The Guardian has an interview of China Mieville by a 12 year old reader, mostly about his new book Railsea. I didn’t like UnLunDun, but I do like Mieville’s work (not unequivocally) and I think he’s got interesting things to say. The interview isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s nice to see authors take their younger readers seriously, and it’s nice to see that a 12 year old can notice the similarities between UnLunDun and Neverwhere. I like the headline quote that the Guardian has chosen, too – it says a lot about Mieville’s attitude to his work because although he’s avowedly communist, in my opinion he doesn’t push his politics blatantly in his work, and everything I’ve read him saying about his work is first and foremost that it needs to be entertaining and escapist, and secondarily political. Consider this, for example, from the interview:

I know some people think it is the role of SF to be prophetic: I don’t. I think the role of science fiction is not at all to prophecy. I think it is to tell interesting, vivid, strange stories that at their best are dreamlike intense versions and visions of today.

which is a nice approach to sci fi, I think.

Also, the interview finishes with the suggestion of an UnLunDun Olympics, and a film. Excellent ideas!!!

Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan is the first in a series of young adult steampunk novels, set in a very close parallel history of Edwardian Europe. They’re light-hearted, fast-paced and fun, and they have some nice new ideas for combining classic steam-tech with biotechnology. The basic setting is Austria and London on the eve of the first world war, with Europe locked into the exact same ludicrous stand-off as actually happened. The Austrian Empire – “clankers” in the common British parlance – bases its technology on steam power and heavy industry, while its main opponents, the British “Darwinists” have followed the old man’s lead into an industrial milieu based on bioengineering. Most of the action in the story revolves around two symbols of these two types of technology: an Austrian walker, very similar in essence to an ST Walker from Star Wars; and the British airship Leviathan, which is essentially a hydrogen blimp bioengineered from a massive whale. The technology on both sides is ludicrous and well beyond what one would imagine were possible in the time period, but it’s classic steam-based SF.

Each technological setting also comes with a character: the Austrian Alek, bastard teenage son of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who has to flee his home after the assassination of his family; and Deryn Sharp, a poor Scottish girl who has come to London with the crazy idea of disguising herself as a boy and entering the British Royal Air Force. Through a series of improbable accidents she finds herself onboard the Leviathan over Austria at the same time as Alek is fleeing across Europe, and so they end up meeting by chance. They then have to join forces to escape the Austrians chasing Alek, and thus the two of them are introduced into the scheming and plotting of European politics as the great powers plunge headlong into war. The first book ends at the point where we discover what they’ve become embroiled in; presumably we’ll explore more in later books.

This is a young adult novel, so it has some characteristics that I know many adult readers hate: hastily-sketched characters based on archetypes, simple and fast-flowing narrative style, sometimes awkward explanations of background and setting, and the frustrating phenomenon of children beating adults at their own game. But the fast-paced expositions and quick descriptions are a pleasant change from the bulky, unwieldy style of some modern SF and fantasy, and it’s nice to read a story with background nuance presented quickly and easily. The novel lacks the deep, thoughtful emotional engagement that characterizes the best young adult fiction (like, say, the works of Robert Westall or Maurice Gee) and it doesn’t have any of the coming-of-age intensity of much of the genre. I really like those aspects of good young adult fiction, and so in that sense this book is a little lightweight at times. But who cares? It’s fun, it has a cool giant floating whale armed with flechette bats (which have a cool name but are actually a bit of a stupid idea), and it has an alpine AT-AT chase between. What’s not to like? Also, I’m sensing strong hints of a dragon being involved somewhere in all this, and there’s definitely a kraken. The characters are a little shallow and stereotypical but engaging enough, and although both are a little super-human they are not insufferable prats such as one sometimes stumbles across in young adult fiction.

If you like steampunk and want to see such a setting leavened with carefully-imagined biotech, in a slightly later era than we usually associate with the genre, then this is a good book to pick up. It’s easy to read, fast-paced, and keeps the new ideas coming along at just the right pace to keep you interested. It also promises more depth – both emotional and political – in subsequent volumes. If you aren’t into young adult fiction, or like your stories slow-paced and thoughtful in the style of a classic fantasy trilogy, then you probably had best leave this one be. Overall, it’s a good effort and I’ll be persisting with the series.

