Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Books I Read in September

'Dominion' by C.J. Sansom
I thoroughly enjoy 'what if?' novels so was really looking forward to 'Dominion', It is set in 1952 in a Britain that signed a peace treaty with Nazi Germany in 1940.  It starts with the popular but lazy assumption that if Lord Halifax had become Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill, Britain would have signed a peace treaty with Germany in the summer of 1940.  In the book while only the Isle of Wight is occupied, Britain has become a collaborator of Nazi Germany and the SS police forces are penetrating the country.  Rather than a immediate move to dictatorship this has been established through the 1940s so that by 1952 Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper magnate has become Prime Minister.  Sir Oswald Mosley is Home Secretary and Enoch Powell, India Secretary.  There is a political police force, the Auxiliary Police who intern and torture people.  Britain has retained its empire, but is highly restricted in with its ability to trade with the continent and what armed forces it can raise by the treaty it signed with Germany.  It is battling to hold on to India.  There is generally free movement of British with some having gone to the dominions and colonies and relative free trade with the USA which has been under Joseph Kennedy and is now moving under a more liberal government of Adlai Stevenson.

The book is not bad, but could have been a lot better.  There is always a challenge with 'what if?' history books in getting across to the reader what is different from real history.  This can even be a challenge when the real history is well known.  However, the writer has to trust the reader much more than Sansom does.  The first sections of the book are really a data dump about the society and the main characters' lives.  It would have been far better if these were 'discovered' more gradually as the book progressed.  My edition was 718 pages long, including an essay at the end, so there was more than enough room for the author to weave together the revelations rather than have the reader have it all laid on them so quickly.

The story features members of the Resistance to the collaborationist regime.  They are generally drawn from a middle class, civil service background, though they encounter foreigners and a few others from other parts of British society.  We also see the perspective of a German Gestapo agent and the British men he works with.  There is a McGuffin of a mentally disturbed man who has been told secrets about the US scientific developments by his brother on a visit from America.  This makes him a target for the Resistance, the Americans, the Germans and the collaborationist regime  However, ultimately, this aspect is rather wasted and proves not to be really well thought through.  After the data dump, the book settles down into being a thriller in which the Resistance have to secure the man and get him out of Britain before the Germans can take him.  The book is strongest in analysing how the protagonists become caught up with the Resistance and particularly how innocent people are sucked into the plot and the price they pay.

Throughout the book looks like it needed more re-drafting and editing.  Some of the developments seem illogical and Sansom or others for him needed to step back and look at the feasibility of what he reveals.  This undermines the strength he has in developing the tension of the pursuit making use of the smog of 1952 as a marker of the time and useful for racking up the jeopardy.  A weakness is the resolution of the book.  The regime change in Germany seems feasible, but the changes in the UK are less well thought through.  Most infuriating is that we do not find out the fate of  the key protagonists, minor characters are given more details of them.  There is a love triangle but we do not discover what happens to any of the three people we have followed closely in the travails which fill most of the book.  This jars when we know what happens to many of the less important characters instead.  I do not know if Sansom intends a sequel involving these people but it left the book unfinished.

Another challenge with 'what if?' history is not to let your own views about what is the 'right' outcome, not in the history, but nowadays, come out.  Sansom cannot rein in his hatred of the Scottish National Party (SNP).  He hates them in the present day but projects this hatred too much into the 1952 he portrays.  The novel features only one Scottish character and two brothers who attended a public school which happened to be in Scotland but isolated from its society could have been anywhere.  Thus, the bile which comes out about the SNP sticks out in the story and is too clearly the voice of the author.  This is worsened by the political essay he includes at the end of the book which has no relation to the novel.  It shows a lack of restraint on the part of the author and so weakens the book as a whole.

