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The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (1999) 259 p.

This is the first Discworld book I ever read, when I think I was about 12 years old; it came out in 1999, but I wouldn’t have read it straight away, and I turned 12 in late 2000. In fact I have a distinct memory of borrowing it from Karrinyup library, after umming and ahhing over it in the Big W books section (that being the limit of a provincial child’s browsing universe) and deciding I didn’t want to spend any of my limited purchasing power on a series of books which I’d seen all over the place but had always been leery of. I think it was the covers that put me off: Josh Kirby’s ridiculously muscular heroes and outrageously buxom wenches. I was too young to realise that the covers were themselves parodies of the fantasy genre; which is funny because Pratchett’s books had drifted away from generic fantasy parody some ten years and twenty books earlier.

But I was certainly still young enough to assume that a book cover portrays an event in a book, and so I thought The Fifth Elephant would be about some inexplicable cataclysmic impact, particularly since the book begins (as they all do) by explaining how the Disc is carried through space atop four elephants who in turn stand atop a gargantuan turtle. (Possibly at this point the animated series was also playing on the ABC after school, further influencing my idea that this was somehow important). But of course – as any Pratchett reader will tell you – these fundamentals of the Discworld are something Pratchett dreamt up for the first book in the mid-’80s, and they’re utterly irrelevant now, just as the legend of the Fifth Elephant, which supposedly crashed onto the Disc and left behind remnants of fat and bone matter, is utterly irrelevant to the plot of The Fifth Elephant; it’s merely an excuse for Pratchett to make a very silly pun about a contemporaneous film. (A very quirky, unique and excellent film, if you’ve never seen it. SBS Viceland dedicates at least one day a year to showing it all day long, and their program manager explained on Twitter that “I’ll stop doing it when it stops rating so well.”)

So anyway, that was a surprise for young me, reading this laminated hardback library book on holiday, as I recall, in an old caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s acreage down in Capel in what was probably the winter of 2000. (It rained incessantly, which was good for reading.) This book had nothing at all to do with an elephant crashing down from the sky. It was about a copper, a detective, a chief of police in a fantasy city, being sent away from his homeland to a strange and foreign country in which he’s expected to be a diplomat but instead finds himself embroiled in a criminal plot.

I must surely have read The Fifth Elephant again at least once since 2000; I remember it too well. Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and the (recently, unwillingly ennobled) Duke of Ankh, is sent with his wife Lady Sybil to the mysterious country of Uberwald, a sort of wintry wilderness Germany/Russia hybrid, to attend the crowning of the new Low King of the dwarfs. (The High King was a historical office in Ireland, elected by the various smaller kingdoms to rule over them; it makes sense that the subterranean dwarfs would term their own ruler the Low King.) Uberwald has been a lawless place for generations, with the dwarfs and the vampires and the werewolves doing as they please while the human population mostly just tries to get by; but the dwarfs are ascending in power and status and threaten to upset this balanced trifecta. From the very beginning of The Fifth Elephant, the notion of modernisation and cultural change is present:

“I suppose you could say he’s elected,” said Carrot. “But really a lot of senior dwarfs arrange it among themselves. After listening to other dwarfs, of course. Taking soundings, it”s called. Traditionally he’s from one of the big families. But… er…”
“Things are a little different this year. Tempers are a bit… stretched.”
Ah, thought Vimes. “Wrong dwarf won?” he said.
“Some dwarfs would say so. But it”s more that the whole process has been called into question,” said Carrot. “By the dwarfs in the biggest dwarf city outside Uberwald.”
“Don”t tell me, that must be that place Hubwards of…”
“It’s Ankh-Morpork, sir.”
“What? We’re not a dwarf city!”
“Fifty thousand dwarfs now, sir.”

I was reminded of A.A. Gill’s essay about the cornucopia of America, and how Americans naturally celebrate the immigrant story as one of success and optimistic new beginnings; but viewed from the other side, from those left behind in 19th century Europe, it’s one of destitution and loss. The new Low King says this bluntly to Vimes:

“When people say ‘We must move with the times,’ they really mean ‘You must do it my way.’ And there are some who would say that Ankh-Morpork is… a kind of vampire. It bites, and what it bites it turns into copies of itself. It sucks, too. It seems all our best go to Ankh-Morpork, where they live in squalor. You leave us dry.”

