We Sail the Ocean Blue…

Well, so much for my plan of updating this blog regularly.  There’s no one reason why, combination of new Legend of Zelda videogames and  actually working a job that requires me to go to bed at a reasonable hour.  And a little bit of uprooting… I’m currently spending most of the week with my grandfather, who doesn’t exactly have wi-fi.  Mostly, though, it’s my own fault for being extremely unmotivated to write a blog–at least, when I can write a fanfic or original story that will probably attract more views/comments and definitely be more fun.

Still, I’m down to two unfinished fanfics now (one about Gunnerkrigg Court and another doing a Batman/Blue Bloods crossover), and I’m hoping to completely get out of the fanfic business before too long.  I love writing them–in fact, it’s taking a good deal of willpower not to start several other fanfic ideas I have in my head–but I really need to buckle down to the original writing business if I ever want to do this writing thing seriously.  It is true that certain franchises are now permitting the publication and sale of fanfics, (and if that catches on it could make for a VERY interesting literary future, which maybe I should write about), but for the most part, original fiction is the only way you can make a real living out of writing.  Plus I really like some of my original ideas, and I’d love to see them become a reality.  A research project I did this past year about Amazon’s Self-Publishing service has got me all excited… I could easily publish a story, regardless of how terrible it might be, and make some money off it.

“No man save a blockhead wrote but for money.”  –Samuel Johnson.

(PC: NYtimes)

Obviously writing out a full novel is still a long ways off.  But I’ve discovered several literary journals that are willing to pay money for shorter stories (try ralan.com if you’re interested in this sort of thing yourself).  I’ve yet to actually publish anything in them (though two I submitted recently are starting to look close), but they’re definitely a good place to start.  Just simply knowing about them and getting into a routine of writing and submitting has really started to make me feel more like a real writer.

But one thing that I need to get down, and really should get down before it’s too hazy in my mind, is my opinion of the Aubrey/Marturin series by Patrick O’Brian.

Why yes.  Yes, he does.

(PC: artmarine)

You may have vaguely remembered me talking about this in earlier blog posts–a series about a captain and his surgeon in the Napoleanic era, sailing the high seas and visiting foreign ports full of exotic animals.  I took it up shortly after finishing the Discworld series.  It took me a while to get through the series–there are like 23 books, all much more laborious than Discworld–partly due to the concerns of grad school.  I didn’t completely finish it, either, as there were a chunk of books in the middle that I couldn’t find in the library.  You may be familiar with the recent movie by Mark Weir, starring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Stephen Marturin.

If you’re not, then you bloody well should be.

(PC: blogspot.com)

If you are, then you have some of the essentials of the series down–Jack Aubrey is a sanguine, dashing captain who delights in taking prizes and gets on well with all his men, Stephen Marturin is the ship’s surgeon who is an enthusiastic naturalist and something of a philosopher.  The two men are very different, but complement each other well.    In the movie, it’s shown how they discuss and often argue, come up with strategies, make sacrifices for each other, and play music together.

But the books convey so much more.  Stephen Maturin, for instance, who in the movie tells the young Blakeney that he doesn’t think a “fighting Naturalist” works out very well, is in fact an agent of the British Intelligence, is a dead shot with a pistol, and not too bad with a sword either.   He also struggles with an opium addiction.  He has a beautiful and glamorous–though somewhat libertine–wife at home, and later in the series acquires a daughter.  Both of them he supports with an enormous fortune he inherits part-way through the series–indeed, he buys Surprise, the ship in the movie, simply because he and Jack like the boat so much.

He’s also supposed to be a short, dark-haired, ugly man, which Paul Bettany did NOT pull off well in the movie.

He and Aubrey met by chance when Aubrey got his first command.  They have been friends through thick and thin, in peace and war, behind enemy lines, etc.  (Of course there was the one time where they nearly shot each other over a woman but eh.)  Jack goes through good times and bad with equal good-humor… over the course of the books, he’s imprisoned, escapes, gets promoted, gets court-martialed, gets re-instated, gets a wife and three children, etc.  He’s constantly capturing French ships, which makes him fabulously wealthy, but he’s also constantly spending money left and right, so he just as often falls into poverty.  Most of the second book, Jack is in fact in debt, and is dodging various bounty hunters.  He goes from commander to Captain to commodore to captain to merchant privateer back to captain and finally to admiral.  He’s all over the place, is what I’m saying.  O’Brain portrays him as something of a lady’s man, but in fact after his marriage in the second book, he never cheats (he attempts to, once or twice, but in both cases turns out to have misread the situation).

There are a host of recurring characters–Jack’s reputation as a prize-winner means that people are always clamoring to join his ship, so he constantly has his pick of seamen he’s served with before.  Killick, the grumpy steward; Padeen, Marturin’s half-idiot servant; Pullings, the steady lieutenant; Babbington, the amorous well-connected dwarf; and Bonden, the dependable and likeable coxswain. But mostly the series is focused on the two men and their interactions.  Some books are Aubrey-focused… sea battles and such.  Others are more Maturin-focused… spies and intrigue.  Several are evenly balanced, with Aubrey seeking to strategically secure an area while Maturin is working espionage.

