Reviews by Eloquence
You are Maxine “Max” Caulfield. You are 18 years old. You live in Arcadia Bay, a seaside town in the US state of Oregon. You’re a student at a private high school with an arts and science focus. No matter whether you’re at school, at home, or at play, you and your Polaroid camera as inseparable. Perhaps one day your pictures will catch the eye of Mark Jefferson, a famous photographer who teaches at your school?
This is the seemingly ordinary setting of Life is Strange, a narrative adventure game developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published episodically through 2015. The game is played in a third-person 3D view, rendered in an artistic style situated firmly between painterly and photorealistic. While not up to today’s technical standards, the game world is still beautiful and immersive.
Your experience as Max starts with a nightmarish vision of destruction. But it was only a daydream; you’re in school, and Mr. Jefferson is asking you about the technical process that gave rise to the first photographic self-portraits. It’s only after a dramatic encounter with a childhood friend, Chloe Price, that things really get strange. And what is the story behind the disappearance of Chloe’s friend, Rachel Amber?
Max in Chloe’s room. The game lets you explore its rich environments at your own pace, taking in every detail if you want to. (Credit: Dontnod Entertainment. Fair use.)
In terms of gameplay, Life is Strange has much in common with classic point-and-click adventure games: You spend a lot of your time exploring, talking to other characters, and solving small puzzles. There’s no unlimited inventory—occasionally a puzzle may involve finding an object and carrying it from one location to another. There is one additional game mechanic (spoilers ahead):
Warning: The text below contains spoilers.
You discover early in the game that you have a limited ability to reverse the flow of time. This often allows you to try different decision paths and compare outcomes. It makes for a world that feels real and responsive (decisions have consequences) without painting you into a corner.
The game is fully voiced, and it’s a joy to poke at objects in the environment and listen to Max reflect on what she sees in the world around her. If you sit down on a bench, you may be rewarded with some additional wide angle camera views and narration. If you prefer to rush through the story, you can do that, too.
Life is Strange is not a perfect game (some scenes overstay their welcome, for example), but I still consider it a masterpiece in interactive storytelling. It’s a joy to explore Arcadia Bay, thanks to the excellent art direction and attention to detail. The wonderful chemistry between Max and Chloe invests the player in both characters.
The first episode of the game is available for free, and you can often pick the whole game up for under $5. Thanks to Feral Interactive, there is an excellent Linux port, as well. If your computer is not a potato and you enjoy narrative adventure games, Life is Strange is one title you won’t want to miss.
FTL: Faster Than Light is now more than 8 years old, but it looked outdated when it was released. Start up the game, and you’re greeted by a low-resolution “LOADING” font, followed by a static title screen featuring a fleet of spaceships parked ominously in front of a planet. The first hint that this game has hidden depths is its memorable title theme, wonderfully evocative of the quietude of space.
The story is told in the simplest terms: You command a lone federation starship that is on the run from the malignant Rebellion (think US Civil War rebels, not Star Wars rebels). Your faster-than-light drive lets you make jumps from one galactic beacon to the next, through several sectors of space that are newly generated on each playthrough. You’re trying to reach the last stronghold of the federation, in order to defeat the Rebel Flagship that’s threatening to destroy it.
Almost every galactic beacon holds a story, or part of one: you run into slavers, traders, pirates, and rebels; you rescue raving madmen and space colonists; you find weaponry and treasure. You often get to make choices, with randomized outcomes. (Stay clear of the Giant Alien Spiders until you know what you’re doing; they are no joke.) At first these scenarios may seem repetitive, but your options will increase depending on your ship and crew.
We’re about to get blown to bits by the rebel flagship. (Credit: Subset Games. Fair use.)
Many encounters turn into ship-to-ship battles, and that’s where the game really shows its genius. Combat takes place in a real-time-with-pause system that allows you to plan your every move, or to shoot from the proverbial hip. Planning is often advisable, as you may find yourself at a disadvantage even in early encounters.
