Friday, February 05, 2016

Paul McAuley - Something Coming Through

Reading Something Coming Through delighted me in many ways. Not least because it reminded me that there is new, interesting and challenging science fiction out there - the trick is, of course, to find it. Part science fiction novel, part detective-noir and very tightly written, this is a surprisingly left-wing novel that with tongue firmly in cheek, challenges the reader's expectations.

Firstly there is the protagonist. Few science fiction and detective works have a female hero, and Chloe Millar is one for the 21st century. Paul McAuley avoids the twin stereotypes of female lead characters - she's neither incompetent, nor superbly energetic and trained in twelve types of martial art. Just an ordinary woman, trying to do her day job, plunged into incomprehensible situations.

Secondly there's the circumstances. I understand that McAuley's set a number of short stories in this universe where the alien Jackaroo have appeared to humanity and given them fifteen worlds and a regular shuttle service to colonise them. These fifteen worlds have the archaeological remains of dozens of forgotten and extinct species and clearly the Jackaroo are keen to have humanity as their latest acquisition. They're delightfully enigmatic, and Earth has benefited (or at least had the chance to benefit) from alien technology. McAuley manages to seamlessly insert this into his descriptions of a not too distant London.

But London, in McAuley's near future is not what it could be. Trafalgar Square was obliterated by a nuclear weapon a few years before the story, and the world and its people have fallen victim to climate change and pollution. We learn in passing of the climate refugees living in shanty towns in Norfolk having fled a flooded Netherlands. We also learn of the rogue alien plants that clog up the rivers and oceans. Not all alien imports are beneficial.

All this would make for a great setting. But McAuley alternates Earth's story with tale of a detective Vic Gayle out on one of the Jackaroo planets. Gayle is hunting a murderer, linked to illegal trading in alien artifacts. The brave-new world is anything but, Earth's colonists have brought with them everything from McDonalds to corrupt politicians. The juxtaposition of this world with that of Earth is brilliantly done, and McAuley brings the two strands of the story together neatly.

There's much else to enjoy here. I particularly liked the right-wing, anti-alien politician, clearly modeled on a contemporary UKIPer, who has pulled the future Tories to the right, and campaigns against the negative influence of the Jackaroo on British culture. It all seems frighteningly real.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Arthur Ransome - Missee Lee

Re-reading Missee Lee after a break of perhaps 30 years, I am struck by how very different it is from the other books in Ransomes' children's novels. This is not simply because it is not a "real" story, in the sense that it is the imaginations of the Swallows and Amazons, rather than an account of their adventures. But its more because the story is centered in an adult world, which intrudes closely upon the enclosed stories that the Swallows and Amazons normally have. For instance, in Missee Lee the "natives" have guns and shots are fired. Execution and imprisonment are real, and the children face real peril that is beyond anything experienced in other stories.

The other great shock is the appalling stereotypical behaviour and speech of the Chinese characters. Ransome was writing in a period when such stereotypes were considered acceptable, but read today the language jars horribly. I don't recollect any such feelings when I read it as a boy, but that's perhaps a reflection on England in the 1970s more than anything else.

The story itself is centered on the events that follow the destruction of the Wild Cat, Captain Flint's sailing ship. He and the children are on a round the world tour, and they abandon ship to land on a hidden group of islands ruled by the pirate Missee Lee. Lee herself is an interesting character, her power stems from being the daughter of the pirate who united the islands, and she plays a careful role, balancing the interests of the other rulers. Educated in Cambridge, she aches for the idolised past that she left behind, and imprisons the children with Latin lessons. Ransome cleverly inverts the roles of the Swallows and Amazons themselves, making childish Roger the expert in Latin who shows up the others.

The danger to the children lies in that they represent England's colonial power. Hearing that John's father is a Captain in the navy panics the pirates who fear that a gunboat will be sent to destroy their island base. Missee Lee wants to keep them forever, and the tensions break open the truce by which the islands remain united.

