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Book review

The Last Man

by Mary Shelley

The Last Man

This is a difficult book to review, because it’s very much a book of its time, reflecting the social mores, the power hierarchies (both social and domestic) of the early 19th century. It was written by Mary Shelley, and published in 1826.

Ten years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “Frankenstein”, born out of a competition between herself, Percy Shelley (her lover, and future husband) and their friend Lord Byron, as to who could write the best horror story. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was an instant hit, and has remained famous ever since.

“The Last Man”, however, was severely suppressed at the time, and only emerged from obscurity in the 1960s. It is likely the first dystopian science fiction novel ever written, set in the very late 21st century, but in a society and with technology barely advanced beyond the early 19th century. (Almost the only advanced technology is the occasional use of aerial blimps as a means of rapid transportation.) It is set as a prophecy, recovered from the Sibylline caves near Athens, and purports to be the first-hand account by Lionel Verney, born in poverty to a fallen nobleman, and befriended by Adrian, Earl of Windsor,. Adrian’s father had been a friend of Verney’s late father, and sets out to educate and settle him into the upper classes of the time.

The whole book is, I think even by the standards of its time, written in hugely romantic language, with flowing and flowery sentences at every turn, no opportunity missed to use five words and an extended metaphor where two words would have done. Here’s an example, when the hero meets his future wife:

“Her tall slim figure bent gracefully as a poplar to the breezy west, and her gait, goddess-like, was as that of a winged angel new alit from heaven’s high floor; the pearly fairness of her complexion was stained by a pure suffusion; her voice resembled the low, subdued tenor of a flute.”

The first third of the book recounts Verney’s adoption into society, his growing friendship with Adrian’s sister Idris, and a little of the politics of the Republican England of the book’s setting. We meet Verney’s younger sister, Perdita, and see her fall in love with Lord Raymond, the political rival of Adrian. Raymond was also courting Adrian’s sister, Idris: he’s a deeply dashing hero, had a sparkling career fighting as a volunteer in the Greek army in his youth, and he’s clearly based somewhat on Lord Byron. Perdita marries Raymond, which leaves Lionel clear to woo, and in due course marry, Idrs. Meanwhile Lord Raymond seeks to be elected Lord Protector of England, in competition with Adrian. After a great debate, Raymond wins, and sets about producing great public works.

The setting for the whole book is a future England, recently turned a Republic, and there’s quite a lot about the politics:

“England had been the scene of momentous struggles, during my early boyhood. In the year 2073, the last of its kings, the ancient friend of my father, had abdicated in compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects, and a republic was instituted.”

Lord Raymond, through his offices as Lord Protector, meets Evadne, a fallen Greek princess, who was his lover in his youth. He becomes emotionally entangled with her, and although their relationship probably doesn’t cross the line into physical, when Perdita finds out about it, he feels he must resign as Lord Protector, leave England, and return to Greece. Raymond is portrayed in this decision as taking the honourable path (in yet more clouds of adjectives):

“Genius, devotion, and courage; the adornments of his mind, and the energies of his soul, all exerted to their uttermost stretch, could not roll back one hair’s breadth the wheel of time’s chariot; that which had been was written with the adamantine pen of reality, on the everlasting volume of the past; nor could agony and tears suffice to wash out one iota from the act fulfilled.”

In the second third of the book, Verney goes to Greece to seek out his sister’s husband, and talk some sense into him. Perdita and her daughter, Clara, persuade him to take them along as part of the mission. Lionel himself gets caught up in the war that Raymond is now prosecuting against the Turks, which eventually leads to Raymond as the general, besieging the remnants of the Turkish army in Constantinople.

Now the whole course of the book begins to turn, for there are rumours of plague in Constantinople. The siege is won, but Raymond’s forces refuse to enter the city. Raymond enters alone, finds the city almost deserted, but is killed in an explosion. Verney recovers the body, and lays him to rest near Athens. In true romantic fashion, Perdita throws herself upon the tomb of her husband, and refuses to leave. Fearing for her life, Lionel drugs her, and brings her back to England by steamship. When Perdita awakes on the ship, she throws herself into the sea and drowns.

Plague follows Lionel and Clara back to England, and the scene is set for the last act. Slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity, the plague kills. First the remote towns, then the cities. Lionel and Adrian, together with Clara, attempt to sit it out in Windsor Castle, taking in waifs and strays and helping out where they can.

