Category Archives: England

Books about, or taking place in, England.

Review 204: Blackout & All Clear

LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 1LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 2Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

Reading one of Connie Willis’ time travel novels is like watching a master paper-folder perform a particularly difficult feat of origami. It seems simple at first, but then there are a few folds and twists, edges are forced together and bent apart, there’s a few points where you can’t even see exactly what her hands are doing, but when she’s finished, you have the pleasure of seeing something intricate and beautiful come into being right before your eyes.

The basic premise of her time travel works is pretty simple: in the future, we have time travel (but not cell phones, as you may recall from The Doomsday Book). The exact means by which it works is not revealed to us, which makes sense – the books aren’t about the mechanics of time travel but rather the results. On the other hand, the rules of time travel are vividly clear:

  1. You can only go to the past.
  2. You can’t bring back any souvenirs.
  3. You can’t change anything.

You just can't keep a good cathedral down...

No, you can’t bring back cathedrals either.

That last part is really important, and it is held as gospel by the historians who use the mechanism to go visit various eras in history. The space-time continuum will do its damnedest to keep a traveler from altering the natural flow of events. For example, in order to even get the machine to work, you have to be able to blend in – that means proper clothes and appearance, no hidden wristwatches or things like that. If you’re carrying a disease that the locals might not be prepared for, if you don’t know the language – hell, maybe if you’re just the wrong skin color, the system won’t open up and let you through.

Once you’re ready to go and fit in, there’s still the matter of being able to change events. Now it is true that simply by existing you have already changed things. You move air molecules that were moved differently before. You’re pouring heat into the environment that wasn’t there before. You’re making contact with the surfaces around you, shedding skin cells, making noises – and that’s before you even meet anyone. Once you’re out on the street (or country lane or agora or whatever), you’re interacting with people no matter what you do. They see you, you register in their consciousness to one degree or another – you’re changing things just by your very existence.

The continuum, it seems, is only concerned about big changes. You can’t get anywhere near Hitler, for example, or Kennedy on the day of his assassination. No matter how hard you try or how precisely you set the controls, you will end up displaced either in time or in space or both, unable to do a damned thing. The continuum protects itself, and historians can be assured that their actions in the past have no real consequence.

Or do they?

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I've milk to deliver.

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I’ve milk to deliver.

Three British historians have gone back in time to one of the most dramatic and dangerous eras in recent history – the Blitz of World War 2. This was a period of about eight months between 1940 and 1941 when German bombers tried to reduce England to a smoking pile of rubble. They dropped a hundred tons of bombs, cause immeasurable property damage, and killed thousands of people. Life in this time was dangerous, terrifying, and uncertain, and anyone who lived through it was aware that they could die on any one of the raids.

Despite this, the English showed a solidarity and a steadfastness that won the respect of the world (or at least the parts of the world that weren’t trying to bomb it). Everyone – soldiers and civilians – were encouraged to do their part during the war, and every action you took had to be considered in the greater scheme of keeping people safe and keeping London alive. A popular sentiment about the time is that there really were no civilians. Everyone played a hand in getting England through the Blitz, from the Prime Minister to the milkman. If you were an historian looking to see how ordinary people coped in extraordinary times, the Blitz would be the perfect scenario to observe.

Polly Sebastian is in the thick of it. She has traveled to London, September 1940, with the intention of getting a job in a department store in the middle of town. She arrives during a bombing raid and is ushered into a shelter full of people who will change her life.

Mike Davis wanted to see some true citizen-heroes, so he posed as an American reporter in order to witness the Dunkirk Rescue in May of 1940. He ends up far from Dunkirk, however, and his efforts to get there end up in him becoming part of the action.

"Oy dinn't do nuffin'"

“Oy dinn’t do nuffin'”

Eileen O’Reilly has gone to witness the children’s evacuation of 1939-1940. She poses as a maid in a manor house in the country, there to watch over children who had been sent from London to keep them safe from the war. Eileen has to not only contend with dozens of city children, an outbreak of the measles, and learning to drive an ancient Bentley, but she also has two of the most terrible children in England under her care – Alf and Binnie Hodbin.

All of these assignments would be a major task for any historian, but these three soon discover that they are not in an ordinary situation. It becomes clear to them that their actions are having consequences – Mike saves a soldier who in turn helps hundreds more. Polly says a few words that changes a young woman’s life. Eileen gives medicine to a young girl that no one living at that time would have given, thus keeping her alive. The unbreakable rule about historians not being able to affect the continuum seems to be bending.

