Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (supplementum minimus)

Send Three And Fourpence, We’re Going To A Dance

I spent almost all of this month reading the four very large and very thick books that make up Simon Scarrow’s Revolution Quartet. Scarrow is perhaps best known for an open ended series of pot boilers about a pair of Roman legionaries called Macro and Cato. But the Revolution Quartet is his masterpiece and it is certainly what he will be remembered for. The books follow the lives and careers of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington from the moment of their birth to their final confrontation on the battlefield of Waterloo.

Both men had long and complex lives and so it isn’t surprising that these are long and complex books. Both men were also military geniuses so again it isn’t surprising that the books contain many descriptions of battlefield triumphs, but I often found myself skipping these in order to get back to the good bits. There are only so many ways that you can describe what happens when cannon balls hit massed infantry ranks before you start to repeat yourself. Furthermore, despite the fact that I have wargamed many of the decisive battles of the era, and therefore I have a fair degree of familiarity with what Scarrow describes on the page, I nevertheless found that his accounts of the military manoeuvrings were often quite opaque.

The great strength of these novels lies in Scarrow’s masterly development of the characters of the two men as they were moulded by their experiences of war and revolution. I was particularly taken with the revolutionary rhetoric the Jacobins used to justify their actions. It all sounded horribly familiar to ears that have been on the receiving end of far too much twentieth century propaganda! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Scarrow brings the complex politics of the time vividly to life and the ever-changing alliances that massed themselves against Napoleon are never confusing (though I found them utterly bewildering when I studied the period in history lessons at school).

Wellington made his military reputation in India, leading his troops in several decisive battles at the end of which much of the country was mildly surprised to find itself almost completely under the control of the British. I knew nothing at all about this part of his life and I was quite fascinated by Scarrow’s depiction of it.

As part of the international campaign against Napoleon, Wellington spent some considerable time fighting his way backwards and forwards and backwards again across the Iberian peninsula. Wellington was the ultimate master of the tactical retreat! The Iberian campaign forced Napoleon to divide his forces and fight his battles on two fronts, something which ultimately led to his defeat (his was not the first army to be defeated by fighting on multiple fronts, and it would not be the last). We studied Wellington’s Peninsula campaign at school and I was quite surprised at how many of those long-forgotten history lessons bubbled up from the murky depths of my mind as I read about this part of Wellington’s life.

Some of the things that Scarrow tells us are, perhaps, rather too good to be true. For example, we learn that that Wellington’s famous reverse-slope tactic, which he used time and time again with such devastating effect in his campaigns, was developed in his childhood when he played with toy soldiers in the nursery with his siblings. That’s a nice story, but I’m not sure that I believe it.

I’m also rather surprised at some of the things that Scarrow chose to miss out. For example, the campaign plan for the battle of Waterloo required the Prussians under General Blucher to reinforce Wellington’s army. However the Prussians had been soundly trounced in the early stages of the campaign and they had retreated in some disarray to lick their wounds. As a result, Napoleon was convinced that the Prussians were no longer a force to be reckoned with, so he turned his attention to the British army at Waterloo expecting to defeat Wellington by sheer force of numbers. For a time, it seemed that he might succeed. Wellington was definitely losing the battle. But then, much to Napoleon’s surprise, the Prussians turned up in the nick of time and saved the day for Wellington. Despite their earlier resounding defeat, Blucher had managed to rally his men and march them back to battle.

The secret of Blucher’s success in this enterprise lay in the fact that he was really quite mad. He had, shall we say, a rather unique view of his place in the world. His principal obsession was that the rather substantial paunch which he carried so proudly before him was the result of his being made pregnant by an elephant. This was not his only idiosyncrasy…

And so, because Blucher simply didn’t see the world as others saw it, he refused to admit defeat after his earlier beating and therefore he was able to be there to support Wellington when Wellington really, really needed him. Quite rightly, Scarrow makes much of the Prussian forces arriving on the battlefield, but he makes no mention at all of Blucher’s unorthodox pregnancy which was the direct cause of Blucher arriving in such a timely fashion. I think that’s a shame because it’s really rather a good story!

