History, Emotion, and the Unwomanly Face of War

Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.

The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.

A Powerful Read

The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.

In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

The Author’s Shadow

Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.

Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.

Another Side of Humanity

This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.

In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.

Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.

Living on the Edge – Emily Nation by Alec McQuay

Cornwall might seem like an odd setting for a post-apocalyptic novel. But Emily Nation, Alec McQuay’s dark story of family and adventure, shows what a perfect place it is to show characters living on the edge.

The Edge of History

By their nature, post-apocalyptic novels are about living on the edge. The characters struggle to survive in broken cities and barren wastelands. Their societies reflect the jagged outer edge of history, a moment in which civilisation has collapsed, leaving us wondering if it can ever be rebuilt.

That rebuilding is central to Emily Nation. Generations on from a destructive war, the assassin Emily Nation is living in Camborne, a town rebuilt from the ruins. Here, families live lives of relative peace, supported and protected by the likes of Emily. Life hangs by a tenuous thread, and the swiftness with which Emily wipes out her targets is a reminder of how quickly anyone could be snuffed out. But at least the citizens of Camborne are rebuilding with good intent.

Down the road, life in Penzance is very different. Crime lords are rebuilding an economy based on brutality, prostitution, and forced labour. When Emily falls foul of one of these crime bosses, her friends and family suffer the consequences. The peace of Camborne is violated by outsiders, just as a reader’s sense of peace and security is violated by the post-apocalyptic ruins.

Our future balances on a knife edge between prosperity and collapse into McQuay’s speculative ruins. And as the story unfolds, the future Camborne joins us there.

The Edge of Britain

Cornwall is a perfect setting for such a story because it is already a land on the edge. Laying at the south-western extremity of Britain, it is geographically isolated. Even once you get to Cornwall, it can easily take two hours to reach Penzance. Most of the county lies within easy travel of the coast, where rugged cliffs mark the edge of land and sea.

Throughout its history, the people of Cornwall have found themselves living on the economic edge. The food and money provided by fishing are vulnerable to weather and the shifting shoals, fishermen vulnerable to storms. In the tin mines, men literally scraped a living from the dirt, again risking their lives for jobs that could vanish when a seam ran out, and that disappeared forever in the 1980s. The modern economy, dominated by tourism, offers the uncertainties of seasonal work.

This creates a background note of anxiety that matches the breath-taking bleakness of the coastline and its abandoned mines. That anxiety fosters a conservatism that led many in Cornwall to vote to leave the European Union, despite the benefits it brought the county. Living on the edge means living in uncertainty, and that pushes people towards the comfort of a conservative outlook.

The Forward Edge of Progress

This is where Emily Nation takes a different path from its setting.

The book embraces sexual diversity, starting with the protagonist’s marriage to another woman. It holds up alternative family units as just as valid as the traditionally mum, dad, and their own kids. It shows the systemic oppression that comes when desperate people accept desperate jobs, giving cruel economic masters power over them. Racism is exposed in all its hypocrisy through the struggles of mutant miners. The biggest driver for destruction is effectively the arms trade.

The values of the book lie left of centre, at least in a British context. Having a gay female protagonist shouldn’t be unusual, yet is still a radical act, pushing genre fiction towards greater representation. The women in the book are just as capable as the men in exactly the same fields, and it’s not an issue. This is a progressive book that lives on the edge in a positive sense, at the forward edge of current reforms in society and representation.

The Two Edges

Like the blade that features prominently in its final act, Emily Nationhas two edges. One is a dark edge, exposing the insecurities that come not only in a post-apocalyptic future but in any part of the world where life and livelihoods are uncertain. The other edge shines brightly, slicing through traditional expectations, joining with other great speculative fiction in trying to set people free.

Sure, this is an action story, one dominated by fights, chases, and explosions. But it’s an action story with a thematic richness, made all the more satisfying by its distinct and evocative setting.

Reading With Others

There’s a certain paradox to reading. It’s about connecting to others, but we do it alone. When we read, we’re connecting to another person and their imagination, but not to someone we know.

That’s part of why I like conventions, and why I’ve recently joined a Terry Pratchett book group. It’s also why I often read books people recommend to me, even if other books appeal more at first glance. I want to share my reading, to talk about it, to make connections.

After all isn’t that what books are for?

