This is the autobiography of pioneering aviatrix Hanna Reitsch, who set over forty world records between the 1930s and 1950s: first female flight captain; first woman to fly a helicopter; world distance record in a helicopter; winner of the 1938 German national gliding competition; first woman to pilot a military jet aircraft; first et cetera.
Hanna is famous for what she did. She’s also famous for why she did it. From the words German and military and 1938 you’ve probably realised that she was flying for the Luftwaffe in World War II.
“Her flying skill, desire for publicity, and photogenic qualities made her a star of Nazi propaganda. Physically she was petite in stature, very slender with blonde hair, blue eyes and a ‘ready smile’. She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.” – Wikipedia
We all have a cross to bear. In Hanna’s case it was an actual cross, made of iron.
März 1941: Adolf Hitler verleiht Flugkapitän Hanna Reitsch das Eiserne Kreuz [2. Klasse]
Mitte: Hermann Göring
In this book, Hanna comes off as apolitical (although all Nazis were apolitical after
the war, weren’t they?), and other than some generic, learned-by-rote boilerplate (“I had been brought up to be a patriot”),
she offers no commentary on the politics of the time or her own relationship to it. Hanna was only interested in the Nazi party because they allowed her to fly their pioneering warplanes, and much of the book is long, poetry-like meditations on the euphoria of flying.
Now I am shivering, all over, in every tissue of my body, and my bare hands turn blue as, nearly ten thousand feet above the earth, in my summer frock, I sit, basking in rain, hail and snow, my streaming hair tossed like seaweed in a storm.
Flying can be addictive: and the thrill must have been even greater for the men and women who were the first. Hanna flew in the years before the thermals were choked with traffic. She flew virgin airlines instead of Virgin Airlines, and saw parts of the earth from angles and altitudes that nobody else ever had.
When flying a plane, certain things have to be done in a certain order. Auxiliary fuel pump off. Flight controls checked. Instruments and radios checked. Altimeter set. Hanna writes like she’s preparing for flight. While a modern writer would probably try to hook the reader with a dramatic mis-en-scene about a near-fatal crash or something, Hanna tells the story more or less in chronological order: her childhood in Silesia, her dreams of being a flying missionary doctor in Africa, her early experiences flying an unpowered glider, her work as a stuntwoman and flight instructor, her arrest in Lisbon as a suspected spy, and her years of military service.
The book doesn’t have a lot of dates. I often found myself asking “what year is it?” and not getting an answer. It’s clear that Hanna’s obsession with flight made her a veteran at an extremely young age. Midway through the book, a man called Wolfram Hirth hires her as an instructor for his school. I assumed she was in her twenties or thirties, then she casually drops a mention that she needed her parents’ permission to skip another year of school.
While teaching Hirth’s students, she learned an important lesson herself: when in the air, it’s extremely easy to die.
Before this last pupil took off for his test, I went with him carefully, point by point, through every aspect of his flight. He had done well in his “A” and “B” Tests and, seeming now perfectly at ease and sure of himself, would, I had no doubt, pass this last one quite easily.
He took off in his glider normally and then, for a whole two and a half minutes, flew exactly as the book, without a fault. Now he had only to fly one turn, circle wide and land. He tumed — rather steep but quite well — and then, — plunged in one straight swift dive to earth.
I had never heard before what sound a plane makes when it crashes and at first I could not move. Then I ran down the hillside towards the wreckage, knowing, as I ran, that my pupil was already dead.
It fell to me to break the news to his mother, who lived in a nearby village.
I will never forget how I walked to her cottage through the fields, alone, how the poor, old woman saw me coming and called to me before I could speak:
“Ach, Fräuleinchen — ich weiss schon . Mein Sohn! Mein Sohn ist nicht mehr”
How did the mother know her son was dead? Because he’d had a dream that morning of his controls failing and told her. There’s a superstitious, mystical quality to some of these early pilots, as though they don’t fully trust their rational faculties. I suspect that most of them have abnormal psychologies.
Hanna herself would have many encounters with death. She describes being trapped inside a storm, performing a stunt in San Paolo that would have killed dozens if it failed (which it nearly did), and most seriously, a crash in the legendary rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.
Nobody built planes like the late-era Reich. Nobody should have built planes like the late-era Reich. With the Eastern Front collapsing, Hitler invested wildly in all sorts of unpromising projects, hoping for a magical technological ticket out of Germany’s inevitable defeat.
The results were a series of ghastly Wagnerian nightmares that look like they’re from a comic book and have names that sound like death metal bands. Planes like the Gotha Go 229 (a jet-powered “flying wing” stealth bomber) and the Bachem Ba 349 Natter (a vertical take-off interceptor that famously had no landing gear, with the pilot expected to either eject mid-flight or commit suicide by ramming an enemy plane) were twenty years ahead of their time technically and six hundred years behind ethically.
But the greatest, or worst, of the Nazi experimental warplanes was the Me 163. A lightning-fast “interceptor”, it was little more than a rocket with a human being attached, shooting up to 30,000 feet within ninety seconds on a 4,500 HP backwash of hypergolic combustants. With its regular test pilot Heini Dittmar was hospitalized due to a broken spine, Hanna was chosen to take his place riding the tiger.
To fly the rocket plane, Me 163, was to live through a fantasy of Münchhausen. One took off with a roar and a sheet of flame, then shot steeply upwards to find oneself the next moment in the heart of the empyrean.
To sit in the machine when it was anchored to the ground and be surrounded suddenly with that hellish, flame-spewing din, was an experience unreal enough. Through the window of the cabin, I could see the ground crew start back with wide-open mouths and hands over their ears, while, for my part, it was all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions. I felt as if I were in the grip of some savage power ascended from the Nether Pit. It seemed incredible than Man could control it.
The Me 163 could attain speeds of up to 1,130 km/h, which meant that “the smallest error of judgement might mean the loss of the machine and [Hanna’s] own death”. Even correct judgement was no guarantee. Her test flight immediately suffered a crippling technical issue – the exposed undercarriage got jammed – and she couldn’t contact the towing plane to abort the test. She successfully flew the plane for a while, but as she attempted to land, the Me 163 stalled due to the protracted undercarriage, and she lost control and tumbled to the ground at over 240 kp/h.
We plunged, striking the earth, then, rending and Cracking, the machine somersaulted over — lurched — and sagged to a stop. The first thing I realised was that I was not hanging in my harness and therefore the machine was right-side up. Quite automatically, my right hand opened the cabin roof— it was intact. Cautiously, I ran my hand down my left arm and hand, then slowly along my sides, chest and legs. To my thankful amazement, nothing was missing and all seemed in working order.
