Back from Europe 2016 – Part the Last!

Back from Europe 2016 – Part the Last!

This is the way my life has been lately. It’s the middle of 2017, and I still haven’t finished recounting a travel story that took place last year! But that’s the kind of busy that I’ve been dealing with lately. It seems that between writing and editing (upcoming book release!), there’s been very little time for anecdotes. But I found my way clear to some free time, so I thought I’d wrap this story up!

So welcome to the final installment of my tale of the Williams family Eurotrip, the 2016 edition! To pick up where I left off, the last leg of our trip involved finishing our tour of Belgium and checking out some of the famous art that was the subject of the story (and film adaptation) Monuments Men. We then paid a visit to The Netherlands, swung back through Belgium, and then stayed in the city of Beauvais (north of Paris) before flying home.

Here are some of the highlights…

Ghent and Bruges:

After leaving Ypres, we decided to head to what is, by all accounts, Belgium’s most touristy place – the city of Bruges. This city, which consists of a modern ring surrounding a medieval core, is famous for its canals, breweries, Beer Museum, chocolatiers, and many, many stores! Seriously, people who love shopping would LOVE this town!

One of Bruges many canals, taken from the medieval core of the city

But before stopping there, we swung by what is arguably the less-touristy version of Bruges. Ghent, located not far away and to the northwest, consists of a well-preserved medieval core surrounded by modern burroughs. Much like Bruges, Ghent is famous its canals, medieval and Baroque architecture, and rich history. While there, we stopped for some lunch at a lovely bakery – consisting of baguette sandwiches and apple tarts – and then began wandering to see some of wonderful sites. Some of these were planned, some we just saw along the way.

For instance, after lunch, we walked down the street and saw the “Dulle Griet” (trans. “evil woman”), which is a massive cast-iron cannon that was built in the 15th century and used in the siege of Oudenaarde. Today, it is a historic landmark that sits next to Ghent’s largest river – the Lelle. Speaking of which, we then decided to follow this river as we made our way to planned stop of St. Pavo’s Cathedral. On the way, we got some great pictures of the waterways, a lovely shop with hundreds of different bottles of beer in the window, and the castle of Gravensteen.

We then made our way to St. Bavo’s Cathedral, where the purpose for our visit was waiting for us. This would be the “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, otherwise known as the Ghent Altarpiece. This tableau, which features some of the most detailed religious art from the High Middle Ages, was created by the Flemish artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck in the 15th century. And, as Monuments Men addresses, the altarpiece was stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and repatriated thanks to the efforts of the Allies.

The Bruges Madonna

As you would expect, seeing it means cramming into a small alcove and listening to an audio guide explaining the history of the altarpiece and giving an in-depth description of every image it holds. Once that was done, we packed and drove for Bruges, arriving in the mid-afternoon. After finding our way to Bruge’s medieval core, we dropped our kit at the BandB and grabbed some dinner. The next day, we proceeded to find the Church of our Lady, which is located near the heart of the Medieval core and is the location of the Bruges Madonna.

To give you a quick rundown on the Bruges Madonna, this Rennaissance work of art has had a turbulent history. It was created by none-other than Michaelangelo himself and was bought by a wealthy family of cloth merchants in Bruges. Since its creation, it left the country twice. The first was after the French Revolution when, in 1794, the French army took it as the spoils of war and brought it to Paris. It was returned in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In 1944, the Nazis removed it during their retreat from Belgium. Thanks to the efforts of the Monuments Men, it was retrieved from a hidden cache of stolen art in Austria the following year and again returned to Bruges.

As the days went by, we took in a number of other lovely attractions. These included the many restaurants that dot the canals, the extensive shops – never seen so many ways to get chocolate, waffles, beer, tobacco and french fries! But the coolest thing, after seeing the Madonna, was definitely the Bruges Beer Museum! This edifice is right in the old town square, a medieval building that has several levels dedicated to recounting the city’s long history of brewing. And of course, on the ground floor, there is a bar where lots of samples can be enjoyed.

View from one of the bridges that spans one of Bruges many canals

 

A tour consists of them giving you a specialized tablet and earphone. You walk around the top two floors, point the tablet at a display, and it reads the icon there. Information and images then flow from your tablet, telling you about an important piece of beer history, and how the town of Bruges featured prominently in it. As one of Belgium’s oldest cities, the town was at the center of a lot of developments, ranging from the rise of Trappist brewing, the birth of brewing as a modern profession, the war years, the resurgence of Belgian brewing, and the rise of craft brewing.

