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The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian (1984) 312 p.

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This is the halfway point of the series, and the book from which the 2003 Peter Weir film adaptation takes most (but not nearly all) of its plot. HMS Surprise is dispatched from Gibraltar in pursuit of the USS Norfolk, which has been sent to harass British whalers in the South Pacific. (We are, at this point, well into what O’Brian calls his fictional 1812b, in which he spun out the year indefinitely to avail himself of its most interesting historical events). And so The Far Side of the World takes us all the way down past the coast of Brazil, around the Antarctic storms of Cape Horn, up past Chile and the Galapagos and out into the warm tropical waters of Polynesia.

It’s a great book, one of the best in the series, and possibly the only book that features no extended naval battles. Peter Weir’s film of course ends with a confrontation of gunpowder and steel, but what happens in the novel when Surprise finally tracks down her quarry is infinitely more interesting – I won’t give away precisely what it is, but suffice to say it’s a sort of character-driven pressure-cooker situation of steadily increasing tensions between two opposing groups, the kind of thing (among many other things) which makes me dearly wish HBO would commission a multi-million dollar TV series of these books.

There’s another tremendous setpiece which unfolds perfectly. Fishing from the rear window of Aubrey’s cabin one night, the typically clumsy Maturin topples into the water, and with a cry of “clap on to the cutter!” Jack dives in after him without a second thought. Maturin’s constant ability to find himself in the drink has been played for laughs so many times by now that it’s quite a shock as the scene progresses and the reader realises Jack and Stephen are in far more danger than first thought: the cutter is not being towed behind the ship after all, there is nothing to clap onto, and Jack’s cries for assistance are drowned out by the singing of the sailors on the deck.

He had set Stephen to float on his back, which he could do tolerably well when the sea was calm; but an unfortunate ripple, washing over his face just as he breathed in, sank him again; again he had to be brought up, and now Jack’s “Surprise ahoy,” coming at the full pitch of his powerful voice, had an edge of anxiety to it, for although the ship was not sailing fast, every minute she moved more than a hundred yards, and already her lights were dimming in the mist.

Hail after hail after hail, enough to startle the dead: but when she was no more than the blur of the planet earlier in the night he fell silent, and Stephen said, “I am extremely concerned, Jack, that my awkwardness should have brought you into such very grave danger.”

“Bless you,” said Jack, “it ain’t so very grave as all that. Killick is bound to come into the cabin in half an hour or so, and Mowett will put the ship about directly.”

But Killick turns in early, and as the weaker Stephen lapses into unconsciousness through the night while the two of them float alone in the terrifyingly enormous Pacific Ocean, Jack’s mathematical calculations of time and distance and drift and endurance lead him to a bleak conclusion. Aside from being engaging in itself, this scene is a wonderful demonstration of their friendship: Stephen’s awkwardness has in fact got them both killed, but this never crosses Jack’s consideration, never leads to any acrimony or recriminations, even privately. Instead, knowing that being adrift in the ocean is far more terrifying for his friend than for him, Jack never treats him with anything less than gentleness.

In the midst of his calculations he became aware that Stephen, lying there as stiff as a board, was becoming distressed. “Stephen,” he said, pushing him, for Stephen’s head was thrown back so far that he could not easily hear, “Stephen, turn over, put your arms round my neck, and we will swim for a little.” Then as he felt Stephen’s feet on the back of his legs, “You have not kicked off your shoes. Do not you know you must kick off your shoes? What a fellow you are, Stephen.”

And cleverly – as in The Fortune of War, when Stephen and Jack’s different strengths play off each other as they find themselves stranded alone in Boston – it’s Stephen’s skills as a naturalist and anthropologist which come in to play when the two men are rescued by a Polynesian vessel crewed entirely by women, and it slowly becomes clear to Stephen in particular that this is not a society in which men will be welcomed; indeed, it’s only his memory of a very specific Polynesian word which saves Jack from an unpleasant fate.

Overall, one of the very finest entries in the series. I usually only read a few of these per year, but just burned through The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour and The Far Side of the World in a single month while travelling, so I’ll have to back off and pace myself again.

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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929) 355 p.