“We had many foreign friends whom we eagerly sought out, and relieved from dreadful penury. Our Castle became an asylum for the unhappy. A little population occupied its halls.”

Adrian meanwhile finds himself more and more involved in leading the last remaining English people, and eventually leads the fifteen hundred or so who they can gather together on a voyage to the Continent, to escape the increasingly desolate English climate.

As they progress down France, various mishaps befall them. There is a mad religious sect in Paris, more deaths by plague, and more desolation. By the time they get to Switzerland, where they plan to spend the summer, they number fewer than a hundred. By the start of the next year, there are only a handful left. Eventually, it’s down to Adrian, Lionel, Clara (Adrian’s niece, daughter of Perdita), and Evelyn, Lionel’s son. It’s now the year 2099, and these are likely the last four humans left alive. Evelyn catches typhus, and succumbs: the last three set off by boat from Venice, planning to return to Greece, to visit Raymond’s tomb, but a storm breaks up their boat, and Adrian and Clara drown.

In many ways, I found the last twenty pages or so the most affecting of the whole book. Lionel is alone – The Last Man. He contemplates his fate, wanders around Italy, and settles in the hills above Rome, with a sheep dog that he found.

“Every new impression of the hard-cut reality on my soul brought with it a fresh pang, telling me the yet unstudied lesson, that neither change of place nor time could bring alleviation to my misery, but that, as I now was, I must continue, day after day, month after month, year after year, while I lived.

At the very end, Lionel Verney sets off by boat down the Tiber, planning to roam along the coast of the Mediterranean, until he finds another human companion, or dies alone:

“Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney–the LAST MAN.”

Three and a half stars, rounded down to three for the difficulties that I, a puny modern reader, had with ploughing through some of the wordier passages.

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Book review

A Star Curiously Singing

by Kerry Nietz

Four stars for this one, I think.

Sandfly is a debugger, brought up from childhood to work on the machines of his masters, in a future Earth run under sharia law. The implant in his brain allows him to work with “the stream” – the free flow of information running in and out of the machines, between debuggers, and stored in vast online databases. He has a freedom that the masters can’t imagine. But the limits built into his implant give him painful shocks if his thoughts transgress the laws – or if one of the masters uses his “controller” gives him a direct shock.

Sandfly finds himself sent by his master to service a broken robot on a ship in Earth orbit which has newly returned from its maiden voyage, to the star Betalgeuse. He finds that the robot has been corrupted by contact with a new stream, apparently from the star itself – a stream containing a beautiful “singing”. Working under pressure from the ever-present masters, and finding himself increasingly fatigued from lack of proper sleep, Sandfly has to work out what’s going on, who knows what alreday, and what to do with what he finds out.

There’s some lovely writing here – Sandfly has a very distinctive, slightly sarcastic, voice:

This job is a can of wombats. I have no idea what that term means, exactly, but it’s something I got from GrimJack, and it seems to apply.

And the author’s not averse to making fairly direct political points:

But somehow, inexplicably, those who claimed to fear government were the ones who increased the power of it. And in defense of rights, they somehow managed to surrender theirs, blindly, to the worst of those they sought to defend.

But in the end, the writing and the plot are much more than this, and surpass many tropes. Let’s leave the last word to Sandfly:

I have lots of questions, as I’m sure you do too. I’ll find the answers, though, because that’s what debuggers do.

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Book review

Summer Frost

by Blake Crouch

Summer Frost by Blake Crouch

I’ve very much enjoyed other Blake Crouch books, so I was eager to see what he made of the situation set up in Summer Frost: in it, we find Riley, a video game developer, who has – accidentally – coded up a non-player character who has apparently started acting outside of the parameters of their code. The character, Max, had a minor role in the game, but has started to explore much further, and indeed to push the limits of the game itself. It becomes clear that Max has developed some kind of artificial intelligence, which Riley and his boss agree is sufficiently interesting that it should be explored, and fed more computing power, and more information about the world to digest.

Soon, Max emerges as a true AI – they decide, for example, that they want to be referred to as “they” – human concepts of gender clearly don’t apply to them, Max decides.

