Book review: We

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: In the future dystopian ‘One State’ D-503, the chief engineer on a space programme, begins a journal of his experiences. He soon comes into contact with I-330, a woman who he immediately falls madly in love with. Struggling with uncontrollable emotions D-503 is brought into conflict with the principles of the nightmarish urban society of One State and its mathematical dictates for ‘happiness.’

In-depth: We is often touted as the first great dystopian novel of the 20th century and it’s influence upon the later, and more famous, novels Brave New World and 1984 is not difficult to see. Also the fact that the book was banned upon its completion in 1921 by a fledgling Soviet Union (until the late 1980s) adds to its mythical allure and its satirical and historical value.

We‘s setting is an urban society many centuries in the future where the equalitarian One State has cut it’s self off from the natural world with a walled city of people only identifiable by numbers. Led by ‘the Benefactor,’ a supreme leader ‘elected’ unopposed every year, all citizens wear the same clothes, called unifs, and live in glass buildings where their every moment can be monitored by the state police known as the Bureau of Guardians.

The level of detail Zamyatin imagines in We is astonishing, down to the daily timetables where every hour of the individuals day is dictated by One State. Even sexual intercourse is regulated with individuals having pink tickets which they clock in with their sexual partners at allotted times. Only during this hour is the all out assault on privacy relieved by blinds to cover the glass buildings which house all inhabitants of One State.

D-503 descent into a love fuelled obsession with I-330 brings him into the embrace of a growing revolution within One State. This aims at smashing down the Wall which separates the state from the rest of the world, an Eden like natural wonder full of other human coated in thick hair, and to overthrow the Benefactor.

Some of We‘s most terrifying moments are when D-503’s emotionally instable actions are assigned by One State logic as a symptom of their greatest threat to happiness: possessing a soul. The official solution of One State is a lobotomy of the brain to remove the imagination and any misguided conception of freedom which threatens the happiness of One State’s mathematical logic.

However, even with this, We is no where near as brooding or dark as Orwell’s 1984. The Benefactor is a much more human figure than the omnipresent Big Brother of 1984, even telephoning D-503 at one point demanding him to get to his office. One State’s surveillance, whilst widespread and pervading, does not carry the same malicious threat present on every single page of 1984.

We is also a rather clunky novel, naturally dominated by its arrangement as a diary by the central character, which is sometimes difficult to follow. Its plot is also at times quite muddled with the consequences of some of D-503’s actions often merely disappearing for narrative ease.

Despite this We is above all a fascinating novel for any reader interested in dystopias. It also offers an insight into the thinking behind the twentieth century’s descent into authoritarian dictatorships written just before this history occurred.

What is your favourite dystopian novel? Please leave your comments below.

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Book review: Gorky Park

417fqcppgzl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

The Basics: Three frozen bodies, mutilated beyond identification, are found in Gorky Park in central Moscow. Chief Homicide Investigator, Arkady Renko, is handed the case which quickly begins to grow into dangers beyond his comprehension.

In-depth: One of my favourite genres is the last year has been historical fiction. Whether it be full on alternate history, such as the nightmarish rule of Britain by a victorious Nazi Germany, in C. J. Sansom’s wonderfully detailed Dominion, or the violent paranoia of the Soviet Union in Tom Rob Smith’s excellent Child 44 series, such ideas are breeding grounds for great fiction. It was a happy accident then when I stumbled upon Gorky Park, which in all honesty I thought was a new novel, but was actually first published in 1981, as it helped to lay the ground for this type of exhilarating, historical fiction.

Gorky Park sees a beleaguered, chain smoking detective, Arkady Renko, setting out to find the killer behind a brutal triple murder in Moscow’s Gorky Park. It is 1979 and the run-down, paranoid and austere nature of Moscow is offered in frankly amazing detail. As are it’s many brilliant characters. However it is Renko that is the main attraction with his deep personal flaws, including his waning health, rapidly deteriorating marriage and lack of faith in party dogma, which are starkly contrasted with his professional brilliance at his job as a homicide investigator. Think Cracker, but in the Soviet Union in the ’70s.

Without spoiling the plot, Renko’s initial enthusiasm to palm the case off to a notoriously violent rival at the KGB on procedural grounds, is replaced by his increasing obsession with it due to progress in his investigation. The build up of the plot is dark and brooding. Renko is subtly drawn into a dangerous world of institutional rivalry and vested cross border political and economic interests to the detriment of his own personal relationships and safety.

