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Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983) 368 p.

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Even before anything supernatural happens in Pet Sematary, the novel is marinated in dread. Our protagonist Louis Creed has been hired as chief doctor at the University of Maine’s on-campus clinic, and the novel begins as he and his wife and young children arrive at the big old farmhouse in the countryside they’ve bought to live in. The Creeds’ amiable neighbour Jud Crandall soon shows them the path into the woods behind their house which leads to the town’s secluded pet cemetery, titularly misspelt on its sign by the children who made it decades ago. This later leads Louis into a difficult conversation with his daughter Ellie about the mortality of her cat Church, and in fact mortality in general, which leads to a fight with his wife Rachel when they disagree about how best to tackle it: Louis the hard-headed medical man and realist, Rachel carrying around baggage on the topic because her sister died in childhood. The mood of their new life only becomes more grim on Louis’ first day on the job, when a student is struck by a car and dies horribly on the floor of the clinic.

From the student’s grisly death to their son Gage’s habit of getting nasty infections to Louis’ ruminations about his daughter getting older, Pet Sematary is a book very much revolving around ageing, time, and the fateful day we all have waiting in our own futures. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older myself, but I found this instilled a much deeper sense of anxiety than any of the more prosaic monsters King has populated his other books with. The setting works brilliantly, too: it’s all sunshine and wildflowers when the family arrives in July, but before long it’s autumn in Maine, a lonely old farmhouse set back from the road, frost in the fields and November winds howling as Louis’ family decamps to Chicago for Thanksgiving, and he goes to meet Jud after an unsettling phone call rings through his empty house. That’s when the supernatural comes into play. You can see where Pet Sematary is going to go after a certain point; what’s surprising is how King takes his time in getting there, lingering on every foreboding moment.

There are moments towards the climax, disappointingly, where King can’t help himself. He always has more than one idea floating around in his head and rarely restrains himself from shoehorning them into a plot when perhaps they were best saved for another story. The prophetic dreams that visit Ellie and the notion that the Pet Sematary can evoke some malign influence beyond its boundaries were best left on the typewriter ribbon. The notion of a sacred/sullied space that can resurrect the dead is frightening enough without giving it agency. If anything, our own human motivations (and King does a brilliant job of writing how an intelligent, logical man like Louis would rationalise bad decisions to himself step by careful step) is far more interesting than what we actually see, where characters speculate the influence of the cemetery is affecting the broader world for its own malevolent motives. A better editor would have curbed these fantastic tendencies. The scariest stuff in Pet Sematary is not the ludicrous rotting devil figure that Louis sees in the misty swamp. It’s the glimpse through the window of the dew-covered rental car parked outside Jud’s house; the unexpected phone call in the dead stillness of the morning; the creak of the floorboards on Jud’s porch. It’s the moments in life when we hear or see something we know to be wrong, when we’re forced to confront that life is not always safe and everything is not always going to be okay. King gets that – he could never have painted those scenes so well without getting that – which is why it’s so frustrating, as always, when he lets his imagination lead him down the garden path.

This is still a very good book, and its flaws pale in comparison to its strengths. It’s easily some of King’s best work, second only to The Mist and – perhaps – the better, earlier Dark Tower novels. I can easily say that nothing from the 20th century’s most renowned horror writer has unsettled and disturbed me more.

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Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (1959) 638 p.

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Allen Drury was a political reporter in Washington DC for fifteen years. Understanding that fact is key to understanding Advise and Consent, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which is perhaps the quintessential Washington book in the same way Mr Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential Washington film. It’s a journalist’s view of government, and in particular a DC correspondent’s view of government. That view is often not coterminous with reality, then or now. The fact that this novel is sixty years old and was written at a paranoid time in history only makes it more of an odd, unique read – and an often tedious one.