Sansom has put a lot of effort into his research and properly cites his sources.  Many things are handled well but the book is riddled with minor errors.  This do not mean the novel is useless but they do sap your belief in it when it should be creating a credible world.  I did not spot all of them; one journalist pointed out that the University of Oxford gives D.Phils and not Ph.Ds. Winston Churchill would not have been made Minister of Defence in 1940 because that ministry did not exist until 1964; he would have been War Minister.  It was only Churchill himself who created the title of Minister of Defence for the minister in the War Office and it seems unlikely Halifax would have invented exactly the same term.  These are pretty much 'train spotter' errors.  A greater one is showing people in 1952 shopping on a Sunday.  Even in my youth, twenty years later than the book is set, the only shopping you could do in Britain on a Sunday was at a newsagent until 12.30 and at petrol stations.  Yet in Sansom's book people are shopping in London as if it was 2014.

I am not clear why Sansom moved the German Embassy from its real location in Prussia House, i.e. 9 Carlton House Terrace in the St. James's district of London to Senate House, the headquarters of the University of London in Bloomsbury.  I can only think this is because that building is used to portray Nazi or Soviet or dictatorial or secret buildings in a number of productions such as the movie 'Richard III' (1995), the television series,  'Mosley' (1998) and the fourth series of 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' (2004) amongst many others.  Aside from Norwich Town Hall, it is one of the only examples of 'Fascist-style' architecture in Britain.  It still as a Room 101 and is known to have been the basis for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (1948); Orwell worked for the Ministry of Information which was based in the building during the Second World War.  It is clear Sansom has never been to the building as his portrayal of a panoramic view from the windows is misplaced even if all the neighbouring buildings, including the British Museum had been bombed flat.  The views are restricted by old buildings no matter which direction you look.

The greatest mistake and one which impacts on the novel more broadly, is the belief that the Germans had no easy access to uranium.  In the novel they are shown as getting it from Belgian Congo which they take over.  In reality they had free access to it from the moment they took over Bohemia-Moravia, what had been western Czechoslovakia, in March 1939.  Albert Einstein criticised the Americans for not getting as much uranium out of the region before the Germans gained control of it.  By 1944, though the Germans had not built a full-scale atomic bomb, they did at least two tests of what we now call 'dirty bombs', i.e. highly radioactive bombs but with far less explosive power than a full atomic bomb; the radiation from one test remains apparent in Germany nowadays.  The Germans are shown as not having progressed with their bomb in another eight years, despite having agents in the USA.  In our world even the USSR which had lacked the range of scientists and focus on an atomic bomb had detonated one by 1949.

This could have been an excellent book, but it needed a lot of re-working.  It needed to be shorter.  It needed the revelation of the details of the society portrayed revealed in a more measured manner.  It needed the feasibility of plot developments tested more thoroughly.  It needed Sansom to keep his politics to a blog or an article or to have written a story set in Scotland rather than the Midlands and southern England; it is not clear why he did not do that, except to make use of the smog.  It needed the story to be completed properly especially in terms of the three main protagonists.

'The Potter's Field' by Ellis Peters
This is the 18th book in the Cadfael sequence and as I have noted previously with 'The Confession of Brother Haluin' and 'The Heretic's Apprentice', by this stage of the sequence Peters was clearly looking to move beyond the restraints of Shrewsbury and its abbey.  This story is more like 'CSI: Medieval Shrewsbury' because the case is around a skeleton found in a field that has been transferred to the abbey's ownership.  Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar try to analyse who was involved in the murder and the cause primarily from the remains and where they are situated.  Various suspects arise and are dismissed and in itself this causes further suspicions.  At times, even though the bulk of her characters are male, you can feel Peters making a case for the women and how they are treated in this world.  There is an interesting tension in this book because Brother Ruald, the potter who owned the field, walked away from his wife to become a monk.  Because he was still alive she was still considered married and was not permitted to marry anyone else.  Ruald's step is portrayed in the male-dominated world as a holy one.  However, the fate of the blighted woman still in her thirties and who had an active sex life with her husband, is also shown.  Peters does not make judgements which would be anachronistic for the times, but in this story she shows how men finding their vocation could really muck up the lives of the women around them.  Almost as a balance she has a novitiate leave the order and become interested in a young woman from a neighbouring estate.  The book is brisk and a fresh departure in approach for Peters.  She will not contaminate the medieval view of how things should be, but she does lay the evidence from a woman's perspective out before the reader for them to decide whether to censure the very male-focused behaviour going on.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Guaranteeing Eternal Conservative Governments - One Victory is Not Enough to Satisfy Cameron