She was wrong: her skull was shattered in six places, her upper jaw was displaced, and her nose was nearly torn away. “Each time I breathed, bubbles of air and blood formed along its edge.” With consciousness fading, Hanna found a pencil and pad and wrote a message explaining why the crash had occurred. She also tied a handerchief around her head so that the her rescue party wouldn’t see her face. It would be a long time before she would fly again.
Her dramatic crash made her a celebrity within the Nazi party, and it was here that she had her most intimate encounters with the inner machinery of the state. Some of it’s funny, like this sitcom-worthy encounter with Hermann Göring.
[Göring] planted his bulk squarely in front of me, his hands resting on his hips.
“What! Is this supposed to be our famous ‘Flugkapitän’? Where’s the rest of her? How can this little person manage to fly at all?”
I did not like the reference to my size. I made a sweep with my hand roughly corresponding to his girth.
“Do you have to look like that to fly?”
In the middle of my sentence, it suddenly struck me with hot embarrassment that, in the circumstances, my gesture might be considered out of place. I tried to halt it in mid-air, but too late — everyone, including Göring, had seen it and there was a great burst of laughter, in which Göring joined.
But mostly these conversations are unsettling, the way it’s unsettling to read a conversation involving a well-programmed chatbot that knows how to say the right things but is clearly non-human. History remembers most of the NSDP’s upper echelon as high-IQ sociopaths, men skilled at reforging reality using words – words that they didn’t truly mean at all.
As Hanna wines and dines with the inner circle of the Party, I was interested to learn about the rifts dividing Nazi Germany – particularly, the conflict between the “Gott Mit Uns” Protestantianism of the Prussian and Weimar eras, and the odd blend of pagan, atheistic, and social Darwinist thought of Heinrich Himmler.
In our family, we had always avoided mentioning the name of Himmler : my mother saw in him the adversary of Christianity and he could therefore have nothing in common with us.
Hanna eventually meets Himmler, and challenges him both on his anti-Christian beliefs and rumors she’s heard about his social policies. This is one of the few times Hanna expresses a political opinion.
We then turned to another problem, about which my feelings were strong, his attitude to women and marriage. I reproached him for looking at the matter from a purely racial and biological stand-point, considering woman only as a bearer of children and through his directives to the SS, about which, admittedly, I had only heard rumours, tending to undermine morality and destroy the sanctity of marriage.
These are probably references to Lebensborn, an SS-initiated breeding program that sought to improve Germany’s racial purity through abduction, insemination, and selective abortion.
Himmler replied to my charges factually and at considerable length. He assured me that he shared my views entirely. His policy had been misrepresented and misinterpreted, either unintentionally or from deliberate malice. It was very important, he said, that these tendentious rumours should not get about, particularly at the present time.
The real problem, Himmler explains, are people who spread rumors. He ends the conversation by thanking Hanna for her outspokenness (which is hard not to read as “you’re toeing the line, so don’t step across it”), and asking her to report all subsequent rumors to him.
But the elite Nazis aren’t just manipulative, they’re also delusional. At a second meeting with Göring (not long after her crash), Hanna is shocked to learn that he believes the Messerschmitt Me 163 to be ready for mass production. She argues with him at length – the plane is a dangerous toy, more likely to kill its pilot than an enemy – but he refuses to allow reality to disturb his illusions. German might and German industry will prevail. A German failure ontologically doesn’t exist. Certain people remained in this state of mind until Berlin crashed down around them.
To be blunt, I was soon asking the “naive or liar” question about Hanna herself. In 1944, she receives an a document by a friend in Stockholm, alleging something (we’re not told what, but can guess) about “gas chambers” in Germany. She queries Himmler about this:
I telephoned Himmler, obtaining permission to visit him at his headquarters in the field. Arrived there, I placed the booklet before him.
“What do you say to this, Reichsführer?”
Himmler picked it up and flicked over the pages. Then, without change of expression, he looked up, eyeing me quietly:
“And you believe this, Frau Hanna?”
“No, of course not.”
Was Hanna telling the truth here? She knew about Lebensborn. Did she not know about the Holocaust? It seems hard to believe. She was an important figure in the Vergeltungswaffe rocket program, which relied on slave labor in camps such as Auschwitz. For her have no idea whatsoever by 1944 is…interesting.
Whatever the case, 1944 is very late in the game. Soon everyone would know.
With the end fast approaching, Hanna became increasingly land-bound, serving in an advisory role to Luftwaffe forces on retreat from Stalingrad. She was a brilliant flyer but had zero skills as a soldier, to the point where she asks a German soldier to help her distinguish German shellbursts from Russian ones. There’s a pervasive grimness to this part of the book. Cities are falling. Critical resource centers and railhubs are being lost. The Russians are pushing west with overwhelming force. Every possible factor is working against the Reich.
There was only one way Germany could have achieved victory: a technological miracle. This was the last hope, that at the eleventh hour some brave scientist would shatter an atom in an interesting way, invent anti-gravity propulsion, or summon Himmler’s Norse gods down from Valhalla to do battle against the Asiatic hordes. This was what Germany needed to win – a Wunder-wuffe, or miracle weapon.
Spoiler: the miracle never occurred. Germany was defeated, and although World War II ended with a mighty science-conjured explosion, it didn’t flash to Germany’s benefit.
Hanna Reitsch was one of the final people to see Adolf Hitler alive. After a harrowing late-night flight into Berlin through heavy Russian flak (the entire city was under siege, and nobody knew if there was even an intact runway left for a landing), she arrived at the Reich Chancellery along with fighter ace Robert Ritter von Greim and then descended to the Fuhrerbunker.
Greim reported on our journey, Hitler listening calmly and attentively. When he had finished, Hitler seized both Greim’s hands and then, turning to me: “Brave woman! So there is still some loyalty and courage left in the world !”
But Hitler didn’t need more loyalty and courage from his followers. It was their loyalty and courage that had brought him to this point. It’s no credit to fight an insane war, nor obey insane orders, and Hanna’s mild questioning of Göring’s miracle planes was a thousand time more useful to the war effort than the blind obedience Hitler demanded from his followers.
He was an utter madman by that point, reality blasted from his brain and leaving only the shifting sand of hope and memory. He was Fuhrer of a nation that existed largely inside his own imagination. He “rewards” Greim by appointing him chief of the German air force…but Germany no longer had an air force to command!
