Number two in the Richard Sharpe series…
This novel depicts Sharpe in the Battle of Assaye in India under the Wellesley, and features a subplot with the asshole sergeant Hakeswill. Notes:
- I still cannot figure out how the casualties and replacements worked in this time period, or how someone could be a lifelong soldier and survive these battles. The casualty percentages are insane, and I am guessing that to be wounded in most ways was a death sentence. I remember reading a German novel about Napoleon’s retreat from Russia and thinking the same thing. So many dead, in a foreign country – the British Army and the East Indian Company must have been constantly recruiting. Visions of plunder must have been what motivated young British and Scottish men to sign up for almost certain death.
- I’m channeling The Clash here…
- The fact that capitalism produces all these folks willing to go murder people in a foreign land is readily apparent. Moving from an agrarian feudal system to industrial capitalism sure created a lot of wealth, but it also seems to have the need to try to seize that wealth into a cultural trope. Cornwell (and I’m assuming that Cornwell is very close to his narrator here, unlike the approach he takes in the Arthur series with his first-person narration) makes clear that Sharpe’s survival and combat skills come from his upraising on the streets of London. He has a recurring vision in this novel about going back to the orphanage where he was constantly humiliated and beaten as an officer to show those bastards what he has become. This is his only motivation for not switching sides when he is offered the opportunity by Lt. Colonel Pohlmann, the “Hanoverian”…
- I’m also getting increasingly frustrated with the portrayal of this British invasion (done by a private company?) as being seen as simply a way for various already-warring Indian sultans to create alliances. It doesn’t take much imagination to see just how powerful and overwhelming the British forces are.
- Perhaps I’m just missing Cornwell’s larger point, which is documentation of all this?
- I almost wish the narrative point of view spent more time with individual sergeants, especially of the Scottish units. Cornwell certainly praises their ability to take casualties and keep moving forward. This view of fighting is so different from our modern perspective that it’s hard for me to imagine. I keep remembering the portrayals of union soldiers in some of Grant’s attempts to pin down and destroy Lee’s army, being depicted by journalists as pinning a piece of paper with their names to their uniforms so that they could be identified when they were dead. Ambrose Burnside feels appropriate here too…
- Is it the distance that makes this cavalier approach seem so repellent? I’m comparing this in some ways to recent war fiction, and none of it seems this intent on celebrating the carnage.
I have read most of Cornwell’s Arthur books, about the Danish invasion of Britain, and having had the Last Kingdom series recommended to me by a friend and watching a couple of them I remembered that I wanted to read this series by Cornwell as well. I enjoyed reading Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and his portrayal of Sgt. Shatoe’s dragoons – especially designed to kill cavalry, according to Shaftoe – and I knew that Cornwell’s Sharpe series was set not all that much later.
That’s a long introduction to this novel, Sharpe’s Tiger, none of which is about the novel. Thoughts:
- I struggle with the idea of Sharpe as super-hero, but I think that Cornwell is using him more as a cypher than an actual British soldier who doubles as 007. He’s not Derfel Cardan, who is based on a historical figure (even one who may or may not have existed), and Derfel felt much more believable.
- Sharpe is simply someone who Cornwell puts in the a bunch of historical hot spots in order to let us as readers see into his portrayal of what happened, and my readerly attempts to make him more are sort of goofy.
- Sharpe reminds me a bit as well of Jack Shaftoe, the King of the Vagabonds and someone who Stephenson sees as survivor much like Sharpe.
- Cornwell’s battle scenes in this series are not as personal as they are with St. Derfel, mostly because Sharpe is not simply fulfilling a cannon fodder role, whereas Derfel fought in the midst of the shield wall. This also seem a bit more cavalier and glory-bound than the series set in the time of Arthur, perhaps because that time is harder for us contemporary folks to understand.
- I remember particularly the sense of loss and fall of civilization in the Warlord chronicle, mostly because so often they find themselves in a Roman ruin that is far better than anything current Britons can build. Life is much more difficult.
- I also remember the superstitious belief in religion, which Cornwell carefully documents as a struggle between the remains of pagan religion and the newness of Christianity. Christianity looks far more appealing in this re-contexualization than it does now, offering a way forward into a brighter future rather than the nostalgic look back that Christians appear to favor now. In particular, in one scene Arthur’s druids put up a wall that consisted entirely of hexes and fetishes. That wall held their left flank until their enemy finally brought in their own druids to counter it. Not many flanks are held in the Sharpe series by religious icons.
