Friday, June 18, 2021

S.M.Stirling - The Peshawar Lancers

The best thing about this overlong alternative history novel is its premise. In the 1870s a swarm of comets hits the Earth bringing in its wake "nuclear winter" for much of the northern hemisphere. The European powers lose their national homelands, but cling on and relocate to their colonies. England's royal family, government and much of its wealthier classes move to India where they survive a Second Mutiny and establish a new powerbase. The novel extends, in sort of a steampunk atmosphere, the "Great Game" into the 20th century that is created through these events.

The basis for the novel is great. The execution is terrible. The author might be commended for having many female and non-white characters, but they are one-dimensional and cliched. The hero of the book, the gallant, handsome and strong Captain Athelstane King, speaks multiple languages, is a master of disguise and commands the love of the troops he commands. A sort of Flashman type figure (the author makes a handful of knowing references to Sir Harry) without the cowardice, King and his sister prevent a dastardly Russian plot involving airships to assassinate the British Royal Family and provoke war.

But the book is horrendously over-written and the plot drags on with needless exposition that only serves to increase the word count. The author has a tendency to try and give cultural authenticity by using Punjabi or Hindu words in the text, but these aren't explained and just create confusion. The multiple appendices at the back do round out the book's universe, but they aren't necessary. 

I was also uncomfortable with what I saw as unfortunate stereotypes of many of the characters who aren't of a European heritage. The Russians are Satan worshiping cannibals, because that's how they survived the "fall", the people from India and Afghanistan are subservient or ill-educated rogues, always ready to slit throats. These stereotypes turn into predictable plot points. I must also mention the fact that one important female character (who has a youthful ability to foretell the future, but will die when losing it) is only saved because her condition is fixed by King taking her virginity. Really people, we ought to have moved on from this sort of bollocks.

At the end of the novel everything is resolved through manly sacrifice by (white) heroes in the face of the beastly and treacherous behaviour by (non-white) bad guys. Every one lives happily ever after and all the heroines marry princes.

Sadly the book doesn't live up to its promise. The story is over-long and feels crude. The ending is laughable, and there are too many stereotypes and not a few frankly offensive plot points. Skip this entirely.

Related Reviews

Rathbone - The Mutiny
Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur
Morgan & Palmer-Patel - Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Larissa Reisner - The Hammer and the Anvil

Larissa Reisner was a phenomenal Russian revolutionary activist, author and journalist. She is perhaps best known to English speaking socialists through her wonderful book Hamburg at the Barricades which is based on her experiences in Germany in the latter part of the Revolution there. Despite dying at a young age, Reisner's output was enormous, though little of it has been translated. This new collection of writing is based on new translations of her collected work kept in the British Library and is a must read for any socialist interested in the Russian Revolution and the aftermath.

The book focuses on a key battle in the Russian Civil War when the Red Army managed to turn the tide against the Whites. It was a gruesome conflict which saw the White counter-revolutionaries commit mass murder against anyone suspected of Communist sympathies, including non-combatants, women and children. Reisner reported on this war, but also took part. There is an incredible story of her own escape from interrogation by the Whites while spying on them. She also details the trials of being a refugee following the fall of Kazan, and refers in passing to many key Bolshevik fighters of the era. Her accounts of naval engagements are both exciting and moving, as she describes the bravery and horror of the underequipped, outnumbered Red Army forces inspired by revolutionary ideals to defend their revolution. This is revolutionary history that never forgets the role and the sacrifices of ordinary people.

In fact, her introduction, a deeply moving piece is geared precisely toward telling the story to those who weren't there and cannot comprehend what took place. She dedicates it to the "students of the Workers Faculty" who are, she speculates more mechanical in their understanding of revolutionary politics... and she urges them to "read to the end how it really was, from Kazan to Enzeli, the roar of victory,. the pain of defeat. On the Volga, on the River Kama and on the Caspian Sea during the Great Russian Revolution. That's all."

In his autobiography Leon Trotsky wrote about Reisner, that she "flashed across the revolutionary sky like a burning meteor, blinding many... Her sketches about the civil war are literature. With equal gusto she would write about the Ural industries and the rising of the workers in the Ruhr. She was anxious to know and to see all and to take part in everything."

The Hammer and the Anvil certainly demonstrates this. One thing that stands out is the way that Reisner shows the Revolution as a mass event - involving enormous numbers of people and ideas that swell in the hearts of millions. But she also knows that the individuals who make up the masses matter. 