The second part of the novel, which follows the case and abandons the terrifying darkness and loneliness of communist Moscow to move abroad, does admittedly stretch the plot’s creditability almost to breaking point. However the sheer imaginative depth of this novel and its characters is quite something as is, I imagine, is the 1983 film based upon it. That’s now my next to watch.

What is your favourite historical fiction novel? Or how you read any of the other ‘Renko’ novels by Martin Cruz Smith? Please leave your comments below.

Review: The Silent Deep

cover_jpg_rendition_460_707The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 – Peter Hennessy & James Jinks

My rating: ★★★★☆

The  UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, delivered by four Vanguard-class submarines, is a hot topic that was recently debated and scheduled for renewal by Parliament. This has reopened deeply passionate and dividing debates which centre around the nuclear deterrent’s morality, cost, operational worth and its reflection of Britain’s place in the world. Within today’s increasingly fear laden global security arena these complex debates are afforded an emphatically thorough historical perspective by this behemoth of a book which looks at the history of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service since the Second World War.

The book opens with the authors observing the Royal Navy’s famous “perisher” training course, renowned for it’s low pass rate, for potential Commanding Officers of submarines. It largely consists of war games off of the Scottish coast, where the recruits are pushed to their mental and physical limits by carrying out fictional missions with the main aims to evade capture and survive unnoticed. One memorable passage sees a senior officer, who observes and evaluates the officers performances, recognise the deadly trait of hesitation. His reaction is to send for the chef to bring in a raw steak from the kitchen and suggests the recruit should “eat more red meat” to improve their decision making.

After this humorous introduction the book then moves into its main focus on the history of the U.K. Submarine Service. The biggest shift identified since 1945 is the transfer of responsibility for the UK’s nuclear weapons from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Navy. This was born from the increasingly important role submarines played in WW2 and the subsequent race of the superpowers to develop nuclear powered submarines in the 1950s. This revolutionised them into highly effective weapons able to operate undetected for very long periods of time in the ‘silent deep’ of the oceans.

The so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the USA and the UK is a key part of this history. In 1958 the head of the Royal Navy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, secured a bilateral nuclear treaty which saw the US give Britain all of its nuclear submarine technologies as well as the sale of a nuclear reactor kit to Rolls Royce and their customer the Royal Navy. This was achieved by Mountbatten’s courting of the “father of the nuclear US navy” Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was famously rude to his British counterparts, but was ultimately tolerated due to the need for his cooperation for the British to become a nuclear power.

Another common incidence through out this book is that by the time expensive, once cutting edge technology makes it into service it is almost obsolete due to the long term nature of constructing nuclear submarines and their weapons. The lifetimes of the UK’s submarines are planned for decades in the future, but this cycle obviously then has to restart to keep the deterrent credible and crucially for the UK ‘independent.’

One of the most thrilling passages of this book centres on the summit where this independence was stretched to its breaking point. In December 1962 the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the youthful US President John F. Kennedy met in Nassau, Bahamas for tense negotiations over the sale of the new Polaris missile system, which enabled nuclear warheads to be stored and fired from submarines, to the UK. Macmillan managed to secure a generous price for Polaris but was met with the American request that the deterrent be placed under the ultimate control of NATO causing great political unease to the British government. After much negotiation and playing with words, brilliantly charted by the authors,  Macmillan secured the last minute qualification which maintained British national control in “severe national emergencies” akin to 1940. British Sovereignty, in a way, was upheld.

After this the book looks at the Cold War and the constant underwater battles with the USSR. A notable anecdote recalls an operation in 1964 where there were strong disagreements between the Foreign Office and the Admiralty about how close patrolling submarines should go to Russian waters. In light of this one officer describes his Commanding Officer, “a man with no respect for the Russians who patrolled as close to the coast as possible preferably with the radio aerial up so he could listen to the test match.” Breathtaking, but hilarious, arrogance in retrospect.

However the Submarine Service become much more covert and through out the 1970s and 80s the warfare evolved into cat and mouse like battles of nerve. The best description of this Cold War is from a former UK submariner:

“Since using even conventional offensive weapons could easily precipitate horrible and uncontrollable geopolitical consequences, undersea warriors measured victory in terms of surveillance, detection and constant monitoring. If you knew your enemy, his vehicle or ship, his location and capability and you could follow or ‘shadow’ him without betraying yourself, you claimed victory by Cold War standards.”