Incidentally, this is another point that went over my head when I was a kid – the Low King has been selected as a compromise between more powerful dwarf factions, and comes from a small clan near Llamedos, Pratchett’s stand-in for Wales. His speech is peppered with Welsh phrases like “see” and “look you,” a way of emphasising that king he may be, but he hails from humble origins; at twelve I would have had only a slight notion of what constituted Britain, let alone its vast array of accents and what they signify in a deeply class-based society. Anyway, the Low King isn’t wrong, exactly, in his characterisation of Ankh-Morpork; but from his foreign vantage point, what he fails to understand is that the dwarfs – and the trolls, and the myriad other species that have come to call the big city home – have irrevocably changed Ankh-Morpork as well.

There was also an ache across his back where an axe had been turned aside by his armour. He felt a twitch of national pride at that thought. Ankh-Morpork armour had stood up to the blow! Admittedly it was probably made in Ankh-Morpork by dwarfs from Uberwald, using steel smelted from Uberwald iron, but it damn well was Ankh-Morpork armour, just the same.

It’s an ironic moment, but Vimes (and Pratchett) really means it: it is Ankh-Morpork armour. It’s a physical manifestation of Lord Vetinari’s neat turn of phrase about multiculturalism in Feet of Clay: “Alloys are stronger.”

It was this kind of seriousness, this kind of gravitas, that most impressed me as a kid, a 12-year-old expecting some kind of apocalyptic adventure about a fiery elephant crashing into the earth and instead got something wholly unexpected. A funny book, yes, but funny in ways which speak to a deeper truth, a deeper seriousness; Pratchett being one of those people who uses humour to make a deadly serious observation. What stayed in my mind over the years was the central set-piece, one of the finest Pratchett ever wrote, in which Vimes escapes from a pitch-black subterranean dwarf prison using the last few matches in his pocket….

“Want to see a trick?” said Vimes.
“Watch this,” said Vimes, and brought his hands around and shut his eyes just before the match flared.

…and then has to run through the forest pursued by werewolves in their long-standing, morally revolting “game”:

The werewolves slowed as they reached the building. Their leader glanced at a lieutenant and nodded. It loped off in the direction of the boathouse. The others followed Wolf inside. The last became human for a moment to pull the doors shut and drop the bar across.
Wolf stopped near the centre of the barn. Hay had been scattered over the floor in great fluffy piles.
He scraped gently with a paw, and wisps fell away from a rope that was stretched taut.
Wolf took a deep breath. The other werewolves, sensing what was going to happen, looked away. There was a moment of struggling shapelessness, and then he was rising slowly on two feet, blinking in the dawn of humanity.
That’s interesting, thought Vimes, up on the gallery. For a second or two after changing, they’re not entirely up on current events…
“Oh, your grace,” said Wolf, looking around. “A trap? How very… civilized.”
He caught sight of Vimes, who was standing on the higher floor, by the window
“What was it supposed to do, your grace?
Vimes reached down to the oil lamp. “It was supposed to be a decoy,” he said.

All of which remains coupled with Pratchett’s excellent sense of humour. The Fifth Elephant has one of the series’ very best B-plots, a purely comedic exercise exploring the inevitable consequences of Vimes being sent away and then Carrot also unexpectedly departing, leaving the utterly incapable Sergeant Colon in charge; he soon goes mad with power and ends up barricaded in the Watch House while Nobby’s hastily organised watchmans’ union pickets outside. After observing the City Watch be built up by Vimes and Carrot over the course of five books from a handful of losers into an efficient, modern police force, it’s extremely funny to watch it disintegrate under Colon’s leadership in a mere week. Both Colon and Nobby are well aware of this, and have a repeated refrain of dread running through their heads during this crisis, which runs along the lines of: “Mister Vimes is going to go spare. He’s going to go absolutely mental.”