While I was reading these books I made the interesting discovery that the marvellous 1970 movie Waterloo was available for viewing on youtube, so naturally I had to watch it. Rod Steiger gave the performance of his life as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer was not far behind him as Wellington. It proved to be the perfect complement to Scarrow’s account of the battle.

All in all, despite their flaws, I found these books to be quite unputdownable (if that’s a word, my spelling checker insists that it isn’t) and I recommend them highly.

In between reading Simon Scarrow’s novels, I played with my new toy – a smart watch that sits elegantly on my wrist and talks to my phone through the magic of bluetooth. To be honest, it’s an utterly ridiculous and useless device – it doesn’t do anything that my phone doesn’t do. Indeed, a substantial amount of what it does do comes from its ability to access functions on my phone and report the results back to me. So apart from the fact that it looks incredibly cool and futuristic (come back Dick Tracy, all is forgiven) there really isn’t a lot of point to it. Its only minor advantage is that I don’t have to to go through the time-consuming and tedious actions of opening up and unlocking my phone whenever I want to check the time, read (or send) a text message, answer (or make) a phone call or check how many steps I’ve taken so far today.

The sheer pointlessness of the stupid thing is exemplified by the fact that it actually has a setting which, should I choose to activate it, will turn off all its features, leaving only the ability to tell the time! The surreality of being able to turn a smart watch into a dumb watch never ceases to amaze me.

Nevertheless, I love it to bits and I wouldn’t be without it.

I can’t go a whole month without reading something science fictional, so after my surfeit of Napoleon and Wellington I decided to treat myself to Heinlein’s Children by Joseph T. Major. It says on the box that the book is a critical analysis of Robert Heinlein’s so-called juvenile novels which many people, myself included, think are the best things that he ever wrote. I was very much looking forward to reading the book, hoping for new insights. But actually I found it quite disappointing. To be honest, I really can’t see why Mr Major even bothered to write the book in the first place. He seems to dislike all the novels and he positively loathes the man who wrote them. Writing it certainly wasn’t a labour of love, it was much more a labour of hate.

The book is very thick and substantial but this is mainly because Major insists on giving rather ploddingly detailed scene by scene descriptions of absolutely everything that happens in each of the novels. This seems to me to be more than a little self defeating. After all, if you’ve read the novels you’ve already had a very detailed scene by scene description presented to you – and presented far more entertainingly than Joseph T. Major manages to achieve with his own ponderous prose. Why should you have to sit through it all again? And if you haven’t read the novels why would you even bother to read Major’s book in the first place? You’d have no motive. And, on the gripping hand, if you haven’t read the novels but you choose to read Major’s book anyway, you’ll find nothing but massive spoilers on every page and so there won’t be any point in reading the novels afterwards…  It all seems about as pointless as my smart watch, without the coolness factor to compensate for it.

Of course, if we strip out all of the scene by scene descriptions, what’s left over would barely be large enough to swat a fly with and that would never do in this day and age of massive brick-like tomes, would it?

Every so often, Major interrupts his tedious scene by scene descriptions to make some sort of snide remark about how dumb the characters are being or how stupid Heinlein’s assumptions about the scene are. The criticism, such as it is, is invariably shallow and often only vaguely relevant.

Here’s a good example. In Red Planet, Frank and Jim are lost in the Martian desert. Frank is quite weak and does not have the strength to climb up the sand dunes, but Jim wants to clamber up in order to get a fix on the canal which (they hope) they are heading towards. So of course they become separated now and then. Having described the situation, Major then tells us that:

Major Ralph Bagnold of the Royal Signals...had spent most of the 1930s developing methods to travel in the desert, including how to drive up sand dunes without becoming bogged down, and how to prepare for a breakdown and walk to safety, albeit not over iron-oxide sand or to artificial canals. His work first resulted in a paper on "The Physics of Sand Dunes" that earned him membership in the Royal Society; then it brought him the command of the Sahara Desert travelling reconnaissance unit the Long Range Desert Group.