Advise and Consent revolves around several US senators and the confirmation process of a second-term President’s nominee for Secretary of State. In Drury’s scenario a single party (I think the Democrats, though he rarely says so outright) have control of the House, the Senate and the presidency, and so the debate to have Bob Leffingwell confirmed as Secretary is almost entirely an intra-party matter. I don’t know what level of bipartisanship there was in the 1950s, but certainly in the 2010s, when Republican obstructionism is beginning to undermine the integrity of the system itself, it seems an odd choice for a political novel. I suppose it allows Drury to demonstrate the majesty/wisdom/beauty/superlative-of-choice of the separation of powers, and wax poetic about the great responsibility resting on the shoulders of that small body of men, debating in the hallowed halls of this inspired nation, standing on the shoulders of Washington and Lincoln, [description runs a further 18 pages], etc. Realism on that note aside, the strangest thing is that the president’s selection of this particular man is treated as a bonafide existential crisis. For the first 200 pages Drury doesn’t explain exactly why, though we can gather from the context and from the age in which the book was written that Leffingwell is just a bit too far left, just a bit too “international,” that he might potentially be some kind of Soviet appeaser. You can perhaps forgive this frankly risible notion in a man of the 1950s, who saw World War II come and go and lived through the genuinely horrifying revelations of the early atomic age. You can even forgive it of a journalist. But it was around the time the cartoonish Russian ambassador said (and this is an actual quote) “You will choke on words, you weaklings of the West!” that I decided I couldn’t quite forgive it of a novelist.

Red Scare agitprop aside, the problem is that Drury is effectively asking you to believe that the appointment of one man – the wrong man – might somehow pose an existential threat to the free world. Not even to the office of President, mind you, but Secretary of State. I would put it to you that the Secretary of State could be an honest-to-God brainwashed Manchurian candidate hellbent on destroying the American way of life, and it would not somehow result in the entire government being subverted and America writhing under the Soviet boot. Yet at the same time Drury asks you to believe this frankly ludicrous notion – even for the time, never mind that the US has an imbecile game show host for a president now and we’re all still trucking along more or less okay – he revels in portraying the backroom deals, horse trading and windbaggery of the Senate. It’s a journalist’s view of Washington: cynical yet somehow still idealistic, standing daily in the shadows of the world’s real movers and shakers and perhaps becoming a bit self-conscious about the stenography trade. (The press gallery serves as a Greek chorus throughout the novel, its members referred to not by their names but by their publications or wire services.) Advise and Consent would have worked well as a shorter novel about a truly dangerous, pivotal moment in American history demonstrating the importance of the separation of powers; or as a longer, sprawling, character-driven saga about the various characters who serve in the Senate and all the thousands of matters from the mundane to the critical which compete for that body’s attention. It suffers from trying to be both, and it most certainly suffers from a glacial pace that inches its way across 628 pages of undifferentiated dialogue and lengthy exposition.

And yet. There is something here. For the first few hundred pages I was fully prepared to give Advise and Consent a terrible review and maybe even ditch it before the end, but its second and third acts move onto something which is, I suppose, less political and more personal. The story becomes more fixated on a single senator, his crisis of conscience, and the gut-wrenchingly terrible consequences of his own party’s attempts to threaten and blackmail him with a secret from his past. The moment when Seab Cooley hears something in his office, and knows full well what it is, and goes downstairs to confront it: that’s a great passage of writing. There are more of them scattered throughout the latter part of the book, moments when Drury chooses to really drill down inside his characters’ heads, when he gets away from the sprawling cast of surnames and focuses on the smaller canvas instead of the larger and showier one. It’s always a shame to see an author who is capable of great writing be bogged down by his own inability to cut the wheat from the chaff, or to secure an editor who will.

I can’t say Advise and Consent is a great novel. It’s a bloated, uneven book which manages the peculiar feat of appearing simultaneously jaded and naive about its subject matter. Nonetheless, I ended up liking it more than I expected to – even if I didn’t, overall, really like it. If you’re one of those people working your way through the Pulitzer winners, I suppose the best I can do is assure you it does pick up a bit after the halfway mark.

The Day After World War III by Edward Zuckerman (1984) 407 p.

