Dispatches by Michael Herr – War as Pure Experience (July 2020)

Publisher: Picador Cover design: Illustration by Joanna Thomson, Picador Art Dep

Our machine was devastating and versatile, it could do anything but stop.

For every prayer there was a counter-prayer – and it was hard to see who had the edge.

There were plenty of people who believed that we were nothing more than glorified war profiteers. And perhaps we were. Those of us who didn’t get killed or wounded or otherwise fucked up.

There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there. Sometimes an especially smart grunt or another correspondent would even ask me what I was ‘really doing there.

Even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind.

You drown in this book. You are meant to. The language of the Vietnam War is afforded no translation: Charlie, Grunt, Grease, Cav, Kill Ratio, Get Some, Far Out, Psywar, Loach and Huey. It’s your job to understand, the author is not there to make it easier. Add to this, Herr’s use of endless descriptive sentences, like this example on helicopters:

‘A collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right-hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door gun fire out the other, fuel, heat, vitality, and death, death itself, hardly an intruder.’

Such use of language is immersive and relentless, just like war itself.

Dispatches (1977) was called ‘the best book I have read on men and war in our time’ by John Le Carré. Herr’s book is visceral, totally uncensored and often cited as the most accurate account of the soldier’s experience in Vietnam. And an account of experience it is, not a written history of the war. While the book documents some key events such as the siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive, it does not chart the course of the war. It is instead pure memory and emotion, as Herr says, ‘the madness, the bitterness, the horror and the doom of it’.

Broken into six chapters (Breathing in, Hell Sucks, Khe Sanh, Illumination Rounds, Colleagues and Breathing Out) Dispatches is often a string of anecdotes; Herr’s memories one after the other. There’s the depiction of Saigon, beautiful and dreadful: ‘Sitting in Saigon was like sitting in the petals of a poisonous flower’. The NVA sniper who earned the affection of the Khe Sanh marines after surviving a napalm attack: ‘After that, no one wanted anything to happen to him’. The self-medication common to the army: ‘Going out at night, the medics gave you pills’. The sign hanging on the wire surrounding a Special Forces outpost: ‘If you kill for money you’re a mercenary. If you kill for pleasure you’re a sadist. If you kill for both you’re a Green Beret’.

Grim humour like that fills Dispatches. In Vietnam, for many ordinary soldiers, it was all they had. Names scrawled on helmets are particularly illuminating: Far from Fearless, Avenger V, Hell Sucks, Time is on My Side, Born to Lose, Born to Raise Hell, Born to Kill, Born to Die. Furthermore, Herr quotes verbatim multiple conversations between the soldiers he encountered. Not only is the dialogue uncensored, but it is recorded phonetically. So ‘Shit’ is ‘Sheet’, ‘told’ is ‘tol’ and ‘let me’ is ‘lemme’. In this way, the lived experience of the troops is put to paper with no refinement. This doesn’t make the book easier to read, but I doubt Herr was aiming to achieve a relaxing reading experience, rather a vivid and true to life one.

So, based on Herr’s true to life depiction, what was the Vietnam War like? The answer: Madness. A futile conflict infused with the ballooning pop culture of the 60’s (there is a full page of song credits at the back of Dispatches for the all the famous tunes Herr references), and widespread substance abuse. It’s no accident that much of the book feels hallucinogenic. And so it’s not surprising that Herr was used as a screenwriter for the narration of that most hallucinogenic of films, Apocalypse Now (Herr also has a screenplay credit for Full Metal Jacket).

The futility of war (and of the Vietnam War in particular) is certainly a central theme. The resilience of the North Vietnamese in the face of the American war machine is remarked on multiple times: ‘They didn’t seem depleted, let alone exhausted’. While Despatches is very much a depiction of the American experience in Vietnam, Herr alludes to the wider (and far more massive) tragedy it inflicted on the Vietnamese (58,318 Americans died in Vietnam, estimations of total military and civilian Vietnamese casualties exceed 3 million). Yet, Herr implies that this avoidable human suffering was caused in an atmosphere of total futility: ‘A lot of people knew the country could never be won, only destroyed’. Vietnam seemed like a fruitless enterprise with little purpose to Herr: ‘There were the times when the whole war itself seemed tapped of its vitality: epic enervation, the machine running half-assed and depressed’. Herr makes you wonder if stepping into Vietnam in 1968 really was like entering a world without hope, without reason.