What’s worse, none of them are able to access their “drop points” to return to 2060. They’re stuck in a strange and dangerous time, and are now just as at risk as any contemporary person is.

This was originally meant to be only one book – All Clear – but it kept growing and expanding so much that Willis split it into two volumes. This allowed her to not only show off what must have been an immeasurable amount of research over the eight years it took to write the novels, but gave us more time to become immersed and invested in a story that is both funny and heart-wrenching in turns. Our time-travelers are in very real danger, of more than one sort, and you really do feel their desperation and hope for their success.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what's going on up there.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what’s going on up there.

It would be so hard to sum up this book, except to say that it reminds us that everything – and everyone – is significant. The fate of the future rests on the backs of not only generals and prime ministers, but on shopkeepers and children. Words can change the world just as much as bombs, and every action you take contributes to the vast, infinitely complex unfolding of history. As our characters learn, there is no such thing as a passive observer. We are all part of the history, the society, and the world around us, whether we like it or not.

We may not know how it’s all going to unfold in the end, for good or ill, and that’s unfortunate. So all we can do when faced with an uncertain future is what the British did when oblivion came flying over the Channel to their shores. Stand firm and do your bit, and let history take care of itself.

—————————————-
“TO ALL THE
ambulance drivers
firewatchers
air-raid wardens
nurses
canteen workers
airplane spotters
rescue workers
mathematicians
vicars
vergers
shopgirls
chorus girls
librarians
debutantes
spinsters
fishermen
retired sailors
servants
evacuees
Shakespearean actors
and mystery novelists
WHO WON THE WAR.”
― Connie Willis, All Clear – dedication

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Review 113: The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

I really enjoy Richard Adams. Part of it is his writing – he has an excellent style and a definite gift for description. When he talks about a place, it is immediately obvious that he’s actually been there. He uses multiple senses to tell you what a place looks, sounds and smells like, the feeling of the damp earth and the rolling mists, the tastes that seep through the air…. Not surprising when one is writing a book where a pair of dogs are the primary characters.

And that’s another reason I like Adams. Lots of people write books about animals, personifying them and making them into almost-humans. But most of these writers tend to idealize the animals, put them into the sort of “noble savage” category which places humanity immediately in the wrong.

The fox is almost unintelligible. Enjoy that.

Not Adams. His animals are animals. In Watership Down, which was ostensibly a book for children, the animals live through fear, terror, despair and war. There is blood and death and pain, mostly because there is blood and death and pain in the natural world. He does acknowledge that he over-humanizes his characters, but without that, there would be no story.

This book is about the intersection of animals and man, and asks a very important question: what is humanity’s responsibility towards the animals? While he may not know what the true answer is, Adams definitely knows which answers are wrong. The book begins in a scientific research lab, in the quiet hills of northern England, where any number of experiments are performed on any number of animals. Some of them are paid for by outside interests – cosmetics corporations, for example – while others are performed to, in the mind of the lab’s directors, further the scope of scientific knowledge. Adams’ utter contempt for this kind of activity is immediately evident when you read it, and he spares no detail in describing what happens in these experiments. Animals mutilated, burned, shocked, frozen, exposed to poisons in their air, water and food. Kept awake, asleep, isolated…. all just to see what would happen. And when they die, they are disposed of with no more thought than one might dispose of a burned-out light bulb.

Like this, only worse.

One of the subjects is a large black mongrel dog which is being used to answer the great burning scientific question of, “What would happen if we kept trying to drown a dog but never actually let it die?” Rowf (having never had a master, his name is just the sound he makes) has a single companion in the lab, in the cage next to him – a small terrier who, having had a master before, has a name – Snitter. Snitter has been the subject of a far stranger experiment, and the brain surgery has left a deep scar across his skull and a deeper rift in his mind.

The two dogs manage to escape from the lab into the outside world, where they manage to survive, if only barely.

Poor, crazy Snitter....

And normally, that would be the end of the story. But then Adams reveals his antipathy for bureaucracy and the modern media, for where both of these intersect, terrible phantoms and ghouls can arise. Worried farmers, whose sheep are targets of the two hungry dogs, call their representatives to get answers from the recalcitrant lab. The ministers talk and talk about it, and when word leaks out to a well-known London tabloid, the story explodes.

WAS the lab not working with many kinds of animals the night the dogs escaped, it asked. Among those animals, were there not RATS? And were those rats not the subjects of tests involving the horrible BLACK PLAGUE? CAN the laboratory ASSURE the taxpaying public that there is ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE, none at all that the dogs are not infected with the virulent PLAGUE?