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Back on my bullshit thinking about nuclear war, I mistakenly ordered this little-known book from AbeBooks thinking it was a Warday-style speculative future history. It’s not, but that didn’t make it any less compelling. The Day After World War III is a long, in-depth examination of precisely what kind of planning the United States had in place to cope with a nuclear war: everything from civil defence to brinkmanship strategising to evacuation plans to recovery and reconstruction. It’s obviously dated, but it’s also clear that much of it is probably still relevant, and perhaps more relevant than ever given how many more nuclear powers there are in 2019 than 1984. (In the last few hours, as I’m writing this, Pakistan and India have started shooting down each other’s fighter jets in their latest skirmish over Kashmir; both countries are nuclear powers.)

Zuckerman alternates between primary chapters describing contemporary nuclear plans, and secondary chapters examining how America got to that point. The early secondary chapters, revolving around the Manhattan Project, the development of the first nuclear weapons and the development of a doctrine around their strategic use and purpose, are very interesting; the later ones, which tend to revolve around budgetary disputes, congressional committees and successive political tweaking by various presidents, not so much. But overall this is an approach which works well – perhaps even more so from a contemporary perspective, considering most people under fifty remember the Cold War as a vague notion of foolish warring powers risking all our lives by playing with fire. But the reality of two superpowers pointing missiles at each other in a deadly stand-off did not emerge from a vacuum: the development of nuclear weapons and the resulting Cold War was a direct geopolitical consequence of World War II. As Dan Carlin reminds us in his podcast episode Destroyer of Worlds: “Remember what these people have seen.” The politicians, generals and scientists who developed nuclear arms and strategised their use in the late 1940s and early 1950s had all born witness to the greatest massacre in human history, from the gas chambers of Auschwitz to the beaches of Normandy to the Rape of Nanking. They were under no illusions about what mankind was capable of. They had also just managed to defeat one genocidal empire; but the Soviet Union was still under the rule of Joseph Stalin, a blood-soaked dictator, and with Germany and Britain exhausted, that left two superpowers dictating the fate of an increasingly globalised world. We know, from our 21st century vantage point, that the end of World War II ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. They didn’t know that. The statesmen, generals and scientists of the late 1940s could just as well have seen a brief reprieve before another confrontation. There are any number of parallel universes peeling away from this one in which the 1950s led to another great war and a nuclear holocaust. The existence of nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems is an unalterable fact of technology; the fact that we have all been safely borne into the 21st century without seeing any further use of them indicates maturity and wisdom on both the American and Russian sides, across successive generations. (Which is not to discount sheer dumb luck, and also not to discount the disarmament movement, which – however idealistically – strives for the best of all possible worlds.)

It’s interesting to re-examine your own beliefs about nuclear war, especially for those of us who grew up after the Cold War, with only a vague notion that the combined stockpiles of Russia and the US are enough to wipe out all life on Earth. Zuckerman actually spends quite some time discussing the dispute throughout the Cold War between the disarmament movement, who insisted that a full-scale nuclear war would lead to the extinction of humankind (or at least of advanced human civilisation) and the strategic hawks, who insisted that with correct defence planning and a limited exchange, both the US and the USSR might emerge from such a war as functioning, viable countries: horrifically scarred and devastated, and possibly no longer the world’s pre-eminent powers, but certainly a far cry from ending all life on earth. Zuckerman himself takes no side in that debate, and indeed shows us how it’s simply impossible to model such a scenario, but does point out the obvious truth that tens of millions dying in nuclear hellfire is still far too high a price to pay to ever countenance a nuclear war. It is true, however – as FEMA representatives protest in the hot seat at congressional committees – that it would be remiss of the US government, and of their agency in particular, to have no plans whatsoever to defend the populace from nuclear attack.