There is no history whch reflects upon and appreciates the great and small feats performed daily by the sailors of the Volga Military Flotilla. The names of those who by their voluntary discipline , their intrepidity and modesty helped to created a new fleet are hardly even known. 

Of course, individuals do not make history. However, in Russia we had so few people and characters of his calibre by and large. It was so difficult for them to break through the undergrowth of old and new bureaucracy that they rarely found themselves in the real-life, life-and-death struggle... it's because the Revolution had men like this, men in the highest sense of the word, that Russia is able to rally and recover... At decisive movements they stood out from the general mass, and all of them displayed an authority - a full, genuine authority. They were aware of their heroic task and by their actions were able to rouse the rest of the wavering and pliable masses.

Reisner's genius is to make this sweeping statement real by then telling the reader of a few such individuals, such as "easy-going" Yeliseyez, "who hit a boat at a twelve mile distance from a long-range gun. With his blue eyes, and no eyelashes - singed every time the gun discharges - always fixed upon somewhere far in the distance."

Readers familiar with Trotsky will find in these pages more information on key figures - like the sailor Comrade Markin - who is referred to in Trotsky's account of these battles. In addition to writing by Reisner, the book includes other material, including biographical material on key figures, poetry and the relevant section of Trotsky's biography (particularly the famous section on his military train). The defence of Sviyazhsk, a last ditched fight against the Reds, which Trotsky played a key role in, forms a central part of these extracts and Reisner's account. It's interesting to read them side by side.

If I have one criticism of this collection its that I wanted to read more Reisner - though I appreciated the other material gathered here. Socialists interested in revolutionary history and the Civil War in particular will find much new material here. But in Reisner's writing they'll also find inspiration and, it must be said, a lesson in revolutionary journalism.

Related Reviews

Hear the editor and translator speak about Larissa Reisner and the book here.

Reisner – Hamburg at the Barricades
Serge - Memoirs of a Revolutionary
Serge - Revolution in Danger
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Jonathan Sumption - Divided Houses: The Hundred Years War III

Volume three of Jonathan Sumption's epic history of the Hundred Years War deals with a neglected period of the conflict. This is the period of transition between the rule of the English kings Edward III and Richard II. It's unusual because it is not marked by epic battles but more complex interactions between states and armies. Now, the conflict between France and England spread to neighbouring areas - in particular Castile and Portugal, but also Italy and Flanders.

For the English though there was no respite. Edward III's initial military successes were never going to be sustainable, and by the second half of the 14th century he was facing repeated financial problems. The English' parliament's attempts to fix the shortages of cash, led to increased taxation. In turn, these taxes and the ongoing economic and political problems driven by the war with France, led to growing discontent that eventually exploded into open rebellion. The "Peasant's" revolt of 1381, is the centrepiece of the period for many historians. Yet Sumption demonstrates that the English Rising was very much part of a wider "Revolt of the Towns" that sure both rural and urban rebellion in Flanders and France. The causes were similar to that in England - Sumption argues that these 

occurred against a difficult economic background: disease, depopulation and a deepening recession characterised by falling agricultural prices, industrial stagnation and a severe shortage of gold and silver coin. All contributed to the growing crisis of Europe's cities. The physical destruction wrought by war in England France and Italy and later in Flanders, Spain and Portugal aggravated the effects. 

Sumption tells the stories of the various revolts well, giving a good sense of events. Perhaps more important though is the way he casts the rebellions as part of a Europe wide economic crisis. The similarities between the Rising in England and elsewhere, as well as the wider discontent across society is brought out well. As is the repression of the revolts that allowed the ruling classes of France and England to regain control. Here the similarities of violence and brutality are very clear. 

In the years after the 1381 rising England came close to facing a significant invasion from France. For two years, from 1383 to 1385 the French managed to assemble a major military force. Had that force landed in England there could well have been a significant defeat for the English. Lack of funds, political chaos and organisational blunders meant that preparation for defence was negligible. In July 1385 as the French King prepared to invade, the king had left London for Scotland and defence was in the hands of those incapable of delivering. As Sumption says, "There was no attempt to organise coast-guards, to array troops inland or to set up warning beacons on hill-tops". The country could have been taken - and that it wasn't was down to luck.