The newspaper’s answer, the one that will sell more copies, of course, is NO. And so, the two dogs, who were lucky enough to escape and canny enough to survive, become known nationwide as the Plague Dogs, subjects of a hunt which escalates beyond reasonable proportions.

Poor, miserable Rowf....

As much as this is an animal adventure story, a kind of twisted version of Homeward Bound, it is also commentary. There’s a lot of dog philosophy in here, for one of Adams’ gifts is being to get into the heads of the animals he’s writing. The two dogs agree on one thing – it is a dog’s place in the world to serve humanity. But how? Snitter, who’d had a good master once, believes that they are there to make humans happy, to bring love to a home. Rowf, however, having known nothing other than the laboratory, believes that dogs are there to be abused by humans for their unknowable purposes, and that by running away from the lab and the water tank, he has become a Bad Dog.

Also, looking at the world from a dog’s perspective is interesting. Snitter, for example, believes that the newspaper-boy delivers a paper to the Master’s house solely so the Master and Snitter can play a fun game. Isn’t that boy nice? And having known only suburbia, he is shocked that humans have ripped up the world and replaced it with all these green things and mountains and deep holes filled with water – which, of course, Rowf believes are used to drown unthinkably huge animals much as he was drowned. Adams asked himself the question, “How would a dog interpret the world?” and got a lot of great ideas from it.

And, as I mentioned before, there’s a lot of talk about humanity’s responsibility towards the animals. Should we use them for whatever purposes we wish? Of course not. Are we necessarily “better” than the other animals? More skilled, yes, more clever, certainly, but better? No. We are animals, and as such we cannot allow ourselves to place ourselves above the great interconnected web of life. We may never know what our purpose in Nature is, but we can know what our purpose is not.

Not quite the end....

One really interesting part of the book is a wonderful section near the end where the Writer and the Reader argue about the fate of the dogs. It’s a little meta-fictional, but it’s an acknowledgment by Adams that he knows how the story should end, and he knows how his readers want it to end. Reading it, it appears that Adams clearly thinks the dogs should die – not because they were Bad Dogs or anything like that, but because the vision of humanity that he constructed for the book demanded their deaths. Most of the humans in the story want the dogs dead, and letting that inevitable ending take place would be his way of saying, “See? I told you so.”

If I had to guess, though, he showed the original, “Dead Dogs” version to someone – his wife, his editor, his agent – and that person said, “No. Uh-uh, no. No no no. No.” And so Adams grudgingly breaks the fourth wall with a short narrative poem which is essentially him saying, “Fine, have your happy ending….” It’s a wonderful part, and I admit to getting a little choked up every time I read it.

Just a little, mind you.

—————————————————-
“It’s a bad world for the helpless.”
Mr. Ephraim, The Plague Dogs

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Review 25: Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

This book puts me in mind of the time my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to go to my mother’s house in the Poconos during spring break.

It was back in the late nineteen-hundreds, and we were a college cadre of Dungeons & Dragons players who had a great campaign going. “Spontaneous Combustion” we called ourselves, because of our habit of blowing things up at any opportunity. Not a weekend would go by that we didn’t burn, destroy, incinerate or otherwise defile something in our imaginary world. But we were exhausted from the rigors of trying to balance our school life with our raping and pillaging. I say “raping” because it really belongs there with “pillaging,” though to my knowledge there was no raping of anyone. Dismemberment, yes, and I believe my character managed to give a lot of people syphilis, but in a rather unconventional way.

The plan was simple: we’d all go down to the house in the mountains for a few days, have marathon D&D sessions, and generally enjoy each others’ company in quiet isolation from the world. The house was an idyllic place – all trees and silence and snow, with the occasional deer or wild turkey. It would be a truly beautiful and serene place for us to rest our wearied bodies and stretch our wild imaginations.

So, much like Jerome K. Jerome and his companions, Harris, George and, of course, Montmorency, who decide in this book that the best tonic for their youthful ennui would be a boating trip up the Thames, we all headed to the mountains of Pennsylvania to soothe our troubled souls and to bond as friends and boon companions.

Also like Jerome, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency), we had no idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

The three men (and the dog) of Jerome K. Jerome’s story are like most travelers throughout time since the idea of traveling for leisure was invented: they have a Plan. The Plan, of course, is to have a good time with one’s friends while avoiding anything resembling work. Unfortunately, the world will often have other plans. In the case of this book, those plans involved angry swans, annoying lovers, unusually busy inns, bad weather and general vehicular mishaps.