What makes this so interesting is how unrealistic those plans seem. I’m a long-time reader and writer of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. The interesting thing to me about that genre is the human factor: how certain people cope, or don’t cope, when the threads of society begin to unravel. How people react, how people behave, what people are capable of doing. That’s why it’s equally fascinating to me to read the plans of a bunch of FEMA wonks with a strong grasp of logistics but a poor grasp of human nature, meticulously considering the most efficient way to transport large numbers of civilians, or how much square meterage of extra dirt cover is needed for a fallout shelter, or how much manpower is required for this or that task – without ever considering the human factor, without ever considering that maybe a good chunk of their assumed volunteer workforce is more likely to drive right past their assigned fallout shelter and keep going until they get their family to Canada. One FEMA guide details how civilians evacuated from high-risk areas to low-risk areas would be put to work piling dirt over their shelters, adding that their numbers would be reinforced by minimum security convicts released from prison, which instantly conjures up an image of a white suburban insurance broker being asked to work a dirt-bucket chain alongside a tattooed black ex-con, and invites the question of precisely how FEMA intended to enforce these plans. Zuckerman maintains a great dry sense of humour throughout these examples:

The sudden news… that half a million black and Hispanic residents of the Bronx are heading for rural Ulster County is likely to create tremors in Ulster County… In 1980, FEMA ordered a special study “to examine the question of whether or not Blacks and other minorities might experience special problems in the event that a nuclear war became likely and the President ordered a massive population relocation.” It concluded that they would.

If you’re wondering how any of these evacuations would have time to take place, the answer is that government planners expect a nuclear war would most likely occur after a prolonged build-up of tension; a “bolt from the blue” attack is considered unlikely. This feeds into another myth many of us grow up with, which is that Mutually Assured Destruction means you aim your weapons at the enemy’s cities, like holding a gun to his children’s head. Not so; nuclear arms do not make conventional arms and conventional warfare entirely obsolete. So you wouldn’t want to be in Los Angeles or New York or Washington when the bombs fall, but only because major cities tend to be the location of military bases, government offices and critical infrastructure like deepwater ports, major airports and steelwork industries. Nuclear arms were developed as strategic weapons of war, and they’re intended to be used as such; from a strategic perspective, bombing a purely civilian target merely means your enemy no longer has to feed and care for those civilians, and you’re down one bomb. This would of course be cold (or hot) comfort  to the civilians who have the misfortune to live too close to a military target. (Sidenote: I’m Australian, and given that Australia is a major US ally, it doesn’t seem unreasonable the Soviets would have spared a dozen or so nuclear bombs for us – certainly Exmouth would be toast. My office in Melbourne is about five hundred metres away from a major Department of Defence site; I’ve played around with the Nuke Map and determined that it would depend on the tonnage of the weapon in question as to whether I died in the fireball, died in the collapse of my brick office building, or merely died a slow and lingering death of radiation poisoning.)

This is also the reason the US built its missile silos in the Upper Midwest: not just to decrease the range American missiles would have to travel to Russia and increase the range submarine-launched Soviet missiles would have to travel to the silos, but also to keep them away from the cities. Nuclear missile silos are another thing we don’t ever really think about, and it’s fascinating to remember that there were other people – designers and engineers and strategists – who spent much of their careers thinking about them. Zuckerman describes how the missiles in these silos are, by the 1980s, hardened against attack by being slung on cables and braced with rubber and foam:

While unused missiles are swaying gently in their slings to the rhythm of Russian hydrogen bombs exploding nearby, surviving missile launch crews will be sitting tight in their aircraft-style seats, lap and shoulder belt fastened to keep them from being thrown to the floor by shockwaves. Their launch control capsules are mounted on giant shock absorbers.

An Air Force crewman at one of these silos tells Zimmerman that most of this strategising seems to end at the point of launch. Each silo contains emergency rations, and a .22 rifle – “The idea is you can shoot rabbits with it.” Much of what makes The Day After World War III great is the cumulative effect of these fascinating details. After describing the U.S. Air Force’s ‘Looking Glass’ flights (a fleet of AWACS planes, at least one of which is always in the air, to serve as a mobile command post in the event of an unexpected nuclear strike) Zuckerman describes what would happen in the event of an actual nuclear war:

The plane’s crew will be flying by instruments – even if the sun is shining and the weather is fine. The crew members’ view of the sky will be blocked by aluminized fabric curtains they will place over the cockpit windows (the only windows on the plane) when the war begins. Their eyes will need that protection from the blinding light of the hydrogen bombs exploding below.