I did wonder during the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum why Prime Minister David Cameron was campaigning so hard for Scotland to remain in the Union.  With Scotland independent, the Labour Party would be denied 41 of its current 256 MPs.  In contrast the Conservatives have only 1 MP from Scotland among their 304 currently in the House of Commons.  It would have probably made it impossible for Labour ever to get back into office on its own ever again.  While this would not have ensured a Conservative government for ever more, it would certainly have increased the chances of that happening.  I realise now that I was naive to wonder why Cameron was behaving in the way he did.  

Today the explanation has become clear.  In fact it did not matter which way the referendum went, he had plans on how to permanently reduce Labour's majority at Westminster.  This can be seen as the next step in his shaping of democracy to constantly favour his party.  We know that boundary changes will favour the Conservatives anyway.  However, now he is going to exclude Scottish MPs from voting on legislation that is about England (and presumably Wales too).  The argument is that with certain powers being given to the Scottish Parliament it is argued Scots MPs in Westminster should not then vote on things that English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs cannot affect in the Scottish Parliament.  Of course, 83% of the UK population lives in England and with the royal prerogative legislation passed can be extended in time or scope without reference to Parliament.  Thus, now Cameron can simply introduce purely English laws, be guaranteed of opposition not being able to muster sufficient seats and then extend it to the other nations through royal prerogative.

Cameron has steadily adopted steps to reduce democracy.  The introduction of the fixed 5-year term was the first move in this direction, making it almost impossible to break the coalition or bring down his minority government.  The vote on proportional representation similarly dismissed another chance to make the UK more democratic.  Only one, poor model was offered and yet its rejection is seen as ruling out any electoral reform.  At the last election the Conservatives received 36.1% of the vote but 47.2% of the seats; Labour won 29.0% of the votes but 39% of the seats; the Liberal Democrats got 23% of the votes but only 8.7% of the seats, they should have received 149 rather than 57.  However, these things such as fair representation are seen as 'not British'.  The Conservatives benefit from the fact that most British people feel politics is somehow inappropriate for them even though they complain about its impact.

Of course, the chipping away of democracy was begun under the Blair regime.  With hindsight it appears that the governments of Tony Blair had very little to do with Labour Party values, they were simply a repackaged form of Thatcherism something Cameron is taking to new extremes.  The erosion of civil liberties under Blair, notably the extension of detention without charge; the declaration of war based on faked evidence, the elimination of some critics and steps like identity cards and the RIPA anti-terrorism legislation which has constantly been abused by local authorities, let alone the constant use of the royal prerogative established a culture in which Cameron's steps to erode democracy can prosper.

In future I will be sure to try to see behind every step Cameron takes and recognise that no matter what he says it is about, all the rubbish about being passionate for the Union, in fact his core agenda is about creating a Britain where the Conservatives will never leave office and many of our remaining freedoms will be gone.  Today I really pity the Scots for not having chosen to escape from this developing dictatorship.  I know it would have left people in England in a tougher position, but even if you cannot escape from the prison yourself it is always good to see that someone else has made it out.  Now we are simply going to share our bitter fate together and I am sure many who voted for Scotland to stay under the yoke of Westminster yesterday will soon be regretting it.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Readers of Alternate History Books Living in a Different World

As people who have visited this blog before will know, I am a keen writer. I have over thirty e-books up for sale on Amazon. Most fall into two categories. One is detective stories set in 1920s Germany and the other are two sorts of alternate history books - some are stories and some are essays. I have much greater problem with the latter than the former. I do keep running into Americans who believe my syntax is wrong. I keep checking and checking, running every device and pair of eyes I can use over the work and cannot see what they are referring to; Word certainly does not agree with them and it is a stickler even for the correct use of 'which' and 'that' and likes to see no implied verbs or nouns, something it seems does not occur in American compared to British.

