Recently Read: May

(Being a list of books read in May that I haven’t already written up here or for elsewhere.)

Herge, Adventures of Tintin vol 1 and 2. These two lovely little hardbacks comprise the stories from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (first published 1929-30) to The Blue Lotus (first published 1934-5). I’d never read the stories before The Blue Lotus before, and while it’s interesting to watch the gradual appearance of various pieces of the Tintin universe — Thomson and Thompson, Rastapopoulos, a professor who’s clearly a dry-run for Calculus — they were eye-opening in several ways. One is, obviously, the politics. I knew the reputation of Tintin in the Congo, and it lives up (or down) to it — both the images and the actions of Africans are stereotypical at best and racist at worst, while the cavalier attitude to wildlife is hard to take — but Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is even more transparent and broad-brush propaganda (if against what many would I suspect consider a slightly more acceptable target), in which Tintin discovers, for instance, the secret basement where Stalin has been hiding the wealth of the people, plus a plot to blow up the capitals of Europe with dynamite. Tintin in America is only marginally less stereotypical in its depiction of Chicago Gangsters and Native Americans (even while taking the Native Americans’ side), and even The Blue Lotus, while dramatically more nuanced in its portrayal of the Chinese characters, lapses into caricature when it comes to the Japanese. Overall, though, the development of the books in terms of their political complexity is quite staggering, considering they were originally written over about five years. The development in artwork is equally dramatic — the more cartoonish elements remain throughout, but early on are evident in such incidents as a train crashing into Tintin’s car, leading to Tintin and Snowy spreadeagled on the front of the engine, whereas later they get transferred mostly to Thomson and Thompson — as is the sophistication of the plotting. Cigars of the Pharaoh, which sees the start of the drug-smuggling plotline, is the first book that can really be described as having a plot rather than being composed of a sequence of events, athough the Tintin formula of action and secret passages and such is still very much in evidence; but it pales in comparison with The Blue Lotus, which is full of intricately conflicting agendas and counter-agendas, and set against a real historical backdrop (specifically around the Mukden Incident). Most of the books contain pages that were later redrawn, which has at least one weird consequence: at one point in Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin is captured, only to discover, when he reveals his identity, that said captor is actually pleased to see him, saying he’s been reading of Tintin’s exploits for years. But the book that he displays as evidence of this clearly has the cover of Destination Moon, which wasn’t published until 1950 …

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954). Somehow I made it through my privileged British education without reading this story of privileged British schoolboys going feral on a desert island. Reading it now for the first time, I find that (a) I’m not sure I believe that life on a desert island could be like that, (b) I’m not sure that children and adolescents would really act like that, and (c) it’s not nearly as brutal as I’d been led to believe; but I still think it largely deserves its reputation. I’m uneasy with some of the language used to describe Jack’s tribe of savages (as though their hunter-gatherer ways are in themselves a cause for concern, rather than the violence and callousness with which they are enacted), and I think the ending severely weakens the whole (hey, if your civilization collapses it’ll be ok, because some paternal figure will be along to rescue you eventually! Though I do love the way the hunters are suddenly boys again when the Navy man arrives. I was hoping the boys would kill the first adult they see; it wouldn’t have stopped them being rescued, but it would at least have carried the logic of the rest of the novel through to a conclusion), but the intensity and clarity of the best passages is something to marvel at. I do love a well-executed omniscient perspective, and Golding knows exactly how to use his (for instance, the well judged pull-back to an image of tides being pulled from “somewhere over the darkened curve of the world”). He is also extremely good at place, both in terms of constructing the geography of the island in his readers’ minds, and in terms of describing that geography in precise, striking terms. If some of the plotting is a bit artificial — that the fire goes out just when the only boat they’ve seen passes by, for instance — it’s forgivable for the sake of the near-mythic potency of the novel’s overall trajectory. I read it in a 1984 Faber omnibus which could have used another proofread, but I hope to make time for the other two novels — Pincher Martin and Rites of Passage — sooner rather than later.

David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old (2006). This is a “use-centred history of technology since 1900”, and fascinating stuff. I have pages and pages of notes, and because I tend to read non-fiction quite slowly — a chapter here, a chapter there — it’s a book that’s been lurking in my thoughts for the past few months. I suspect that any attempt by me to summarise it now would end up essentially rewriting the whole thing. It’s tempting just to quote the book’s conclusion, to give you a flavour of Edgerton’s argument:

It is a measure of the importance of technology to the twentieth century, and to our understanding of it, that to rethink the history of technology is necessarily to rethink the history of the world. For example, we should no longer assume that there was ineluctable globalisation thanks to new technology; on the contrary the world went through a process of de-globalisation in which technologies of self-sufficiency and empire had a powerful role. Culture has not lagged behind technology, rather the reverse; the idea that culture has lagged behind technology is itself very old and has existed under many different technological regimes. Technology has not generally been a revolutionary force; it has been responsible for keeping things the same as much as changing them. The place of technology in the undoubted increase in productivity in the twentieth century remains mysterious; but we are not entering a weightless, demarterialised information world. War changed in the twentieth century, but not according to the rhythms of conventional technological timelines.

