Books I Read In April 2012
My Year of Flops – Nathan Rabin
A collection of columns taken from the now half-decade old ‘Year of Flops’ feature on the AV Club. The format is the same for each instalment – he watches a film that turned out a major critical or commercial failure, talks about it and the context it was made in, and decides whether it’s a Failure, a Fiasco or a Secret Success. There’s no shortage of people talking about bad movies on the internet, but this stands out a little by featuring films that were, at least at the time, a pretty big deal. It’s not really difficult to pull apart some straight-to-DVD monster movie made in a week for a couple of quid, it might be funny but it probably won’t tell you much you didn’t already know. It’s more interesting to see major directors and big studios putting huge amounts of work, money and prestige into things destined to either sink without trace or blow up in their faces. It’s also pretty funny, usually in a ‘what the hell were they thinking?’ way. Rabin’s willingness to see the good parts of the films and to recognise when they’ve been unjustly condemned is refreshing, and prevents the book from turning into the torrent of negativity and snark you so often get online. I did find that it got a little repetitive, which is understandable really since it was originally written to be read in small chunks once a week, not all in one go. The other obvious issue is that you can read most of the columns for free already, with maybe a quarter of the book being new content. Still, I think I got my money’s worth out of it.
Achtung – Panzer! – Heinz Guderian
Seminal work on the history and theory of armoured warfare, by a man who a few years after writing it was leading panzer divisions into Poland, France and Russia. It is a bit weird reading a book by one of the Third Reich’s leading commanders, especially as the photo of him on the front cover makes him look like a faintly amused ghost. But apart from that, it’s an interesting book; the first half being an overview of the development and use of tanks during the First World War, followed by his arguments for the importance of building up and correctly utilising armoured formations. The history is concise, and it’s obvious even without the copious editorial footnotes that Guderian’s overstating the importance of tanks in WWI. I don’t think he does so to the extent that his argument suffers though, he exaggerates for rhetorical effect but the core of his argument seems sound. I did find it interesting to see WWI described from a German perspective, and I was kind of surprised to read a book published in Nazi Germany stating flatly that they were totally defeated on the battlefields. But then I suppose it would have weakened his argument to pretend otherwise. Similarly, the part where he talks about the increasing mechanisation and power of the Red Army was unexpected, considering at the time of publication the official stance was that Russians were biologically inferior and technologically backwards. The theoretical section is laid out simply and effectively, arguing persuasively that tanks constituted the main striking force of a modern army, but that they could only be really effective in co-operation with infantry and artillery. It follows that in order to prevent armour being slowed down and losing the mobility that makes it so effective, the support arms would also have to be mechanised. He makes his case well, although it’s difficult to accurately judge how well since in hindsight we know he was right. An interesting, clearly written book, it’s easy to see why it was so influential when it was first published. And it should come in handy if you ever need to organise your own blitzkrieg.
The Enormous Room – E E Cummings
During the First World War Edward Estlin Cummings, who went on to become one of the 20th Century’s leading American poets, served as an ambulance driver in France. A friend of his wrote some letters that the French censors disliked, with the result that the both of them ended up in what was technically speaking not prison. This autobiographical novel is mostly made up of character sketches of the people he met there, mainly foreigners like him, and the various ridiculous things that happened to them in captivity. Cummings approaches his travails in a spirit of cheerful adventure, and even his criticisms of his jailers are couched in terms ironic rather than virulent. He is clearly of the belief that the polyglot crew of misfits, petty criminals and fools he is locked up with are far superior to the ‘respectable’ people outside; considering that ‘respectable’ people imprisoned him for no real reason whilst blasting swathes of Europe into a muddy wasteland his opinion seems reasonable. Not much really happens, indeed the fact that one day is much like another in prison is kind of the point. With so little to distract them from the monotony of their surroundings the arguments and fights and the petty victories over authority become momentous events. Cummings describes his compatriots wonderfully, and when he likes someone you can really feel it in the writing; the sense of companionship that helps them cope is conveyed warmly. It’s hard to say exactly how much of this story is true; I can’t help but feel that perhaps he was not quite so cheerful at the time. It does ring true in general though, and his belief in the flawed individual versus bureaucracy and authority feels totally genuine. Looking him up afterwards on Wikipedia I read that Cummings later became a Republican and a McCarthyite, which rather surprised me1.