One for the World Builders – Guns, Germs and Steel

I’m halfway through reading Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s a fascinating exploration of the physical causes behind history. In particular, it looks at why society developed so differently on different continents.

I’m not flagging this up for history readers. Honestly, I’m behind the curve on this one, and most of you have probably heard of it already. But for the fantasy writers, especially those interested in world building, I really have to recommend this book. It looks at how physical geography can lead to differences in technology that shape almost everything in society. It’s a lesson in cause and effect on an epic scale. Thinking about how the world works in the way that Diamond does could help you to flesh out complex and convincing worlds. And like any good history book, it’s full of interesting examples to be stolen and adapted for imaginary worlds.

Of course, history fans should read it too. This is a book that’s deeply shaped our perspective on history over the past twenty years. Much as I’m enjoying it now, I wish I’d got to it sooner.

Something Old, Something New

Combining the familiar and the novel is one of the most important techniques for a storyteller.

I first learned about this through an article on Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics. The article’s author – sadly, I’ve forgotten who it was – highlighted how Kirkman provided his audience with something familiar and something new. The zombie survival story is one comic readers are used to. Kirkman’s soap opera-style storytelling had novelty for them. Familiarity made the comic accessible, novelty made it exciting, and a hit was born.

You could argue that the same formula, turned on its head, has helped the Walking Dead TV show. The soap-like personal dramas are appealing to a broad viewing audience that wouldn’t normally care about a zombie apocalypse. The formula works in reverse.

It’s a formula I’ve used recently in writing scripts for Commando comicsCommando‘s military adventure stories have a reputation for familiar tropes. They’re usually set during the Second World War. Gruff sergeants abound. Rivalries are overcome, leading to a particular sort of manly friendship. Though the publishers are working to broaden their stories, readers still have expectations, and that means there’s something familiar to work with.

This creates two obvious ways to combine the familiar with the novel. I can either change the setting and keep the tropes or I can keep to the usual setting but tell a different story. For my second Commando script, The Forlorn Hope, I took the former path. I wrote a story set in the Napoleonic Wars, but with the classic Commando dynamic of an indisciplined infantryman finding his place and learning to be a proper soldier. For the script I’m working on right now I’ve gone the other way. It’s set in the Second World War, but instead of focusing on the military it looks at the escape lines, the civilian resistance groups that smuggled Allied airmen out of Europe.

Any time you’re writing a story, it’s worth thinking about these elements. What’s familiar, to draw in your audience. What’s novel, to excite them and expand the boundaries of your genre. Combining the two can make great stories and, if done well, a satisfied audience.

 

My first Commando comic, To Win Just Once, will be out in April – more details here nearer the time. For updates on future releases, plus free short stories, sign up to my mailing list.

Children of Time – Sometimes It’s Tell, Not Show

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s award-winning novel Children of Time breaks one of the most common rules of good fiction. It’s a book that wouldn’t have worked without breaking that rule and which gains much of its power by breaking it. As such, it makes an important point about “rules” of writing and how they work.

And did I mention that it’s a damn good read? Because that’s going to be relevant later…

Adrift in Time and Space

Children of Time is set in the distant future. On a planet far from our own, scientists prepare an experiment in evolution. But just as they’re about to trigger the process, political dissent tears society apart. The experiment starts, transforming a planet, but not in the way the scientists planned.

Countless generations later, the desperate survivors of a dying Earth approach the planet. There they find a civilisation of highly evolved spiders protected by a technological ghost. As both humans and spiders struggle to make sense of their worlds, the stage is set for a dramatic clash of civilisations.

Explaining the Alien

One of the great joys of reading Children of Time is learning about the spider civilisation. As usual, Tchaikovsky brings a flair for invention and extrapolation, creating a society that makes sense but is utterly different from our own. Communication, social structures, technology, all are very different from those of humans. As the book progresses and the spiders evolve, they keep getting stranger and more fascinating.

To let us understand this society, Tchaikovsky often has to explain aspects of the spiders’ lives. From political changes to new inventions, there’s something to reveal in nearly every spider chapter. While some of this is shown through the spiders’ actions, we’re flat out told about much of it.

This goes against one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers – “show don’t tell”. We’re taught to use action and implication to let readers work out what’s going on. It’s helpful advice, as it makes more engaging prose and lets readers feel smarter as they read. So how has a book that tells so much become a best-selling, award-winning, much-beloved success?