But his life’s final decision was eminently sane: and agreeable to both his supporters and enemies alike.
On our second day in the Bunker, 27th April, I was summoned to Hitler’s study. His face was now even paler, and had become flaccid and putty-coloured, like that of a dotard. He gave me two phials of poison so that, as he said, Greim and I should have at all times “freedom of choice.” Then he said that if the hope of the relief of Berlin by General Wenk was not realized, he and Eva Braun had freely decided that they would depart out of this life.
Hanna ended up not using the phial of poison. She escaped the Fuhrerbunker, and survived well into the 1970s. Her death is a source of mystery and speculation – did she commit suicide using the phial in the end? I’m not so sure. She spent some time in American detention, and they certainly would have taken any means of suicide away from her.
The older ones had been through the First World War, you could tell it from their faces and their scars. After doing their duty for years in the trenches, they had returned home to be insulted and spat upon and have the shoulder-straps torn by hooligans from their uniforms. It was no wonder that their experiences had made them very embittered. “. . . Just as if it was us who had been the trouble-makers,” they said, almost in self defence, “—as if it was a positive pleasure to stop a Lewis gun bullet. . .”
This reminds me of the (possibly exaggerated) stories of Vietnam veterens getting spat on at LAX. It’s a damned sight easier to support the troops when they’re victorious troops. Soldiers from a lost war are often regarded with pity and even suspicion, like broken toys.
This was to be German’s legacy in World War II. Defeat, ruin, national shame, division, and a rebuilding enabled by the erasure of the past. It’s understandable, if only in hindsight, why Hanna cared so much about flying. There wasn’t damned thing worth having on the ground.
The title of the book seems uncannily appropriate. Hanna’s realm was the sky: one that lasted longer than a thousand years.
And now there is silence, everywhere. Earth and sky seem wrapped in sleep. My glider-bird slumbers, too, gleaming softly against the stars. Beautiful bird, that out-flew the four winds, braved the tempest, shot heavenward, searching out the sky, — soaring higher, as I am soon to learn, than any glider-plane has ever flown before.
An 18th century German composer who wrote the theme for a king, with a principle melody that ascends yet remains trapped in tonal space. A 19th century Dutch artist who created maddening and hallucinatory artwork, defying intuition about perspective and reality. A 20th century German mathematician who described the limitations of a formal system addressing itself.
According to this book, Godel, Escher, and Bach were three blind men touching the same elephant: the Strange Loop.
“The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchial system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”
You get on an elevator on floor 1, go up nine floors, emerge on floor 10, and then take the stairs back down. This is a loop. But imagine taking the elevator from floor 1 to floor 10, and the door slides open to reveal…floor 1. This is a strange loop.
“But things like that don’t exist.” They might not in architecture, but they do in the things that give rise to architecture: math, language, and human consciousness. Statements like “this sentence is a lie” and “I am nobody” are linguistic paradoxes. They’re like MC Escher’s Drawing Hands: destroying and recreating themselves over and over. Idioms like “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” are loopy. “This is not a pipe” is loopy. Barbershop poles are loopy.
One of the eye-opening parts of this book is how you start noticing strange loops all around you. The website you’re reading is powered by PHP, which stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”. This isn’t a mistake: the language’s name is an acronym containing its own acronym inside it! Like spiders, strange loops always exist closer to your body than you think.
But there’s more to strange loops than weird art and logic puzzles. Hofstadter seems to be poking towards a theory of consciousness itself.
In 1996, David Chalmers explicated the two main problems of consciousness. 1) How does a collection of atoms develop a consciousness (meaning a subjective experience, an internal monologue, or whatever). 2) Why does this happen? Why don’t we experience the world the way a robot might?
Hofstadter’s sense (never forcefully argued) is that strange loops are responsible for the consciousness we experience. Just as the three letters “PHP” contains an infinite number of “PHPs” inside them, our three-pound brains are able to “unfold” into something more than the sum of its parts, via iterations of very complicated loops. This doesn’t address the second of Chalmers’ questions, although in a later book Hofstadter compares the soul to a “swarm of colored butterflies fluttering in an orchard” – something attracted by the fruit, but not a part of the fruit. The loops don’t require conscious experience, the conscious experience emerges as a kind of froth when all of these loops combine.
This implies that an algorithm would be capable of introspecting about its own existence. A string of math on a very large blackboard would perceive the color red, and feel pain. It’s a provocative idea, but don’t expect to find this formulated with a QED at the end. As the constant artistic motifs suggest, GEB isn’t a hard science book. This is probably why people actually read it.
GEB is filled with illustrations, games, puzzles, and – most notoriously – dialogues inspired by Lewis Carroll. Some of these are astonishingly creative. The passage about the crab canon made me stop reading, because I wanted to take a moment to enjoy the thing I’d just put into my brain. It was mind expanding. Nearly mind-exploding.
Although GEB contains a primer on the basics of computer language, intellectual rigor isn’t the book’s goal. One of Hofstadter’s many interests is Zen Buddhism, which is our culture’s most potent form of anti-logic and as such is of great interest to the student of the strange loop.
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail / Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break / Until at last the bottom fell out. / No more water in the pail! / No more moon in the water!
Zen never makes lessons easy for the student: you’re the one who has to do the work, and become cosmic. But GEB makes the road far more fun than it has to be. What stands out about Hofstadter’s prose is how readable it is. Hofstadter isn’t a wordsmith, he’s a word alchemist, making dull things sparkle. The prelude to my edition contains a digression in the difficulties he had typesetting the book, which sounds as gripping as Hannibal crossing the Alps. (There’s also a somewhat cringeworthy part self-flagellating about the how the original printing of the book uses the default male voice.)
So is “loopiness” the way a collection of atoms can collectively seem to think, reason, and experience? The book leaves me unsure, as I think it was meant to. It’s the world’s longest Zen koan, fragments of information that never coalesce into a hard idea, but seem to get me closer to enlightmentment than I was before.
Important aside: Godel, Escher, and Bach are three wise men (initials GEB), also the three wise men of the Nativity tale are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (initials GMB), also M is E rotated 90 degrees, also they brought gift of gold, frankencense, and myrrh (initials GFM), also F is the letter after E in the Roman alphabet, also “Godel” is nearly an anagram of “gold”, also I lied when I said this part was important.
I heard the band Motorhead described as a perfect mix of 1/3 punk rock, 1/3 heavy metal, and 1/3 rock and roll, with no element outweighing the other.