Everything she can do, he can do better

I’ve started reading John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in anticipation of what looks like a very fun movie, but I have to say that even though the story is interesting the writing is absolutely appalling. It’s classic Mary Sue, with a character who is just better than everyone else at everything and obviously already knows his way through the plot, as if he were in fact the writer of the story himself. It also uses the classic “tell, don’t show” error of teenage fanfiction. Reading it is a tedious exercise in admiration of a two-dimensional hero.

The basic story is simple: John Carter, ex-slave owner and “Southern Gentleman,” finds himself accidentally on Mars, where he is thrown into the middle of the ongoing conflict between two races who have been reduced to hard scrabble in a failing environment. Mars (or “Barsoom,” as the locals call it), used to be the home of a great race of human-like peoples, who slowly fell into decay as the environment of Mars failed. Another race appears to have decided to live communally on the land and, as commies are wont to do, degenerated into barbarism and cruelty. The descendants of the great race – red skinned humanoids – have great technology and are trying to save the planet, while the savages – weird buggish freaks – run around being cruel and nasty. John Carter lands amongst the savages, but immediately impresses them with his prowess at everything, and though a captive of these savages manages to get himself appointed a chieftain (through combat, of course) and is given wardenship of one of their prisoners, who of course is an extremely important member of the red-skinned people. He is also given a couple of women to look after him, and one of these just happens to be the only kind and thoughtful savage on Barsoom.

So, having accidentally disappeared from his own world, with its rich 19th century culture of slave-holding and subjugated women, where he is a much-admired and respected man, Carter finds himself on a completely alien world with different culture and language, but within a couple of seconds finds himself much-admired and respected, and lording it over a small collection of women – purely by dint of his talents, of course.

This could be a fun read, I suppose, like a kind of sexless version of Gor, but for the fact that John Carter is a tedious, insufferable braggart who is good at everything and never makes an error. And oh, how we are constantly reminded of his talents. For example:

To be held paralzyed … seems to me the last word in fearsome predicaments for a man who had ever been used to fighting for his life with all the energy of a powerful physique

or:

I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later … I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me

and following this up:

Fear is a relative term … but I can say without shame that if the sensations I endured during the next few minutes were fear, then may God help the coward, for cowardice is of a surety its own punishment

In case you hadn’t noticed, John Carter is a robust fighter who never feels fear and acts automatically out of a sense of duty. These quotes are from the first few chapters but Burroughs isn’t tardy about letting us all know that John Carter is the best, y’all: his manifold perfections are outlined in a foreword. But just in case you thought Carter might just be the 19th century equivalent of a great sportsman, we are also reminded that he is a consummate warrior, and a genius to boot. In training with the savages weapons, we find:

I was not yet proficient with all the weapons, but my great familiarity with similar earthly weapons made me an unusually apt pupil, and I progressed in a very satisfactory manner

Oh! The modesty! Also, within a few days of joining the savages, John Carter has befriended his watchdog in a way that no martian has ever done before, and has taught the martians better ways of managing their own mounts, and mounted combat, so that they are both better able to manage their mounts and better able to fight en masse. This despite the fact that he is unfamiliar with martian gravity and doesn’t speak their language. Not that the latter bothers him much:

in a week I could make all my wants known and understand nearly everything that was said to me. Likewise, under Sola’s tutelage, I developed my telepathic powers so that I shortly could sense practically everything that went on around me.