I used to write collections of essays about various what if? scenarios from different periods of history, This was something I had done initially on this blog and then turned into books. However, many people did not seem to understand that they were not stories and so would buy them and then complain when they got something different. It only takes one 1-star or 2-star review on Amazon to end your sales of a book and so many of mine whilst still available sell nothing. It used to be that you could take down a book, revise it and put it back up again without the old reviews remaining. Amazon have removed that ability and so you end up in the difficult situation that reviews will often be attached to a book referring to content which is no longer in it because it was removed during revision. Like eBay, Amazon is all about the buyer and the seller is simply taken for granted, they lack the ability to respond to what is said, however erroneous.

One reviewer complained that there were no maps and no photographs. I am experimenting on getting maps into my e-books but trying to get them of sufficient quality and clarity is a challenge. As for photos or even computer-drawn maps, the main challenge is the copyright charges would quickly exceed any money I would make on the books, let alone barring me with any profit. I would love to have photographs but until someone can find me a copyright-free source of numerous famous historical figures then that will be impossible without me losing money.

I have had readers demanding that I include ratings of how feasible a particular outcome would have been. Though, of course, that is an opinion of every reader and would make little sense. I never want to patronise my readers and maybe that is my problem. These days readers expect every last item pointed out explicitly to them and every loose end tied up. It is incredibly difficult to have a trilogy with an ongoing plot accepted, people want everything resolved by the end of a single book. One reviewer insisted that I was not firm enough in my conclusions and that I should say explicitly what outcome I believed would occur. He argued that because my conclusions left too many options open, my books should be removed from the Alternate History category on Amazon, but it was not clear where he expected them to go instead. As usual, it seems he simply wanted me to remove my books from sale. I was once surprised how angry my books made people but no longer. I do lack the arrogance to simply say that something would have happened. That is not really the work of an essayist about alternate history as the veracity of any outcome can never be known. It is the realm of the novelist and short story writer, which is why I may be having less problem since abandoning the essay books in favour of more clearly works of fiction.

A review posted today about one of my alternate history books of essays, 'In Another America: Views and Reviews of Alternate Histories for the USA in the 17th-20th Centuries' drew my attention to something which I had missed and alerted me to the fact that I should recognise how alien some of my potential readership is. The reviewer criticised the book for being 'sanctimonious'. He also felt it was wrong of me to judge the real outcomes of the American Civil War and the Vietnam War as the correct ones. I have known for a while that many of the alternate history books available on Amazon are written by extreme Republicans from the USA. As a commentator on the review pointed out, this led Richard J. Evans to publish 'Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History' (2014) which according to 'The Guardian' review: 'Evans's rigorous demolition of what-if? narratives decries counterfactual history as a fundamentally reactionary pursuit'. Of course, I disagree and saw no point in reading this book. However, with the kind of input I am getting from readers of my books, I am beginning to feel that even if not all the writers are strongly right-wing, the majority of readers are.

In addition to criticisms about my views on the American Civil War and the Vietnam War, there was criticism that a story set in 13th century France was told from the perspective of the French people and not that of the Mongols. On this basis, the book was condemned as 'a primary school exercise'. The assumption is that real men would write from the perspective of raiders who slaughtered thousands and destroyed much of cultural importance not only in Europe but huge swathes of Europe. Only a child would seek to explore the reaction of Christian Europeans to that assault, even though their culture is one from which ours (yes, and that includes you Americans) has evolved. Only now do I see that these Republicans have no investment in the society in which they live; they have no interest in democracies or freedoms and would rather live in a barbaric society in which the determining factor is how brutally you can murder people and how effectively you can destroy buildings, art and literature. Unfortunately this seems to be a large part of the readers attracted to my books. It is not surprising that they are disappointed.

Returning to the latest review, I had to remind myself that for Americans, 'liberal' equates to left-wing rather than centrist. I was criticised for seeing social welfare as beneficial, the reviewer said disparagingly: 'He thinks that progressive social programs are good.' I think I would be pushed to find anyone who though they were bad, but again, I am not living in the USA where I know they attacked ideas around public health care as being akin to the extermination policies of Stalin and Hitler. Maybe I am wrong. Write in and tell me if you think there should be no social benefits for anyone and that the National Health Service is doing bad to the UK.