Another Air Force crewman, assigned to refuelling squadrons, explains how he would wear gold goggles to protect from the same hazard – but at night, too dark for goggles, the refuelling teams wear eye patches: “If you get flash effects, you’ll lose one eye, but you’ll still have one that’s operable.” No fiction writer could come up with stuff like this. Only an entire nation’s military and political apparatus, working over successive decades, could deliver these morbidly fascinating small details.

Even if you have an interest in nuclear war, I’m not sure I can recommend this book – it’s out of date, and possibly out of print, and in any case I feel it did ramble on a bit too much and sometimes repeat itself. I can say that I found it a very interesting read, and I learned a lot from it. It’s a good deep dive into a subject we all know about but which few of us ever give much thought to, and which corrects a number of the default assumptions we build up over life.

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984) 769 p.

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I wouldn’t describe myself as a Stephen King “fan,” though from what I remember from Goodreads’ Most Read Authors feature (which they inexplicably scrapped in January) I’ve read something like twenty books by the man. My opinion on King as a writer is probably not uncommon: he writes great, page-turning popular fiction, isn’t about to win the Pulitzer but still has far more skill than the average airport fiction bestseller, and he got some truly great speculative fiction books under his belt before going off the rails sometime around the late 1980s. (I’d prefer not to conclude that this was because he kicked cocaine around the same time; maybe it was because he’d become so enormously popular and wealthy he figured he must be doing something right and no longer felt compelled to listen to his editors, a tale of woe common to many bestselling authors.)

So while I haven’t read all of King’s early (i.e. good) work, nearly all of it is on my to-be-read pile. The Talisman for some reason was not. I think it’s because it was co-authored, which to me always smacks of the lesser-known author doing most of the work while the more famous one puts his name on the cover to shift copies. That doesn’t seem to be the case with The Talisman; supposedly Straub and King each wrote a chapter then sent it to the other to edit, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say King had written the entire thing. It’s only because I was looking out for it that I was occasionally able to spot a more Kingian tone to some of the chapters: more 20th century pop culture references, more of an inner monologue, more of a sense that the writer is getting really obsessively invested in certain villains – the televangelist running a juvenile detention centre in Indiana is pure Stephen King.

Anyway, regardless of who’s at the helm, it’s a pretty solid fantasy/horror story, once in which readers of the Dark Tower series will immediately feel at home. At the beginning of autumn in 1981, 12-year-old Jack Sawyer finds himself in a deserted New England seaside resort, dragged out of school in New York by his ageing mother, who was once a Hollywood starlet. Jack only slowly realises that she’s dying of cancer and has come to this old resort, where she once had happy memories, to die. Struggling to accept this, Jack befriends an old black janitor named Speedy Parker at the nearby mothballed amusement park. Speedy (100% a blatant Magic Negro archetype) tells Jack there’s a way to save his mother – if he travels into another world, a mirror world of America called the Territories, and retrieves something called the Talisman.

This of course sounds silly written down, but King handles it in that deft way he had back in his prime, slowly revealing that Jack has had visions and “daydreams” of the Territories for his whole life, and run-ins with denizens of that world, because his own late father (and his father’s business partner Morgan Sloat, who becomes the novel’s antagonist) had visited the Territories themselves. Speedy Parker’s befriending of Jack, therefore, is not the coincidental accident it first seems. To retrieve the Talisman, Jack must travel to California’s counterpart in the Territories. Having been granted the power to flip between the two worlds at will, Jack sets off on a great road story from America’s east coast to its west, facing dangers in both worlds.

