Archives » Altered History

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published in 2010.

 The Bookman cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the first of Tidhar’s “Bookman” trilogy (original book cover left) and constitutes steampunk at its flashiest. Amerigo Vespucci’s trip to the New World – here known as Vespuccia – has aroused a set of marooned extraterrestrial lizards, Les Lézards, who have since taken over the throne of Great Britain but been thrown out of France.

Our hero is Orphan (he knows no other name) and the plot is kicked off with a pair of exploding books, one of which kills Orphan’s girl-friend, Lucy, to whom he was newly engaged. He is drawn into a web of intrigue laid by the enigmatic Bookman by the implication that she is not dead – or at least he can be reunited with a version of her. The action ranges from a Victorian London to the Caribbean – where Caliban’s island of Les Lézards is located (and where he discovers his true lineage) – back again to London and finally to Oxford.

Now, one of the joys of altered history is the chance to encounter well-known names – real or otherwise – in unfamiliar settings but, really, Tidhar throws the kitchen sink at it. Apart from frequent sly allusions, we meet not only newspaper reports from Rudyard Kipling but Persons from Porlock; and Henry Irving, Beerbohm Tree, Mrs Beeton, Jules Verne – plus his ship (and submarine Nautilus, what else?) Not to mention, among others, body snatchers, the Mechanical Turk, Karl Marx, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft and Moriarty – who is Prime Minister no less. We also encounter various simulacra, pirates (with keel-hauling, plank-walking and all) that mysterious island, an interplanetary probe (which is actually potentially more sinister) and a vast hidden library. Breathless isn’t the word.

Had I not already read the second book in the series, the much better Camera Obscura, I would perhaps not have bothered doing so on this evidence. But I have the third in this volume, The Great Game, still to go, so I will get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the three collected books “it was the obvious end for the arc began by Orphan’s choice” (begun.)
Otherwise:- to go see her (to go to see her – or just “to see her”,) “no sooner had Maskelyne departed that the door chimed again” (than the door chimed,) overlaying the grief (overlying,) “his face were strangely peaceful” (was,) indistin-guishable not at a line break, “bound with Les Lézard” (Les Lézards,) whiskey (whisky,) “he left his drink on the table besides Jack’s glass” (beside,) automatons (automata,) “at the bottom off…” (of, surely?) Gibbons’ (Gibbons’s,) go see it (go to see it,) flamingos (flamingoes?) “from his momentary surprised” (surprise,) “us humans need to stick together” (“us need to”? That would be we humans,) outside of (outside; no “of” necessary, though “outside” appeared two more times in that same five line paragraph,) sail-ships (sailing ships,) the Nautilus’ deck (Nautilus’s, a page later Moses’s was fine but one more page on we had Aramis’,) “like the unmixed paint on an artist’s palate” (did the artist mix the paint by mouth, then? Palette that would be,) “not sure what he had let himself into” (not sure what he had got himself into; or, not sure what he had let himself in for,) the King of England (yes, but also the Empire,) the fungi (it was singular; so fungus,) “he felt exulted” (exultant, I think,) “you knew were you were with them” (where you were,) “Orphan was glad for that” (glad of that,) a group of men… were standing (a group was standing.)

Half a Crown by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 316 p. Returned to a threatened library.

 Half a Crown cover

This follows the narrative template of the two previous books in Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy, Farthing and Ha’penny, set in a fascistic British state arising from an early peace with Germany in what we would call World War 2 but here would be a misnomer. The third person chapters again focus on Peter Carmichael, now head of the Gestapo-like Watch, the female first person voice is here, though, that of his ward, Elvira Royston, whom Carmichael took under his wing after the murder of her father in the line of duty eleven years before. She has been well educated and about to be “presented” to the Queen as a debutante under the sponsorship of the mother of her friend, Betsy Maynard. She nevertheless feels a slight fraud. Indeed at times her cockney accent slips out. All this is well worked into, and used in, the plot by Walton, which involves Elvira’s accidental brush with the fringes of a conspiracy to effect a coup d’état leading to an attempt to discredit and remove Carmichael from his post. He himself has reasons to fear investigation, being the centre of the “Inner Watch” which organises, when it can, the escape of Jews and other innocents to Ireland. Unlike in Farthing and Ha’penny we did get a mention here of Mosleyites and I suspect in her portrayal here of the Duke of Windsor Walton has him bang to rights.