But despite the apparent pointlessness, the great Army propaganda machine kept on churning, and it is in describing this that Herr achieves his most effective indictment of the American military establishment. His anger at the unreasonable cheerfulness of the higher echelons of command is palpable: ‘[Optimism] seemed to be the only kind of talk that any of them were capable of. “Excellent”, “real fine”, “outstanding”, “first rate”’. The army’s misleading use of jargon in briefings is also lampooned: ‘friendly casualties’ (not very friendly), ‘meeting engagement’ (ambush), ‘discreet burst’ (often uncontrolled fire). To Herr, it’s clear the military lost all credibility in Vietnam.

‘The spokesman spoke in words that had no currency left as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world.’

‘“Oh two hundred isn’t anything. We lost more than that in an hour on Guadalcanal” (…) you heard that talk all the time, as though it could invalidate the deaths at Khe Sanh, render them somehow less dead than the dead at Guadalcanal, as though light losses didn’t lie as still as moderate losses or heavy losses.’

The disconnect between press briefings and the situation on the ground contributed to Herr’s decision to abandon Saigon altogether for much of his time in-country. Instead he careened around the countryside with colleagues like Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and Dana Stone (both of whom would be captured and killed by the communists). His decision to embed with front line troops was undoubtedly crucial in collecting the depth of experience he relays in Dispatches.

But the difference between propaganda and reality is just one of the contradictions of war Herr highlights. Like the best writing on war, Dispatches complicates rather than simplifies your perceptions. It leaves you with a clearer appreciation for the men who were there, but a more complicated picture of the nature of fighting. For example, while terrifying, war could, according to Herr, also be a thing of beauty:

‘How lovely .50-calibre tracer could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel total serenity.’

The allure of war is a theme repeated in books like Anthony Swafford’s Jarhead (2003). Both Herr and Swafford recognise the fact that far from being reluctant participants, some soldiers lust for fighting and its all-encompassing purpose, and far from devaluing any anti-war message, this only makes the books more terrifying. Literary comparisons can also be made to Joe Haldeman’s 1974 fictional work The Forever War (which after all is based on the Vietnam experiences of its author). Dispatches shares the same grim humour for army logic/propaganda as The Forever War. Plus they treat death in the same matter of fact, comfortless, and sometimes darkly humorous way. This from Dispatches:

‘“Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.”

I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story.

Herr reported from Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire magazine. A fact that raised eyebrows then and would be unthinkable in today’s world of cash-strapped journalism. His credentials are mocked in one of the books funnier moments by a marine:

‘And Esquire, wow, they, got a guy over here, what the fuck for, you tell’em what we’re wearing?’

But the truth that Herr manages to convey is that while the Vietnam War was in many ways laughable in its madness, it was very, very, unfunny. For Herr, the scars of his own experience were deep. 18 months after returning to the states he suffered a nervous breakdown, and it was only five years after he stopped reporting from Vietnam that he was able to write Dispatches. Herr says that ‘My life and death got mixed up with their lives and deaths’. This intermingling of the reporter and reported is also alluded to in British war photographer Don McCullin’s autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour (1990):

‘The ghosts in my filing cabinets seem to shock me – the ghosts of all those dead in all those wars (…)

              With this book, perhaps they will be set free.’

Herr died in 2016 aged 76. I hope that writing Dispatches was an exorcism for himself, in the same way McCullin hoped Unreasonable Behaviour would be for him. The end result of Herr’s work is a staggering account of what it means to be a soldier, with all the terror, beauty and humour. Above all, Dispatches feels real, totally, unnervingly real.

