books

Thursday reading

Current
The Complete Secret Army: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Classic TV Drama Series by Andy Priestner
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
The Nightmare Stacks, by Charles Stross
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

Last books finished
Roger of Hereford’s Judicial Astrology: England’s First Astrology Book?, by Chris Mitchell
The Accident, by Ismail Kadarë
Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime 1: Breaking the Strain, by Paul Preuss

Next books
The Queen's Spymaster, by John Cooper
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry
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The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The troopship was a converted “cattlewagon” made to carry two hundred colonists and assorted bushes and beasts. Don’t think it was roomy, though, just because there were half that many of us. Most of the excess space was taken up with extra reaction mass and ordnance.
When I last read this in 2003, I wrote (WARNING - SPOILERS):
William Mandella is a physics graduate, drafted in the year 1997 to fight an interstellar war against the unknown Tauran enemy. Because the battlefields themselves are light-years away, Mandella spends most of the book slipping forward into the future thanks to time dilation, and thus becoming progressively more alienated from the society which he was recruited to serve. But he falls in love with a fellow soldier (the army of 1997 and later years being gender-balanced) and despite all obstacles they get back together. The book ends with a birth announcement from the happy couple - a narrative closure which is also used by Mary Gentle at the end of her medieval fantasy war novel, Ash: A Secret History.

The sequences portraying life as a soldier, in training or in a combat situation, are gripping and unforgettable. Haldeman has put a lot of his experiences as an actual soldier in the Vietnam war into the book. William is his own middle name, and Mandella almost an anagram of Haldeman (see his interview with Spaced Out, the Australian gay and lesbian sf club). Mandella's lover has Haldeman's wife's maiden name, Marygay Potter. The two colossal strengths of the book are the portrayal of the psychological experience of combat, and the depiction of the progressive alienation of the soldiers from the rest of humanity, culminating in the awful revelation that the war was basically a mistake.

As a civilian veteran of Balkan and Irish conflicts myself, I'm not unfamiliar with the psychological effects of war on the participants, and Haldeman gets it right. In a sense the protagonists of The Forever War are relatively fortunate in that there seem to be very few civilian casualties directly resulting from the conflict. Not that they see it that way, as the casualty rate among military participants is huge, and our hero gains rapid promotion merely for staying alive (though as a highly intelligent graduate he must have been officer material anyway). (Brandon Ray subsequently pointed out on rec.arts.sf.written that this isn't necessarily so, since all the recruits were enlisted by the Elite Conscription Act.)

The military stuff seemed well thought out. I particularly liked the gimmick of the stasis field, within with electricity doesn't work so our soldiers have to resort to edged weapons. The science behind it may well be rubbish but the military implications were sensibly developed. (And anyone who doubts that the military could possibly jump at shadows to such an extent as to wage war against an enemy that wasn't in fact an enemy should consider such recent events as the US military's hysterical reaction to the International Criminal Court and its bizarre fixation with National Missile Defense, a project that will cost vast amounts of money to defend against a threat that is vanishingly unlikely to transpire.)

However despite the undeniable power of the core message of the book, much of the packaging is flawed. The book begins in a world where interstellar space travel has been developed by 1997, which now seems optimistically premature to the 21st century reader. The first edition, which actually won the Hugo and Nebula awards, features a section set in a future Geneva where the UN is now based - a Geneva where the local population has suddenly started speaking German! And although there may some day be a gender-balanced army which tolerates soft drug use, encourages other ranks to say "Fuck you, Sir!" to officers, and enforces (hetero)sexual activity among its recruits, this seems as unlikely now as it must have done in 1975.

The book's biggest problem - and this has often been acknowledged by Haldeman - is its handling of sexuality. In a year when Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, and Robert Silverberg's The Stochastic Man were pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of sex in science fiction, The Forever War's take on the issue seems rather unimaginative. The 1997 army enforces one-on-one heterosexual activity, with daily rotation of partners, among its personnel, none of whom appear to be particularly upset by this. A few decades later, the entire world has become homosexual as a means of population control, which seems rather disproportionate. Mandella sticks to his heterosexual guns, and does not appear in the least tempted to try it the other way (unlike the hero of Frederik Pohl's Gateway which also won both Hugo and Nebula, two years later).