As a children's novel this is perhaps the least satisfying of the series. The magic of the others was that the children remain mostly closeted from the adult world. Even Peter Duck the other "non-real" fantasy story mostly separates the children's adventure with Captain Flint from the usually distant threat of their pursuers. Instead here the story is all too real, and while there's actually more to it than the other books, I suspect it was a disappointment to the intended audience. As a boy Missee Lee was my least favourite of the series, read only once, while others were repeatedly devoured. Today it feels disjointed and racist, and I suspect will be read far less than many other Ransome tales.

Related Reviews

Chambers - The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome
Hardyment - Arthur Ransom and Captain Flint's Trunk
Ransome - Peter Duck
Ransome - We Didn't Mean to go to Sea

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mark Mazower - Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe

This is an exceptionally detailed and informative study, well written and compelling. Despite its scope, Mark Mazower manages to make sure the human context is not forgotten in analyzing the death and destruction caused by war, occupation and genocidal policies.

Central to Mazower's analysis of what he calls "Hitler's Empire", the countries that were occupied both during World War Two and the areas that were taken under German authority before the war began, is the way that the Nazi state's racialised politics shaped their approach. As he explains, this was very different to how "normal" war progressed:
In short, wartime Germanization constituted the single most forceful and ambitious attempt at nationalizing people and terrority in Europe's history. It explains why the Nazi conception of occupation involved something far more permanent, wrenching and destructive than the temporary abeyance of sovereignty mandated by liberal international law, and it contributed more than any other single factor to the increasingly violent transformation of life in the Reich itself and to the rise of the SS - the motor of Germanization - as its major political and military institution. [184]
Things, as Mazower says, "might have been different". In several places, such as the invasion of the Western areas of the USSR, the German army was welcomed. But the Nazi leadership never saw the occupied terroritories as places of allies. Almost immediately they became places which were to be reshaped according to Nazi fantasies of greater Germany. Poles and Ukrainians were moved, deported and killed to make way for German settlers, settlers that could never arrive in the numbers required. The mass and systematic killing of the Jewish population began as an attempt to deal with the Germanization of entire regions by the export of Jewish populations from areas destined to be settled by Aryans from Germany.

This also shaped the way that "ordinary" German soldiers viewed their enemies. As Mazower explains, the "[German] soldier's image of the Red Army was hopelessly, and confusingly, racialized. Sometimes it was the Jews whose pernicious influence was held responsible, but often... it was also 'Mopngols', 'Tatars' or other representatives of the 'Asiatic' hordes from whom the Nazis believed they were saving Europe." [159] This helps understand the brutal nature of war on the Eastern front and the response of the Red Army in turn. The fact that millions of Russian POWs died in horrific conditions has its roots in the perception of the soldiers as sub-human and the complete lack of preparation by Germany to deal with the captured men.

While the war devastated the European economy, in the short term, the German occupation of Europe did much to assist the Reich's war effort, at least in the short term. One key aspect to this was in the way that workers were brought in from both the East and the West to free up men for fighting. Foreign workers, Mazower says, went from three to 19 percent of the German labour force. In some parts of the occupied areas, despite wealth and resources flowing back to Germany, the economies did remarkably well (in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia unemployment vanished and wages kept pace with inflation). Other countries did less well out of the unequal relationship. By 1943 for instance, half the French workforce was working for the German war effort and a third of national income went to Germany.

But the experience of "capitalist cooperation" in the west, was very different to the "colonial extraction" demanded in the East. There mass murder and plunder were the order of the day. Hitler's dream of the East as a breadbasket for Germany was a dismal failure, despite harsh attempts to extract everything that the regime could from countries like the UKraine and Poland. The food shortages were offset in part by imports from France and the West, but the ultimate reality was food queues in the Reich. Though Mazower notes [262] that food supplies in Germany were probably not as bad as in World War One, at least until the final year of the war.

The mass killing of workers and farmers in systematically undermined Hitler's ability to fight. As Mazowyer concludes [318] "Germany could have racial purity or imperial domination, but it could not have both."