Sea of Ghosts – Alan Campbell
Thomas Granger is leader of an elite special forces unit, until he rather unwisely talks back to Emperor Hu and gets his entire team disbanded and charged with treason. Fleeing the capital, he ends up hiding out as a jailor in Ethugru, the maritime city2 where Hu interns his (very, very many) enemies. A few years later he finds himself reunited with a woman he hasn’t seen in a very long time, along with a daughter he never knew he had. A daughter who has some very unusual abilities. . . The setting is fascinating, and equally importantly it isn’t just flat told to the reader in paragraphs of exposition. Some time ago humanity was enslaved by the Unmer, a race of sorcerous aquatic humanoids with the seemingly supernatural ability to create powerful and strange artefacts. Eventually they were defeated by the Harustaf, a mercenary sisterhood of powerful psychics who are the real power behind the emperor’s throne. To make things more complicated, when the Unmer realised they were losing, they unleashed something called Brine, the result being that the sea is (i) toxic, caustic and mutagenic, and (ii) constantly rising. So all in all it’s a pretty grim world, what with the constant war, the mercenary psychics, the ghettos full of angry Unmer and everything slowly drowning in poison. This bleakness carries on over to the protagonist, who isn’t really heroic but rather just trying to survive and take care of himself. He’s actually a bit like Jack Bauer from 24, in that he’s willing to do nearly anything to achieve his goals and that he’s a lethal fighter. After sticking with Granger for about the first half, the story then starts to follow several other characters; Maskelyne, the man who unofficially runs the city, Ianthe, Granger’s daughter, and Briana, one of the leaders of the Harustaf. Maskelyne is particularly interesting; he says he wants to understand the workings of Unmer sorcery/technology so that he can protect the world for his son, and you could almost believe him except for the monstrously brutal way he goes about it. What makes it more interesting is that it’s not really clear whether he genuinely believes he’s doing the right thing, or if he’s just coming up with excuses and rationalisations. There’s a brief bit with his wife that I found very disturbing indeed. He contrasts well with Granger, who is also brutally pragmatic but who finds himself trying to do the right thing for his daughter despite himself. The only thing that I thought a bit of a let down was the character of Briana – unlike the others there’s no real nuance to her and she comes close to being a cliche. She really is just what she appears to be on the surface, a self-centred woman who believes she’s better than those around her, talks down to people and intrigues constantly. The obvious thing to compare this book to is the Bas-Lag books by China Mieville, which similarly feature industrial-age fantasy, a threatening, cynical world and oppressive social structures, but the writing style is quite different; sparse instead of layered and deep. It reminded me more of R Scott Bakker’s (excellent) work, which is similarly gritty and brutal and which also takes starts as epic fantasy before heading in an almost sci-fi direction. Seriously a very good book.
Eclipse of the German Navy – Thaddeus V Tuleja
A fairly loose overview of the main activities of the Kriegsmarine during the Second World War, with no overarching thesis or serious analysis, just narrative accounts of various major sea battles. It’s all told well enough, but if you’re already at all familiar with the subject it won’t tell you anything new. The author goes to great lengths to say that the Kriegsmarine was not a pack of Nazi fanatics, and repeatedly emphasises their professionalism, bravery, etc. I don’t profess to know much about the political loyalties of the Kriegsmarine but this all seemed a bit much to me; if they really were as politically independent as Tuleja makes out he doesn’t provide much proof. The way this ties in with his praise for their bravery and skill also seemed iffy to me, the (probably unconscious) implication is that they were good sailors, therefore they must have been basically good people, therefore they couldn’t have been ‘real’ Nazis. My impression is that the author isn’t deliberately trying to act as an apologist, but rather that he is nostalgic for the time when he was fighting in the Atlantic and wants to believe in a romantic image of that war, one where both sides were at heart decent, brave men who could respect their opponents. Something else that struck me was the frequent references to Nordic and Germanic mythology, as well as the way it occasionally verges on the poetic in the descriptions of the lonely, forbidding Atlantic. It’s not awful, but it is problematic.