It’s solid gold stuff, from beginning to end. I’ve greatly enjoyed re-reading the Discworld series even when it doesn’t quite live up to my memories – but sometimes it does. Looking over Goodreads, the last Discworld book I gave five stars to was Men at Arms. Both of them are brilliant books all the way through, enhanced even further by frisson-inducing climaxes in which Vimes faces down a villain, torn between his instinct as a wronged man, a human being thirsty for revenge, for red-blooded justice… and for what he needs and demands and expects of himself to extract as a copper, as an officer of the law. A man who must demand of himself a more robust standard than the general public – of which he is also of course a member. The best of the City Watch books are the best things Pratchett ever wrote, combining all of his thoughtful themes with a truly admirable cast of characters, plot-driven mysteries which culminate in genuinely exciting moments, and never letting up on his trademark sense of humour even in the most desperate moments. I can see why 12-year-old me was so delighted to discover this book, and promptly devoured the rest of Pratchett’s works over the next few years. The Fifth Elephant is an absolute classic.

Rereading Discworld index

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (2014) 181 p.

One of the most popular non-fiction hits of recent years in Australia, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu re-examines 19th century explorers’ journals and other sources to argue that pre-contact Aboriginal Australians were more technologically advanced than the primitive hunter-gatherer society assumed by most modern-day Australians. The most publicised aspect of this argument is that Aboriginals harvested grains, but Pascoe touches on many other areas, some more contentious than others – fisheries, aquaculture, towns, animal husbandry – across the course of this relatively slim book.

As a pop science book rather than an academic text, Dark Emu wears its heart on its sleeve, and I have neither the ability nor the inclination to do further research to confirm or reject Pascoe’s claims. I do have the ability, as with any other complex subject like climate change, to weigh up the respectability and the motives of the people who have done the fact checking – or who claim they have. Dark Emu is no more or less inherently political than any other historiography, but it’s certainly become a political touchstone in Australia in the last few years. If you want to dramatically oversimplify the two sides, imagine an inner-city Greens-voting twenty-something on one side (disclaimer: I am two of those things, but sadly no longer the third), accepting every claim in Dark Emu as gospel and buying a copy for every member of their family; on the other, imagine a red-faced, balding, baby boomer subscriber to The Australian boiling over with rage about a book he hasn’t read.

I think it’s reasonable to say that white settlers conducted a genocide on this continent. I think it’s reasonable to believe that a wealth of knowledge and history was lost when a society with no written language had their oral records wiped out by invaders who decimated, dispossessed and scattered their people. I think it’s reasonable to argue pre-contact Aboriginal society would have been complex and diverse, that rather than a continent of identical hunter-gatherers there were certainly fishers and whalers and farmers; I also think it’s fair to note, as Russell Marks does, that Pascoe often implies that the exception was the rule. I think that Pascoe, who is not a professional historian, makes some odd choices which cast some of his more seemingly reasonable claims into doubt, such as his citation of the thoroughly discredited pseudo-historian Gavin Menzies to suggest that Aboriginals might have visited Beijing in the 1400s. I think Pascoe is a decent and well-meaning man whose core thesis is broadly plausible, particularly his assertion that white Australia deliberately ignored or minimised evidence of more complex Aboriginal civilisation, even as his enthusiasm for his subject sometimes leads him down the garden path of outright speculation.

But I think, most of all, that Dark Emu’s most compelling evidence in favour of its central argument is found not within the pages of the book itself, but rather in the thousands of column inches dedicated to Having A Normal One about it in Australia’s conservative press. In the past few years Dark Emu has become the latest battleground in this country’s long-running history wars (themselves just a theatre of our broader culture wars), with apoplectic responses from the usual quarters: people like columnist Andrew Bolt, who decided to muck-rake Pascoe’s Indigenous ancestry despite having been convicted of racial discrimination for doing the same thing to others in the past; or Quadrant contributor Peter O’Brien, who was so incensed by Dark Emu he published a rebuttal book, and, hilariously, currently has for a top Google hit a Quadrant piece in which he whinges at length about getting into an edit war on Dark Emu‘s Wikipedia article. Beyond these illustrious contributors to Australia’s public discourse you can see the layperson’s response on Goodreads: a whole raft of one-star reviews, “questions” and comments by users who, with a glance at their avatar-less profiles, were apparently so triggered by Dark Emu they felt compelled to go to the bother of registering to the site solely to attack it.

All of this simply underscores Pascoe’s central point: the legitimacy of contemporary white Australia was built on a dark legacy, and many white Australians feel instinctively in their bones that any threat to the doctrine of terra nullius (struck down in law but not in spirit) must be aggressively challenged. “Any suggestion that Aborigines are anything other than furtive rock apes has to be destroyed by these people,” an Indigenous leader told a journalist for The Saturday Paper, who cross-checked many of Pascoe’s claims against the original sources at the National Library and found them to be accurate.

