Thursday, May 15, 2014

Barbara Tuchman explains why the British lost the American colonies

Plaque honoring Johannes de Graaff
I just finished historian Barbara Tuchman's final published book (she died in 1989), The First Salute. She gives the international perspective on the American Revolution, describing the background of Britain's conflicts with its European rivals in order to explain how and why Holland and France aided the colonies in their fight for independence.

The book's title refers to the event on November 16, 1776, when Johannes de Graaf, Dutch governor of the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, ordered a response to the U.S. Brig-of-War Andrew Doria as it entered the island's port. This was the first recognition of U.S. national vessel after the Declaration of Independence.

Tuchman offers great character sketches of a number of players, including De Graaff, British Admiral George Rodney, British General Henry Clinton, and George Washington. She conveys the incredible difficulties facing both sides in a compelling fashion -- and how those difficulties translated into the savagery that always accompanies wars, especially those in which it is hard to sort out friend and foe, civilian and soldier.

Here is her brilliant summation of all that contributed to Britain's defeat:

Here was the problem as an empire slid from under their feet: the problem of making do with faulty processes and broken parts, of misunderstood signals, of the useless rigidity of Fighting Instructions, of a scurvy-producing diet, of political quarrel among combat officers, of employing worn-out and withered naval commanders, of putting the protection of trade ahead of strategic operations, of poor and too often the false intelligence of enemy movements and intentions and, embracing all these, the problem of not knowing or caring to know the nature of the enemy and undertaking to suppress a major rebellion on the assumption that the rebels could be described, in the words of Lord Rawdon, a respected British officer, as "infatuated wretches." (excerpt from the final chapter, "Last Chance -- The Yorktown Campaign")
I was reminded of the old saw, "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it," as I read this book. But I supposed it is the disease of empire to overreach and underestimate, even when history teaches the same lesson over and over again.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19, 1781, by which over 7,000 British and Hessians became prisoners. Copy of lithograph by James Baillie, ca. 1845.
National Archives Identifier 532883

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Difference Engine: Alternate history, steampunk, and the Romantics

The Difference Engine, a novel co-written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and published in 1991, is considered one of the core texts, if not the originator, of the steampunk genre of fiction. This is not a genre with which I'm very familiar, although I've occasionally strayed into the sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction area. One of my favorite authors is John Crowley, who wrote, among other things, the sprawling and fantastic Aegypt tetralogy and the classic fantasy novel Little Big. Another favorite is China Mieville, who first blew my mind with The City & The City, and more recently with Embassytown. What I love about both these authors is the absolute audacity of their intellect and imagination. Their fantasy worlds feel like real ones that have simply been lost or overwritten or exist in a dimension a few doors down from our own. They inspire a sense of wonder and manage to mash up so many things that I love -- history, science, literature, and general weirdness.

Analytical Engine, Science Museum in London (Bruno Barral)
Crowley and Mieville point down the path that led me to The Difference Engine, along with one of my first literary loves, the Romantic poets. And as if that weren't enough, my recent years spent as an editor for a technology website brought me back around to Charles Babbage, inventor of the proto-computer, and Ada Byron, known as the mother of programming. She was first known to me as the daughter of one of the nineteenth century's most scandalous and magnificent rogues, the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose portrait graces the wall of my dining room. Yep, I'm that kind of person. In other words, I was pretty much meant to read this book, so I finally unearthed a copy the old-fashioned way, in a second-hand, brick-and-mortar bookshop, as if I had been magically transported back to 1982!

I got off to a creaking start, then flew through it like the pages were on fire, and ended slowly, scratching my head and wondering if I had missed something crucial along the way. Thankfully, after reading some other reviews, I realized I was not actually dense and inattentive, but that the book does in fact, leave some loose ends and that there is no "big reveal". This is not necessarily a criticism, although there is a bit of a let-down when the rollicking, "thrillery" part of the novel screeches to a sudden halt, and the vague epilogue begins. I found the pleasures of the novel to outweigh the disappointments; however, the pleasures will surely be few if you are truly without any knowledge of Victorian England, its history, politics, or literature. Some of the characters are fictional creations of the authors, some are fictional creations of a real Victorian author (characters in Benjamin Disraeli's novel, Sybil), and some are historical figures like Byron, Sam Houston, and John Keats -- with completely different biographies, of course. (One of the main characters, Laurence Oliphant, was a real person, but I didn't find that out until after I had finished it.)

If you like to dwell in the land of What If, you'll enjoy this novel. The basic premise is that Charles Babbage's analytical engine actually worked as theorized, kicking off an Information Age in Britain along with the Industrial Age, and generating a violent revolution that all but destroyed the aristocracy and substituted a meritocracy in which scientists, generally known as "savants," became the powerful elite in the ruling Radical Party. The real Lord Byron embraced revolutionary politics and died from a fever in 1824, contracted during the Greek Revolution. In our alternate history, he turned against his own class in Britain's revolutionary fervor and became prime minister in the 1850s, presumably losing interest in literary endeavors; his daughter Ada has become famous as the Queen of Engines, sharing in Babbage's success (her real addiction to gambling is retained here and is a major plot point). Just as the real British Empire reached its peak in the Victorian Era, this fictional Britain wields even more power, unchallenged by an America that has splintered into autonomous factions made up of The Republic of California, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States and the Union. Britain plays the sides off one another, even secretly arming the Native Americans to keep the former colony weak.

Technological innovations abound. There are steampunk variations of automobiles -- coal-powered steam "gurneys" ply the London streets along with horse-drawn equipages; there are mentions of airships and submersibles, speaking tubes, and mechanical wonders called kinotropes that can be manipulated to present video-like imagery. But the primary technological focus is the increasingly sophisticated power of the "engines" that fill government buildings and businesses, housing data on every Briton (everyone has a Citizenship number linked to their file), creating a nascent surveillance society reminiscent of the NSA.

A leading young savant named Edward Mallory, who has discovered the first brontosaurus in a British-led expedition to Wyoming, has come home something of a hero. A risky wager on the outcome of a steam gurney race at Epsom has also made him well-to-do, but he becomes mixed up in a deadly scheme aimed at acquiring a mysterious box of punch cards, first seen in the possession of a radical adherent of the exiled Texas President Sam Houston, then in the hands of Ada Byron herself, who Mallory rescues from the clutches of kidnappers. She disappears after making him promise to hide the box until she can retrieve it safely. Unfortunately for Mallory, he has made enemies that will stop at nothing to get at whatever powerful program exists on this set of cards. That is about as much of the plot as I can attest to. I'm still not entirely sure what was on those damned cards, but that hardly matters. Dropping into this strangely warped version of Victorian London is its own kind of fun. John Keats is a well-known "clacker" -- specifically as a manipulator of kinotrope machines -- and Byron is a politician who ruthlessly "disappeared" his political enemies at the height of revolution, even exiling his opponent, the unfortunate Percy Bysshe Shelley, to the island of St. Helena. Polluted London has succumbed to the Great Stink, horrifyingly described in all its odorous and disgusting details.

The Difference Engine isn't perfect, but if you enjoy any of the above aspects of  the story (which I've been rather long-winded in trying to describe), it's definitely worth a vacation read. You might have to look up some weird Victoriana along the way if you're not an aficionado of the period. More tech-minded people will probably be amused by completely different things than I've highlighted here. One last fun fact for me was finding out that William Gibson grew up in southwest Virginia, not far from my own hometown. How did this fact escape me? I thought I knew all the famous writer connections to my old stomping grounds. Pretty cool.