Saturday 22 February 2020

Book review: Starship Troopers

After the film, the book. Wiki has a decent article, apart from the criticism sections, which are largely drivel.

The good bits: there's a decent story, and some interesting political philosophy, which you don't have to agree with. To some extent the book manages to break out of it's own time: the starship pilots are all women, for example.

The bad bits: although the philosophy is interesting, it is one sided, and somewhat wodged in (though not as badly as Rand). And he doesn't manage to break out of his time as much as he'd like.

Reading stuff like this - and, for that matter, the film, which is also very of it's time, just a different time - I'm reminded of a scene from Asimov, nominally set tens of thousands of years in the future, when a man corrects a woman's (Bayta's, I think) estimate of her weight by sight of her upper arm. In this one it is perhaps the scene where he is reconciled with his father, who explains that his mother just couldn't understand. It's all so 50s America. This is reflected in the grunt's view of women; by the strict segregation on the ships; indeed by the school scenes. However, his political theory has it that only veterans can be full citizens, so it is necessary for women to be able to serve, and so he allocates them a place as pilots. Given that his MI (Mobile Infantry) all wear power armour this makes no sense. I don't think it would have disturbed his story (in the film it doesn't) but perhaps it would have, to readers of his times?

Of the political philosophy, it is of a limited franchise, a topic perpetually recurred to by folks who dislike the excesses of democracy (among which I count myself; I've not I think suggested limiting franchise, which I think doomed, but more limiting governmental power). Ironically, this was in the 50s, a time that people now look back on as a semi-golden-age of quality politics and political debate. Never believe the myths of a golden age. We are "taught" this by our narrator siting in class: at school via flashback and in officer training. Disappointingly, though, when it comes to the explanation of why vets-only should be selected his ultimate justification is "it works"2. Since this is in an imaginary society, this is unconvincing. He also offers "because people have demonstrated putting themselves between society and harm", which kinda works in a war situation but not in the peace situation where as he admits most recruits were given make-work. And then we're left I think with his "because it demonstrates that people have put group good ahead of individual good". This is better and rather more convincing; though undercut by the obvious: anyone power-hungry will hardly cavail at doing two years of service1. In peace time, that would be a low bar; possibly he is arguing that even that low bar, by reducing the franchise to perhaps 10% of the population, would be effective? Perhaps, though not obviously so.

But we have to turn to the glorification-of-the-military component. It would be interesting, in a way, to have the same book about their society written 50 years earlier, with no enemies to fight, and see how things were justified; but we don't get that. Instead we get what I think reads very much like something written about USAnian servicemen in WWII would read like. Pretty well everyone in service is good, and he gets away with this because he has winnowed out the bad. The MI get to kill gooks because bugs-are-bad (or in another way, can be killed because not really sentient, being controlled by a "brain" caste). They are fiercely loyal to their own. So it is very hard to take his "limited franchise" not to mean "military only" franchise, and outside his strongly idealised view of said military, it's hard to see that making sense.

One of the scenes that I very much objected to when I first read it as a ?14? year old, was the discussion of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Now I'm much more sympathetic to RAH's views; though I'm disappointed he doesn't put forward the view that govt is instituted to protect rights, not give them.

On a trivia note, he calls HMS Shannon HMF Shannon, which is careless.

In the end, I think the book though flawed is significantly better than most of the stuff from those days; perhaps I should try to read Glory Road again (update: I did. It was disappointing). By failing to extricate militarism from service it ostensibly fails in its fundamental purpose. That same failure has kept it read. Do most, regrettably, pay more attention to the militarism than the service? I suppose that I don't know.


1. The closest this gets to mention is the scene where one of his fellow trainees fails to "freeze" and is drummed out for hitting a superior; our hero overhears a sergeant and officer overhearing what a shame this is, as the chap had political ambitions.

2. Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part II: Romans, Assemble! tells me that middle-republic Rome worked somewhat like this: voting in the law making assemblies was weighted towards those who had served in the army.

Thursday 20 February 2020

Book review: The Guermantes Way

Well, what can one say? Wiki has a decent section on it, and for a summary it's fairly good, capturing most of the "events" and some of the tone. I put events into quotes because of course very little actually happens; and one of the frustrations of the book is turning over yet another page to discover that still nothing has happened, but we get some more descriptions of things.

This is the volume that contains the beautiful scene in the restaurant where Saint-Loup, in order to bring our narrator a shawl, leaps up onto the back of the seats. It is charming.

The Dreyfuss affair comes in. I don't understand it (I mean, the DA itself; how it fits into the book is perfectly sensible); perhaps it is a simple proxy for anti-semitism, or perhaps for patriotism, or some other mixture that you'd need to understand the affairs of the time.

