Friday, 31 July 2015

The Books I Read In July

'Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars' by David Chandler
It might appear strange to read a dictionary right through.  However, its vignettes of individual commanders and descriptions of numerous battles plus essays on political and military trends of the time, it is an engaging book.  It was first published in 1993 (I read the 1999 edition) but the style of language is of a book thirty or forty years older than that.  Effort is made so as not to make all the accounts sound the same.  The author's prejudices in favour or against particular commanders is not muted.  What is striking is how the wars allowed men from very ordinary backgrounds to rise to the heights, especially in the French Empire.  It also highlights the hazards that they faced in terms of wounding or death.  Aside from the very partisan descriptions of the commanders, the most serious flaw is in the maps.  These have been brought over from Chandler's earlier book, 'The Campaigns of Napoleon' (1973) without modification.  Consequently the units indicated and especially the commanders shown on the maps do not correspond with the account of the battles included in this book.  As a result they add little to your understanding of the battle and in some cases simply confuse matters,  A reasonable book but one which has suffered from reusing too much material with updating it and ensuring it corresponds to being presented in a new book.

'The Headline Book of Spy Fiction' edited by Alan Williams
I do not know what it is about spy fiction which encourages anthologies of this kind.  I read something similar back in April 2013 - 'The Faber Book of Espionage' by Nigel West (1993): see  This one is equally as uninspiring.  Published in 1992, it covers extracts from novels, some very short, and short stories from 1845 to 1981, though most are from the early to mid 20th century.  John Buchan features a great deal as does John Le CarrĂ© and Graham Greene.  The extracts are grouped into categories to illustrate different facets of spying as covered in fiction.  Some of the extracts are very weak, notably from Desmond Bagley's 'The Freedom Trap' (1971) which is an epitome of a pot boiler with a terrible McGuffin and a poor chase over Iceland.  The extract from 'Kim' (1900-01) is the wrong one as it covers nothing about Kim's spying activities and simply focuses on his schooling.  Overall, despite some effort at diversity the collection shows the lack of variety in spy fiction and that even seventy years on from Buchan's work it still focuses on well-off white men, facing hazards and winning through.  This sorely neglects how it was often a genre to question imperial pretensions, not simply of the UK but in part the USA and USSR too.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

An Atlas of Imaginary Worlds 18: Distorted Maps of the Earth Providing Fantasy Worlds

As I noted back in April, it is surprising what can provide authors or gamers with potential fantasy worlds:

The one I am featuring today was actually a map from a pub showing where the wines they sold came from, well, perhaps on an alternate planet, because its resemblance to Earth is only in passing:

I have removed the wine details.  However, it shows a pretty different Earth.  Much of Europe is compressed, notably France and the Iberian Peninsula.  The British Isles have become a peninsula; Africa has shrunk a great deal and the Red Sea is far longer but there is really no Persian Gulf.  The Mediterranean is no longer closed meaning from ancient times reaching Asia by sea from Europe would have been common. Arabia is as large as India but Sri Lanka and Madagascar are missing.  The Mediterranean is open to the Atlantic and South America is a short distance from Spain, suggesting it would have been discovered sooner.  It is smaller and farther North than in our world.  North America, in contrast is farther away from Europe; Greenland is smaller. Novaya Zemlya is likely to only be as cold as Nova Scotia. The two Americas are separate, so the 'passage' to China, though narrow, is there,  Wildlife on South America developed differently to that of North America, until, in our world 3 million years ago.  In this world they remain separate, leading to big differences between the creatures in each.

Australia is even larger than in our world and closer to South-East Asia.  Indonesia is reduced to two large islands which would have provided easy stepping stones for people to reach Australia.  Possibly it would have been colonised by Indians or Chinese.  New Zealand is a single, large island off the coast of Australia and so is likely to have been colonised sooner and its wildlife is likely to have been far closer to that of Australia.  Japan is really a single island, farther South in our world.  The gap from Asia to North America is greater.  The greatest loss is of the entire Continent of Antarctica plus many of the Pacific Islands including most importantly, the Philippines.

Overall, this is a wetter Earth with smaller continents.  It is a world in which there would be greater diversity between the animals on different continents.  Despite the larger bodies of water, peoples are likely to have moved more easily from continent to continent with South America explored by Europeans in the Ancient or Medieval times.  Australasia is likely to have seen waves of migrants down the centuries.  The climate is likely to have been wetter and more moderate.  The Pacific would be a vast empty ocean probably only crossed between the Americas and Asia in modern times.

