Declare, If Thou Hast Understanding

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In this unexpectedly grimdark cyberpunk future, where a heap of factions ranging from local big boys Iran and Saudi Arabia to fading superpowers and ex-superpowers like the UK, USA, and Russia to freshly minted wildcards like ISIS are busily tearing Syria to bits directly and/or via proxy, it’s a timely moment to remember that fucking about in the general region’s affairs is an old game to some of those involved. The Great Game between Britain and Russia saw the two jockeying for position to be top dog in the region once the low-hanging fruit of the Ottoman regime finally dropped; once World War I finally put paid to the Ottomans, France and Britain grabbed great chunks of the Middle East and had the League of Nations declare it legit, whilst the new Turkish state scrambled to get its house in order and the Soviet Union was momentarily busy putting down the White Russians. World War II found Soviet, French and British interests in the area aligning for once, but the Cold War soon put paid to that, with the Americans and Soviets working to sway governments into one sphere of influence or the other and France and Britain desperately trying to keep some semblance of colonial power there.

The problem with being a waning superpower is that typically your efforts to retain power and participate in massively complex geopolitical games end up making you look silly. The Suez Crisis put paid to Anthony Eden’s time as Prime Minister, for instance, but perhaps the greatest embarrassment to the British establishment during the Cold War era was the scandal of the Cambridge spy ring, who having been recruited as Communist agents during their student days in the 1930s had ended up gaining important government positions and selling a decade’s worth of secrets and services to the Soviets. And out of the three individuals concerned, perhaps the most infamous – for the damage he managed to do, the sensitivity of the position he managed to obtain, and the circumstances of his defection – was Kim Philby.

Continue reading “Declare, If Thou Hast Understanding”

For the Love of God, Tim Powers, I Thought I Could Expect Better of You

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride has a lot to answer for. Aside from the initially exciting but eventually disappointing film series, which has sparked a massive revival of the pirate motif (hell, even Gene Wolfe seems to have jumped on the bandwagon), it’s also inspired such wonders as the Secret of Monkey Island series, and appears to have been an influence on Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides (which, itself, may have influenced Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl).

By and large, On Stranger Tides is an excellent read. It follows bookkeeper and puppeteer John Chandagnac, who’s travelling to Jamaica in order to sue his uncle for stealing his father’s inheritance. Naturally, he’s waylaid by pirates on the way there, who appear to be collaborating with Professor Hurwood, a renowned philosopher and scientist – and a fellow-passenger of John’s. Having made friends with Hurwood’s daughter Beth prior to the attack, John is somewhat dismayed at this turn of events, and in a display of foolhardy bravery manages to convince the pirates that they’d better get him onside. Forced to join their crew, and given the new name of “Jack Shandy”, John/Jack initially resists his fate, but a series of decisions places him decidedly outside the law; realising that he can never go back to his old life, Jack embraces his destiny as a pirate, since this is the only way he can hope to save Beth from the clutches of her evil father and his sycophantic henchman Mr Friend – and their piratical ally, Blackbeard himself!

Continue reading “For the Love of God, Tim Powers, I Thought I Could Expect Better of You”