But I should say a little bit more. The bulk of the book, as you’d expect, is taken up with fleshing out these central arguments, with chapters built around themes in technological history, including persistence (important technologies last); production (not important in the ways you think); maintenance (the longest and most significant stage of any technology’s life); and the role of nations and war in developing technology (not as central, according to Edgerton, as tradition would have it). I’m not in a position to check Edgerton’s sources, but the list of examples is exhaustive, to the point at which sometimes the book doesn’t quite escape the academic idioms of its conception, and though there’s plenty to argue with, he is largely convincing. Of course, you could also say he’s stating the obvious — once you remind people that “technology” means bicycles as well as computers, much of what he says follows. The future’s not evenly distributed, after all. But the value of the book, I think, lies in the way he traces the connections between his examples, follows their implications, and points out the way that “future-oriented rhetoric” can damage the way we think about now by, for example, obscuring the fact that imitation is usually much more important than innovation, or the fact that we could do things differently with the technology we have now. One result is that it’s a very political book. Edgerton very bluntly uses the term “poor world”, and repeatedly argues that the narratives we tend to apply to the history of technology marginalise such countries, and their contributions to technology. There’s also obvious relevance to the way sf imagines the future (or, more often, doesn’t) — something Edgerton is somewhat aware of, although his range of examples is from my perspective rather limited — which from my point of view adds another, and useful, level to the book.

9 thoughts on “Recently Read: May

  1. I take the ending of Lord of the Flies as more ironic: the rescuing adult is coming from and returning to a war, and looks back at his military submarine in the final paragraph. So the rescue is more nominal than complete and adulthood is the savagery of the boys on the island writ large.

  2. I thought Lord of the Flies was terrifying and accurate when I was 12; and I thought it was masturbatorily apocalyptic when I was a little older. I think it’s the kind of book you have to read at a certain age, and never again.

    while the cavalier attitude to wildlife is hard to take

    What, you have a problem with blowing up a rhinoceros via dynamite??

    I read all of the Tintin books as a child — except the Soviet one; I’ve never even heard of that one — although I “read” several of them in French, and consequently spent several years under the impression that The Blue Lotus was about very large clay pots, and not at all about World War II. The thing that strikes me now about my childhood reading is that I had no idea the real-world context of things going on: the stories set in India were “oh tigers, how exciting” and not only didn’t I understand about drug-smuggling, I didn’t understand why so many western/English people lived there. (And I came under the impression that everybody in India rode elephants, every day, like I would ride a bicycle.) So even when I was reading in English, it was still a form of reading in a language in which I was illiterate. And I have to wonder… why do we still give these books to children?

    It’s probably for the best that I didn’t read Tintin in America till early adolescence, because it was a TOTAL LAFF RIOT and completely incoherent to boot. I was not competent to decode even that description of my own culture until college, when I finally saw my first Edward G. Robinson film.

  3. So the rescue is more nominal than complete and adulthood is the savagery of the boys on the island writ large.

    I agree there’s some irony, but I’m not convinced that rescue is all that nominal — at the very least, anything that gets them off the island dramatically improves their odds of living through the next year. More importantly to me, though, the irony would be there no matter how the kids initially reacted to the guy on the beach. No matter what, once he turned up, they were going to be taken off the island; but to have them so easily returned to the roles of boys rather than hunters seemed to soften everything they’d been through to that point — reduced it to “it seemed so intense” rather than “it was so intense”.

    What, you have a problem with blowing up a rhinoceros via dynamite??

    Heh. Actually, my edition has that page redrawn (the dynamite just scares off the rhino), but there are plenty of other bits that made me wince.

    And I have to wonder… why do we still give these books to children?

    I’ll be interested to see how I react to the later books (I’m planning to re-read the whole lot), but I don’t remember them as being nearly as problematic — I have very fond memories of Tintin in Tibet, for instance, as being fun and exciting and moving. That said, I’m not sure I’d give a kid anything before The Secret of the Unicorn (and I hope that’s where they start the films, although to see them make The Blue Lotus would be intereting).

  4. So, maybe, Tintin is just safer when he’s on SFnal topics. He can hang out with Yetis and go to the moon, and… it’s the Scotland one that has the giant gorilla locked in a tower, right? And the one with the Doomful Meteor and mushrooms of unusual size!

    Then again, in looking up the publication sequence, I discovered Land of Black Gold was re-drawn in 1972 to make it not take place in British Palestine! The list of changes to that one is extensive, and even now it’s very hinky. …And I don’t remember whole swathes of other books, because I had no idea The Red Sea Sharks was about modern slave-trading!

  5. [Lord of the Flies] I find that (a) I’m not sure I believe that life on a desert island could be like that, (b) I’m not sure that children and adolescents would really act like that

    Have you read, or do you now intend to read, “The Coral Island”, then? I wonder if you’d find that more believable on points a and b.

  6. Veejane “I thought Lord of the Flies was terrifying and accurate when I was 12; and I thought it was masturbatorily apocalyptic when I was a little older. I think it’s the kind of book you have to read at a certain age, and never again.”

    Spot on, this. For me, Lord of the Flies sits in a mental compartment with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, in that I read them both as a child and was profoundly moved and stirred by them, but that later adult discovery of just how deeply Christian both books are diminished them in my mind and now I can’t recapture quite what made them so resonant for me. Both are books with a key, and once you’ve turned the key the lock loses its interest. Oddly, Pincher Martin and Free Fall, which are also both deeply Christian and all about free will and original sin, sit better with my adult mind. Not sure why.

  7. Oh, and Tintin. Nothing has diminshed my childhood adoration of Tintin. You want to check out Tintin et L’Alph Art; a much more interesting non-canonincal Tintin than the early ones.

  8. You want to check out Tintin et L’Alph Art

    It’s included in the last volume of this series, so I’ll get there eventually.

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