Each of your ship systems matters, and so does each of theirs. Do they have teleporters, which they’ll use to board your ship and fight your crew? Are you able to hack into their systems, maybe sabotage their shields or their cloaking device? Do they have a flak weapon that will shower your ship with debris? Can you use that asteroid field in your favor?
Some battles are unwinnable (given enough time, you can try to jump away), others will only seem that way to the new player. But it’s almost always fun to figure out what you can do with the cards you’ve been dealt, and to master the ship you’ve chosen to command. There are 10 ships to unlock, and different layouts for each, demanding very different styles of play.
There’s more that could be said about the game’s systems, from ship upgrades to crew recruitment and experience, from drone warfare to oxygen management. In its totality, the game really makes you feel like you’re commanding the crew of a spaceship, and your imagination fills in what the simple graphics cannot.
Death Without Friction
From this description and from screenshots, FTL may appear like a dauntingly complicated game, but this is where the game’s second core strength lies: an absolutely delightful user experience. Move your mouse across the screen, and you’ll get helpful explanations; keyboard and mouse shortcuts are readily available for everything you need often.
How do you increase or decrease the power for the shield systems? In many games, you’d have to click a “+” and “-” button, or drag a slider; in FTL, you left-click to increase, right-click to decrease, or use a keyboard shortcut. And so it is with the rest of the UI: easy to learn, quick to repeat.
I’m a big fan of NetHack (one of the early games that gave us the term “roguelike”), and FTL is the closest equivalent with a space opera setting that I have encountered. The low-friction user experience is a huge part of what makes it all work—it allows you to focus on story and strategy, instead of mechanics that get increasingly annoying through repetition.
Every roguelike tends to claim that “losing is part of the fun”, and in the case of FTL, it’s usually true. Except for when you’re getting hammered by pirates while solar flares are lighting every part of your ship on fire, for the 15th time…
5 stars, no contest. I honestly can’t say enough good things about FTL—it’s a masterpiece of indie game development that has made developer Subset Games an industry legend (their second game, Into the Breach, is very different but no less luminous). The native Linux version works beautifully, and the game is available in 10 languages. There are also amazing-looking mods, but I have not tried them yet.
Even at $10 on GOG, the game offers excellent value (as of this writing, I’ve put some 100 hours of play into it) but it regularly goes on sale for far less. Be aware that this isn’t a fair game—as with most roguelikes, the RNG will put you in impossible situations—and if that tends to prevent you from having fun, you may want to avoid it. For everyone else, FTL continues to be a beacon calling us to assist the federation, just one more time.
What’s in a game? Is it that you have to click the right button at the exact right moment? Or that it transports you to another world? Mutazione is firmly in the latter category—a narrative adventure with no action sequences and barely a puzzle in sight, but with a world that comes alive with ambience and the characters that inhabit it.
The world of Mutazione is a joy to explore, even if the overall experience is very linear. (Credit: Die Gute Fabrik. Fair use.)
Mutazione is also the name of the island where most of the game takes place. It’s a place implausibly forgotten by the rest of civilization; an island whose flaura and fauna (including its human inhabitants) have been transformed by a meteor impact many years ago. You play as Kai, a teenage girl who visits her sick grandfather on the island, and in the process becomes immersed in its past, present, and future.
Much of the gameplay consists of Kai walking from place to place (or person to person), occasionally performing simple fetch quests to advance the plot. Dialog (which isn’t voiced) gives you limited choices, such as the option to crack a joke in response to someone else’s remark, or to remain silent.
Gardening With Feeling
Each game day is broken into segments, and you decide when to advance from morning to noon, from afternoon to evening. As the game time advances, so do the game’s little subplots, including a fair bit of soap opera about love relationships that are burgeoning or that seem to be falling apart.