I find the likes of Bolt and O’Brien very sad. I feel sorry for them. This is not because, as they would no doubt retort, that I’m some kind of self-hating, latte-sipping, inner-city white Australian. I love my country a great deal – all things considered, looking at the broad sweep of human history and the world today, Australia is one of the freest, fairest, safest and most prosperous places a person could hope to be born. But I can believe those things and love my country while still acknowledging that it was built on dispossession and has a long and enduring history of racism; that the freedom, safety and prosperity I enjoy is not extended at remotely the same length to Indigenous Australians. Knowing those things makes me want to change Australia’s future, not deny its history. Some of Pascoe’s assertions may be sketchy or exaggerated, but the over-reaction to a fairly innocuous pop science book from some demographics in Australia tells you everything you need to know about Dark Emu’s broader truth.

A Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss (1973/2007) 590 p.

As near as I can tell Brian Aldiss published and revised a number of these collections, this being the most recent edition, put out in 2007. Apart from half a dozen more contemporary pieces injected into the mix, it’s mostly the same collection of early sci-fi stories from the 1950s and ‘60s that I remember reading as a battered old paperback when I was a young teenager – possibly, I think, the first short stories I’d ever read.

Many of these don’t hold up, coming as they do from the golly-gee-whiz era of science fiction. (And some of the modern insertions, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s thoughtful Notes on Sexual Dimorphism, stand out against them like a sore thumb.) But highlights include:

Lot by Ward Moore, about a father packing his family into the car and onto a jam-packed highway to try to escape what’s implied to be a nuclear attack on Los Angeles; I must have remembered the tone and urgency of this story, since it’s subconsciously reflected in my own short story West Gate, but as a teenager I missed Moore’s subtle use of the father as an unreliable narrator, a bitter and hen-pecked man who secretly resents his family and fantasises that the collapse of society is going to finally usher in his time to shine;

The Liberation of Earth by William Tenn, a satirical story about Earth finding itself a battlefield between two opposing alien militaries, constantly taken and retaken and declared “liberated” each time while billions die and entire continents are vapourised;

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison, about a human missionary arriving on a planet populated by peaceful and very literal-minded aliens;

The Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley, in which a man approaches a trader who has developed a drug that allows one to see their heart’s truest desire;

Night Watch by James Inglis, following the journey of a space probe launched off into the galaxy;

Great Work of Time by John Crowley, an 80-page novella capping off the anthology, which is one of the most thoughtful and literary time travel stories I’ve ever read, about a secret society which attempts to alter history to preserve the British Empire and the complications which arise from that. Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big is one of the few books I’ve ever given up on shortly after starting it, finding it not to be to my taste, but on the strength of this novella alone I’ll definitely be taking another look at Crowley’s work.

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell (1973) 375 p.



This is the second book in J.G. Farrell’s very loose ‘Empire’ trilogy, which share nothing more than a common theme: the decline and decay of the British Empire. Troubles was one of my favourite books of last year, a mordant satire set in a decaying Anglo-Irish hotel during the years of the Irish guerrilla war for independence. The Siege of Krishnapur jumps back in time about sixty years to India’s 1857 sepoy mutiny, an uprising of some of the colony’s native Indian regiments against their British rulers, and follows the story of about a hundred white British men, women and children and their loyal Sikh troops who find themselves trapped in a small complex of buildings, surrounded and besieged by an army of sepoys – very closely modelled on the Siege of Lucknow, and indeed the NYRB edition of this book uses the ruins of The Residency in Lucknow as its title image.