And the ending, where our hero retrieves his lost love while the rest of the human race has surrendered its identity to a race of bisexual telepathic clones, seemed to me on first reading simply silly. I may be being unfair to the author here. Haldeman retorts in the introduction to "A Separate War", in the Robert Silverberg-edited collection Far Horizons, that:
The Forever War does not have a happy ending. Marygay and William do get back together - the book ends with the birth announcement of their first child - but they're together on a prison planet, preserved as genetic curiosities in a universe where the human race has abandoned its humanity in a monstrous liaison with its former enemy.
That's all very well as an explanation (twenty years on) of what was in the author's mind when he wrote it, but it doesn't really come across on the printed page of the book where the happy ending appears to be the point of the narrative. And it isn't sufficient, to this reader anyway, to justify the proliferation of homosexuality followed by the telepathic clones as a part of the metaphor for the alienation of Mandella from the rest of the human race; by today's standards this is either naive or offensive.

To an extent we should forgive the book its anachronisms; we still enjoy Shakespeare's Julius Caesar even though his depiction of Roman life (with clocks, hats and doublets) is rather different from ours. The flaws are real, but the passion is real as well. The Forever War is not a timeless classic, but it is a classic of its own time, and will no doubt continue to be read for its passion rather than its predictive accuracy. And after all, sf would be a very boring (and small) genre if it was actually rated on its ability to predict the future!
I can't find whether the novel was published before or after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, but the experience of the Vietnam War of course crucially informed the Zeitgeist. I have to say that going back to it now, I found the book’s take on gender and sexuality so far off kilter that it is difficult to see past that to the intended core message on the dehumanising effects of conflict. I guess we are all better educated about sexual consent now, and while the army’s enforcement of sexual behaviour among the troops may be meant to satirically highlight the pointlessness of trying to enforce sexual abstinence, it completely misses the mark. And it's impossible to ignore that the first step that the human race takes away from "normal" humanity is to become almost entirely homosexual. What message does that send to the LGBT community about the story's view of their humanity? I don’t think I could recommend this to anyone starting to read SF in 2020. But if you want, you can get it here.

Three of the other novels on the 1975 Hugo final ballot were also on the Nebula final ballot that year. They were Doorways in the Sand, by Roger Zelazny; The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester; and The Stochastic Man, by Robert Silverberg. I have read all three and frankly I like all three better than The Forever War, though all have their flaws and I'm not sure how I would have voted. The other Hugo finalist was Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which I have not read.

The (long) 1974 Nebula ballot included another five that I have read, The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany; The Female Man, by Joanna Russ; Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino; and Missing Man, by Katherine MacLean; and nine that I haven't, A Midsummer Tempest, by Poul Anderson; A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, by Michael Bishop; The Heritage of Hastur, by Marion Zimmer Bradley; Autumn Angels, by Arthur Byron Cover; Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow; The Birthgrave, by Tanith Lee; Guernica Night, by Barry N. Malzberg; The Exile Waiting, by Vonda N. McIntyre; and The Embedding, by Ian Watson. In retrospect it seems a real error to have overlooked The Female Man.

As previously noted, the Hugo and Nebula voters concurred in two of the other three fiction categories. "Home Is the Hangman" by Roger Zelazny won both Best Novella awards, and "Catch that Zeppelin!" by Fritz Leiber won Best Short Story. The Hugo for Best Novelette went to "The Borderland of Sol" by Larry Niven, and the Nebula to "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" by Tom Reamy.

