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Sun, 14 May 2006:

I don't have a laptop and the hospital anyway doesn't allow any electronics inside anyway. So I ended up lugging a couple of dead trees conveniently pulped, flattened and printed on. The chosen few were from the Johnny Maxwell trilogy from Terry Pratchett - Johnny and the Bomb and Only You Can Save Mankind .

Both these books are classified as young adult fiction, but Pratchett's no Enid Blyton and doesn't try to replace her either. There is no Faraway Tree or Wishing Chairs in here, only a boy who can't filter out the wonders of this world and an old lady who's got time on her side. The total unreality of Johnny's world is different from the fairyland of the average adult fiction book.

The stereotypical gang in the books provide for some biting comments, especially on racism and female suffrage. For example the introductions are just too good to miss and is probably the best page on the book altogether. Here are the choice bits of it :-

The thing about all of us, Johnny thought, the sad thing is that
we're not very good. Actually that's not the worst part. The 
worst part is that we're not even much good at being not 
much good.

Take Yo-less. ... He was black. Technically. But he never said
'Yo', and only said  'check it out' at the supermarket ...
Yo-less said it was racial stereotyping to  say all black kids
acted like that but,however you looked at it Yo-less was born
with a defective cool.


'One of them was black'

Johnny nodded dismally at the phone. Yo-less had explained about
this sort of thing. He'd said that if one of his ancestors had 
joined Atilla the HUn's huge horde of millions of barbarians
and helped them raid Ancient Rome, people would've definitely
remembered that one of them was black.

For all that brilliant social commentary Pratchett is capable of, he just can't write out an ending to a book. Almost all good Discworld books were left hanging in status quo, which you can't do with a book like Johnny and the Bomb. There's a bit of closure missing in the book which sort of justifies its events with the ending rather than the other way around. Dark humor of Tom Holt too convey this disturbing sense of too many very convenient coincidences. Nobody but Wodehouse in Pearls,Girls and Monty Bodkin has written that perfect book where the audience is giggling away at the simple coincidences piling up to set up a ROTFL ending. But in that case, the twists were quite random and as surprising as the first time I read Oscar Wilde's Model Millionaire but multiplied many times over. Johnny and the Bomb doesn't even belong on the same shelves.

In other words, the book doesn't really keep you guessing. Only You Can Save Mankind on the other hand has a bit more material to it, especially if you put yourself in the early nineties with CNN broadcasting the Iraqi night sky with the Scuds, Patriots and AAA tracers flares included. The total disconnect a pilot feels between pressing a button and real people dying is palpable and carried into the book with clarity.

The initial messages from the alien spaceship and the very obvious absence of a Don't fire button are all digs at the guilt free violence that the war breeds in a real world, only here transported into a twelve year old's video game. The player respawns, but the enemies die forever which sort introduces the guilt factor while shooting down an enemy fighter.

Also buried in there are prods at the allied forces about the Geneva Convention and similar codified rules of war. The requirements of similar treatments for POWs as well as a blatant disregard for civilian collateral damage were highlighted in the game but the suggestions go a lot further than what just happened on your screen. Remember Vietnam, Agent Orange and hot Napalm.

It is quite unfortunate to say that you had to be there (or at least put yourself back in the '90s) to actually read between the lines of this book. These books are for all those who sat by watching the bombs drop over Baghdad and witnessed the 'taking out' of several strategic hospitals and bunkers. A fourteen year old in 2006 will not find the irony or relive the horrors reading this book - he (or she) just doesn't have the context. The books paint a blood red sunset to the west and spotless hands of those who pressed the buttons. So to simplify - I liked the stuff between the lines, hated the ending and liked the characters (totally).

Reality is hard to live with - Unlike Johnny, we can't cope.

How do wars start ? Diplomats tell lies to journalists, and they believe what they read.
                -- Karl Kraus

posted at: 02:22 | path: /books | permalink | Tags: ,