Based on Troubles I was fully expecting to love this book, and was surprised to find that it didn’t quite gel together for me. Farrell maintains the same wry comic tone he used to great effect in Troubles; but the key difference is that in Troubles the privileged British characters were utterly insulated from the actual impacts of the war going on beyond their doorstep, making their pompous opinions and wildly off-base political predictions all the more amusing. In the Siege of Krishnapur, on the other hand, the British characters suffer greatly from actual, genuine hardship and misery. Violent battle, medical amputations, cholera, literal starvation, plagues of insects, the indignity of disposing of the corpses of loved ones by throwing them over the wall for the jackals – all of this and more is visited upon them, and for the most part they bear it with stiff-upper-lip Victorian Stoicism which, considering the circumstances, feels less like a Troubles-esque skewering of the ruling class and more like something to be genuinely admired. The disconnect is particularly jarring when it comes to Fleury, a character who has recently arrived from England and, once the siege is underway, involves himself in more than one combat engagement with the sepoys which can only be described as slapstick. Fleury is certainly a pompous twit, but he’s no coward, and the tone of these encounters is at odds with the rest of the book; I found myself uncertain of what Farrell was trying to accomplish with this character.

It’s quite possible the ‘Empire’ label was only applied retrospectively, after Farrell finished The Singapore Grip and his premature death in a rock fishing accident left us with only six novels, three of which display a clear theme of British colonialism. It’s perhaps unfair, then, to compare The Siege of Krishnapur to the more openly satirical Troubles. Farrell’s afterword makes it clear that the subject of the sepoy mutiny genuinely fascinated him. Re-examining the novel with that in mind, I think it probably stands better as its own work than as a follow-up to the style and themes of Troubles; though I still think aspects of it don’t sit right, and that Troubles is the far superior novel.

Troubles by J.G. Farrell (1970) 446 p.


Across the turbulent years of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Troubles – the first of J.G. Farrell’s loosely connected “Empire” trilogy – follows the upper-class British residents of The Majestic, a seaside hotel in County Wexford. The Majestic has, to put it bluntly, seen better days; Farrell paints a marvellous portrait of crumbling decay, the hotel’s three hundred rooms mostly empty and mildewing, the swimming pool stagnant, the main courtyard overgrown. There’s a touch of Gormenghast to the place, and Farrell is such a talented writer that even though the symbolism is present in every scene it never feels overwrought. The Majestic clearly represents the last disintegrating years of the British Empire itself, the green-eyed orange cats overrunning the upper floors represent the newly ascendant Sinn Fein, and the stiff-upper-lip old Tory who owns the place obstinately refusing to acknowledge the obvious truth that it’s falling down around his ears… well, that represents something still quite relevant to those of us well-versed in British politics in 2019. Particularly the way in which he eventually embarks on a sort of Apocalypse Now descent into madness.

Troubles is regularly interspersed with extracts from newspapers – real ones, I assume – discussing the situation not just in Ireland but in other far-flung parts of the Empire like India and Egypt. There is a familiar tone to these extracts: a delusional steady-hand-on-the-tiller attitude, a refusal to acknowledge that other nations and peoples might have interests and desires which differ from England’s, and a ridiculously unfounded optimism that borders on deranged. A century later, little has changed. Troubles is a brilliant skewering of the Tory mindset and a perfect book to read in October 2019, as the British slouch towards either a no-deal Brexit or yet another extension of their Indefinite Leave to Remain.

The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian (1981) 368 p.

ionian mission


For a book called The Ionian Mission, the Ionian mission itself doesn’t come into play until about the last quarter – but who cares? By this point in the series it’s clear that this is one very long story which is split into separate volumes merely for the sake of tradition and the necessities of the publishing industry. The Ionian Mission is merely the latest chapter in a setting I’ve grown very comfortable with, among characters who seem like old friends and real people – which is why I picked it as reading material for a hellish 26-hour flight I had to endure, and why I polished off nearly all of it on the Hong Kong to Helsinki leg alone.

The book is largely about Aubrey and Maturin both being assigned to the Mediterranean squadron – Aubrey due to one of O’Brian’s plot devices to prevent character of his experience and rank being given more prestigious but less literarily-exciting duties, and Maturin because he has a cloak and dagger rendezvous scheduled on the French coast. The Ionian mission itself fits rather oddly with the rest of the book, sending the characters off to the Ottoman Empire where it soon became clear to me that this was another of O’Brian’s attempts to insert his characters into Real History – there’s a little too much back and forth politicking with various Turkish power brokers, in a section which felt like it should take up an entire book rather than the final 60 or 70 pages of this one. But never mind – not one of O’Brian’s strongest efforts, but I still greatly enjoyed it, as I imagine I will every book for the rest of the series.

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

day after world war iii.png

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


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

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

The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary (1942) 221 p.