One of the biggest lessons I learned on that visit was the identity of the patron Saint of brewing – St. Bernardus. This medieval Benedictine monk became a local hero when it an epidemic was traced to the town’s water supply. He urged the townspeople to drink beer instead of water, a measure which helped end the outbreak. Today, many Belgian beers are named after him or feature his likeness, which shows him holding a mash paddle – a key brewers instrument that is used for stirring malted grains as they are being boiled.

I learned of several beers while I was there, which included Bruges Zot, a local favorite brewed by the Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery that takes it name from  an old joke that claimed that the people of Bruges were all insane! Speaking of which, one thing we learned after the trip – much to our chagrin! – was that the historic Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery had just finished work on a beer pipeline! That’s right, this brewery created an underground pipeline so that beer trucks (which are 40 tonnes each and play havoc with the old cobblestone streets) would no longer be making runs. From that point onward, drinking establishments all over town could just hook up to the pipeline and pull the tap! Though we did wonder if people might try to hook up taps of their own along the way 🙂

Check out the video below for more details…

Utretch:

After Belgium, we proceeded into Holland to see this lovely Low Country. We were still tracing World War II routes at this point, and Holland is considered an important pilgrimage for Canadians doing war tours. In September of 1944, six months after the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy, the 1st Canadian Army was tasked with pushing the Nazis out of the country.

This they did, though at great cost to themselves. Knowing that defeat was inevitable, the Nazis broke the levies around the Dutch waterways and flooded the countryside. They also fought bitterly to stall the Canadian troops’ advance. But by April of 1945 (just one month before the end of the war), the 1st Canadian Army had completed the liberation of the Netherlands.

Once again, we were staying in a lovely BandB in the city, which took some time to locate! The streets in the area of town we were staying in got a little bendy-curvy and that kind of threw off our GPS. Nevertheless, we found it before long and realized we had much of the place to ourselves.

A canal in Utretch

The nice lady who ran the place also had a lovely big, brown dog who came to say hi to us, even though it was having some back issues from running around all day. Again, we unpacked, walked to the main thorough fair (just a few blocks away) and began taking in the sights. We also scoped out places to eat that night and the following morning, and chose a few places to visit in the coming days.

On the first night, we walked across town, taking in the lovely canals and quiet streets. I honestly never saw so many bikes moving along a main street. And the people were quite lovely too. While the signs were very confusing to me (I don’t do Dutch very well!), everybody was fluent in English. We eventually made our way to the lovely St. Michael’s Cathedral, which lies next to the University of Utrecht and across from the famous Dom Tower of Utretch.

For dinner, we ducked into a nearby restaurant called Grand Cafe Lebowski. The name alone is what sold it for us!

St. Michael’s Cathedral, Utretch

The highlight of our visit though was none other than our visit to the Overloon War Museum , one of the largest World War II museums in the country. It is set on the sight of the Battle of Overloon, where Allied and German forces fought in September and October of 1944, just after Operation Market Garden. The museum itself sits in a massive greenspace known as Liberty Park. Many vehicles are situated outside as you make your way towards the entrance. But the biggest attractions are inside!

Basically, after winding your way through numerous displays that explain the lead-up to the war and discuss the major battles, social developments and atrocities of the war, you enter a massive hangar. In there, dozens of Allied and German vehicles sit, just waited for history buffs to drool over them! And while describing what I liked best is a bit like asking someone which of their children they love most, I would have to go with the massive US Army amphibious vehicle that was as tall as a small house, and had tires that were taller than me!

Check out this video that offers a virtual tour of the museum (word of warning, its all in Dutch!). From 1:42 onward, you get to see the inside of the hangar, where all the big vehicles are kept. At precisely the 2:00 mark, you see the huge amphibous craft I was talking about.

Ypres and Beauvais:

After leaving The Netherlands, we started making our way back to France, and stopped again in Ypres for the night. It was nice, and gave us a chance to see our favorite spots again. And while my folks had a quiet evening, Carla and I took the opportunity to walk the streets and sample some lovely Belgian beers. While I drink Belgian beer ALL THE TIME here at home, it has always been fun for me to do it in the land of its birth. Not only is the selection more varied over there, but the price is significantly lower! I tell ya, what for us are fine imported examples of artisinal Trappist beers that date to the High Middle Ages are basically domestic beer for them!

Naturally, we also took this opportunity to go to Menin Gate again and pay our respects. We also got some wonderful pictures of the ceremony, which included the one below of my father and I standing next to each other on the east side of the gate.