There is much else in this detailed book. The author analyses the origins and nature of the various resistance movements, and the differing experience of Nazi occupation in countries as diverse as France, Belgium, Norway and Greece, Romania and Poland". It's worth noting that resistance was not always automatic, developing over time and sometimes vanishing in the face of repression. In Poland for instance, following the defeat of the rear-guard resistance against German invasion, resistance vanished, to reappear later. Part of the motivation for this, as one Polish General explained was an awareness that what had been done to the Jews and groups like Gypsies, would soon happen to them as Hitler's vision of a cleansed Eastern Europe free was recolonised by German settlers. The Poles "saw 'an atrocious picture of their own destiny' in what had been done to the Jews. Warsaw's sanitary officer, Wilhelm Hagen, actually lost his job when he sent Hitler a letter protesting at plans to treat 70,000 of the 200,000 Poles facing resettlement - old people and children - 'in the same manner as the Jews'."

Mazower also discusses the nature of Italian fascism, considered to be "humanitarian" by some, but he argues that this was in the context of a fascist regime aware that the war was ending and keen not to dirty themselves with allegations of genocide in the future. "[T]here can be little doubt that Italy's diplomats and generals saw perfectly strong and self-interested political reasons for doing what they could to chart their own course on Europe's Jewish Question."

Mazower's book is not one that simply concentrates on one aspect of World War Two in Europe. He draws out the way that Nazi ideology shaped the experience of war and occupation in a completely unique way. This provoked all sorts of responses, from resistance to collaboration, responses that were in turn shaped by the historic experience of different countries and peoples. As Mazower's final chapter shows, that experience continues to have an impact around the world. As a result I highly recommend this book to those trying to comprehend the origins of the contemporary world.

Related Reviews

Cobb - The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Neitzel & Welzer - Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying
Moorhouse - Berlin at War

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Frank McLynn - Wagons West

The story of the pioneers who travelled from the American mid-west to Oregon and California from 1840 onwards is one suitable for a grand re-telling. Its an epic tale of huge distances crossed with primitive equipment, bravery and unimaginable hard work, hunger, disease and violence. Frank McLynn tells the stories of the first difficult, disorganised and chaotic crossings and then, in broad sweeps tells those of the remaining years, highlighting a number of unusual crossings rather than repeating what effectively had become quite a routine trip.

Unfortunately, while the subject matter is epic, McLynn's telling of the story doesn't live up to it. In places it became very difficult to follow the author's accounts. Not helped by the numerous names and multiple different routes taken by the wagon trains.

McLynn also highlights the stories of some of the more unusual trips. For instance, the disastrous trip known by as the Donner Party, after one of the key families that took part. This group of pioneers took a short-cut, which was in reality, little more than a fantasy of one of those characters that the West seemed to breed - a self-styled explorer and mountain man, carried away by his own dreams. Delayed on route and hoping their short-cut would mean they could avoid the winter snow, the Donner party became trapped and ran out of food. A number resorted to cannibalism, and not a few were driven insane by the privations. But there were also heroes, like the men who agreed to try and take food too the victims.

As someone who knows little about this period of American history I was also fascinated by the story of the Mormon trek that established Salt Lake City as a refuge from persecution in the east. This was a highly organised affair, involving thousands of travellers, and McLynn gives real insights into the nature of the Mormon community in this period. The internal arguments, debates and politics is fascinatingly reconstructed, as is the way that the establishment of the Mormon town transformed the trek west for those who continued to go westward in search of a new home, or gold.

But the book felt superficial. I wanted to know more about the motivations of those who chose to take the arduous trip west. McLynn makes it clear that these were not the poor, nor simply those looking for a better life. It was, in McLynn's words "almost... a middle class movement". Those going had to have ready cash, needing $1000 at minimum for the trek. As McLynn says, the poor couldn't afford to go, and the rich didn't need too. But why did they? McLynn rejects the idea that this was simply some inherent American yearning, but if we leave aside the romantic, the answer must be practical. The "boosters" encouraged people to move for abundant and arable land, but was this dream the only reason? I'd have liked more information on what happened to people when they got to the west, because rarely do we find out. McLynn focuses on the journey, not the people and the destination.

McLynn is also prone to some strange attitudes towards women, writing in one place that "Women also hated the burden of having to collect buffalo chips as fuel... a sterner trial to them than to their menfolk because of their keener sense of smell and greater general fastidiousness". McLynn dismisses the "romantic" view of the "western impulse" but is prone to his own flights of fantasy when he writes that the "inevitable effect of the 'feminisation' of the wagon trains [when they became family treks] was to enthrone home, hearth,roots and family as the supreme values, over the male camaraderie of free-spirited, open-ended, devil-may-care adventure." Such generalisations are unsuited to a serious work of history and spoil some interesting.