At the other end of the country, French troops in Scotland found campaigning tough. Nonetheless Richard II still made a hash of the campaign. The invasion of England was put off following events in Flanders as the towns of Damme and Ghent were under siege. One of the strengths of Sumption's book is that he is able to tell the parallel stories from multiple locations that determined historical events. Simultaneous campaigns in Scotland, France and Flanders might make for a complicated story - but Sumption manages to keep the reader following.

Despite this I found the book much harder going that the first two volumes. Here the story is spread over a much greater geographical space. The interests of individuals such as John of Gaunt become entangled with the fates of whole countries. Keeping track of it all is hard for the reader, despite Sumption's best efforts. The book ends with the Truce of Leulinghem. This was a dramatic outcome of years of peace talks between the countries, but Sumption makes clear that the peace was very much still born. It failed to solve the underlying problems, and both the French and English kings used it as a breathing space to try and solve their own internal issues. In particular Richard II attempted to consolidate his power base by challenging his internal enemies. 

Sumption finished the book with the defeat of Richard and the crowning of Henry IV in October 1399. The shock of the French at the news was "due in part to outrage at the idea of deposing an anointed king". This reflected real differences in government between the two countries. But a bigger problem was that the French firmly believed that Richard had been overthrown because he wanted peace. The scene was set, in French eyes at least, for further war.

Volume three packs a vast amount of history into almost 900 pages. It is not an easy read, while I found the sections on rebellion excellent, I was overwhelmed by detail - particularly in the chapters on Portugal. At times the sheer level of detail overwhelms the wider historical narrative. Despite this the book remains part of the single best historical account of the Hundred Years War. If you can stomach the length and detail, you'll want to read it.

Related Reviews

Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I
Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II

Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Barker - Conquest
Barker - Agincourt

Monday, June 07, 2021

Stephen Jay Gould - Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

Stephen Jay Gould is a colossus of science. An innovative scientist, a prolific essayist and author he inspired and educated generations about palaeontology, evolution and history. POlitically on the left, his work is suffused with a keen sense of social justice only occasionally descending into political point scoring. Nonetheless Gould's politics shape both the subject matter he is interested in, and how he writes about the material.

I mention this because Wonderful Life is a book about extremely ancient evolutionary history. As such there is little reason for Gould to discuss politics in it at all. But really this book is about an approach to science and history and as such Gould's politics matter a great deal. This is worth emphasising because some recent online reviews of this book tend to emphasise its errors, or how it has been dated by later research. Firstly, this should not be surprising. Few science books published back in 1989 remain exactly correct. No one reads Isaac Newton's writings today looking for scientific explanations that stand up to the rigours of modern science. In fact, one of the themes of Wonderful Life is Gould's argument that historic scientific work must not be ignored, even it is incorrect, as it is part of contributing to more recent developments.

There is irony in one aspect of this. Gould discusses how the Burgess Shale, a geological feature that forms the centrepiece of the book's discussion contains fossils of the tiny creature Hallucigenia. Gould explains how this was wrongly described by the great US scientist Charles Doolittle Walcott who was the key figure in early studies of the Burgess Shale. In the book Gould shows how Walcott's construction of Hallucigenia was completely wrong. In fact much of the book is a discussion of why Walcott made such mistakes. But today we know that the reconstruction by a later scientist Conway Morris celebrated in Gould's book is also incorrect. To be fair to Gould he also points out that Hallucigenia is so "peculiar" that Conway Morris' interpretation might be incorrect. Today we know that Hallucigenia is a very different creature from either description. Those of you reading Wonderful Life or even just this review, will get a sense of the debate from this fascinating short video.

Secondly to only emphasise how Wonderful Life is no longer accurate is to utterly misunderstand the point of the book. What Gould is trying to do is understand how natural history can be studied and why scientists make mistakes. What cultural, social and political conditions allow a brilliant scientist like Walcott to get the Burgess Shale completely wrong. Of course, at the same time Gould is putting across his own version of that history - explaining the history, evolution and extinction of the fossil animals found in the rock - through an examination of the process of science. It is this aspect to Wonderful Life that stands the test of time and must not be dismissed.

