Saturday 23 December 2000

Ken MacLeod: The Stone Canal (1996)

Edition: Legend, 1996
Review number: 700

The two interlocking narratives which make up The Stone Canal concern libertarian anarchist Jonathan Wilde. The earlier chronologically starts when he is a student at Glasgow University in the 1970s, and basically deals with his gradual development into a political guru as Western capitalism begins to fall apart in the twenty first century. The other narrative is set in the far future, when a clone of Jonathan Wilde is given his memories, copied from a computer copy of his brain. This provides one of the best first lines of any science fiction novel: "He woke, and remembered dying".

For most of the novel, the two stories of Jonathan Wilde are basically independent, and while this is the case they are both top class pieces of science fiction. The story of his early days is believable, with the trends producing the changes he witnesses in the way the world works easy to see. His character is very well done indeed. The far future story is atmospheric, the rather bewildered revived Jonathan being recognisably the same person rather more sketchily drawn (as characterisation makes way for background). He makes occasionally anachronistic jokes, meaningless to the people that he meets but drawing in the reader who shares his late twentieth century background.

The ending, where the two strands of Jonathan Wilde's life are drawn together, is the most disappointing part of The Stone Canal. It feels rather on the abrupt side and perhaps would have benefited from being extended. It answers the questions raised by the rest of the novel, but not really in an interesting way. It feels as though MacLeod has been attempting to convince the reader that he has something to say, but that when it comes down to it, he hasn't. Potentially interesting issues are raised - the nature of the relationship between a person and a machine-held copy of their mind, for example - without being explored.

The excellence of the main part of the novel encourages me to read more Ken MacLeod, and the disappointment of the ending is not enough to put me off doing so.

Friday 22 December 2000

Niall Ferguson: The Pity of War (1998)

Edition: Allen Lane, 1998
Review number: 699

Niall Ferguson takes a fresh look at the First World War, looking mainly to see whether there is evidence to support the various historical traditions which have grown up around certain aspects of the war, principally its cause and outcome. It is not a book aimed at someone who knows nothing about the history of the period; a fair amount is assumed and much of Ferguson's argument is quite technical.

The issues that Ferguson wishes to raise are distilled by him into ten questions, printed both in the Introduction and in the Conclusion, where they are answered in summary. The first three deal with the War's causes, looking at the traditional view that German militarism made it inevitable. Then the next two are about what in the Second War would be called the Home Front (though in all the main combatants not just Britain), examining the tradition that the non-fighter viewed the war with an enthusiasm fired by the propagandist media. The next four are about the end of the war - why it didn't come sooner through the Allies' superior economic might, or through the German superior military might, and why the appalling conditions on the Western Front in particular did not bring an end through mutiny, and what eventually brought the War to an end. The final question is who was the real victor in economic terms, if any country could really have been said to have won.

Ferguson takes issue with the traditional answers to all these questions, as might be expected. Much of his argument is based around analyses of figures - for example, the amount spent on defence by the various combatants - which makes some parts of the book quite complex. He hardly touches on the tactics and strategy which fill most books about the War. As far as I can tell, his arguments seem convincing and fair, though they are hardly likely to topple the traditionally held, popular views. One or two individuals come in for a great deal of criticism, notably Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary in the years immediately before the War, and economist Maynard Keynes, and I suspect that more patriotically British readers than myself would consider Ferguson to be rather pro-German.

However, I don't feel this myself, and it doesn't seem at all unlikely to me that English language histories might have tended to put more blame on Germany and whitewashed Britain. Ferguson's approach can be criticised; it occasionally seems rather callous to those who lost their lives in the conflict - though this is defensible in terms of what he aims to do, which means he needs to look at casualties as figures rather than as individual tragedies. His use of counterfactuals (alternative historical scenarios) is interesting but a dangerously seductive technique. It is not overused here, and is always clearly signposted as speculative. The Pity of War is generally a book which will fascinate anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the First World War.

Wednesday 20 December 2000

Nikolai Gogol: The Government Inspector (1836)

Translation: Stephen Mulrine, 1997
Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1997
Review number: 698

Gogol's most famous legacy may be this farce about corruption and stupidity in the local government in Tsarist Russia, but he was in fact not a political radical. He even wrote an attack on the abolition of serfdom, and spent much of his life embarrassed by the enthusiasm with which would be reformers reacted to the play. He proposed allegorical interpretations of what he had written, which would have lessened its impact if anyone had accepted them.

The plot, suggested by Pushkin, is fairly simple. The small, nameless, provincial town in which the play is set has discovered that the imperial government is sending an inspector, incognito, to look into the efficiency and probity of its institutions. Since the whole of the town's administration is corrupt, from the mayor and judge to the hospital, this causes consternation. When they hear of a young man from St Petersburg who is staying in one of the town's inns, they assume that he must be the inspector. They flatter and bribe him, but of course the joke is that he is not really the inspector at all. Shorn of its satirical elements, this plot was reused in an episode of Fawlty Towers; it's potential for farce is huge.