This book is a mix of 1/3 fantasy, 1/3 alternate history, and 1/3 science fiction. It hooked me at age 12 because of its violence: if you want detailed descriptions of billhooks crushing skulls, this has them. Descriptions, I mean. But Ash: A Secret History is ambitious: the plot unfolds like Lemarchand’s box, becoming increasingly complex and intriguing.
It’s a book within a book within a book. The framing device is that a 20th century linguist is attempting to publish a biography of the female medieval mercenary captain, Ash, who lived in the 14th century and who is shrouded by myth and legend. She had a reputation for tactical brilliance. She also heard voices in her head, telling her the future. Or so the tales say.
The book soon starts getting weird. There are big hints that the world of Ash (and the biographer) is not our own. Christ wasn’t crucified on a cross, he was hung from a tree. The Visigoths didn’t disappear from history in the 8th century, they rebuilt the city of Carthage and established an empire on the northern coast of Africa. Certain world events went differently.
By the time quantum physics start getting involved the book, you’re heavily invested in its tale of bloodshed and war. Ash ends up defending 14th century Burgundy against an army of invading Visigoths – a bizarre war that’s found nowhere in history. Is it all a hoax? Are we are hoax? Are the true hoaxes the friends we made along the way?
The way the plot resolves is clever, but at every level the book is interesting: you feel sorry for the historian who wrote down Ash’s adventures and paid a terrible price for it, and for the modern-day linguist who keeps having the rug yanked out from under his feet by inconvenient historical discoveries (one wonders if Gentle isn’t writing about her own experiences in academia).
It’s not flawless – a lot of dialog scenes serve no purpose except to gargle and masticate information the reader already knows, and every conversation seems to run about thirty percent too long. But on the whole, it’s a superior work, unlike any story I can recall reading.
As I’ve alluded, Gentle is a heavily-credentialed midlist author with degrees in Seventeenth Century Studies and War Studies. She seems to be one of those writers who turns converts masters degrees into novels. Ash can a brutal book, revelling in blood, sordidness, and bathroom activities, and the fact that it’s also thoroughly researched and informative makes it seem downright . It’s also thoroughly researched and informative. Like George MacDonald Fraser before her, Gentle realises that the audience will tolerate a lot of depravity if you present it as an educational experience.
“I don’t remember giving a moment’s thought to the fact that we had just sketched out a plan to kill millions of people.”
Ken Alibek – born Kanatzhan “Kanat” Alibekov – was a Soviet microbiologist. Prior to his defection to the United States in 1992, Alibek was First Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the USSR’s secret biowarfare project.
In other news, I might be dying right now. Something might be in my body, invisibly small, eluding my T-cells and my MHC and murdering me. Like a citizen in Kabul being targeted by a reaper drone, I’ll never see my killer’s face. My loved ones won’t be able to curse it or shake their hands at it. My body will go into a plague bag and then into a cremation oven, perhaps after infecting others.
Disease is everywhere. “You Want It, You Got It,” sang the Detroit Emeralds in the 70s. Disease is You Don’t Want It, You Got It. I live in a first world country with plumbing and sewage, yet I’ve had the flu, chicken-pox, and at least forty colds. It’s inescapable. Having a phobia of viruses would be like having a phobia of air – and to an approximation, air is viruses. 800 million viruses drift to earth every day per square meter, a steady rain, as deadly as a storm of steel. These viruses clash and recombine, peeling off strips of recombinant DNA and RNA like Formula One cars swapping paint, sometimes making themselves stronger in the process. The end result might be a deadly new superplague entering my lungs with the breath I just took. This is unlikely to happen to me, but that’s cold comfort. Someone else is going to be the first.
And these are only natural plagues. Engineered ones are far worse. Nature can create shapes that float on water, such as curved leaves, but they’ll never be as strong and buoyant as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Unconstrained by evolutionary pressure, a laboratory can theoretically create a disease far worse than any seen in nature. The biohazards Alibek worked on were synthetic tularemia, anthrax, glanders, haemorraghic fever, and anthrax. But the true biohazard was Abelikov himself. He was a sorcerer of the spirochete, driving nature far beyond its natural constraints and then straight over a cliff.
“We saw ourselves as custodians of a mystery that no one else understood, warriors or high priests of a secret cult whose rituals could not be revealed.”
The thing about viruses is that they can’t be too deadly, or they’ll kill their carrier organisms before they get a chance to reproduce. A man-made plague distributed from airborne canisters is under no such obligations to play nice. Alibek wasn’t the first to see the potential for disease as a weapon: it’s been used in this way since antiquity. It’s impersonal, creating a layer of obfuscation between the attacker and victim. And it’s easy for a state actor to work on bioweapon projects, telling outside inspectors that they’re merely conducting defensive research.
But diseases have one big problem: they can’t tell friend from foe. Alibek has many close calls while working at Biopreparat, such as a terrifying incident in 1983 where a faulty safety valve causes a liquified super-strain of tularemia to flow upwards through an air vent.
“I opened the door and took a few steps inside. It was pitch black. I reached back, groping in the darkness for the light switch. When I finally hit the switch and looked down, I found I was standing in a puddle of liquid tularemia. It was milky brown–the highest possible concentration. The puddle at my feet was only a few centimeters deep, but there was enough tularemia on the floor to infect the entire population of the Soviet Union.”
Alibek frantically washes himself with hydrogen peroxide. It isn’t enough. One day later, he begins to sicken.
Toward the end of Klyucherov’s visit, my body started to shake. Chills, and a sudden wave of nausea, overcame me so quickly I wanted to bury my head in my arms. It’s a cold, I thought. I’ve been working too hard.
But it felt worse than any cold I’d ever had. I could feel my face burning with fever.
“What’s happened to you?” Klyucherov asked in a tone that was now much friendlier. “You look like you’re about to die.”
I smiled weakly. “It’s just a cold,” I said. “I had a long night. I could do with some tea.”
Alibek isn’t just afraid of the disease, he’s afraid of discovery: people disappear because of these sorts of fuck-ups. Luckily, he’s able to antidote himself with black market tetracycline, and his superiors never suspect he had anything except a cold.
This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book: the discussion of Soviet culture and how one interacts with it.
Russia had several Chernobyl-like events. On March 1979, a technician at a chemical drying plant in Sverdlovsk removed a clogged filter and didn’t replace it. Soon, aerosolized spores were pouring from the plant’s exhaust pipes, where the wind blew them into Sverdlovsk’s factory district. What kind of spores? Bacillus anthracis, better known as anthrax.