Now that I think on it, though, the trouble they had with their boat – and there was trouble – wasn’t quite as bad as the trouble I had with my car on our way to the role-playing retreat. Thanks to a strategically placed pothole, I managed to blow out both passenger side tires on my car. Not all at once, though. The rear one went flat right away, causing the small caravan to stop on the side of a New Scotland road while I panicked and my friend Jon fixed the tire. I would have done it myself, of course, but this was the first Misfortune to befall my beloved car – whose name, for reasons too complicated to go into here, was Phoenix – so it fell to Jon to do it. The rest of our crew were milling about patiently, except for Jim, who was lighting road flares so that anyone who happened to be driving down the sunlit, arrow-straight, bone-dry stretch of road might not kill us all.

The second flat tire occurred in a small town, the name of which I have forgotten. Or blocked out. There had been a slow leak, and I was on my way out of the liquor store (we had to buy liquor, there was no question of that, though whose idea it was to buy the Jeroboam of red wine escapes me) and Jon says, “Don’t get angry.”

“Why would I get angry, Jon?” I replied, doing a passable imitation of HAL from 2001.

It turned out that the other passenger side tire had gone flat while we were shopping. This left us in a small town on the outskirts of Nowhere, at 8 PM on a Friday night in need of a tire. By some miracle, the AAA man we called knew someone who could sell us a tire so we could get on our way. The man, who turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein, was happy to sell it to us, though he wouldn’t actually put it on the car. Possibly because he wanted to save us money by not charging us for the labor, or possibly because my car – adorned with a variety of bumper-stickers and interesting rear-view amulets – looked like it belonged to an angry gay druid. Whatever his reasons, we got a new tire on the car and were grateful for his help.

In discussing any trip, of course, one must eventually come to the weather. For Jerome and his friends it was the rain that defied their best efforts to stay dry and forced them to find lodgings in towns where places to sleep were already scarce. For us, it was snow.

Snow is common in the mountains through early spring, but we were prepared for that. Mom had called the plow service and assured us that the driveway would be clear when we got there. When we arrived (having first worked out the Problem of the Mismarked Map), we found that the driveway had not, in fact, been plowed and the snow came up to mid-thigh. We parked on the street, slogged through the snow and went to open the door. When the key wouldn’t turn on the second lock, I pretty much gave up and just wandered around the snow saying, “She only gave me one key,” over and over again until someone managed to get the door open. After about twelve hours of cataclysmic travel, we were There. We had arrived! Our objective was obtained and our journey was done! We could finally unwind and relax.

One of the difficulties that we shared with Jerome and company was with food. They packed well enough, of course, with all kinds of comestibles, but like all people who are not used to preparing and procuring their own food, the comedy that resulted was plentiful. Beef without mustard, infinitely peelable potatoes, strange and unfathomable stews – any traveler who goes on a journey without having some kind of food misadventure has missed half the fun.

For us, it was steak. Get a group of men together and their appetites will turn to meat. Oh sure, there might be a few green, hippie, godless Commie men out there who lean towards tofu, but they’re really thinking of meat, no matter what they say.

We had bought some steaks – the best our college-student budgets could handle. But how to cook them? For in every group of meat-loving men, everyone is a meat expert. It’s a mark of True Masculinity, the ability to cook a steak, and the insinuation that one cannot cook a steak is tantamount to calling the man a queer sissy fairy-boy.

What resulted from this battle of culinary wills was a dinner that consisted, mainly, of shoe leather, with everyone holding grudges against everyone else for Not Doing It Right. This was about the same time I learned firsthand why one should never chug blackberry brandy.

The myriad of problems that people have when traveling are, unfortunately, universal. Poor planning, bad luck, nasty locals, bad weather, pigheadedness and the unfortunate tendency of the world not to live up to our expectations of it – all of these conspire to make travel an endurance trial. What surprised me the most about this book was how similar Jerome K. Jerome’s troubles had been to my own.

As bad as things can be at the time, though, there comes a time, afterward, when you can look back and laugh. Safe at home, Jerome took his eventful, awful trip up the Thames and made it into an incredibly funny classic of English literature. The fact that the book is over a hundred years old doesn’t take away at all from its comedy value because the humor comes from the universal nature of travelers and traveling. We all go on our journeys hoping for a relaxed, congenial time, but we tell stories about the mishaps, misadventures and difficulties. They are, paradoxically, the most fun part of the trip.

So I laughed along with Jerome and his friends, remembering all the while the infighting, bad food, bad moods, burnt countertops, spiked spaghetti sauce and everything else that made that one Spring Break trip so terribly, terribly memorable.