This, incidentally, is the entirety of the coverage that the existence of telepathy gets in this work for the first 8 or so chapters. We’ve had more sentences devoted to the production of the milk Carter drinks than to the telepathy he learns. It’s not, however, the last time that Carter gets a chance to remind us that he is a genius:

I nearly drove Sola distracted by my importunities to hasten on my education and within a few more days I had mastered the Martian tongue sufficiently well to enable me to carry on a passable conversation and to fully understand practically all that I heard

Here is an example of a conversation he could understand “within a few more days”:

In our day we have progressed to a point where such sentiments mark weakness and atavism. It will not be well for you to permit Tars Tarkas that you hold such degenerate sentiments, as I doubt that he would care to entrust such as you with the grave responsibilities of maternity

So, one week to learn how to say “I need to take a leak,” another few more days to get to the point of understanding an overheard conversation about “atavism.” Also, telepathy in one sentence. And nowhere in this time period is there a hint, even a single hint, of homesickness, or any kind of emotional trauma at having teleported out of a cave in Arizona to a field on Mars. Do you feel small yet? Or are you, more likely, bored stiff with this character who can do everything and anything?

In addition to being a robust Southern Gentleman who can learn martian in a day, Carter also seems to have remarkable luck to take exactly the right path in any situation. He hears someone behind him, so instead of attacking, he jumps, which impressed his attackers rather than getting him killed; he gives his horse its head in the darkness, which is just as well because it leads him up just the right path to escape the Indians; he makes a guess about the best way to impress the natives and – lo! – it was the right guess. Within about a chapter of the start of the adventure it has been well-impressed upon the reader that, no matter what, Carter is not at risk of significant injury, failure or death. As the reader, you have nothing invested in the story at all – it’s not like Carter is going to ever have to overcome a failing or character flaw (he has none), there’s no sense in which his plight is the same as yours would be if you ended up on Mars, and there’s never a feeling that he will make a bad choice, even by accident.

This apathy is further entrenched by the narrative flow, in which Burroughs tells us everything we need to know about the society, environment and structure of Mars long before Carter himself finds out the details. Rather than discovering the mysteries of Mars in the flow of the adventure, we’re told everything about a setting, person, circumstance or technology as soon as we encounter it. The phrase “As I later learned,” or “as I was to discover,” appears constantly in the text – maybe a couple of times every chapter, and always expounds on things we could quite happily find out ourselves with a bit of time. Thus, we only know we are somewhere mysterious because we are told we are on Mars: from the very moment of his arrival there, Carter’s narrative breaks the mystery of the planet with constant references to things that neither he nor the reader know. We even get a lesson in Martian demographics in the second chapter of his encounter with the savages, something that really could have waited to be revealed to us later in a conversation with someone.

This kind of adventure writing is so tedious as to be almost unbearable. The plot itself is interesting – I want to find out about Mars and the society Burroughs has created, and I want to see where the story goes. It’s a really good idea that, in the hands of a decent writer, would make a really cool story. I’m guessing, then, that the movie is going to be good. But the book – thoroughly forgettable so far. It reminds me of John Wyndham’s pompous academic Mary Sues, who always take a young woman under their wing and teach her the harsh realities of the world, while she constantly thanks them in breathless wonder at their wisdom; or the later books of Dune, after whats-his-face becomes a god and surmounts every challenge by simply being himself. No challenge, no threat, no sympathy with a human character, no need for character development and no sense that the character will ever grow as a person through adversity. Of course, this may change later, but at the moment it’s looking like the writing is going to be drier than the surface of Mars.

So, unless you’re feeling really patient, I can’t recommend John Carter of Mars. Is the rest of Burroughs’s work this badly written?

 

"Let the punishment fit the crime"

Back from Beppu and continuing my reports on the book War Without Mercy that I introduced here before my travels commenced. I’ve finished the section on allied and Japanese war atrocities, which were numerous and terrible on both sides, and which I briefly mentioned in my previous post, and now I’ve also read the section on allied representations of the enemy. This section makes clear that the allied response to Japanese aggression was both furious and exterminationist in its content. That is, the allied war planners and propagandists, and allied media, made clear both their deep hatred of the Japanese, its racial origins, and their belief that the only solution to the problem of Japanese aggression was extermination of the Japanese as a race. Obviously since the Japanese survived this goal was not enacted and cooler heads prevailed,  but the propaganda that was driving the allied war effort in 1943-45 was genuinely disturbing stuff.