- Cornwell starts this series before the Iraq war and what felt to me like a newfound sense among the American public about the ways that camaraderie fueled courage in combat. He’s writing from a British perspective, and the way that I have always heard British officers talked about (mostly Montgomery, but the Duke of Wellington aka Arthur Wellesley as well) is that they don’t care all that much about their men. Still, this novel is not all that concerned with the loss and grief that individual soldiers feel for each other, nor does it give the sense of individual platoon tactics that made a series like the Malazan Book of the Fallen (or even Game of Thrones) so enthralling. Cornwell did provide this sense in the Warlord Chronicles I’ve discussed above, so maybe that sense of the individual lives at stake becomes more developed as he moves forward. Still, while there is compassion for the individual infantryman and admiration for his courage, troops still pretty much feel like cannon fodder.
- On the other side, though, Cornwell works at making Indians human, pretty carefully depicting the courage and humanity of those who led and those who fought with the British. Far more than in other discussions of this time period I got a sense of the reasons why Indians fought, and they felt much more realistic than I am used to.
- The British are not portrayed as beautiful people either. The first scene with Sharpe gives a vivid description of his looting of a corpse, and looting and rape are not ignored. Blood and destruction are also pretty carefully chronicled.
- Finally, the class divides between officers and enlisted men are not glossed over. Officers actually rarely come off positively, and most enlisted men are described sympathetically. As always, sergeants hold the line between, but they are rarely seen as American, WWII-type sergeants we see in Band of Brothers – determined to keep the men under them alive – but are instead mostly disciplinarians.
In reading for the essay I’m writing on Kentucky Route Zero I have been trying to pick up everything I can from literary the genres that the developers Cardboard Computer pull from. That includes Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy, although I cannot imagine two more dissimilar narratives. Thoughts:
- The most straightforward approach to thinking of this novel is to consider it a meditation on living life without love of any sort. That approach works to explain Lester Ballard.
- It skips, however, the reasons why Lester is like this. We get a bit of his backstory, but why he is driven out of town is a story that we don’t get.
- That gap, I think, allows us as readers to fill in our own backstory, and thereby read Lester as we want to read him. Depraved, evil, barely human, either made that way from the womb or gradually transformed into such because of those who raised him – either way, he’s a cipher, someone we can paint our own worldly perspective on.
- The landscape also serves as a sort of cipher. It’s set in Tennessee, and while I think of east Tennessee in particular as beautiful, Smoky Mountain-dominated set of valleys and rivers and ledges and hardwood trees, a reader can clearly view it instead as a harsh landscape that takes a toll on its inhabitants. Again, the approach is yours.
- Thinking of Lester as being on a journey seems ridiculously hippieish (and it is). The journey is one of depravity and anti-socialness to an extreme, showing the gradual breakdown of someone who simply cannot play well with others.
- So, then, why does McCarthy write this shit? George Saunders in an interview said that he writes in order to show that the world is a cruel place and that he finds worth in understanding how people understand and deal with that cruelty, but I never get the sense that McCarthy gives a shit about that.
- Is it redemption? Uh, no. No one in this novel, or hell, nearly any novel of his besides maybe The Road gets any sort of redemption. Lester dies as miserably as he lived, and we as readers don’t even get the benefit of learning some sort of moral lesson – treat people right or they become monsters, or something like that.
- Is it a sociological/ethnographic study? If so, I’m not sure what we can learn, except that some people can only relate to dead people, after they have fucked them. I’m hoping that’s a small demographic.
- And yet the novel made me laugh a couple of times, and I had trouble putting it down. I’m not sure what that says about me…
And of course James Franco made it into a movie…
I had to start, not finish, and resume where I left off as I read Viet Thanh Nyugen’s The Sympathizer because it kept coming up when I had a couple of other books available, so I feel a bit disjointed in my review, but for a novel that is so intentionally literary it also felt very real in some frightening ways. Thoughts:
- He’s clearly novelizing Fanon’s experience, with the added burden of having his confessioner serve as a spy for the Viet Cong. He’s much less interested in the American experience, and far more interested in the Vietnamese one. This is an unqualified plus.
- As I read I kept chuckling gently to myself, a response I did not expect. Our narrator (who is unnamed) is very funny, and the responses of his friends, colleagues, and those he is spying upon are often witty as well.
