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Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1969

I think most people are at least familiar with the title of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, many people, including me before I read the book, knew little more than it was supposed to be an anti-war book focusing on the destruction the German city of Dresden during the second world war.

In part, this is indeed what Slaughterhouse-Five is about, it’s about the madness of war and about the meaningless killing of which the bombing of Dresden is such a prominent example (between 18 000 and 40 000 people died), it’s about Billy Pilgrim and his life prior to, during and after the war. So far, this doesn’t seem like much, does it? Thousands of novels have been written focusing on similar themes and with similar stories.

Yet Slaughterhouse-Five is truly unique. First and foremost, the narrative is shattered into many separate fragments, arranged in a far from chronological order, linked together by the main character’s ability to travel in time. Even though it might sound like it should rob the novel its seriousness, the inclusion of aliens does not in fact diminish it in the least. Using the aliens and the concept of time travel, Vonnegut also discusses existence of free will, since Billy’s life only seems to be re-experienced rather than being something new. The stage is already set, it has always been, and all he can do is randomly experience different parts of his life already lived.

Slaughterhouse-Five is anti-war in every aspect. I’ve tried to understand why I am moved by this novel when many others have left me untouched, but, alas, I still don’t know. Perhaps it’s the utter futility of war, perhaps it’s the chaotic style or the small details. Regardless of what it is, this novel succeeds in its ultimate purpose.

Still, there are aspects I don’t quite like. The time-travelling bits are perfect for this book, but the aliens simply fails to convince me that they deserve to be there, as does the frequently repeated phrase “so it goes” (which is what the aliens say when somebody dies; it’s supposed not to be lamenting, because since they see tho world in four dimensions, death is but one state of many).

Slaughterhouse-Five deserves its place as a classic among war novels (although combat is almost non-existent in the book). Since it’s well-written, short and not terribly complex, it’s a book I think most people should read, perhaps not because of the story in it, but because about the notions it conveys. As a book, it falls short of a recommendation, but four snails should still be taken a a sign of my liking.

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Title: Old Man’s War
Author: John Scalzi
Year: 2005

Published in 2005, Old Man’s War is in its essence a follow-up to other science fiction war novels such as Starship Troopers, The Forever War and Ender’s Game (all which are mentioned in the novel itself). It’s similar to these in that it covers the training and life of soldiers in for an interstellar battlefield, and in doing so, tries to make a few points about war and humanity. Scalzi does this fairly differently, though, even though the similarities with Starship Troopers and The Forever War are pretty obvious.

John Perry is old, seventy five to be exact, and he has lost his wife to a heart attack. He has nothing to live for and old age is beginning to take its toll. Thus, he can see no reason not to enroll in the Colonial Defense Forces, which, after all, offers rejuvenation and, after a full term of service, a new life in one of the colonies. Of course, the propaganda of the recruitment division and the horrors of warfare against extra-terrestrial life are of course not the same thing. The sudden change for Perry as he leaves his familiar life on Earth to face a hostile universe is the main focus of this novel.

John Scalzi is adept at one thing, which is probably the major reason this book is pretty good. He knows what he shouldn’t include. Time and time again, I read passages where the author elegantly leaves out parts that would’ve been boring or that wouldn’t have added anything to the narrative. I often get the feeling that lesser authors would elongate these moments and drone on endlessly. Scalzi, on the other hand, deftly directs the flow of the story, focusing on what’s interesting and never lose this focus. As a result, Old Man’s War is exactly as long as it should be, a very sparsely populated category of books indeed.

In addition to this, there are some interesting ideas in this novel, some new thoughts on future technology and its implications for humanity. John Perry has to face serious questions about what it means to be human when everything around him, even his own body, changes beyond recognition. He also has to find his place in a universe much less friendly than it was supposed to be. Can there really be no alternative to war, is humankind bound to declare war on every single species we find, on or outside Earth?

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Dr. Strangelove

Title: Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Directed by:
Stanley Kubrick
Written by:
Peter George, Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern
Year: 1964

In Cold War America, a crazy general sends the signal that with nuclear weapons will annihilate the Communist threat. Since he is the only one who can recall the order, he shuts down his base as if a full scale war has broken out with the Soviet Union, and  orders his men to fire on anybody who approaches. He also confiscates all radios to make sure that no traitors can leak information that would harm the base. The president and his advisers have two hours to find a way to recall the plains and avoid mutual disintegration.