Exterminationism, US style

However, the nature of allied propaganda began to create uncomfortable contradictions in both internal political struggles in their own countries, and between them and some of their less “enlightened” allies. This is because it called on fundamentally old-fashioned racist tropes, but its connection to exterminationism and the defence of the colonial project led them into tricky political terrain.

The Eternal Racist

In an illuminating section of the book, professor Power points out that the allied anti-Japanese propaganda used in WW2 drew on a wealth of existing racist caricatures with almost no change or originality, simply substituting Japanese for Native Americans or black Americans. In fact, Roosevelt’s own father had been saying almost exactly similar exterminationist things about Native Americans, and the common images used to describe Japanese were borrowed directly from the racist lexicon: they were animals, apes, children, insane, cunning, treacherous and had special “occult” powers. The accusation of “occult” powers was particular to anti-Asian racism and had previously been used against the Chinese; but all the other epiphets and images could have been used for any previous racial enemy of the US or Britain – and Power observes almost exactly equivalent language being used against Native Americans, black Americans, Mexicans, Chinese migrants and the Chinese nation, and then finally the Phillipines, over the course of just 150 years. He also points out that the original Spanish descriptions of the Native Americans of South America were interchangeable with the allies’ claims about the Japanese; and to this he could undoubtedly have added the British defense of their colonial practices in India, and western descriptions of Aborigines and Maoris[1].

The Colonial Project Continues

The other aspect of allied propaganda that was quite surprising was its open acknowledgement and approval of the colonial project in the Pacific and Asia. The US even had a popular song, To Be Specific, It’s Our Pacific that summarized western ideas about the war. Political and opinion leaders didn’t shy from defending their right to own territories or colonies in Asia, and their anger at Japanese temerity in attempting to either establish its own colonies, or to take theirs. The war now is seen as a war to preserve freedom, but the western peoples of the 1940s were comfortable seeing it as a war to preserve their overseas colonies. One report to war planners even observed that many Asians in the fighting territories saw the war “cynically” as a war between fascists and imperialists. How very cynical of them! Churchill openly stated his aim as the preservation and continuation of Britain’s colonial possessions, and many war leaders saw the Pacific war specifically as a race war, between “white supremacy” and the “coloured races.” They worried that the “coloureds” were stirring, and explicitly saw the Japanese attack as a threat to the long-standing world order. Having portrayed the Japanese as apes and animals, they now had to face the fact that these “apes” were capable of besting the “superior” races in military activity, and were setting an example that other Asians might choose to follow. Some of the more alarmist planners saw in this the germ of the long term collapse of the white race, and openly stated so.

These worries were acutely seen in two areas: fear of the effect of the war on black Americans, and fear of the collapse of China.

Racism at Home

It’s well-established (though not often discussed) that the US was extremely racist in its dealings with black soldiers. Black Americans were not allowed in combat roles until very late in the war, were not allowed many promotions or the best or most skilled jobs in the army, and were even required to maintain a separate blood plasma supply: that’s right, black blood couldn’t be used in white soldiers, even though the people writing this policy knew that the scientific evidence was that the blood types were indistinguishable. Some racists portrayed plans to amalgamate the blood supplies as an attempt to weaken the white race by merging its blood with black blood. Black American blood. In Australia, the US government sought (and was granted, I think) special permission to maintain its segregation laws in the housing of US soldiers in Australia, and conflict regularly occurred between US and Australian soldiers in public places when Australian men and women failed to observe American ideals about segregation – particularly, Australian women would date black soldiers and the soldiers would be punished by their white colleagues for miscegenation[2]! Black Americans were acutely aware of their unequal status as combatants for “freedom,” as exemplified in these two slogans from black freedom activists:

Defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito by Enforcing the Constitution and Abolishing Jim Crow

and

I want you to know I ain’t afraid. I don’t mind fighting. I’ll fight Hitler, Mussolini and the Japs all at the same time, but I’m telling you I’ll give those crackers down South the same damn medicine[3]

One black soldier upon enlistment gave as his suggested headstone “Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of the white man.” This distinction between racism at home and race-hate abroad created a problem for the white authorities, a problem they were aware of and, sadly, not particularly interested in addressing: how can you call for the extermination of a race of apes overseas, using exactly the same language you use to describe a group of people you are oppressing domestically, and expect loyalty from those same people? And how can you maintain your theories of superiority over that domestic group, when the people you paint in the same language overseas are kicking your arse in an area the size of the Pacific?