My father and I at Menin Gate, Ypres

The next day, we made our way to the last stop in our journey – the city of Beauvais, located just north of Paris. This town was quite charming and an interesting mix of the historic and modern. Our hotel was at a busy intersection, right across from a bloody dance club. And this place was open WELL into the wee hours of the morning and blasting dance music. I tell you, if I never hear the techno remix of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” again, I will die a happy man!

However, we did get so see some nice sights. Once again, we visited the local cathedral – the large and historic Beauvais Cathedral. In addition to having a rather cavernous interior, this building is famous for having had all the small statues that depict the saints removed from its facade. This took place during the French Revolution, when a wave of anti-clerical sentiment was sweeping the country an mobs forcible took all the statues down.

After visiting the Cathedral, we grabbed dinner from a local bakery (baguette sandwiches and some apple tarts, as usual!) and then proceeded back to the hotel. We tried to get a good’s night sleep but, as I said, the damn club across from us was pumping out music until the wee hours of the morning! Somehow, someway, we managed to get a few good hours and then head to Charles de Gaulle International to fly out the next morning!

Beauvais Cathedral

Needless to say, we were quite tired and jetlagged when we got home. And upon our arrival, something very cute happened. Our cat (Jasper), who is most demanding and dedicated to his mommy and daddy, was out at the time. I went to the neighbors house to thank them for looking after him and to retrieve our key. Suddenly, I heard energetic meows coming from the bushes. When I went over, Jasper came running out, mewing happily! After about two weeks of being attended to by his surrogate mother (our neighbor Jen), he was thrilled to see us. Not that he doesn’t love her, but… you know. There’s no substitute for your actual family!

Wow, that took me forever to describe. I guess it was because it was our second major visit, and because it was both very special but also more familiar this time around. And we are planning on going back in 2019, to be part of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the liberation of France. The focal point of that trip will be going to Juno Beach (where the Canadian Forces landed on D-Day), since that is where the Canadian celebrations will be taking place, and because my aunt is on the board of directors at the Juno Center. It promises to be a major event and should involve several members of my family!

 

The 70th Anniversary of the Dieppe Raid

Here in Canada, few historical events from World War II inspire as much anger, sadness, and remembrance than the anniversary of the Dieppe Raid. It was 70 years ago today that Canadian Forces, in what was to be the first offensive of the war, attacked the European coastline near the small French town of Dieppe. The raid, as it was classified, was a total failure, resulting in 913 dead, almost 3000 captured, and countless more wounded. Out of the nearly 5000 men who went in, less than half made it home.

Earlier today, I read some articles that spoke of the surviving veterans, the youngest of whom is 90, as they arrived at Dieppe to take part in the commemorative ceremonies.

Countless French people welcomed them by hanging Canadian flags from their balconies and volunteering to show them about town. For the locals, honoring the veterans who fell while trying to liberate their town has become a way of life, similar to the Belgian people of Ypres and the Dutch who honor how Canadian forces liberated their country in 1944.

Naturally, when these veterans tell their stories again to reporters or the many who wabted to hear them, they conveyed some rather mixed emotions. There were moments of anger and pride intermixed with a general tone of lament, and in that respect, they are joined by all Canadians who remember. Even now, 70 years later, there is still ample speculation about the Dieppe raid.

Taking place in 1942, during the height of the war when the Allies were still on the losing end, the planned raid on Dieppe represented the culmination of many hopes, fears, and political considerations. For over a year, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had been asking – in fact, pleading – with the Allies for a Second Front in Europe that would take pressure off the Russian forces. Ever since the Germans moved into his country roughly a year before, Russians were dying by the millions and the Red Army was struggling to hold them back.

At the same time, the Allies had been contemplating plans for the liberation of France ever since it had been overrun two years earlier. For the British and French, the memories of the summer of 1940, beginning with the invasion of Belgium, the outflanking maneuver through the Ardennes Forest, the fall of Paris and the evacuation of Dunkirk, were still phantoms they wanted to dispel. With Germany pushed out of France, the Allies would have a major ally back in the fight and put an end to Germany’s expansion, which had continued unabated since the war began.

And last, the Canadian Armed Forces were desperate to get into battle, hoping to demonstrate some of the same zeal that had popularized their forces in World War I. And with the US finally entering the war on the Allied side, there was an added push to score a victory before the Yanks got in and claimed all the glory 😉 A commando-style raid against a section of the Atlantic Wall seemed like just the thing to bolster morale and show the world that the Canadian Expeditionary Force was still a force to be feared!

