Thursday, April 28, 2022

18. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

I got the book from the library
A friend recommended this and his enthusiasm and the title misled me somewhat.  He was blown away by the quality of the writing and I was expecting a book with much more history and philosophy and meditations on Arabic culture.  This book really is a long war journal with small smatterings of those previously mentioned things scattered through out.  The bulk of it is a log of Lawrence meeting up with x tribe of y leaders, journeying for days and sometimes weeks in the desert to find a Turkish-controlled train station or bridge and blowing it up.  I'm still trying to figure out why he is such a big deal in our culture.  I am guessing that his book at the time fit neatly as an adult and more sophisticated and questioning equivalent of a British Boys Own type of colonial adventure.  I don't mean to belittle it, because it's a remarkable story on many levels and far from a celebration of colonialism.  I am just trying to understand why it looms so large culturally, beyond that the film is much loved by film school types of the past.

It is Lawrence's ambivalence or rather disgust with his own role that removes the book from pure colonial adventurism.  He ascribes no ambition or idealism on his part but rather it just seems to flow out of his job working for a branch of British intelligence in Egypt that he heads south to Arabia and starts working with the Beduin.  Once there, he realizes how effective they could be in the fight against the Ottaman Empire. He uses the promise of Arabian independence to motivate and unite the disparate and often conflicting groups of desert people against the Turks and he hates himself for this.

He also underplays his own suffering and toughness. He is a small guy and admits to being at a disadvantage in hand to hand combat, but holy shit does he seem tough and stoic.  The list of things I can't and don't want to do are manifold:  riding for days without sleep on a camel, suffering through intense heat, walking barefoot on skin-cutting muddy ice (and dragging a camel), all kinds of horrible insect bites, riding into machine gun bullets, getting tortured and raped by a Turkish officer and his men.  It is all kind of written about with a matter of fact tone.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone but a student of the Middle East campaign of the First World War.  I did learn a lot and have a better understanding of the geography, but it was a long sometimes repetitive read, although indeed very well written.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

17. Hammer's Slammers by David Drake

I'd heard about this book at the edge of radar for a while now and stumbled upon it at the Renaissance on Bernard so thought I should probably add it to my reading list.  I believe it is considered somewhat of a classic of military science fiction.  It's a very odd book and I went through a range of reactions as I was reading it.  Unfortunately, I believe the introduction by Jerry Pournelle coloured some of my thinking and I wished I had read it at the end.  He put forth the simplistic, nerdy faux-tough argument that somehow our. soft liberal society has lost the recognition for the professional soldier.  I have always hated the conservative position that by being selfish assholes they are somehow harder and more "realistic" than the progressive position.  I especially hate it when it comes out of the nerd world and it rings gross as fuck right now as we read about atrocities committed by Putin in Ukraine.  That followed by several quite brutal stories that had a similar subtext (war is hell and wimpy civilians and ecosystems need to accept that) made me think Drake was taking a pro-war position.  By the end, though, it gets more nuanced and I also read that Drake himself served in Vietnam (as an interrogator!) and that this book was partly his way of working through his own reaction to his involvement in that war.

This is tough reading and I am still not sure about how I feel about its politics.  The first few stories are not super well-written.  The battle descriptions (not my strong point as a reader, I admit, so combat nerds may have a better informed opinion) confused me and didn't do a lot to move the plot or characterization forward.  There is a lot of cyan and a lot of bodies getting splattered (which was kind of grimly entertaining).  As the stories move forward, though, they get better and better written, with some interesting situations. It is not a novel per se, but a series of situations that happens to this intergalactic squad of super tank mercenaries with little informative essays in between. It does build a picture of a galaxy at constant war and the hierarchical social structures that push poor planetary settlers to join Hammer's crew.  Ultimately, from what I could gather, the main argument here is that humans are going to go to war all the time and that war is hell and the only good thing is the camaraderie and loyalty generated by being part of a politically neutral, highly skilled and powerful military team.  The glee of Pournelle's essay is not here, though.  Rather it is all just grim with genocide, rape and environmental destruction (including wiping out a complete ecosystem).  The only bright spots are brief moments of individuals distinguishing themselves by showing a toughness and inhumanity that means they can be a part of the Slammers.  

Despite the cynicism, the situations are quite clever and the various worlds have interesting geography, flora and fauna and civilizations, all presented with just enough info to get the context to make the story work.  The final story, The Tank Lords, which was added to this later addition, is much richer and enjoyable and I think probably demonstrates an evolution in Drake's writing.  I get why young military nerds would enjoy this stuff.  I am curious enough to want to check out one of the full length novels that take place in the "Hammerverse".