Although Major doesn’t say it explicitly, it is quite obvious that he thinks Frank and Jim are being more than a little silly in not following the advice of Major Bagnold. I’m not sure how Frank and Jim (or, more literally, Heinlein himself) are supposed to have known about this rather obscure scientific paper but even if they did, I don’t think it would have done much to help the scenario. Quite the reverse, in fact. If Frank and Jim had used the Bagnold technique, a tense and exciting scene would have become rather dull and pedestrian because all the drama would have been leached out if it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to sacrifice drama for accuracy, particularly when the accuracy depends on facts as obscure as this one is.

Intrigued by Major’s aside, I looked Ralph Bagnold up. His Wikipedia entry says:

...his work has been used by [the] United States' space agency NASA in its study of the terrain of the planet Mars, the Bagnold Dunes on Mars' surface being named after him by the organization.

Clearly Heinlein should have read Major Bagnold’s Wikipedia page before sitting down to write Red Planet. The novel would have been so much more accurate (and nowhere near as much fun) if he had, and who cares that Wikipedia was at least fifty years in Heinlein’s future when he rolled the first page of the novel around the platen of his typewriter. He should have waited…

Feeling aggrieved, and desperately in need of a science fictional fix, I decided to re-read Coyote by Allen Steele. I hadn’t read it since it was first published in 2002 and I had only the vaguest memories of it, but I did seem to remember enjoying it. Fortunately my memory was accurate. I enjoyed it all over again and I was intrigued to find that the passage of time had given the book a whole new significance that it hadn’t had (and couldn’t have had) in 2002…

The novel is a fix up cobbled together from several stories that Steele published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

In the year 2070, the United Republic of America, an authoritarian conservative regime that took control after the second revolution, has built its first starship: the URSS Alabama. The plan is to take the revolution to the stars and colonise another world, a world they call Coyote. Unfortunately for the government,  a group of conspirators have a plan to steal the Alabama from them. The conspirators are political dissidents who are are strongly opposed to the doctrines of the United Republic of America. They see the colonisation of a new world as an opportunity to start again with a clean slate. Unfortunately some of the colonists carried by the ship are not part of the conspiracy and are still supporters of the republic, so there remains a degree of political opposition to the direction that the new colony takes.

The novel is an interesting combination of traditional SF (fly to a new planet and explore it) and modern SF (what are the implications of taking various social and political theories to new worlds). The mixing of these themes is surprisingly effective and the novel works well on every level.

Re-reading the novel now, in 2021, after the government of Donald Trump has come and gone, I can’t help noticing just how closely the American government of Allen Steele’s story resembles the society that Trump tried so hard to implement. The attempted coup of 6th January 2021 is definitely a contender for the second revolution mentioned in Steele’s novel, and if it  had succeeded, the resulting government might well have been not completely indistinguishable from the United Republic of America…

Trump, of course, wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s political eye in 2002 when the novel was published so it’s hard to say how much of Allen Steele’s insight was deliberate political extrapolation and how much of it was just a professional and extremely competent novelist making up a convincing bit of scene setting out of whole cloth. The writing was certainly on the wall back then, but I suspect that it can really only be read clearly with the eyes of hindsight. So do we assume that Allen Steele is an astute political observer who saw the way the wind was blowing long before the rest of us?  Or do we assume that it was all just a happy accident? Who knows? Frankly I’m not sure that it really matters now. Whichever way you choose to look at it, there is no doubt that time has converted this novel into a dire warning, a grimly predictive tour-de-force. However he managed to do it, I think it is an accomplishment that Allen Steele can be very proud of.

Simon Scarrow Revolution 1 – Young Bloods Headline
Simon Scarrow Revolution 2 – The Generals Headline
Simon Scarrow Revolution 3 – Fire and Sword Headline
Simon Scarrow Revolution 4 – The Fields of Death Headline
Joseph T. Major Heinlein’s Children – The Juveniles Advent
Allen Steele Coyote Ace
Previous Contents Next