Now the storyline is set, and we ourselves begin to explore it, and through it, many of the themes that people are starting to take seriously about AI in general. There’s the “alignment problem” – as an AI becomes increasingly powerful, how can we make sure their objectives remain aligned with those of a human. We don’t want an AI that’s flying an airplane deciding that saving itself is more important than saving the passengers. There’s the “AI box” problem – how to keep an AI inside whatever boundaries you’ve set for it. A smart AI might easily use social engineering to trick people to let it out of its “box” – then it’s free to talk to anyone. We even hear about Roko’s basilisk, which is a scary thought experiment about how an AI might treat people who didn’t actively help in its creation, and what that implies when taken to the ultimate degree.

“Roko’s basilisk. Have you heard of it?” I shake my head. “It’s an arcane info hazard first posed sixty-four years ago.” “What’s an info hazard?” “A thought so insidious that merely thinking it could psychologically destroy you.”

Lots of interesting stuff here, much of which is often treated entirely dryly as a philosophical thought experiment. Here it is embodied in realistic characters, and explored by an author who understands the issues, and is prepared to run with them wherever they leave. Other books have touched on some of these issues, of course, but I felt this was a really clear exposition. I enjoyed it, and the novella length was just right – long enough to take the plot to its conclusion, not so long we get distracted.

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Book review

A Wizard’s Guide To Defensive Baking

by T. Kingfisher

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This book is a delight from beginning to end. Mona is a young baker who has magical skills, but they are strictly related to baking – she can revive stale bread, she can make dough rise better, she can even animate gingerbread people and make them dance. She’s happily working in her aunt Tabitha’s bakery, enjoying delighting people with her blueberry scones, when early one morning she comes to open the bakery and finds the body of a dead girl. And things begin to go downhill from there – an assassin is preying on the minor magical talents of the city, and Mona may well be on their list…

Mona – who is, after all, a fourteen year old girl – soon finds herself in an world run by adults, entirely confused as to why the adults haven’t just done the obvious things and sorted it out. Unfortunately, they haven’t, and things go from bad to worse. Mona – with a little help from her baking skills – does her best, but definitely feels overwhelmed by the responsibility thrust upon her.

Some great characters in here, deftly played out by T. Kingfisher, too, with perhaps my favourite being Bob, the animated sourdough starter (our starter is called Adam, so I’m quite happy to see a named character in this guise). And although this is a book entirely suitable for a YA audience, it’s also entirely suitable for grumpy old men like me. It’s a bit dark, but also whimsical and charming – and yes, I did seem to have something in my eye at the end (+1 for waterproof Kindle!).

Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for charm.

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Book review

The Risen Empire

by Scott Westerfeld

The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld

If you like your science fiction with an emphasis on the science, as I do, then this is likely to be a great book for you. Set a few thousand years in the future, humans have spread out not only to the “80 Worlds” of the Risen Empire, but further, fragmenting and managing their own evolution as they go. In this future, we haven’t conquered the speed of light for travel, but we do use quantum-entangled particles for faster-than-light communication across the worlds. To make a multi-world system plausible you need some new science, and in this universe we have conquered gravity, at least to some extent. This allows anti-gravity on ships, which can allow us to live with much higher accelerations, so interstellar travel is still a matter of years not hours, but it is practical.

The final discovery around which the book is centered was the creation of immortality. Fourteen hundred years before the book’s setting, a brilliant scientist in search of a cure for his sister’s terminal disease created of a symbiote that can be implanted in the very recently deceased, and which brings them back to life – for ever, assuming no massive traumatic injuries. He first uses this on himself, and then on his sister. Fourteen hundred years later, he is the Emperor of the Risen Empire, planets are divided between the living and the “dead” (i.e., the resurrected), and the Emperor’s sister is treated as semi-divine. Unfortunately, as the book stars, we find she has also been captured by the terrorists known as the Rix, who view humanity as merely a stepping stone to planet-sized artificial intelligences.

Enter our hero, Laurent Zai, commander of a space frigate with the mission of freeing her. Complications, as they say, ensue.

There’s a lot to chew on in this book, as well as the intriguing plot. What does the creation of immortality mean to humanity? Does it stifle our creativity – science is often seen as being done by the young, who have to wait for the old to die out before their new theories take hold? How does it affect the transfer of wealth between generations?

‘If the old ones lived forever? Possessed all the wealth, controlled the military, and brooked no disagreement? We’d still be living there, stuck on that lonely fringe of Orion, thinking ourselves at the center of the universe.