The plot in Dr. Strangelove seems serious but that does not stop the film from being a comedy. There are some serious aspects, but in general, the film is supposed to be funny. In this it succeeds most of the time. The supposed ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove is brilliant. Even though he is not a very pivotal figure in the plot, he is one of the best characters I have encountered in any film. Seeing him bite his knuckles in order to fight down the urge to salute the president, Nazi fashion, is awesome (it should be noted that Peter Sellers plays three major roles in this film and he does it well). Apart from Dr. Strangelove himself, irony is the films best asset

However, I feel that the story is somewhat shattered. The parallel story of the men in the B-52 bomber heading for its target in Russia runs like a scarlet thread throughout the film, but even so, the scenes in the military base and in the war room feel disconnected. I would have like to see much more of Dr. Strangelove. Still, everything in this film is well made and also quite entertaining, so its worth at least four snails.

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Title: Forever Peace
Joe Haldeman
Year: 1997

There is something poetic to write a novel in 1974 entitled The Forever War, and then, more than thirty years later, to write another novel (though not a sequel) with the title Forever Peace, and manage to win a Hugo Award for each of them. Even though I did not particularly like the former, the latter proved much more interesting. Both are about war and are set in the future, but technological improvements since 1974 has broadened horizons and enabled Haldeman to write something completely different this time

A technological innovation called “soldierboys” is central to the novel. They are robotic, remotely controlled infantry, piloted by humans mechanics far away from the actual battlefield. While jacked in to such a machine, a member of a platoon gains some sort of collective consciousness, and is in someways part of the other soldiers. Julian, the novel’s main protagonist, is such a mechanic.

In a secret research project, a scientist discovers that prolonged jacking leads to pacification (or “humanization” as it is called) of the soldier, which might be the road to end all wars. Simply jack everybody in and form such collective consciousnesses and soon enmity and hatred will go away. But those who emerge, are they still human? And is it right to force such a treatment unto humanity without its explicit consent, even though it is for the survival of the species?

Philosophical questions like these are the foundation of this novel. The actual war is not terribly important, but instead, focus lies on factors underlying the phenomenon itself. These themes are presented via a fairly interesting story about one of the soldierboy mechanics and his involvement with the project mentioned above. Apart from his personal trauma generated by his first-hand experience of war, he and his collaborators on the project faces the threat of a group of religious extremists who do not shun from using any means necessary to bring about the end of the world.

This is no masterpiece, far from it. The language is adequate but not very inspiring; the story is thrilling, but occasionally slows down too much; the characters are realistic, but not unique or alive. Instead, it is the theme that makes the book worthwhile. Since I have not read any of the other nominees for the Hugo Award for that year, I do not know if approve of Forever Peace winning the Hugo, but at least to my mind, it is weaker than many other award winners. I recommend it if you are interested in war, technology and philosophy, but otherwise I advise you to read something else.

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Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Year: 1929

I have great difficulties understanding Ernest Hemingway. After reading The Old Man and the Sea, I, I had no trouble whatsoever understanding why he is so highly regarded. I enjoyed both the brilliant use of language and the simplicity of the story. I have read several of his short stories too, and they have also been very good. However, I have also read two novels which I found boring and uninspiring. The Sun Also Rises is one of them and, the subject of this review, A Farewell to Arms, is the other.

This story takes place in Italy during the Great War, and narrates a brief episode in the life of an American ambulance driver called Frederic Henry, how he is wounded and falls in love with a nurse. The novel’s focus is divided between the front and the harsh realities of war, as well as the more peaceful environment of a military hospital and his newly found love.

Some parts of this novel are interesting and well worth reading, especially the first few parts. What bothers me is that the story totally loses momentum somewhere around halfway, and just does not manage to finish gracefully. In fact, the last two parts of the novel feel like an over-extended epilogue. These parts being totally devoid of interesting content, I cannot possibly like this book. If the entire book would have resembled the last few chapters, I would probably give a grade of one snail or less.

However, that is not the case, and, admitting that he is good at writing, especially dialogue, I grant Hemingway two snails. I still do not understand him or A Farewell to Arms, though. How can I like some of his works so much, and then just not get the point of others?