The bulk of the novel in fact takes place in our own world, which is fine, because this kind of Americana is where King excels. (I have a pet theory that he is in fact the most fundamentally American writer of the 20th century.) There are entire segments which add nothing to an already very thick book, but which I was quite happy to read, because they’re just pitch perfect. I particularly liked the thread where Jack ends up in a sort of implied indentured servitude at a dive bar in a bleak little rust belt town in upstate New York, which shows more than anything how well King – though by the time of writing this he was presumably already a millionaire – knows as well as anybody that 1970s and ‘80s impoverished, backwater, blue collar way of life:

They were town men from a rural area where the plows were now probably rusting forgotten in back sheds, men who perhaps wanted to be farmers but had forgotten how. There were a lot of John Deere caps in evidence, but to Jack, very few of these men looked as if they would be at home riding a tractor. These were men in gray chinos and brown chinos and green chinos; men with their names stitched on blue shirts in gold thread; men in square-toed Dingo Boots and men in great big clumping Survivors. These men carried their keys on their belts. These men had wrinkles but no laugh-lines; their mouths were dour. These men wore cowboy hats and when Jack looked at the bar from in back of the stools, there were as many as eight who looked like Charlie Daniels in the chewing-tobacco ads. But these men didn’t chew; these men smoked cigarettes, and a lot of them.

 

I compared this book earlier to the Dark Tower series, which is a both a good and bad thing. When The Talisman is at its best – showing the creepy, unsettling ways the creatures of The Territories are seeping into an all-familiar, all-American 1980s setting, from highway rest stops to industrial kitchens to a fancy prep school – it’s great, and reminded me of the very best of the Dark Tower series. When it’s not-so-great, it reminded me of… well, not the worst of the Dark Tower series (which becomes truly dire) but certainly the more annoying tics and habits of Stephen King. There’s a climactic battle which is rather Hollywoodesque, all bright lights and little substance; by that third act of the book in general, King has been drinking a little too much of his own Kool-Aid. (Robert Burns has nothing to do with this story, no matter how many times you have the characters quote a line from his poem.)

On the whole, though, The Talisman was a great read. It’s not up there with something like The Mist or the early Dark Tower books, which stand as the best things King’s ever written. But it’s definitely on par with a novel like The Dead Zone. If you like King’s work in general, you’ll like this.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996) 432 p.
Discworld #20 (Death #4)

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Okay, obviously I meant to read this one around Christmas, but lots of other patrons of my various online library services had the same idea. But for those of you in the northern hemisphere who are still in the bleak-holiday free stretch of winter that comes after New Year’s but before the first gasp of sunrise in spring, perhaps it feels more seasonally appropriate. (When I remember winter from the year I lived in London, it’s not the cold that comes to mind, but the dark – that overwhelmingly depressing darkness, the sun just slinking along the horizon, the shadows always long.)

Hogswatchnight is the Discworld’s version of Christmas and New Year wrapped up together, the name clearly inspired by Scottish Hogmanay. The patron saint is not Father Christmas but rather the Hogfather, who rides a sleigh pulled by four fat hairy hogs and whose association with meat and sausages speaks to older, darker, Mitteleuropan pagan rites: predators in the forest, blood on the snow, sacrifice to bring the springtime. As we know by now, belief on the Discworld is a very powerful thing, so even if people’s beliefs have changed over the centuries, the Hogfather is still around.

Until one Hogswatchnight he’s not. The Assassin’s Guild of Ankh-Morpork has been issued a very peculiar contract, and to carry it out they dispatch one of their dangerously gifted young assassins, the visibly insane Mr Teatime. My most distinct memories of this book are the creativity of this story thread (thinner than I recall, and in fact not really coming into play until the third act) as Teatime assembles a small gang of thugs and takes them… somewhere strange, where the sky doesn’t seem to meet the horizon and the trees and water don’t look quite right. Slowly figuring out what this place is, and precisely how Teatime plans to assassinate a magical figure of myth, is really great. It’s a brilliant piece of plotting which Pratchett could only do a) in a fantasy series, where most readers probably know this old trick of magic folklore, and b) in his fantasy series, where he has spent multiple books exploring the nature of belief and reality.

Death steps into the role of Hogfather to attempt to keep the myth going while also encouraging his granddaughter Susan to investigate what’s happening. Susan is a fine character but it’s Death as always who really shines, from the wonderful jokes that naturally stem from him taking on this unconventional role, to the sense of frisson that flows from seeing Death – with his odd affection for humanity – step up into the role of investigator, protector and saviour. The Death books have always been some of the Discworld’s best, largely because Death himself is simply one of Pratchett’s best characters.

