May 16th, 2006


May Books 7) Alternate Generals

7) Alternate Generals, ed. Harry Turtledove (with editorial assistance from Roland Green, and Martin H. Greenberg getting copyright credit)

Collection of alternate history pieces with a military theme. Most of these were pretty unmemorable. "And so - Nelson fought for the French! Napoleon joined the church! Custer lived and was elected president!" If the entire story can be summed up in half a sentence I wonder why I bothered reading the rest.

Three did stand out from the crowd for me. "Billy Mitchell's Overt Act", by William Sanders, and "Vati", by R.M. Meluch, both made the same historical point from opposite directions: they have a brilliant air commander in the second world war whose decisions manage to put his side in a much better tactical position, with, ironically, much worse strategic consequences than in our time-line. An interesting contrast.

The most fun was Lois Tilton's "The Craft of War". The idea is a little more subtle than most: Sun Tzu, exiled from China, is hired by the Persians and helps them conquer Greece. The story is told as a Socratic dialogue between Socrates himself and Alcibiades, and Tilton succeeds in casting the characteristic style of Sun Tzu in Socratic terms. My one regret was that she didn't do much with the acerbic character of Socrates himself, but this was the one story in the book that left me wishing I knew more about the historical background.

The Scalzi affair

Well, my post on Old Man's War pulled in 23 comments, and the related discussion thread on John Scalzi's blog is up to 29, which is something of an Event. My thanks to John Scalzi for engaging with this reader's comments as thoughtfully as he has done, and to (most of) those others who have chipped in.

Obviously, I have had to revisit one of my core assumptions. I completely withdraw my assumption that John Scalzi is a slavering warmonger who does not care about civilian control of the military. I also withdraw my accusation that the character of "Bender" is a deliberate piss-take of former Senator George Mitchell, and accept that the striking similarities between their two careers were not intended.

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May Books 8) Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

8) Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, by Lawrence Durrell

I bought this book for the Cyprus connection, but in fact its application is much more general and less specific. Durrell moved to Cyprus in 1953, and left after the outbreak of the EOKA campaign in 1956, and the book is a heartfelt chronicle of how the innocence of a beautiful country was destroyed by violence.

Up to now, I knew of Lawrence Durrell mainly from the odd mention in his brother Gerald's lovely books about collecting animals, which I was addicted to in my early teens. I did try reading the Alexandria Quartet once, but bounced off it. Maybe I should try again. (Gerald does turn up, complete with animals, for a couple of cameo appearances in Bitter Lemons, somewhat to Lawrence's embarrassment: he has curried favour with the neighbours by telling them that his brother died fighting for the Greek army in the second world war.)

I was struck after reading Bitter Lemons by the thought that one can imagine other such books being written about Northern Ireland in, say 1965-1972, or Bosnia in 1989-1993, but I don't think any other conflict has benefited from a first-hand witness of such literary talents who happened to be on the spot, actually working as the press spokesman for the occupying colonial power, before and during that very brief period of time when the shit really hit the fan.

Having said that, I couldn't recommend this book as essential reading about the Cyprus conflict today. It was published in 1957, while Archbishop Makarios was still in exile, and the Zurich and London Agreements were still two years in the future. It is very interesting on Cyprus itself, and on communal relations as they were at one point in time. He does mention that his assistant, Achilles Papadopoulos, has a smart and successful younger brother... no, presumably it is not the guy's real name.

The village of Bellapais and nearby town of Kyrenia, both beautifully and lyrically portrayed in the first half of the book, are both still beautiful but were ethnically cleansed in 1974; they are standard stops on the one-day-tour of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus that many people do starting from the Green Line in Nicosia. To be honest Durrell's sweeping generalisations about the Cypriots and the Greeks are rather annoying, if typical of the attitudes of the time. If he had concentrated on the individual characters, or distanced himself a bit from the prejudices expressed, it would have been a more pleasant read.

The book hit its stride for me in the chapter "A Telling of Omens", when a visiting Greek friend warns Durrell (to the latter's deep scepticism) that there is trouble ahead. Durrell's initial doubts are turned around by, well, pretty much every Cypriot he talks to, and he finds himself in the position of trying to persuade his colleagues in the colonial administration to adopt a sensible policy - indeed to adopt any policy at all. I found myself nodding in sympathy at this paragraph, at almost exactly the middle of the book:
Moreover at this time I felt that perhaps such errors as there were might lie in assessing the situation on the spot, in lack of adequate reporting on it. I had no means of knowing what sort of liaison the Government maintained with London, but I knew that in the field their information was largely based on reports from their own departmental officers which, while factually accurate, lacked political pith and the sort of interpretations which are essential if high-level dispatches are to be what they should be - namely guides to action.
Yes, I thought as I read those words, that is precisely what I try and do all day - to make up for that inevitable lack of challenging, actionable information within government bureaucracies. Of course, by the time Durrell does get his face-to-face meeting with the Colonial Secretary, it is too late and the cycle of violence is well and truly established. Also it is sadly clear that he was advocating only the replacement of the prejudices of the colonial administration by the prejudices of the traditional pro-Greek views of the British establishment (though, in fairness, a) this would have been an improvement and b) the resulting policy debate could even have led to further progress before it was too late). In addition his repeated assertion of the unquestionable right of Britain to rule Cyprus indefinitely seems very peculiar now, given that the island became independent only three years after the book was published. He condemns the British most, though does not spare the Cypriots or the Greek government of the day. I've heard Greeks blame their own government first and foremost. I don't know.

However, as a portrayal of how stupid and evil policies can destroy the peace of a society, despite the warnings of those who know and care about it, there can't be many better accounts than this.