The reviewer goes on: 'He presents many debatable points and simply assumes that any informed reader will agree. He does this a lot when the question is regarding questions of the desirability of specific historic outcomes - for example, a confederate victory in the Civil War, or US victory in Vietnam.' My simple answer to this is - yes I do make that assumption. If you are intelligent enough to read my books, then surely you must accept that slavery was a bad thing and was not benefiting the USA at all and that the South has benefited immensely from being part of the broad Union. Convince me that Texas and Florida would be as wealthy now if they were part of the CSA. It was at that moment that I realised that it was like I was dealing with people from a different planet.

Despite living in one of the largest and longest enduring democracies in the world; a multi-cultural state that offered refuge to persecuted people from across the world, these people feel that that is all wrong. Instead, they feel that no-one should assume that that is the correct model, and in fact, that slavery and harsh racial division could somehow have been a better option. I presume the reviewer is a white man. I imagine he would get a very different perspective if he spoke to a black or Hispanic neighbour or someone whose ancestors fled from Nazism in Europe or simply spoke to a woman. Remember the Confederacy was hardly advanced on women's rights either. I thought there might be some Americans who still supported slavery, but I imagined they were unlikely to be buying books or reading. What is shocking is the overlap between those two categories of people in a modern democracy.

Now, one can certainly debate the desirability of a US victory in Vietnam rather than the withdrawal in 1973. By that stage US troops had been in the country for eight years without being able to defeat either North Vietnam nor the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. I have heard of the futility of the effort from a man who was there. The war also had immense impact on neighbouring Laos and Cambodia leading to decades of slaughter and hardship. If you go to Vietnam the impact is enduring in the number of US landmines across the country and the number of mutated children as a result of US chemical warfare, even forty years on. The USA did not leave Vietnam as a result of pressure from any other country. Withdrawal occurred under a Republican President, Richard Nixon who had great cold warrior credentials. The defeat has traumatised the USA and maybe I under-estimated the fact that even since the end of the Cold War and Vietnam becoming a popular tourist destination for Americans, it cuts so hard that they lost the conflict. However, let us reflect on how much worse it would have been if the USA had won in Vietnam. Of course, in this judgement the Vietnamese will not enter the equation as they never do in American judgements of the success or failure of the war.

My life has been made easy by a commentator on Amazon who has pointed to the US victories in the Gulf War of 1990-91, the Iraq War of 2003-11 and in Afghanistan, 2001-11, though effectively ongoing as is the conflict now back in Iraq. In all of these cases the USA won the war and yet that meant years of commitment in terms of troops and resources, it also meant ongoing deaths and maiming for many US service personnel. If the USA had won in Vietnam in 1972 would the US public have tolerated troops still being there in 1980? How many more Americans would have been killed or mutilated? How many more young men would have left the USA to escape the draft, taking their input into the economy with them? How much racial tension would have been stoked up by African-Americans feeling they were fighting the war on behalf of the WASPs? How much money would have been drained from the US economy? How bad would the USA's relations with the rest of NATO have been? How hostile would China have remained to the USA? How authoritarian would the government have had to become to suppress the growing anti-war protests? How long would Thailand have put up with Vietnamese refugees? How soon would it have been before a madman like Pol Pot in Cambodia have begun to introduce genocide in Vietnam? You can lie about these things and pretend that a US victory would have created a peaceful prosperous country by 1973 with minimal input in terms of soldiers or dollars. However, you only have to look at the bitter, protracted involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan after what were declared victories, to see that a win in Vietnam for the USA would have had far worse consequences than the defeat.

What I have come to realise is that I am living on a different planet to some readers and certainly my reviewers. There society is straining because it is compelled to live in democracy, with civil liberties and opportunities. Over here, and I know President Obama and many millions of Americans are on this side of the portal, we think democracy is a good thing and we work hard to maintain it. We look at the history with interest and will often speculate about why it turned out a particular way and if any alternatives were feasible. However, over here we like our safety, our freedoms and our tolerance and have no desire to visit a world where Mongols slaughtering and destroying are seen as the correct models for how we should live.