Those of us who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too, that’s a little history joke.’

‘Common Sense’ and the Life of Thomas Paine – The work of the forgotten Founding Father (July 2020)

Publisher: Penguin (Great Ideas Series) Cover Artwork: Phil Baines

The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.’

‘The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth’.

‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again’.

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own church” (not actually from Common Sense, instead from The Age of Reason).

The most talented writer of the revolutionary period, even, for my money, of the enlightenment period, was born in Thetford, England in 1737. Thomas Paine was born to the son of a corset maker, and left school at age 12 to become his father’s apprentice. Having briefly been to sea as a privateer, his wife and child died in childbirth when he was 22. By age 37 he was financially ruined by debt. Paine was middle aged, but had achieved nothing. It was hardly an auspicious start. But, he did have one ace; years before, he had met Benjamin Franklin by chance in London, and the future Founding Father was so impressed by the young man that he wrote him a letter of recommendation (it seems Paine’s proclivity of oratory was evident). So, he left England behind and sailed to America. Two years later he had written Common Sense and changed the course of history.

Common Sense (first published anonymously on the 10th of January 1776) was a rallying cry to American Revolutionaries on the brink of war and is an inspirational call to arms which retains its relevance to this day. So important were these 77 pages of text in prompting America’s declaration of independence, that John Adams attested that ‘without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain’. Within a few months of its publication, over 150,000 copies were distributed across America, making it, proportionally, the nation’s greatest best-seller ever (it’s still in print by the way). This is no surprise, given Paine’s accessible yet eloquent style of prose; which combines clear reasoning with verbal-agility and humour. In fact he specifically endeavoured to ensure that his writing was as accessible as possible, remarking that ‘I shall avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet’. This makes his work remarkably readable when compared to similar political treatises of the enlightenment period.

In Common Sense, Paine advocates not just the arguments for independence from Great Britain, but a number of enlightenment-era principles, such as a democratically elected assembly, religious freedom, and the rule of law. In doing so, he helps to lay the groundwork for the American constitution, and the principles which still lie at the nation’s core. But despite all this, Paine is rarely remembered alongside the Founding Fathers.

Paine seeks to define the purpose of government, describing it as a ‘necessary evil’, produced ‘by our wickedness’. The primary function of government, according to Paine, is security. If mankind was naturally good, there would be no need for a government to enforce order. However, ‘that not being the case’, each man ‘finds it necessary to surrender up part of his property to furnish means of the protection of the rest’. Hence, as Paine eloquently puts it, government is ‘the badge of lost innocence’, as it indicates our collective acceptance that man’s more harmful qualities must be kept in check. In fact, Paine, in one of his more famous quotations, states that ‘a government which cannot preserve the peace, is no government at all’.

And yet, argues Paine, Great Britain’s ‘grievous’ oppression of the American colonies, amounting to ‘a long and violent abuse of power’, means that the British, in their position as rulers, have not fulfilled this purpose of government. He goes on to critique the principle of hereditary succession in the British monarchy, railing against how ‘a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest’, and in so doing begins his advocacy for the equality of all men, which was to define much of his contribution to enlightenment-era thinking.

And now, dear reader, if you’ll indulge some sketchy comparative history, I posit that correlations with Brexit in Paine’s writing are evident. For example, within Common Sense’s arguments for independence he points out the numerous trading opportunities with Europe that will become available following America’s departure from a British monopoly. He assures doubters that ‘our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe’. Much like the proponents of Brexit today, Paine is forced to assuage doubts that independence will lead to economic damage, instead highlighting the opportunities it presents. In its present state, ‘the trade of America goes to ruin, because of its connection with Britain’ he writes.