The resolution is well tied-in with the beginning of the trilogy in Farthing but seemed perhaps a little too easily won.

Pedant’s corner:- I noticed a “fitted” but “fit” came up elsewhere as the past tense. England was occasionally used incorrectly in direct speech as interchangeable with Britain (but the characters are all English and would perhaps have done so. It is nevertheless an intensely annoying habit.) Cross fire (it’s usually rendered as crossfire,) “each department had their own exit and entrance” (each department had its own exit and entrance,) mementos (mementoes?) the band were playing (the band was playing,) coup d’etat (coup d’état,) a Turkey carpet (Turkish carpet?) hung (hanged,) Heath Row (Heathrow.)
Addendum to Ha’penny’s pedant’s corner:- Walton’s text in that book said the ha’penny coin had a picture of HMS Victory on its obverse. It was Drake’s ship the Golden Hind.

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell

Solaris, 2013, 341 p, including 16 p of the short story from which the novel originated.

 Ack-Ack Macaque cover

Ack-Ack Macaque is the lead character in a highly successful MMORPG (Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game) where he is a Spitfire pilot in an unending Second World War. He also turns out to be “real”, hooked up to the game, embodied in a brain-enhanced monkey which an AI liberation front group manages to free from its confinement in the labs of the game’s constructor, Céleste Industries, with the help of Prince Merovech, heir to the throne of the United Kingdoms of Britain and France (which countries merged after the invasion of Suez in 1957, later also incorporating Norway – with other Scandinavian countries in a wider association) and incidentally also the son of Her Grace Alyssa Célestine, Duchess of Brittany, head of said Céleste Group. Quite a lot to be going on with then, but the execution is initially marred by some intrusive information dumping (which, to be fair, did settle down.)

I had quite a few reservations about the scenario. This is an altered history, of course, but is it one so far removed from our own that the British monarchy could have regained executive power? A further problem though is that Ack-Ack Macaque is almost a peripheral presence, the main bulk of the narrative focusing on Prince Merovech and journalist Victoria Valois, both of whom have also been subjected to treatment in Céleste’s labs, the former’s being the motor of the plot.

Nevertheless, the whole thing rattles along at a good pace and is filled with incident and intrigue.

But I couldn’t believe a single word of it.

Addendum:- Not so for the short story where Ack-Ack Macaque first appeared (in Interzone’s 212th issue, September 2007) and appended here, which relates what goes wrong when the original anime version of the monkey is made over and exploited for commercial reasons. There is an irony in there somewhere.

Pedant’s corner:- A “time interval later” count of 7. “it was up to her accept and mourn” (to her to accept and mourn,) “‘Could you give me a minute please detective?’” (unless “please detective” is a title – and it isn’t – there should be a comma after please,) akevitt (Norwegian spelling of aquavit/akvavit,) Julie and Frank’s (I know this is common usage but it ought to be Julie’s and Frank’s,) it’s (its,) “and winced and the pain” (at the pain,) “‘For saying you’ll go the funeral’” (go to the funeral,) “he saw Julie’s silhouette stood” (can a silhouette stand? – that “stood” ought to be “standing” anyway – we also had “sat” where seated or sitting is better usage,) could use (the British term is could do with,) irresistable (irresistible,) zipper (zip,) gotten (got,) legally obligated (obliged,) commandoes (commandos?) “I’m the back-up, same as Paul” (the person saying this wouldn’t have known Paul’s back-up had been activated,) skull and crossed-bones (it’s usually skull and crossbones.)

Ha’penny by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ha’penny cover

The Farthing Set responsible for the peace between Britain and the Third Reich in 1941 has parlayed the murder of Sir James Thirkie (which kick started Farthing, the first of Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy) into a takeover of the government of the UK.

As in Farthing, first person narration by a female alternates with third person chapters again concentrating on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard. The woman narrator here is actress Viola Lark, one of the aristocratic Larkin sisters (who are clearly modelled on the Mitfords.) In this respect the failure to mention the British Union of Fascists or Oswald Mosley in Farthing is partly explained. In her acknowledgements Walton says she avoided the use of real names for those with speaking parts in the narrative. (There is one glaring exception to this, but in our real world he was dead by 1949 when this book is set.) In Ha’penny the attraction of fascism for one of the Lark sisters, Celia, has gone so far as for her to have married Himmler but it is another sister, Cressida, the communist one, who draws Viola into a conspiracy to murder Hitler during a visit to the theatre on his trip to Britain.