Ultimately, the raid was a failure for numerous reasons, all of which proved intrinsic to helping the Allies draft Operation Overlord – the invasion of Normandy – roughly two years later. First off, the raid had little support to speak of. Aside from the 5000 men and tanks heading onto the coastline, their were very ships ships and aircraft standing by to blast German positions and take on the coastal defenses.

Second, the planners did not take into account the challenging terrain along the beaches. Rather than being sandy shores, they were composed of tiny little rocks which played havoc with tank treads, making them virtually useless. As a result, the Canadian soldiers found themselves running into German machine guns and mortar positions with no cover or support.

Third, the plan was changed over and over again so that less and less forces would be committed to the fold. This led many to question whether the raid would even have enough men or firepower to achieve their mission. However, Allied planners dismissed these objections by emphasizing that the attackers would have the element of surprise. That was not the case though, since Allied Command had been publicizing the attack for some time before it happened.

In short, the mission was the perfect recipe for failure, leading some to speculate that that had been the goal all along. With Stalin pleading for a Second Front and the Allies unable to convince him that they were not ready, some claimed that Dieppe was meant to fail as a way of illustrating their point.

In addition, new evidence is being brought to light that suggests that the raid was a diversion for a covert operation that involved commandos attacking the secret German naval headquarters in the town in order to capture a working model Germany’s new four-rotor Enigma machine and their most recent code books. At the head of this operation, so the argument runs, was Mr. Ian Fleming himself, the man who would later create James Bond.

A very interesting interpretation, and which explains quite clearly why the raid was so publicized. In keeping with Allied counterintelligence plays, it was customary to let the Germans know exactly what they were doing in the hopes that they would chomp at the bit and not realize it was a feint to cover their true aims.

What’s more, if this latter interpretation should prove to be true, it would mean that politics and incompetence was not the reason for the Dieppe Raid. Instead, it would have been a vital intelligence mission which went wrong for a number of reasons. However, this still would not change the fact that the operational planning suffered from the fact that the raid failed to take into accounts some key problems. Nor would it change the outcome.

In any case, some good did come out of the operation. Four months after the raid, the Allies managed to crack the 4-wheel Enigma code and went back to winning the intelligence war. In addition, Soviet Forces began to defeat the Germans on all fronts and initiated the slow process of pushing them back into their old stomping grounds. And in the Mediterrenean and North Africa, the German Navy and Afrika Corps began to get their asses kicked.

But most importantly of all was the operation that would succeed where Dieppe had failed. Taking on June 6th of 1944 in the Normandy region of France, Operation Overlord was the largest invasion in history, and several key factors had been adapted from the Dieppe Raid. In addition to committing all kinds of men, materiel, ships, and planes to a cohesive, multi-phased invasion plan, the Allies also conducted a vast counter-intelligence operation well in advance to trick the Germans into thinking that their real invasion force would be coming in the Pas de Calais region.

So today, like all good Canadians, I wish to honor the veterans who are currently overseas, receiving their well-deserved honors and recounting the historic Dieppe Raid that they took part in so many years later. I’d also like to salute those soldiers who are no longer with us, many of whom were wounded, captured and forced to spend the rest of the war in army hospitals and German POW camps. And I would especially like to pay tribute to those who didn’t make it back, who died on those rocky shores as the result of either politics and ineptitude, or desperation and intrigue.

Even after 70 years, surely we must be learning something from all this…

10 Sci-Fi Novels People Pretend to Have Read

Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.

I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:

1. Cryptonomicon:
Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.

Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!

2. Dune:
Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.

Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.

3. Gravity Rainbow:
Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.

In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!

4. Foundation:
Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!

And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.

5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.

Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.

6. 1984:
Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.

Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker:
Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…

Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.

In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.

Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.

8. The Long Tomorrow:
This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.

Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.

9. Dhalgren:
Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.

More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.

Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!

10. Infinite Jest:
This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!

The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall  we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.

Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.

Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!

Sickness, more Alternate History, and some coming reviews…

Sickness, more Alternate History, and some coming reviews…

I hate being sick! Whenever the seasons change for me, I tend to come down with one of those colds that comes on hard and takes forever to leave. Well, this Fall season has been a double whammy, seems I’ve gotten sick twice in the last four weeks, which has meant a month of convalescing I could totally do without! But at least its given me time to ponder future writing projects.