Going forward in my reviews of works that won both Hugo and Nebula, I think I'll take it a year at a time rather than a work at a time. So the next entry in this series will feature two rather different stories, "The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr., which both won awards presented in 1977 for work of 1976.
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A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003, by P. E. Winter

Second paragraph of third chapter:
One problem with our donors was that several of them were not only financiers of the process but also had interests in its outcome, whether those were pressures from past and potential investors in the DRC or concerns about the cost and availability of suitable troops to deploy as peace-keepers. Thus three of them, the USA, France and the UK, were permanent members of the Security Council and one, Belgium was the former colonial power. Within the EU, our largest donor for the first two years, some officials clearly felt it should have more say in the process. As South Africa later assumed a more prominent role, voices were raised to claim that South Africa was not entirely disinterested either: their mining companies could profit greatly from the Congo's minerals. Such pressures are of course a reality of peace-making within the framework available today. While we were resisting external suggestions which we did not feel were consistent with our brief, we were also clearly failing to inspire confidence.
Philip Winter is one of the most interesting people I have ever worked with. During my Independent Diplomat days, he was our representative in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, from late 2010, just before the independence referendum, until it all went wrong at the end of 2013. While we were colleagues he kindly presented me with a copy of this book, which was published in 2012 but written several years before. Shamefully, I have only now got around to reading it. It was worth the wait.

The Inter-Congolese Dialogue doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, though there is one for the peace agreement with which it ended. As part of the process of winding down the awful Second Congo War, in which millions lost their lives through violence and related factors, the Congolese regime of Laurent-Désiré Kabila agreed reluctantly to find a joint government structure along with the groups that it had been fighting. Kabila himself then did his best to prevent the dialogue process from getting started, but was assassinated by his own guards early in 2001. His son Joseph, then aged 29, was rapidly chosen as his successor and engaged sufficiently for the factions to find a solution acceptable to most of the parties (and eventually accepted by all of them) in April 2002. Philip Winter was hired by the British government to work as chief of staff to the facilitator of the process, the former President of Botswana Sir Ketumile Masire, and tells the inside story of a mission which initially a lot of players did not want or did not understand, and which eventually came to be the focal point of international diplomacy in the whole of southern Africa.

It's a personal account which barely scrapes the surface of the actual content of the agreement, and assumes that the reader already has significant background knowledge of the Congo conflict (which I did, mainly thanks to the work of another former colleague from those days, Gérard Prunier). However, it is a very good account of the inside workings of the process, taking very much the anthropological perspective that I find sympathetic - diplomacy revolves as much around personalities and pressure from above and below as it does on the actual substance. There are effective, brief pen-portraits of the team led by Sir Ketumile Masire (QM to his friends) and some of the other protagonists as well. One interesting aspect is that QM and most of his team (and most of the other relevant African leaders) were anglophone, while the parties to the conflict were mostly francophone. Various means were found to get around this, including that Philip's own French is good enough for diplomatic work.

The story has a conclusion, in that the parties do reach the Sun City Agreement, but not an ending, as the implementation of the agreement was far from unproblematic and lower-level armed conflict continues to rumble on. There are some very important insights. Reaching an agreement was not inevitable, and there were several moments when the whole thing appeared to be about to crash - an important factor often being the international community hinting at a lack of faith in QM personally. The mediators pushed as hard as they could for greater inclusion of women in the process, but they could not push very hard and the results on that score were meagre. Philip goes into the reasons for the successes in some detail - basically, very careful preparation for the few key meetings that took place, the first of which was in Gaborone in August 2001, a continued emphasis on African and Congolese ownership, and constant transparency and clarity with the one set of stakeholders who really mattered, the parties to the conflict.

I twitched when several other people who I know personally popped up in the narrative - François Grignon, who was a colleague of mine at the International Crisis Group and is now the UN Deputy Representative in DR Congo; Claudia Wiedey-Nippold, now a senior Africanist in the EU External Action Service; Annemie Neyts, now retired but then a Belgian government minister. There is a lovely moment near the end where Philip introduces the rest of his team, most of whom were from Botswana, to the Alexander McCall Smith novels of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The Batswana really got into them, and actually took a break from diplomacy one afternoon to go and hear McCall Smith do a reading.

It reminded me of another book by another former colleague, Collision Course, John Norris's account of the US negotiations over the Kosovo peace agreement in 1999. There are important differences. Not least, A Sacred Cause covers a longer period of time (three years rather than three months). Philip puts himself in the picture more than John. But he is also painting a wider picture - where John was working for one of the belligerents (the USA), Philip was in a sense working for them all. A really interesting read. You can get it here.

