Daily Archives: November 6th, 2012

The Forever War

I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked this up. Someone had recommended it, so I was going in blind. I did read the introduction, which is an interesting look at the problems and possibilities of getting stories published and serialised and what that can mean for novels. It also gave me the tip that this could be, and has been, seen as a “Vietnam book.” Which of course influenced my reading of it, but not I think in a deleterious way; I think actually I appreciate it more for knowing its context (which should be no surprise, let’s be honest).

The focus of the story is William Mandela, an army conscript for a war against the first aliens humanity has come into contact with. He’s trained on various moons to fight an enemy whose capabilities, and indeed appearance, are completely unknown… and then does indeed fight said aliens, with less than convincing results. This fight is followed by what is, I think, one of the most important aspects of the entire novel: Mandela’s return to Earth.

Because this is not a story with faster than light travel (it does have wormhole travel), and the fight took place several light years away, while Mandela has aged months many, many years have passed at home. While in theory this is great for the pay which has been accumulating in his bank account, and also for years served, all of those problems you encounter when you’ve been away a few months and then go home? Compounded, multiplied, and then made even worse. I’m sure they’ve been written, but I’ve not come across another story that deals as convincingly with the time dilation problem as this one. Haldemann reflects on the personal consequences for the soldiers, as well as on how this would impact news coverage of the ‘war’ and other, broader, issues. It’s probably the aspect that will stick with me the longest, although it’s by no means the only interesting bit.

The story ends up following Mandela over more than a thousand years, which is remarkably ambitious in 250 pages. Haldemann is, thankfully, not foolish enough to imagine a static society over that period, and he imagines and experiments with various alternatives for Earth – which Mandela mostly just samples, since he generally can’t cope with being home and so ships out again. There are huge changes to Earth’s economy, to reflect an entire planet being on a war footing (and, of course, that getting co-opted…) – imagine a society whose currency is calculated in calories; there are changes to sexuality, in response to population issues (his theory on sexuality in the marines is an interesting one too – a corps that’s not equally gendered but where sex is expected to take place regularly and with multiple partners… I can’t figure out how this would have been regarded in the 1970s); and even different modes of consciousness. All of which is very clever and, again given how short it is, somewhat frustrating – in a book written today, I would bet this would actually be a trilogy, each distinct part of Mandela’s life covered in excruciating detail… ok maybe I prefer this version.

And call me a sap, but there’s also a rather wonderful, understated love story at the heart of Mandela’s adventures, and I’ll admit to getting a little teary at the end. WHATEVER.

The Vietnam connections? Oh yes. An unknown enemy and seriously unknown tactics; a country (actually in this case a planet) geared towards a war that most people at home don’t really understand; little comments about the propaganda and rhetoric used, as well as the first fight taking place on a jungle planet – it’s very clever, because Haldemann doesn’t shove it in your face but definitely draws rather pointed parallels. All of that said I think this is still a fairly relevant book, since there are still – and probably will be for a long time – these sorts of wars, on varying scales.

Plus, maybe one day we’ll have wormhole travel, and then we’ll have to figure out how to deal with the time dilation problems.

The Deep: a BBC submarine series

Note: some spoilers here. Not huge ones.

I’m loving my BBC iplayer subscription, because it turns out there’s a bunch of BBC science fiction that hasn’t been picked up by Australian tv. Outrageous! The series we’ve just finished is The Deep, a submarine adventure under the Arctic. Be warned: if you don’t want your characters to be hurt, don’t watch this. If you don’t like the uncertainty of Spooks then this is probably not the show for you. Just saying.

The series opens with a marine biologist (I think), Catherine, in a little sub around a thermal vent in the Arctic. And something goes wrong. Flick forward six months and the biologist’s husband Clem is about to go out on a new mission to the same area to continue her mission… but then they get politely hijacked and told they have to go looking into what happened to Catherine and her crew. Basically the rest of the story – there’s five episodes – follows the deep-sea, under-ice adventures of the Orpheus (hello, classical imagery). One spoiler I think it’s important to put up front is this: from the first episode, I found it impossible to tell whether this was going to turn into a version of The Abyss, with aliens or Atlanteans responsible for the mishaps. But no. Instead, this is very much a science fiction thriller, with the story firmly entrenched in human politics, human problems, and very real human ambition and greed.

The story: is tightly, and I thought largely well, written. There are a few sub-plots but they are all ultimately tied into the over-arching issue of survival, immediately and long-term. There are betrayals and tragedies, unexpected friendships and some really, really cool twists.

The characters: largely enjoyable, if not always likeable. Frances (Minnie Driver) is the captain, generally as autocratic as she needs to be but occasionally lets personal considerations get in the way. I do not think that this a reflection of her being a woman – and I thought long and hard about that – there are plenty of examples of men acting likewise, and she is certainly never decried within the show for being weak as a consequence of having boobs. James Nesbitt is Clem, the engineer on the Orpheus, who is a bit mad with grief at being a widower and definitely the most irrational of the lot; there are times where he acts really quite irresponsibly, making me uncomfortable. But he’s sympathetic as well as unpredictable, and probably one of my favourites. The other main character is Samson (Goran Visnjic), whose accent bothered me greatly because I could never place it. I could never quite figure out his exact role on the boat, either, since he seemed to take on medical roles, and be the driver of the mini-sub, as well as doing some biological research stuff. It’s possible I just missed which one was his primary occupation. Anyway, Samson was for me the hardest character to bond with – he’s got various personal conflicts, and seemed to vacillate personality-wise. Of the minor characters Tobias Menzies as Raymond, the salvage/insurance dude along for the ride to investigate what happened to Catherine et al, is most awesome. He’s really hard to pin down regarding motives and attitude – really cleverly written – and Menzies is brilliant.

