Books I Read In September 2012
The March of Folly – Barbara Tuchman
A study of what the author calls ‘folly’ – here defined basically as governments and politicians pursuing policies that are contrary to their own interests, and that can be identified as such even at the time. The book is split into four parts; a brief opening section about the story of Troy as the “symbolic prototype of freely chosen disaster”, a rundown of the absurdly corrupt Renaissance Popes who seemingly did everything they could to provoke anticlericalism and the Protestant secession, the clearly counterproductive attitudes of the British government to it’s American colonies, and closing with the longest section, following US involvement in Vietnam. I have to say I wasn’t one hundred percent convinced by the conception of ‘folly’ used here, my main issue is that it doesn’t distinguish clearly between the personal interests of the individual politicians, the partisan interests of governments, and the national interests of the states they govern. The grasping amorality of the Renaissance Papacy was obviously tremendously harmful to the Catholic Church, but the Popes themselves benefited enormously from it – I think there’s a fair argument that this wasn’t folly, as such, but the rational choice to degrade an institution for personal profit. Similarly, whilst the men who planned the Vietnam war to such disastrous results weren’t corrupt, they did stand to gain from their actions in the sense that the war allowed them to justify and gratify themselves ideologically. They were able to believe that they were far-sighted leaders on the front line against the global communist threat, rational technocrats acting for the long-term good in the most efficient way, anonymous men in the shadows making the tough choices to do what was necessary, and so on. Still, even if the common thread of the book didn’t totally convince me the specific case studies are interesting in their own right and are written as well as you’d expect from a historian of her calibre.
Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – Jonathon L Howard
The third novel featuring the piercingly intelligent and not-quite-as-amoral-as-he-likes-to-believe necromancer. Each of these books seems to be set in a slightly different genre, this time round it’s Lovecraftian horror. Cabal is recruited by a group named the Fear Institute to lead them into the Dreamlands, the world that forms and is formed by the collective unconsciousness of humanity. They wish to locate and destroy the Phobic Animus, the source of all fear; he wishes to use the resources of the Dreamlands in his quest to defeat death. Naturally, their quest doesn’t go exactly to plan . . . I’m not a huge fan of the Dreamlands as I’ve seen it used previously, it often doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Cthulhu Mythos1 but on the other hand it is refreshing to see a take on Lovecraft’s less famous works. The Dreamlands here are basically a parody (or maybe a pastiche) of the Americanised swords & sandals pulp fantasy, with plenty of exotic cities, needlessly epic architecture, hail-fellow-well-met heroes, weird beasts, zebras, etc. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I though I enjoyed this I didn’t like it quite so much as it’s predecessors. The pacing seems a bit off, the final section of the book seems rushed and features a plot strand that would maybe have been better off being either dealt with in more detail or removed completely. Still, that said it is a decent read and if you enjoyed the first two books then it’s worth reading this one too.
We’re Going To Die Here, Aren’t We? – Eirik Gumeny
Brief collection of absurdist short stories from the lunatic responsible for the wildly entertaining Exponential Apocalypse novels. They’re short, so short in fact that it seems kind of redundant saying much about them. They’re also mad, funny, there’s not a great many of them, and you can get the lot on Kindle for 77 pence. I suggest you do so.
Wonder Boys – Michael Chabon
Grady Tripp is an author, desperately trying to finish the follow-up to an award-winning novel whilst teaching creative writing at a liberal arts college. His manuscript is currently at two thousand pages with no end in sight, which makes it awkward when his agent shows up for the weekend wanting a look at the ‘nearly finished’ work . . . Other things which lead to awkwardness over the weekend include: his wife leaving him, his mistress being pregnant, a brilliant but troubled student, a dead dog, an accidentally stolen piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, a deliberately stolen car, and an annual conference. It would probably help too if he wasn’t constantly trying to get as high as a kite. The best parts of the book are those when things are just spiralling wildly out of control, with the protagonist thrown from one absurd situation to the next, either helpless or actively making things worse. The more melancholic side of the story didn’t work quite so well for me, Grady’s growing realisation that he has no idea what to do with his life doesn’t so much undercut the more farcical elements as sit separate from them. I was a little disappointed by this, mainly I suppose because of my high expectations, having been very impressed indeed with some of his other books for this one to be ‘merely good’ was maybe a bit of a let-down2.