Although, all things being equal, I would have been just as happy if we’d had… y’know, a good time.

—————————————————
“They cursed us – not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations and covered everything connected with us – good, substantial curses.”
– Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
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Three Men in a Boat at Wikipedia
Jerome K. Jerome at Wikipedia
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Review 20: The Doomsday Book

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I honestly can’t count the number of times I’ve read this book. I think this is the fifth time. Or maybe the sixth, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s just as enjoyable, touching and heartbreaking as it was the first time I read it, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

It is the middle of the 21st century and time travel has finally been worked out. A reliable there-and-back-again way to go into the past and come back to the present. Unfortunately, there are limitations. The computer that makes time travel happen, through means I’m not sure even Ms. Willis understands, will not allow for a paradox. This means if you try to go to the past with anachronistic technology, or carrying a disease that could wreak havoc on the population, the interface simply won’t open. If you try to place a traveler somewhere where their appearance could cause a paradox, the machine will put them in another place or time – a factor called “slippage” which can put you anywhere from five minutes and a few feet off your mark to years and miles. The machine won’t allow you to get anywhere near events of importance.

Secondly, the machine won’t allow you to take anything through the net. So if you travel to, say, Napoleon’s palace and try to rob him blind, the interface won’t open until you’ve got rid of all your booty.

Those two factors alone made the time machine economically useless. If you can’t profit off it – or change it – what good must it be?

A lot of good, as it turns out, if you’re an historian. While the machine may not allow you to get anywhere near Hitler, it will allow you to see what life was like in the ghetto in the 30s. The whole of history suddenly became open to real discovery, and places like Oxford were at the forefront of the research.

One student, a young lady named Kivrin, has a dream to see the Middle Ages. Despite all the warnings that it was full of filth, disease, superstition, danger and death, she still wants to see it more than anything in the world. The sheer force of her will finds her in the machine, ready to go to the year 1320 to see firsthand what life was like for the average English citizen. She has prepared herself as best she could, but nothing could possibly prepare her for the time and place she ends up in….

And in the present, a new plague has spread around Oxford. It’s a new type of flu that seems to have come from nowhere, and it’s started to kill. Kivrin’s teachers and friends have to race the disease, time and sheer bloody-minded bureaucracy to try and find her and bring her back safely.

What is remarkable about the book is the detail. Willis has obviously done a lot of research into not only Medieval Oxford but modern Oxford as well. Since one of the themes of the book is that we don’t know nearly as much about the past as we think we do, Willis has gone to great lengths to make sure that we – through the eyes of Kivrin – never know what to expect because our expectations are all totally wrong. And as is so often true about history, the more we know about it, the more interesting it becomes.

The Oxford of the future, by contrast, isn’t all that futuristic. It looks a lot like the modern world, probably because it’s only a couple of decades removed from us. Sure, there have been advances in technology, but the lives of the people aren’t much different from ours.

Interesting note: the book was published in 1992, well before the age of cell phones, instant messaging and the internet. Because of this, one of the greatest hindrances to getting anything done in this far-future Oxford is that no one can get anyone on the phone. It’s a videophone, yes, but most of the characters spend time waiting for phone calls to come through or trying to place calls to people who aren’t near a terminal. It’s a bit strange, from my modern perspective, to see a world that has pretty much conquered disease and mastered time yet never figured out a means of personal communication better than a land-line.

That’s just a small thing, though, and as long as you accept that particular bit of alternate-future, you’ll be okay. It’s a fantastic book, one which I recommend without reservation. The characters are deep and interesting, and the writing really puts you in their world. Seriously. Go get it.

———————————————-
“Mr. Dunworthy, ad adjuvandum me festina.”
(“Mr. Dunworthy, make haste to help me.”)
– Kivrin, The Doomsday Book
———————————————-

The Doomsday Book on Wikipedia
Connie Willis on Wikipedia
The Doomsday Book on Amazon.com
The 11th-Century Domesday Book at Wikipedia
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Review 19: Day of the Triffids


The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I have a long fondness for Apocalyptic novels. The Stand was one of my early favorites from junior high school, and I really enjoyed its cousin by Robert McCammon, Swan Song. There’s something about the End Of The World that just grabs me and won’t let go. Maybe it’s the thought that, should the world end, I would be one of the survivors. The rule of law would break down, all shackles of modern life would be loosed, and I would finally be free to choose my own destiny. Which, knowing me, would probably be very short and end up with me getting shot by some kind of Mad Max pirate tribe.

