Mating, by Norman Rush

I wasn't hugely impressed by this novel of an activist struggling with emotion and revolution in 1980s Namibia. As with Doris Lessing, I found myself not terribly interested in the problems of white people trying to make sense of African society; it feels like it's all about them. I have a feeling I got this after it was highly recommended by someone, but I can't remember who.

2015 Hugo fiction: How bloggers are voting

For three of the last four years, I carried out a survey of how bloggers were planning to vote in the Hugos. Last year this proved a fairly effective methodology, calling Best Novel and Best Short Story correctly and pinging the actual winners as front-runners for Best Novella and Best Novelette. In 2013 two winners were clear and two were missed (including Best Novel). In 2011, however, my survey failed to pick a single winner of the four fiction categories. So this should be taken as a straw poll, necessarily incomplete and this year earlier than usual. There is certain to be a selection bias in that people who feel more strongly are more likely to blog about it; so we have no insight into the preferences of less articulate or invested voters.

Having said that, the results are interesting. In particular, No Award appears to be leading in all the short fiction categories (though not necessarily decisively in every case), and there is no clear single front-runner for Best Novel.

Best Novel: a three-way tieCollapse )

Best Novella: No Award in the leadCollapse )

Best Novelette: No Award just ahead of twoCollapse )

Best Short Story: Totaled chases No AwardCollapse )

I haven't looked at other categories in detail, as the numbers are still fairly few, but it's already clear that 2015 will see No Award do better than any recent years.

Please let me know if I have misrepresented your vote, or misused your preferred online handle, in the list above. And please point me to other lists; if I am able, I hope to do an update post before the voting deadline on 31 July.

(Updated later on 3 July to bring in a few more votes.)
(Updated again on 4 July for two more voters. This post will not be updated again, but I will hope to do another update before the end of voting.)

Tags:

Weekly reading blog

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Killing Ground, by Steve Lyons

Last books finished
Sculptor's Daughter, by Tove Jansson
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong

Next books
Meditations on Middle Earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien
The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson
Halflife, by Mark Michalowski

Links I found interesting for 01-07-2015

June Books

Links I found interesting for 27-06-2015

Weekly reading blog

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong
Sculptor's Daughter, by Tove Jansson

Last books finished
Yesterday's Kin, by Nancy Kress
The seven-per-cent solution; being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D, by Nicholas Meyer
Naked: Tragedies, Comedies and Discoveries. The Journey Continues... by Anneke Wills


Next books
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
The Wind's Twelve Quarters, by Ursula Le Guin

Books acquired in last week
Naked: Tragedies, Comedies and Discoveries. The Journey Continues... by Anneke Wills
An excellent monograph looking at Elizabethan era soldiers fighting English wars, mainly but not only in Ireland. Rapple makes a lot of good points about the way in which the soldiers regarded themselves as something of a caste apart in Elizabethan society, which struck me as in some ways like the military sub-culture of the contemporary USA which we currently read about. His account made a lot more sense of the shifting and uncertain loyalties of the captains - I was previously rather boggled by, for instance, the career of Thomas Stukley, or the precise mechanisms of funding the administration in Dublin and the maintenance of the Elizabethan standing army in Ireland, but I learned a lot from this.

Buried in the middle of the book, Rapple also has a sombre warning to all of us to try not to project our modern sensibilities onto how the widespread violence of the era was experienced and perceived by those on the sharp end of it - not so much because those were different times, but because "each individual's sufferings are, by definition, personal, non-transferable, and, consequently, not open to comparison with any accuracy, although such comparison often has stirring rhetorical effect" - a call to try and refrain from false empathy and engage with humility and compassion, which is sensible in many contexts, and not just for historians of Elizabethan violence.

E Pluribus Hugo, revisited

I've spent more spare time than is healthy over the last few days musing on the proposed new system for counting Hugo nominations, designated E Pluribus Hugo (henceforth EPH) by its designers (to whom detailed observations should be directed here). I am in sympathy with its intent, which is to prevent any group - whoever that group may be - from absolutely excluding nominees from having the chance to be considered for the Hugo Award. I think that the proposal as it currently sits achieves that aim, but at a cost of making it too easy for a group which is otherwise utterly unconnected with Hugo voters to get a single work onto the ballot by "bullet votes" (ie votes for their candidate[s] and no other). I explore this problem below, using data from the 1984 Hugo nomination ballots, and propose a partial solution, which is to use square roots as divisors when weighting nomination votes.