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I’m more a fan of Hemingway’s short stories than his novels, and the only reason I read this was because I was travelling in Italy and like to match my holiday reading to my location. But I liked this far more than his other novels, because it actually has a plot. Following an American fighting for the Italian army during World War I, A Farewell to Arms takes us through wartime, devastating injury, a long convalescent period, blossoming love, a return to the front, a catastrophic retreat, desertion, a hurried escape to Switzerland and personal tragedy, all in a couple of hundred pages.

Hemingway still maintains an obsession with making sure we know precisely what the protagonist is having for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and precisely what he’s drinking at any given moment (grappa and vermouth, mostly) but who am I to deny a Pulitzer winner his schtick? There’s a particularly good sequence, with shades of the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where the protagonist is detained along with dozens of other officers following the rout at Caporetto, and witnesses them being quickly questioned and then executed – a reminder that fascism was not many years away from seizing Italy.

“It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the lieutenant-colonel.
“It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory.”
“Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked.
“Italy should never retreat.”
We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoner stood in front and a little to one side of us.
“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”

This is also a book which I’m glad I read on an ereader. Obviously in a physical book you can tell very easily when you’re approaching the end of the story; in an ereader, your only clue is “page 300 of 355” at the bottom of the screen. This edition happened to have a lot of afterwords and appendices tacked on to the end, and so I thought I still had another hundred-odd pages left when the ending – one of Hemingway’s most emotionally brutal – arrived unexpectedly. I liked that.

Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brian (1983) 330 p.

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Jack Aubrey’s Mediterranean cruises are typically the novels I’m least interested in, since they so heavily involve naval battles and all their associated strategising, which is easily the most difficult part of this series to comprehend. Treason’s Harbour, which uses Malta as its hub, is a nice surprise: it’s another book which deftly balances Jack’s maritime escapades with Stephen’s more shadowy land-based work in the intelligence service.

One of the things which appealed to me from the outset was the opening scene, in which Jack is at a garden party with a number of other officers, while Stephen is dining some way off with another friend. Both men are under observation from a tower by a pair of French spies, and O’Brian shifts the scene cinematically back and forth between Jack and Stephen by means of the spies’ discussion as a segue. And he maintains, as always, a wonderfully readable ability for his prose to skip along across so many different aspects: a walk along a country road, a glimpse of nature in motion, idle thoughts of literature, and encounters with foreign tradition:

It was an unfrequented road: one ox-cart, one ass, one peasant in the last half hour. Unfrequented by men, that is to say; but in the olive-trees on either hand the cicadas kept up a metallic strident din, sometimes rising to such a pitch that conversation would have been difficult had he not been alone; and once he left the small fields and the groves, walking over stony, goat-grazing country, the highway was very much used by reptiles. Small dun lizards flickered in the scorched grass at the edge and big green ones as long as his forearm scuttled away at his approach, while occasional serpents brought him up all standing: he had an ignorant, superstitious horror of snakes. On a walk of this kind in the Mediterranean islands he usually saw tortoises, which he did not dislike at all – far from it – but they seemed rare on Gozo, and it was not until he had been going for some time that he heard a curious tock-tock-tock and he saw a small one running, positively running across the road, perched high on its legs; it was being pursued by a larger tortoise, who, catching it up, butted it three times in quick succession: it was the clap of the shells that produced the tock-tock-tock. “Tyranny,” said Jack, meaning to intervene: but either the last blows had subdued the smaller tortoise – a female, or she felt that she had shown all the reluctance that was called for; in any case she stopped. The male covered her, and maintaining himself precariously on her domed back with his ancient folded leathery legs he raised his face to the sun, stretched up his neck, opened his mouth wide and uttered the strangest dying cry. “Bless me,” said Jack, “I had no notion… how I wish Stephen were here.” Unwilling to disturb them, he fetched a cast quite round the pair and walked on, trying to recall some lines of Shakespeare that had to do not exactly with tortoises but with wrens, until he reached a wayside shrine dedicated to St Sebastian, the martyr’s blood recently renewed with startling brilliance and profusion.