This volume charts our narrator's rise form the fringes of society to being invited to the highest levels. He himself seems somewhat surprised by his entry and there's nothing obvious to explain why he would be so invited (most of the conversation reported is of others; when our hero speaks it is usually indirect, as "I ventured to say that..."; we rarely learn what he said). But that society is described as shallow; the narrator, whilst sometimes admiring one facet of, for example, the Duchesse de Guermantes's character, invariably notes how, errrm, well, how shallow her understanding is. So we can perhaps suppose that he has literary merit; and probably there is some autobiography in there. Along the way there's a good deal of anecdote-imparting, name dropping, and generally introducing people like me who know nothing about it to the society of the time. Which I find it's chief virtue.

Thursday 13 February 2020

Film review: Starship Troopers

I drifted into watching this. It's fun. It isn't quite like the book, though clearly based on it; wiki has some words. I think I'll re-read the book. It's currently on Youtube, though doubtless will be taken down soon. I watched it at 480 rez so perhaps didn't get the highest quality view; some of the mass bug scenes looked just a touch odd; but overall, fine. The special effects were doubtless top-notch at the time but seem rather crude by today's standards, though the bugs are generally good especially the big ones.

The film annoys by falling into the usual silly tropes. For example, spaceships when damaged or colliding burn as though they were in air. Spaceships when hit begin to change course and eventually fall to the planet below. During the invasions, the motherships mass for the cameras so closely that they risk hitting each other; in reality they'd be 100's of kms apart; more likely, they'd be nowhere near the planet at all (compare fighter guncam video). Whenever the soldiers kill a bug, they pause and go "yeah" for the cameras and their comrades, and then get killed by the thing they're not looking at. When they go into combat, they do so in an ill-disciplined mass in each other's lines of fire. And so on.

Apparently, sez wiki, it is satirical; "Verhoeven stated in 1997 that the first scene of the film—an advertisement for the Mobile Infantry—was adapted shot-for-shot from a scene in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will". And so on. But, it is all a bit crude for that. It is more plausibly seen as a military action movie.

Sunday 9 February 2020

Book review: Bring up the Bodies

Mantel has a third in the trilogy coming, and so Waterstones has the first two out on display, and so I re-read Bring up the Bodies (I re-read Wolf Hall late in 2018). For reasons that I can't recall I didn't quite like it the first time round. I still don't like the title; it carries none of the force or subtlety of WH; but never mind that. The Graun has a decent review; and as usual Goodreads has some words.

Life must have been difficult in those days for those who needed to interact with the king or his works; and since he was dictating the religion of the country, that could be almost anyone. HM points this out as Cromwell tries to persuade Harry Percy to testify: previously, he had obliged him to say that he had had nothing to do with Anne and had certainly not contracted any secret understanding with her; now he seeks to force him to reverse, so that Henry could say she was pre-married. Cromwell is presented as excused by only seeking to serve the king; and as having learnt from Wolsey's downfall; but nonetheless the problem in the realm where everyone has to remember whether Mary is today a Princess or a Lady and getting it wrong can be treason is terrible. As before in WH, Henry remains mysterious, but thinking about it now the aura of kingly omni-kingness cannot be right. By which I mean, his excuses for doing things are always turned on his honour; or on what god might mean. They come out so neatly that they could not have come from one man alone, but would have had to come from a coterie (update: or, be traditional?).

A thing I find surprising: Cromwell has no exit plans. No-one had. It doesn't occur to anyone to flee abroad (well, apart from Tyndale, and it doesn't look like he fled abroad, though he fled while abroad, but was got by the Imperials anyway) perhaps because of revenge-on-families if one tried; perhaps because people just didn't think like that. I mean of course that in real life he didn't flee, and the book doesn't describe any plans; it does briefly I think show him considering it. Perhaps it is just that London and the Court were the centre of life, and none of these people could bear to leave it. Sitting quietly contemplative in the wilderness would have taken them out of the stream of history and been equivalent to death.

Irritatingly, HM feels obliged to say "he, Cromwell" a few times; tut tut.

On the delicate matter of whether Anne was actually sleeping around, HM manages to preserve ambiguity: she never says definitively, and neither do her characters. This feels correct.

Why is it good? It is well written, and delightful to read for all that. The subject matter is grand (shades of Thucydides). I think she does a good job of presenting at least one version of how the kingdom was run; not just the day to day business but the direction: how the whims of one man came to distort so much. In that sense, it is anti-monarchical, for all its shades of mysticism about Henry contemplated by Cromwell. And Cromwell's wistful recollection of his dead children, his dead wife, of Christmas past, of incidents from his time in Italy, all fit well.