Books worth reading: Dominion.

“Dominion” by CJ Sansom is set in a 1952 Britain which, following Lord Halifax’s accession to the premiership in 1940, has become a “finlandised” satellite state of Nazi Germany.

The plot, about resistance agents trying to get an important person out of the country, is particularly engaging on how fascism and anti-Semitism can creep into a society. It’s very easy now, with the benefit of hindsight, to see how the choices made in 1940 were correct, and accuse those who wished to sue for peace as collaborators or fools. Yet at the time, the horrors of the Great War were still fresh in the minds of many, and essentially decent men like Chamberlain desperately wanted to avoid war. Not everybody who opposed war with Germany was a Nazi sympathiser.

The book is a bit overlong and meanders anxiously too much, but really gets going in the final third. Sansom paints what I think is a very accurate picture of what the road not taken could have looked like. He’s no fan on nationalism, and certainly no fan of the SNP judging by this novel!

A great book for the political anoraks: Then Everything Changed.

Jeff Greenfield is a political reporter for CBS, and his book “Then Everything Changed” paints three What-If scenarios based on real life facts: That JFK was nearly killed in December 1960, before being sworn in as president, that Bobby Kennedy nearly didn’t go through the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, and that Gerald Ford nearly beat Jimmy Carter in 1976. The three stories are not only very informative (Greenfield brings his personal knowledge of US politics and its players to bear) but also quite cheekily written, with asides about what effect these events would have had on other well known individuals.

A great read for the American political junkie. You can get it on the Amazon link here:

The Visual Society.

I recently published “The Gorgeous War”, a short story on about a product which allowed the great majority of people to be, effectively, beautiful. I wrote it primarily because it’s a subject which fascinates me, in the fact that our society, especially with the rise of handheld devices, is so incredibly visually orientated.

That orientation has had all sorts of curious effects on our society, from the manufacture of political candidates (look at Forza Italia) to the arguable reversal of feminism and the rise of the WAG, to the recent Abercrombie and Finch row, where a business suggested that a selective approach to seeking custom based on the physical attractiveness of their customers might well be a reasonable business model. Odious as it is, I’m not sure they were wrong in their  analysis.

There are those who despair at it, who question the fact that we seem to value the beauty of a world class model over, say, a world class research chemist. I’m not so sure: after all, is it right to differentiate between a person who inherited DNA which made them physically attractive over a person with DNA which made them intelligent? Probably not.

Then, of course, there is the reality that physical attractiveness as a general rule has a shorter lifespan than intelligence.

But what would happen if we could manufacture beauty cheaply?We can do a lot now, of course, with plastic surgery and weight  reduction surgery, but supposing we could do it at a cost that permitted pretty much everybody to access it?

What if we could all be the beautiful people?

A Superb Book: Seasons in the Sun

If there is one political history book you read this year, Dominic Sandbrook’s “Seasons in the Sun: The battle for Britain 1974-1979” is the one. Sandbrook tells the story (from a centre-right perspective) of  Britain culturally, politically and economically from Harold Wilson’s return to power in early 1974 to Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979.

What makes the book so good are the wonderfully human nuggets that communicate the crisis facing Britain at the time. Whether it is some of Wilson’s advisors seemingly seriously considering murdering one of their number, to the exasperation of Tony Benn’s  cabinet colleagues at his refusal to accept economic reality, to retired generals and media barons actively considering the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.

But what really fascinates are the facts that contradict the myths of the era, such as the reality that private school numbers actually grew under Labour’s hamfisted  efforts to make education more equal.

Or that one education minister in particular closed more semi-private grammar schools than any other in history: Margaret Thatcher.

Or what about the fact that by the end, with inflation threatening to soar into the late 20s, it was the Labour government, at the behest of (amazingly) trades union leaders, which finally got a grip on public  spending.

From an Irish perspective, there’s plenty here too. There’s the Ulster Worker’s Council strike, where a fascist mob basically staged a coup in Northern Ireland, but also a glimpse of what might be: In Tony Benn’s ridiculous pouring of public money into loss-making worker’s collectives making products that no one wants to buy, we see what life under Richard Boyd Barrett could be like.

I listened to it as an audiobook, which I seriously recommend as David Thorpe, the actor reading it, does a very credible impression of nearly all the key players of the time. A super, informative, entertaining book.

A great book: “2030” by Albert Brooks.

Within minutes of starting to read “2030: the real story of what happens to America” I knew I was going to love it. In fact, I’ll go one step further. This is my favourite novel of the last 12 months. It’s just plain great.