What also becomes clear from Common Sense, is that Paine wrote the piece amidst an intense debate about the future of America (just as debate over Brexit has been divisive in the UK), and that he was attempting to rebuke a significant faction who favoured reconciliation, not war. To them, he puts the following arguments: 1) That the prolonging of a union would only allow King George to continue the subjugation of the American peoples in a subtler way, giving him the opportunity to ‘accomplish by craft (…) in the long run, what he cannot do by violence (…) in the short one’.  2) That even the best terms achieved in any reconciliation would amount merely to a ‘temporary expedient’, and that ‘emigrants of property would not come to a country whose government hangs but by a thread’. 3) That delaying the declaration of independence risks the splitting of the Americas into a civil war between revolutionaries and loyalists, ‘which may be far more fatal than all the malice of Britain’.

Towards the end of Common Sense Paine lays out a vision for what a liberated American government would look like, and it is not so different from the system we have today. Paine suggests annual congressional assemblies with a single president, elected by congressmen. Through such a congress, laws demanding a three fifths super-majority would be passed. Paine claims that these representatives, united together, and elected by ‘as many qualified voters as shall think proper to attend’, will create a whole which will have ‘truly legal authority’.

Finally, for his time, Paine had truly radical things to say on religion, as highlighted by the fourth quote at the top of this article. He paints a vision of a liberal, progressive state, one which secures ‘freedom and property to all men’. And in particular, one where religious freedom is a reality. ‘There should be diversity of religious opinion among us: It affords a larger field our Christian kind-ness’ he writes. Paine’s belief in the toleration of all Christian denominations would have been revolutionary in many quarters, and only highlights his deeply liberal and progressive principles.

In Common Sense the atmosphere of trepidation felt on the eve of the declaration of independence is palpable, but so is Paine’s bravery to assert what he believes is morally right: Rejection of tyranny, government by the people, security as the first function of the state, and economic and religious freedom. But above all, the rule of law, for as Paine states, ‘THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king, and there ought to be no other’. No one has ever put it better.

Common Sense is a masterpiece. It is a hugely readable, eloquently written, and inspiring book which altered the course of history by being a driving force behind the declaration of independence, and by laying out many of the principles the world’s most powerful nation still lives by. The values of religious tolerance and the rule of law, are principles we rightly hold dear, and lose at our peril. The great tragedy of Paine, is that he never attained the recognition of his fellow revolutionaries, or enlightenment philosophers. His revolutionary (and popular) politics was feared by William (the younger) Pitt’s government, and he faced a slander campaign made even more toxic by his position as an English revolutionary traitor. His enemy’s went so far as to say he sodomised cats. That even manages to put the cage fights of today’s politics into perspective.

The tragedy is that Pitt’s tactics worked. On top of this, his fellow revolutionaries disowned him. It seems he was too much of a firebrand even for them, plus, it’s clear they envied his way with words. And, as they were second or third generation colonists and Paine wasn’t, it also seems possible they resented this upstart Englishman helping to run their revolution. Jefferson went so far as to ban his correspondence with Paine from being printed. When Mercy Otis Warren wrote the official history of the revolution (after Paine turned down the chance to do so), her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) literally reduced Paine’s contribution to a footnote. Thus, he died in relative obscurity, and just six mourners attended his funeral.

Yet this was a man almost unparalleled in his literary influence during the revolutionary period, whose desire to bring about justice was unquenchable. Franklin once said that “Where liberty is, there is my country,” to which Paine replied, “Where liberty is not, there is my country”. And John Adams, while he disliked Paine, was ultimately forced to remark that ‘I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine’, adding, ‘call it then the Age of Paine’. Not bad for the son of a corset maker from Thetford.

So go on, read Common Sense – you won’t regret it.

Appendix I – For those who want a bit more evidence for why Paine was the greatest orator of his generation, I attach the opening paragraph of The American Crisis. This pamphlet was his second most significant contribution to the revolutionary war after Common Sense. It was written in sections between 1776 and 1783. Paine wrote what you see below on the eve of the Battle of Trenton (26th December 1776). At this point of the war, fortunes are firmly against the revolutionaries. Having just retreated across New Jersey, Washington is about to attempt a night time crossing of the frozen Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on Trenton. Washington ordered that Paine read these words to his troops. The next day, they won a decisive victory…

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

Appendix II – Considerable inspiration and factual material for this piece was drawn from Jill Lepore’s superb articles on Paine and the revolution for The New Yorker. They can be found here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/10/16/the-sharpened-quill

And here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/03/17/the-divider

Discussion of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ – July 2020

Publisher: Pax Librorum Publishing House Cover design: Sebestyen, employing the image ‘Chinese Dragon’ by Lihui from Dreamstime.com

‘Let your plans be as dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’

‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt, if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.’