For starters, I had an idea for an alternate history novel of my own. Its been something I’ve been interested in of late, as my reviews of Man in the High Castle, Fatherland and Guns of the South will attest. Reviewing Rabbletown by Mr. Attwood also gave me another push; somehow reading other people’s work always inspires me to write more of my own. And if there’s one thing I learned from reading other works of historical fiction, it is that there are two basic trends to every story.

1. History diverges due to key events happening just a little bit differently.
2. Ultimately, things converge again and familiar patterns reassert themselves.

Or, to put it mathematically, H = (Ce + Ha) / Env, where H is history, Ce is the Confluence of Events, Ha is human agency and Env is environmental (i.e. external) mitigating factors. Alteration of one (i.e. human agency) is what allows for divergence, but in the end, the other factors assert themselves and balance is restored. Okay, I totally made that up and it was unbelievably geeky! But also kinda cool, right? Ah whatever, my idea:

Red Sky At Night:

A working title, but one which was suggested to me by the maestra of title work (hi Katrina!) And given the title, one might suspect that Communism and/or Communists are the focus. They would be right! My story deals with a question that I’ve been pondering for a long time and with all the fiction I’ve read of late, stuff that deals with similar questions and “what ifs”, I began to turn it into an idea. In short, my story is based on the question of what would have happened had Leon Trotsky come to be leader of the Soviet Union instead of Stalin?

To be fair, this question has been asked by generations of historians and communists alike, particularly the latter group who wanted to distance themselves from Stalin after the full weight of his crimes and megalomania had been exposed. But for historians, the question is more academic, motivating by genuine interest instead of personal beliefs. Overall, they are simply interested in whether or not Trotsky would have been any gentler, or the course of Soviet history any different, had he been in charge.

But first, a little preamble. You see, it is one of the great questions of history why Trotsky did not disavow Stalin when he had the chance. Before his death, Vladimir Ilyich Ilyanov (aka. Lenin) wrote in his “Final Will and Testament” that Stalin was a rude, ruthless man who should never be allowed to have power. Trotsky was seen as the natural successor, and this Will could have shattered Stalin’s support. Stalin’s allies helped him to prevent the Will from being revealed at the 12th Party Congress; however, at the 13th, Trotsky could have revealed it to the Party and done irreperable harm to Stalin’s reputation. Instead, he made conciliatory speech that was intended to heal the rift between himself and Stalin’s followers.

However, this did not prevent Trotsky from being ejected from the Party, put into exile and murdered some years later. So the question of why – why DIDN’T Trotsky denounce Stalin when he had the chance? – has never been successfully answered. We can assume any number of things, but it is at this point irrelevant. The real question, as far as my idea is concerned, is what would have happened had he gone through with it? And that’s where things get fun… if you’re a history geek anyway!

For one, Trotsky wouldn’t have launched Stalin’s crash industrialization programs (aka. the Five Year Plans) in the later 20’s. In all likelihood, he would have continued Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP, which allowed for a degree of privatization) and when the big economic crisis loomed, have appointed Bukharin to deal with it (as opposed to purging him as Stalin did). This would have led to the slow recovery of the Soviet economy, and when the Great Depression hit in 1929, Russia would have continued to be spared the worst ravages of it while similarly showing signs of growth.

In addition, the Communists in China would not have been cut off as they had been by Stalin in the 1920’s. Chiang Kai-shek would have continued to fight them, but there would have been no massacre, meaning the Chinese communists would have been stronger and in a better position to dictate terms to Chiang when the Japanese invaded in the late 20’s. As a result, the Japanese army would have encountered stiffer, unified resistance as it fought its way south years later.

Similarly, in Europe, when the Nazi’s come to power in 33, Trotsky would have thrown his country’s support behind the German Social Democrats and would have committed the Comintern (Communist International Organization) to fighting Hitler once he seized power. Over the course of the next few years, during the re-militarizing of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the Spanish Civil War, and the Sudenten crisis, Russia would have been the most outspoken advocate for resistance.

This had the effect of inspiring people from other nations, particularly France, England and Czechoslovakia, into doing the same, often in defiance of their own governments who sought accommodation. Combined with the fact that Russia’s heavily regulated economy had avoided the scourges of the Depression, these acts of support would convince many foreign nationals of the need to stand with Russia. And without Stalin’s own paranoia and megalomania to discredit and embarrass the Soviet Union and its supporters, these efforts were far more successful.