Detail

I'm tremendously grateful to Paul Evans for providing me with the 1984 data he described here. Having spent a couple of evenings crunching figures, I now feel huge sympathy and admiration for the Hugo administrators trying to make sense of the variant titles and spelling submitted by voters. Administering what are essentially thousands of write-in ballots is not exactly straightforward, and I am not sure that I would have the patience to do so in an RL setting myself. Not surprisingly, my tallies vary a bit from Paul's. He has taken more time over it, so his numbers are probably right.

I've picked three different ballot categories from 1984 to analyse mainly because they were relatively easy to process, with less name and category confusion than some of the other options would have presented.

Best Fan WriterCollapse )

Best Non-FictionCollapse )

John W. Campbell AwardCollapse )

Conclusion and recommendation

I hope it's fairly clear that while EPH does, as advertised, make it very difficult for a small set of voters to dominate entire ballot categories, as has happened this year, it also actually lowers the barrier to a small detached group getting their first candidate onto the list. Of course, minorities should not have insurmountable barriers placed in front of them, but for my taste, EPH as presently constructed goes too far the other way. A slate candidate which had fewer nominations than ten more popular candidates could still have got onto the John W Campbell Award ballot. A slate candidate could have knocked the eventual RL winner off the Best Non-Fiction Work ballot despite getting fewer nominations. I don't think that's quite right.

My modest proposal is that the divisor for calculating points should not be the number of candidates supported by a voter, but the square root of that number. Detail and worked examplesCollapse ) That is all.

Tags:

Logan tries to show that the oak tree is Awfully Important to Western Civilisation, and indeed makes a reasonable case for the place of oak in various foundational texts and physical structures of our society. In particular, I liked the points made about the nutritional value of acorn flour (though it's odd that it isn't used more) and the oak structure of Westminster Hall and of early modern sailing ships. There were some odd slips (Burley for Burghley, Wainright for Wainwright) and the naval warfare theme got more than a little sidetracked when it came to the nineteenth century. It's a reasonable effort, though reflecting rather than communicating the author's obsession with the subject.

Of course, he completely omits those civilisations and culture for whom oak was not an option. I'm a little troubled by the nativist resonances of his equating Europe and the Middle East with pre-Columbian North and Central America, and the fact that this particular focus erases Africa and other places where oak doesn't grow. 

I would also have liked to know more about how oak fitted in with other types of wood in the ancient world. It's interesting that Ötzi the iceman carried many different types of wood crafted into tools - none of them oak, as far as I can tell from a quick scan of the websites. Logan's focus on oak, important as it was and is, rather obscures the rest of the forest. 

The Complete Robot, by Isaac Asimov

I think I had read almost all of these before, in one collection or another; this books takes all of the  various stories about robots, most of which feature the Three Laws of Robotics (first mentioned in "Runaround", set on the planet Mercury in 2015) and mostly dating from Asimov's earlier career before he went big into non-fiction leavened by the occasional novel.

And they are pretty dated. I hate the cliché of cute anthropomorphic robots with a deep deep loathing, and Asimov is largely responsible for giving it more literary credibility than it deserves. The Three Laws are essentially a narrative device for Asimov to show how clever he is for inventing them and then for thinking of ways that they can be tested, rather than anything realistically relating to AI as it is likely to develop. Susan Calvin is introduced as a freakishly unfeminine woman, who is nonetheless redeemed in one story by discovering motherhood. The collection climaxes with the abysmal Hugo and Nebula winning "The Bicentennial Man". There are still stories being written in this tradition, but they are tired and clichéd.

In one or two places, Asimov does steer close to allowing the situation of robots to parallel that of people in our world who lack full citizenship. Many of these stories were written at a time when slavery in the United States was still within living memory. But I think the parallel is actually rather offensive.

It's odd to re-read this in the shadow of Puppygate. Presumably this is the kind of good old-fashioned SF that some regret is no longer being written. But the reasons why it is no longer being written this way become obvious when you read this collection.