‘The good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.’

‘Hence the enlightened ruler be heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.’

Sun Tzu is believed to have lived between 544 and 496 BCE (dying at the age of 47 or 48). He was a military general and tactician, as well as a writer and philosopher during the Eastern Zhou period of Ancient China. His name literally means, ‘master sun’. Little is known about his life, and details are so patchy that some contemporary scholars have suggested he may not have existed at all. If he did though, the scant evidence which is available suggests he drew inspiration for The Art of War from successful campaigns fighting for King Helü of Wu (537 – 493 BCE), starting during 512 BCE (Wu was a state located on China’s eastern seaboard, at the mouth of the Yangtze river, which existed between the 12th and mid-fourth century BCE).

The influence of The Art of War as a work of military strategy is difficult to overstate. Quite apart from becoming among the most widely read military treatise to circulate during the ‘Warring States’ period (475-221 BCE) of Chinese history, the book continues to be a touchstone for military and political strategists today, though perhaps it is now read more for its legend, than for its usefulness.

For a 2,500 year old treatise on Chinese military strategy, the book has become remarkably ubiquitous in popular culture; even a clichéd byword for strategic genius. Film and TV productions to have referenced it include Wall Street (1987), Die Another Day (2002), The Sopranos and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even in Michael Bay’s 1996 action film The Rock, the status of Sean Connery’s imprisoned British spy as a masterful tactician is (not so) subtly communicated via the inclusion of The Art of War on the bookshelf of his cell.

But popular culture aside, what is it about the work which has made it so persistent in the minds of so many contemporary leaders (which include Mao Zedong, Võ Nguyên Giáp, Douglas McArthur, Colin Powell and Dominic Cummings)? And how useful is it really? After all, being able to quote a pithy line from the Art of War might succeed in mildly impressing an easily thrilled acquaintance, but the internalisation and application of Sun Tzu’s often vague and dated teachings is far harder.

Well, the first comprehensive English translation was provided by British sinologist Lionel Giles in 1910, and the book was divided into 13 chapters:

1)Laying plans, 2)Waging War, 3)Attack by Stratagem, 4)Tactical Dispositions, 5)Energy, 6)Weak Points and Strong, 7) Manoeuvring, 8)Variation in Tactics, 9)The Army on the March, 10)Terrain, 11)The Nine Situations, 12)The Attack by Fire, 13) The Use of Spies.

In each section, Sun Tzu lays out what he considers to be the most crucial factors determining the successful conduct of war. For example, in the opening chapter he identifies ‘five constant factors’, which are 1) The Moral Law (the support a ruler enjoys from his people), 2) Heaven (which refers to environmental factors such as temperature and the seasons), 3) Earth (physical factors like distance and terrain), 4) The Commander (whom Sun Tzu decrees must stand for the virtues of ‘wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness’) and 5) Method and discipline (relatively self-explanatory: the proper administration of an army and its supporting apparatus).

All of that seems like common sense. Commanders should be brave and decisive, the army must be disciplined and obedient. Environmental and physical factors can obviously be fundamental to the course of a battle/war. And ultimate success in conflict depends in large part upon the moral justification and hence support for it. Much of The Art of War is pretty common sense stuff, it’s not hard to understand: ‘He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents will be captured by them’. ‘You should occupy the raised and sunny spots and wait for [the enemy] to come up’, ‘Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh to the fight’.