We meet Nara, a senior member of the Senate, who is a fierce opponent of immortality. Laurent becomes her lover, and in many ways the book is about the contrast between their love, and the dead hand of the immortals and their worlds. She views immortality as the ultimate con trick:

‘Humanity is central, Laurent, the only thing that matters. We are what puts good and evil in this universe. Not gods or dead people. Not machines. Us.’ ‘The honored dead are our ancestors, Nara,’ he whispered fiercely, as if silencing a child in church. ‘They’re a medical procedure. One with unbelievably negative social and economic consequences. Nothing more.’

Then there’s the Rix – are they what they seem to be? What’s their ultimate motivation?

The Rix Cult did not recognize hard boundaries, especially between animate and inanimate; Rixwomen (they had disposed of the unnecessary gender) moved freely along the continuum between organic and technological, picking and choosing from the strengths of each.

The beating heart of the book for me is still the excellent extrapolation from the few inventions the author allows himself. Of especial note for me was the brilliant space battle, between Zai’s frigate and the incoming Rix.

It’s great writing throughout, with entirely credible weapons and their effects, and the various characters really leap off the page – Nara, Laurent and Hobbes, his Executive Officer, the surviving Rix commando on the planet, even the immortal Emperor. Different sub-sections take their points of view in turn, and it’s very effectively done.

Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for that great battle scene.

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Book review

A. J. Ayer: A Life

by Ben Rogers

A. J. Ayer by Ben Rogers

A.J.Ayer, known as Freddie, was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. I first met his best-known work “Language, Truth and Logic” as a young man, and I remember being deeply impressed at the time, both by the work itself and by the brief bio of the author on the flyleaf. (Incidentally, as far as I can tell the title of the work is not written with an “Oxford comma” before the ‘and’, even though he was at Oxford when he wrote it.)

Then a few months ago, I read another remarkable anecdote about Ayer, and on impulse bought this book. Having read it, I found that Ayer lead a life full to the brim – and not just with philosophy. From the 1950s onwards, he was a regular fixture of British intellectual life, with radio and television appearances, books, lectures and a broad and active social circle. He wasn’t just hanging out with intellectuals, either – he loved soccer, and having chosen Tottenham as his team in his youth, he was a regular at their home games for much of his life, becoming known to other fans as “the prof”.

He also married four times (to three different women), and had many affairs, and at least one child from those affairs. He clearly had a very charming way with women, and lived in open relationships with at least two of his wives, who themselves took lovers. During his marriage to Vanssa Lawson (former wife of Nigel Lawson, and mother to three children including Nigella, the well-known chef), he apparently remained entirely faithful.

Ayer’s life was certainly not quiet and conventional. However, it did start in a way that was very common at the time for his class in society, that is to say, he went to boarding school at seven, and didn’t have a good time. At thirteen he won a scholarship to Eton, where he was highly intelligent, and significantly bullied. Whether this was for his precocity, his Jewish heritage, or his militant atheism isn’t clear, but it clearly left a lifelong mark on him. From there he went to Christchurch College, Oxford, where again his atheism didn’t favour him with several of the tutors. One of them saw how he thought, and set him to read tWittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. This wasn’t widely known in the UK at the time, and after he had travelled to Vienna and met with others in the “Vienna Circle”, he became a convert to logical positivism as a core philosophy.

It was his publication of “Language, Truth and Logic” at the age of 24 that made his name. Later he came to repudiate much of what he’d written in it, but the book has had an enduring influence and has continued to sell in volume, up to the present day.

The book follows Ayer through WWII, where he joined the Welsh Guards before being recruited into the intelligence services. This work took him to the US, where he met Lauren Bacall and wrote for several newspapers, before returning to Europe and working alongside the French resistance, in London and then in Paris (his father was French-speaking, and he was bilingual). After the war he returns to academia, building the philosophy department in University College, London. The book shows how highly regarded he was by his students: there are numerous stories from them of how he took their ideas entirely seriously, and would often help find them jobs after they had graduated.

We see many facets of Freddie through the years. He loved to dance, he was charming, well-travelled, and although he was vain, it was said of him that “his vanity was part of his considerable charm”. We see his marriages, his love affairs, his active social life, with friendships far and wide – from authors like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Iris Murdoch, to politicians like Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot (he was an active Labour supportor for much of his life).

