V-S Day

V-S Day

The Space Race is a fascinating time; it’s one of superpower competition and cutting-edge technology that ended up transforming the world by way of escaping its gravitational pull. Reading about it, and the big personalities that drove it, feels almost like standing there in that crowd in Cape Canaveral, sensing the quaking ground brought on by blazing rocket fuel.

World War II, as us alternate historians know very well, is also a fascinating time. It’s perhaps the purest good-versus-evil in the history of the twentieth century, with heroes and villains that seem out of an ancient epic poem. It was also a time of great technological change, when the dream of flight gave birth to the nightmares of Dresden and Coventry and Tokyo. It was a war of tanks and bombers, of rubber and steel. It was a war where a lab in New Mexico led to entire cities being destroyed in moments.

Given their proximity to one another, it feels almost obvious that one could combine the two. That’s exactly what Allen Steele has done in his novel V-S Day.

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The Liberator

The Liberator

It can sometimes feel we’ve run out of ground to cover in terms of World War II fiction. To the untrained yet experienced eye, the likes of Band of Brothers (2001) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) may appear to have told all there is to tell, at least about the American war in Europe. (Other theaters are sadly underutilized. I’d like to see more about Burma and the Philippines, to name just two.)

Books including Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014) and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2015) have somewhat shaken up the genre. But there is still room for innovation.

Enter The Liberator, an animated limited series on Netflix concerning Felix Sparks, a man who led a battalion of men from Oklahoma to Italy, France and Germany. In terms of setting, it’s fairly well-trod ground, but in presentation it is quite new.

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Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday

Northern Ireland can feel far away from the rest of the United Kingdom. Its political party system is different from Great Britain’s. Its politics are intensely sectarian in a way that seems out of place in modern Europe. The level of violence it sustained in the twentieth century makes it an outlier in post-1945 Western Europe.

We tend to think of the United Kingdom as a peaceful Western democracy committed to the values of justice and peace. Those of us who have studied its history know that the truth is more muddled. That postwar period saw the birth of the National Health Service and other aspects of the welfare state, but it was also the time Britain left Palestine in civil war, employed a brutal system of concentration camps in Kenya and did much the same in Malaya.

But none of that violence was as old as the one that plagued Ireland.

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9

9

9‘s marketing can make this animated film by Shane Acker seem deceptively childish. It revolves, after all, around talking rag dolls. But the movie can get disturbingly dark in a conceptual, atmospheric way that is absolutely unnerving.

The world of 9 is a post-apocalyptic hellscape with barely a sign of life. It is a world brought about by overuse of resources and man’s creations turning against him. This is a land of bombed-out houses and abandoned factories, where wreckage litters the cracked remnants of boulevards. It is a nightmare, one so awful there is no human left to dream at all.

Watch closely and it appears 9 is set in a dieselpunk world, where certain technological advances in the interwar era brought wrack and ruin to the world in a way reminiscent of, but in some ways scarier than, the firebombs and atomic weapons of World War II. At least those left survivors.

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The Little Traitor

The Little Traitor

Mandatory Palestine is, to put it lightly, a controversial period. A writer sympathetic to Israel will say the British favored the Arabs. A writer sympathetic to the Palestinians will say the British favored the Zionists. My own view is that they were trying to keep a lid on the powder keg; one that blew off as soon as Clement Attlee pulled British troops out of the Holy Land in 1948.

It is in the last few months of British rule that The Little Traitor takes place. The movie concerns a young Jewish boy, Avi Liebowitz (played by Ido Port), nicknamed “Proffy” for his bookishness, who commits acts of anti-British vandalism. Despite this, he ends up bonding over intellectual topics with Sergeant Dunlop (Alfred Molina). Much of the conflict comes from the dissonance inherent to the friendship between the population under the foreign yoke and one of the chains keeping that foreign yoke in place.

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Overlord

Overlord

When I first learned of Overlord, I thought that it sounded like something out of the Alien Space Bats subforum of alternatehistory.com. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen threads with the exact premise of this movie: zombies in World War II. What studio executive green-lit this?