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Title: Empire of the Sun
Author: J.G. Ballard
Year: 1984

Empire of the Sun is a three part novel which draws inspiration and material from the author’s own experiences of Word War II. The story revolves around the young boy, Jim, and his tribulations in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. I emphasise that it is a novel in three parts, because I have widely differing opinions about the different sections.

The first part is perhaps the most interesting, as the reader follows Jim’s hardships, breaking into derelict buildings and stealing food to avoid starvation. His parents has disappeared and he seeks support from other adults, who do not always have the best of intentions. War-struck Shanghai is not a place for children, but Jim manages to survive until he is interned together with a lot of other westerners in a prison camp.

So fa, so good. I enjoyed the description of Shanghai and the main characters fight to survive, but stories about life in prison camps have simply stopped to interest me (not because they are bad, but because I have read so many). Certain writers can get away with it, because they use a different angle or are such good authors that it really does not matter that the theme has gone stale (Nobel Prize winners Imre Kertész and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are good examples of this). Sadly, J.G. Ballard is not among their numbers.

Admittedly, the book regains momentum in the third and last part, but it is not enough to pull it back up. I can recommend this book only to people who are, in particular, interested in Word War II Shanghai or what the war might have been like from the point of view of a young English boy. Since I do not count myself in this category, Empire of the Sun only gets two and a half snails.

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Titel: Catch 22
Författare: Joseph Heller
Utgivningsår: 1961
Recenserad: 2007-06-24
Status: N/A

Catch 22 och jag har ett ganska märkligt förhållande, eftersom jag inte är säker på ifall jag har läst boken tidigare. Jag tror att jag har gjort det, men det finns vissa delar av boken jag inte alls minns så det kan mycket väl vara så att jag läts mycket om boken, men faktiskt inte läst den tidigare. I vilket fall är det värt att läsa den flera gånger, så det spelar kanske mindre roll.

Boken utspelar sig på en liten ö väster om Italien under senare halvan av andra världskriget.

Huvudpersonen heter Yossarian och har ansvar för bombfällning från en amerikanske B-25. Catch 22 är förmodligen den bästa satir jag läst, för det är inte bara det att större delen av boken är hejdlöst rolig, utan den framför kritik på i stort sett alla områden som går att komma åt.

Bokens titel har blivit ett uttryck (moment 22 på svenska) som står för en paradoxal situation där två villkor är beroende av varandra för att inträffa. I romanen strävar Yossarian hela tiden mot att få åka hem, men antalet uppdrag de ska flyga höjs hela tiden. Enda sättet att komma hem är ifall man klassas som galen, men om man är tillräckligt frisk för att gå till doktorn och säga att man är galen, då är man förstås frisk och måste flyga. Texten vimlar av situationer som liknar den här, inte bara i den faktiska handlingen, utan också vad gäller språket.

Kronologin i boken är härligt uppstyckad på ett sätt som gör att varje del bidrar till helheten utan att det känns lösryckt på något sätt. Mot slutet samlas allting ihop något och tonen blir också allvarligare. Behållningen står dock att finna i satiren, kanske framförallt i personporträtten av såväl Yossarian som alla runt omkring honom på basen.

Avslutningsvis vill jag rekommendera den här boken till nästan alla. Det är en fenomenalt välskriven bok, den säger något och är dessutom rolig och gripande på samma gång. Att inte tycka om krigslitteratur är absolut ingen ursäkt för att inte läsa den här boken, då stämningen, stilen och innehållet är långt ifrån andra böcker jag har läst. Jag sätter en femma på Catch 22 eftersom jag inte kan hitta någonting som borde dra ned betyget och boken samtidigt tilltalar mig oerhört.

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Titel: Grave of the Fireflies
Originalets titel: Hotaru no haka
Regi: Isao Takahata
Manus: Isao Takahata, Akiyuki Nosaka
År: 1988
Recenserad: 2007-03-10

Grave of the Fireflies är en mycket gripande film om en bror och en syster under slutskedet av andra världskriget. Striderna har vänt och allierade bombplan gör ständigt räder över japanska städer. Barnen förlorar sin mor i en av de enorma bränder som härjar efter anfallen mot storstäderna och eftersom deras pappa tjänstgör ombord på ett örlogsfartyg, får de klara sig på egen hand.