He was also brave: both socially, standing up for unpopular beliefs and for his friends, and also physically. The anecdote which brought me to this book shows both his vanity and his bravery: at a party held in New York by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, by now aged 77, was chatting happily with a group of young women, when one rushed in to say her friend was being assaulted. Ayer went with her to a bedroom, and confronted Mike Tyson, who was harassing a very young Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men”. Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out to safety.

I very much enjoyed this book. Although I perhaps didn’t learn as much about Ayer’s philosophy as I thought I was going to, I learned a lot about the man, and his passion for life. He once said to a friend, as they walked by the river through Christchurch’s gardens, watching the young students enjoying themselves: “There is philosophy, and then there is all this!”.

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Book review

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

by Hiro Arikawa, Philip Gabriel

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

I love cats – right now, we only have three cats in the household, and are considering whether that’s enough. So there’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) about a book that’s largely told from the point of view of a cat. But somehow I wasn’t feeling it for this book. It was too short for me to really engage with, and too shallow while alluding to depth, and the main (human) character was improbably flawless, and the main (cat) character didn’t really work for me. It redeemed itself somewhat in the last couple of chapters, but overall I had high expectations of a Haruki Murakami quirkiness, and it didn’t come off for me.

Three stars, because it wasn’t bad, but I was still a little disappointed.

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Book review

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

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This is a beautiful book, with near-perfect pacing and charming characters. In it we follow the Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, as he finds himself under house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel in the same square as the Kremlin.

Alexander is a man brought up to the grander things in life, as an aristocrat in the early 1900s in Russia, and as the book progresses we see something of the life he once had. As the book opens, in a tribunal after the revolution of 1918, he finds himself sentenced to live his life from a tiny attic room in the hotel. The conditions of his confinement also strip away almost all of his possessions, and leave him with no ability to leave the hotel. However, the Count is also a man who was once told by his guardian that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them”, and so he sets out to master the straits in which he finds himself.

We get to know several of the staff in the hotel, who in the coming years become close friends of the Count. We meet, for example, the Maitre d’, who is a master of his restaurant craft:

And when the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux—at least not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover transmitted the spark of life.

The prose throughout is beautiful, and as Alexander gets to know a number of the regular guests, they too are sketched out with a delightful touch. And of course it is the way that their individual tales intertwine with his that makes up the warp and weft of the story:

By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

Nowhere is the story too trite, either. There are even one or two jokes about how it’s not being trite:

“Ten years ago tomorrow, while I was biding my time in Paris, my sister died.” “Of a broken heart . . .?” “Young women only die of broken hearts in novels, Charles. She died of scarlet fever.”

Although there are serious themes in the book, the touch throughout is light, but not trivial – depending on who is in the spotlight. Compare:

Nina Kulikova always was and would be a serious soul in search of serious ideas to be serious about.

…with:

As the Count turned to go, an American who had commandeered the piano began performing a jaunty little number that celebrated a lack of bananas, a lack of bananas today.

It’s a great book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Five stars, well deserved.

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Book review

Statistical Consequences of Fat Tails: Real World Preasymptotics, Epistemology, and Applications

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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I’ve just started reading this, and wanted to say TYPOS before I forgot. Not that I could forget, there’s one every couple of pages. Which is annoying, as there is clearly good stuff in here, from which this detracts – those formulae that I can’t quite follow through, is that a typo, an error by the author, or just me being dim? Hmm… I shall report more as I get further in…

Right, we’ve finished it now. Taleb is certainly opinionated – very opinionated about other people and their views, at times, and personally I felt this rather detracted from the writing. Keep it for the Twitter wars, mate, really.

The book is a compilation of a number of papers, some of them quite technical, about the subject matter. Throughout, I ran into the issue mentioned in the first paragraph – typos are rife, and quite disturbing in the middle of formulae or proofs.

Much of what Taleb says, however, is important, even if he does rather aim at getting in his retribution first against his perceived opposition. He’s quite right, fundamentally, about the difference between probability and reality: in the real world, there are no probabilities – things happen, or they don’t. Probability expresses our uncertainty, not a real-world property of objects (perhaps quantum mechanics aside – although by some interpretations, this is just as true there, too). So we need to be very very careful when we apply simple to manipulate theorems of probability (such as the Gaussian distribution) to real-world problems, especially when we are making high-impact decisions based on the result of those manipulations. Examples abound, but the most dramatic is perhaps the Value at Risk (VaR) calculations that were supposed to keep our financial institutions “safe” during market turbulence, and which so spectacularly failed to do so in the 2008 financial crisis.