I can say with some certainty, however, that in this book’s scenario I would not be coming out on top. Because I love astronomy.

Let me explain. This end of the world came in two parts, at least one of which was definitely of our own doing.

It started with a comet. Or a meteor shower. Or something, but whatever it was, it lit up the sky. Green streaks of light brightened the night skies around the world, and everyone who could go and watch them did so. I’m a sucker for a natural light show, so I probably would have spent the night watching the skies and enjoying myself. And I would have woken up stone blind the next day.

That in itself – the vast, vast majority of the human population on Earth being blind – would have been a pretty good apocalypse. Wyndham describes rashes of suicides, accidental deaths and, of course, murder in just the first few days. Without vision, the carefully crafted world we’ve made kind of falls apart. But it would have been survivable. Co-operation groups spring up pretty quickly, both voluntary and otherwise, where sighted people assist the blind in surviving. It would have been tough, yes, but not impossible, for the world to go on. If not for the Triffids.

While we don’t know what caused the green comet, the Triffids were definitely our fault. The product of bioengineering gone haywire, the Triffids are ambulatory carnivorous plants with a poison sting that can kill a grown man from ten feet away. And while they’re not intelligent, they are remarkably… aware. They follow sound, they learn and co-operate in hunting, and are very difficult to eradicate.

But by themselves, they’re manageable. Their stingers can be removed, even though they grow back eventually, and they make interesting garden plants. And they’re immensely profitable – the oil derived from a Triffid outdoes every other kind of vegetable oil available. In normal times, the Triffids are under human control and benefit humanity greatly.

The two problems, when put together, make for a truly terrifying end – an unstoppable, unthinking army of carnivorous plants, finally freed from their shackles. A world in chaos, half-blind and not sure if they have to save themselves, or if someone else will do it for them. And an exciting story.

The message of this book is pretty clear, and Wyndham wastes no time in making sure we get it, lest the adventure part of the book get bogged down. Don’t mess with nature. That’s pretty much it. Don’t mess with nature, because nature will inevitably come ’round and mess right back with you.

Wyndham has created a brave new world for us, with a wide variety of characters who all react to their new situation in different – and realistic – ways. Starting in London, we meet a diverse cast – from the girl who believes that the Americans will save her to the man who believes that polygamy is the way to a brighter future, everyone has an idea on how to survive. The narrator, Bill Masen, knows just enough to get the reader up to speed, but not nearly enough to know if he’s even going to make it out of this alive. With the help of other sighted survivors, he is determined to make a stand, not only for England, but for the human race as a whole.

But first they have to deal with the Triffids….

———————————-
“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. ”
– John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids
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Day of the Triffids at Wikipedia
John Wyndham at Wikipedia
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Review 16: Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This is one of my top five books. Whenever anyone asks me, “What is your favorite book?” this is at or near the top. It was the first adult-length book I read when I was in Elementary school, and I have every intention of getting my hands on a copy for my goddaughter at some point soon. I remember watching the movie when they used to show it annually on CBS, way back in those days beyond recall….

Why should this book, of all the books I’ve ever read in my life, stay so dear to me? I have no idea. Perhaps because, even though its main characters are rabbits, it isn’t a “talking animals” book. Adams didn’t talk down to his readers, and assumed that they were ready to follow Hazel and Fiver wherever they went. And so, unusually for children’s literature, there is violence and loss and true danger in this book. Characters die. Unpleasantly. The rabbits live in fear of mankind and the Thousand, and accomplish great things despite. They do what no rabbit had done before, and find a new world for themselves. And, of course, are forced to fight for it.

Our heroes, you see, are living an idyllic life in a warren in England. They do what rabbits do – eat, sleep, mate, and entertain themselves. But one rabbit, Fiver, can see more clearly than others. He can sense danger, and grasp the shape of the future, and he knows that any rabbit who stays where they are will certainly die. With his brother, Hazel, Fiver and a small group of rabbits leave their home.

They do what rabbits never do – they explore. They go through dense woods and cross streams. They hide among gardens and search for the best place they can find to set up their new warren – a safe place, high in the hills, where they can see all around and the ground is dry. They seek to build a new society, as so many humans have done in our history.

And what’s more, they try to build the best society that they can. The need leadership, yes, but how much? How much freedom should the ordinary rabbit have to live its life? This question becomes more and more important when they meet the cruel General Woundwort, de facto leader of the warren known as Efrafa.

