The third book in the Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Fortress, has him at Wellesley’s attack on Gawilghur in 1803. The British take the fort, and end up not even suffering all that heavy of casualties, and Sharpe fights his last battle in India before he heads back to England for the next set of battles, this time involving Napoleon.
- This novel follows along the same lines – Sharpe is a hero, a warrior, someone who consistently uses his street-fighting background to be a great soldier. Hakeswill is still a cartoon character – I imagine him as Bluto, only less realistic – and British officers are divided into those who recognize Sharpe’s worthiness and those who can’t see beyond their class blinders.
- As a cypher, I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by Sharpe. Cornwell apologizes in an author’s note at the end of Sharpe’s Fortress to Colonel Campbell, who he gives an auxiliary role to in the improvised move to climb the wall in an undefended place, a move that allows the British to take the fort relatively easily. I don’t know how many British soldiers from the ranks became officers, but based on the need for money (the commission system of becoming an officer and raising a regiment) I can’t believe that it was many.
- From a story-telling standpoint, Sharpe as cypher enables Cornwell all kinds of latitude in looking at a wide range of lives in both the British Army and the army of the East India Company. He refines this technique in the Grail Quest series, and his portrayals become much more realistic and perhaps a bit humbler, but the use of the cypher gives him range he wouldn’t otherwise have as someone writing historical fiction.
- I don’t think I realized exactly how the British colonialisation of India worked, at least in regards to having a private company utilize an army to ensure their profitability. That is a scary model for the future, I’m guessing, but Blackwater will become the new East India Company if the current administration has anything to say about it. I can see nothing wrong with that plan.
- The ease with which the British take a fortress that had never been taken by an enemy shows the frightening power of artillery. It reminds me of a co-worker at the time of the first Gulf War who had received all his images of combat from war movies. He was amazed at how destructive artillery is, how many casualties it accounts for – he thought that most casualties came from soldiers shooting each other. I completely understand how he came to this point of view.
- Cornwell also identifies the range of nationalities involved in the war, with the British and French aligning with various members of the Indian royalty, and Arab mercenaries joining the fight on both sides as well. Clearly, war is expensive, although if what it enables a country to do is to gain a monopoly on trade and collect egregious taxes than I guess it can be profitable.
- I keep thinking, though, about how many humans over the centuries have died in these type of small “engagements.” I can’t think of a grand statement here that fits…machismo, hard-wiring for territorial acquisition, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, tribalism – they all speak to a part of the picture.
The sixth in the series (and the last one that’s been published), Babylon’s Ashes takes humanity back to the ring gate. It’s more space opera, more of our favorite characters never really seeming at risk, and more of the same leadership (the Martians change, but after their one general betrays half the navy they didn’t have much of a choice). And also more of a logical move towards the stars.
- I have to remember that this is scifi, and that obvious solutions are often the best. The author’s inventiveness, I think, lies not in who among the characters does what, but in the scenarios that they imagine.
- For instance, the solution to the fact that the Rocinante is overwhelmed lies in one character’s ability to recognize patterns, but that solution itself is a very clever way to avoid a deus ex machina and yet solve the problem posed by the battle configuration. They set this up nicely so that the solution – although it requires some ingenuity and pattern matching – does not appear to be thrown in.
- Holden and the narrator feel very close in this novel. Holden is on a mission to help humanity sees its commonalities. The destruction of Earth has been caused by extreme tribalism, although the point of views from the side of the most extreme tribalists are supposed to help us feel more sympathy for them (they do the opposite), and both the narrator and Holden spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the ways in which we try to kill each other despite all this great promise. I get it – Corey doesn’t want to write about war, but man that’s just how it is – we somehow need to kill each other. Hard to argue with that…
- For all that, I appreciate that these ships are not shooting lasers at each other but are instead still slinging big hunks of metal (albeit technologically-intensive) through space, and there are no ‘shields’ designed to mitigate damage but instead counter-measures that involve masses of metal and rock hitting each other.