Clearly, a large part of the book’s longevity is merely the fact that it was one of the first works to collate fundamental truisms of war in a single document – its popularity today is then a product of age creating a vague and fuzzy aura of ancient-mystic-wisdom.

That being said, as war is now drastically different to that known by Sun Tzu (for example, where decisive pitched battles between foes at a particular ‘field’ no longer take place), what practical advice have his modern disciples gleaned from his writings?

The answer: Sun Tzu’s golden gobbets on unconventional and guerrilla warfare: ‘He overawes his opponents, and their allies are prevented from joining against him’. ‘At first, exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening, afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare’. ‘Carry false tidings to the enemy’. ‘The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy’. ‘Though the enemy may be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting’. ‘Let your plans be as dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’ ‘Force him to reveal himself, so as to find his vulnerable spots’. And perhaps most famously: ‘Winning without fighting is the highest form of warfare’.

These lines hold within them the central tenets of unconventional warfare as adopted by guerrilla leaders like Mao and Giáp. These are essentially: secrecy, deception, agility and piecemeal engagement/harassment, rather than pitched battle. It is these teachings which have allowed Sun Tzu to remain relevant even while conventional modes of warfare morphed and mutated alongside countless civilisations. Sun Tzu’s teachings are no less applicable to politics (in fact particularly so, as they often concern obtaining victory with minimal violence). Dominic Cumming’s has made no secret of the fact that he is a fan of The Art of War, and his deployment of the now infamous £350 million statistic as part of Vote Leave’s political insurgency is a superb example of the use of deceptive tactics to unbalance an opponent (Following the unveiling of the bus, the Remain campaign spent considerable energy debunking the stat, which only provided it with increased airtime and underlined the UK’s status as a net contributor to the EU in even bolder pen).

Given the often shadowy and underhand nature of the tactics Sun Tzu subscribes to, his continued popularity in political circles should do nothing to reassure those concerned about the healthy functioning of our democracies. But this only serves to make The Art of War more fascinating, and at only 55 pages it can be read in well under a couple of hours. Very few books have influenced the policies of states and leaders for so long, and while its clear articulation of the plain truths of warfare would be significant by itself, its championing of unconventional tactics is what has allowed it to transcend the military traditions of the period in which it was written.

June 2020 – At the Mountains of Madness – H.P Lovecraft (1936)

Publisher: Penguin (English Library series) Cover design: Coralie Bickford-Smith; Illustration: Despotica

‘I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why’.

‘The nervous system was so complex and highly developed as to leave Lake aghast.’

‘Little by little however, they rose grimly into the western sky; allowing us to distinguish various bare, bleak, blackish summits, and to catch the curious sense of fantasy which they inspired as seen in the reddish Antarctic light against the provocative background of iridescent ice-dust clouds. In the whole spectacle there was a persistent, pervasive hint of stupendous secrecy and potential revelation; as if these stark, nightmare spires marked the pylons of a frightful gateway into forbidden spheres of dream, and complex gulfs of remote time, space and ultra-dimensionality. I could not help feeling that they were evil things – mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss.’

‘The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain from the outset.’

‘It was very clearly, the blasphemous city of the mirage in stark, objective and ineluctable reality.’

H.P Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. His best work – including some sixty or so short stories – was published from 1923 onwards, mostly in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. At the Mountains of Madness was published in 1936 in the magazine Astounding Stories. Lovecraft died in 1937, in poverty and virtually unknown. He is now recognised as the one of the most significant horror-fiction writers in history, and the interlinked universe of his work, known as the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, established the genre of ‘Lovecraftian horror’ (also known as ‘cosmic horror’) and has gone on to influence countless authors after him. The Cthulhu Mythos is significant as an early example of an interlinked storytelling universe which predates the MCU by over seven decades. His stories are often reinterpreted, with particular emphasis placed on righting the racism present in some of his work.