This style of Cold War does however beg the ultimate question are these fantastically expensive machines actually worth the money? The obvious answer to this question is that these weapons deter. It is at times difficult not to come round to this viewpoint under the relentless analysis from the authors and the historical commitment to this principle within the British establishment. However in the Cold War there was an obvious aggressor to deter, the Soviet Union armed to the teeth, but this argument meanders in the latter chapters when such a foe is no longer present.

The history is brought up to the present day. The potential nuclear threats of the 21st century are briefly analysed, with an increasingly hostile Putin-led Russia the main focus, which indicates a prevalence for an effective nuclear deterrent. However this is no overt conclusion on the worth of the deterrent’s renewal but as the authors are historians, and not politicians, this comes with little surprise. The real worth of this book lies in its remarkable levels of detail and breadth of a definitive historical account of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Book review: Animal Farm

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)Animal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: ★★★★★

Warning this post contains plot spoilers.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a striking little novel which fuses an easy to follow short story with a savage political satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by the darker elements of human nature. It charts a farm’s descent from the early hope of a better future, after its animals rebel and overthrow their human overlords, to the encroaching and increasingly perverse rule of the all powerful Napoleon in an unnervingly calm, step-by-step plot. With it’s benefit of (unstated) historical hindsight, alongside the artistic use of animals to represent historical individuals, Orwell’s writing demonstrates a brooding authority which marks the self-serving and tragic implications of each plot development as both frighteningly stark and desperately out of the reader’s control.

Many of the animals represent different social institutions, groups or individuals; Mr Jones is the careless, cruel and often drunk man who initially owns the farm who represents the bourgeois enemy of the suffering proletariat that is the animals; Moses, the tamed raven of Mr Jones, represents the Church, with his persuasive, comforting and distracting tale of a country called “Sugarcandy Mountain” in the sky where all animals go to when they die and live in eternal bliss. Two other characters who stand out are Boxer; an immensely strong and unquestioning horse committed wholeheartedly to following his revolutionary leaders, and Squealer; a clever pig who has such a talented way with words that he “could turn black into white,” who acts as the emergent regime’s mouthpiece spewing its increasingly contradictory propaganda.

After overthrowing Mr Jones the animals, led by the pigs who learn to read and write, decree the seven commandments of the ideology of Animalism on the barn wall to which all agree. Attention is then quickly turned to the labour of the hay harvest but it is just before this when the first tangible chink in the armour of what Orwell calls a ‘fairy story’ appears. Before the hard labour of harvest is carried out by the animals, the cows are milked by the pigs which produces buckets full of creamy, tasty looking milk to which the animals eyes lustily fall aware that all farm produce now belongs to all animals equally. However Napoleon, one of the cleverest pigs, tells the animals to forget the milk for now and to concentrate on the vital work of the harvest. However, “when they came back in the evening it was noticed that the milk had disappeared.”

From this dark hint at the future the animals, led by the naturally more intelligent pigs, proceed to run the farm on their terms rather than under the whim of man. However a rivalry between two of the more intelligent pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, rapidly emerges. This is largely based on their very different natures; Napoleon is used to get his own way and adept at quietly gathering support, whilst Snowball is more expressive of his ideas and a great public speaker who is able to eloquently persuade the other animals at public debates. The two also constantly oppose each other’s ideas.

This rivalry undoubtedly represents an analogy of the great power struggle in post revolution, post-Lenin USSR between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One particularly powerful parallel which stood out to me was the debate around the defence of the farm. Napoleon suggests the animals should be trained in the use of weapons to strengthen their own farm against any human attackers, compared to Snowball’s preference to send pigeon messengers to other farms to spread the word of Animalism to help create unrest and possible rebellion, thereby reducing the amount of enemies. This broadly follows the rival ideas of Stalin’s Socialism in One Country policy which prioritised the internal strengthening of the Soviet Union compared with Trotsky’s ideas of continual international revolution.