One of the things that’s struck me – looking back at history as an adult with fresh eyes, rather than with the received background wisdoms we get through early schooling or pop culture – is an appreciation of looking at past events through the eyes of people alive at the time, and how those events then compared to their own past. World War I, for example, seems to us like an inevitability, and a rather old-fashioned sort of war compared to the blitzkrieg of World War II; but for those living through it, it was the point at which the future started looking bleak instead of hopeful, the unhappy dark conclusion to the industrial revolution, the optimism of the Gilded Age and the green agrarian fields of Europe turned into the muddy, rusty, mechanical hell of a machine war. It must have felt like the end of the world.

Similarly, the Battle of Britain is such a proudly-remembered, immortalised landmark of history that we ironically don’t appreciate it as much as we should. It was the first great air battle in human history. For thousands and thousands of years human beings had killed each other across Europe, and for nearly a thousand years Britain’s geographic fortune meant it was largely protected from foreign invasion by sea. When the British Expeditionary Force packed off to France in 1939, they expected this war would turn out largely like the last one: a stalemate in the muddy trenches of the Low Countries. They certainly never expected that Britain’s sovereignty might be threatened, or that the skies above London – the ultimate home front – would play host to a battle between flying machines that simply hadn’t existed two generations ago. (One of the most striking images of the Battle of Britain, to me, is the contrails in the sky above St Paul’s Cathedral.) The flyleaf of my copy of The Last Enemy has the oldest inscription I think I’ve ever seen in a book I own: “To Les, March 1943.” The worst of the danger had passed by 1943 but it’s still strange to think Les received this book as a gift from somebody while the war was still ongoing, when the outcome was still in play. It certainly makes history feel less far away.

Richard Hillary was an Oxford student in the 1930s who signed up to the RAF when the war broke out. The Last Enemy is an interesting first-hand description of what it was like to be one of the men so rightly idolised these days, the fighter pilots who defended Britain against the Luftwaffe and a potential invasion. Hillary was by calling a writer, though it’s fair to say that this is one of those books (like Alive by Paul Piers Read) which is compelling not because it’s told with any particular flair but simply because the events it describes are so compelling.

It’s also very much a book of two halves. Hillary was shot down over the North Sea during the Battle of Britain and was badly burned on the face and hands, and the second half of The Last Enemy details his hospital treatment and recovery. In many ways this is the more interesting story: going straight from being a glamorous hot-shot fighter pilot to a pitiable and broken thing, blinded, awash on a tide of pain and morphine in a hospital bed, rendered a helpless bystander in a war he desperately wanted to go back to fighting. It also, at great length, details the kinds of things which put the lie to any notion of glamour. It’s one thing to die for your country. It’s quite another thing to get your eyelids burned off, have crude replacements cut from the skin of your forearm to replace them, spend months immersed in 1940s healthcare, undergo saline baths, listen to the screaming of the other patients, incubate a terrible infection in your burns, and eventually leave hospital disfigured for life to face a society that doesn’t quite want to look you in the eye anymore. Hillary would certainly never say it, and maybe it’s just my own medical squeamishness, but the feeling I got was that this kind of ordeal was a far worse experience than anything active combat could put you through.

One remark of [my mother’s] I shall never forget. She said: “You should be glad this has to happen to you. Too many people told you how attractive you were and you believed them. You were well on your way to becoming something of a cad. Now you’ll find out who your real friends are.” I did.

Hillary himself is quite an introspective fellow, though strangely for a memoir I couldn’t say I really got to know him. It very much feels like he’s building his own image up. More telling, I think, than any aspect of his personality he shows to the reader is the truth of his fate, which obviously isn’t included in the book. He eventually managed to pass the medical board and go back to flying – not in combat, but still flying for the RAF – even though, by the account of his fellow officers, he could barely hold his knife and fork in the mess hall, got splitting headaches and had trouble reading the altimeter. Clearly there was some burning drive within him to risk his own life (and that of others), to ignore his own medical condition, to go back if not to battle than at least to the skies. He inevitably crashed and died on a night training flight in Scotland in 1943. He was twenty-four years old, which, to me these days, seems terribly young.

An interesting memoir written by a hero. A hero who joined the RAF for self-admittedly selfish reasons and was probably a bit of a narcissist, but a hero nonetheless.

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

– From “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara

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June 2023