Books I Read In August 2012
Myths and Legends of the Second World War – James Hayward
An account of, as the title suggests, various myths and rumours that circulated during the Second World War. Some are fairly obvious, the big stories that are still known about and sometimes even believed, such as the fabled ‘Blitz spirit’, the idea that Dunkirk was some kind of triumph, and a variety of odd things about Hitler and the Nazi elite. There’s also quite a few lesser myths, such as the oddly widespread one about German infiltrators disguised as nuns, and an abortive invasion of Suffolk that was destroyed by weapons that burned the sea around them1. I was a bit surprised to realise that stories of Nazi occultism were circulating at the time, albeit relating to astrology and horoscopes rather than Theosophy and the Thule Society; I thought that was a more recent invention. It’s all quite entertaining, though it isn’t very deep and there were a few times when I found myself wishing it would go into more detail. It’s basically just a collection of interesting stories with no real analysis behind it, which isn’t really a failing since it’s obviously not intended to be a serious work of scholarship. I would be interested in knowing why these kinds of stories spread during wartime, obviously the combination of fear, censorship and propaganda must be responsible but why some stories and not others? My only other quibble is that almost all the myths are British, along with some from America – I’d be interested to know what kinds of rumours were spreading in the Axis camp.
Yesterday’s Hero – Jonathon Wood
Arthur Wallace is a police officer in Oxford investigating a serial killer, an investigation that leads to him witnessing some seemingly impossible things and then drafted into MI37, the part of the intelligence services dedicated to protecting the UK from supernatural threats. Sound a little familiar? I certainly thought so, especially having a few months back read Rivers of London which has an oddly similar beginning, right down to the hero having a crush on his partner. That’s obviously just one of those odd coincidences, but even without that these books aren’t terribly original. The most obvious comparison is with Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, which also deal with a secret branch of the British military intelligence trying to contain barely comprehensible dangers. Unlike the Laundry series, these aren’t explicitly Cthulhu Mythos but the setting is recognisably Lovecraftian – the monsters are extradimensional aliens and ‘magic’ works by briefly overwriting the rules of this existence with those of another. Still, for all they aren’t very original, they are pretty entertaining and not without a couple of good ideas of their own; Wallace’s mantra of ‘What would Kurt Russell do? for one, and the fact that his contribution to the group isn’t combat skill or magical knowledge but the ability to help the others work as a team. I did a few times notice the odd Americanism cropping up, for instance references to third grade teachers or something looking like a catchers mitt, nothing major but enough to stand out as something a British person would be very unlikely to say. Anyway, there’s nothing desperately original about these books but they’re entertaining enough and I’m not sorry I read them. I actually got them free as part of a promotional give-away, but I think if I’d paid for them I would have gotten my money’s worth.
Wilson – David Mamet
Sort of a weird, post-modernist satire on academia; the premise, so far as I can tell, is that at some point in the future almost all historical knowledge is lost and everyone moves to Mars. The book consists of various fragments of scholarly essays, all heavily annotated and footnoted. Things which we recognise as being bits and pieces of disposable pop culture are subjected to painstaking analysis and long-winded theorising, given absurdly exaggerated importance, and used as opportunities to score points off other academics. The fairly obvious point is that our knowledge of the past is woefully incomplete and that what we know about ancient civilizations and societies is often derived from very few primary sources. The academics in Wilson wildly misunderstand things from our world, the implication being that we do the same to those who came before. It’s not bad, but it’s a bit obvious and the fragmented nature of the book works against it; with no plot or characters and a core concept that’s clear from the beginning, there’s almost no need to actually read much of the book. The style is what’s important, a merciless send-up of overly clever-clever academia, but again it’s the same all the way through. The whole experience is kind of monotone, to be honest it kind of suffers from the same flaw it attributes to the academy – clever as it is, it’s not so clever as it thinks.
An Occupation of Angels – Lavie Tidhar
Brief novella, set in an alternate world where the Second World War ended with the sudden arrival of numerous Archangels and their hosts. As the Cold War rages on, a British spy finds herself involved in something very dangerous – Archangels are being killed off, and there’s something very strange going on in Siberia. A blend of occult fantasy and grim spycraft, it handles both sides well – the angels are suitably weird and otherworldly, whilst the protagonists chilly competence in a world of constant betrayal is reminiscent of the more depressing spy thrillers. It’s good, but I think there is a problem with the length – I got the feeling that it would’ve been better if it had either been cut down into a short story or expanded into a full length novel. As it is it’s simultaneously short and sort of baggy, it’s over quickly but still parts of it don’t really add to the narrative or the character.