Similarly impressive, as I noted in the sad case of Lieutenant Nicolls way back in HMS Surprise, is O’Brian’s ability to give the commonplace tragedy of historical fiction – the daily reality of injury and death – an emotional note which must be read in between the lines. Halfway through the novel, a foreign representative assigned to Jack’s ship meets a sudden and grisly end:

“What the devil is he about?” said Jack, as he saw the dragoman take off his shirt and stand on the rail. “Mr Hairabedian,” he called. But it was too late: although Hairabedian heard he was already in midair. He dived into the warm, opaque sea with scarcely a splash and swam aft along the side under the surface, reappearing by the mainchains, looking up at the quarterdeck and laughing. Abruptly his cheerful face jerked upwards – his chest and shoulders shot clear of the water. A long dark form could be seen below him and while his face still looked up, his wide-open mouth uttering an enormous cry, he was shaken from side to side with inconceivable ferocity and he vanished in a great boil of water. Once again his head rose up, still recognizable, and the stump of an arm: but now at least five sharks were striving furiously in the bloody sea and a few moments later there was nothing but the red cloud and the fishes questing eagerly in it for more, while others came racing in, their fins sharp on the surface.
The shocked silence went on and on until at last the quartermaster at the con gave a meaning cough: the sand in the half-hour glass was running out.
“Shall I carry on, sir?” asked the master in a low voice.
“Aye, do, Mr Gill,” said Jack. “Mr Calamy, my sextant, if you please.”

This appears to be the end of the matter; it’s only in small asides or glimpses of sullenness among the ship’s company, across the remainder of the chapter, that we understand how deeply shaken Jack and his seamen are by what befell Hairabedian. On a similar note, early on in the novel O’Brian reveals to the reader (but not to the other characters) that a high-ranking member of the Admiralty’s intelligence division is in fact a French spy; I expected Stephen to eventually expose him, but this doesn’t occur, and in fact our hero is none the wiser by the novel’s conclusion. Perhaps the man will meet his just desserts in the next book; perhaps they won’t come until several more books down the line; or perhaps he’ll never face justice at all, since O’Brian, like Larry McMurtry, knows the universe can be cruel and unfair and has no hesitation about applying those rules to his characters, as in the case of poor Hairabedian.

But, also like McMurtry, O’Brian has a marvellous sense of humour. It’s far too long to replicate the whole thing here (and the only reason I included the above passages at all is thanks to internet piracy allowing me to copy and paste) but there’s a great scene in which Jack and an excited Stephen row out to the supply ship Dromedary, which has delivered Stephen’s newly-ordered diving bell (as proudly mentions several times, “Dr. Halley’s model”) and Jack realises that Stephen, utterly oblivious to the needs and concerns of a Navy man-of-war, expects Jack to carry the enormous device aboard his own vessel.

Jack had meant to take his friend aside and tell him privately that it would not do; that the machine would be obliged to be set ashore or sent home; that Jack was tolerably fly, not having been born yesterday, and was not to be taken in by a fait accompli; but these very shocking figures so startled him that he cried “God help us! Five foot across – eight foot high – close on two ton! How can you ever have supposed that room could be attempted to be made for such a monstrous thing on the deck of a frigate?” All around him the smiling faces turned grave and closed and he was aware of a strong current of moral disapproval: the Dromedaries were obviously on Stephen’s side.

“What do you say to the convenient little space between the foremast and the front rail?”
“Two tons right over her forefoot, pressing on her narrow entry? It would make an angel gripe: it would cut two knots off her rate of sailing on a bowline. Besides, there is the mainstay, you know, and the downhauls; and how should I ever win my anchors? No, no, Doctor, I am sorry to say it will never do. I regret it; but had you spoken of it earlier, I should have advised against it directly; I should have told you at once that it would never do in a man-of-war, except perhaps in a first-rate, that might just find room for it on the skids.”
“It is Dr Halley’s model,” said Stephen in a low voice.
“But on the other hand,” said Jack with an unconvincing cheerfulness, “think what a boon it would be to a shore establishment! Lost cables, hawsers, anchors… and I am sure the port-admiral would lend you a broad-bottomed scow from time to time, to look at the bottom with.”
“For my part I shall always acknowledge a great debt to Dr Halley, whenever I take the altitude of a star,” said the master of the Dromedary.
“All mariners must be grateful to Dr Halley,” said his mate; and this seemed to be the general opinion aboard.
“Well, sir,” said the master, turning to Stephen with a most compassionate air, “What am I to do with your poor bell – with poor Dr Halley’s bell? Set it ashore as it stands, or take it to pieces and strike it down into the hold until you have considered in your mind? One or the other I must do to clear my hatchway, and double-quick, do you see, for the lighters will be putting off the moment the Clerk of the Chequer reaches Admiralty Creek. There he is, just by Edinburgh over there, nattering with her skipper.”
“Pray take it to pieces, Captain, if that should not be too laborious,” said Stephen. “I have some friends in Malta upon whose attachment I believe I can rely.”