Stämningen i den här filmen sätts redan i första repliken, där huvudpersonen berättar vilket datum han dog på. Effekten blir förstås att vi som tittare vet att allt förmodligen kommer att gå åt helvete från början. Trots detta är det på något märkligt sätt fängslande att följa syskonens kamp för överlevnad. Detta beror nog i första hand på att berättelsen fokuserar så mycket på interaktionen mellan dem och att de är så pass bra skildrade att detta räcker för att göra det intressant.

För att göra mig riktigt nöjd krävs dock mer än en tragisk och välgjord film, även om den här torde tillhöra de bättre i den genren. Nu är det inte min favoritgenre, så det blir inte mer än fyra sniglar i vilket fall. Jag tror du som läser den här recensionen själv kan känna ifall det är en film som kan tänkas passa dig eller inte, men för mig fungerade den riktigt bra.

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Titel: The Forever War
Författare: Joe Haldeman
Utgivningsår: 1975
Recenserad: 2006-12-08

Joe Haldeman har lyckats med en rätt intressant sak. Han har vunnit två Hugo Award med 23 år mellan dem. Den första är The Forever War och den andra, passande nog, The Forever Peace. Det är tufft att skriva två böcker med dessa titlar och lyckas få pris för båda.

Boken handlar om ett extremt långt och utdraget krig mot en okänd och utomjordisk fiende. Avstånden som är inblandade, gör att relativistiska hastigheter är ett måste, varför soldaters subjektiva uppfattning av kriget blir extremt konstig. Även om det går några månader mellan varje operation, kan det ha gått åtskilliga hundra år hemma. Jag finner detta ett intressant koncept som extrapoleras även till andra områden.

The Forever War är ett slags antites till Starship Troopers av Robert Heinlein och är ganska lik sin föregångare till uppbyggnad och innehåll. Båda handlar om krig och träning inför detta. Haldeman presenterar dock en negativ bild av kring som något meningslöst och oförståeligt, speciellt för en enskild soldat. Detta kontrasterar till Starship Troopers som av många uppfattas som promilitär.

Problemet med böcker som ska ingjuta en känsla av meningslöshet är att boken i sig ofta blir meningslös innan man greppar poängen. På det sättet är The Forever War ganska lik processen. I huvuddelen av boken tycker jag att det är riktigt vidrigt dåligt, men så mot slutet svänger det över och författaren lyckas klämma in en bra poäng som på något sätt gör det dåliga i början till en liten grop som gör att resten flyger högre, så att säga.

Problemet med The Forever War är att gropen är för djup och att jag som läsare inte riktigt orkar fram till kanten av hoppet. Med en tredjedel kvar tyckte jag att boken var riktigt dålig, men mot slutet blev det aningen bättre och jag är beredd att ge den två och en halv snigel. Kanske uppfattades bokne mycket annorlunda strax efter Vietnamkriget, men jag kan inte säga att jag fick ut så mycket av att läsa den.

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Full Metal Jacket

Titel: Full Metal Jacket
Regi: Stanley Kubrick
Manus: Gustav Hasford (roman), Stanley Kubrick , Michael Herr och Gustav Hasford
År: 1987
Recenserad: 2006-01-17

Jag är ingen krigsfilmsfanatiker, men Full Metal Jacket är riktigt bra. Det var mycket länge sedan jag såg den sist och jag minns inte så mycket utöver början, kanske såg jag aldrig klart den förra gången. Filmen kan sägas vara uppdelad i två delar. Båda delarna behandlar Vietnamkriget och de effekter det hade på en del soldater. I första delen får vi följa några marinkårssoldater under grundläggande utbildning. I andra halvan får vi följa en av soldaterna när han som krigskorrespondent upplever krigets fasor.

Filmen är bra för att den är trovärdig. Jag har inte gjort lumpen, men det brukar å andra sidan inte behövas för att såga en del andra krigsfilmer. Full Metal Jacket duger bra för mig. Skådespelarna drar nog det tyngsta lasset och de gör det med bravur. Handlingen är inte direkt spännande, men mycket gripande eftersom det handlar om människor och inte om kriget i sig. Skall man se en krigsfilm i sitt liv undrar jag om inte det här är den man borde välja.

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