With workers dying by the score, several contradictory coverup stories went into effect at once. The KGB informed locals that the deaths were caused by a truckload of contaminated meat. Innocent meat vendors were arrested, and the victims’ families received visits from “doctors” armed with falsified death certificates. Meanwhile, members of the local Communist Party were put to work scrubbing “hazardous material” from roads and rooftiles.
…which caused a second wave of deaths, when brooms and brushes swept anthrax spores back into the air, spreading them a second time throughout the city. Multiple layers of incompetence, executed with maximal efficiency.
I don’t think any kid dreams of working at a place like Biopreparat. Alibek originally wanted to become a military psychiatrist, but he was drawn sideways into studying epidemiology and biology. He had an obvious flair for such work, but he also possessed a single large weakness: he noticed things he wasn’t supposed to. His professor, a retired colonel called Aksyonenko, assigned him the task of writing about the outbreak of tularemia that crippled a German offensive in 1942. After a few nights studying the case, Alibek came to conclusions that might have landed him in big trouble.
When I walked into my professor’s office with a draft of my paper, I thought I had solved the puzzle. He was concentrating on the latest edition of Krasnaya Zvezda, the official army newspaper.
“So, what have you discovered?” Aksyonenko asked, smiling up at me before returning to his paper.
“I’ve studied the records, Colonel,” I said cautiously. “The pattern of the disease doesn’t suggest a natural outbreak.”
He looked up sharply. “What does it suggest?”
“It suggests that this epidemic was caused intentionally.”
He cut me off before I could continue.
“Please,” he said softly. “I want you to do me a favor and forget you ever said what you just did.”
It’s impossible silence and secrecy.
Whether or not you think Reagan was correct in describing the USSR as an “evil empire” (I think he was), it was certainly an unsafe empire. When disasters like Chernobyl (or Sverdlovsk) occur, they need to occur in a spiritual daylight, so that the correct action can be taken with expediency. Not beneath the shade of coverups and lies. Most importantly, you need to give your inferiors permission to make mistakes – otherwise you’ll never know when they do.
Obviously, Biopreparat’s work killed a good number of Russians. Was it ever used on non-Russians?
Not in war, as far as I can tell. That’s the dark irony: biowarfare tends to get used in ways that specifically aren’t sanctioned warfare; such as against civilians and political opponents. Alibek had numerous encounters with KGB operatives, who praised him, threatened him, and attempted to recruit him as an informant. He believes that his work was used to commit assassinations on behalf of an even more secret entity known as Project Flute.
In the spring of 1990, Butuzov walked into my office and sank into the big armchair across from my desk. He stared for a while at the
portraits of scientists hanging on the wall.
“I need your advice on something, Kan,” he said casually.
“Sure,” I said. “Professional or personal?”
I waited until he spoke again.
“I’m looking for something that will work with a gadget I’ve designed. It’s a small battery, the kind you use for watches, connected to a vibrating plate and an electric element.”
“Go on,” I said. He spoke in the same casual tone in which we discussed a soccer match. I was fascinated.
“Well, when you charge this element up, the plate will start vibrating
at a high frequency, right?”
“So, if you had a speck of dried powder on that plate, it will start to form an aerosol when it vibrates.”
He looked at me for encouragement, and I motioned for him to continue.
“Let’s say we put this assembly into a tiny box, maybe an empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and then find a way to put the pack under someone’s desk, or in his trash basket. If we were then to set it in motion, the aerosol would do the job right away, wouldn’t it?”
“It depends on the agent,” I said.”Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. What’s the best agent to use in such a situation if the objective is death?”
I’m not sure why I went along with him, but I did.
“You could use minimal amounts of tularemia,” I said, “but it wouldn’t necessarily kill.”
“I know,” said Butuzov. “We were thinking of something like Ebola.”
“That would work. But you’d have a high probability of killing not just this person, but everyone around him.”
“That wouldn’t matter.”
Alibek continues probing, and learns that Flute’s target is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the newly elected president of Georgia. The “flamboyantly mustachio’d” Gamsakhurdia had been an enemy of Moscow ever since leading a campaign against the Soviet army in 1989, and it was suddenly very attractive that he no longer remain in power.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in 1993, under circumstances that remain unclear. Maybe it was a suicide. Or maybe a small, vibrating battery was involved.
How did Alibek morally rationalise his work? Using the standard line: Biopreparat was only doing the same thing the Americans were doing. It was the USSR’s version of the missile gap: if we don’t develop bioweapons, they will first.
Was this ever true? Maybe at one stage. Research efforts between the US and the USSR dovetail perfectly between 1945 and 1969: the same agents, the same aerosols, and the same processes were used on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This likely wasn’t an accident. Classified US research papers on bacteriological weapons had a curious way of ending up in Moscow.
But by 1969, the US was losing interest in the field. Public discontent with the Vietnam war soon expanded to encompass chemical and biological warfare, and facilities throughout the country were picketed. Nixon was soon convinced by his advisors that disease-based weapons lacked tactical value, and later that year, he appointed a panel that killed America’s biowarfare program.
…The Soviets, of course, regarded all of this as theater.
“We didn’t believe a word of Nixon’s announcement. Even though the massive U.S. biological munitions stockpile was ordered to be destroyed, and some twenty-two hundred researchers and technicians lost their jobs, we thought the Americans were only wrapping a thicker cloak around their activities.”
But in 1991, as the old regime ended, Alibek was chosen to be part of a group of Soviet scientists to tour biological research facilities in the United States. He was shocked at what he didn’t find: Biopreparat had two thousand specialists in anthrax. The Americans had two. The research papers he saw were all decades old. Supposedly top-secret installations like Fort Detrick seemed to be either defunct or converted to hum-drum civilian medical research. He turned over every stone he could, but there was nothing incriminating to be seen.
But his superiors weren’t interested in hearing that America had abandoned biowarfare, and didn’t like the implication that they themselves might soon be out of a job. Obvious parallels to the Iraq war come to mind. From Bush’s perspective, Iraq had to be guilty of something. After all, he’d already gone to the trouble of invading them.
The one-sidedness of Russia’s research projects became another thing Alibek wasn’t supposed to talk about. It’s around this point that thoughts of defection entered his head. Spurring him on was the new wave of racial tension that followed the collapse of the USSR – another thing that interested me. Alibek is ethnically a Kazakh, and although his face doesn’t exactly look Asiatic, it looks just as Asiatic as it does Caucasian. Until this point, he’d been a citizen of the Soviet Union. Now, he was a foreigner with strange features. This was interesting to me: maybe the union of satellite states across Russia effectively erased a number of racial barriers? Either way, Alibek couldn’t rely on Soviet national unity to protect himself any longer. So he fled.