Anyway, in reviewing, I find myself reduced once again to merely picking out pieces of prose I admire. Such is the lot of reviewing a Proustian meta-story split across twenty books. I once more heartily recommend this series.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873) 198 p.

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I had a bunch of long plane and car trips recently, and got around to downloading Inkle’s acclaimed iOS interactive fiction game 80 Days. As you’d imagine, it’s loosely based off the famous novel, but is set in an alternate steampunk world and lets you take more or less any route you please; on various playthroughs I ended up at the North Pole, aboard Captain Nemo’s submarine, or stranded on Pitcairn Island. It’s a great little game that made me more interested in the original novel, and as it turned out I had the public domain copy sitting around on my ereader, so I figured I’d give it a read.

It’s not good! It starts out well enough, with the classic set-up of the excitable, emotional Frenchman Passepartout becoming valet to the ludicrously rigid Englishman Phileas Fogg, a gentleman of leisure with a mysterious fortune who does nothing with his days but read the newspaper and go play whist at the Reform Club. On literally the first day of his employment, Passepartout is dismayed to learn Fogg has taken on an expensive wager with his friends at the club, after an argument about a newspaper article which claims it’s now possible to travel around the world in eighty days. The point of contention is that the newspaper published it merely as a hypothetical, based on train timetables and steamer routes; Fogg’s friends claim that delays and mishaps would inevitably throw the schedule off track, while Fogg claims that no delay or mishap is insurmountable. Personally I found this far less interesting than if Fogg had merely been putting his faith in the transport marvels of the modern age and was striking out blind, but whatever: off they go, pursued by a Scotland Yard detective named Fix who’s convinced Fogg is responsible for a £20,000 Bank of England robbery and is taking a circuitous route to flee justice.

As the book goes on, it’s just really dry and dull. There are perfunctory adventures in there, but Verne sort of skips over them, telling rather than showing. One of the core offenders is a Sioux attack on a train in the Midwest, in which Passepartout is abducted and Fogg leads some American soldiers off to rescue him; Verne for some reason decides to convey this scene from the perspective of Fix, who’s sitting around at the train station waiting for them to return. Enthralling stuff. It’s also very much a product of its time, marvelling at the accomplishments of the British Empire and falling in lockstep with the White Man’s Burden. (The game 80 Days, penned mostly by black science fiction writer Meg Jaynath, takes a more even-handed view.) Fogg is not a particularly interesting character beyond being a stereotype of English reserve – it would have been far more interesting if Fix turned out to be right and he really was the bank robber – and the actual facts of his accomplishment are uninspiring. Of course delays and mishaps won’t put a spanner in the works when you’re rich enough to just buy a boat if you miss your departure. On the whole I don’t recommend it, though I very much do recommend 80 Days.

Jingo by Terry Pratchett (1997) 448 p.
Discworld #21 (City Watch #4)

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Jingo is one of the Discworld novels I remember best, since I think I started aged around 12 with The Fifth Elephant and, for some reason, worked my backwards through the City Watch books. I remember most of them fairly well, but this must have seared itself into my brain – I remember almost every scene and quite a lot of dialogue. Which makes it difficult to assess. Frankly it’s less interesting than I remember, but perhaps that’s because I remember it so well that there was nothing to surprise me?