- I know it’s set in 1975, with the South Vietnamese government about to fall, but it was enmeshed in all the history of that war, from Dien Bien Phu on. The Captain’s interactions with the southern general for whom he is an adjutant are fascinating, and the ways that he tells us of his own patriotism for his oppressed countrymen in doing this intensely dangerous duty made me feel like I was there.
- The narrator is half-French and half-Vietnamese, as his father was a French priest. This fact played into his outcast status, and also gave Nguyen a way to include the French and their own part in this war.
- So much more, but the scenes in which he is tortured because he wasn’t ideologically sound enough were gruesome. This novel also included two different, graphically described rapes.
- The complexity of this war again makes me question why the hell we ever went in. Anti-communism is a helluva drug.
Nemesis Games was another page-turner, in my mind…I’m guessing because at this point I legitimately care about the characters (yawn)…thoughts:
- Corey (in his psuedonymic persona) finally blows up Earth. My guess is that this leads to the forced migration to the stars, another grand challenge.
- Mars, again, comes off as mostly good guys. Well, that is, except for all the traitors…
- I’m still unsure of just how the OPA rebels are suddenly so powerful. I get that they somehow stole (or caused to go rogue) a bunch of Martian ships, but wow, they quickly seem to become the most powerful space force in the universe, while in the early books they are barely holding on to their own territories.
- I guess my complaint is that this novel seems forced – the OPA is suddenly this all-powerful force, earth is destroyed thus making humans increase their migratory pace even more, and bringing on confrontations with the protomolecule which will involve more books…
- And the image of humans as multi-faceted is not even new to scifi anymore…
</grumpy old dude>
Zero History is the third of the Blue Ant series by Gibson (who is called by a commenter on Goodreads the “Jay-Z of his generation of science fiction writers”), and I am guessing the wrap-up, as Hubertus Bigend (pronounced by most folks like the French word it is) and Milgrim finish the novel skipping off the ocean (not literally, but sort of) in an ekranoplan. Some thoughts:
- There are not many authors who can write a novel about fashion and secret branding that will keep me interested, let alone turning the pages more quickly than I should in order to find out what happens.
- His ability to describe detail in fascinating, witty, and astonishing ways does not fade. He violates the writer’s rule all the time by telling way more than he shows, but man, he does it so beautifully that I keep reading.
- Zero History as a title feels a bit misleading, since the novel features lots of history of brand design in unfolding its plot, and the characters all have history with each other. My guess is that the zero history comes in the idea of secret branding, which fits closely with what Gibson features in other novels: underground economies, avoiding corporate control, producing beautiful design and through them art.
- I am really curious about Milgrim and should probably re-read the first two novels in the series – I think he is Gibson’s attempt to produce a character who is able to chameleon around several of the issues that fascinate Gibson – addiction, cool-hunting, idiot savant art and design.
- In some ways Gibson’s novels feel so light and airy anymore that they threaten to float away, like the surveillance balloons the characters in this novels use. Happy endings happen, for instance, and lots of folks are able to make lots of money and stay afloat in this nether economy.
- My response, though, is that I enjoy reading these novels for this very reason – creating a dystopia is easy – looking at the world through the lens of it incrementally improving the ways in which most people live their lives, and doing so through art and non-corporate ways, feels much more difficult.
Gaming Globally (edited by Nina B. Huntemann and Ben Aslinger) was recommended to me by a friend after I expressed interest in better understanding the increase in game developers in Latin America and Africa, and it was well worth the read. It will serve, I am guessing as a baseline for the kind of research and development that lots of game developers are interested in promulgating.
- The editors make clear that they do not assume that all readers believe that gaming is global – they argue that games are transnational as well as multi-platform, media, etc. Making the argument to me feels necessary, not just because game discussion is almost entirely north- and west-based, but also because making the argument in this fashion helps match the urgency that developers in countries outside of the U.S., Europe, and Japan feel.
- They note that Japanization is as powerful as Americanization in the global game market. I was reminded of this phenomenon this morning when a former student liked something I tweeted, and upon looking at his timeline I discovered that since graduation he has discovered anime.
- The format of this book is a bit different, as they offer the standard academic essays but add what they call snapshots, three-four page looks at very specific times or places based on themes.
- The amount of research in this is staggering. Once again I am reminded of my inability to speak another language, let alone read it an academic level.
- Among the many chapters one that struck me was one that talked about game development and programming under the old Iron Curtain. My fascination with 80s anti-fascist and anti-Soviet eastern Europeans and Latin Americans continues…