It soon becomes clear, with her grandfather’s help, that Kai has a gift for gardening in Mutazione’s unusual ecology, where music, emotion, and plant growth seem to be inextricably connected. Throughout the game, you will collect seeds and cultivate gardens situated in different microclimates. If you fear or hope that there’s a challenging mini-sim hidden inside the game, it’s not so: the gardening parts of the game are meditative and creative, not difficult.
A “garden mode” is unlocked after you complete the story, which lets you experiment to your heart’s content. Or so I’m told—in the Linux version, the mode never appeared for me after I finished the game.
Mutazione is undeniably gorgeous. The art direction is simply stellar, from beautifully drawn abandoned buildings, to chickens scattering as you approach them, to spear-wielding, sentient dots refusing to let you enter their habitat. The soundtrack is great, too, and when the island band performs a song in the local bar, you can imagine that you’re right there with the mutants.
The plot is largely coherent, but much of the game is about making emotional connections. The characters of Mutazione have their own fears and ambitions; they don’t exist to help the player reach some goal, but they do make Kai feel welcome in this world that is as new to her as it is to us.
I would give the game 4.5 stars, rounded up. If you enjoyed Oxfenfree but found its spooky story a little bit stressful, you’re likely to love Mutazione. The only thing I missed is a sense that I had control over where the story was headed, or at least a final game-defining choice. Narrative designer and writer Hannah Nicklin has described the game as having “multiple middles” instead of multiple endings, and that’s true—there’s enough to uncover, at least, to justify a second playthrough. In any event, the first playthrough is well worth the price of admission.
Bear With Me is an episodic point-and-click adventure game released in 2016-2017, developed by a Crotian indie studio called Exordium Games. The game tells the story of a girl named Amber searching for her brother Flint, with the help of her trusty teddy bear.
Amber’s fertile imagination turns her dolls and toys into living and breathing characters. Above all, Amber’s teddy bear is Ted E. Bear, a hard-boiled detective with an office in her closet. To find Flint, Amber and Ted walk the roads of “Paper City”, which in reality is a paper model in the family attic.
If you’ve played LucasArts or Sierra adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island or King’s Quest, you know what to do: walk from screen to screen, examine and pick up items, and try to solve puzzles by combining them or by talking to other characters.
The game is fully voice-acted. As you click around a scene, Amber and Ted will offer plenty of commentary about every object with a hotspot on it. That includes endless puns and jokes, many of which break the Fourth Wall (“It’s a save point! Nah just kidding, what is this, Resident Evil?”).
What’s going on with the lamp above the “Club Entrance” sign? Did a designer forget to remove an initial sketch from the final scene? (Credit: Exordium Games. Fair use.)
This kind of humor is difficult to pull off. For an example of masterful Fourth Wall breaking, see the Monkey Island “rubber tree” gag, or the Monkey Island 2 “hint line”. In both cases, the jokes are elaborate set pieces, and they occur after the player has spent hours immersing herself in the game world. In Bear With Me, you might encounter a silly developer joke in the third room.
This takes away from what is otherwise a richly textured (if mostly monochromatic) world, and is at odds with the game’s ambition to explore darker themes, especially in the final episode. There are a couple of other frustrations: Amber and Ted’s walk speeds are almost excruciatingly slow, which can get in the way of solving puzzles; while the art quality overall is high, some scenes are a bit sterile.
This is a plot-driven game, and you’re unlikely to need a walkthrough to make it past any of the game’s puzzles. Overall, I found the plot engaging, and would play another game in the series, if one existed. The three short episodes and the “Lost Robots” standalone episode add up to a medium-length adventure game.
I would give Bear With Me 3.5 stars, rounding down because of the rough edges, and because of neglect for the Linux version (The Lost Robots is only available for Windows, and Exordium’s developers don’t seem to be active in the Steam forums anymore; I was able to play the full game via Proton-GE). A good discount buy for point and click fans.