Links I found interesting for 22-06-2015

18th Birthday

B turned 18 on Friday. Her brother F and I took her on an outing yesterday, starting with tea at the home where she lives, and then a visit to a scientific outdoor site with fossilised trees, finishing at the cafe in the gardens of Hoegaarden (where the beer comes from) where B demolished a plate of cheese blocks, insisting that I dip each one in mustard for her. She clearly loved going to a couple of new places with me and F, and looked around with joyful inquiry at her surroundings. F took this picture at the site with the fossilised trees, which I think captures her slightly quizzical relationship with the world and with us.



B seems very happy where she lives, in a protected apartment with half a dozen other kids, most of whom are at least as disabled as she is. She is always glad to see us when we visit, but never seems too sorry to see us go. She has got over a phase of not really co-operating when we took her out for walks, throwing herself on the ground and refusing to move until a wheelchair was provided (she can walk perfectly well); she doesn't do that so much these days, and I have to say that she was pretty well-behaved in the cafe, casting covetous looks at other customers' orders but resisting the temptation to help herself from neighbouring tables before we were served. I still prefer to have F with me if we are doing any particularly adventurous outing as we did yesterday. (F will turn 16 next month and is now taller than his older sister and his mother, if not yet quite as tall as me.)

Now that B is 18, we have been appointed her legal guardians. This required a court hearing back in February, to which she was brought in person so that the judge could see the situation for himself. (B smiled at us and immediately ate all the biscuits in the room where the hearing was taking place. She was then removed by her carers.) The process in Belgium has recently been changed; until recently people in her situation were ruled to be in a state of "prolonged minority", with the parents or other family members therefore continuing to take responsibility as if she were still a child. The new law is a much more flexible instrument that can apply guardianship to varying degrees for people with physical as well as mental disabilities, and also allows for it to be withdrawn fairly easily if needs change, putting the disabled person herself rather than her family circumstances at the centre of decision-making. This was as a result of guidance from the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and I think it's a humane reform, if a little irrelevant for us (B's needs are unlikely to change, and her condition will not improve). It's still a bit untested; the judge commented that we were the first couple who had applied for joint guardianship in his jurisdiction under the new law. B now also has a vote, which is compulsory in Belgium, though I believe that there is a system in place to get medical exemptions at each election for her and her fellow residents.

Parenthood, eh? You never quite know what you are going to get.

As for the fossilised trees - quite a jewel of a small nature exhibit, stuck in an obscure lane beside the motorway, which I will go back to when I don't have someone with me who requires constant supervision (and perhaps when I do have someone with me who is more interested in the subject). It's extraordinary to look at these trunks, knock on the solid stone that they have become, and consider the 55 million years since they grew in the primeval swamp. We are all temporary phenomena on the surface of the planet, choosing our milestones as best we can.

One of the reactions to this year's Hugo crisis has been the proposal of a tweak to the system for selecting Hugo Award finalists, with the goal of preventing slates from dominating as they did this year - as if you needed reminding, around 15% of voters got a clean sweep of the ballot in half a dozen categories, and would have done better if some of their own candidates had not withdrawn or declined nomination. There are a couple of other minor proposals as well, which I'll comment on at the end, but the big one goes by the name of E Pluribus Hugo (a pun on the Latin phrase e pluribus unum, "out of many, one", found on the Great Seat of the United States). All of the proposed changes to the system can be found on the Sasquan Business Meeting page. The E Pluribus Hugo proposal has been developed and discussed at the Making Light blog, and queries about its functioning should be addressed there rather than to me; that page also links to the extensive discussion from which it emerged.

The process as it is now: At present, the nominating pool of voters for the Hugo Awards consists of paid up members of this year's Worldcon, last year's and next year's, as of the nominations deadline which is usually in March. Each voter can nominate up to five candidates for each of the Hugo categories (and the John W. Campbell Award). Each of those votes counts the same. The votes are tallied, and in principle the top five, together with the No Award option, form the actual ballot (with a couple of wrinkles: if the fourth or fifth-placed works get less than 5% of total nominations, they are omitted; if there's a tie for fifth place, all the tied candidates get on).

The winner of each category is then chosen by transferable vote, the system variously known as instant-runoff voting, Alternative Vote, Australian ballot, or STV for a single seat. Voters list the options in order of preference; first-preference votes are tallied; if none of the candidates has more than half of the first-preference votes, votes are transfferred from the least popular candidates until there is one which does have more than half of the remaining votes. The winner of that count is then checked against No Award, to see which was preferred by more voters, ignoring all other finalists. There is no proposal to change that part of the process, and I personally like it as it is.