I can really recommend this if you’re after 5 compulsive hours of submerged adventure. And I do mean compulsive; the end of episode three made me immediately need to watch episode four because it was such a cliff-hanger. It’s not a completely happy story, by any means, but it’s worth it.

Emmeline Pankhurst: a niche in history

I have always been a bit of a fan of Pankhurst. I can remember years back doing an assignment on her, which may have been at the very outset of my interest in feminism and is the reason why I am passionately devoted to the idea of women voting any time they can. So I was pretty happy to, finally, get around to reading this bio of a remarkable woman.

Purvis begins her account with a historiographical examination of the treatment Pankhurst has received over the last seventy years or so, which is illuminating – especially as it all really began with her daughter Sylvia’s account, which was rather bitter and very much tainted by the feud between the two, thanks both to family issues and a fundamental difference in opinion about politics (Sylvia moved/stayed quite far left and was heavily into socialist politics, Emmeline moved away from many of her socialist tendencies for various reasons). Many subsequent accounts have leaned too heavily (in Purvis’ view) on Sylvia’s story, while others have come from a decidedly ‘masculinist’ perspective and thus denigrated Emmeline’s achievements and intentions. Modern feminist historians have often been troubled by her at least partly because she moved towards a more conservative, imperial point of view during and after WW1, but Purvis is insistent that we take Emmeline on her own terms.

I really enjoyed this as a book and as a history. Purvis writes very engagingly and paints a captivating picture of an extraordinary time, an amazing woman, and the politics of the suffrage campaign especially. It appears to be a very well-researched history, with copious endnotes to back up her points that include reference to many, many letters to and from Emmeline and others in her circle, as well as newspaper accounts, court proceedings, diary entries and the like. It really makes me wish I could find The Suffragette, the WSPU’s newspaper, online somewhere. Someone get on that!

A potted bio of Emmeline’s life: interested in politics very early on, married at about 22 to the 40-something Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer who was a strong socialist and campaigner for women’s rights, among other things. She had five children, one of whom died very young, but/and she was always and still involved in campaigns and political work. Richard died when Emmeline was 40, leaving her with little money and four children to support – financial trouble continued to dog her until her death at 69. What she is most famous for, of course, is the setting up of the Women’s Social and Political Union, with her daughters but especially the eldest, Christabel – and that it eventually took the step into militancy in order to advance the cause of women’s suffrage. Window smashing, arson, destruction of paintings… all of these things were seen as much worse when committed by women. Purvis points out the success that various Irish politicians and agitators were having with similar tactics, and the fact that this got them an audience with English politicians and even the king. Not so much the women. The WSPU began in 1903; women gained limited suffrage in 1918, at the same time as men gained it with no property qualification (and women had to be 30, men 21). This was not, of course, the end of Emmeline’s life – she had started campaigning for women’s war work with WW1, and also expressing her concerns about sexual double standards and morality with the increase of VD. After the war she lectured around America and Canada on topics like public hygiene, avoiding VD, and the necessity of the British Empire. She died back in England not long after discovering Sylvia had had a son without getting married, pretty much destitute.

Just writing that down makes me exhausted. Emmeline comes across, in this book, as an amazingly energetic and passionate woman. She’s one of the reasons the Cat and Mouse Act was introduced: imprisoned suffragettes would hunger strike; be let out to recover; then get re-imprisoned. She went on hunger strike 13 times. She never wrote her speeches down but always spoke extempore; she travelled around Britain campaigning for and against political candidates, speaking at rallies, and trying to convince people about the necessity of women’s suffrage. She never wanted the vote just for its own sake; she was driven by the idea that women being able to vote would bring about the incredibly necessary changes to society that would prevent the exploitation of women, the horrors of poverty, and alleviate other social problems that she saw in her work as a Poor Law Guardian and on an education board. She worked as a registrar for births and deaths and was always shocked and saddened by teen girls coming to register the birth – and sometimes death – of their illegitimate children, often the result of incest.

This was not a woman driven by a desire to be a man, as so much of the anti-suffrage press claimed; she did not regard herself as better than men but as deserving of equal citizenship. Not least because working women had to pay taxes but could not influence how they were spent, and because she abhorred double standards and thought women’s influence could help solve many problems. (She was quite the optimist.) People at the time, and even her daughter Sylvia, often seemed to think that the cause had become almost more important than the object. It’s not hard to see how this could happen, to be honest, when you’re fighting for something that frequently gets you attacked – verbally, physically – and condemned by large sections of society. I’m personally torn on the notion of militancy, but I’m not torn on what I think of this woman. She’s a hero. I wish I’d known she has a statue near Westminster when we were in London, because I would absolutely have gone on pilgrimage.

This is highly recommended as a way of understanding the English suffrage movement – the militant side at least, because yes Millicent Fawcett and other ‘constitutional’ suffragettes are largely ignored, except as they interacted with Emmeline – as well as how late Victorian/Edwardian England society functioned. Plus, this is a woman who deserves to get as much recognition as possible. She devoted her life, her health, and even – arguably – her family and friendships to public service.