The battle that they have, choosing between personal liberty and the safety of the warren, is emblematic of so many struggles that have gone on in our world, and continue today. Through a tale about rabbits, Adams manages to tell us about ourselves, which is the mark of a great writer.

As cynical as I have become in my years, I still find this story to be honest and true. Adams isn’t trying to make an allegory or grind an axe. He’s trying to tell a good story about hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity, a story with – as Tolkien put it, “applicability” – that we can overlay onto our own lives and experiences. The fact that the main characters are rabbits is incidental.

Well, not really. Another layer to this story is the culture that Adams has created. The stories of Frith and El-ahrairah (which, I’ve just noticed, is misprinted on the first page of the contents in this edition as “El-ahrairah.” Weird) are sometimes deep and meaningful, sometimes fun and silly, but always relevant and rich, in the tradition of oral storytelling. There is a language to the rabbits, which is regularly used throughout the book (and one complete sentence in lapine – Silflay hraka u embleer rah. Memorable….) Adams did a lot of research into the social structure of rabbits and their lifestyles, making it as accurate is it could be….

Anyway, every young person should read this. Hell, older people should read it too. Every time I read the story, it moves me. I can hear the voices of the characters clearly and see what they see. I am inspired by the steadfastness of Hazel, the strength of Bigwig and the resolve of Blackavar. I find qualities in these characters that I would like to possess, and that’s as good a reason as any to love a book.

As a side note, this book is the reason I got into Magic: The Gathering way back in college. For a long time, I thought it was just a stupid card game, with no cultural or imaginative merit. Then I happened across a “Thunder Spirit” card, which had a quote from Watership Down at the bottom:

“It was full of fire and smoke and light and…it drove between us and the Efrafans like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning.”

Still gives me goosebumps.

Anyway, I thought, “Maybe there’s something to this,” and the rest was (very expensive) history….

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“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you, digger, listener, runner. Prince with a swift warning. Be cunning and your people will never be destroyed.”
– Frith, Watership Down
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Watership Down at Wikipedia
Richard Adams at Wikipedia
Watership Down at Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, England, fantasy, made into movies, rabbits, Richard Adams, survival, totalitarianism, travel, war, young adult

Review 14: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

There are people who think that comic books are just for kids. They see Superman and Batman and Spider-Man, with their bright costumes and their rather simplistic moral codes and think, “Well, that’s all well and good for children, but as a thinking adult, I need something more.” Some of these folks are lit-snobs, who view any kind of book with pictures as immature. Perhaps they were told that they need to grow up, and have distanced themselves with comics as they have done with their own childhoods. Or perhaps they simply don’t know better….

The point is that while there certainly is a lot of childish dross in comics, there’s also a lot of gold. In the right hands, a great story can be told in any medium, be it print, painting, film, stage, or yes – even comics. In this case, the right hands are those of Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

Moore is considered one of the giants of modern comic books, having penned many a dark and strange tale, ignoring the accepted norms of comic book storytelling in order to tell the weird and off-kilter stories that he wants to tell. In the famous Watchmen, Moore told us about the flaws and imperfections inherent in the heroic ideal. In V for Vendetta, he looks at the flaws and imperfections in our societies and ourselves.

The book is set in an alternate London, a place that Could Have Been. In this world, the worst of our modern nightmares has happened – a nuclear war that ravaged many parts of the world. Europe, Africa, these places were, as the characters put it, “gone.” England survived the turmoil by the skin of its teeth, pulling itself up from chaos and disorder thorough the strength of the new government party, Norsefire.

This government is unapologetically fascist. In the turmoil following the war, they saw the only solution to England’s survival in absolute obedience. And so they built a new England – an England of strict rules and laws, with ears and eyes everywhere. Minorities of all kinds were systematically wiped out from the country. Blacks, Muslims, homosexuals – anyone who didn’t fit into the world view of the new leadership was eliminated, and in many cases just disappeared. The government espouses a doctrine of absolute control over its citizenry, seeing that as the only defense against the horrors that the world had just barely survived.

But, for all that, England prevailed. People were safe in their homes, as long as they followed the rules. They were entertained with radio and television, given plenty of amusements and a healthy dose of fear to keep them in line. The government of England seemed almighty, governed by their fascist ideology and a massive supercomputer, known simply as Fate. Nothing, they thought, could challenge their supremacy.

Until V arrived.

With no name, and no face besides the Guy Fawkes mask he wore, the terrorist known as V began to cut a swathe through the ruling elite. All that is known of him is that he had been a prisoner in one of the concentration camps set up by the government. In that place, terrible experiments were done on the human detritus of society – experiments with truly horrific results. Whether V’s incredible mind and physical ability were because of those experiments or despite them, we will never know. All we do know is that he survived, and with a single-minded determination bordering on madness, he sought revenge.