This was the last unread book on my shelves acquired in 2012. (I read the last book acquired in 2011 last October, the last book acquired in 2010 in January last year, and the last book acquired in 2009 at the end of 2016.) This opens up my 2013 lists: Yugoslavia's Implosion, by Sonja Biserko (non-fiction in order of acquisition), Local Hero, by David Benedictus (shortest unread book acquired in 2013), The Ghost of Lily Painter, by Caitlin Davies (non-genre fiction in order of acquisition), Heaven's War, by David S Goyer (sf in oder of acquisition) and Laatste Schooldag: Verhalen, by J. G Siebelink (most popular unread book acquired in 2013).
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June 2006 books

The big family event of June 2006 was my great-aunt’s 90th birthday. Here she is with her four children (the four on the left, with her sister-in-law) and her eight nieces and nephews, including my mother (whose face is unfortunately obscured). Three of the people in the picture are sadly no longer with us, but my great-aunt is still going strong and expects to turn 104 next month. (Picture taken by my sister.)

Two of the pictures from my own camera show the guest of honour and the youngest guest, young F, and me with my siblings.
Fergal and Aunt Joan on the lawn
Whyte Siblings 1


The other family birthday that month was B’s ninth. The big present was a crocodile-shaped water sprinkler, which all three children hugely enjoyed.

Here is a rare video (well, compilation of several short videos) of the three kids together, B just 9, F about to turn 7 and U at 3½:

Apart from that, I see I went to the Tun on 1 June so must have been in London, was in Thessalonica for a meeting with the SEERC later in the month, attended a Wilton Park conference, and seem to have ended the month with a visit to Paris. At work we published a report on the Preševo Valley of Southern Serbia. My Greek intern K was replaced by Macedonian E. (They both now work for the European Commission.) And I wrote what turned out to be the last of my mega-meta-reviews of that year’s Hugo finalists. (It wasn’t possible the following year, for reasons which will become clear, and by 2008 other channels had taken over.) This was also the month that I started really getting into the Big Finish Doctor Who audios.

June 2006 books

non-fiction 6 (YTD 27)
Lords of Parliament: Manners, rituals and politics, by Emma Crewe
The Story of the Salonica Army, by G. Ward Price
The Television Companion: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who, by David J Howe and Stephen James Walker
The Triumph of the West, by J.R. Roberts
The New Macedonian Question, ed. James Pettifer
The Gardeners of Salonika, by Alan Palmer

non-genre 1 (YTD 7)
See Delphi and Die, by Lindsey Davis

sf (non-Who) 6 (YTD 32)
Impossible Stories, by Zoran Živković
The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy
Duel in Nightmare Worlds, by "B. Flackes" (W.D. Flackes)
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
Foundation and Empire, by Isaac Asimov
Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov


Doctor Who 3 (YTD 6)
Managra, by Stephen Marley
I Am A Dalek, by Gareth Roberts
Timewyrm: Genesys, by John Peel

4,700 pages (YTD 23,300)
3/16 by women (YTD 11/73)
none by PoC (YTD 3/73)

The two really good ones here are Zoran Živković's collection of short stories, which you can get here, and Emma Crewe's anthropological stody of the House of Lords, which you can get here. I found The Triumph of the West pretty pointless, but you can get it here.

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The Godfather: film and novel

The Godfather won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1972, and picked up another two - Best Actor, which was declined by Marlon Brando in protest at the treatment of Native Americans at Wounded Knee (and elsewhere); and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. James Caan, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret. There were three other categories where The Godfather lost to Cabaret, which still holds the record for the most Oscars for any film that did not also win Best Picture.


The other Best Picture nominees were Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants and Sounder; Cabaret is the only other of the nominees that I've seen. 1972 is not a good year for my cinematic education; I am pretty sure that the only other two films I've seen from that year are Slaughterhouse-Five (which I'll get to next, as it won the Hugo) and the very odd Lee Marvin/Sissy Spacek film Prime Cut. I'd rate The Godfather as the best of them, though Cabaret is also very good. IMDB users also rank it top film of 1972 on both rankings.

Here's a trailer.