Armageddon – Max Hastings
Military history covering the final years of World War 2 in Europe, starting just after the successful invasion of France and ending with the final conquest of Germany. The title is apt, with the book making the terrible scale of the war very clear, particularly on the Eastern Front where the conflict was close to an apocalyptic racial war. I definitely appreciated the fact that Hasting’s doesn’t lionise the Allies as so many recent popular historians do, but rather points out that regardless of the rightness of their cause they were not the selfless heroes portrayed by Stephen Ambrose and Steven Spielberg. On the Eastern side this is in the shape of the great tide of looting, rape, and wanton destruction that followed the victorious Red Army, a phenomenon that in fact gets more space than their military activities. He is however scrupulous to point out the fact that the only reason the Western allies were able to defeat Germany at such little cost was because the USSR was shedding oceans of blood, something which often gets overlooked in the West. The generally low quality of US infantry, which was consistently given the least capable recruits, and the lack of aggressive leadership is something which Hasting’s emphasised in his book Overlord, and here again it is brought up to explain why the German forces were able to consistently hold off far larger and better armed opponents for so long. Apart from this, there’s not much in this book that you won’t already know, assuming you have a basic knowledge of the war, but it’s quite well written and if you’re looking for a basic overview this is a decent bet.
Delta Green: Strange Authorities – John Tynes
Delta Green is possibly my favourite RPG setting, a masterful updating of Call of Cthulhu from the classic ’20s era to the conspiracy-soaked 1990s, and this is an excellent introduction. An unauthorised conspiracy within the United States intelligence services, formed to battle the inexplicable, inhuman forces that threaten humanity before being forced underground, Delta Green is illegal, treasonous, poorly resourced, thinly manned, and pitted against the sanity-blasting horrors of the Mythos and the subverted masters of their own government. This collection3 does an excellent job of showing the personal, moral, and psychological costs of constantly being under incredible pressure and of doing appalling things to try and prevent the inevitable. When I started to read this I was wondering if the technological side of things would appear dated now, Delta Green’s reliance on then new tech like email and mobile phones was something that set it apart when it first came out but is also the kind of thing that can look silly down the line; in fact it holds up very well, in fact if anything the passage of time has shown that it got it absolutely right. One thing that did stand out to me, technologically speaking, was that it’s still in the era of physical photography – digital cameras must have been an absolute godsend to spies. According to the introduction, the original idea for Delta Green predates The X-Files, which if true further increases my admiration for the creators. My only real complaint about this book is that some of the various factions who appear don’t really need to be there, it occasionally felt like people were being included so that all of the settings big players would show up in the book. Otherwise, excellent.
The Innsmouth Syndrome
Sarcophagus – Phillip Hemplow
More Cthulhu Mythos fiction, this time in the form of two short novellas by new writer Phillip Hemplow. In the first, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control is sent to the Godforsaken Massachusetts fishing town of Innsmouth to investigate the very odd symptoms displayed by several dead teenagers; anyone with even a passing knowledge of the genre will be able to guess what happens next. . . This isn’t really a problem though, the horror comes from the oppressive knowledge that things are inevitably going to go very, very wrong, and there’s nothing that anyone can do to stop it. It does a good job of recreating the sinister feeling of Lovecraft’s original story, with the decrepit, pestilential town and it’s atmosphere of decay and corruption very well portrayed. The second story, Sarcophagus, revolves around the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat. A multinational corporation has been contracted to build the new containment structure around the ruined reactors, but the operation is plagued with strange accidents, odd sightings, and a strange spike in mental illnesses amongst the workers. Things are getting stranger and stranger, and now there’s a terrible storm on the way. . . The setting definitely lends itself to Mythos horror, and the fear of radiation fits in very well – it’s invisible, mindless, it corrupts, deforms, and kills, it could be despoiling your DNA right now and you wouldn’t know it. Both stories are well written, and I felt them closer in tone to the original Lovecraft stories4 than many modern Cthulhu tales. I definitely look forward to seeing what Hemplow comes up with next.