It would take too long to go through the plots of all the books, and unnecessary, it’s mostly the story of the Napoleanic War, from South America to the Mediteranean to England itself.  O’Brian is a historian first and foremost, and often the events of the story–Jack Aubrey’s court martial and dismissal, for instance–are based off historical facts. What’s more particularly interesting is O’Brian’s style.  It’s not immediately engaging or interesting, but it strange sneakiness to it that grows on you.  O’Brian might write something that makes no sense, and then a paragraph or so later, provide the explanation. He also has a habit of dropping a crucial detail in the middle of useless info, and of describing action after the fact.  A character might say: “I hear the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima yesterday, which should make it uncommon hot tomorrow.  Ho, there, you look pale.”

“Not at all, I assure you.  Warm, you say?”

(PC: Yorkshiresoul )

A surprising amount of climactic events happen off-screen, described by O’Brian in retrospect or simply reported.  (Spoilers, obviously.)  In The Far Side of the World, the attack on the men of the Surprise is told from the POV of Maturin, who is off gathering butterflies, and only notes that there is a lot of shouting.  In The Thirteen Gun Salute, Aubrey and Maturin run against Wray and Ledward, English traitors who have caused the pair no end of problems for the last ten or so books.  Near the end of the book, Maturin unexpectedly shows up at a fellow medical friend’s house with a pair of cadavers to be dissected–who are eventually revealed to be the bodies of the two villains.  Their death is never described.  In The Hundred Days (Spoiler) Marturin’s wife for the past 21 books dies in a sudden carriage accident–and all we hear of it is a news article that a seaman reads.  Bonden, another major recurring character, dies in a sentence in the middle of a technical and boring battle.

“The stonework of the building was of a vastly uninteresting and ancient sort, such as was used in Le Cathedre in 1245.  Dumbledore died.  It was the particular style of architecture that…”

But in a way, this works, particularly in the Bonden example, as deaths happen in a minute, you don’t get a chance to mourn the fallen until afterwards.  Deaths aren’t always dramatic, either, sometimes they’re sudden, incidental, and hidden.  So while O’Brian’s style isn’t immediately interesting, it definitely rewards close reading and has a way of taking you by surprise, despite being long, dense, and full of dull technical stuff.

What makes this more interesting is this past week I was reminded of another famous Napoleanic War series… the Hornblower saga, by CS Forrester, another historian/writer.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  Horatio Hornblower is a tall, skinny, tone-deaf mathematical genius who steadily advances up the ranks of the navy.  He has no Maturin, but he does have a beautiful wife and a number of steady shipmates.

Oh fine.  You’re probably more familiar with the mini-series. 

(PC: Genreonline)

The two books have a surprising amount in common–after all, they are in the same time period.  In Post Captain, Aubrey commands a squadron to capture some ships of Spanish gold, a squadron Hornblower is a part of in Hornblower and the Hotspur.  Hornblower veers off from the squadron in his book, sacrificing the enormous amount of prize money to distract an enemy vessel who threatened the mission.  Aubrey, meanwhile, captures the spanish boats.  In both cases, the gold is lost, as the Admiralty decides that they were not yet technically at war.  But in Aubrey, this is seen as political maneuvering, while in Hornblower, it is an amusing fact… poetic justice, to the man who gave up his part to save the mission.

And these contrasts are what make the books so interesting.  Aubrey loves taking prizes, but Hornblower thinks the whole practice is flawed.  Hornblower–and everyone he sails with–is deeply concerned with the rules of war and following them to the letter, particularly in the matter of flying the correct flag.  But Aubrey routinely disguises his ship and keeps a whole globe of flags in storage to deceive enemy ships–and says that this is a common practice, the rules of war being ignored at sea.  Aubrey also seems to view his progression from captain to admiral as a matter of course–he comments that all he really needs to do is stay alive long enough and he will get his admiralty.  But in Hornblower, promotion is seen as a tricky and difficult business, with many commanders never even becoming captains.  O’Brian devotes a great deal of time to the management of each ship and the inter-deck relations among the crew. Forrester, though, is primarily focused on Hornblower and the logic of the decisions he makes, not about how a particular make of ship is harder to steer or how the midshipman sleeping with the gunner’s wife is causing tension below decks.

I don’t know enough about the historical context to judge who is probably more accurate.  O’Brian certainly SEEMS to have more data at his command, but he also is writing at a greater distance from the events.  Certainly O’Brian is not as immediately engaging or as interesting as Forrester.  Hornblower is, in his cantanxerous and contradictory way, much more interesting and relatable than either Aubrey or Maturin.  But I do feel as though O’Brian’s larger view gives a better impression of what life on the sea was like–not centered around the captain, but subject to all manner of factors, and deeply intertwined with the lives of everyone on board.  Part of me thinks it might be interesting to teach a class on Napoleanic literature to contrast the different approaches, another part of me realizes there’s not really enough good Napoleanic literature to justify that.

O’Brian’s books are not for everyone.  Forrester’s might be.  But they’re both excellent reads, providing different takes on the same tumultuous and momentous time.


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