Snowball is chased and banished from the farm with Napoleon seizing control and quickly installing fear into the animals. The maxim that Napoleon can never be wrong is adopted and the collective history of the farm’s rebellion is also changed to reduce the prominence of Snowball. Orwell then depicts every stage of the Farm’s descent into a paranoid, violent dictatorship led by the all powerful Napoleon. There are false propaganda campaigns, absurdly fabricated production statistics but yet still famine, show trial purges of former animal allies and blatant compromises of the previous principles of Animalism. Primarily all of these principles are broken but the most obvious are the killing of animals by other animals as well as the emergence of an unequal allocation of labour. This is between most animals having to work like slaves whilst starving and the pigs who very do little other than feast and increasingly live like their former human masters.

The book ends in dramatic and tragic fashion. The remaining ‘lower animals’ take a peek into the former home of Mr Jones where the pigs now live. After inviting the neighbouring human farm owners around to feast the animals outside overhear the pigs discuss their joint interests. Animalism is truly dead with the interests of the privileged few reinforced and the pigs; who sit, talk and drink like their former human enemies, and in fact rule more harshly; are impossible to tell apart from the humans during their heated final words during drunken a card game.

Best Quote: It may be a cliché but it’s hard to look beyond the infamous: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Have you ever read Animal Farm or any other novels by George Orwell? If so, please leave your comments below.

Review: Stalin’s Englishman

stalin copy-xlargeMy rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: A biography of Guy Burgess, a central member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring of the mid 20th century. Lownie charts Burgess’ education at Eton and Cambridge and recruitment as a spy for the Soviet Union, through his turbulent career at the BBC, Parliament, the Foreign Office and eventually his flight and lonely exile in the Soviet Union.

In-depth: The title immediately grabbed my attention, although I found it a little misleading as there was actually no personal meeting(s) between Stalin and Guy Burgess as the title hinted at some sense of relationship which I naively grasped to.

Overall Lownie’s account is entertaining as it’s subject was on the surface such a extravagant character. Highly intelligent, charming, often visibly drunk and a homosexual sex addict, Burgess certainly generated a lot of private anecdotes and correspondence which form the backbone of this book.

One of the best is a delightful passage where the careless and presumably drunk Burgess meets his Moscow Centre contact in a London pub to share highly sensitive documents in 1945. Burgess dropped the documents on the floor of the pub, stuffed the dirty papers back into his suitcase and tied it up with string only to drop them again in front of his contact in the lavatory.

However, like the man himself, this book largely centres around English high society gossip about him and whilst his career was certainly interesting in how much of the British Establishment he managed to infiltrate and report back to his Communist masters, very little is dedicated to the most interesting question of why he decided to betray his country. Naturally this question has dominated most accounts of the Cambridge spy circle but seems a little lost in this one which prefers to focus on slightly over emphasising Burgess’ centrality to world events instead.

Indeed some of the most interesting passages of the book are on Burgess’ elite education in England, which with the benefit of hindsight are able to highlight many of the, at the time seemingly innocent, political experimentations with arguments from the Left. It was from this social background and the many connections it afforded Burgess that his destiny was formed. The sheer wealth of the powerful individuals he met, and charmed, is nothing short of breathtaking and includes Winston Churchill, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Isaiah Berlin.

The national scandal of Burgess and Maclean’s fleeing from Britain to the USSR in 1951 is also well sketched out by Lownie. Also Burgess’ exile in Soviet Russia is made out to be just as it was, largely unpleasant for a man who loved the theories of communism but found little comfort in its everyday life or the people who were striving to achieve it. The penultimate chapter is entitled by a Burgess quote of ‘I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!’

It appears Burgess was a highly intelligent, both intellectually and socially, individual who was desperately looking for a higher cause to be able to work towards or achieve. Growing up in the 1930s, before the crimes of Stalinism became widely documented/admitted, he found solace in Communism which satisfied an almost quasi religious desire for a (preferably secret) mission to drive his life. It appears Burgess and his Cambridge spy allies genuinely believed the world was going the way of international-Soviet led communism and wanted to be on the winning side away from the declining British Empire.

Overall Burgess’ life was almost ironically tragic. After betraying his country he ended up living out an existence which was far from the career and social opportunities afforded to him by London and an England he soon longed for again. Expecting a hero’s welcome in Moscow he was instead met with a distinct distancing from power by the authorities and constant surveillance. Towards the end of his life Burgess admitted “My life ended when I left London.”

Perhaps this was fitting for a man whose attitudes to almost every institution of the British establishment was merely that it was there for his convenience and (ab)use. He wasted a life on what now seems, with the benefit of hindsight away from the great struggles of the Second World War and the Cold War, for not all that much.