Ha’penny does not work quite as well as Farthing. Partly this is because the setting has been established and we are working through its ramifications but more importantly it is that the whodunnit element is wholly absent. We know from the first sentence that Viola has been apprehended and the plot motor, the conspiracy, is also revealed early on. Viola’s narration is also not as fresh (though less twee) as was Lucy Eversley’s in the previous book. The insidious creep of authoritarian measures, the poisoning of public attitudes, is well brought out, though. The new Prime Minister says, “‘we don’t want them to be able to say that we’re using these laws to shut people up, especially when we are.’” It was particularly salutary to read this so soon after the House of Commons debate on bombing Syria and the prior comments about those against it being “terrorist sympathisers”. The web of complicity woven around Carmichael is drawn tighter, however, as he is offered the oversight of a new law enforcement agency, The Watch, an analogue of the Gestapo.

Pedant’s corner:- Viola’s Britishness is questioned when she reveals she was born in Dublin (in 1917). Since Ireland was part of the UK then that would make her British no matter her ancestry. There were no opening quotation marks when a piece of dialogue began a chapter. “‘There’s a Joe Lyons automat on the corner of Charing Cross Road.’” (A Lyon’s Corner House I’d have accepted. I don’t think automats made it to Britain till the 1960s.*) Station wagon (OK the book has the USian text but Viola is supposed to be an English aristocrat, she’d have written “estate car”.) Was it necessary to transliterate a Spaniard’s pronunciation of the city as Barthelona? National Service. (In our time-line, yes. Would they have kept it on in this one?) “The report on the bomb and bodies were waiting for him” (the report was waiting,) Boedicea (it was generally spelled Boadicea in those days [Boudica or Boudicca now]) Canada is referred to as part of the Commonwealth (just scrapes by for 1949,) “‘He’s an ASDIC man. Radar you know.’” (ASDIC was a sonic technique, radar uses radio waves.) “There were a series” (there was a series,) the German Embassy in London is described as if “made over by some mad devotee of monumental Bauhaus” (the Nazis shut Bauhaus down,) the French for lark is rendered alouetta instead of alouette, vol-au-vents again (I still think the plural is vols-aux-vents,) come-out (the entry of a debutante to society was known as a coming out. Walton perhaps used “come-out” to avoid any inference of being gay by the modern reader.) The lower case sergeant is used for the police rank while Inspector is capitalised; they both ought to be so, “the Home Secretary’s backup were violating police tradition” (the backup was,) Inspector Jacobson from Hampstead seems to know what The Watch is but Carmichael had only just found out himself.
*Of course, it’s an altered history, maybe that’s part of Walton’s scenario.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2015, 398 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 A God in Ruins cover

It’s almost impossible for me to discuss this book without the possibility of spoilers. For nigh on 400 pages Atkinson relates the life and times of Teddy Todd, RAF bomber pilot and brother of the Ursula whose many lives were told in Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life, yet within a few pages of the end the author pulls the rug from under her preceding story in spectacular fashion. Yes, familiarity with the previous book bolsters the logic of what she does but that conceit was firmly established before the novel was fully under way. Here there is foreshadowing in Teddy’s nightmares about the war (“in nightmares we wake ourselves before the awful end, before the fall,”) the epitaph from Keats that Teddy reflects on, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and his thoughts in the care home where he is living out his days, “That’s what he’d always done, of course, what everyone did, if you were lucky,” but really this skirts close to the sort of thing that teachers warn against very early in anybody’s attempts at story-telling as being essentially unfair on the reader. Of course, alternative endings such as Atkinson gives us are not new to fiction (and Life After Life in a sense was a whole book of them) but they usually carry on from the events leading to them and do not vitiate what has gone before quite as completely as the one here.

That her tale survives this is, then, something of a wonder, the engagement she engenders not wholly undermined. I know all fiction is a combination of smoke and mirrors, but it isn’t usually so explicitly acknowledged within a text. It helps that A God in Ruins (in retrospect a very apt title) appears formidably researched. The wartime scenes are stunningly effective. The book stands as a eulogy to the 55,573 dead of Bomber Command, a lament for their never to be born children and grandchildren, a threnody to all of its aircrews – including the survivors “part of him never adjusted to having a future”.

I had early reservations, too, about some of the techniques employed in the narrative. The timeline jumps about – not only from chapter to chapter but within a section, sometimes within a paragraph. Some events are referred to or described more than once (and not always from a different viewpoint) and I thought I’ve been told this already.. In the context of the novel’s last few pages though these became more explicable.