With public demonstrations of terrorism and pyrotechnics, he took it upon himself to wrest control of the city from those who had locked it down. His goal is freedom for everyone, anarchy in its truest sense, and he will not be stopped.

As the title suggests, this is a vendetta on many levels. It is revenge for what was done to V in the prison camps where they took all the “undesirables,” and for what was done to England by its new rulers. V is a man with nothing to lose, and everything to gain – not just for himself, but for his country.

This is a book about freedom on many levels. It’s about political freedom, which makes it especially relevant today, and it’s no coincidence that the film emerged during the headiest days of the Bush administration. Following the attacks of September 11th, Americans were afraid, and the government – like the government of this book – was all too willing to harness that fear in exchange for control. People were told to watch what they say about the President, the government or the troops. Television pundits and spokespeople demanded that criticism be shut down, and that those who disagreed with what the country was doing were branded traitors.

Fortunately, we got through those frightened times, but even today, those who would stay in power use fear to keep people in line. Fear of death, fear of immigrants, fear of gays – fear of The Other – are the first weapons they use to command obedience from their citizenry.

And most people fall in line very easily. It’s not surprising, really. Most people, when they’re afraid, look to someone to take care of them, to protect them and to tell them what to do. It’s a natural impulse, a natural need of human beings. But V exhorts us to move past that. He reminds us that, in a quote from the film, “People should not be afraid of their governments – governments should be afraid of their people.” While our government never reached the depths of the one in this book, it is something that all citizens of all countries should remember.

The book is also about personal freedom. We are all of us prisoners, really – prisoners of our societies and prisoners of ourselves. We are held down by our preconceptions , our doubts and our illusions; our own minds and our beliefs about what others expect of us are what keep us locked into a prison whose bars we cannot even see. V freed himself from his own literal and spiritual confinement to go from prisoner to a societal force, bursting free in an explosion of flame and destruction. He meets a young woman, Evey Hammond, and brings her into his world – partly to be his accomplice, but also to show her how to be free. Her freedom comes at a cost too, enduring the greatest nightmare of a citizen of a fascist society. But she survives, and finds her freedom in the rain and the dark.

The lesson that V teaches us, whether as individuals or societies, is twofold: we hold ourselves prisoner, and there is no more vicious or cruel jailer than ourselves. And that freedom is frightening – it is wild and uncontrolled, and never comes without a price. But that price is well worth paying.

To be honest, it took me a long time to finally enjoy this book. When it came out originally, I was big into super-hero books, and V struck me as just goofy. Why would someone wear such a dumb mask? I thought. And that hat? The cloak is okay, but…. Of course, I knew nothing of Guy Fawkes at the time, so perhaps my ignorance of British history held me back, but still, I was very impatient with it. Also, the art was much rougher and darker than I was used to. The usual four-color palette and clean inks of super-hero comics are not to be found in this book. Instead there are washes of pale purple and yellow and green, with heavy inks and faces full of sorrow and pain.

In other words, it was not what I expected from a comic, and so I gave it a wide berth. And that was probably for the best, since I think that having a better idea of politics and society makes the story that much more interesting. It’s a complex and multi-leveled tale that deserves a thoughtful read, and asks a lot from its reader, and if you expect to get through it without doing some thinking of your own, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

That is, however, the mark of a great work – does it make you think? Does it come back to you later, when you’re watching the news or reading the newspaper? When you see a story about the pervasiveness of security cameras and think, “I wish V were here,” then Alan Moore and David Lloyd have truly done their jobs.

V isn’t the hero we expect from comics. He isn’t the hero we’d necessarily want, either. But a person like V is necessary sometimes – someone who values freedom above all else. Let us hope that we never need him.

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“Noise is relative to the silence preceding it. The more absolute the hush, the more shocking the thunderclap.
Our masters have not heard the people’s voice for generations, Evey… and it is much, much louder than they care to remember.”
– V, V for Vendetta
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V for Vendetta on Wikipedia
V for Vendetta on Wikiquote
V for Vendetta at DC Comics
Alan Moore on Wikipedia
David Lloyd on Wikipedia
V for Vendetta on Amazon.com
Guy Fawkes on Wikipedia

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Filed under Alan Moore, anarchy, comic books, David Lloyd, DC Comics, England, made into movies, murder, politics, terrorism, totalitarianism