At the Mountains of Madness is a first person description of an Antarctic expedition, from the perspective of one of the expedition leaders: Geologist William Dyer. A sense of foreboding is established at the outset as Dyer makes clear he has been moved to recount his Antarctic experiences as an attempt to prevent others from following in his footsteps. In particular to prevent the departure of the supposedly imminent ‘Stark-Maryweather’ excursion. What follows is a detailed description of Dyer’s expedition, and the discovery of the ‘Mountains of Madness’ and the civilisation it shelters; a civilisation which appears to have been home for cosmic beings the explorers label ‘Old Ones’.

The novella is gripping from page one. Lovecraft grounds the narrative in reality by referencing real expeditions (Amundson, Shackleton) and pieces of equipment (like Dornier aircraft), as well as by recounting the detail of the expedition’s preparations, equipment, financial backers and reporting newspapers so as to lend as much legitimacy as possible to the story. In addition, Lovecraft’s insertion of fictional scientific sources in the academic knowledge of his explorers (such as the book, Necronomicon) helps to create what the author himself describes as ‘a background of evil verisimilitude’. Because it is made clear that the expedition was ill-fated right at the beginning of the book, a sense of foreboding only grows as it unfolds, and it is fed by Dyer’s descriptions of menacing Antarctic landscapes. A battle between the scientific urge to explore, and the need to leave alone what must not be disturbed – also lies at the centre of the narrative. As Dyer and his team follow their scientific instincts, the terrible nature of their impending discovery is skilfully signposted.

At the Mountains of Madness is a prime example of Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic horror’; a genre which seeks to frighten readers not with gore or monsters or violence (not that Mountains is short of those) but instead with the vastness of the universe, and the unfathomable alien forces which might govern it. Cosmic horror has been described as the ‘fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance’[1]. An equally effective description of the genre is that it is a ‘contemplation of mankind’s place in the vast, comfortless universe revealed by modern science’ in which the horror springs from ‘the discovery of appalling truth’[2]. Dyer’s description of the discovery of forbidden lands and creatures, and of lifting the lid on a truly ancient form of life totally alien to humanity is very effective in providing this cosmic horror. The scale and nature of the world Dyer and his compatriots glimpse is also aided through Lovecraft’s expert use of description to create vivid images. Furthermore, the use of the first person forces us to view each discovery with Dyer, not as a passive observer but as a fellow explorer, and this helps make the terrible significance of his revelations all the more immediate and inescapable.

The overall message of the book seems to be one discouraging scientific exploration, for fear that is may uncover terrible alien forces. In this way, Mountains can be placed in the genre of similar alien horror stories such as Who Goes There? (1938 novella by John W. Campbell Jr which formed the basis for The Thing series) and Alien. In these stories human endeavours in far flung worlds uncover terrifying and deadly enemy’s, not scientific progress. In fact, while Lovecraft’s influence on some authors via the Cthulhu mythos is well documented, it seems likely that Mountains may have also influenced The Thing. Mountains was published in 1936 in the magazine Astounding Stories, and Who Goes There? Was published in the same magazine two years later. Given that both stories concern Antarctic expeditions discovering vicious aliens which lay waste to their crew members, some influence by Lovecraft upon Campbell seems possible.

Overall, At the Mountains of Madness is a fantastic page turner, and highly readable given its fast paced narrative and short 123 page length. Totally gripping, and a classic of influential Lovecraftian horror.

An issue of Astounding Stories magazine (now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) containing part of At the Mountains of Madness. Astounding Stories serialised Lovecraft’s tale between February and April 1936.

[1] Ralickas, V. “‘Cosmic Horror’ and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18, no. 3 (2008): 364.

[2] The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy : themes, works, and wonders. Greenwood Press. 2005. p. 393.

June 2020 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman (first published in 1974)

Publisher: Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd (as part of SF masterworks series) Cover Design: Based on illustration by Chris Moore/Artist Partners

‘”Tonight were going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man

                  The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn’t look five years older than me. So if he’d ever killed a man in combat, silently or otherwise, he’d done it as an infant.

                  I already knew 80 ways to kill people, but most of them were pretty noisy.