You’re Always Telling Something

One answer is that this book needed to tell. The appeal of the spider civilisation is how it works. To show this without telling would take hundreds more pages. It would be a drag on a tense and thrilling novel. A few paragraphs of explanation set the scene to let us get into the action.

Tchaikovsky’s skill as a storyteller plays a part. Sure, the explanations stand out as more expository than in many books, but they’re still a good read. He understands how to make this interesting.

But behind all this lies another issue – the limits of “show don’t tell”.

Writing involves telling. Any time we “show” a piece of information in a story, we do so by “telling” other things. To show that a character is upset I have to tell what he looks like and what he’s doing. To show that someone is smart I have to tell you about a clever thing she says or does.

In this case, telling us how the spider civilisation had progressed shows us that it is advancing. Telling us about individual social and technological developments shows us the outline of evolution in action.

It also gives us the knowledge to understand what later actions will show.

Context is Queen

“Show don’t tell” is invaluable writing advice. But asChildren of Time shows, it’s context dependent. What you show, and what you tell to show it, depends upon the story. As Terry Pratchett said, rules are there so that we think before we break them.  Good writing follows the rules. Great writing knows when to break them.

Children of Timeis great writing.

When Is a Chosen One Not a Chosen One?

I’ve been reading Starborn by Lucy Hounsom. I’m really enjoying it, not least because it’s challenging my understanding of a trope I hate – the chosen one.

I hate chosen one narratives for a bunch of reasons, but they boil down to determinism. If someone is genuinely fated to save the world the day, then their choices don’t matter to the outcome and neither do the actions of anybody else. It has been ordained that the chosen one, and nobody else, will thwart the villain. Free will is lost, as is some of the tension of not knowing the result.

This isn’t an absolute, and there are plenty of stories I enjoy despite having a chosen one (well played J K Rowling), but in general, it’s a trope I dislike.

Now I’m not sure where it’s boundaries are.

Starborn‘s protagonist, Kyndra, isn’t labelled as a chosen one. There’s no prophecy – at least none I’ve found in the first 400 out of 500 pages. But the way the story works is very much a chosen one narrative. Kyndra clearly has potential no-one else has. She’s set to wield powers no-one else can. That alone will make her the one who has to save the day.

At this point, we’re into a softer sort of determinism. One where, even without prophecy, Kyndra’s uniqueness ensures that only she can solve the world’s problems. One in which the other characters risk becoming set dressing, people whose actions will make no difference to the end result.

Noticing this got me asking other questions. It’s not uncommon for a character’s unique set of skills to make them the one to save the day. Is that a sort of determinism, or were there other options for a win? If one character is far more skilled and powerful than others, how far can the actions of the others matter? Is the gap between the deterministic world of the chosen one and stories of free will really all that clear?

I don’t have answers. I’m only just starting to consider this one. But at the very least, it’s fuel for thought.

Meanwhile, I’m eagerly waiting for Kyndra to save the day. Because I may hate chosen ones, but I like a good yarn.

Stories and Faith in Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun

From the very first page, Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun sets out its big themes of intertextuality and faith. Before we meet the protagonist, Catherine Helstone, we get an invented quote from a missionary espousing the need to spread the Christian faith in Arcadia. We’re in a story of interwoven texts, one that depicts a collision between two narratives of great power – European fairytales and Christianity. This is a book that dives deep into the playground of stories, and in doing so highlights their role in making faith possible.

But before I head down the rabbit hole (or up my own arse, depending on how you view these things), let’s start by defining some terms…

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the exploration of the relationship between texts. In books, it usually involves a writer leaning heavily on references to other stories. In the examples I like, recognising the references adds meaning to the story. But there are times when a story becomes virtually meaningless if you don’t know what it’s referring to. Intertextuality can be powerful and exciting, but it can also become a barrier to understanding (I’m looking at you, James Joyce).

Intertextuality has always been a part of fiction. This video by the Nerdwriter explores its part in modern Hollywood, while Extra Credits’ recent introduction to Frankenstein highlights its role in classic literature.

Faith

Faith is a tricky word. It means different things to different people. Here, I’m going to be talking about religious faith – a powerful belief in a particular view of reality and the moral teachings that arise from it, a belief that does not need to be grounded in evidence, but is more often rooted in the believer’s emotions and instincts about the world.