Pay close attention to the film, though, and you will see it has antecedents. It has a whiff of Inglorious Basterds and the zany historical carnage of a Wolfenstein game. If you’ve seen many World War II movies, you will notice something very clever: that this is not a zombie movie in Occupied France, but an old-fashioned World War II movie with zombies. The characters match the archetypes of midcentury war epics: gallant American servicemen, resourceful French resistance fighters, sadistic SS officers. This is a decision that makes the whole enterprise more original than it otherwise would be.

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Black ’47

Black '47

When I think of Irish history and the travails of the Irish people, I can’t help but want to repurpose what Porfirio Díaz allegedly said about Mexico: “So far from God, so close to Britain.”

The history of English, and later British, rule in that green isle is suffused with cruelty. Ireland has been described as Britain’s “laboratory of empire”. Ben Kiernan, author of Blood and Soil: a Global History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007), and the chair of the Genocide Studies Department at Yale, argues that there was a certain genocidal logic in Ireland that preceded what the British, and later Americans, did to the indigenous peoples of North America and Australasia.

The most infamous British atrocity is the Great Irish Famine, sometimes called the Irish Potato Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852. Black ’47 takes place in what is said to be the worst year of this catastrophe.

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Kedma

Kedma

The historiography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fraught at the best of times: a decades-long slog between two different peoples, each with ties to a small strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Benny Morris, an Israeli historian and a rather controversial one, titled his history of the conflict Righteous Victims (1999). Despite some polarizing remarks, I think Morris made a very clever decision in never specifying who exactly the victims are.

Saree Makdisi, in Palestine Inside Out (2008), argues the conflict is fundamentally about land. This may be true, but the reason each side wants the land so much is because of a sense of victimhood. The Zionists who founded the modern state of Israel had been targeted by centuries of antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust. The Arabs of Palestine had been marginalized by the Zionists and by the British Mandate, culminating in what they call al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe; the expulsion of so many Arabs from the land that became the State of Israel.

You can see this in the dueling concepts of who is allowed to “return” to the land. The Israelis promote a “law of return” allowing anyone of Jewish heritage to gain Israeli citizenship. The Palestinians demand a “right of return” for the descendants of the refugees who were driven out by the barrels of Haganah, Irgun and Lehi guns.

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Winter in Madrid

Winter in Madrid

The Spanish Civil War: that allegedly heroic time of brave Republicans and Socialists fighting off dastardly Fascists. It is the time of Homage to Catalonia, of human beings “behaving as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” The time of international brigades and socialists being either inspired or disillusioned, depending on who they encounter. It was Guernica, and it was the proving ground for so many terrible things the Germans and Italians would later unleash upon Europe when the “armistice for twenty years” that Ferdinand Foch had predicted would come to an end.

It is in the shadow of that cruel war that C.J. Sansom sets his novel Winter in Madrid. It concerns a young academic enlisted to serve British intelligence in the early years of World War II to find a British national lost after fighting for the international brigades.

I have seen this book described as a thriller, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. It’s a slower, more deliberate book than your typical Tom Clancy novel, and one that has relatively little focus on the purely military aspects of the war. Winter in Madrid is a character-driven story.

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Out of the London Mist

Out of the London Mist

One of the first things that struck me about this book is how apropos its title is: running through the entire novel is an all-consuming sense of dread brought out by what is best described as magical fog. It’s not hard to visualize the characters wrapped in clouds, appearing only in fading silhouettes as they walk through this darkened recreation of Victorian London.

Out of the London Mist, by Lyssa Medana, succeeds in its atmosphere, a steampunk London of the more fantastic variety. It’s a world where all things are permeated by an omnipresent aether, which powers airships. The aether can also be used to power other things, and it is one of those other things that drives the plot of the novel. The characters are an interesting assemblage of people from different parts of this version of London, including nobles and thieves, adventurers and mechanics.

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