There should be a good book out there examining the social history of the wagon trains, but this is not it. McLynn manages, in spite of the fascinating nature of the material, to turn the story into a miserable trudge rather than an epic tale.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Stephen K. Land - Kett's Rebellion: The Norfolk Rising of 1549

This is a good introductory book to the history and context of Kett's Rebellion, the large agrarian uprising that shook East Anglia in 1549. The author does well to contextualise the rebellion, locating it in widespread rural discontent, linked to the changes of the Reformation, but most importantly economic problems in the countryside.

Land argues that unlike the Prayerbook uprising that takes place almost simultaneously in Devon and Cornwall, "religious doctrine was not a factor" in Norfolk. Instead, he suggests that the problem was "the gradual transition which was taking place between the manorial system of local economy, in which each village was a self-sustaining agricultural unit... to a capitalist economy."

I'm not convinced by this. Not least because it suggests that the motive for rebellion was something that was to come, rather than the day to day reality of rural life. Land goes on to suggest that the uprising was inherently conservative, seeking not to displace the existing hierarchy, nor challenge the duke of Somerset, Lord Protector for the young Edward VI. However I think it's fairer to argue that what was taking place was an attempt by a section of the rural population to assert greater control over their lives, and their villages, in the face of a changing world. The 29 articles that they wrote from their camp at Mousehold Heath outside Norwich, clearly are attempts to blunt the powers of the gentry, strengthen the hand of the smaller landowners and poorest and protect traditional and common rights. To see this as simply conservative is to fail to understand that social change always takes place in the context of already existing situations, which understandably those participating want to protect if they feel they are losing rights or wealth.

This disagreement aside, Stephen K. Land's book is an excellent introduction to the rebellion. It has a detailed account of Kett's assaults on Norwich and the reason for his eventual defeat. It also rightly argues that Somerset's fall in the aftermath of the rebellion was not a direct result of the uprising, but the opportunity for those who disagreed with his agrarian policies (which might be roughly described as reformist) to do away with someone who was perceived as encouraging rebellion.

The Robert Kett that stands out from this work is less the precursor to those who fought for "rights" and "freedoms" and instead a powerful defender of the interests of those around him. Sadly Tudor society had no space for those who became an alternative source of power to the gentry and the aristocracy, no matter how much they claimed to be acting in the interests of the king and his realm. The judicial murder of Kett, his brother and other leading figures, together with the deaths of hundreds of rebels outside Norwich is the result of the Tudor state reasserting its rule. Lang's book is a good introduction, but readers will benefit from reading other works around the subject to see how more recent academics have framed the uprising differently.

Related Reviews

Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Caraman - The Western Rising of 1549

Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry 1549

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

John Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

This short book is an excellent example of how large scale historical changes can be examined through the microcosm a relatively small geographical area. White settlers profoundly transformed the areas they arrived in. Before their arrival, these areas had been the domain of various Native American tribes who had used the land in radically different ways to the Europeans. The destruction and displacement of those tribes is a key part of Tully's story. As part of doing this the Europeans completely transformed the whole landscape.

One early traveller to the region, James Smith, who was a prisoner of one of the local tribes remembered seeing "black-oak, walnut, hickory, cherry, black-ash, white-ash, water-ash, buckeye, black-locust, honey-locust,sugar-tree, elm and white-oak... [and] 'large quantities of wild apple, plum and re-and black haw trees'".

This plethora of trees, was matched by a huge variety of other flora and fauna. But a century ago, the transformation had taken place, as one quoted account puts it, the
universal forest has been so far destroyed that only broken patches remain... These are now much exposed to the sun, winds and forests, that they have lost much of their verdant and luxuriant appearance. - The same exposure to the elements has... dissipated the rich native soil; and the beautiful investments of shrubs and herbaceous plants has been destroyed by repeated browsing and cropping of domestic animals.
Those who have read William Cronon's masterful account of the changes that took place in New England with European colonisation will see many parallels. In Changes in the Land, Cronon showed that ecological changes could not be separated from the way that the Native people were also destroyed. So it was in the Cuyahoga Valley - here, as Tully shows, the desire to farm land along the lines of European agriculture meant the destruction of huge areas of woodland and the destruction of animals (such as the great rattlesnake hunts which have driven some species to near extinction).

