in question was a generally sympathetic novelist. America clearly hasn’t come to terms with slavery even today, so what can one really expect from a novel almost fifty years old?

I say all of this because I’d be remiss not to. The Killer Angels isn’t slavery apologia or Lee hagiography, but it does omit plenty of uncomfortable details, to its discredit. Like the characters it deals with, it was a product of its time. That’s unfortunate. But it doesn’t hold it back from being an excellent war novel, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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