In contrast with time travel adventures, the genre of alternate history tells stories set in timelines that have already been altered. So, someone or something prevented Adolf Hitler from being born—now what? The most well-written alternative histories can deepen our understanding of real history, by re-examining the causes and effects that made our world what it is.
The Way It Wasn’t is a 1996 anthology edited by Martin Greenberg that assembles thirteen short stories of varying quality. There are only three that stood out to me as good or excellent:
Robert Silverberg’s “Lion Time in Timbuctoo”, an adventure set in a world where the Black Death was far deadlier than in ours, and different empires are struggling for power. Silverberg previously invented this alternative timeline in a novel called The Gate of Worlds, and Lion Time itself is short on worldbuilding and history, but it’s still a fun tale once it gets going.
Pamela Sargent’s “The Sleeping Serpent”, which describes an encounter between Mongols and Iroquois, in a timeline in which the Mongols are controlling continental Europe. Sargent has written a 700-page tome novel about Genghis Khan (Ruler of the Sky), and the quality of this story reflects her scholarship.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Lucky Strike”, which is about the morality of the use of nuclear weapons—and whether the decisions of individuals can make a difference.
Three stories are about US presidents—”Ike at the Mike”, which imagines a music career for Dwight Eisenhower; “Over There”, in which Theodore Roosevelt gets his wish for a final World War I adventure with the “Rough Riders”; “The Winterberry”, in which JFK is not dead, but no longer the man he was. These stories are more about presidents as celebrities and myths than about their real lives or the consequences of their actions, and I found them wholly unnecessary (“Ike at the Mike” was execrable).
If you find this book in the bargain bin, you’re likely to enjoy some of the stories, but given the hit-or-miss quality of the selection, I would suggest seeking out the highlights above instead of buying the anthology.
A 576-page novel about a fictional British rock band trying to make its way to international stardom in the late 1960s? That really doesn’t sound like my cup of tea—but this one was written by one of my favorite authors, David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks), so it was an instant purchase for me.
Utopia Avenue tells the story of the eponymous band from the perspective of its members—Dean Moss, Elf Holloway, Jasper de Zoet, Peter “Griff” Griffin—and their manager, Levon Frankland. Each chapter is named for one of the band’s songs and focuses on one of the main characters. (To promote the book, Penguin created a PDF with complete lyrics written by Mitchell for several of the songs, attributed to Utopia Avenue’s songwriters. Actually singing them might prove challenging!)
The book does not overplay the rags-to-riches angle of a band struggling towards success. Instead, it focuses especially on Dean, Elf, and Jasper, whose different class backgrounds and personal struggles (with sexual identity, with mental health, with discrimination, with estranged family, with grief) elevate the book beyond its colorful setting.
Astute Mitchell readers will recognize Jasper’s last name from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is about the adventures of Jasper’s great-great-great grandfather. Jasper’s story intersects with the supernatural elements of the Mitchellverse, but this is only one thread among many, and Utopia Avenue stands entirely on its own.
Nonetheless, it’s par for the course for Mitchell to include plenty of references to prior works, and he does so with gusto, including a significant role for Luisa Rey, the Spyglass writer from Cloud Atlas (unforgettably portrayed by Halle Berry in the 2012 movie).
What’s more unusual is that Utopia Avenue is chock-full of real-world cameos, from David Bowie to John Lennon, from Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Cohen. Mitchell tries to make these encounters brief and memorable, but some readers will find the portrayal of these (in some cases recently) deceased celebrities jarring and cartoonish.
Mitchell might agree. He loves playing with the contrast between the serious and the farcical, the exaggerated and the real. Compare Cloud Atlas: Is Luisa Rey the character of a mystery novel inside the novel, or a fictionalized Karen Silkwood? The world of Utopia Avenue is the same one in which writer Dermot Hoggins throws book critic Felix Finch off a twelfth floor balcony.