Seeing this map reminded me of the map for the tabletop game, now an online game too, 'Warhammer'.  It was a distortion of Earth.  Now that the game is going to be reborn with a new set-up, it seemed a good time to look at what they have had for the past thirty years or so

Unlike the one above, Antarctica (Southern Chaos Wastes) is huge even compared to our world.  Given it reaches so far North some parts of it might be tropical, or at least temperate.  North America (The New World) and South America (Lusatia) are more strongly connected and the Galapagos Islands have become a huge archipelago; the Falkland Islands are larger too and there is an island off South America.  Once again Europe has shrunk an the Mediterranean is open to the Atlantic.  Arabia (Araby) has ended up in West Africa and the Urals stretch into North Africa (South Lands).  India (Ind) has withered but Sri Lanka and especially Thailand-Malaya have grown. From there it is only a short Indonesia is missing and there is a reduced Philippines.  Japan (Nippon) is father South a broader central island with only small islands around it.  Britain (Albion) is a single large island, but colder than in our world, more on a par with Iceland on our planet.  There are large islands (Elf Kingdoms) across the Atlantic.  In subsequent maps at least one of these is portrayed like the classic views of Atlantis.  These islands would have made trans-Atlantic travel far easier, though South America is more remote from Europe.  In the game it has been settled by reptile aliens who have a kingdom similar to the Aztecs but with more advanced technology and enslaving humans.  The Dark Lands are interesting and seem to equate to Afghanistan-Iran in our world with a gulf and a number of islands.  There is a suggestion that the Northern Steppes connect to the New World and Ramalia and the Northern Chaos Wastes provide another connection.  Thus, it is possible to circumnavigate the planet overland even if it is through Arctic lands.

This would be a drier planet with more land mass and a smaller Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.  Crossing the world by land or sea in pre-modern times would be easier.  However, there are likely to be greater swings in temperature between summer and winter for much of the planet.  The drier climate might mean large deserts.  With the huge mountain range in Eurafasia there might be vast lakes not shown on this map that would moderate the climate in that region.  Though for most of the world animals and people could move around overland there are isolated islands on which different plants and animals might have developed.  Given how far North the Southern Chaos Wastes stretch it would be expected that they would have diverse plants and animals different from other continents, even setting aside the chaos aspects.

These two examples show that we can simply take the world we know and make it fantastical.  In the 'Warhammer' case this has been the basis of a very successful game franchise for three decades.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

How One Image Can Suggest An Alternate Reality

The other day I came across an image that I had not seen for thirty years:

It is a cover from the US version of 'Vogue' magazine of April 1918.  When I saw it last it was printed on a mirror, in a 'cloakroom' of a large house in a Surrey suburb.  I think this one from the 1970s as I remember more pink in it than the image above:

The thing is, I was very conscious that it had been produced in April 1918, at a time when the USA had been in the First World War for 12 months.  It seemed so wrong that something so decadent could have been produced when such carnage was being witnessed.  Aside from that, the portrayal of peacocks so large that they could be ridden on, was clearly fantasy.  Thus, the way my brain processed it was to envisage that somehow it had arrived from an alternate reality in which there had been no First World War; the USA or anyway, somewhere using cents, had a decadent society and rideable peacocks did exist.  

Then it reminded me of the 'Dancers at the End of Time' series of novels by Michael Moorcock that I read in the 1980s in an omnibus edition; I had a copy of the one shown below, so you can see where that idea might have come from:

The books were 'An Alien Heat' (1972), 'The Hollow Lands' (1974) 'The End of All Songs' (1976) and then as is typical with Moorcock the setting and characters featured in other books, notably 'Legends from the End of Time' (1976) a collection of short stories; 'The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming' (1977) and 'Elric at the End of Time' (1981) two short stories featuring Moorcock's most famous fantasy anti-hero turning up in the End of Time milieu.  The stories feature a range of bizarre though largely sympathetic decadent characters in a kind of soap opera of various activities.  They live a very baroque life with the ability to change any matter at the touch of one of their rings, drawing on the immense power of cities built millenia before.  The cover reminds me of the song 'Ride a White Swan' by T.Rex (1970).

No-one writes this kind of fiction any more and even, as I noted with Hal Duncan's 'Vellum' while publishers may permit Moorcockian style work to come out, its time is passed and anyway even in homage these days it is laboured when Moorcock was epigrammatic.  I have no idea if George Wolfe Plank (1883-1965), the artist who produced the cover ever had any thoughts of alternate realities or whether he simply wanted to produce elegant, fantastical imagery.  A 1923 cover of a woman with a household dragon and another one of a woman on a zebra-unicorn suggests certainly a love of the fantastic.

Anyway, my simple idea with this posting was to recall an image which though I imagine it never had that intention, triggered off many thoughts of very different worlds and also in terms of writing, how a single image can generate ideas for a short story if not an entire novel.