Loyalty from black Americans was a source of worry for American war planners, who broke up a few groups that may have been getting support or information from the Japanese, and the Japanese certainly attempted to use the Jim Crow laws as propaganda against America (in Japan). However, black American loyalty was largely to America, and the bigger worry for US policy makers was that the Japanese might provide black Americans with inspiration in their own struggle. With Japanese defeat looming, a large number of Americans would be returning from the front armed with the certain knowledge that “inferior” races could defeat “superior” races, and that the racial policy of the past 50 years was hollow; but at the same time they were exhorting white men to exterminate Japanese men with the same underlying logic of white supremacy that was being used to hold black people down in the US. Would this not make US blacks extremely uncomfortable? By using this language, the government had basically shown itself to be of a piece, ideologically, with the supremacists who still murdered black men in the South.

The US response to this appears to have been weak, with no real effort made to amend domestic laws or to move towards the end of segregation and Jim Crow. The only efforts they made were security efforts, to arrest domestic activists and look harder for evidence of connections between Japanese and militant black movements. They showed a little more foresight in dealing with the problem of the “coloured races” rising up abroad, but even there they were complacent and had great difficulty shaking off basic racism, as is shown in the case of the allies’ dealings with China.

The Collapse of China and World War Three

The allied war planners’ biggest fear was that China would collapse or surrender, freeing up 2 million Japanese soldiers to advance into Asia and lending all of China’s economic, industrial and manpower resources to the Japanese. Almost as devastating would be a peace treaty between China and Japan, and the most likely cause of such a treaty – besides China’s exhaustion after 7 years of war – would be their treatment by their allies. Churchill had made it clear he intended to maintain British colonies in the Far East, and the allies refused to rescind a special treaty which prevented China from trying foreigners in local courts. But worst of all was US racism toward Chinese migrants in the US, who were placed in a special category of undesirables and refused both admission and naturalization rights. The catalogue of racist laws applying to the Chinese in the 1940s is quite horrifying, and saddening, and shows an intense and abiding anti-Oriental racism in the west at that time. It was impossible for Chinese to become US citizens at the start of the war, and almost impossible for them to enter the country at all, or only at a very high price and often with extreme difficulty. These laws were a big issue to Chinese in China, and it was obvious that the threefold combination of British imperialism, US racism, and allied special privileges in Asia could turn Chinese attitudes against their western allies. But it was extremely difficult for the US to give up its anti-Chinese laws, and in 1944 as a comprise it allowed a quota of just 105 Chinese a year to become citizens, provided they were new migrants. This was the WW2-era Americans’ idea of a compromise to a lower race. Even though they were fighting a huge and terrifying war in the Pacific, whose outcome at least partly depended upon their treatment of their local allies, they couldn’t properly give up their racist ideals. Similarly Britain, which was highly dependent on its colonial armies as a bulwark against Japan and knew that at least some of the countries it relied on were shaky, refused to give up its colonialist policies in Asia. By this time India was beginning to rebel against white rule, the Burmese had at one point showed allegiance to Japan, and the Japanese were using the language of the East Asia co-prosperity Sphere to claim that they were liberating Asia from white imperialism. Had they behaved less like colonialists themselves this propaganda might even have been successful.

This toxic mix of rebellion by the “inferior” Japanese, activism in colonial provinces, black activism at home, and fears of Chinese collapse, led many commentators in the West to fear that the world was on the brink of a new war that might explode from the ashes of WW2 – a war between the races, with the Eastern “coloureds” rising up against the “superior” whites. The fear of Americans was that the Chinese would fall behind this rebellion and the west would be both outnumbered and outgunned. They spoke of Japan “winning the war by losing” and of the “rising wind” becoming a hurricane.