What's been proposed: The E Pluribus Hugo proposal retains the current system of inputs at the nominations stage from the voter's perspective. You still get to choose up to five candidates for each category. The difference is that there is a two-stage process. In the first stage, your vote gets split fractionally between your nominees. If you nominate five candidates in a particular category, your have cast 0.2 of a vote for each. If you nominate four, your vote counts for 0.25. If you nominate only one, your vote counts in full.

That is, at the first stage. The proposal then eliminates seriatim all those works which have not got enough support to get on the final ballot, and reallocates their votes as if they had not been nominated. That process continues until there are only enough left to fill the ballot. So if you nominate five books, and three of them are unpopular with other voters, your vote ends up being split with a value of 0.5 each for the other two. What usually happens to me is that I nominate five books, four of which nobody else has heard of, and my vote would then end up completely concentrated on the remaining one. This is obviously too complex to run by hand, so it will need to be done by computer (Hugo voting has anyway been administered by computer for many years).

The envisaged consequence is that if 15% of voters blindly follow the dictates of a slate, and the other 85% smear their votes around a number of other works, the votes of the 85% will end up being concentrated in such a way as to ensure that the slates do not get all five slots. On the other hand, a slate which is supported by 15-20% of voters probably would end up with one or two candidates on the ballot, which is fair enough if they can muster that level of support. They then, as now, have to face the verdict of all other voters, who will also have No Award as an option if they are unimpressed by the ballot as a whole or by individual entries.

So, what do I, as an elections nerd, think?

The proponents of E Pluribus Hugo say that their fundamental principle is that "No group - whoever that group may be - should be able to absolutely prevent nominees from having the chance to be considered for the Hugo Award." Behind this, I think, lies an assumption with which I agree: that the Hugo ballots should resemble a recognisable reflection of the state of the genre in each year. (This was one of the questions asked searchingly of previous years by Jo Walton in her Revisiting the Hugos series of posts on Tor.com. Most years pass the test for her, though some don't.) This year's ballots for most of the fiction categories and several others, notably Best Related Work, are not a recognisable reflection of the state of the genre, and fail that test. The slates have filled them with finalists which are based only in one corner of the field (and also, for the most part, aren't very good, though I'm reluctant to countenance any change that aims to prevent people from nominating rubbish if they want to; I have faith that the voters will sort it out in the end). A wider selection of finalists - including the slate candidates, if they have the support - must be a good thing.

To be honest, I'm not sure that recent slate-free Best Short Story ballots, with fewer than five finalists in three of the last four years, have really managed that reflection of the state of the genre either. What happened in those cases was that the nominations for Best Short Story were so smeared out among a large number of candidates that not enough of them crossed the 5% threshold to produce a full ballot. My instinctive reaction at the time was that the 5% threshold itself should be abolished (which has also been proposed this year as a standalone change), but I can see that this is not satisfactory: it leaves you with nominees on the final ballot who got 20% of the available slots (one of the final five) with only 4.5% of the vote, or less. It's not quite in the territory of the Australian Sports Party, who managed to elect one of the six senators from Western Australia in 2014 with 0.23% of first preference votes, but it's not brilliant either. (The Sports Party's senator was later unseated due to irregularities in the election count.) E Pluribus Hugo will produce a more consensual ballot, comprising finalists which have broader support than simply being the fifth-least obscure of a number of obscure works.

The downside of E Pluribus Hugo is that it does reduce the value of the votes of those who nominate more than one work. At present, if you nominate five candidates, each of them gets a full vote. Under the proposed system, your vote gets full value only when it is cumulated onto the most popular of those candidates. It means that the choice of the candidates who get through to the final ballot will be largely determined by those who nominate a single candidate, and give it enough votes to last to the end of the counting of nominations. I'm a bit sad about this. In previous years, one of the values of the Hugo process for me was that I was able to take recommendations from people better-read than me, and I did feel that it was fair enough that someone with enough knowledge to cast five nominating votes effectively had five times the fire-power of someone who cast only one. But the slates broke that system this year, and I guess we must discard it. Edited to add: I had missed the important point that the elimination process proceeds by pairwise comparison of the works with fewest points, eliminating the work with fewest nominations, which pretty much addresses my concerns.