Mechanicum – Graham McNeill
The eighth in the Black Library’s Horus Heresy series, and a definite return to form after the slight dip in quality with the last novel, Battle For The Abyss. As the title suggests, this instalment tells the story of how ideological divisions and rivalries combine with the machinations of Horus to tear apart the grand forges of Mars. The Adeptus Mechanicus has always been an interesting faction in the 40k universe, but usually in the background, so it’s good to see them take centre stage here. The book does a good job of showing how inhuman the servants of the machine god really are, even before some of them become corrupted by the powers of the warp. It’s a pretty good indication of how people think in this world that even the character who wants to break free from centuries of rigid doctrine and create new technologies decides to do so by building a giant psychic amplifier. The designs for which she found underneath a pyramid. The narrative alternates between following a group of adepts who find themselves uncovering the secret at the heart of the Mechanicum, and with the the military campaigns as civil war rages across Mars. The action is set at a suitably grandiose pitch, with vast armies, gigantic war machines and city-shattering weapons set loose to wage total, civilisation-destroying war. For me the main strengths of the Warhammer 40,000 setting are the enormous scale of everything, such that individuals are rendered utterly insignificant in the face of the forces that control the universe, and the ornate Gothic3 style. Mechanicum does a great job of conveying both of these things, whilst also portraying the central theme of the Horus Heresy; the sense of a promising future being irrevocably ruined. A high point in a so far excellent series.
The Crown of the Blood – Gav Thorpe
Ullsaard is the greatest general in Ashkor, a militaristic empire that’s clearly modelled on imperial Rome. Unfortunately for him, he’s not one of ‘the Blood’, the royal bloodline descended from the original founder of the empire, and so he’s barred from true political power. So when he sees an opportunity to assert his rights he takes it, prompty getting involved in a political struggle that rapidly escalates beyond his control. The obvious comparison is with A Song of Ice and Fire, gritty fantasy with a heavy political element, but that’s only really on the surface. Although there’s plenty of plotting and backstabbing and all that, it doesn’t dwell so much on the misery and suffering caused by civil war. With a world that features Romans riding battle-lions, lizardmen mercenaries, landships, dinosaurs, eldritch sorceries and a protagonist entirely motivated by personal ambition it’s more Robert E Howard style swords and sorcery than Tolkienesque fantasy. Ullsaard is a good protagonist, although he’s ruthless, ambitious and willing to plunge the empire into civil war he isn’t unsympathetic – it’s clear that he genuinely believes, and not unreasonably, that he’s only trying to get justice, and that the empire really would be better off if he got his way. Of course, his opponents think the same things, with equal reasonableness. . . It’s not so much that it’s cynical as it’s neutral – by and large none of these people are much better or worse than each other, except that some of them are better at fighting or ruling or scheming. Although in fact there are some clearly ‘evil’ characters, undead sorcerer-priests who occasionally pop up to plot and interfere with the rest of the world; despite their periodic appearances they never really feel like part of the main story, presumably they’re being set up here to play a bigger role in the sequel. Otherwise, my only real quibble is that it could have done with more female characters; apart from Ulsaard’s wives and mother, who don’t really do much beyond gossip, it’s manly men all the way. Straightforward and action-packed without being clichéd or simplistic.
1 Of course, he spent some time in the USSR during the 1930s, so maybe it isn’t all that surprising.
2 Is it me, or are Venetian-style cities getting quite common in fantasy these days?
3 I want to say baroque, but I’m not sure if that’s right?