Sunday, April 24, 2011

Story and Genre

Last week I reviewed Patrick Bishop's Bomber Boys, part of the research I've been doing for my fantasy novel Shadow Puppet.  One strand of the protagonists in Shadow Puppet is a bomber pilot and so I've been doing a lot of reading around World War II--to the level, in fact, where I could begin a novel, exploring the same themes using much the same story, about bomber pilots set in that period if I wanted.  So why don't I?  It would almost certainly have more commercial potential than the "mechanised fantasy" I have in mind.

World War II Wellington bombers (2 of 2)
Why can't fantasy fiction have bombers?
There are several reasons.  First, the novel I would want to write about bomber pilots and WWII has already been written: Len Deighton's Bomber.  This novel is so perfect in concept and execution that any attempt to tread the same ground could only be callow in comparison.

Second, there are a couple of plot dynamics which would seem either anachronistic or ludicrous in a QWWII novel.  Curtailing these elements would weaken the structure I have in mind.

Third, in a WWII novel you already know the ending.  Your protagonist might or might not survive the war, but you know from their nationality whether they're on the winning side.  This allows a fine dramatic irony but inevitably leaches much of the tension from the narrative.

The final, and most important, reason is the moral ambiguity I can introduce in a created world.  An English language novel about WWII almost forces you into a "white hats versus black hats" scenario, good against evil - a setup that doesn't interest me as a reader or a writer.  There aren't going to be many readers rooting for the Nazis against the Allies - but Lauchenland against Beruzil?  Who are the good guys in that one?   Not knowing whose side you're supposed to be on--or inverting your sympathies during the course of the novel--are much more interesting for everyone.

Now, all I need to do is get on with the minor details of writing the damned book...

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Should I Read...?

Patrick Bishop, 1997

I recently read this remarkable book--a history of Bomber Command's activities in World War II--as research for my latest fantasy novel.  Bomber Boys is far more than a research source, though: it's a meticulously researched and morally balanced survey which also packs considerable emotional power.

The story of Bomber Command is more complex than any other branch of the British military.  The astonishing bravery of the aircrew, and the appalling risks they encountered, is beyond dispute.  Figures vary, but most sources agree that around 75,000 airmen flew active missions during the war; 50,000--two-thirds--were killed.  A tour of duty was 30 operations, and at the height of the casualties, 1943, only one crew in six survived to complete a tour; only one in forty made it through a second.  The crews knew the odds, and still they carried on volunteering.

But the bomber crews are not remembered today in the same way that other branches of the armed services are.  There is no national memorial, and no campaign medal.  The reason is easy to find: the nature of the missions they flew.  The technology of the age was not adequate to bomb small targets precisely, and the strategy, under Sir Arther 'Bomber' Harris, was to bomb German cities into oblivion.  Over 40,000 civilians were killed in one raid on Hamburg, nearly as many in the more notorious Dresden attack when the war was nearly over.  After the war, the Allied leadership felt it necessary to distance itself from these tactics.

Bishop is to be commended for even-handed treatment of the issues.  His account has eyewitness testimony from German survivors of the raids, and he never seeks to minimise their impact.  He does not allow his undoubted admiration for the aircrew to blur the difficult moral question of whether the strategy was justified.  He presents the evidence, and lets the reader decide.

Bomber Boys is a moving, troubling account of a grotesque period of human history.  Recommended for anyone with an interest in the period or the morality of warfare.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reading and Viewing

One reason--beyond natural indolence--for some downtime on the blog is that I'm doing what might loosely be called research for Shadow Puppet, and generally catching up on some reading and the Sky+ box.

Having finished Stalingrad, which was most definitely research, I continued with two contrasting Spitfire pilot memoirs: First Light, by Geoffrey Wellum, and The Last Enemy, by Richard Hillary.  Both were vivid and moving accounts of pilots' experiences, and humbling to read how these seemingly ordinary young men were able to endure the most horrific conditions--taking their planes into combat two or three times a day, with their colleagues killed around them.  Both understandably take on a certain detachment under a devil-may-care exterior.  Wellum survived the war, understanding even at the time that nothing in his life would match the intensity or significance of these early experiences; Hillary, terribly burned after being shot down, was then killed in a training crash.  Sobering stuff.

Less emotionally engaging was the final series of The Tudors.  This, by almost any standards, was a stinker: historical accuracy, competence of script, acting merit--all were wholly cast aside.  Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) lapsed deeper and deeper into Irish as the series progressed, and the dream sequence in which he was visited by Death on a horse defined risibility.  And yet--The Tudors was great fun. Taken on its own terms, it had pace, dynamism and an unpretentious--if wholly unwarranted--self-confidence.  A guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

It certainly compared favourably with Ridley Scott's bloated ragbag of cliche and stereotype, Robin Hood.  This, from the man who directed Alien, Bladerunner and Gladiator, was a sad and sorry comedown.  Scott apparently rejected more interesting earlier versions of the script (including Russell Crowe playing both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the Sheriff as "a CSI-style forensic investigator) to make a stolid retelling of an old tale.  No worse, perhaps, than The Tudors, but with the unforgivable sin of being just plain boring.
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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...Cover via Amazon
Holiday Reading

I'm back, refreshed from a week in Tenerife.  It's the first time I've ever been on holiday and not taken a book.  Instead, luggage pared down, it was my Kindle, loaded up with my intended reading.

The experience only reinforced my existing Kindle mania.  Light, easy on the eye and infinitely practical.

First on my reading list was Justin Cronin's weighty modern-day vampire novel, The Passage.  This didn't justify the hype, and would have benefited from being 200 pages shorter, but it was still an absorbing read.  More rewarding was Joe Abercrombie's long-awaited The Heroes.  In publishing terms, Abercrombie is a well-established brand: ultra-violent, blackly comic deconstructions of the fantasy genre, told through mulitple viewpoints and clearly differentiated viewpoints.  Nobody does this niche better but, after five novels, I'm interested to see where he goes next.

My final reading, which I'm still working through, is Antony Beevor's immense history of Hitler's Russian campaign, Stalingrad.  It's a grim and chilling account of an almost unimaginably hellish time.
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