We are in the middle of a crime wave at the Oscars at the moment, having just had The French Connection, Midnight Cowboy, Oliver! and arguably A Man for All Seasons, with The Sting and The Godfather II coming next. It's the story of Vito Corleone, boss of a massive organised crime network, and his son Michael who eventually takes over the family business. There is an awful lot of graphic violence. It's another story about white men. But it's really well told - I am struck by just how different I found it to Patton, made by the same director only two years before - and I'm putting it in the top third of my list, just below Oliver! but ahead of Ben-Hur. I had seen it once before, but I enjoyed the return visit.

The major returning actor from a previous Oscar winner is Brando himself, who also won Best Actor eighteen years ago for the lead role in On the Waterfront. Here he is iconically and convincgly made up to look like a Mafia grandfather and godfather. (The actors playing his sons are between six and sixteen years younger than him.)



Another returnee from On the Waterfront is Rudy Bond, who is Cuneo here (one of the other Mafia dons), and played Moose (one of the longshoremen) in the earlier film.


Sonny Grosso, whose story was the basis for last year's The French Connection and also appeared in it, plays to type again and is a briefly seen New York cop, but not seen clearly enough for me to put a picture here. And we have an actor from a Hugo-winning film, Sterling Hayden who is Captain McCluskey here and was General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove.


There are also a fair number of actors here who we will see again in future Oscar-winning films - not least (but not only) because the sequel comes up in two years' time.

This is yet another film about white men, as was Patton. I was feeling ill the day I watched it, so I did not keep track as closely as usual, but I don't think that there were many visible non-white faces and I don't think there were any non-white speaking parts. To an extent the Italians and Jews, and even perhaps the Irish, are to be understood as non-Anglo-Saxons, but it's not quite the same thing. Going back for another look, I did spot the stable hand who shows off the unfortunate Sultan.

The women are entirely present in terms of their relations with the men - the film obviously passes Bechdel One, in that there is more than one named female character, but I am not sure that it hits Bechdel Two (do any of them have an audible conversation with each other?) and definitely not Bechdel Three (the conversation is not about a man). Having said that, Michael's two wives are both pretty memorable. Simonetta Stefanelli absolutely glows in her few scenes as Apollonia, and Diane Keaton's Kay is sort of an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint character (we will of course see her again soon).


And yet, it's a really well put together film. The plot is complex, with a lot of characters running around shooting each other, mostly in New York but also farther west and in Italy, but I found no difficulty whatsoever in keeping track of it all. The script is lucid and the cinematography adds to the story without distracting from it. "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" is an unforgettable line (used in several variations). The acting nominations were all well deserved - Brando as the title charcter, Al Pacino and James Caan as his sons Michael and Sonny, and Robert Duvall as the conigliere Tom Hagen. Brando in particular carries his character's extra years effortlessly.




And the music is just tremendous. Here's a vid with the orchestral suite (including most of the good bits) set to some of the Sicilian scenes from the film:

Despite its flaws, I think this is a better film than Cabaret - the characters have more depth, there is more going on and the story is told better - and it deserved the Oscar that year. You can get it here.

Next up: The Sting.

I had also read the book long ago, and went back to it for comparative purposes. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
It was a short ride, not more than twenty minutes and when they got out of the car Hagen could not recognize the neighborhood because darkness had fallen. They led him into a basement apartment and made him sit on a straight-backed kitchen chair. Sollozzo sat across the kitchen table from him. His dark face had a peculiarly vulturine look.
The book is a cracking good read. The film sticks pretty closely to the parts of the original story that it wants to tell, but there are two significant (and enjoyable) sections that are not in the film - the adventures of Johnny Fontane in Hollywood, and the back story of Vito Corleone in Sicily and his early years in New York (though I think the latter thread informs the Robert de Niro sections of the sequel film). The book has space to go a bit deeper into the political economy of organised crime, in particular the role played (or not) by the police. It's also a bit better on the women characters (though this is not saying a lot), and has much more explicit sex than I remembered from reading it as a teenager. I can't pretend that it's a very deep read, but it's a very interesting juxtaposition with last year's The French Connection which also looked at organised crime in New York, from a rather different perspective. You can get it here.


1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
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