Finally, after years of advocating Collective Security through the United Nations, Trotsky’s Foreign Commissar – Maxim Litvinov – saw his efforts to create an anti-fascist alliance comes together. During the Sudeten Crisis of 38, Hitler found himself being resisted on all sides. France declared that it would mobilize to help the Czechs since Russia was promising the same. Britain, fearing a Communist victory in the next election, mobilized to pressure Poland and Romania to come to a right of passage agreement with Russia, rather than pressuring Czech president Benes to concede the Sudetenland to Germany. As a result, Hitler was overruled by his own commanders and forced to stand down.

Hilter was unable to recover from this political setback, and when Germany similarly suffered an economic recession a year later, his support dwindled further. By the end of 1939, he found himself ousted from power and the SPD was restored. Mussolini and Franco, one-time allies of Hitler’s, were also brought to heal, the Italian dictator going as far as to relinquish his countries control of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and remove all his troops from the Balkans. In Asia, Japan also found itself without a friend and was forced to withdraw from the Chinese mainland. Europe and the world celebrated as it seemed that the aggressors had been contained and another world war had been averted.

But this jubilant mood did not last long. Without World War II and the post-war reconstruction to stimulate the economies of the western nations, the Depression continued for several more years. The post-war population boom similarly did not take place. Instead, Europe and the Anglosphere witnessed slow recovery as nations on the continent resorted to increasingly socialist measures to address their economic woes and closer trade ties were established with Russia. Russia, now enjoying cordial ties to most European nations, similarly began to open its economy and its borders to foreign investment and tourism. By the late 40’s, most economies had pulled out of the Depression through a combination of social programs and regulated trade.

This had the added effect of creating a rift between the Continent and Britain, a country that prided itself on its free markets and traditional liberal approach. As socialism began to take root from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Britain sought new alliances to protect its way of life. They found it in the US, which was once again experiencing a Red Scare and cracking down on communists, labor leaders and protesters. Together, they created a secret alliance to protect their mutual interests and continued to eye the Continent with suspicion.

Relations were further strained when in the 1950’s, India began to demand independence. Without the threat of Hitler, the British government had never come to an agreement with Ghandi for the sake of independence. What’s more, agitation on behalf of Europe’s new socialist organizations became a constant source of irritation. Though France was loath to give up its own Empire, pressure from the League and its own populace was mounting. In time, France gave up trying to work with Britain to find a common solution, began disbanding its own empire and urged Britain to do the same. Britain refused and held on to its possessions, but by the early 60’s, virtually every French speaking colony was free and joined the League of Nations.

Which brings me to the opening of my story. It is the early 60’s, the world is divided between two major blocs – the League of Nations and the Anglo-American Alliance – and in between are dozens of nations that are either neutral or part of one or the others sphere of influence. Relations between the two sides are strained as competition for markets, alliances and weapons have reached a tipping point, and some are beginning to fear the possibility of open war. Within this talk of war are even more frightening rumors that both sides are researching advanced technologies – rockets, jet engines, super computers, and even (God forbid!) atomic weapons…

So as you can see, history unfolded quite differently due to the presence of one man instead of another. However, in time, the familiar patterns reasserted themselves. While World War II did not take place from 39-45, it does appear on the horizon by 1960. While there was no Cold War to speak of after 45′ between two nuclear-armed superpowers, a state of detente exists between two similar global powers by the late 50’s with the prospect of a nuclear war by the early 60’s.

That’s all I got for now. More to follow just as soon as Data Miners is complete and my others ideas have panned out. That’s the fun thing about alternate histories though isn’t it? Since they have to do with past events, no one can ever accuse you of not being “current”, right? Who knows? If its successful, I might even write a sequel, Red Sky At Morning, about the aftermath. Thank you honey (my wife) for THAT title idea!

Coming Reviews:

On top of that, tackling “McDune” franchise in a more comprehensive way inspired me to do a more in-depth review of both the Legends and Hunters/Sandworms of Dune series. I’ve shellacked the latter ones before, but I’d like nothing better than giving them a good, specific thrashing! Fans of the elder Herbert, unite and hear me shellack! So, in the coming weeks, I hope to do a review of Hunters, the Machine Crusade, and possibly the Battle of Corrin and Sandworms as well. And since I’m almost finished with the A Song of Fire and Ice series (i.e. Game of Thrones, etc) I might publish some thoughts on them too. Can’t wait for season two of the miniseries! Go Starks! Screw the Lannisters!

P.S. for those who don’t know, Katrina runs a fun and fascinating website named Were You Wondering? She even lets me contribute for some reason… Here’s the link:
wereyouwondering.com

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