- Humans are starting to utilize what they’ve learned through the protomolecule, and one of the cool things about this series is when it delves into the research that’s happening. There are chapters from the point of view of scientists, and without getting too nerdy (I think – it can be hard for me to tell) Corey portrays the difficulties of living in the stars while also portraying the pressures to keep moving outward.
- These pressures are not the glorious Star Trek bullshit, kowtowing to humanity’s desire to explore and discover – no colonialist sympathizing here. Instead, we are portrayed as a species that struggles to live within some sort of homeostatic framework, and that failure also forces us to find new worlds to exploit.
- The next couple of novels are set up for the move past the ring. Humanity essentially has no choice because of the fanatics in the Free Navy, and the powers-that-be are finally blessing this choice.
- For all that I get frustrated with the heroes-by-chance trope that Corey indulges in, the prognoses about science and humanity’s move to the asteroid belt is pretty cool stuff…
Pattern Recognition is the first of the Blue Ant novels, which I am reading out of order. While I missed the series of events that create the lived experiences of these characters, I did not feel like I couldn’t understand what Zero History was doing, which is probably either a tribute to Gibson’s incredibly dense prose style or a write-off of the repeatability of his storylines. In this one Cayce Pollard meets Hubertus Bigend for the first time, and he sends her to find the source of some mysterious videos that have appeared on the internet and that look like a fascinating combination of artistic invention and underground digital distribution. She has been following these videos intently as part of an online community, and she by trade is a cool-hunter, so she is the logical choice (rather than a detective, many of whom have already been hired to find these videos and their source) to pursue the leads. After much digging, she meets the person(s), and Bigend’s Blue Ant agency continues on its paradigm-shifting ways in creating marketing campaigns (or so we assume) by absorbing the lessons therein.
- Gibson’s obsession with how digital culture moves forward is consistent from his Neuromancer trilogy days. He’s moved on from Deep State conspiracies though to look more at how brands establish themselves, but like in Neuromancer he’s still fascinated with underground distribution and folks who create without worrying about acquiring wealth.
- Cayce earns her keep because she has a sixth sense about trademarks, but this sixth sense costs her because she gets physically ill looking at ones that don’t fit the pattern that she recognizes as cool…which is a horrible word here, as Gibson’s narrator (or maybe Cayce) says itself.
- It’s an easy critique to note that Bigend is the wealthy benefactor, a deus ex machina of sorts, but my guess is that Gibson is more focused on his usual obsession with when-it-all-changed moments than he is in recreating an 18th century conception of art patrons being the only ones capable of supporting artists and moving art forward.
- He recalls his own Cornell boxes in here, the one moment in the Neuromancer series that felt sort of odd amidst all the bloodshed and mayhem and shadowy assassin types hunting AIs on the verge of becoming sentient. Those Cornell boxes were his attempt to steer the conversation to machine-produced art, or art that comes about as a result of technogenesis, and as such led the way to this Blue Ant series.
Exit West is the first novel written by Hamid that I’ve read, and I will read more. This novel follows Saeed and Nadia as they flee their unidentified country and go through a series of metaphorical doors that lead to other places in the world. Thoughts:
- Hamid’s use of metaphorical doors neatly characterizes what must feel like the random and arbitrary nature of current migration patterns and policies. The doors are hard to find (indeed, often requiring some sort of mystical connection and a power that can command hard currency), but once found they remain open until they are guarded or closed forcefully.
- The gradual closing down of Saeed and Nadia’s city is portrayed generically enough, I think, to make it stand in for any ideological or political movement. Hamid’s point is not to condemn a specific revolution – I think instead he is trying to humanize those who appear only as distant images on our teevee screens. He does this.
- He includes little snippets from other lives throughout, and the lives do not always directly connect. These interludes relieved narrative pressure while also giving me a sense of the concurrency of other lived experience around the globe.
- I almost postponed reading this one, but I’m thankful that I took the time. The images that kept coming to my mind are ones that often appear in my head with literature that I resonate with – scenes of almost pen-and-ink drawn green hills with lone trees, with clean lines that do not include the dirt and grime of ordinary living, spaces that echo with possibility and potential, and that also seem gentle and humble. It’s not that Hamid ignores the bad stuff; instead, he seems far more interested in how folks carve meaningful existences out of miserable fates.