The Pacific War as a Missed Opportunity

Very few western commentators and politicians saw either the logic or the principle of the obvious measures required to prevent this hurricane – rescinding racist laws, voluntarily withdrawing from their colonies, and ushering in a newer, fairer world order – even though many of Japan’s reasons for entering the war were connected to its racist and unequal treatment between 1905 and 1937. So it was that the war came to its end with the West still convinced of its superiority – perhaps even reassured, after putting Japan “in her place” – and unwilling to consider the wholesale changes that would be required to restore peace to half the world. So it was that over the next 20 years we saw colonial territories throw out their masters, often violently and with huge death tolls in India, Indonesia and Malaysia, the establishment of new and fucked up Juntas in Burma and Africa, and the collapse of economies through war and the scorched earth policy of the colonial masters. Following this was the civil rights movement in America and the sad and terrible disgrace that is the US invasion of Vietnam. Instead of seeing Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour as a wake up call and the ensuing war as the final battle over racist ideology, that they must inevitably lose, the colonial powers mistook it as a chance to reassert their grip, and in tightening the screws they just increased the pain that those countries were willing to bear in order to gain their freedom. As the universe’s most famous freedom fighter once said – the more you tighten your grip, the more they slip through your fingers. This means that the Pacific War was not just a catastrophic and avoidable mistake at the time it happened, but the one useful lesson that could have been gained from it was missed, and a teaching moment for Western Imperialism was overlooked. The ensuing history of Asia was written largely in blood, much of it probably avoidable if the allies had not cleaved so strongly to the racist ideals that underlay their ideology in both war and peace at that time.

(Note: Illustrations are from the text).

fn1: As an interesting aside, our approach seems to have become much, much more mature in recent years – descriptions of Afghani and Iraqi enemies are generally much less dehumanizing than those used in World War 2, even though al Qaeda’s treachery on September 11th was comparable with – or worse than – Pearl Harbour.

fn2: I’m taking this information from an ABC documentary on segregation in Australia, not from Power’s book.

fn3: Note here a subtle effect of the racist tone of war propaganda. The western European enemies (Italy and Germany) are identified with their leaders; the Pacific enemy are identified as a race

Curiosity killed the...

In part 2 of this manga series, Yakumo and Haruka have to investigate the strange possession of a young woman by the ghost of a man, against the backdrop of a serial murderer in their town. The serial murder has been abducting schoolgirls, holding them for a few days and then killing them, but this isn’t Yakumo’s case; he has been approached to deal with a young woman who has been rendered catatonic by possession, and in investigating her situation he finds she has been possessed by a man.

In this episode we find out more about Yakumo’s friend Gotou san, who is a private investigator assisting the police with the serial murderer case and is central to the plot, because it turns out that the possessed girl and the serial killer are intimately linked. We also find out a little more about Yakumo’s family background, and Haruka reveals she too may have a talent for seeing ghosts, probably because her older sister – for whose childhood death Haruka blames herself – hangs around her spiritually, and is guiding her to certain scenes and situations.

There’s an interesting contrast in this story between Yakumo’s self-imposed isolation from a society that has always scorned him, and Haruka’s connectedness, both of which are directly related to their ability to see the supernatural world. We see increasing hints of a possible relationship between them, and it seems likely that Haruka is going to draw Yakumo back to the mundane concerns of the world (and out of his “movie research club” at university, that is really just a front for skipping class and sleeping). The development of their relationship is going to be slow, however, and no doubt form the central plot tension of the series.