Concerning a confrontation between Ankh-Morpork and its neighbour across the Circle Sea, Klatch (a stand-in for vaguely Middle Eastern countries), you’d imagine the fundamental theme of the book to be war. Not really. It has much to say about statecraft and patriotism and of course jingoism, but not about the business of war itself – though Pratchett returns to the subject in Monstrous Regiment. And despite the fact that the war is kicked off (or at least hastened along) by an assassination attempt on a visiting Klatchian dignitary to Ankh-Morpork, it feels like an odd book for Sam Vimes to be the centre of. (Though this is far more egregious in Monstrous Regiment, where even as a teenager, I thought he had no business being in.)

There’s some good stuff in here as always. A particularly clever plot trick is the use of Vimes’ magical PDA, which begins giving him more useful appointments by telling him what is about to happen in the immediate future; and the twist which occurs (which only Pratchett could pull off) when, at a critical moment of decision, two Vimes in alternate universes accidentally grab each other’s PDAs. And so while Vimes is going after one of his abducted officers, dragging along whichever members of the Watch he could round up to get to Klatch where Captain Carrot starts playing Lawrence of Arabia, he begins receiving rather eerie and brutal butterfly-effect updates of what’s happening in a parallel universe where he stayed in Ankh-Morpork. Put like that it seems confusing and silly, but on the page, Pratchett makes it work beautifully.

Next up is Carpe Jugulum, a Witches book which many consider to be excellent but which I don’t recall very well. Hopefully that’s actually a good sign.

Rereading Discworld Index

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds (2010) 487 p.

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Alastair Reynolds has fast become my favourite writer of fun, enjoyable sci-fi potboilers. After the near-future-set Pushing Ice and the far-future-set House of Suns, Terminal World changes gears quite a bit: it certainly slots somewhere in the fantasy or sci-fi genre, but is very different from the hard sci-fi space operas Reynolds typically writes.

Terminal World begins in Spearpoint, a city of thirty million people built on and around a gargantuan megastructure which thrusts up from the earth in the shape of a rapidly tapering cone, the inaccessible higher reaches extending into the upper atmosphere. The book’s world is divided into invisible “zones:” humans born in one cannot travel into another without medication lest they risk life-threatening illness, and certain zones render more complex technology useless. At Spearpoint, the zones are split into higher technology the higher one travels, and neighbourhoods are named after the level of development found there: so around the base of the cone is Horsetown, which ascends to Steamtown, then Neon Heights, then Circuit City, and finally the upper echelons of the Celestial Levels, populated by posthumans called “angels” implied to be living in a sort of nanotechnology paradise. The plot begins when a dead angel is found in Neon Heights, apparently having fallen from the upper levels, and is delivered to medical examiner Dr. Quillon. As it turns out the angel isn’t quite dead after all, and delivers a cryptic message to Quillon which forces him to flee the city.

It’s the kind of strange high concept stuff – with Reynolds throwing the reader straight in the deep end – which would have confused and irritated me as a kid, but which I love to read these days, even if it falls apart if you think about it for more than five minutes. (It’s never really explained how thirty million people in the only city in the world get fed when the rest of the planet is a lawless wasteland, but who cares?) Reynolds has a great visual sense of place, and the early chapters in particular reminded me of the 1998 film Dark City: Quillon fleeing his pursuers through a bizarre, noirish amalgam of different eras, through late-night diners and laundromats and train stations and bathhouses. But events soon lead away from Spearpoint entirely, and indeed most of the book takes place out in the wider world, which is no less creative and fascinating. Like most of Reynolds’ works, Terminal World slots very firmly into the category of a sci-fi mystery, as Quillon attempts first to merely survive in the hostile world beyond Spearpoint, but then to determine exactly what Spearpoint is, or was, and the mystery of why his world is divided into “zones” in the first place. (The world is not ours, but nor is it fictional, and after it becomes clear that we’re talking about a post-terraformed Mars millenia in the future, part of the fun is picking up all the other clues, like the occasional curse phrase “fear and panic.”)

A lot of readers disliked Terminal World, and I can understand why. Reynolds’ other books are generally hard science fiction revolving around things like time dilation and the theory of relativity. That would be a jolt for a certain kind of sci-fi fan, expecting one thing and instead getting a fantastical swashbuckling steampunk adventure. Personally I’m always quite happy to read one of those, especially when they’re pulled off as well as this.

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.

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.

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