Next up is Jingo, one of the very best books in the series.

Rereading Discworld Index

D’Shai by Joel Rosenberg (1991) 327 p.

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Joel Rosenberg wrote a series of very fun fantasy novels I enjoyed in high school called Guardians of the Flame, which is basically about a group of D&D players who get transported into their fantasy world and find it’s not quite as much fun when your real life is at stake, and who also end up staying there for 25+ years and using their own college degree knowledge to kickstart an industrial revolution. It was a silly premise but very earnest and enjoyable, and I need to get around to re-reading it one of these days. D’Shai, on the other hand, is a more traditional fantasy story – one which is also a mystery, as the narrator and his family of travelling acrobats get caught up a tit-for-tat revenge drama while performing for a week at the court of a local ruler. (The blurb, shamefully, gives away a fairly critical plot development which doesn’t happen until the last fifth of the book!)

The key fantasy gimmick at the heart of D’Shai is the concept of “kazuh,” a form of magic in which the performer of a task – someone already at the height of their profession – can phase into a supremely focused and powerful rendition of that task, whether they’re an acrobat or a warrior or a runner or a cook or whatever. This seems a logical line of thought for Rosenberg, who (as I was reminded early in this book) is a writer with a lot of other hobbies who often writes about the physicality of certain acts: juggling, karate, guns, and in this book acrobatics. The most obvious example of this kind of writing was Hemingway, but you see it with lots of others, people who you can tell are channeling their love of a particular pursuit into their fiction: classic rock and baseball with Stephen King, mountain climbing with Kim Stanley Robinson, animal husbandry with John Marsden. I wish I was that kind of writer, mostly because I think it would be nice to be one of those people who can just lose themselves in an activity, even a mundane one like cooking. Instead I’m the kind of writer who’s an easily distracted scatterbrain and dislikes working with my hands, not because I’m lazy but because I find it dull.

Anyway, D’Shai is a light and easy read for a fantasy fan, the kind of book which would probably sit well alongside Barry Hugart’s Bridge of Birds. I suspect Guardians of the Flame is probably his better work, though I’d need to re-read that, because for all I know it doesn’t hold up.

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds (2005) 460 p.

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In the year 2057 one of Saturn’s smaller moons, Janus, unexpectedly departs from its orbit and begins to accelerate out the solar system. Clearly no moon at all but rather an inexplicable alien artifact, the human race sends their only nearby ship scrambling after it: the comet miner Rockhopper, with a crew of about 150 under captain Bella Lind. They will have only five days to arrive at Janus and, if it doesn’t prove hostile, land on it and investigate it.

This is a great and simple set-up for a Big Dumb Object first contact mystery, clearly drawn from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Rendezvous with Rama, in which a gargantuan but silent alien spacecraft enters the solar system with a trajectory that will slingshot it around the sun and send it back out again, leaving a human research mission with a limited amount of time to investigate it. The difference is that Pushing Ice goes far beyond the limits of a story like that, with the crew of the Rockhopper ending the story very, very far away – in terms of both time, distance, and situation – from where they started out. It’s a great book to go into cold, and Reynolds surprised me with where he took the story at every step of the way.

Pushing Ice has the usual flaws of any science fiction story, most notably in the thinness of characters – and in particular, the pivotal feud that develops between Bella and her second-in-command Svietlana, which has its origins in an understandable enough dispute but is dragged out over a ludicrous length of time and includes a shockingly long period of solitary confinement that I very much doubt would leave the victim with a sane mind, or which the other members of the crew would stand for. This is one of the more egregious examples demonstrating that Reynolds doesn’t have a particularly good grasp on how human beings relate to one another in real life, or at least isn’t very good at writing about it. But that’s no worse a sin than most sci-fi authors, and Pushing Ice is a gripping pageturner full of intriguing mysteries which kept me engaged all the way through, and stands alongside House of Suns as one of Reynolds’ best books.

Irontown Blues by John Varley (2018) 289 p.

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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.

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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.

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