Blurring the Lines

Under the Pendulum Sun is rich with intertextual references. Each chapter starts with a quote from a book, letter, pamphlet, or diary that exists within its world. Its style is a reference to 19th-century fiction, including the gothic fears fostered by the likes of Mary Shelley and the more grounded stories of social and emotional struggle written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

The references to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are particularly obvious, from Catherine’s encounter in the countryside with the master of her new home to the lost and damaged woman roaming the corridors of their house. It’s a nice example of intertextuality as bonus content. Having recently read Jane Eyre, I got a thrill from reading that the woman’s eyes darted with fire and from a description of the lights of the house seen from the countryside. But those parallels aren’t essential to understanding the story.

In a story about missionaries trying to spread the Christian faith, the references to the Bible are the most important. From a house named Gethsemane to the sermons and readings of the characters, Christian stories are everywhere. And of course….

Christianity is Intertextual

Christianity is based on a mass of interwoven texts. The books of the Bible, which existed separately before they were brought together in a single tome, are full of references to each other. The New Testament parables are stories within a story. If the accounts of his life are to be believed, Jesus was constantly whipping out a good story to make a moral point. It’s impossible to make sense of the Book of Revelation without referring back to preceding stories of the Jewish and early Christian communities. And our interpretations of this are built on two thousand years of people studying these books, a great mass of intertextual scholarship.

Where faith and intertextuality meet, there you find Christianity. That makes an intertextual story like this one perfect for exploring Christian faith.

Blurring the Lines

Intertextual stories blur the lines between one work and another. If you read both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, your reading of one will include memories of and reflections on the other. A Star Trek episode involving a holodeck Sherlock Holmes can’t exist without Conan Doyle’s stories, and someone who’s watched that episode may find images of Mr Data interrupting their reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The stories start to blend.

But they don’t just blur the lines between different fictions. Stories can blur the lines in our heads between what’s real and what isn’t. Stories help us to make sense of the world, and in doing so they open us up to believe in what they offer. Mr Benjamin, the fae servant in Under the Pendulum Sun, specifically says that he is looking to find his place in the Christian story. It’s a natural impulse, to want to be part of something that makes sense, and so we want to accept that perspective as real. However true they are or aren’t, religious stories blur the line between the world they present and the one we experience.

Faith is made possible through something akin to intertextuality.

Stories Versus Stories

In that sense, it might seem ironic that the fae in Under the Pendulum Sun are immune to Christianity’s charms. Like many fae in modern fantasy, they are bound by narratives. As Mr Benjamin says, “Fae are nothing but stories”.

But isn’t this itself a reflection on faith? If we already have a story, like the fae do, then it protects us from the power of other stories. No amount of reasoning will break through to the “true believer”, and neither will an alternative tale. Their faith, for better or for worse, is a story, one that is intensely powerful to them.

The characters in Ng’s book stumble through story after story. Stories about God, about themselves, even the stories they made up as children and that they now find reflected in the world of Arcadia. Their stories set their moral boundaries, as shown by Catherine’s behaviour, which shifts with the story she believes about herself. Even on the final page, it’s through reference to a story that they find a way to move on.

This is a story about stories. It’s a story about faith. And it’s a story about how deeply the two are tied.

Adrian Tchaikovsky Talks Dogs of War at Waterstones

Last Wednesday, I was in Leeds for the launch of Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s latest novel, Dogs of War. Leeds Waterstones have a lot of good events for the discerning sf+f fan, and this was no exception. With a reading from the novel followed by an interview conducted by David Tallerman, it was an intriguing introduction to what promises to be a great read.

I made a bunch of notes on what Adrian said, notes I’ll dig out when I have time to read the book (my to-read pile already includes five other Tchaikovsky books, so it might be a little while). Dogs of War is a story that addresses human rights and the hypocrisy of war, as well as the different approaches that might be taken to artificial intelligence. Based on what I’ve heard so far, it also has one of the most distinctive character voices I’ve ever encountered. The uplifted dog Rex wants to be a good boy and please his human masters, which coming from a carefully engineered killing machine is touching, funny, and tragic. This is military scifi that doesn’t follow the usual path of military scifi.