I enjoyed the celebrity cameos without taking them too seriously. I love that some readers have compiled playlists on Spotify and on YouTube of the many works referenced in Utopia Avenue. Clearly, these readers felt transported by the book—not to the historical 1960s, but to an imagined place and time. In Mitchell’s own words, he evokes lacunae, just like when Dean Moss discovers a hidden church while wandering Rome:
In memory and in dream, he’d revisit this lacuna in time and in space. The place was a part of him now. Every lifetime, every spin of the wheel, holds a few such lacunae. A jetty by an estuary, a single bed under a skylight, a bandstand in a twilit park, a hidden church in a hidden square. The candles at the altar did not burn out. (p. 330)
Utopia Avenue is bright and stylish; it plays with plenty of tropes and stereotypes (sometimes to its detriment), but does not neglect the inner lives of its characters. If you’re new to Mitchell and the subject-matter does not appeal to you, you may want to sample his other works first—The Bone Clocks is fantastical and accessible; Cloud Atlas is masterful and deeply moving; Ghostwritten and number9dream are showy and experimental; Slade House is short and creepy; Thousand Autumns is an adventure in a different time; Black Swan Green is evocative and wondrous, a personal favorite.
The Taiping Rebellion raged in China from 1850 to 1864. It was a civil war (overlapping with America’s) in which 20-30 million human beings or more lost their lives. The Taiping sought to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish a Christian theocracy in its place. Their leader, Hong Xiuquan, proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ’s brother (presumably not that one). Where the Taiping ruled, the temples and “false idols” of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other ancient beliefs were often smashed to pieces.
In Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom (2012), historian Stephen Platt retells the story of the rebellion and Western involvement in the conflict. After setting the stage with several maps, a timeline, and dramatis personae, Platt centers the experiences of memorable and colorful characters like Hong Rengan (the Taiping Prime Minister who envisioned Western-style reforms in China), Zeng Guofan (an imperial scholar-general who employed exceptional brutality to suppress the rebellion), and Frederick Townsend Ward (an American soldier of fortune who helped fight the Taiping).
A dynasty on its knees
After the First Opium War (1839-1842), the ruling Qing dynasty was near collapse. The overtaxed peasantry and gentry flocked to the Taiping in droves. Due to their Christianity-inspired and pro-Western ideology, they also had Western supporters, especially in the missionary community which hoped to help “correct” the group’s more idiosyncratic teachings. But along the way, Britain picked the side of the Qing dynasty, helping bring about the end of the rebellion.
When a Taiping force reached Shanghai (one of the treaty ports opened to foreign trade by force) in 1860, Taiping commander Li Xiucheng sent an advance letter assuring the foreigners in the city that the Taiping wanted positive trade relations, and that no foreigner would come to harm. Britain’s trade representative Frederick Bruce refused to even open the letter. Instead, British and French forces helped repel the Taiping forces from Shanghai—while simultaneously waging a Second Opium War against the Qing dynasty which culminated in the destruction of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing.
Reconstruction of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted and destroyed by Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War. (Credit: Guo Daiheng / Beijing Re-Yuanmingyuan Company Limited. Fair use.)
Gunboats and mercenaries
Britain continued to strenuously assert its neutrality in China’s civil war, but the intervention in Shanghai marked the beginning of increasingly active efforts to help suppress the Taiping: by imposing conditions on their military movements, by selling arms to the Qing empire (including an aborted attempt to sell China’s rulers a small fleet of gunboats known as the “Vampire Fleet”) , and through support for Frederick Ward’s mercenary force, the “Ever Victorious Army”, which would come to be led by a Brit, Major Charles “Chinese” Gordon.
The Qing dynasty lasted until 1912. Would the empire have defeated the Taiping without Western help? If not, would Hong Rengan’s vision of a peaceful, modern China have prevailed—or would Hong Xiuquan have led an increasingly fanatical theocracy, worse in its oppression than the rulers it sought to displace?
While Platt’s narrative is sympathetic to the Taiping (as is modern China, which has sometimes portrayed them as proto-Communists), he does not attempt to answer those questions. Instead, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, together with its “prequel” about the First Opium War, Imperial Twilight (reviews), helps us understand the wounds of colonialism and the human cost of empire in all its forms. It may also provide clues to modern China’s obsession with totalitarian political control.
As in Imperial Twilight, Platt succeeds marvelously in making this history engaging, at the expense of attempting to chart out the larger patterns of the conflict (e.g., the economic impact of the First Opium War on the Qing dynasty, the ideological development of the Taiping, the volume of arms sales). Like Imperial Twilight, I recommend Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom unreservedly as a starting point to explore the history of China in the 19th century.
19-year-old Gail and Zella Kastner, identical twins born to a Montreal family, were honors students in high school, “popular with the boys and in love with skating and horse-racing” [source]. But one day in 1953, Gail made the fateful decision to seek help for mild depression anxiety at the highly reputable Allan Memorial Institute.
What followed was a journey through hell: electroshock treatments, drugs, and attempts to “de-pattern” her brain—reprogramming her personality in an attempt to cure her.
She emerged in a childlike state: sucking her thumb, talking like a baby, demanding to be fed from a bottle, and urinating on the floor. She also suffered memory loss and couldn’t recognize members of her own family, not even her twin sister, Zella [source]
Gail’s life derailed, and it’s only after long legal battles that she was awarded modest damages in 2004. Many more patients would be subjected to these destructive techniques by the institute’s founding director, Ewen Cameron, a towering figure in international psychiatry at the time. His work on de-patterning and “psychic driving” would become known as the Montreal experiments.
Gail’s story is referenced in a single sentence in Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner in Chief, a biography of Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra program. As part of the program, the CIA became aware of Cameron’s work, and decided to invest in his research by way of a front group ominously called the “Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology”.
But more than MK-Ultra’s notorious experiments with LSD, which Kinzer describes in detail, the Montreal experiments help us to draw the line between what happened in the 1950s and the “enhanced interrogation techniques” applied at CIA black sites around the world. Sensory deprivation, noise, endlessly repeating recorded messages: these methods have stood the test of time in the psychological torturer’s arsenal.
That’s also the perspective of a new documentary, Eminent Monsters, by Stephen Bennett, which focuses heavily on Cameron’s experiments, on the treatment of the “Hooded Men” in Northern Ireland in 1971, and on torture in the “War on Terror”. (You can watch it in full on Prime Video.)
While Ewen Cameron directed its work, many patients were admitted to the Allan Memorial Institute with mild symptoms and left with lifelong psychological damage. (Credit: The Cosmonaut. License: CC-BY-SA.)
In contrast, Kinzer’s book tells the whole story of Gottlieb’s work, or at least the parts which we have a record of. Gottlieb was involved in many of the CIA’s dirtiest plots—from an assassination plan targeting Patrice Lumumba (who was later killed in a Belgian-backed plot) to CIA-run brothels in the United States where patrons of sex workers were drugged and observed. Other highlights of Gottlieb’s career include:
Overseeing work at black sites like the notorious Camp King, where the US collaborated with nazi war criminals like Kurt Blome to conduct experiments on enemy prisoners, often ending in death;
Organizing a massive campaign to test LSD on thousands of students by funneling grant money to researchers—a campaign so vast that it unintentionally sparked the prominent role of LSD in student counterculture (John Lennon famously said: “We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD”);
Drugging Frank Olson, a key figure in these programs, with LSD at a staff retreat. A few days later, Olson plunged to his death from a hotel window.
Kinzer paints Gottlieb as a troubled figure, a man with humanist sensibilities, who may have been riddled with guilt later in his life. Not a sadist, but someone who was radicalized by America’s anti-communist fanaticism to do whatever it takes in order to counter exaggerated or imagined threats.
There’s some gallows humor in these tales of a CIA so obsessed with LSD that people had to worry about spiked punch at Christmas parties, of experiments so bizarre that only the later Stargate Project (which sought to mobilize psychic “remote viewing” powers for intelligence) could top them.
