Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (1988)

I’m discovering that the three novels of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl trilogy’ are more connected than I expected, featuring some of the same characters, themes and locations.

Like Count ZeroMona Lisa Overdrive opens with chapters explaining the set-up and situation of five different and apparently unconnected characters – so we straightaway realise that, as with Zero, part of the ‘interest’ of reading the book is going to be in finding out how these disparate personages are going to be woven together into one narrative.

But we also quickly realise that we’ve met some of these characters in the previous books and that this one represents a continuation of their stories, and so is a true sequel and not just set in the same fictional universe.

Kumiko

Kumiko Yanaka is the 13-year-old daughter of the head of a powerful corporation in Japan. The book opens in the confusing days after her mad (Danish) mother has committed suicide. Some kind of potentially violent infighting among the corporations is kicking off and her Dad has sent Kumiko to London to be out of the way of danger. She is met at Heathrow by a crop-headed, burly minder named, improbably enough, Petal, who drives her in a Jaguar along the M4 and to a safe house in Notting Hill, owned by one Roger Swain.

Her father gave her a device which, at a touch, projects a life-sized hologram of a chatty man named Colin who a) only Kumiko can see and b) has wide general knowledge, can access local computer and information systems, and so can give Kumiko advice. A cyber-guardian.

Next day she meets the owner of the house, Roger Swain, and an American woman with metallic lenses instead of eyes, named Sally Shears. Swain and Petal let Sally take Kumiko for a walk round the neighbourhood, in the falling snow, shopping and into a pub, where Sally explains that Kumiko is here because of an outbreak of infighting among the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). So – her father is a senior member of a worldwide criminal consortium.

The device which projects Colin can also record. Colin tells Kumiko to hide it in Swain’s office and then reclaim it later in the day. They replay a conversation between Swain and Petal which mentions Angie Marshall. If I’m not mistaken it hints at plans to kidnap her. Who she?

Angela Marshall

Young Angie Marshall was the central figure in the previous novel, Count Zero. A gang of professional kidnappers was expecting to extract her father, the star scientist Chris Marshall, from the grip of a big multinational corporation, Maas Biolabs, and was surprised when she turned up instead, his teenage daughter.

It was later revealed that Marshall had a) put her into the ultralight designed for him to escape in from the Maas Biolab compound, and b) then cut his own throat. Head of the extraction gang, tall rangy Turner, then took Angie on a cross-country odyssey, fleeing from agents of the vengeful Maas (and also Hosaka, the corporation who hired Turner and suspected some kind of double cross when Mitchell didn’t arrive). During this road trip it had become clear that Angie was special because a) Mitchell had embedded some kind of substance in her brain, presumably an example of the advanced ‘biosoft’ technology he was working on, so that b) Angie was able to tune into cyberspace without using any devices – without touching a console or dermatrodes, she could simply… enter cyberspace. And because of this unique ability, c) Angie had powerful dreams and visions in which she was visited by traditional voodoo gods and goddesses.

Indeed, it eventually was hinted that Marshall had in fact been a pretty mediocre researcher but had stumbled across contact with the voodoo gods, who gave him the secrets of advanced tech (and thus made his career) in exchange for his daughter. What did they want with his daughter? That was hard to really make out, even by the end of the previous book.

Voodoo? Yes, these presences are powerful inside cyberspace but also capable of reaching out to speak through the minds and voices of humans outside cyberspace. At the end of the Count Zero it is explained that these entities are a legacy of the great Unification of Cyberspace which took place at the climax of Neuromancer, had then somehow fallen apart again into separate but related, super-powerful cyber-entities which had ranged over the whole history of human signs and symbols and discovered that the voodoo gods and goddesses of Haiti were the most convenient, appropriate guise in which to interface with human beings.

So much for the events in Count Zero. Now, in the opening chapters of this book, we cut to seven years later, years in which Angie has become a super-famous stimstim star (simstim being an advanced form of television in which people enter into the bodies and sensations of lead characters).

We learn that Angie has replaced Tally Isham, who was mentioned throughout the previous two novels as being the great simstim star of the age. But we also learn that the price of fame, and trying to deal with the occasional return of the voodoo voices in her head, has prompted a major league drug addiction, to a designer drug DMSO which helps suppress the voices and the memory of the traumatic events, including her father’s death, of seven years earlier.

Angie has been sent by her concerned superiors at the simstim corporation Sense/Net to a rehab clinic, but checked out after just a week and, as the novel opens, has arrived at a windy, abandoned, luxury house on the beach in California – Malibu to be precise.

Here she pads around the silent rooms, trying to get her head together, trying to resist the temptation to take a hit of the (futuristic) drug she was addicted to, all the while spied on by her boss, Hilton Swift, who makes regular phone calls to check she’s alright.

Count Zero

Then there’s a series of chapters which are written in a different, far more louche tone, as if from a sci fi comic or manga magazine.

Kid Afrika (who is black) is chauffeured across the crushed steel surface of ‘Dog Solitude’ in a Dodge hovercraft (reminiscent of the hovercraft in which Turner drives Angie in Count Zero) driven by a white girl named Cherry Chesterfield to ‘the Factory’, some kind of derelict building.

They’re spotted approaching by the retarded Little Bird who points the hovercraft out to Slick Henry, who is working on a huge sculpture titled ‘the Judge’. Got all that?

In the back of the hovercraft is a comatose body on a stretcher which Kid refers to as ‘the Count’. In a flash we realise this is Bobby Newmark, also known as Count Zero, a young computer hacker (or ‘hotdogger’) from the New Jersey slums, who gave the previous novel its title.

Kid Afrika has orders to hide Count Zero and wants Slick Henry to take him in. Henry is reluctant because he knows that the secretive Gentry, the man who first discovered the (abandoned) Factory and moved into it and, effectively, owns it, will not approve. Gentry hates people.

But the Kid reminds Slick Henry that he saved the latter’s life once and owes him a big favour. Reluctantly, Henry takes him in, accompanied by Cherry who will act as a sort of nurse to the comatose Count… leaving the reader wondering what happened to the Count and why he’s been sent here.