- Near the end (but not at the end, where they actually return for at least a visit to their former homes), they end up in a refugee commune outside of Marin. This place is as close to utopic as Hamid goes, I’m guessing.
…the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge,unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief. (129)
- He also characterizes the feeling of watching your city disappear under a conflict that does not involve you, as particularly described in a scene in which she thinks herself the object of a photograph released on social media onlyh to find out that it wasn’t her.
…and she was startled, and wondered how this could be,how she could both read this news and be this news, and how the newspaper could have published this image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, and she almost felt that if she got up and walked home at this moment there would be two Nadias, that she would split into two Nadias, and one would stay on the steps reading and one would walk home, and two different lives would unfold for these two different selves, and she thought she was losing her balance, or possibly her mind, and then she zoomed in on the image and saw that the woman in the black robe reading the news on her phone was actually not her at all. (96)
The Plot Against America finally came up on in my library list after having been on hold for weeks, so even though I’m trying to concentrate on southern gothic and magical realist fiction right now I plowed through it. I probably didn’t give it as a close a reading as it deserved, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it necessarily, but it also felt very appropriate in our current political climate.
Twelve-year-old Philip Roth is our narrator, and he tells us the story of Charles Lindbergh’s rise to power as the 33rd president. In this rethinking of our history, Lindbergh is only defeated after disappearing in what might be a plane crash, with the subsequent martial law declarations triggering an uprising spearheaded by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Essentially, the US comes to its senses, another election is held, and FDR resumes the presidency. We then enter WWII.
- Telling the story from a twelve year old’s perspective adds anxiety and fear that might not have been as compelling as if the narrator was an adult.
- Roth wrote the novel in 2004, and some of the parallels to our current political discourse feel prescient – both sides call each other fascist, for instance – while others feel consistent with past fascist tropes – peace through strength.
- The ending – the essential decency of people comes through in the end – felt a bit rushed. I’m guessing that Roth didn’t want to go whole hog into Harry Turtledove territory, which makes sense if his mission is to explore possible ways that anti-semitism becomes the type of force that can win an election.
- He hints at other types of discrimination (racism, anti-Catholicism) in ways that having his narrator being a young boy allows him to simply hint at. For instance, at one point Philip tells us that his recent-immigrant Italian neighbor doesn’t have to worry about discrimination since he’s a Catholic. Roth leaves that sentence hanging on his own in a way that calls attention to its naivete and biased perspective.
- And, once again, I’m afraid that I am missing the power of one of Roth’s novels, as I read over and over again about how he is one of our greatest living novelists. The narrative inventiveness for which he is often praised felt not all that inventive. I think I need to read American Pastoral in order to get a better sense of his strengths.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin takes up the dismantling of fantasy that Martin (and before him Delaney) and Esslemont and Erikson joyfully participate in, and the result was thought-provoking (and a great read). Thoughts:
- Jemisin incorporates different religious perspectives in this novel. Tolkien messed around with supernatural figures – Gandalf is a Maia or something like that if I remember correctly from the Silmarillion, and Sauron is a pretty direct corollary to Lucifer – but he followed Christian theology pretty closely. Martin has his characters invoke the gods all the time, but we never see their direct action. The MBOTF authors are brave enough to risk the idea of ascension for mortals, and they also pit gods against each other for reasons that appear almost petty.
- Jemisin comes at this from another perspective – what if mortals were able to chain gods and make them fulfill their wishes? Limits on godly powers certainly make for an interesting theology.
- Jemisin blends lots of religious traditions – I see traces of Greeks and Haitian (the god who rides in Yeine’s body like a loa) for a start – in a way that neatly allows this novel (and series) to think of world-building differently than we usually posit it in fantasy.
- Yeine is an interesting character, one who lives in her own head a lot. As a result, we get to live in her head too, and my guess is that Jemisin uses this limited perspective to question the foundations of world building in fantasy.
- More on this as I continue the series, of course…
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.