Desolation Island (1978)

January 4, 2009

The fifth novel in Patrick O’Brian’s twenty book Aubrey-Maturin series sets the characters in an aged British fourth rate warship named the HMS Leopard.

I finished reading the book today, and I thought it was well written. I was a little disappointed in the fact that the book has really no ship to ship action. There is an encounter with the Dutch warship Waakzaamheid that drags on for several days, almost weeks it seems in the novel’s time-line. The lucky Captian Aubrey is able to out run the heavier vessel in light seas, but has to run far south, almost to Antarctica, to do it! The sober engagement culminates in the sinking of the Waakzaamheid when the HMS Leopard lands a killing blow. One of the Waakzaamheid’s forward masts is cripple and the ship is crushed by the huge sea. The total loss of approximately 600 hands has an odd effect on Captain Aubrey, who is mortally wounded in the engagement and successively saved by Maturin.

There are several themes in the book that are interesting, however, I feel are not thoroughly addressed by the author or the narrative. The book was already over three-hundred pages and to sure-up the loose ends would have added at least a hundred more.

The theme of Jonah and Mr. Larkin was barely touched upon as the reason for the “unlucky” ship. During those times a “Jonah” was any member of the crew believed to be a traitor to the crew, and to some extent against the will of God. Only to bring bad luck and death to the rest of the crew. The Jonah was usually attached to an individual after he or she was witnessed to be near, or the cause of any number of small superstition – most usually three. Pretty interesting superstition that catches on quickly in a group of people that are relatively uneducated and Christian. After Mr. Larkin leaves the HMS Leopard the ship no longer appears to be cursed and the winds of luck change for the remaining crew. This whole theme is really only identified with a few sentences.

The reoccurring underlining theme of the novel was the letting of crew members; first the killings of the prisoner’s superintendent and surgeon by their convicts: the loss of over 160 hands to gaol fever (typhus) brought on-board by prisoners: the loss of Mr. Pullings and other invalids who barely survive the epidemic outbreak: the half mutiny half abandonment lead by the newly appointed 1st mate Mr. Grant after the HMS Leopard strikes an iceberg in the south seas: the pregnant prisoner Mrs. Wogen and presumed father stowaway Mr. Herapath escape to a United States whaling vessel at the end of the book. It appears that a sudden and unexpected death can occur at sea at any moment.

In my opinion the author really tries to examine and criticize the male to female relationship but falls short in the same way Dr. Maturin’s fails as a romantic lover. Perhaps there are some underlying issues in the authors life during the creation of this novel. O’Brian’s wiki page points to some stress in his early childhood; his mother died when he was age three, he spent long intervals at home with his father and step-mother: he married at age 22 (far to young): his daughter died at age three (spinal bifida): he divorced and remarried at age 31. The inspiration for the character Dr. Maturin obviously comes from O’Brian’s own experience during WWII where it is believed he was an intelligence agent. Whether this is fact or not, it still shows a desire on O’Brian’s part to either have been an intelligence agent or to secretly wish he was. Whichever the case, I believe Dr. Maturin is O’Brian persona throughout the stories. I believe that O’Brian is working out social defects he developed from the death of his mother and daughter at such an early age, even though the Aubrey-Maturin series was written halfway through his life. His awkward approach to the opposite sex is understandable with the lack of social development. Obviously his step-mother never filled the gap and O’Brian probably felt a great loss after his daughters death, not only of emotion but of opportunity. And the whole emotional affair is being worked out in his character Dr. Maturin.

It was definitely an interesting read and it gave me more insight to the authors psychology rather than the Aubrey-Maturin relationship. I see a cycle developing; exciting sea engagements: romantic social experiments – back and forth. I like the exciting sea engagements, they are a briskly read, so I look forward to the next book – The Fortune Of War.

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I discovered O’Brian’s work after reading “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” written by Nathaniel Philbrick. Years earlier I read a few sea related books by Joseph Conrad; Heart of Darkness, Nostromo and Typhoon and enjoyed them very much. After reading the tragedy that befell the crew of the Essex my passion for sea novels grew. I did some research on wiki, and of course, found and read Moby Dick by Melville – probably one of the greatest fictional works done on the subject of man at sea, and the greatest fictional account of the whaleship. Some people may read this and say “Well, your missing Melville’s point, its not only a story about a whaleship!”. Don’t worry, I haven’t missed the point of his Opus Magnum.

Reading and researching more on that period of time I discovered the Napoleonic conflicts, Admiral Horatio Nelson, C.S. Forester’s fictional character Horatio Hornblower and finally O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. As of this moment I am mid-way through book five of the twenty book series. I bought and read the first two books; Master & Commander and Post Captain (approximately fifteen dollars apiece). Realizing to finish the next eighteen books would cost me roughly two-hundred seventy dollars I bought them in a bulk set off e-bay for around sixty-nine dollars. Slowly but surely I will venture through the series during the greater part of 2009.

Master and Commander (1969)

December 14, 2008

Article about the book Master and Commander (1969).

I first read this novel late in 1998. I scribbled down a few reflections in a journal after finishing it. I enjoyed the book so much I read it two more times in the following weeks. Spanning 371 pages it took me about 5 days to read it twice. The book is by far my favorite of anything else I’ve read. The pure epic proportions of the time-span is awesome. I hadn’t read much and barely scratched the surface of epic literature or great writers before I finished this magnificent work.

In accordance with the advice given by the essayist in the first few pages I skipped the first chapters. The first chapters deal with several “current” point of views of the author. The state of world affairs during WWII and the spread of Nazism – how the allies would respond, and some fortune telling by the author of a time that my generation was born without the experience to understand.

The novel opens up into a hugely expanding universe. Dozens upon dozens of dark age to enlightenment epochs turning over in what seems to be an ever-lasting cycle. Man evolves, re-makes himself into the giant brains, avian Venusians and stocky Neptunians – it is an epic tale! The theme spans over billions of years. The novel is so convincingly well written that the reader can truly imagine the future of mankind and the universe according to the author. From the quaint beginning pages to the human spirit survivalist ending it is a story that will make the unbelievable seem real. In the opinion of this convinced reader, Olaf Stapledon’s future of mankind is a real possibility.

There is a an extraordinary article written by Sam Moskowitz. Originally from Moskowitz’s book Explorers of the Infinite (1963), a copy of the article is in the front of Olaf Stapledon’s “Darkness into the Light (1974 , Hyperion Press; reprint)”. The essay is worth the time if you read anything Stapledon has produced.

In the end I would recommend this book to everyone. Science fiction fans will immortalize it for being the evident source of most science fiction today. Great science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov credit Olaf Stapledon with inspiration. People who don’t genuinely enjoy science fiction will enjoy the novel for the authors precise ability to captivate the reader with original ideas.

A free e-book copy can be found here.