Mona

Mona is 16 and SINless i.e. does not have a Single Identitification Number and so is off the grid of social security etc.

She lives with her pimp, Eddy, in a shitty, flyblown squat in Florida where he’s brought her, from Cleveland where she used to do erotic dancing in a seedy bar, in hope of making more money. Florida turns out to be polluted and dirty. Eddy sends her out to do tricks, beats her if she disobeys or complains, takes her money and then makes her describe the encounters to him, to make him hard so he can fuck her.

The whole milieu is painted with grim and depressing conviction.

After a chapter or two to establish this sordid set-up, Eddy suddenly introduces Mona to a smartly dressed man named Prior. To her surprise they are taken to an airport, loaded into a private jet and fly to Atlanta. Here they are taken to a swish hotel and next thing Mona knows she is having a medical checkover by a man named Gerald. Gerald and Prior seem to be discussing Mona’s appropriateness for some task – the colour of her eyes, her dental records, her age all appear to be relevant.

Now there have been several clues as to what’s going on:

a) In an earlier passage where Mona had gone shopping, she’d spotted a poster of Angie Marshall and reflected that people sometimes remarked on her looking like the great simstim star. b) In the next chapter we are with Kumiko as she and Colin listen to a playback of the conversations they’d bugged between her ‘hosts’. They hear Swain discussing with Sally Shears an ‘extraction’ job, and talking about the way ‘the target’ is back in ‘the house on the coast.’

All this sounds like what we’ve learned about Angie Marshall as she potters about the big house in Malibu. Swain goes on to say that ‘they’ (the unspecified client) don’t want her extracted by any number of mercs they could hire, but specifically by Sally Shears. And, he adds, there’s a new instruction: the client wants to make it look as if she’d been killed in the kidnapping. The client will provide a body.

Recap

So, by page 100 of this 300-page book, the reader has grasped that it’s going to be about a gang of crims, somehow organised by London-based Swain, and featuring lens-eyed Sally Shears, who plan to kidnap simstim star Angie Marshall (for what reasons, we will presumably find out) and we can deduce that the lowlife hooker Mona has been shipped to a hotel and given a medical examination because ‘they’ plan to kill her and probably burn or mutilate her body enough to make investigators think it is Angie’s (an idea which seemed, to this reader, remarkably low-tech: don’t they have DNA forensics in this otherwise hi-tech future?)

Backgrounds

Threaded in between the storylines, we learn a lot more of the background to this futureworld, aspects which help shed light on the earlier two novels.

We learn what you might call conventional aspects of any sc-fi story set in Earth’s future, those hints and tips about future apocalypses which titillate the viewer’s taste for catastrophe. For example, we get a few more details about the ‘three week war’ which obliterated Bonn in a nuclear strike and resulted in clouds of radiation drifting west which led to food shortages in Britain. Petal shows Kumiko a hologram constructed from old footage of the Battle of Britain, created, he tells her, to commemorate the centenary i.e. 2040. Now since in an earlier novel we’d read about the ‘law of ’53’, presumably 2053, I’m guessing the action is set somewhere in the 2060s, maybe 2070s.

I couldn’t help feeling this third novel has, at least to begin with, a middle-aged feel: it doesn’t kick off at a furious headlong pace in a flood of amphetamine-fulled prose like Neuromancer, but takes its time and spreads.

Thus the book takes its time to give each of the characters a hefty backstory, even the hooker Mona, starting with her time back as a kid working on a crayfish farm and following through her sorry life to date, liberated from a crappy manual job by stylish confident Eddy, who turns out to be a pimp and beater.

We learn that Slick Henry committed a series of crimes – stealing cars apparently – he was caught and punished by having his memory permanently damaged via the technique of Induced Korsakov’s Syndrome. It flares up when he’s under pressure and he can only remember five minutes back…

Dog Solitude, we learn, is a vast landfill site full of toxic rubbish, somewhere beyond New Jersey. When it was finally full to overflowing rollers or something heavy were sent across its surface to crush and flatten the metal objects, resulting in the whole thing becoming an uneven but essentially flat surface of billions of tin cans and appliances and crushed cars. Nothing grows there, the rain collects in toxic puddles and, because of the unevenness, only hovercraft can cross it.

Slick Henry, for his own psychological reasons, is assembling vast sculptures, symbols of the authority figures who locked him up and stole his memory, while Gentry, the misanthropic owner of the Factory – a vast derelict building with flaps of waste plastic clumsily stapled over its long-smashed windows – is pursuing some quixotic quest into discovering the meaning and shape of the matrix of cyberspace.

And this rhymes, chimes and echoes Angie’s preoccupation with understanding the beings, the entities, which can enter, access and ‘ride’ her mind, what the two black men she met in Count Zero used Haitian voodoo terminology to refer to as loa.

So much for the characters’ backstories.

Tessier-Ashpool again

In among all these themes and stories, I was surprised at the way that for the third time the orbiting space station owned by the legendarily wealthy Tessier-Ashpool once again emerges as an idea and destination for the characters.

Tessier-Ashpool in Neuromancer

You will recall that in Neuromancer, the protagonists Case and Molly, helped by the cloned daughter of the billionaire Ashpool, 3Jane, fulfil the task set them of activating a codeword which allows the two separate parts, the two ‘lobes’ of the matrix – named Wintermute and Neuromancer – to unite. The rather visionary, transcendent result is that, right at the end of that novel, the matrix becomes self aware. All of this takes place in the orbiting space station, Freeside, created by the fabulously rich Tessier-Ashpool family.

Tessier-Ashpool in Count Zero

Count Zero is set 7 or 8 years later and brings Angie Marshall, smuggled out of Maas Biolabs’ clutches to freedom and brought to a nightclub in New York, where she meets some heavy-duty black guys who explain to her that, above and beyond its rational business content, cyberspace is also possessed by strange religious god-like entities called loas, who have the names of Haitian voodoo gods (for example Baron Samedi).

Count Zero climaxes when the young art expert, Marly, fulfils the commission given her by the world’s richest man, Josef Virek, to discover the creator of a strange and haunting artwork – a vitrine filled with seven or so random objects. She follows the trail out into space, to very same orbiting space station, Freeside, more specifically to the section of it which the Tessier-Ashpool family created as its own private fortress and which has, since the events of Neuromancer, been ‘sawn off’ from Freeside and placed into its own orbit.

Here Marly discovers that someone has created a vast sphere with no gravity inside this space station, in which a cornucopia of rubbish and random objects floats slowly around, while a multi-armed robot device grabs random items as they float by, while other robot arms use lasers to shape and mould the objects, which are then placed in these vitrines. The whole thing is devoted to creating Damien Hirst-style artworks.

At the climax of the novel, the face of Josef Virek, the richest man in the world, who had given Marly her quest, appears on a monitor in this dome and tells her his people have followed her and are about to enter the dome. He thinks he is on the brink of getting his hands on a super-advanced technology which will give him immortality. I think what happens next is that we learn the dome, its robot artist and the haunting vitrines are all products of the loa, the self-aware entities within cyberspace. Marly’s quest was part of a scheme by the loa to lure Virek to his death and, sure enough, while logged into cyberspace in order to communicate with Marly, he is killed by the loa, thus freeing Marly from her quest.

Tessier-Ashpool in Mona Lisa Overdrive

Now, in this novel, Angie, on a very slender pretext, finds herself becoming obsessed with the Tessier-Ashpool family. She discovers that one of her simstim’s technical team had used the show’s recent break (while she was in the rehab clinic) to go ‘up the well’ (i.e. into space) to delve into the Tessier-Ashpool story. She asks for a copy of a recent documentary made into the mysterious fate of the Tessier-Ashpool family, which she watches several times, her viewings being opportunities for Gibson to feed us more bits of backstory.

Half way through Mona Lisa I had become a little bored of this Tessier-Ashpool theme. It seemed to me to close down the novel’s possibilities. It is a big world and, if you throw in space stations and extra-terrestrial travel, it is a very big world. It seemed oddly spastic for the stories to have to return to the same setting.

I thought Gibson is going to have to pull something pretty impressive out of the hat if he’s going to trump a) the climax of Neuromancer in which cyberspace becomes self aware! or b) the climax of Count Zero, with its hallucinatory vision of cyberspace being taken over by voudou gods!

Puzzles

This third of the Sprawl trilogy makes Gibson’s modus operandi clearer than ever. The main characteristic of the books is that they are deliberately confusing.

At the end of most thrillers there is some kind of explanation of what happened and often authors are considerate enough to tie up the loose ends. In Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive I was left more confused by the denouements than by the chase. I don’t think they can be summarised, really, because there are about ten named characters and all of them have shifting theories about what is actually going on, and the voices in the matrix themselves give changing interpretations of what is happening and why.

The result is a gathering sense of excitement, with a number of chases and battle confrontations all going off at the same time – but only a very confused sense of what is at stake. Something desperately important is at stake but, for most of the novel, it is hard to understand what.

For example, Kumiko escapes from the minder set to accompany her on a shopping trip around Portobello Road, and makes it across London to Brixton, to the scuzzy flat of the cockney console-cowboy Tick (real name, Terrance) who Sally Shears had introduced her to in a pub in Notting Hill early on.

Tick hands her some ‘trodes and takes her into cyberspace to show her a mystery which is puzzling the millions of other cyberjockeys around the world, which is the arrival of a huge new ‘building’ or artefact of gleaming data in the matrix. Why did Sally tell Kumiko to go to Tick’s? Who is Tick, really? What is the mystery of the shining artifact?

All that is relatively clear is that Swain’s men as well as the regular police will be out searching for Kumiko in force i.e. there is a strong sense of menace and paranoia.

Also, about a hundred pages we are explicitly told – if we hadn’t guessed it already – that ‘Sally Shears’ is none other than Molly Millions, the female lead in Neuromancer, characterised by her distinctive metallic lens implants where her eyes ought to be, and the 4-centimetre long retractable razor knives under her fingernails.

From various conversations Kumiko has overheard or we have witnessed, we realise she is a central part of the plan to kidnap Angie Mitchell, and that she is mighty unhappy about it. She says she’s only doing it because she’s being blackmailed and Swain says he’s only doing it because he’s being blackmailed, too, and I think – if I understood correctly – that they’re both being blackmailed into doing it by 3Jane, the mad daughter of Ashpool from Neuromancer, who is dead, but exists as an AI or ‘construct’.

More plot

Going back on the plan and abandoning Swain, Molly a) tells Kumiko to escape to the safety of Tick’s flat, while b) she, Molly, flees to America. First thing we know about her arrival is when she breaks into the clinic where Mona is having plastic surgery done on her to make her look like Angie Mitchell. The clinic door explodes as the minder, Prior, comes flying through it, followed by rough, tough Molly. She grabs Mona and escapes with her. (This is possible because she’s been tipped off about the surgery by the plastic surgeon, Gerald [did he do her lens-eyes, the reader idly wonders?])

Molly takes Mona off in a car and drives to New York, where she parks atop a multi-story car park and disappears, telling Mona to stay put.

Then we cut to Angie. In the intervening chapters she has more or less ‘recovered’ and agreed with her boss that she is ready to return to broadcasting. Her technical crew arrive, including hair stylists, make-up and so on, and then she flies back to New York, arriving by swanky corporate helicopter at the city’s smartest hotel, whose the top floors are permanently rented by her employers. Sense/Net. Remember, she is the most famous and highest paid simstim star in the world.

But Angie’s chopper has barely landed before Molly forces open the door, shoots Angie’s smooth gay black minder, Porphyre, with a stun dart, commandeers and flies the chopper over to the car park where she’d left Mona, and bundles Angie out of the chopper and into the back of the car.

Here, scared teenage Mona, doctored to look like Angie, meets her heroine, and Angie reacts with movie star aplomb to coming face to face with a clone of herself. Meanwhile, tough Molly is driving them off at speed, in fact, driving the car up the ramp into a nearby empty hovercraft which she proceeds to steal.

Meanwhile, in the derelict factory in the waste land beyond New Jersey, Gentry has become resigned to the presence of the comatose Count Zero at the Factory, because he’s jacked into the Count’s mind and realised that the Count, like him (Gentry), is on a mission, on a quest, to understand what’s happened to the matrix.

They both know that at some point, 14 years earlier, something changed in cyberspace. In their different ways they have pieced together the story told in Neuromancer, namely that Case and Molly oversaw the unification of the two lobes of an AI so enormous it effectively became cyberspace.

What is genuinely puzzling to this reader is the way Neuromancer climaxes with the matrix becoming self-aware at the climax of a thrilling, scary novel, but then the threat of the entire digital realm becoming self-aware is frittered away in the subsequent books.

At the very end of Neuromancer I thought it was going to become like the terrifying moment in the Terminator story, where the newly self-aware world computer declares war on its human creators.

But no. Nothing like that happens. Instead that-which-had-become-one appears to disintegrate again into a number of different entities and this fundamental oddity is compounded in Count Zero when we learn that these fragments have taken the shape and names and behaviour of the gods of voudou.

These are the Horsemen which dominated Angie’s mind in Count Zero and become increasingly present to her as Mona Lisa progresses:

And there they were, the Horsemen, the loa: Pappa Legba bright and fluid as mercury; Ezili Freda who is mother and queen; Samedi, the Baron Cimetiere, moss on corroded bone; Similor; Madame Travaux; many others… They fill the hollow that is Grande Brigitte. The rushing of their voices is the sound of wind, running water… (p.262)

We learn as the novel proceeds that this is why Angie became addicted to the drugs, because the drugs stopped her dreaming about the voudou horsemen.

But when the voices come through – the voice of Mamman Brigitte in particular being the dominant one in this novel – their explanations are even more confusing than in Zero.

They speak in highly mystical language: the loa came out of Africa but not as we (modern Caucasians) know them; Legba-ati-Bon – who rode Angie seven years ago at the climax of Zero – has also yet to come into existence i.e. he is and yet is not.

They confirm that the events at the climax of Neuromancer did indeed give rise to The One, but there was also an ‘other’. Then the centre failed and every fragment rushed away, each fragment seeking a form. Brigitte explains that, of all the signs and symbologies created by humanity, ‘the paradigms of voudou proved most appropriate’ (p.264).

But even if you’ve managed to process this, it is still not clear, even by the end of the book, what she is on about: more appropriate for what? For what purpose?

Brigitte confirms that it was the loa who approached Angie’s father, Chris Mitchell, star scientist of Maas Biolabs and offered him secrets; in return for this knowledge, he implanted biochemical programmes in Angie’s brain which made it easier for her to see the loa without jacking into cyberspace.

OK. But why?

And, as the novel progresses, Angie also realises that she has been seeing 3Jane’s dreams, memories of events which took place inside the Tessier-Ashpool fortress – but why? How is that possible and what does it mean?

My point is that – beneath the speed-driven, slangy, tech-jargon prose, and beneath the thriller motifs of gangsters and criminal cartels, and beneath the genuinely gripping, real world situations of kidnaps, and high speed chases, and getaways, and firefights – and even beneath the neon grid vision of cyberspace into which the characters pop with just enough regularity to remind us that depicting cyberspace is Gibson’s métier and USP – at the heart of all three novels in the Sprawl trilogy is a surprisingly mystical, non-rational and deeply confusing core.

If they were about money or drugs or gold or smuggling or guns or espionage or any of the other common thriller tropes, it would be one thing. But all three novels end up being about strange, mystical changes within cyberspace which all the books’ characters themselves don’t understand.

On balance this is a plus. It makes them rereadable. Usually at the end of a thriller the game is given away and we know whodunnit and why. Not in these books. They have all the structure and many of the trappings of conventional thrillers, plus all the hi-tech, lowlife drug paraphernalia thrown in. But at heart they remain oddly, eerily unknowable.

The last battle

The novel heads towards a climax at the Factory.

While we’ve been following the convergence of Angie and Molly and Mona in New York, things have hotted up at the Factory, namely bad guys have arrived. Using a loudhailer they demand the comatose body of Count Zero. Foolishly, Little Bird fires pretty much the only gun in the place at the tough mercs outside, at which point they announce they are going to storm the place.

The real world conflict is matched when Slick Henry jacks into Count Zero’s mind and discovers all kinds of wonders. Bobby’s consciousness exists in a tranquil paradise while he explores the mysteries of the new artifact in cyberspace. When Henry explains the situation, Bobby uses his control of cyberspace to reroute a passing automated cargo helicopter and make it drop its heavy loads onto the hovercraft and men approaching from outside.

Nonetheless, the mercs are just starting to fight their way into the Factory when out of nowhere the hovercraft driven by Molly erupts through the Factory walls. What follows next is largely seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Molly, who has found a stash of drugs and taken some, with the result that most of it is described in a stoned, dreamy, half-understood way.

Molly fights off the mercenaries aided by Slick Henry’s sculptures which, although they were built for his own psychological therapy, also happen to contain flame throwers and lasers and clutching claws and so on, all of which turn out to be handy in fighting off an attacking force of mercenaries.

While all this is going on, Angie makes her way up to the high-level ‘loft’ where Bobby’s stretcher is laid out and there, amid Slick Henry and Cherry, she embraces him. During the fight his weak body has finally expired. Angie puts on a spare set of ‘trodes, embraces his body, and she too disappears into cyberspace. Her body too expires, but we follow her into cyberspace where she imagines she is walking, being guided towards a wedding.

Back in the real world Molly has finished wiping out the mercs just as Angie’s boss, head of the Sense/Net simstim broadcasts, Hilton Swift arrives. His people had realised Angie had been kidnapped back at the hotel, identified the hovercraft she’d been driven off in, and it’s taken them this long to follow Angie out to the Factory.

Now Hilton and his people walk in at more or less the same time that Molly’s battered old hovercraft screeches off through a big gap in the Factory wall, taking with her Slick Henry and Cherry, who have forged some kind of bond in these last few hectic hours.