The problem for Walcott is that a close examination of the Burgess Shale fossils proved, beyond doubt, that his understanding of evolution was incorrect. Gould explains that the fossils demonstrate that evolution is not linear, but contingent on externalities, which mean that many species do not make the cut. Of the dozens of creatures found in the Burgess Shale fossils, many have no contemporary (or even more recent) descendants. As Gould explains, Walcott

interpreted his new fauna in the light of thrity previous years spent (largely in frustration) trying to prove the artifact theory, as an ultimate tribute to Darwin from a Cambrian geologist. He could not grant Burgess organisms the uniqueness that seems so evidence to us today because a raft of new phyla would have threatened his most cherished belief. If evolution could produce ten new Cambrian phyla and then wipe them out just as quickly, then what about the surviving Cambrian groups? Why should they have ha a long and honourable Precambrian pedigree? Why should they not have originated just before the Cambrian, as the fossil record, read literally, seems to indicate, and as the fast-transition theory proposes? This argument... is a death knell for the artifact theory.

Gould argues for a different approach:

The resolution of history must be rooted in the reconstruction of past events themselves - in their own terms - based on narrative evidence of their own unique phenomena. No law guaranteed the demise of Wiwaxia, but some complex set of events conspired to assure this result - and we may be able to recover the causes if, by good fortune, sufficient evidence lies record in our spotty geological record. 

Wonderful Life is the source of a famous quote by Gould:

Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.

His argument is that evolution doesn't proceed by stages to an specific goal that can be predicted in advance. What the Burgess fossils show us is that chance means that many different outcomes are possible. While there is much still to learn, and some of this book is dated - there is a lot of material here to help us get our heads around how evolution has worked, and what that means for our own place in the contemporary eco-system.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind
Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Maddox - Reading the Rocks
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause

Sunday, June 06, 2021

John Hersey - Hiroshima

When two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, few people had any clue about what they were. In the aftermath, newspapers were full of the scientific achievement - the new atomic age that had been opened up. There was little or no space for what happened to the people living in the cities themselves. In May 1946, The New Yorker magazine sent journalist and author John Hersey to Hiroshima to report on what happened. His 30,000 word article, simply titled Hiroshima, was published as the sole story in the August 1946 edition, a year after the bomb dropped.

It was an instant success. The story was syndicated globally, as millions of people wanted to read this honest, moving and shocking story of the horror of the atom bomb. In the UK, were paper rationing meant that newspapers couldn't reprint the story, a quick Penguin edition was produced in 250,000 copies. Readers devoured it.

Today, we know much more about atom bombs. Nearly 80 years later, with the threat of global nuclear war hanging over several generations heads since 1945, we are much more used to the idea of what this new technology could do. But then the reality was shocking to the public. Hersey tells the story through a handful of main characters, explaining what each of them in turn did on the day. How they were thrown across the room, or broken bones and in the initial blast. How in shock they tried to find friends, family, children, colleagues. The main characters interact with a wider group of people, whose stories of lost children, wounded soldiers, vomiting refugees and the complete break down of authority are terrifying in their authenticity.

Hersey carefully chose who formed the basis for this account. Five are Japanese, a hospital doctor, an office worker, a Protestant clergyman and a older woman. Another was a German Catholic missionary. Their different accounts are at times upsetting, and shocking. What I was struck by was how people quickly organised - the Dr Sasaki set up emergency medical aid in his hospital, though he was utterly overwhelmed by the thousands who came for help; the man who ferried people back and forth across a river or fetched water for hundreds of thirsty wounded. At the same time there are individual moments that help clarify the horror - the doctor loses his glasses, the clergyman bumps into his wife and child by accident. 

Hersey shows through these stories the utter overwhelming nature of atomic war. A city is flattened almost instantaneously. The inhabitants how now way to understand what has happened. There are no supplies and promised help from the authorities fails to materialise for days. At the same time, after the initial shock, people organise to help and support each other, though the reality of radiation sickness doesn't become clear for months - it took half a year before the Red Cross hospital was "back to normal". Before it was fully functioning, the directors "put up a new yellow brick veneer façade" to ensure that it looked the part. 

I wonderedwhether the book's impact went much further than just explaining the reality of the bomb. The Japanese had been demonised in the most racist way since Pearl Harbour. But in Hiroshima the Japanese are ordinary men and women, exactly like ordinary Americans. The reading public might have found their ideas challenged in ways that were far greater than simply fearing they might be victims of atomic war.

When I finished Hiroshima I hoped a new generation would read it, and our anti-war and peace movements grow in strength once again. But I also agreed with Dr Sasaki, who said afterwards "I see they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo... I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb and they should hang them all."

Related Reviews

Hansen - Fire & Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945
Taylor - Dresden
Toll - Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942
Toll - The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands 1942-1944
Hornfischer - The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945
Lochbaum, Lyman, Stranahan & UCS - Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster