Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Monday Reviews, so late it's Tuesday, 6/26/2012

I could have written this last night. I should have written this last night. I did not, and so I am writing it now.

Two books completed last week, but one of them was an omnibus, so, technically, three books completed last week.

Stephen Platt - Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

This is a fairly dense history of what Platt describes as the Taiping Civil War, but what is more traditionally referred to as the Taiping Rebellion. In the early 1850s, Hong Xiuquan began preaching a highly ideosyncratic version of Christianity in southern China, which led to an uprising against the Manchurian  Qing Dynasty which resulted in the Taiping capture of the city of Nanjing, and a decade and a half of civil war in China. Ultimately, the British (and some Americans) intervened on behalf of the Qing Emperor and the Taiping were defeated.

Platt, as an historian, has an interesting thesis. Other historians addressing the Taiping tend to focus on a couple of aspects of the war.  Chinese Communist historians have tended to view the Taiping as early Communist rebels, which, Platt (and others) argue they certainly were not. Many Western historians have focused on the role played by Europeans in the uprising, contending either that the British intervention was definitive in the defeat of the Taiping, or irrelevant. Platt argues that the British intervention was neither definitive nor irrelevant - that it certainly tipped the scales in the favor of the Qing reaction to the Taiping, but that it wasn't the primary reason that the Taiping were defeated.  Platt also contends that the British intervention tells us more about the British in the 1850s and '60s than it does about the Taiping.

The fact that the period is, as I said, generally referred to as a Rebellion is telling - Platt contends (and shows with some authority) that it is better understood as a civil war, and compares it to the US Civil War, which, of course, took place during the same general time period. The Taiping were ultimately defeated in 1864, and the Confederacy were defeated in 1865. The fact that Britain intervened in a Chinese civil war and not in the American civil war is, to Platt, highly significant.

So, reading as an historian, this was a very good book - an new approach to an exciting period in Chinese history, with copious footnotes, and a rigorously defended argument. Students of Chinese history will almost certainly find this on reading lists in the next couple of years, and that is somewhere it deserves to be.

As a reader, Platt was a little dense. The book is only 364 pages long (plus footnotes and an index), but the writing is complex and the pacing is slow. Graduate students will gut this book - a lay reader might find it slow going. I think the book is compelling enough, with strong historical figures and exciting battles (both military and political), that it will hold the attention of an interested non-historian. Still, you're going to want to take your time, I suspect.

I think there are very interesting parallels between the Taiping Civil War and current US military interventions. Platt doesn't directly address the connections, but his broader argument is that outside interference can, at best, prolong the chaos of a civil war. At worst, outsiders can prop up a government which really ought to collapse.

Final thoughts - as I've said of other books, the section of pictures adds almost nothing, and could easily be replaced by several maps, of which there are never enough. I'm coming to believe that this is an endemic failure of historical publications - there are never enough maps, and the pictures are rarely useful. They never show things that I want to see, and tend to break up the flow of the book. I suspect it's a publishing decision rather than a decision by the author.

Tanya Huff - A Confederation of Valor

This is an omnibus of Huff's first two "Valor" books - Valor's Choice and The Better Part of Valor.  These are pretty solid mil-fic. This provided an interesting contrast to Platt.  Platt was writing military history (military/social history, really), which tends to have a top down approach.  It's easy to research what the Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan's of the world are doing, much harder to research what the soldiers under their command are up to.  Huff, as is common in military fiction, focuses on the individual soldiers at the bottom of the command structure.  Her heroine, Tarin, is a staff sergeant in the Confederation Marines, the ground troops which (in the distant future, in space) protect the Confederation from the Others. So, space marines.

The common problem with a bottom up focus is that mil fic tends to run into a situation where the grunt is always right and the officer is always wrong. Sometimes this is shown to be a perspective thing - from the soldier's point of view, this is correct, but a bigger picture shows that the officers actually have some idea of what's going on. Often, though, the tone of the book tends to suggest that, once promoted past Lieutenant, all officers take leave of their senses and, for lack of a better word, humanity. Huff walks the line between these two elements - sometimes she dips a little too deeply into the "Army would run better without officers" camp.

Huff has some interesting races involved, but she isn't as good at space aliens as Cherryh is, so there is a "human, but with a tail" feel. Also, she plays with the "most of the Confederation is totally pacifistic, they need the humans to fight their battles, because humans are inherently violent" trope - a trope which I really don't like very much.

All of that aside, I love Huff's characters. These books were a delight to read, because Huff played, quite consciously, with a lot of other military fiction tropes - the "I've only got two months left in service guys!" thing, and the "the nice guy gets killed" thing, among others. Huff is having fun with what she's writing, and that comes through - it's not hard for her readers to have fun with what she has written. Consequently, the books have heart. There are funny bits. There are sad bits. Despite the significant flaws, the books transcend, and are well worth taking a look. Also, look for the author shout-outs to Cory Doctorow and Julie Czerneda (there's a word for this [where the author names a character after someone as an homage], and I can't find it right now - if you know what it is, drop it in the comments). Tuckerization! Thanks, Beth!