Part 2 of the series doesn’t involve any high-risk situations or combat, it’s pure investigative work, and as usual the final resolution has to wait until the start of part 3, but it looks like it’s going to be a high risk play that may go pear-shaped. As an investigative story, part 2 was interesting, and although we work out early on who the serial killer is, the task of unravelling his motives and his connection to the possessed girl held my attention well; it was also more than a little disturbing. It’s worth the effort to read, which is just as well because Part 2 was a lot harder to read than part 1, involving a lot more casual and slang Japanese, and more unusual words. Nonetheless, my mad scramble from Tokyo wasn’t so crazy that I couldn’t chug my way through to the end of this book by Shin-Osaka, so not tooooo hard.

This series is holding my attention and the ghost stories so far have been interesting and well done. I’m seeing the development of an internal logic to the supernatural world, which is going to make future stories more predictable but also more believable; and I like both the main characters, as well as their slightly antagonistic relationship. They both have past problems whose resolution we may see in the future, and lots of scope for development and exploration. So, I continue to recommend Psychic Detective Yakumo.

All this talk of human rivers and grim waves of destruction reminds me that I haven’t got around to posting up a review of my most recent reading material, Twelve by Jasper Kent. Maintaining the recent trend towards undead-themed novels, Twelve is a tale about vampires set in Russia in 1812, during Napoleon’s invasion. Napoleon is within weeks of Moscow, and a group of four Russian officers who form a kind of irregular spy cadre regather for the first time in four years to unleash a new force in the war. One of their number has called on an old ally from outside of Russia, a mysterious man named Zmyeelich who brings with him 12 dirty, sinister-looking mercenaries. These 12 men, the officers are assured, will provide great aid in the war against Napoleon. Nothing is revealed about these men and their nature, except that they are very disturbing; but over the course of the book their true form is revealed, and one of the group of four sets out to destroy them all.

The blurb on the book suggests that these 12 men are a threat to all of humanity, but I didn’t get this impression reading the story. Rather, they’re just really really nasty. We certainly get to find out how nasty during some of the descriptions of their more vicious actions against the French, and it’s clear that they are worth a lot more than 12 men in their actions. But stacked up against the size of Napoleon’s army – some 400,000 men when it crossed the Neman, and probably still more than 200,000 when it reached Moscow – it’s hard to believe they could make a dent in less than a year, especially since the central theme of the story is our main hero managing to kill them one by one. Of course, his killing of them depends on knowledge that the French don’t have, but they are proven to be far from invincible. The main story turns into a tale of vengeance and holy fury, with our hero committed to the destruction of the twelve out of purely religious and moral concerns.

The book contains an interesting side story about the main character’s relationship with a sex worker called Dominique, and his guilt at his preference for her over his wife. His relationships with the other three spies, which prove to be crippled by self doubt and distrust, are also essential to the progress of the plot and make his situation very believable. The story is also written with what I imagine to be the classic monster-hunter/van Helsing style, where the main character’s own fears, deductions and moral failings are displayed to the reader through his debates with himself, his dreams and his anxious ponderings. In this sense it fits with my image of older horror stories, like Frankenstein and the work of Bram Stoker, which often involve intense debates entirely within the conscience of the main character.

The backdrop of the Napoleonic wars is also handled very well, with the characters (and their nemesis) settling as spies in deserted Moscow during the French occupation, then following them back during the initial stages of their retreat. The sense of a city emptied, under occupation and empty of supplies is well conveyed, as is the increasing desperation and lawlessness of the French. In amongst all this we see the increasingly uncontrolled and predatory behaviour of the vampires as our heroes’ cooperation and trust begins to break down; and then the winter comes. This builds tension nicely to the climax, which occurs at Napoleons’ disastrous crossing of the river Berezine, which seals the fate of both Napoleon and the sinister enemies that the Russian spies have called forth.

This book is well written, in the classic horror story style of focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist and his relations with his fellows. It works well on undermining trust between these fellows, and uses the classic methods of understated description and avoiding gore to build up the horror and violence of the foe, though eventually it gets suitably grotesque. The vampires are evil and powerful without being unbelievably invincible, and our hero’s efforts to defeat them are largely believable. The historical context is really interesting and the backdrop of war, slaughter and confusion gives a subdued apocalyptic feel to the whole setting. Overall this book is an excellent addition to the vampire genre, and well worth reading if you like either historical fiction or solid undead stories with a hint of an old-fashioned horror style.

Flood is a disaster story of epic proportions, written by Stephen Baxter. The story follows a group of 4 friends over a 30 year period from the moment in 2012 when they make a pledge under strange circumstances to always look out for one another, as a disaster of incredible size overtakes the earth. This disaster is a biblical-style flood, caused by huge, previously undiscovered reservoirs of water under the earth’s crust that escape into the world’s oceans after a seismic event. The seepage is initially small, leading just to increased amounts of rain, and then to unexpected floods, but the rate of increase is exponential and the quantity of water beneath the globe sufficient to completely submerge all land on earth. This isn’t a global warming event – though the increase in quantities of warm water accelerates the effects of global warming – but a massive,worldwide seismic catastrophe causing a rapid and catastrophic loss of human habitat.

The early part of the story, when the flooding is still manageable, is more of a human interest story about how the four friends recover from the circumstances of their initial meeting and settle into a new and waterlogged world. But as the floods intensify and it becomes clear that something is up the story turns into one of discovery as the friends find out what is really happening, then a slow devolution from adaptation to survival to extinction. The later stages of the story become more of an overview of how human society tries to cope with its own imminent extinction by forces beyond any technology’s ability to control, and attempts to describe both the geopolitical, social, and personal effects of the essential collapse of human civilization and the potential disappearance of the human race.

This is a very interesting idea. How do societies behave as their collapse becomes inevitable, and what will people do to survive? And can people even come to terms with the possibility of their civilization’s inevitable destruction? What measures would they put in place? And can humanity survive without land? Obviously irrelevant questions, because the science of the catastrophe is completely unrealistic, but this is the kind of speculation science fiction was built for. After I finished this book I spent a lot of time wondering how society could adapt to living on a water world where all mining is impossible, and energy can only come from sun, wind and waves. What raw materials could you use? How would you prepare the remnants of your society for this? An interesting intellectual exercise. The book covers this primarily through the perspective of an egotistical company direct who runs a corporation specializing in disaster preparedness and recovery. As the world retreats from the sea he conceives of increasingly desperate schemes to protect his family and friends, and to remain powerful and on top in the new world. His schemes are ultimately fruitless in a sense, though he and his allies survive a lot longer than almost everyone else, and can be said to have escaped the catastrophe in a sense. His failure is no fault of his personal failings, either – the water just got the better of him, and the constant failings of the increasingly fragile societies within which he works continually set his schemes backwards. There is also the implication that other approaches – cooperation with other organizations and states – may have worked better, though I suspect we’ll find that their schemes were even crazier and less successful if we read the sequel, Ark. Certainly he seemed like an ingenious survivor to me, and lasting 30 years as the sea wipes out everything seems like quite an achievement to me.

The science of this book being obviously, ludicrously impossible, the main flaws in this book concerned characterization and dialogue. It’s definitely hard sci-fi and sometimes the prose was a little dry and uninteresting, the interactions of the characters a little stilted and hollow, and in this sense the book is definitely driven forward by the continual unfolding of events, and the fascination with watching everyone drown. For this reason it’s definitely not a book to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re interested in questions of social adaptation, survival and how the world changes under extreme environmental pressure, it’s worth looking into. I don’t think it has much direct relevance to global warming and its effects – the most extreme predictions of which don’t hold a candle to the events in this tale – but it does serve as an interesting tale about the importance of “ecological services” to human social cohesion and economic success. To this end it also fits in well with the movie I watched on the weekend, The Road, and some of my thoughts about zombies and survivalism. But ultimately the disasters in all these books and movies are so beyond anything we can expect to actually befall the earth that really they’re just interesting speculative tales. I wonder what it says about modern sensibilities that they all involve, one way or another, cannibalism?

Anyway, in summary this book is a good read if you’re interested in ecological catastrophes and/or disaster tales, it’s easy to read if you can be carried forward by plot and are willing to overlook occasional clumsiness in writing style and characterization. Overall I recommend it.