Alibek escaped his former country, but he can’t escape his place in history: one that’s already pockmarked with smallpox scars, lacerated with varicella-zoster rashes. If a few metaphorical butterfly wingflaps had occurred, a massive breakthrough might have occurred at Biopreparat that greatly altered the balance of power between the USSR and the USA. Or perhaps the breakthrough would have insured that the balance of power became irrelevant, welding mankind into one: carriers for a deadly superplague.
Archimedes spoke about how a perfectly positioned lever could move the world. Disease is a perfectly positioned lever that could end the world. Alibek’s work might have value, if it helps us understand and prepare against the next time Pandora’s box is opened. That’s the only certainty: there will be a next time.
Here’s a question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?
That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.
Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. We have ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown. I am comforted by the fact that although Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, we will never run out of deserts.
Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…but these remote areas are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into coastal sanctuaries engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.
Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney, citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – fun to visit, but you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.
En-route, he stops for the night at the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. Past nightfall the schoolteacher decides to go gambling, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive…and the masks start to slip.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright it was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. There the similarities stop. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging thrusts you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is dainty and ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a cat’s asshole.
It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike something like American Psycho it achieves this feat while remaining believable. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train and eating breakfast at a hotel are seen through an authorial lens that captures the dust-cauled sunlight and focuses it on filth, dirt, and unpleasantness. There’s exactly one moment where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera and stops us from seeing the action on the page (perhaps out of fear of censorship). But even here, he leaves enough clues that the reader understands what’s going on.
Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him, and the nice bloke offering them turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. To be otherwise is to violate a sacred pact.
This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about drinking, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.
The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It would be considered racist if the characters were brown or black people (as happened with Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my brief exposure to outback towns. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. And it may be my privilege as a citydweller that I never have to learn it.
A doorstop-sized work of historical fiction from 14th century China. At eight hundred pages, nearly a million words, and a thousand named characters, it has broken hardier men than you. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of those Mount Everest type books – can you possibly finish it?
It’s also the world’s first videogame. Explanation incoming.
Sometimes art has content that suggests it belongs to a different medium. For example, the first film directors had a background in theater, and the movies they produced are often stunningly derivative of stage plays.
Watch a film from the 1920s and you’ll see lengthy static shots, minimalist editing, flat and declamatory acting, etc. Only in the middle period of Hollywood’s golden age did the techniques and approaches of film qua film emerge. Early films didn’t leave the vaudeville behind: they’re well made, but…they’re not exactly movies.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is like that, but instead of being a play disguised as a movie, it’s a videogame disguised as a book.
More specifically, a strategy game. It reminds me of a six hour Age of Empires II game fought between skilled and stubborn adversaries amidst a mounting pile of energy drink cans. Battles without end. Thousands of men thrown into a woodchipper, often gaining nothing, or winning a victory that gets reversed minutes later. Numberless acts of heroism, which you see from God’s perspective and soon don’t even notice.
It’s about the fall of the Han dynasty and the three kingdoms (Wu, Wei and Shu) that ascended in the aftermath, trying to fill the power vacuum. They do this through a complex and Machiavellian mix of marriage, wizardry, and battles so bloody that it seems the population of medieval China gets slaughtered three times over.
The famous opening line “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been” was not written by Luo Guanzhong, but was added centuries later. Nonetheless, it sums up his text: cyclical periods of destruction and renewal. Events are either meaningless or all-meaningful, depending on your perspective. There’s nods to “empty boat” style Taoist philosophy at times. The soil drinks blood. The soil then produces trees. The trees are used to make axes. The axes…
It’s hard to describe Romance without making it sound like the dullest book ever. It’s not. Nor is it the second dullest book. It’s actually interesting, once you crack the “code”.
The worst way to read it is like a traditional novel. Forget rising and falling action, dramatic climaxes, etc. Romance of the Three Kingdom’s intense moments come out of nowhere like monsoons, blow the lives of characters to pieces, and then end. Also, large parts are based on history, which is under no obligation to be satisfying to anyone. A better way is to view it like a growing plant: continually evolving in a way that’s no more and no less sensible than real history or the life of the reader.
And it’s thrilling. Despite the nihilism of the whole, you’ll still feel tense when Cao Cao fails in his plot to assassinate Dong Zhuo, and cheer at cunning method Zhou Yu uses to overcome an enemy fleet. Certain moments (such as the Battle at the Red Cliff) are as cinematic as Game of Thrones. And there are passages that would fascinate anyone with an interest in cultural anthropology and medical history. For example, the great hero Liu Bei’s reaction when he sees weapons inside his bridal apartment.
The bridegroom turned pale. Bridal apartments lined with weapons of war and waiting maids armed! But the housekeeper of the lady said, “Do not be frightened, O Honorable One! My lady has always had a taste for warlike things, and her maids have all been taught fencing as a pastime. That is all it is.”
“Not the sort of thing a wife should ever look at,” said Liu Bei. “It makes me feel cold, and you may have them removed for a time.”
Lady Sun laughed, saying, “Afraid of a few weapons after half a life time spent in slaughter!”
One wonders at what Luo Guanzhong is trying to depict here. Is Liu Bei suffering from what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The biggest challenging to climbing Mt Romance is the colossal cast of characters. To reach the end, you need to develop a sixth sense as to which characters are important to the plot and which ones will never be seen again. A lot of the characters have similar names. It can be hard to separate Zhang Fei from Zhang He. Maybe I’m a racist colonial paleface who thinks all Chinese names sound the same. But maybe not – Luo Guanzhong seems to be winking to the reader at times, such as in this (humorous?) scene where a woman vows to only marry a man with the same name as hers:
“Why did you trouble your sister-in-law to present wine to me, brother?” asked Zhao Yun.
“There is a reason,” said the host smiling. “I pray you let me tell you. My brother died three years ago and left her a widow. But this cannot be regarded as the end of the story. I have often advised her to marry again, but she said she would only do so if three conditions were satisfied in one man’s person. The suitor must be famous for literary grace and warlike exploits, secondly, handsome and highly esteemed and, thirdly, of the same name as our own. Now where in all the world was such a combination likely to be found? Yet here are you, brother, dignified, handsome, and prepossessing, a man whose name is known all over the wide world and of the desired name. You exactly fulfill my sister’s ambitions. If you do not find her too plain, I should like her to marry you and I will provide a dowry. What think you of such an alliance, such a bond of relationship?”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms might also be an early example of the Draco in Leather Pants phenomenon. The antagonist of the tale is clearly meant to be Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom, but he’s probably the strongest and most interesting character in the story, and a lot of people seem to view him in a positive light. Tumblr, of course, has an active community of Cao Cao stans.