Kinzer’s book is well-researched and includes some new and little-known material. As a biography, it is ultimately focused on the man Gottlieb, an approach which sometimes gets in the way of illuminating the context and consequences of his work. Bennett’s Eminent Monsters focuses more narrowly on the topic of psychological torture. While it is unlikely to dissuade those who believe that such methods are necessary to fight terror, it does a great job explaining their history and centering the victims.
Poisoner in Chief and Eminent Monsters are important contributions to understanding the intellectual foundations for modern torture programs. They also remind us of the importance of effective oversight of any intelligence agency, and what happens when “patriotic” fervor meets immense power without accountability.
The Princess Bride was only a moderate success at the box office, but since its release in 1987, it has become a cult classic. Its lovable characters left an indelible impression on many, and the film has bestowed us several pop culture quotes and assorted GIFs, e.g.:
“Inconceivable!” — “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.“
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.“
“You seem a decent fellow… I hate to kill you. “ — “You seem a decent fellow… I hate to die. “
This one’s a classic, too:
The movie is based on a book, and if William Goldman is to believed, that book was written by a Florinese author named S. Morgenstern a long time ago, re-released in translated and abridged form by Goldman in 1973. Of course, he is most definitely not to be believed—but the fake origin story adds a charming narrative layer to Goldman’s novel.
At its heart, The Princess Bride is a comedic story of true love between Buttercup, a farmer’s daughter, and Westley, a farmhand. Their love is imperiled by the machinations of one Prince Humperdinck and his sadistic right-hand man, Count Rugen. Along the way, Buttercup and Westley cross paths with Inigo Montoya (a Spanish master swordsman), Fezzik (a Turkish giant), and Vizzini (a Sicilian criminal genius)
Compared with the movie, the book gives Inigo a proper backstory, helping lend emotional weight to the final confrontation between Inigo and the six-fingered man who killed his father. We also learn more about Fezzik the giant, although it’s a fairly worn out tale (the sweet, gentle giant who reluctantly learns how to use his strength).
But what of Buttercup? While she gets to boss Westley around for a bit in the beginning, she is quickly reduced to the traditional traits of princesses: beauty and devotion. One can argue that the book takes its stereotypes to such ridiculousness that they lose normative power, but that argument only goes so far.
Still, what saves The Princess Bride from becoming conventional and boring is its sense of humor. From the Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.) to the Zoo of Death, from Miracle Max and his questionable cures to Goldman’s tall tales about S. Morgenstern, the book is an entertaining page-turner.
Modern editions include the first chapter of Buttercup’s Baby, a sequel to The Princess Bride that was unfortunately never completed (Goldman died in 2018). It gives us a small glimpse of further adventures that could have been.
Not everyone will adore The Princess Bride as much as its many devoted fans do, but if you are a lover of adventure and comedy, it may well earn a special place on your bookshelf and in your heart, or the heart of a smaller human you read it to.
After a long, bloody history of colonial rule, Britain finally abandoned in the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Against significant opposition, the Brits negotiated the partition of India into India and Pakistan. This led to a refugee crisis, mass violence, and the deaths of between 200,000 and 2 million human beings. The resulting so-called “Muslim homeland” of Pakistan was not the nation we know today, but a country divided into West Pakistan and East Pakistan, with a whole lot of India between them:
Partition resulted in a bizarre post-colonial map, with a divided “Muslim homeland” (home to millions of non-Muslims) bordering India. Credit: BBC. Fair use.
Less than 30 years later, the fiction of East Pakistan collapsed in genocide and war. After an election that would have shifted the balance of power to the Awami League, which sought independence for the East, Pakistan responded by abandoning its brief experiment with democracy and sent in its troops from the West. They unleashed atrocities that killed between 300,000 and 3 million people (often with weapons Pakistan had bought from the US). Hindus were singled out for extermination and expulsion, making this a genocide by every definition.