Tying up loose ends

As Hilton walks into the Factory he is confronted by just stoned Mona who, of course, is the spitting image of Angie, albeit twenty years younger. Entranced, Hilton and Porphyre (Angie’s minder) decide on the spot they will simply replace the dead Angie with Mona.

And so, after some extensive physical cleaning up and neural cleansing, it does indeed come to pass that Mona steps straight into Angie’s simstim shoes – and is even more of a hit than the original, returning to the world’s simstim screens new and refreshed after her detox break.

It had been explained, sort of, that Molly fled London and Swain because she had cut her own deal with (I think) 3Jane: this is what motivated her to bring Angie to the Count in his dying moments (though exactly why 3Jane wanted this to happen, I don’t understand). Anyway, in return for keeping her side of the bargain, all Molly’s criminal records are wiped clean, and she is a free woman.

It is confirmed that Swain, supposedly working for Kumiko’s dad, had in fact double-crossed him by selling out to 3Jane, partly due to her threat to expose all his criminal activities. But right at the end of the book we learn that Swain has been killed and replaced by the burly, crop-haired and rather fatherly Petal. Tick and Petal had taken a video call from Kumiko’s father explaining that the ‘difficulty’ he had been experiencing is now over. When Kumiko asks her father about his role in her mother’s suicide, he shows genuine remorse and repentance and Kumiko finds herself forgiving him. At which point there’s a knock on the door of Tick’s crappy flat and it is Petal who – to my relief – doesn’t just machine gun everyone inside – as happens in so many Yank movies – but instead kindly explains the situation and says he is taking Kumiko back into his guardianship under instructions from her father. Aaah.

The ‘other’

Despite rereading the ending I never understood why 3Jane’s dreams or thoughts appeared with such pressure and urgency to Angie. What I did understand is that all’s well that ends well.

Virtual Angie and virtual Bobby are shown living in a wonderful, luxury and very peaceful French chateau which he has constructed in cyberspace. Fragments of other minds drift in and out – tentative sad 3Jane, other players they’ve known such as Colin the smooth-talking cyber-guardian of Kumiko back in the early chapters, and in particular the foul-mouthed Finn, a character who has appeared in all the novels as a particularly wise and ancient cyber cowboy.

And then, one day, a limousine turns up and Bobby and the Finn, with Colin in attendance, lead Angie out and into it. They explain that on that day, 14 years earlier, when the matrix became one, it immediately sensed the presence of an ‘other’. Now they are taking her to meet that other. But cyberspace contains all human data, Angie protests. Sure, replies the Finn. But the ‘other’ isn’t human.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘If cyberspace consists of the sum total of data in the human system…’
‘Yeah,’ the Finn said, turning out onto the long straight empty highway ahead, ‘but nobody’s talking human, see?’
‘the other one was somewhere else,’ Bobby said.
‘Centauri,’ said Colin.
Can they be teasing? Is this some joke of Bobby’s?
‘So it’s kinda hard to explain why the matrix split up into all those hoodoos ‘n’ shit, when it met this other one,’ said the Finn, ‘but when we get there, yo’ll sorta get the feeling…’
‘My own feeling,’ said Colin, ‘is that it’s all so much more amusing this way…’
‘Are you telling the truth?’
‘Be there in a New York minute,’ said the Finn, ‘no shit.’

So a) it ends as many sci fi stories do, on the brink of the first encounter with intelligent life from another world b) I’m glad to see that even right at the end, there is no rational explanation for the One created at the end of Neuromancer is then discovered to have relapsed back into many fragments in the subsequent books, and not only that, but fragments which take the identities of voodoo gods.

Even right at the end where everything else is explained, this remains unexplained.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

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1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1954)

‘Before the Cities, human life on Earth wasn’t so specialized that they couldn’t break loose and start all over on a raw world. They did it thirty times. But now, Earthmen are all so coddled, so enwombed in their imprisoning caves of steel, that they are caught forever.’ (Dr. Fastolfe)

Elijah Baley is 40 years old, with a long face and brown eyes like a sad cow. He is married to Jessie, has a 16-year-old son, Bentley, and lives in New York, where he is a police detective.

So far, so straightforward. The only catch is… this is all 3,000 years in the future. The population of the earth has ballooned to over 8 billion. Most people now live in the 200 or so megacities which are, like New York, completely covered over and enclosed from the environment. The ‘caves of steel’ of the title refer to these cities, blocked out from sunshine or natural air, hermetically sealed, artificially-lit environments.

Oil ran out centuries ago, so everything is powered by atomic energy. Population density means most people live in communal dormitories and share communal facilities. Meat is occasionally available, but most people most of the time live on rations made on hydroponic farms in Long Island or at the huge yeast vats in New Jersey. Some tobacco is still grown, which allows Elijah to indulge his habit of smoking a pipe, but it’s getting rarer and more expensive.

Elijah is a grade C-5. Everyone in the city is graded and their grade entitles them to specific types of accommodation, food and so on. Baley has never got over the way his father was blamed for an accident in a power station and went from being a high-grade physicist to becoming ‘declassified’ – forced to do manual labour, becoming a drunk, dying when Elijah was just 8.

You might have thought that’s enough to be going on with, but all this is just background. There are two other big developments which dominate the book: one is the invention and perfection of ‘the positronic brain’ which has allowed the development of very nearly lifelike robots. This much I expected from a novel which I knew to be part of Asimov’s ‘robot’ series of stories and novels.

What I hadn’t at all anticipated was the central importance of the ‘Spacers’. For it turns out that mankind has, for some time, been colonising other planets, occupying some 50 to date, and taking advantage of the invention of ‘hyperspace travel’.

The colonies are much more sparsely populated than earth, which is one reason why the ‘Spacers’ have developed a significantly different culture from Earthers. The Spacers have more space to live in, and robots are completely integrated into their society, meaning most of them lead lives of luxury.

So wide has the gap grown between Earthers and Spacers that, a hundred years before the story starts, Earth riots in which some Spacers were killed led a fleet of Spacer ships to retaliate. In the war that followed the ramshackle old Earth ships were simply vaporised, Space technology being far more advanced. Now the Spacers don’t exactly rule the Earthers, they just intimidate them.

For the Spacers have built settlements just outside most of the big cities – Spacetowns – protected by security guards and airlocks to prevent earth infections being passed to the prim and pure Spacers. All this explains why gritty Earther types like detective Baley really hate Spacers.

The plot

So much for the background. The plot is straightforward detective fodder – in fact, Asimov is on record as saying the book (and its sequels) were attempts to show that science fiction isn’t a genre, but a subject which could be applied to any genre. Here he is trying to prove it with this detective story set in the future.

A Spacer is found murdered. Not just any old Spacer, but Roj Nemmenuh Sarton, a Spacer Ambassador and robot designer.

In the classic style, Baley is called in by his harassed overworked boss, Commissioner Julius Enderby, and told that a) he, Baley, has been given the case to solve – which disgruntles him, because he hates Spaces and b) he has also been lumbered with a new generation robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, to be his assistant.

The story, then, is not only about Baley’s attempts to solve the crime – but equally as much about him overcoming his dislike of Spacers and his loathing of robots.

The book proceeds through a variety of scenes which I felt I have seen hundreds of times, in countless American TV cop shows and crime thrillers. The basic pattern is Baley goes out, has an encounter or adventure, comes back and reports it to his increasingly exasperated boss, before going home to his worried wife.

Initially, the story is about confrontations and menace. Baley and Daneel get caught up in a minor riot in a department store when robots refuse to serve a customer and an anti-robot crowd assembles and threatens violence until Daneel jumps on a table and threatens to blast them all. The crowd disperses. Baley is appalled since Daneel’s behaviour breaks the First Law of Robotics. We are introduced to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics which feature in all the robot novels and stories:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

When he learns that Daneel is so perfectly human in appearance because he is an identical copy of his designer, Sarton, the incident in the shop leads Baley to make a rash declaration in front of a Spacer officer, Dr Fastolfe, and with his boss present via hologram, that Daneel is actually a human and that the dead body of Sarton was actually a robot.

This stab in the dark is quickly disproved when Daneel unpeels some of his skin to reveal his robotic metal and wire interior. Baley faints. When he comes round he’s aware that Daneel has just slipped a hypno-sliver into his bloodstream. It was a drug which makes him vulnerable to suggestions, and Dr Fastolfe, gives a speech explaining how earth could overcome its paranoid crammed culture by mass migration to the planets, which Baley finds himself agreeing with.

A later scene has a good, movie-style excitement to it. Baley and Daneel are travelling on the complicated moving sidewalks. these run at different speeds, winding in and out of each other throughout the city’s vast expanse, meaning that pedestrians are continually having to leap from one to the next, or across several moving strips to get to the one they need (you can see why this is a totally impractical idea, though it does have tremendous visual possibilities.)

Daneel identifies that they are being followed – always a key ingredient in a thriller, and then that some of the followers were in the almost-riot at the shop. Baley then leads the pursuers a merry chase by hopping across and onto a complex sequence of moving sidewalks, before arriving at a vast power station, where one of the suspects has been identified as working.

The next major event is that one of the robots which was used in the police offices, R. Sammy, is found dead or, more precisely, has had its positronic brain scrambled by a nuclear wand.

Commissioner Enderby is as upset about this as anyone else, and then begins slowly and regretfully pointing out to Baley that he, Baley, is looking like a prime suspect. Baley hates robots. Baley was always complaining about R. Sammy. And the nuclear wand which scrambled him has been traced back to the same power plant Baley visited earlier that day.

In the novel’s climactic scene, confronted by his boss accusing him of the murder, Baley proves that Enderby did it. But no-one can smuggle atom blasters into Spacertown, and he certainly couldn’t obtain one inside. How did he do it? Baley shows that Enderby ordered R. Sammy to carry an atom blaster out of one of the city’s 500 or so exits, go across country to Spacertown, enter Spacertown at a different place from Enderby, rendezvous with Enderby and hand him the blaster. Enderby then intended to blast the new super-advanced robot he had heard that Sarton had just developed. Unfortunately, Enderby wears glasses, it is part of his pose of preferring the ‘good old days’, an attitude sometimes described as Medievalism. In his nervousness at performing an act of violence (relatively rare in the future) Enderby drops his glasses which shatter. At that moment, in a panic, the door to Sarton’s apartment opens and Enderby, thinking it is the robot, blasts Sartor, disintegrating the top half of his body. Then stumbles back to where R. Sammy was waiting, gives him the blaster, R. Sammy makes his own way out of the city, leaving Enderby to be allowed to leave the city with no weapon. The alarm about Sartor’s murder was only raised an hour or so later, once Enderby was well clear.

Assessment

Asimov makes what I take to be an elementary mistake of thriller writers, which is – he tries to make the plot too convoluted. I won’t describe the convolutions here but there are plenty of other incidents – such as Baley’s wife Jessie somehow discovering that Daneel is a robot (which is meant to be a well kept secret); and the evening when, after being followed, Daneel and Baley hole up in a police ‘safe apartment’ from ‘them’, whoever it is that’s pursuing them – only for Baley’s son, Bentley, to pretty easily find him and get admitted to the apartment… There are a number of false trails and fake leads designed to puzzle Baley, and the reader.

But the big, big, big problem with the book is that the elaborate motivation Asimov provides for the murder – and its wider consequences – doesn’t make sense, even on Asimov’s own terms.

In the last pages Asimov/Baley pulls it all together by saying that: Enderby is a member of a secret society of Medievalists. His preference for glasses and for having ‘windows’ in his office proves this. Medievalists want to rid the world of robots, end the cities and return everyone to living on the land, like in the good old days.

Because of his regular contacts with Spacers he knew that Sarton had developed a new generation robot, indistinguishable from a human, and so his group of Medievalists allotted him the task of destroying it. But, as we’ve seen, he muffed the job and killed the human inventor instead.

The fact that his murder relied so heavily on R. Sammy explains why it was Enderby who scrambled him, and planted the nuclear wand to discredit Baley.