Germline – TC McCarthy
Gruelling horror-of-war sci-fi. In the future rare earth minerals are vitally important to the economy, essentially holding the position that oil does now, so much so that Russia and the United States are engaged in open warfare with each other over mineral deposits in Asia. It’s not going well for the Americans and the only thing that keeps them from being totally overrun is the genetics – genetically engineered soldiers. A seriously burned-out journalist5 heads to the front line in a last ditch attempt to either save his career or end his life, before long he ends up fighting the war as much as the Marines he’s embedded with. Then everything goes from bad to worse, the US forces start to collapse and as the war mutilates his soul he becomes obsessed with the genetics. This really is a cynical, brutal world, and it’s brought across convincingly by little details like the way the US are drafting fifteen year olds, or how there are no ‘normal’ women in the armed forces any more because it’s more efficient for them to be at home breeding more soldiers. The war itself feels like a prolonged nightmare, made up of the worst parts of every war since about 1936, all combined and fought mostly underground with advanced weaponry. All the participants are ground down by the inexorable terror and destruction, until all they’re capable of is trying to fight and survive, wanting desperately to get out whilst being unable to understand the outside world. The genetics themselves are interesting and frankly disturbing – they’re all identical, all female, they’re indoctrinated with a bizarre death-worshipping religion to keep them in line, they suffer increasing physical and mental degradation as they get older until at eighteen years old they’re ‘euthanised’. What’s even worse is the way everyone else treats them – not only are they not considered human, they’re not even treated like animals but as objects to be used, in the same way as rifles or missiles or tanks. Even the protagonist, who falls in love with one of them, sees her as some kind of feminine ideal or as a symbol of his having a future rather than as an actual person. This is an excellent book, it’s bleak, bloody and cynical, but not in a shallow way; for all the exciting future-war tech and the visceral combat scenes, it always comes back to the bitter, unavoidable cost. The ending took me by surprise, without giving anything away I did find myself wondering if it was going to be revealed as a dream or delusion or something. All told it’s hard-going, but in a good way.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop. – Robert Coover
J Henry Waugh is an unhappy accountant whose life is increasingly dominated by a game he has created, a pen and paper simulation of a baseball league. This fantasy world takes up more and more of his thoughts, and he treats the real world as at best a source of inspiration for the game and at worst an annoying distraction. At the beginning of the novel, he is tremendously excited by the prospect of one of his players getting a perfect score record, when a roll of the dice leads to the athlete being killed in a freak accident. Henry’s life, imaginary and real, is thrown into complete chaos and his mental health begins to deteriorate. As a lifelong afficionado of tabletop role-playing games I found it pretty interesting that the book portrays things I’ve done myself6, albeit in a blackly-comic, exaggerated way. I’ve definitely found myself idling away time wondering what my character would do in a certain situation, or spotting something in reality and thinking that would work well in a game, or invested an absurd degree of thought into some pieces of paper and a couple of dice. Also, thanks to an legendary game of Unknown Armies, I too have had an unexpected dice roll lead to the sudden death of a baseball player7. The way in which Henry is a prisoner of his own imagination is fascinating; the game is after all totally in his control, there aren’t even any other players, and all he would need to do to fix the situation driving him mad is simply to decide that it didn’t happen. But this is impossible because he’s bound by the rules he’s decided to impose upon himself, because if he just decided that the player survived after all then it would all be made meaningless. Ultimately, it’s the balance between unbounded imagination and arbitrary rules that makes the game entertaining. I have to say that if you’re not as deeply interested in gaming as I am, you probably won’t get so much out of it, it’s not an outstanding work but it speaks to my peculiar interests in a very direct way.
1 Which is less a criticism of Lovecraft and more an inevitable consequence of trying to force all of his disparate works together into a single coherent whole.
2 Considering the theme of the book, this is actually kind of meta.
3 Some short stories and a novel, all linked together.
4 Though of course Lovecraft would never have featured women as protagonists.
5 There never seem to be any healthy, well-adjusted journalists in fiction.
6 The book was published in 1969, pre-dating D&D by five years.
7 I should really dig out the write-up of that game.