This spurred a refugee crisis that overwhelmed neighboring India, giving it cause and pretext to arm its Bengali neighbors and, ultimately, help them fight the Bangladesh Liberation War. The country of Bangladesh was born from the blood and the ashes. Brutal revenge killings against anyone who was seen as a collaborator with the Pakistani military followed.
The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass tells this story with special focus on the actions of US foreign policy decision-makers, chiefly Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Nixon had developed a personal friendship with Pakistan’s dictator, Yahya Khan, and sought to preserve a strategic alliance with Pakistan, in part in order to use Yahya as a secret diplomatic channel in the planned opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China.
Bass uses the Nixon White House tapes, interviews, and countless historical documents to reconstruct a detailed picture of how the US government and its foreign policy apparatus responded to the genocide as it unfolded in East Pakistan.
A very clear picture emerges: Nixon and Kissinger did not care about the genocide, declined to put any pressure on Yahya to stop it, and bullied internal dissenters into silence. They refused to stop all pending arms transfers, and when the Bangladesh Liberation War started, they illegally used third countries (Iran, still ruled by the US-backed Shah, and Jordan) to funnel weapons to Pakistan. They tried to draw China more deeply into the conflict, and threatened India with an aircraft carrier.
“Salt Lake” refugee camp in Calcutta. Millions of refugees from the genocide overwhelmed India, a country already struggling with extreme poverty. (Credit: Raghu Rai. Fair use.)
“Our government has failed”
The “Blood Telegram” of the title was sent by Archer Blood, then US Consul General in Dacca soon after the genocide started. The diplomatic staff were witnessing the mass killings firsthand, and after repeatedly warning their superiors about the unfolding crisis, they prepared a confidential dissent statement to express their deep concern with US foreign policy.
Excerpt from the “Blood Telegram” itself, April 6, 1971.
Blood did not sign the statement, but he expressed his agreement with its contents. For his dissent, Nixon and Kissinger recalled him to the State Department’s personnel office back in DC.
Even in isolation, any defense of US foreign policy towards the 1971 genocide does not withstand scrutiny. There was no “pragmatism” here, because the US did not pragmatically push for political stability when it had the opportunity to, nor did it pragmatically choose one of the many alternatives for creating an opening with China.
Bass shows the role of emotion and prejudice in decision-making. Kissinger, who cultivates an image of a wise statesman and master of “realpolitik”, was ranting and raving about the Indians along with Nixon, and the two of them outdid each other with bizarre analogies (Yahya was “Lincoln”, the Indians were “Nazis”, Pakistan was being “raped” by India). The best that can be said about their actions is that they provided (inadequate) humanitarian aid to India in a “too little, too late” attempt to avert or delay war.
One fascinating aspect of this history is the role of the Soviet Union. An authoritarian regime, it allied itself with democratic India and supported the liberation of Bangladesh. In a complete reversal of Cold War stereotypes, here it was the Soviets who defended democracy and human rights, for their own reasons that were far more cool and pragmatic than Nixon’s emotional allegiance to a military dictatorship that pursued a course of self-destruction.
An incomplete portrait
The Blood Telegram is neither a full accounting of the events that led to the creation of Bangladesh, nor a comprehensive view of America’s foreign policy under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. While Bass hints at other evils—the brutal escalation of the Vietnam War, the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, the installation of a murderous dictatorship in Chile—he focuses on his central thesis: different choices could have prevented or slowed the killing in East Pakistan.
Bass makes this case with commendable scholarly rigor, but an obsessive level of detail about the Nixon/Kissinger dynamic takes up space that could have been used to place these events in their larger context. In isolation, America’s complicity in the genocide in East Pakistan may seem like a historical abnormality. In the larger history of US foreign policy, which is littered with millions of avoidable deaths, it’s not the specific behavior of Nixon and Kissinger that was historically abnormal, but the vocal dissent represented by the Blood Telegram.