But it turns out that the Spacers have a political aim as well. Some of them feel Spacer culture is stagnant or declining. They want to persuade Earthers to migrate and inject new blood into Spacer colonies. They want to encourage humans to leave overcrowded earth.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense. Both Enderby and Baley dislike robots and Baley hates Spacers. And yet the final pages of the book try to persuade us that both Baley and Enderby come round to agreeing with the Spacers… and here’s the thing which really doesn’t make sense: they try to persuade us that Enderby’s anti-robot, anti-Spacer, back-to-the-soil Medievalism can be converted into a belief that humans can go back to the soil… in off-world colonies. That the Medievalists’ anti-science and technology stance can be twisted round into a wish to adopt modern science and technology.

All the paraphernalia of the detective thriller (right at the end Baley has just 90 minutes to prove his theory before Daneel is taken off the case, which injects some traditional urgency and suspense) cannot conceal the fact that, at the end, it becomes utterly incoherent and illogical. Like the Foundation stories, the conclusion feels forced and contrived.

Futuristic features

Future novels like this have two elements. One is the plot which, as I’ve explained, although frenetic is, in the end, deeply disappointing.

But the other, and possibly more gripping element for SF fans, is the throwaway references to all kinds of intriguing aspects of life 3,000 years hence, the references to inventions and gadgets which help to create and pad out a plausible imaginary world.

  • atom blasters – equivalent of handguns
  • cerebroanalysis –  the interpretation of the electromagnetic fields of the living brain cells
  • hypo-sliver – futuristic version of an injection
  • Medievalism – widespread belief in the superiority of the good old days, when people did not live in ‘caves of steel’
  • plastofilm – what Elijah slips on his feet instead of slippers
  • retch gas – used by the police on rioting crowds
  • somno vapour – used by the police on rioting crowds
  • spy-beam – high-powered microphones for eavesdropping
  • strips – moving walkways which pedestrians have to jump between to change speed or direction
  • subetheric hand disruptors – Space weapons
  • trimensional personification – appearing by hologram
  • zymoveal – food made mostly from fungus

Bigger in scale than these gadgets, and far more interesting than the ‘plot’ is Asimov’s imagining of future customs and conventions. Apparently, a massive taboo has arisen about people’s behaviour in the communal washrooms, namely that it is extremely rude to look at or even acknowledge someone else washing.

Powerful is Asimov’s imagining of how the inhabitants of the steel caves have, over the centuries, developed a deep phobia about being ‘outside’, about being stuck under the open sky and exposed to the elements. Baley has panic attacks when he thinks about it.

Similarly, it’s an imaginative stroke that the Spacers are not only scared of catching earth germs and diseases from inhabitants of the packed, unhygienic cities – so far, so logical – but that this has developed into physical repulsion at the presence of Earthers, who Spacers have come to believe smell and are intrinsically dirty. It is almost a kind of racism, and it is imaginative insights like this into the psychology of his future worlds which make Asimov’s books worth reading. Not the plots, though.

Covers

When you borrow or buy these old books, the modern cover illustrations might mislead you into thinking they are in any way up to date or ‘serious’. But a quick glance at the original covers of the magazines which these stories appeared in makes you realise in a flash what cheap pulp audiences they were originally aimed at, and what a mistake it is to expect too much from them in the way of writing, psychology or thought.

Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel after completing the Foundation stories. It was serialised in Galaxy magazine, from October to December 1953, and published in book form in 1954. This cover brings out the sense of a) the completely enclosed nature of the cities and b) the highly visual impact of the moving walkways. It is in the details and appurtenances of his stories that Asimov strikes deepest.

Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in which The Caves of Steel was first serialised in 1953

Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in which The Caves of Steel was first serialised in 1953


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Other posts about American history

John Ferling’s descriptions of days in the American War of Independence

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Days by Philip Larkin

The historian’s problem with days

Historians deal with periods of time. Since these are generally longer than a few hours, they can or have to be measured in days, days which make up weeks, months, years and sometimes centuries. Nonetheless, when it comes to recording key events (births, marriages, deaths, battles, treaties), historians, like the rest of us, tend to think of them as happening on specific days. D-Day. Independence Day. Days are what we attach meaning to. Days are where we live.

How can you distinguish and separate out all the days which make up all of human history? How can you convey the passage of time, the passage of days, how can you make it more than a colourless recitation of numbers and dates?

Take the American War of Independence. There is debate both about when the war both started and when it ended. The consensus view is that hostilities began on April 19, 1775, when British regular forces tried to arrest rebel leaders in the Massachusetts villages of Concord and Lexington. This sparked skirmishes with Patriot militiamen, which escalated into a running battle as the British soldiers were forced to retreat back to their stronghold in Boston.

And, officially, the war ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783 – although after the British lost the siege of Yorktown in October of 1781 they decided not to continue hostilities and there was no full scale fighting after that date.

So, officially, the American War of Independence lasted about eight years and five months, ‘one hundred and four blood-drenched months’ – some 3,000 days to demarcate and distinguish. How do you make the key ones stand out?

John Ferling’s feel for days

A little way into John Ferling’s long and minutely-detailed military history of the American War of Independence, I began to notice how much attention he pays to the weather and to the quality of important days.

Much of Ferling’s content is as dry and factual as any other historian’s, but he consistently slips in little descriptive phrases designed to convey the specificity of important days. He is particularly fond of the crepuscular hours – of dawn or nightfall – the hours when the world seems more pregnant with meaning and possibility than usual.