Alongside this was the systematic defrauding, exclusion and massacre of the Native people. What was also destroyed was a way of life completely different to that of the Europeans. These were people who, in the words of Henry Lewis Morgan about the Iroquois people, "practiced communism in living". The Delaware people who lived in this part of Ohio, were egalitarian, and inclusive: "every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions". These communities were not Utopian - conflict certainly existed between some tribes - and Tully does not pretend otherwise. But their lives were completely different from those of the Europeans who came from a society obsessed with wealth creation. By contrast the Delawares, for instance, saw the whites as
Ungrateful, insatiable people, who though the Indians had given them as much land as was necessary to raise provisions for themselves and their families, and pasture for their cattle, wanted to still have more, and at last would not be contented with less than the whole country.
For European style society to triumph required the settlers to take control of the land. But they also had to destroy the Native Americans and their way of life. The "great slaughter" of animals by the settlers was matched by the destruction of the peoples who had lived their for thousands of years. In this, they faced resistance, in part because of the temporary alliance between the British and some Native American tribes. But mostly because the Native American people refused to meekly die.

It took the defeat of the British in North America for the area described by Tully to be completely opened up to European settlement. In fact, as Tully explains, one of the reasons for the revolt was that the British authorities had been preventing the "settlers' dispossession of the land and liberty of the Native American peoples". For Tully, the idea that the American Revolutionary War was just about liberty is one of the great historical myths as it helped to end the freedom of the indigenous peoples. While the British certainly didn't have a brilliant record in their treatment of the Native American population, they had helped restrict the destruction of the tribes in this region. The victory of the Revolution opened up the land and the whites moved swiftly to occupy it. As Tully explains,
Back east in the nation's capital George Washington and Thomas Jefferson advocated a softer approach. America's Manifest Destiny was to spread westward, but the Indians should be assimilated into the nation's social and economic life by accepting European doctrines of landownership and learning European methods of farming the land.
Washington and Jefferson may have hoped that this is what would happen. But they must have know that the reality would be forced eviction, fraud, violence and massacre. The details of the violence in Tully's account are deliberately shocking, as the author is writing in part to demand recognition of what took place and to recognise that, in his words, "justice demands the redress of the accumulated wrongs".

Exactly how this should happen, is as Tully points out "complex" and part of the point of his book is to teach a new generation of people of the need for justice. It is an admirable contribution, which deserves a wider readership than the Cuyahoga Valley population that it is clearly aimed at. For this reason a few maps would have been helpful. But this is a minor critique of an important book that everyone interested in history of the United States and the transformation that took place with the arrival of Europeans should read.

Related Reviews

Tully - Silvertown
Cronon - Changes in the Land
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Fagan - The First North Americans

Monday, December 28, 2015

Bruce Chatwin - In Patagonia

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia completely revived the market for travel books. Becoming the bible for thousands of South American backpackers inspired by his pithy and amusing accounts. Framed by the story of his attempts to obtain a replacement of his Grandmother's lost piece of brontosaurus skin, Chatwin travels back and forth across the countries of Patagonia describing the people he meets and their links with famous historical events.

Frankly though, I found the book tiresome. Chatwin has undeniable writing talent. But his emphasis seems to be on the eccentric, and particularly eccentric European immigrants. As such his account is largely devoid of stories reflecting the mass of the population but rather an obscure (and relatively dull) section of those who'd recently come to the continent.

That's not to say that this isn't interesting. The Welsh community of Chubut is fascinating, as are Chatwin's retelling of the Butch Cassidy stories and his extensive account of his Grandmother's cousin Charley Milward, the adventurous sailor who originally found the fossil remains, is also entertaining. But what about the indigenous population (who are only here as a backdrop to tales of other people). What about those who did the farming, or worked in the huge cities?

In Patagonia failed to give me any picture of what the place and its people were really like, beyond a few interesting characters, and as a result I found myself very disappointed.