It is possible, of course, to attack the way in which a system is abused without wanting to destroy the system itself, but I think that it is more likely that Gogol got carried away. He was not the only one, either; the Tsar himself intervened to speed up the processes of the censorship office so that the first production of The Government Inspector could go ahead remarkably quickly. (He was the most liberal Tsar Russia ever had, and he clearly had a sense of humour.) However, aspects of the play must amount to an attack on the local governmental institutions themselves. The system - or more widespread corruption within the system - was after responsible for the appointment of such an appalling group of officials in the first place.

The reason I have for thinking that Gogol got caught up in the comedy of his theme into actually writing a radical satire is that the names of the officials are derogatory terms such as "slapdash". My favourites are just silly; the not very bright characters Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky remind an English speaking reader of Tweedledum and Tweedledee by more than just their names. Towards the end of his life, Gogol also wrote something which implies more or less what I have been suggesting, that he wanted to ridicule all that was bad in Russia, but the laughter this produced was unexpectedly overwhelming.

Nineteenth century Russian literature has a reputation for being profound and a little dull. The Government Inspector is neither. It is extremely funny, and that has ensured its survival.

Saturday 16 December 2000

G.M. Trevelyan: English Social History (1942)

Edition: Longmans, 1946
Review number: 697
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Trevelyan's best known work is a pioneering classic, and in many respects remains a great achievement. It covers the period from the early fourteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, and is one of the very first attempts to describe everyday life in England between these dates. It is not entirely consistent in approach, but in the main it centres around certain individuals whose writing is important in understanding their times: Chaucer, Defoe and Cobbett, for example.

While much of the writing is coloured by an upper class patrician attitude, and the history concentrates a bit too much on the experiences of the middle and upper classes - I can't really see that the change in fashion from deer to fox hunting, or the development of the examination system at Oxbridge really had much effect on the average English person - it remains a useful outline guide. More space could be given to the later periods, which had the most formative influence on our own society; at least, I feel that, because to me much of the interest in social history is concerned with how the culture in which we live today came about. Some sections are less interesting and there are occasional patches of arch humour that have dated badly. These are matched with some fascinating pieves of historical writing, notably the essay about the transition from medieval to modern Britain, which is a tour de force.

A lot of the popular history which you still see in bookshops was written about fifty or sixty years ago, like this book. It is still there because it is well written, but perhaps it is about time to move on.

Friday 15 December 2000

J.D. Robb: Immortal in Death (1996)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997
Review number: 695

In the lead up to her wedding to multi-millionaire Roarke, NYPD lieutenant Eve Dallas has many things to cope with. Trying to fight attempts to get her to wear a dress competes with the murder of one of her informants, and then that of supermodel Pandora in circumstances which seem to implicate her closest friend.

Of the Eve Dallas novels I have read, this one has the best puzzle, and succeeds most as a crime story. Eve is a believable character, and this novel reveals more of her than the earlier ones, as she starts to experience recurrent nightmares of abuse by her father. The other characters are a bit sketchy. Nevertheless, Immortal in Death is as successful a piece of light reading as the others in the series.

Rudyard Kipling: Traffics and Discoveries (1904)

Edition: MacMillan, 1949
Review number: 696
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Most collections of Rudyard's Kipling's short stories today seem rather uneven; some of his writing has dated much more than the rest. Traffics and Discoveries is not so much uneven as poor; few of the stories it contains have much to say. There are several patriotic stories from the Boer War period; as this was hardly marked by British moral superiority - being best remembered today for the British invention of the concentration camp - its propaganda now gives an uncomfortable feeling to the British reader.

Among Kipling's most successful adult stories were those whose central characters were three privates in the Indian Army, and there are three stories in this collection which attempt to repeat this formula with the Navy. It doesn't really work, partly because there is virtually no originality in them, and partly because the writing is diffuse and confusing.

Most interesting are the stories which look at some of the most significant new technologies of the time - the car, the radio, and electric power. This includes what it almost certainly the earliest story to feature a traffic policeman. The car is also important in 'They', which begins with a breakdown. Probably the best story in the collection, it is a rather Jamesian tale about the ghosts of children.

One other tale deserves comment. Initially, The Army of the Dream seems to be Kipling the right wing Imperial apologist through and through; it is basically a tract in support of the formation of what amounts to the Territorial Army, and apparently views warfare as an extension of team sports. (This was, of course, a not uncommon metaphor among the British upper classes until it was discredited in the First World War less than a decade after the publication of this collection.) However, it has a sharp sting in the tail, as the narrator awakens from his dream in his London club to realise that the men he has been talking to are all dead. This of course undermines everything he appears to have been trying to say, and leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling - exactly as Kipling must have intended.