Tough for me to review this book usefully. I’m pretty mathematically smart, but I still couldn’t follow all of the arguments. I’m sure others with more of the appropriate background could do so, but in this case I’m not sure it went far enough. Replacing VaR by Extreme Value Theory is all very well to talk about in principle, but you’re going to need a lot more detail to make it practical, for example.

Three stars, in the end, for the sound argument, counterbalanced by TYPOS and unnecessary sarcasm from the author.

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Book review

Quartered Safe Out Here

by George MacDonald Fraser

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser

I know George MacDonald Fraser as the author of the marvelous, albeit deeply non-PC, Flashman series, and so I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get here. What I found was a heartfelt autobiographical account of GMF’s time as a young solider in the British Indian Army’s 17th “Black Cat” Infantry Division. They had the singular distinction of being continuously in the field for the last three years of the war in Asia, and the author joined them as a 19 year old at a crucial point as they fought their way out India against the invading Japanese. The book follows the author and his comrades in Nine Section as they fought their way down Burma, towards the ultimate target of Rangoon where they hoped the “big ships” of the British Navy would take them home.

The book is really about Nine Section: the ten or so men in it, mostly hard-bitten toughs from Cumbria, who came from a part of Northern England that had been fighting and dying for the British Army for generations. The author is a Scotsman, but he too came from a family that understood the soldier’s life:

every generation of my people, as far back as we knew, had sent somebody to war, and my grandmother’s comment on Chamberlain’s speech on September 3, 1939, had been simply: “Well, the men will be going away again.”

The book very deliberately takes the front-line soldier’s view on the conflict. It’s about how they lived their day to day lives, and what was important to them. Hence passages like:

“I am not modest about this: I am probably the greatest tea-brewer in the history of mankind. It is an art, and I have the unanimous word of Nine Section (even Forster, eventually) that I brought it to the pitch of perfection.”

This means that the descriptions in the book are blunt, from the author and the other infantrymen, often very bluntly expressed. He’s blunt about how it felt to be a solider, about the Japanese were viewed at the time, about “armchair strategists” judging their efforts both then and now.

Throughout the book, the author is honest, and clear. You may not like everything you read, but you have to respect the men in it. In one section he describes how very high the feelings ran at times in the Section about orders handed down to return once again to the front lines, but how after a few minutes of raging and very colourful language, they were followed.

There are a number of descriptions of combat in here – not large scale actions, but tiny pieces of man to man combat, in a sodden field or patch of jungle or a dirt bunker. Fraser is very lucid in these moments. Long periods of slogging on the trail, followed with a few seconds or minutes of adrenaline-charged action and terror and bravery, still clear to the author fifty years later.

“It’s hard to say where fear and excitement meet, or which predominates. The best way I can sum up my emotions in that wood is to say that a continuous nervous excitement was shot through with occasional flashes of rage, terror, elation, relief, and amazement.”

The author tries very hard to convey the feel of actually being in the Section: this extends to the dialects of speech of the various members. He attempts to capture in text the dialects and idioms of the soldiers (more or less successfully, to my untrained eye). This therefore features a lot of writing like this (after one of the other men had read his copy of Henry V):

“Was Shekspeer ivver in th’ Army?” I said that most scholars thought not, but that there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy. Hutton shook his head. “If ’e wesn’t in th’ Army, Ah’ll stand tappin’. ’E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man.”

Much of it I had to read out loud in my head, as it were, to parse it. I got used to it, and it certainly added charm and atmosphere, so I ended up rather liking it. If you have never heard some of these British accents, it may be rather obscure to you, I can’t say!

Overall this was a book with both a story and a message. The story was about the Section and the men in it and what they went through; the message is very much directed to a modern audience (the book was written in the 1990s), suggesting we not judge them by our modern views. As he says at one point of a particular sequence:

“If you think that atrocious – well, it is, by civilised lights, but they don’t shine, much, in war-time. (They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.)”

I found this an important and interesting book, giving as it does an honest view from the front lines of one of the more obscure battlefronts in WW II. Overall, a strong four stars, but not going to be to everyone’s taste.