Set in 2030, the novel tells the story of the issues faced by Americans in that year. There’s a president not only recognising that America is no longer the world’s leading nation but also finally having to confront its inability to add to its massive debt. There’s the consequences for individuals caused by inter-generational strife as a result of senior citizens living far longer than the social security net ever planned for.

It’s also funny in a wry way, exceptionally thoughtful, and full of little future nuggets.

But most importantly, it is very, very credible. Reading it, you can see a direct line from where we are today to where the novel arrives at. This is an indictment of reckless entitlement democracy at its worst.

I hesitate to call it science fiction over satire, but it is both, throwing out “what ifs” in the best speculative tradition of both genres.

I really, sincerely hope that this is not his only novel in this genre, because Brooks has a serious talent for it.

Now available on Amazon: “The Gorgeous War”

The beautiful people have it easier, don’t they?

When the United States Supreme Court rules that people can be discriminated against because of their looks, it sets of a train of events no one could have foreseen.

From beauty products, to politics, to terrorism, everything changes, and not the way you expect.

A new short story from me avaailable as an eBook from Amazon.

A great book: The General-Charles De Gaulle and the France he saved.

One thing that really strikes an Irish reader of Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “The General” are the parallels between De Valera and the general. Both men built a political movement based on a set of personal values, both men had a certain flexibility when it came to using force to overthrow democratic institutions they did not approve of, and yet both men ultimately remained anchored to democratic beliefs. Both betrayed sections of society (The IRA and the French Algerians) who had believed that the men in question were their strongest supporters. Both were replaced by protégés who abandoned large sections of their creed, and left parties that essentially became vehicles for ambitious but politically flexible individuals like Chirac, Haughey or Sarkozy.

Having said that, De Gaulle can also be used as an example of an historical figure like Harry Truman who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, and whose values are those needed. That’s not to say that De Gaulle was without talent. In the 1930s he was one of the few military figures to argue for armour based modernisation in a French Army that spent four times as much on horse feed as it did on petrol, and his book on the subject was found, with approving handwritten notes, in Hitler’s bunker in 1945.

De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, ahead of a potential military coup which he may tacitly have supported, allowed him to create a political office, the French presidency, which remains to this day the most powerful (read unchecked) elected office in the democratic world. To his credit, it did allow him to finally put some order on France’s Italian style political chaos. Where he was not a success was in foreign policy, where his paranoia about the United States mixed with his inability to grasp European unity fully led to France striking dramatic poses on the international stage (like leaving NATO’s military structure) which did little to enhance France’s actual global influence. Indeed, De Gaulle’s opposition, whilst out of power, to the creation of a European Army in 1950 can be traced right through to 21st Century France being unable to defeat Libya without US military help, a task surely a 60-year-old combined (and probably French led) European Defence Force would have been able to achieve.

When he left office in 1969, he left not as a result of the 13 attempted assasination attempts on his life but because the French people had voted against a proposed senate reform (ironically to turn the French senate into something similar to the Irish vocational model). He then came to Ireland, where he made a passionate “Vive Quebec Libre” style speech at a banquest held in his honour in favour of a United Ireland which didn’t get picked up by the media because the microphone broke!

Many people from FDR to the French Left were convinced that he would attempt to become a dictator, and he could have given it a serious go, but he didn’t, in fact securing French democracy (although turning a blind eye to the thuggishness of his secret service). But for resisting that temptation, he deserves the mantle of greatness.

Fenby is always readable, keeping De Gaulle’s tale moving with just enough quotations and anecdotes to keep it interesting.  


Great Books: Redshirts

It’s always a treat when you stumble across a writer whom you really enjoy and have never encountered before. John Scalzi is writing science fiction with a mischievous twist, and I recently listened to two audiobooks (both narrated rather well by Star Trek’s Wil Wheaton. I bet he has strongly mixed feelings at being described that way).

The first, “Redshirts”, tells the story of a group of below decks crew on the Universal Union starship Intrepid, who discover that there is something funny going on with security guys who beam down to planets on away teams, that is, they all keep getting killed really stupidly…

The second, “Agent to the Stars”, is about a race of sentient blobs who decide to hire a Hollywood agent to mastermind their debut with the Human race. I’m surprised that this one has not been snapped up for a movie.

Both are great fun, tip their hats towards all the standards of modern science fiction, and are genuinely funny. And yes, Wil Wheaton does a really good job with the characterisations too.