But what I most took away from the evening was a love for what Leeds Waterstones are doing for readers. To compete with the likes of Amazon, they’re turning into more than a shop, running events that bring readers together. Just attending this book launch, I stumbled into the tail end of a regular book quiz and got to hear about a Terry Pratchett book club. It made me realise that there’s a community of sf+f fans being brought together by these events, a community I want to get more involved with.

Reading can seem like an isolated activity, but a love of books can really bring us together.

Now to go join a book club.

Age of Assassins by R J Barker and the Complexity of Parenthood

A fantasy novel about assassins is the last place I’d expect to find a meditation on parenthood. After all, there’s a great gap between raising a kid and knifing people in the dark. But if R. J. Barker’s novel Age of Assassins has taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Won’t Someone Think of the Kids?

From the start, the emotional heart of Age of Assassins lies with two characters – Girton Club-foot, teenage apprentice assassin, and his master, Merela Karn. Merela is a brutal killer, a skilled athlete, and the closest thing Girton has to a mum. Though she struggles to express it, she clearly loves Girton, and he loves her. Their affection, where it comes from and how it’s developed, shines through in their interactions and the flashbacks to their past. It creates a beautiful balance to the brutality and cold politics that are the book’s other main emotional tones.

But this isn’t the only parental relationship in the book.  Its plot is driven by the desire of a mother, the queen, to protect her son. There are illegitimate heirs, distant parents, and other family members standing in for parents, all common features of feudal society. There’s a squire master who, like many a teacher, winds up in loco parentis, filling certain parental duties as befits his post. And, as the story unfolds, we see other adults with the power over children that a parent has, but with far less of their affection or care.

Parenting – It’s Complicated

In the modern world, it’s no big revelation to say that parenting isn’t one size fits all. Every family is different. There might be foster parents, adoptive parents, grandparents filling a parental role. A parent’s partner might take on some of the features of a parent, then move on when the relationship ends. Meanwhile, teachers, care workers, nannies, babysitters, play supervisors, and other adults take on responsibility and care for kids as appropriate to their role.

The way people parent varies hugely. No two sets of parents I know approach the role in the same way. Hell, even within couples there are always differences, because what suits one parent won’t always suit the other.

Despite what certain reactionaries might tell you, this diverse, fractured view of parenting isn’t part of the moral breakdown of society. It isn’t even new. Parenting varies with nation, culture, and point in history. It’s never just one thing. And the complicated ways it worked in Europe’s feudal past are there on the page in Barker’s world, from the heirs raised in different families to the relationship of master and apprentice.

Feudality and Parenthood

Medieval Europe was a famously hierarchical place. The hierarchies it handed down to us, and which shaped European society until very recently, tried to pin everyone in their place, strictly differentiated by class.

Yet the reality, especially in the post-Roman era on which Age of Assassins is modelled, was far more mercurial. “Great” men, noble houses, and entire kingdoms rose and fell. Neither monarchical power nor the inheritance of kingship was as fixed as we imagine it to be. As the conflict for control of England in 1066 showed, the “rules” of aristocratic and monarchical power, along with its supposedly rigid patriarchal structure, have always been open to change.

This is the sort of politics seen in Age of Assassins, one where a variable political hierarchy reflects a variable family one.

Parenting Over Time

Another way in which Age of Assassins complicates parenthood is its portrayal of Girton growing up. We see flashbacks to his evolving relationship with Merela. We also see their relationship changing in the present, as his growth into adulthood and revelations about his identity transform him. If one person in a relationship changes, the relationship cannot stay the same.

We see how, for any parent, the meaning of parenthood changes over time. This extends beyond Girton and Merela to the changing dynamics of other parental relationships in the book.

Parenthood as a Public Thing

Inevitably, in a book centred around hereditary power, Age of Assassins touches on parenting not just as a varying institution but as a public one.

Family relationships can be among the most intimate and secretive in our lives. But they also have a public face, and that matters. The way we define parenthood defines our society. It can expand or limit people’s options, as seen in characters in the book seeking to inherit power through their parental lines. It can shape our moral values and sense of community. Its interactions with other institutions, from government to economics to culture, affect how they all work.

Age of Assassins is a fantastic mystery thriller. But, as an accidentally wise man once said, stuff can do two things. In among the murder and betrayal, you can find a story that shows the complexity, the importance, and above all the saving beauty of family.