Despite the chapters on Teddy’s later life and those focusing on his children it is the war that increasingly comes to dominate the narrative. “‘Sacrifice,’ Sylvie said, ‘is a word that makes people feel noble about slaughter.’” Teddy comes to the conclusion, “By the end of the war there was nothing about men and women that surprised him. Nothing about anything really. The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” Elsewhere, “Britain in the gloomy aftermath of war felt more like a defeated country than a victorious one.”

A hint to the mindset of an author of fiction is perhaps pointed to in the passages, “A whole life could be contained in a dinner service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away,)” and, “People always took war novels seriously.”

In what I believe I recall as an exchange which also occurred in Life After Life (deliberately ironical given that book’s premise) we have, “Nancy sighed. ‘Sometimes I wonder,’ she said, ‘about reincarnation.’ ‘No,’ Ursula said, ‘I believe we have just one life, and I believe that Teddy lived his perfectly.’”

A God in Ruins may not be lived perfectly but is, overall, an impressive achievement; better thanLife After Life. One that, principally due to the war scenes (see: I did take them seriously – though of course WW2 is a period in which I have long had an interest,) will live with me for a long while.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval (is mediæval – or even mediaeval – now a lost cause?)

Farthing by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p. Returned to a threatened library.

 Farthing cover

An altered history country house mystery, Farthing is not the cosy murder story you might associate with the time in which it is set. Farthing, here, is not only the smallest denomination coin of pre-decimal British currency but also the country house where the murder has taken place, whose name has also been given to a “Set” of like-minded politicians and wielders of influence. The murder victim was Sir James Thirkie – bringer back of “Peace with Honour” after Hess’s mission led to Churchill’s overthrow and talks brought about an accommodation with Germany in 1941. Thirkie’s body was left with a dagger in its chest, affixed through a yellow star, suggesting the involvement of Jewish activists.

The narrative is carried by the first person of Lucy Kahn, Eversley as was, daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley and wife of David, a Jew to whom Lady Eversley has never become reconciled, taking alternate chapters with the third person viewpoint of the investigating officer, Inspector Peter Anthony Carmichael of Scotland Yard. Lucy Kahn’s voice begins as irritating but seems well captured. It may well be a reasonable reflection of how daughters of the upper crust spoke in the 1940s.

Tightly and intricately plotted, the book is also deeply embedded in its parallel world; the crime(s) committed in it arising out of its particular circumstances. Normally it is the duty of the detective in a crime novel to put the world to rights. (Spoiler.) In this case, due directly to Walton’s setting and purposes, that isn’t possible.

To a British reader it did seem strange that a book set in such a time and place could go by without a single mention of Oswald Mosley or the British Union of Fascists (though Walton’s conspirators echo them clearly enough.) There is also a simplification of the mechanics and ramifications of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons and no feel at all for the process by which leaders of the Conservative Party “emerged” in those times. I suspect both of these caveats would have been of little or no interest, or perhaps relevance, to Walton’s mainly USian readers. (The book is printed with the USian text – a minor irritant.) The degree of prejudice towards Jews prevalent by all levels of society in Farthing is perhaps a little at odds with the history of the Britain of our world (though such prejudice manifestly did exist) but in this respect, and substituting Muslims for Jews, the book has perhaps even more resonance now than it did when it was first published in 2006. A slide towards greater authoritarianism is all too evident in the UK at the moment and the phrase “if you’re innocent you’ve nothing to fear” is always chilling.

Another irritant was that characters refer to the country as England which is in one sense fair enough; most of them are English and would almost certainly have done so unthinkingly, but the new Prime Minister in his first PM’s speech to the House of Commons refers by that name to the whole of the country he has just taken over. I doubt even a crypto-fascist politician would have made such an error.

Nevertheless, I’ve already taken the second in Walton’s so-called Small Change trilogy, Ha’penny, out of a local library.