A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
Classic sci-fi on an epic scale. The basic conceit is an interesting one, that the galaxy is divided into several concentric regions, with the level of technology possible increasing as you move outwards from the centre. So in the galactic core, you have the Unthinking Depths, where sentience is more or less impossible; then the Slow Zone, where we are now2 and where the laws of physics are in line with our current understanding of them; the Beyond, where standard space opera feats such as faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, antigravity, etc. are possible; and outside that, the Transcend, where almost godlike intelligences are capable of almost anything. A human civilisation is investigating an abandoned archive just within the Transcend, they accidentally release the Perversion, a hostile and tremendously powerful intelligence which immediately begins to spread rapidly, subverting and dominating everything in it’s path. The survivors flee into the slow zone, crashing on a planet with medieval technology and leaving two small children on the opposite sides of a war. Meanwhile a rescue mission is hoping to get to them before the Perversion does, in the belief that they have something on their ship that can stop it. The sheer scale of things is a big part of the draw, with people talking about casualty rates that count entire civilisations, plans drawn over millennia, and generally a ‘big picture’ that’s so big as to almost defy rational conception. The inhabitants of the planet the survivors land on are an unusual variant of the old hive-mind idea; wolf-like creatures who share minds with those close to them, forming into small packs with distinct personalities. The way their world works is fascinating, both in the way their unique aspect affects everyday life and also in the way it rapidly changes with the arrival of technologically advanced aliens. There are a few minor flaws I think, mainly in the way the characters talk – something about it struck me as not quite right, like it was too stiff? I find I can’t quite articulate why it seemed off, so perhaps it’s just me. The two young siblings who find themselves on an alien world do occasionally start to sound like the ‘plucky young heroes’ of golden age sci-fi cliché, but not all the time and in fairness they do manage to be intelligent without being the all-to-common insufferable prodigies. All in all it really is very good, and fully deserves it’s classic status.
Tales of Heresy – Various
Another instalment in the Horus Heresy sequence, this time a collection of short stories by some of the Black Libraries leading authors. As usual, everything is suitably grim and blood-soaked, with tremendous battles raging as the Imperium falls into civil war. And as several of the stories point out, even with the Emperor himself still leading mankind into a golden age of reason and unity, it’s a violent process and a brutal society. The short story format is well used here, with a few of the stories shining a light on elements of the setting that aren’t usually seen, such as the Adeptus Custodes or the Silent Sisterhood. It did strike me whilst reading them that off the top of my head I don’t think any of the Horus Heresy novels are centred around protagonists in the Imperial Army, though of course I’m only about halfway through it and may be misremembering the books I have read. The other thing that stood out for me is that one story features the Emperor directly for the first time, outside of very brief cameo appearances in other novels. As with any anthology, the quality isn’t exactly uniform, but there are a couple of excellent stories here and none of them could be called bad, or even below average.
DisneyWar – James Stewart
Detailed account of Michael Eisner’s long and controversial reign as chief executive and chairman of Disney, a reign which both encompassed Disney’s revival in the late ’80s and it’s subsequent decline during the late ’90s. I’m not a big Disney fan, though I was vaguely aware of most of the big moments here, like the renewed success of Disney cartoons with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King etc., the relationship with Pixar, and with the initial embarrassing failure of EuroDisney. I did get slightly confused at first by mentions of 101 Dalmatians, which seemed far too recent, until I realised it was the live action remake not the original. The level of access accorded to the author seems to have been unusually high, especially for Disney, and there’s an awful lot of things here that I suspect some people would have preferred to keep quiet. It’s almost ridiculous the way some of these people act, grown men who earn millions of dollars squabbling like little kids, refusing to speak to each other, spreading rumours, forbidding their subordinates from talking to rivals. . . Eisner’s feuds in particular dominate the narrative, interfering with the running of the company, damaging shareholder confidence and ruining morale. Although it stops just short of saying so directly, it’s fairly clear that the book basically blames Eisner for the companies decline, as he seems to have set himself up as the incarnation of the company and constantly interfered with both the creative and financial sides of the business, whilst consistently refusing to take any blame when things went wrong. It’s a fairly dry subject, but it’s well written and if you’re interested in seeing wealthy people sabotaging themselves and their businesses you could do a lot worse.
1 This one is vaguely familiar actually, I think something similar is mentioned in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle?
2 Assuming of course you’re reading this on Earth.