Saturday, May 10, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson's "A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations" (novelette, non-genre, free): The worst that is human

Quote from short story titled A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations by Kim Stanley RobinsonI should have disliked a story on this depressing a subject - wars of twentieth century, but it's gripping. May be I'll now have courage to pick up Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five".

Second half is a travelogue - an American on a drive in north England. This part is OK, but the meat is in the first half.

During the closing years of twentieth century, Frank Churchill - an author - is hired by a publisher to do a history of the century. This story is mostly about author's researches on some wars, & occasionally acts of terrorism, during the century. Horrific numbers, & some perspective. I've no idea of accuracy of data, but it did sound plausible.

One of the very few stories dealing with the horrors of war that I've actually liked.


  1. "common citizen at home, ecstatic in the streets at the outbreak of general war? That seemed more likely to be just another manifestation of the hatred of the other. All my problems are your fault! He and Andrea had said that to each other a lot."
  2. "Perhaps it was a simple pleasure in destruction. What is the primal response to an edifice? Knock it down. What is the primal response to a stranger? Attack him."
  3. 'on the Somme the British put a gun every twenty yards along a fourteen-mile front, and fired a million and a half shells. In April 1917 the French fired six million shells... Verdun was a "battle" that lasted ten months, and killed almost a million men.'
  4. 'The British section of the front was ninety miles long. Every day of the war, about seven thousand men along that front were killed or wounded - not in any battle in particular, but just as the result of incidental sniper fire or bombardment. It was called "wastage."
    at the end of every month or two of the Great War, the British had had a whole Vietnam Memorial's worth of dead. Every month or two, for fifty-one months.'
  5. "in a world where people still held the notion that in war armies fought armies and soldiers killed soldiers, while civilians suffered privation and perhaps got killed accidentally, but were never deliberately targeted.
    In 1939, this changed.
    Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in that sense a kind of exclamation point, at the end of a sentence which the war had been saying all along: we will kill your families at home. War is war, as Sherman said; if you want peace, surrender.
    Nagasaki was bombed three days after Hiroshima, before the Japanese had time to understand the damage and respond... Truman and his advisors did it ... to ... show Stalin that they would use the bomb even as a threat or warning only, as Nagasaki demonstrated. A Vietnam Memorial's worth of civilians in an instantaneous flash, just so Stalin would take Truman seriously."
  6. "designers of the death camps, the architects, engineers, builders. Were these functionaries less or more obscene than the mad doctors, the sadistic guards?"
  7. "At first 1989 had looked like a break away from that. But now, just seven years later, the Cold War losers all looked like Germany in 1922, their money worthless, their shelves empty".
  8. 'Japanese concentration camps in Manchuria had killed as many Chinese as the Germans had killed Jews. These deaths included thousands in the style of Mengele and the Nazi doctors, caused by "scientific" medical torture.'
  9. "motivations would be stronger than ever; with populations rising and resources depleted, people were going to be fighting not to rule, but to survive. Some little country threatened with defeat could unleash an epidemic against its rival and accidentally kill off a continent, or everyone, it was entirely possible. The twenty-first century might make the twentieth look like nothing at all."

Fact sheet.

First published: Asimov's Science Fiction, April 1991.
Rating: A
Download full text (via Free SF Reader).