But Romance isn’t a character study, it’s a videogame. The market seems to back this idea up. Usually classic works of literature attract a slew of movie adaptations, and maybe a single throwaway text adventure game made in 1984 by Infocom. But according to Wikipedia, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to film eight times, to television twenty-four times, and as a game fifty seven (!) times. The book keeps rejecting its paper and clothing itself in binary. There might be three kingdoms, but ROTTK truly belongs in the realm of ones and zeros.
“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere,” – Albert Camus
Western horror relies on convention – Bram Stoker’s vampires, Shirley Jackson’s haunted houses, and Romero’s zombies. By contrast, Japanese horror more often relies on free-standing symbols and images – Kôji Suzuki’s rings of light, Junji Ito’s spirals, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s metal sculptures.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Art rooted in convention is easier to understand: the audience automatically comprehends Slasher Movie #23532 in light of Slasher Movie #23531 (or the last one they remember). But it’s boring, and makes you a slave to the past: modern horror film is consequently a cesspool of spooky dolls and cars that won’t start and ghosts in mirrors and clanging ADR. By contrast, Japanese horror (at its best) achieves a monolithic starkness: I gave up looking for things like Suehiro Maruo’s Paranoia Star because I couldn’t find any.
The Woman in the Dunes is an eerie psychological novel about…sand.
An amateur entomologist is seeking a new kind of insect in rural Japan. He ends up trapped in a deep pit of sand. He has food and water and even female companionship (although she seems odd), but no way of escaping. This is not an accident. Someone just out of sight has planned this fate for him. He has a little shack that he spends hours each day sweeping clear of sand (uselessly; the wind blows it straight back in). He can’t contact anyone from the outside world. They’ll declare him dead and maybe they’ll be right to. His horizons are made of sand.
The Woman in the Dunes might not be a horror novel, as I don’t think Kobo Abe was trying to frighten. Kafka’s a better comparison. Nonetheless, I’m now aware of “ammophobia” – fear of sand. More specifically: fear of sinking into sand, swallowing sand, having sand grains between your toes, and so on. Just as Uzumaki left me uncomfortably aware of spiral shapes, I put this book down and was plagued by thoughts of sand.
It’s creepy stuff. Silken, fluid, deadly. Viewed under a microscope, sand is beautiful, but it’s inhospitable to human life, and defiant of mankind’s attempts to control it. You can sculpt a castle of sand on the beach, but the next day, it will be gone. But won’t the house you live in be gone someday, too? All of mankind’s buildings, on a long enough timescale, will become sand.
This is sort of how Kobo Abe’s protagonist rationalises his fate. The outside world is just temporarily rearranged sand and dust, so there’s no reason to want to go back. Being trapped in a hole is probably a privilege; he gets to see the truth. Ozymandias’s kingdom wasn’t overtaken by sand, it was sand.
There’s a livestreamer called Dellor who plays Fortnite and other videogames. He has a PO box, and if you mail him a package he’ll open it on stream. Occasionally, he receives sand. I’m not sure if a single person is behind this, or if it’s a shared joke among his fans. He’ll rip open an envelope, and sand will spray across his apartment. He gets keyboards with sand packed in between the letters. Once someone sent him an airsoft pistol with sand stuffed into the barrel. This annoys him, because (as the narrator of The Woman in the Dunes could confirm) sand is extremely hard to remove. No matter how much you vaccuum a carpet, in six months you’ll walk over it barefoot and feel the bite of a silica tooth: a reminder of our fundamental lack of control.
Western horror can be likened to a vine, which can be followed back to its root no matter where it goes, and J-horror to a series of mushrooms, which sprout out of the ground with no visible connection to each other. Or perhaps particles of sand. The Woman in the Dunes exemplifies the J-horror approach, even if it might not be J-horror. It has one idea. One single idea. It could have been written even if no other book had ever been published. It does not want to be the first book in the series, or to answer questions raised by another book, or to get adapted into a movie.
The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t even want to be entertaining (and frequently, it isn’t). It exists to exist. No matter what momentary order we impose on sand, in the end, it has no purpose other than to be sand.
The supposed eighteenth chapter to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, revealing what happened to the three missing women.
I say “supposed” because the internet is rife with conspiracy theories that Joan Lindsay didn’t write it, that it’s a hoax, et cetera.
I’m not convinced. The number of parties necessary to orchestrate such a fraud (Lindsay’s estate, editor, publisher, and so on) would be huge, and the prose definitely reads like Lindsay’s (note, for example, the frequent usage of “little” in a diminutive/feminine sense.)
Until someone presents evidence otherwise, I take Secret at face value: as the unpublished work of Joan Lindsay.
It’s understandable that people would want to decanonize The Secret of Hanging Rock. Everyone who reads it reacts the same way: with disappointment. I don’t know of a single person who thinks it improves the book. It’s a few pages long, and much of its text was retrofitted into chapter 3 of Hanging Rock. In short, the girls disappeared into a rift in time. There are some allusions to quantum cosmology, as well as Aboriginal “dreamtime” and therianism. That’s it.
It’s a stupid ending. Maybe any ending would be stupid. Hanging Rock was like a crossword puzzle in a newspaper: fun until you solve it, then it becomes a fish-wrapper.
Secret was so threadbare and underwhelming that I started pondering other things: such as the ethics of publishing a dead writer’s unfinished work. Nirvana fans are familiar with this game: every few years someone finds a shoebox of tapes and we’re subjected to yet another posthumous Kurt Cobain “album” of unfinished material that he definitely wouldn’t have wanted the public to hear.
Is it right to do this? Release all of a famous artist’s outtakes once they’re too dead to complain?
I can see the opposite argument; authors don’t have unlimited fiat to declare that nobody read their work, particularly when it relates to something of public or literary importance (like Picnic at Hanging Rock). If someone wrote the cure for cancer on a piece of paper and commanded the world to never read it, we probably shouldn’t honor that request, either.
At the end, Hanging Rock was about time, and how time blurs reality. Reading the book is a maddening experience: you know that whatever happened to the girls, it’s knowledge out of your reach. Knowing what happens yanks the story back down to earth, and destroys its appeal. Hanging Rock left you like Aesop’s fox, snapping at grapes that are just out of reach. Secret cuts down the tree and lets you gorge on grapes until you’re become violently sick. Enjoy your stomach-ache.