  • The brilliant midday sun stood high in the sky over Pell’s Point, transforming the bite of dawn into a comfortable fall day. (p.9)
  • First light came at 4am on this historic day. Thirty minutes later, with streaks of orange and purple visible in the eastern sky, an advance party – six companies totalling 238 men – reached Lexington Common… (p.30)
  • As darkness gathered on September 12 [1775], twenty four hours after their departure from Newburyport, the last of the eleven vessels in Arnold’s armada reached Gardinerstown, Maine, a tiny village with a shipyard some thirty miles up the Kennebec. (p.90)
  • By around 7am, with day breaking under a grey snowy sky, the battle [of Quebec] was over and the Americans who could do so were on the retreat back to the Plains of Abraham, leaving their dead and wounded behind. (p.98)
  • As the dark stain of night gathered over Long Island, Howe, together with Clinton and guided by three Loyalists, set out with half his army over a maze of back roads leading toward the Jamaica Pass eight miles away. (26 August 1776, p.133)
  • When night tightened over Brooklyn, and the black storm clouds obscured the moon, the boats, manned by two Massachusetts regiments under Colonel Glover, and consisting almost exclusively of experienced mariners, were brought across the East River. [Washington’s army flee Long Island for Manhattan after their crushing defeat on 26 August 1776, p.136]
  • As the slanting shadows of late afternoon gathered, [General Howe] decided to wait until morning before launching his frontal attack. (p.147)
  • The British reached Hackensack on November 22 [1776]. The American army had departed twenty-four hours earlier, continuing to move to the west, crossing the Passaic River into Acquackononck Landing (modern Passaic), as the pale sun of the late day glinted off the water. (p.164)
  • The crossing out of New Jersey [by the retreating American army] began immediately and continued through the sullen night under an eerie orange-yellow illumination provided by giant fires  built on the shores, making for what a Pennsylvanian militiaman thought was ‘rather the appearance of Hell than any earthly scene.’ (p.170)

Ferling’s descriptions are like paintings, aren’t they, although paintings from a later era. Ferling brings an essentially romantic sensibility to what was still a pre-Romantic, eighteenth century world.

  • To preserve secrecy [for their surprise attack on German mercenary forces at Trenton], the Americans could not stir until darkness gathered, leaving much to be accomplished in a short period before morning light streaked the eastern sky. (p.176)
  • Washington had divided his forces about three miles west of Trenton. Greene led a division along the northern road to the village. It consisted largely of veterans of the long retreat across New Jersey. Sullivan, who for the most part commanded the men that Lee had brought down from New York, proceeded along a southerly artery near the river, the frozen breath of men and horses visible in the early morning light. (p.177)
  • Time and again the Americans ambushed the British, waging time-consuming firefights before melting away to take up new positions further down the road, from which they opened up yet again on their prey. At one juncture, rebel pickets tied down the enemy for two precious hours. When the lead elements in Cornwallis’s force finally reached the [river] Assunpink, the long, sloping black shadows of late day swaddled the landscape. (p.182)
  • The last lonely streaks of daylight slanted through the leafless trees as the Continental army entered Morristown, New Jersey, on January 6. 1777. (p.204)
  • [General St Clair] ordered the withdrawal [of the American army from Fort Ticonderoga] to begin in the wee small hours of the morning, when the landscape, under a new moon, would be shrouded in sooty darkness. (p.220)
  • The surrender of 5,895 men [after the British General Burgoyne’s ill-fated march south from Canada to the river Hudson ended in total defeat] took time, more than four hours. When the last man had departed the field of surrender, [American General] Gates hosted an outdoor dinner on this sun-soft autumn afternoon for Burgoyne and his brigade and regimental commanders… When the meal was done, and the shadows of late day stretched over the idyllic fields that recently had witnessed untold agony, the British and German officers stood, stiffly said their goodbyes, mounted their horses, and rode off to join their men in the march to Boston and an uncertain future. (p.241)

Ferling is careful to give a pen portrait of each of the many military leaders who appear in these pages, the generals and brigadiers and colonels on both sides. We are told the biography and character of scores of leading military men. But it is to the weather, the light and the mood of key days, that he pays particular attention.

Sometimes his description of the light is more persuasive than his description of the people.

  • The men gathered early under a soft linen-blue sky and marched smartly to their designated spots where they stood in the delectable sunshine listening as the summary of the treaties [with new ally, France] were read out… (p.294)
  • After fighting for three hours or more in ‘weather… almost too hot to live in’, as one American soldier put it, the British abandoned their bloody charges and for two final hours, until 6pm, when the evening’s cooling shadows swaddled the bloody landscape, the battle morphed into an artillery duel. (p.306)
  • Three days later, in the pale sunshine of winter, the bulk of the British invasion force entered Richmond unopposed. (p.478)
  • About 5.30am in the last throes of the dark, starry night, [Tarleton’s cavalry] splashed across muddy Macedonia Creek to the cups of Cowpens. As they began to organise in the still, cold darkness – the temperature was in the low to mid-twenties – the first low purple of day glazed the eastern sky. (p.483)
  • Around noon on March 15, a gloriously cool day, the rebels heard, then spotted, the first column of red-clad soldiers as it emerged through a cuff of leafless trees and marched grandly up New Garden Road, awash with the soft, spring sun… (p.497)
  • Washington got all that he wanted [from the French delegates in March 1781] and at sunset on March 8, as he and Rochambeau stood shoulder to shoulder on the cold wind-swept shore watching, the [French] squadron sailed off into the gathering darkness. (p.502)

Romantic descriptions, romantic paintings

Ferling includes some 40 paintings and illustrations in the book. When I came to analyse them I realised that only four are illustrations of actual battles – a few are technical pictures of contemporary ships, but the great majority, over 30, are portraits of the many military men and political leaders on both sides – emphasising the care he takes to give portraits of all the key military leaders.

But then I noticed that, whereas the military portraits are all contemporary i.e. drawn or painted from life in the 1770s and 1780s, the battle pictures are from over a century later, painted at the height of late-Victorian realism (1898, 1903, 1898), in the style of boys’ adventure stories — almost as if the history had to wait for a sufficiently ‘manly’ painting style to develop to depict the tough heroism of those days.

Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Or as if only paintings in the late-Victorian style can match Ferling’s own romantic feel for the weather, for the mood, for the changing light, for the fogs and blazing sunshine, for the first dawns and the quick-falling nights with which his enthralling account is laced.

He rode through the afternoon and most of the following day, one of the last soldiers yet on the road home from this war. At last, as the sun hung red and low in the sky on Christmas Eve, George Washington, private citizen, emerged through the bare trees and onto the path that led to the front door of Mount Vernon. The War of Independence was truly at an end. (p.561)

Ferling has a stylish, highly descriptive, and memorable way with the days of the American War of Independence.


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