A science fiction classic, closely based on the real-war experiences of its author, who served between 1967 and 1969 as a combat engineer in Vietnam. Haldeman was severely wounded and received the Purple Heart. At college he studied physics and astronomy, and he puts his knowledge of the cosmos to stellar use in The Forever War.

This is a fantastic book. Peter F. Hamilton, who authors the afterword of the SF masterworks edition, is quoted on the cover calling it ‘damn near perfect’. I can’t disagree. On one level, it is a gripping war novel (with humanity locked in a seemingly unending conflict against the ‘Tauran’ aliens). Haldeman uses his science fiction setting (which is realised in astonishing detail) to create a more impactful story, which explores the futility of war, and fallibility of man. What keeps you turning the page though, right from the opening paragraph, is how much Haldeman makes you root for the central character and narrator of the story, William Mandella.

You really do care about him. And it is his reassuringly sane mind which keeps the story grounded, while the terrifying effects of relativity cause the rest of humanity to become ever more alien. It is this side-effect of interstellar travel, based in existing scientific theory, which is used by Haldeman to express in sci-fi format the yawning disconnect between battlefront and homeland he experienced while serving in Vietnam. In The Forever War, each tour of duty, typically lasting less than ten months, may result in ‘time dilation’ of decades relative to the rest of the cosmos. This causes earth, and indeed the military practice of the United Nations Exploratory Force (UNEF) in which Mandella serves, to change radically between tours.

For Mandella, who is born in 1977 (and from whose perspective the story is told, to the extent that the book is divided into sections labelled according to his changing rank), this means returning home after his initial tour, to an Earth ravaged by famine and infighting, where calories have become the sole unit of currency, and homosexuality is encouraged by the government to control population growth. Haldeman deftly communicates Mandella’s bewilderment, and the lack of compassion he receives from much of Earth’s population, who see the ongoing war in largely economic terms (by providing considerable employment in a job-starved economy), rather than as a just fight. When the parents of both Mandella and his long-time partner Marygay are killed, one by a curable illness and the other by bandits, their last threads of connection to their homeland are severed, and they re-join the military.

Haldeman’s realisation of a future earth is believable, which of course, makes it ten-times more terrifying. And this mix of realism and fear are key components in the intricate universe he crafts. While the earth he depicts, even at the story’s beginning of 1996, is certainly not our own, it is one the reader can relate to. Yet this is clearly a harsher world. The United Nations appears to rule Earth with dictatorial power, and human life is not nearly as precious. And while the liberal application of ultra-violence is probably to be expected in a war novel, the way Haldeman makes death appear par for the course is troubling, and gripping.

As the story progresses, those elements of humanity familiar to the reader ebb away, just as they do for Mandella, the experience of the key protagonist mirroring that of the reader. Haldeman writes the novel in very matter-of-fact tones, allowing his extensive scientific knowledge to build verisimilitude. However, the book has a darkly comic edge, provided almost wholly by Mandella, whose reactions to his changing world provide a satirical tone. This allows Haldeman to explore the stupidity and corruption at the core of both the war itself, and his future society; all through the eyes of his immensely likeable central character.

The universe here is undoubtedly brutal, Haldeman depicts it unflinchingly, but the mirror in which we see its lunacy is Mandella, a figure who keeps us anchored to a kind of humanity with which we, the readers, are familiar. As a result, having survived astonishing peril, you are desperate for Mandella to get the happy ending he deserves. You realise, that by the end of the novel (which is well into the third millennium), as the sole likely survivor of the 20th century, his death would mean the end of humanity as we, the reader, know it.

Altogether The Forever War is a dazzling book. Initially luring you in with its promise of a war story and reluctant conscripted hero, it becomes part romance, part dystopian vision of a future earth, part social commentary, and an examination of war’s futility. Haldeman explores our capacity for stupidity and violence, but also for love, all with a hint of black comedy.

I read it in two days, and was gripped from start to finish. To no longer be in the company of Mandella left me feeling a bit lost, to be honest. Loved it, loved it, loved it.