One of the final books in Gemmell’s Drenai setting, White Wolf introduces a new hero called Skilgannon the Damned.
It’s all here: the fast pace, the brutal fight scenes (Gemmell knows sixty adjectives for an axe splitting a skull), the terse and efficient characterization, the unabashed heroism, and the tension between ideals of good and evil and the complexities of reality. I truly believe that nobody ever did it better.
But “it’s all here” doesn’t feel like an unalloyed compliment, not after twenty five books of mostly the same stuff. Gemmell was an excellent but limited author, and here he paints within the lines, offering up mostly familiar pleasures. The result is a book that, while fun, doesn’t particularly need to exist.
All the usual baddies make an appearance – the Nadir, werebeast “Joinings”, assassins, shamans – as do the typical Gemmell action setpieces (here we get three fights in a tavern as opposed to the usual one or two). Once again, a character renounces their violent ways and tries to become a monk, with predictably disastrous results. And the final encounter, while exciting, couldn’t be more of a videogame boss battle if “One Winged Angel” was playing in the background.
The protagonist Skilgannon poses a particular problem: he’s just a jumble of traits from past Gemmell heroes and never emerges as a compelling and unique character. He has Waylander’s dark past, Druss’s demon-possessed weapon (the actual Druss appears in this novel, muddling things still further), Jon Shannow’s sense of having outlived his time, Tenaka’s sense of being ill-used by someone he trusted, etc. He’s supposed to be an antihero, but he only commits evil acts because of a pair of mind-controlling swords, a bit of thematic oddness that Gemmell never addresses.
Gemmell doesn’t do anything new here, but he does turn up the emotional intensity in a few places. The scenes depicting Skilgannon’s youth were fascinating, linking past Gemmell figures such as Gorben and Michanek and adding a host of new ones. Druss the Legend steals the show every time he appears, to the point where I wished the entire book was about him. And the title’s full meaning is actually pretty interesting, particularly in light of the sequel, The Swords of Night and Day.
I enjoyed White Wolf, both when I read it here and when I read its various bits and pieces in earlier books like Waylander et al. It was probably for the best that Gemmell spent his final years writing quasi-historical fiction (re-telling the Iliad). It forced him outside of his comfort zone. Gemmell incapable of writing anything but a Gemmell novel, but many of his best stories happened when he at least tried.
Did you buy this book expecting to learn about the Roman Empire? If so, I have good news – there’s stuff in here that not even historians know.
For example, that Caligula’s sister died at age twenty three due to a “surfeit of buggery” with her brother and “seven outrageously well-endowed studs” (p34). And how when Caligula travelled he “amused himself by taking potshots at the dull-witted peasants in the roadside fields, wielding a sort of projectile-shooting bazooka” (p38). Or how, in the arenas, skilled gladiators could decapitate a man and then direct the pumping jets of blood to spell “Caligula” on the sand, with the falling head forming the dot on the letter i. (p74).
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The most prized animal in the arenas was the “Libyan lion…eleven feet in length, with enormous paws armed with razorsharp (sic) claws of sabre-size dimensions, even their engorged testicles were as large as a man’s head”. Scary. The only way the Romans could subdue the Libyan lion and its engorged testicles was for a “particularly handsome slave to present his shapely, exposed anus to the lion’s mighty sexual apparatus; then, once the act of copulation (which invariably proved terminal for the unfortunate slave, due to unsustainable blood loss) reached its critical point and the lion was momentarily distracted, a gang of a hundred or more whooping slaves would wrestle the lion to the ground and throw a net over it”. (p83)
Divine Carnage is hilarious; one of the funniest books I’ve read in recent memory. I’m fighting (and losing) a battle just to fill this review with my favorite parts. Nearly every page of this book has entertainment value: which is good, because it’s a bit light on history. And literacy.
What’s this book supposed to be? A hoax? A work of surrealist metafiction? A parody of the “edgy history” trend? One of Creation Books’ typical scams?
The back cover has the words “ORGY OF DEATH GLADIATOR KILL”, with all capitals and no punctuation. The copyediting was done by someone stabbing a keyboard with a gladius; there are spelling and grammar errors on nearly every page. The phrase “plebian scum” is used so often it becomes a tic.
Also, the book was written by time travellers: James Havoc’s foreword is copyrighted 1999, but it mentions the “recent” Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, which came out in 2000.
Much of Divine Carnage was clearly composed while drunk – you can see the author’s mind wander down an alley and start free-associating while staring at an empty glass. For example, we’re told about the Imperial “thumbs up for life, thumbs down for death” custom, with an aside that the emperor’s thumb was actually penetrating a slave’s rectum. (But…then you wouldn’t be able to see the direction it’s pointing…)
Never mind that, though. Who are the authors of this masterpiece?
Jeremy Reed is a “Jersey-born poet, novelist, biographer and literary critic”. Stephen Barber is a longtime Creation Books hack-for-hire who has written a dozen titles along the lines of “transformative future sex death semiotics in the films of Uwe Boll”. Neither is a historian, but they attack the project with gusto. Jeremy Reed heroically cites four books as “…an invaluable sources of reference (sic)”, though his final sentence is candid: “There is no definitive life of Heliogabalus, and I have attempted to resassemble (sic) aspects of his character most likely to resonate in the current times.” Stephen Barber cites no books at all, just the “newly-excavated” Butrinte Caligula, which must be newly excavated indeed, considering that Google offers no evidence of its existence.
Divine Carnage is the first in the Blood History series that marked Creation Books’s twilight years as an actual publisher. The second book was Flesh Inferno by Simon Whitechapel, and the third was The Bloody Countess, which is a reprint of a 1960s title by surrealist poet Valentine Penrose (whether Creation Books obtained the necessary rights from Penrose’s estate is an open question). The fourth book, sadly, exists only in our imaginations.
It’s likely that Divine Carnage was meant as a continuation of Tinto Brass’s Caligula, which shares its extemporized take on history and lack of good taste (James Havoc mentions this film in the foreword). Surely there’s a kid somewhere who relied on Divine Carnage as research materials for his O-levels. Hopefully that kid did alright.
I’d be remiss not to quote my favorite line from the book, on p96. “Commodus was certainly the first post-modern Roman emperor”. When I read that, it made my entire day. Creation Books ripped off a lot of people, but they did not rip off me. Not here.