Sunday, 30 June 2013

Books I Read In June

‘The Foresight War’ by Anthony G. Williams
This is a well rated alternate history book which envisages what would have happened if two military historians one from Britain, called Dr Erlang who seems to be a version of the author and one from the former East Germany were transported back to 1934.  The two men are soon advising their respective leaders, Dr. Herman, the German historian, seeking to at least hold back the Soviets so that East Germany is not created which his son died trying to escape from.  The book is very technically focused which is probably unsurprising given the focus of Williams’s non-fiction books.  There is much discussion of calibres of guns and the engines of aircraft.  Both men successfully advance technology so that fruitless projects are abandoned and developments that only appeared at the end of the war in our world are in place by the outbreak of war in this. 

There are political changes too.  The British are persuaded not to give up their naval bases in the Irish Free State and not to make any commitment to supporting Poland.  No British Expeditionary Force is sent to France and instead Norway is successfully taken over by the British.  Later there is no invasion of Italy.  In the Far East, Hong Kong is abandoned but Malaya and Singapore successfully defended.  The war ends in 1943 when with the Allies having invaded northern France through western Normandy, Herman kills Hitler with a suicide bomb. 

The book is very interesting on these grounds and has substantial appendices to outline the differences from our world.  However, it is clear that Williams is a historian and not a novelist.  The main characters are not developed a great deal, despite the fact that Erlang has a relationship with the woman assigned to oversee him and they marry and have a child who is called Hope, which seems anachronistic for Britain; she might have been Faith or Hester.  I am content, unlike some readers for there to be no explanation of why the two men went back in time.  However, to be a novel rather than a technical book, these men have to be developed more.  One technique that Williams uses that is commendable is dropping in on particular commanders and their troops or civilians mixed up in specific conflicts.  This might seem to lead to fragmentation, but it allows him to look at the differences that the changes are making whilst avoiding lengthy exposition and I would suggest other alternate history authors look at this approach for their own work. 

I understand that Erlang and Herman are able to overcome official suspicion, but they also seem to be able to push against official resistance to innovation.  Notably Erlang is able to stop the RAF obsessing about strategic bombing and to focus instead in protecting convoys across the Atlantic.  He is able to overcome Churchill’s obsession with the Mediterranean and the British under-estimation of Japanese abilities in particular in terms of defending attacks on Singapore from the land.  He is also able to break the British concern for defending France.  I think he is too successful too often and more resistance to his ideas would have seemed credible.  Herman experiences this much more especially his failure to get the German forces to encourage states in the western USSR to break away and ally with the Germans.  He is able to temper Hitler’s enthusiasm for exotic vehicles and have a focus on creating jet fighters sooner. 

Overall, this novel feels like a first draft that needs work to be a proper novel.  It is not a long book and unlike many would have benefited from being longer.  As some reviewers have noted there is minimal tension; Erlang and Herman face too little resistance to their ideas.  In addition, once Hitler is dead the book stops abruptly as if Williams has lost interest.  However, handling a post-Hitler Germany in 1943 even with the Allies not having insisted on unconditional surrender is an interesting aspect.  Would a civil war have broken out in the way the SS was preparing for?  The book has many fine and interesting ideas, but it would have been better, given his ‘trainspotter’ approach to weaponry if Williams had gone down the Tsouras path and gave a kind of ‘battle report’ style approach.  If he had favoured the Turtledove approach of an actual story with developing characters then he needed to put in more work.  The Authors publishing company seems to be a low budget outfit that seem to lack editors and this again will have had an impact.  Williams has a website on which he lists numerous reviews of his books and refutes some of them. 

This book is interesting for anyone into alternate history.  However, it is more like the raw materials for an alternate history novel rather than being a novel in its own right.  I have not read subsequent books by Williams but I hope his fiction writing skills have developed.

‘One Way Or Another’ by Richard Meredith
I bought my copy of this book from the author himself.  It was self-published and he travelled the country marketing it.  I admire him for that.  It is also clear that he is a modern day adventurer.  This book published in 2002 was about him as the ‘balding backpacker’ travelling around the world becoming involved in a range of adventures including anti-capitalism riots in Canada, the US Presidential election and an attempted coup d’etat in Fiji.  Meredith is a former journalist and the style of this book is really like a collection of articles and there is an appendix of articles he wrote during his travels.  He has subsequently driven right across Asia in an Aston Martin. 

The book is witty and gives an interesting perspective.  However, I found it very fragmented.  He covers the stories almost in reverse chronology.  There are large chunks of his journey that only are mentioned in passing, so you have little sense of the year-long adventure as whole.  It would really have helped if there was linking text to contextualise where every component fitted into the broader story.  Something along the lines of ‘having spent three weeks travelling from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast of Canada, I headed South into the USA where this next big thing happened to me’ or ‘by this time it was May and I decided to head into Egypt where I encountered …’  There is no conclusion to the book about how he got back home or how he reflected on what he had experienced.  As a result you feel this was put together to make money rather than as a result of capturing personal experiences. 

This was an interesting read which would have been better for me to reach nearer the time it was written but I am currently on a decade-long lag in my reading.  It shows that shifting from being a journalist to being an author is not always straight forward.  Articles can be chapters but the book needs to be more than a sum of its parts.  This was another book that would have benefited from being longer and having much more ‘mortar’ between the different chapters.

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