Why not the Single Transferable Vote? In general, I'm a fan of and evangelist for the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies, for all public elections where more than one person is to be elected. It seems to me to get the best balance possible between voter impact on the result, proportionality of outcome between different political groups, and encouraging accountability from elected representatives. However, I can see that two of those three considerations don't matter much in this case.

Until recently, there were no slates for Hugo nominations, and the designers of E Pluribus Hugo specifically don't want to encourage their formation for future ballots. So it is not advantageous to have a system like STV that rewards political party-like behaviour, if that behaviour is something you want to discourage. Some of the slate-mongers actually do seem to desire a situation where politically oriented slates duke it out through the awards process, to the extent that they claim that this has already been happening for years (though when challenged they can produce no evidence whatsoever for this). I don't want this to happen, and I think that E Pluribus Hugo is better than the present system for discouraging it.

As for accountability, while I wish that some of this year's finalists were behaving in a more dignified or indeed decent way, the fact is that this is a yearly vote for an award, not a choice of public representatives who will carry out the work of one or other branch of government. So there is no point in designing a system that rewards responsiveness from the nominees to the voters as STV does (though equally good behaviour during the process doesn't do them any harm at all).

There's a process issue as well which makes STV unsuitable for this purpose. By definition, it gives your first preference candidate 100% of your vote, unless and until it is transferred. The ranking of candidates is hugely important. For the final stage of the Hugos, that matters; for the nominations stage, which is about assembling a decent ballot rather than electing representatives, it isn't. One would also have to do imaginative things with quotas and the values of surplus votes; while I understand that similar tweaks have been implemented elsewhere without complaint, I think that E Pluribus Hugo scores on transparency and ease of implementation.

What does still matter is maximising voter impact on the result. As I said above, I regret that the voters whose impact is reduced by E Pluribus Hugo are those who nominate several candidates, and those whose impact is increased are those who nominate only one. But I think that the system does mitigate that a bit through the serial cumulation process. (Edited to add: Actually quite a lot, it seems.) Those who have run simulations report that the difference to actual ballots is not very large. What I fear is that the quirky candidate that got a lot of people's fourth or fifth nominating votes will lose out to the popular candidate which the fourth or fifth largest number of voters have heard of. But in fairness, the quirky candidate was unlikely to win the award anyway, and the Hugos are a popularity contest rather than a quirkiness competition.

My conclusions on the various proposals: So with a slightly heavy heart - I regret that small-minded slate-mongers have killed off a large part of the wisdom-of-crowds aspect of the Hugo nominations process - I endorse E Pluribus Hugo as the best fix to prevent slates from dominating the process in future without irreparable damage to the credibility of the awards. Edited to add: I no longer think that a "large" part of the wisdom-of-crowds aspect has been killed off.

Three other proposals for reforming the Hugo process have been submitted to Sasquan. One is to abolish the 5% threshold; as I mentioned above, I agree with this faute de mieux, but E Pluribus Hugo removes the threshold requirement anyway, so I would only support it if E Pluribus Hugo is rejected.

I don't support the proposal to merge two of the short fiction categories and create a "Best Saga" category. The multiple short fiction awards at present reward writers who express their ideas succinctly rather than at big commercial length, and I’m in favour of that. The “Best Saga” proposal doesn’t fix any existing problem but does create new ones - not least of which, who is going to have time to read all the finalists between close of nominations and close of voting?

I do support the "4 and 6" proposal, to restrict voters to a maximum of four nominations rather than five as at present, but to extend the final ballot to include six rather than five finalists. If E Pluribus Hugo is not adopted, the "4 and 6" proposal is a lesser safeguard against slates, in that it becomes much more difficult to marshall your minions to support six slated works if they have only four votes each. And if E Pluribus Hugo is adopted, voters who nominate five candidates will get less value for their nomination than those who nominate four, and so on; the first part of the "4 and 6" proposal seems to me a decent indication to voters that a slightly different nominating strategy is now necessary (even though it's not actually part of E Pluribus Hugo). As for the second part, I do feel that good work is left off the Hugo ballot every year, and while Mike Scott's proposal from April (1, 2, 3) would have designed a certain responsiveness in the system specifically in reaction to the slates, I'd prefer a broader, simpler and less slate-dependent change, and I think that expanding the final ballot to six rather than five does that.