Pedant’s corner:- “But in the Battle of Britain, when the Heinkels were thick on his tail, I dived and strafed them to draw them off” (Heinkels were bombers and incapable of such a feat, Messerschmitts is more like it; strafing is done from air to ground, not air to air,) halftime (in a concert? That would be “the interval”,) “and all he died possessed but ten thousand pounds” (I get the gist but the phrase is missing something.) I wondered, would an English aristocrat name a horse Valley Forge? The spelling license was used for the noun (licence,) “which puts as back” (us back,) “and now he’d employed full time” (he’s employed,) taxicabs (cabs, or taxis, but not taxicabs,) no “?” at the end of a question, “I saw it during the war, looking at the way society interlocks at the bottom, talking to the other pilots (most RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain were not from the bottom of society) and either Lucy as narrator or Walton as author seems to be under the impression that the moment of conception occurs simultaneously with climax.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Tor, 2012, 416 p.

 Boneshaker cover

In 1863 Dr Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine undermined Seattle and let loose an invisible gas dubbed the Blight, whose effects are (slowly) deadly. As a result Seattle’s old city centre has had a two hundred feet high wall built around it. Sixteen years later (and incidentally with the War between the States still raging back east – which makes this an altered history: then again I suppose all steampunk is) his son, Zeke, convinced his father is innocent, sets off into the forbidden area to prove it. His mother, daughter of hero Maynard Wilkes, goes after him, scrounging a ride on an airship. (Ah, the glories of steampunk.) Inside the city various adventures befall them both before they (separately) encounter the mysterious technical wizard who effectively rules the walled city, Dr Minnericht.

Despite the Blight being described as invisible Priest has the air inside Seattle’s walls as brownish-yellow in colour. Some of the people who succumb to the Blight come back to animation as zombie-like things called rotters which roam the streets of the walled city in search of live human flesh which apparently they like to feed on. (I gather this is typical of zombies more generally.) The logic of this escapes me. Granted, Priest’s rotters will need an energy source, but why would this need to be meat and how, given that their own flesh has decayed, would they digest it anyway?

The scenes inside the walled city ought to conjure up a feeling of claustrophobia but somehow, despite constant references to the discomfort of facemasks and the necessity to replace their filters, doesn’t. The chapters featuring Zeke understandably read like a YA novel as does the pace of events. At times the atmosphere is reminiscent of Phillip Pulman’s His Dark Materials but these characters are much less memorable. I’m glad I’ve sampled Priest’s work but I don’t think I’ll seek out more.

Pedant’s corner:- amuck (I prefer amok,) if you had mask (a mask,) from whence (whence already means from where,) off of, sprung for sprang, but least they weren’t bleeding (at least.) stunk for stank (x 2,) shined for shone (x 2,) who was seemed on the verge, wadded it into ball, lay of the land.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

Review:-
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Orbit, 2014, 407 p. Reviewed for Interzone 252, May-Jun 2014.

There is a potential problem with the central premise of novels broadly comparable to this. It is one which also besets any work of fiction set either in virtual reality or a computer game. To wit: if a character cannot die – or can be resurrected after death – where, then, is the jeopardy? Why ought readers invest time and energy in sympathy or empathy; why should they care? Here that problem is encapsulated by the title (and for the reviewer is exacerbated by the accompanying promotional material.) We know before the outset that Harry August has at least fifteen lives. Why, then, for example, should the grubby circumstances of his conception and initial upbringing matter to us? However, “North” – the publishers emphasise that the author is pseudonymous but has experience – neatly sidesteps the issue by beginning “her” story at the end of Harry’s eleventh life, thus making it clear that any single life journey is not of itself crucial. And the jeopardy is not to Harry alone, but to human existence. “The world is ending.”

This idiosyncratic book reads at various points as if the author could not quite decide what sort of beast it actually is, first like a literary novel, then a thriller, a historical tract, a spy story and a tale of revenge – all the while riffing on Alternative History. And, yes, it does veer (rather suddenly) into more straightforward Science Fiction about halfway through, then morphs back again before returning to SF for its dénouement. As befits a tale of someone with more than fifteen lives the narrative is not linear but skitters about, incorporating vignettes from Harry’s existences, encounters with others of his kind. Yet it does manage to come together as a more or less coherent whole.

Harry is one of the kalachakra, an ouroboran, humans whose consciousness and memories of previous lives recycle back to birth after their death. In subsequent lives these memories begin to resurface after infancy. Before the lives accumulate this can lead to madness, later there can be advantages. Perhaps even worse for Harry, he is what the kalachakra call a mnemonic: he forgets nothing. Kalachakra are few enough at any one time but are scattered throughout history, sometimes leaving messages in stone to their successors. No explanation is given for their unusual attribute; their reincarnations just happen. Their knowledge of past lives ensures that no new one is a carbon copy of a previous existence. The Cronus Club, an organisation kalachakra have set up to succour their kind, can help remove them from the boredom of a re-lived childhood. And it turns out that the circumstances of Harry’s birth do matter. Kalachkra can be excised from the world, if they are prevented from being born. Harry’s obscure origins are a shield against any such calamity.