2,000 words later, I'm sorry to say that this is all a bit theoretical, in that I won't be voting on the proposed changes myself. They must be approved by those physically attending the WSFS Business Meeting in Sasquan this summer, and I won't be there; and then they must be ratified by those physically attending the WSFS Business Meeting in MidAmeriCon II next year as well, and it's unlikely that I will be there either. But I hope these observations will be useful to those who are attending and voting at either or both. This is important: a major flaw in the Hugo process (which was known, but rarely exploited) has been used to further a political agenda and to lock 85% of voters out of significant parts of the ballot paper, and it's absolutely appropriate to try and prevent this from happening again.

Good luck, everyone.

Edited to add I had missed the important point that the elimination phase in principle between the two works with fewest points, but is itself decided by the number of nominations. This is fairly clearly explained in the FAQ, but less clearly in the body of the proposal which is what I was concentrating on.

Kyra over at File770 has outlined a case where my scenario could still happen, but I have to admit that it's pretty improbable.

So my major objection to the EPH proposal is substantially mitigated by new information, and I can endorse it more whole-heartedly than before.

Tags:

Thursday Reading (late)

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
The seven-per-cent solution; being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D, by Nicholas Meyer
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong
Yesterday's Kin, by Nancy Kress

Last books finished
Martial Power and Elizabethan Political Culture: Military Men in England and Ireland, 1558-1594, by Rory Rapple
True History/Ἀληθῆ διηγήματα, by Lucian of Samosata
Self-Portrait, by Anneke Wills

Next books
Sculptor's Daughter, by Tove Jansson
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

The Battles of Waterloo

In anticipation of today's anniversary, I read three classic fictional treatments of the Battle of Waterloo, with the intention of writing them up in good time. Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I'm now writing them up on the 2052 Thalys from Paris to Brussels, which will complete the journey in 85 minutes, rather quicker than Napoleon would have managed in 1815 even if he had won. (And finished the post after a drink with a couple of Irish friends who are in town for the re-enactment.)

If it will help you to get in the mood, do play this music while you are reading this post.


It is a lesser known work of Beethoven, combining Rule Britannia, God Save the King (as he then was) and the French military tune Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre (known in English variously as For He's A Jolly Good Fellow and The Bear Came Over The Mountain) along with martial drumbeats and cannon fire. Strictly speaking it celebrates one of Wellington's other victories rather than Waterloo, but it isn't too historically inappropriate, and the 1812 Overture won't do because there was no significant Russian presence.

Sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal, was recommended to me by NATO's Assistant Secretary-General, Jamie Shea as his favourite literary treatment of the battle. I can see what attracts any fan of nineteenth century French literature about the novel, a Bildungsroman of a spoiled aristocratic young man who runs into political and romantic trouble on the Italian/Swiss border in the 1820s. There is a particularly good poetic highwayman, and daring escape from the titular chapterhouse. Those wanting to read about Waterloo won't get the tactical blow by blow account of other writers. Our hero runs away to Belgium to fight for Napoleon at the start of the book, and gets caught up in the battle and its aftermath, experiencing it as an incomprehensible maelstrom of carnage, chaos and petty crime, before returning home a little older and not much wiser. It's probably fairly realistic in terms of the experience of most soldiers in any war, and sets up the central character's naïveté for the rest of the book. It wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Sharpe's Waterloo is the culmination of an eleven-book series of novels about a British officer during the Napoleonic wars. It was recommended to me by Professor Brendan Simms, author of The Longest Afternoon, a factual treatment of the fighting around La Haye Sainte during the battle. I've read two other books by Cornwell, but none of the other Sharpe books, nor have I seen any of the TV series starring Sean Bean (I understand that, unlike some of the other things I've seen him in, he survives to the end). It concentrates very much on the few days leading up to and immediately following the battle, with Sharpe attached to the Prince of Orange, dealing with his own lover, his estranged wife, his arch-enemy (who is his estranged wife's lover), also the incompetence of his superiors, and the little matter of Napoleon's troops. Cornwell gives Sharpe licence to gallop around the battlefield to see what is going on at all stages, and he actually (of course) plays a crucial role in two minor but well-known historical footnotes.