In each of his lives the broad sweep of history is similar but it is not emphasised in the text, except where the differences are obvious, that the detail means subsequent lives cannot be lived in the original but instead take place in parallel worlds. In a stance reminiscent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, the Cronus Club tries to ensure that kalachakra do not interfere with the course of history. Such activity has led to cataclysm at least once before.

Harry’s parallel existences have allowed him to learn many languages. His various employments take him all over the world, mainly in iterations of the 1950s, the primes of his lives, to a research establishment in the Soviet Union, the China of the Great Leap Forward, and to the USA. In one of these lives Harry is a physicist and meets the charismatic Vincent Rankis, subsequently becoming involved in Rankis’s project to build a quantum mirror – a device which will bestow a God’s perspective on the world.

While the writing is effective and for the most part reads smoothly, out of kilter phrases such as, among others, “a skill as much valued in the incompetence than the mastery,” (about punting on the Cam) might suggest that English is not actually “North”’s first language. There is also a lack of fine tuning in the last chapter where the readership to whom the narrative is addressed shifts from where it had lain up to then, the general (you and me,) to the specific. In addition the resolution comes a little too easily and strikes against the established character of Harry’s antagonist.

This book may well become an award nominee but for all its apparent ground-breaking aspirations and apocalyptic overtones The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is in the end a rather conventional tale. But, then, in all of literature, there are said to be only seven distinct plots.

The following entries to Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-

Again I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may be amended in the actual book but we had Ecstacy for Ecstasy, periphery nervous system for peripheral nervous system, neckless for necklace, a human stimuli, solice for solace, “her success (in finding a very few) cannot be underestimated” (overestimated, surely?) “did not less to see the end of his dream,” (live) “where he had began,” “at which all intercourse seeks” (ceases,) “azures of wisdom,” “I had never fully understand the..,” “the sense of unity that all these hardships create,” (creates) “illustrating the momentous dead,” “passer-bys,” “we do not need hide much deeper than in plain sight,” “the single most existing time of our lives,” “points of origins,” “we would not with to inconvenience you,” “would have bought the Cronus Club tumbling down on their creator’s head,” “an vastly more effective spy,” “dot.com,” “he has been a present through my life” (presence,) “chaffed” (chafed,) “knowing full well that all these things …. it would be enough,” [not to mention that use of mnemonic.]

Rising Sun by Robert Conroy

Baen Books, 2012, 343 p.

I spotted this when the good lady was returning Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel to the local library. As a sucker for altered histories I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Rising Sun cover

The set up here is that Japan won the Battle of Midway. Hawaii is withering on the vine, Japanese forces have invaded Alaska, raided the Panama Canal and occasionally bombard the US west coast. The sole substantial US aircraft carrier remaining is the Saratoga.

The novel focuses mainly on US Navy officer Tim Dane (who speaks and reads Japanese as a result of a pre-war visit there) though other characters – particularly his nurse girlfriend, Amanda Mallard – are given viewpoint scenes. The plot involves the lack of knowledge the Japanese have of the Saratoga’s whereabouts. A sub-plot involving a German saboteur, Wilhelm Braun, a former official in their embassy in Mexico, folds into the main narrative towards the end. We are given two token sympathetic Japanese characters (one belatedly sympathetic) and one German, Johann Klaas; but neither are all the USians in the book noble, good and true.

The scenario doesn’t really tell us anything new about the Pacific War nor illuminate history to any great degree. Effectively we spend the book waiting on the inevitable (given the author’s nationality and the publisher’s address) US victory.

I must say that for me Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s tactics in the final battle of the book did not quite ring true; but had it been otherwise the novel would have had to continue well beyond its 343 pages.

This is the sort of thing that Harry Turtledove seems to perform effortlessly. Conroy’s prose is as efficient and his characterisation may (I would put it no higher) be slightly better but the immersion in the milieu feels less deep. I doubt I’ll read any more by him.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are several instances of omitted or repeated words. Britain is named as “England” (though the adjective used for the UK’s forces is “British.”) In a scene involving Johann Klaas, his name is mistakenly given as Braun in one sentence.

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