I had expected to enjoy it a bit more than I did. Too many of the characters were fairly flat - the Dutch Prince and the ex-wife's lover are just awful, and there is a story about the Prussian chief of staff, Gneisenau, deliberately delaying Blücher's arrival, which I haven't seen elsewhere. And there was a bit of a sense that after the previous ten books building up to this, Cornwell was himself eagerly anticipating the saga being over (though it did' stop him writing further prequels and sequels). It's no huge surprise that virtue triumphs and evil gets its just desserts, in Sharpe's personal life as well as on the battlefield.

Not being completely satisfied with the recommendations I got from Messrs Shea and Simms, I cast around for another novel dealing with the battle, and came up with Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army. Heyer is of course one of the twentieth century's most prolific and best-known romance novelists, and many people whose opinions I respect hold her in high regard. It's not a genre I know, and I'd never previously read any of her work. I understand that An Infamous Army is fairly standalone in Heyer's historical timeline, with just a few characters shared with other books - the second written of her famous Regency romances.

I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Heyer's focus is on the aristocratic Englishwomen accompanying the British forces to Belgium, and there is of course a central love affair - between two fairly mature characters, a widow and a veteran soldier - to satisfy those who aren't into the military stuff. But I think she does a very good job of portraying the geopolitical situation of Napoleon's return and the uncertainty of where or how the Allies might respond, much better than I have seen elsewhere in fiction, starting from the spring of 1815 and going through to the day after the battle ends. She has her characters go for a picnic to Waterloo in an early chapter, which of course gives her an excuse to set up the topography of the battle without forcing the pace. My only gripes are that while she's very convincing about the battlefield, her Brussels geography feels a bit more wobbly; and I'm also not convinced that the Duke of Wellington and the Duchess of Richmond would have addressed each other as "Duke" and "Duchess" (formally, it should of course be "your Grace"; informally, they would surely have had nicknames for each other).

In particular, this 1937 novel has a conviction about the horror of war that I did not find in Stendhal or Cornwell. The Englishwomen at the centre of the narrative switch from partying to nursing with dismay but also determination. Heyer was born in 1902, and her father fought in the trenches of the first world war; by the time she wrote this, the next global conflict was looming, and it's impossible not to read the shades of Guernica and the foreshadowing of Dunkirk and Nornandy between the lines of her Waterloo. This was my first Heyer novel, but it won't be my last.

Those were the three books I read in the last month. But it would be remiss not to mention three other books and a play that include the Battle of Waterloo, one of which I read decades ago, the others more recently.

Fans of the musical of Les Miserables may be surprised to learn that the Battle of Waterloo occupies an extended flashback in the original novel. The relevance to the plot is that it is on the battlefield, after the fighting is done, that the young future inn-keeper Thenardier loots the dying father of Marius, thus condemning the latter's son to a future of poverty and falling in love with Thenardier's estranged foster daughter Fantine Cosette. It's one of my favourite books, and I will reread it again soon, but the depiction of the battle itself is accurate only in the broadest possible terms with the elements which are crucial for Hugo's story simply invented.

Doctor Who has visited Waterloo twice in spinoff literature. The 2005 novel World Game, published just as the show returned at last to TV, takes the Second Doctor in a brief interlude between his trial and his regeneration on a mission to prevent history from being perverted by the mysterious Players. Terrance Dicks has great fun with melding various bits of leftover continuity, though a couple of the tropes he uses are rather annoying. 

Much more successful is the Sxth Doctor audio The Curse of Davros, which brings together Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor, Terry Molloy's Davros, and lovely audio-only companion Flip (played by Lisa Greenwood) to the battlefield in 1815. Without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that Colin Baker is presented with rather more challenging material than the Sixth Doctor sometimes gets, and rises to it rather well. And  Flip (played by Lisa Greenwood) is lovely. (Did I say that before?)

I think my favourite literary treatment of Waterloo will always remain Thackeray's in Vanity Fair. From the military point of view, it's thoroughly unsatisfactory - the battle mainly takes place off-screen, with the central characters stuck in Brussels waiting to hear the fate of their menfolk. But in terms of capturing the spirit of a bygone age, and how that one day of fighting and mass slaughter marked a turning point both for the history of Europe and for the individual lives touched by it, I think it can't really be improved on; and Georgette Heyer says so too in her introduction to An Infamous Army. If you want to commemorate the battle with a book this weekend, I recommend Thackeray's Becky Sharp rather than Cornwell's Rochard Sharpe.

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