Keely's Reviews > Flashman

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser
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Apr 30, 12

bookshelves: novel, humor, historical-fiction, uk-and-ireland, adventure, reviewed
Read from February 07 to April 25, 2012

How do we distinguish between the author and the characters he writes? There are readers who assume that if a main character does something racist or sexist, that means the author is, too. But then, characters can also transform into cockroaches, commit interplanetary genocide, and die gloriously without the author having to undergo those experiences, himself.

Even in an autobiography, the author still isn't writing himself--he's writing one biased version, crafting coherent stories and meanings out of the messy aggregate of daily life. But even in works of pure, fantastical fiction, some authors reveal more of themselves than others.

For the most inexperienced author, the main character will be a reflection of how they view themselves. They know what the author knows, like what they like, and have the same faults an strengths--or more precisely, the character will have the traits the author imagines they possess (plus a few they wish they had).

On one hand, this is an easy character to write, because all the author has to do is place themselves in the situation and imagine what they would do. Unfortunately, this creates a fundamental problem for the author, since they have to create all the conflicts, yet a character who knows what they know would also know how to solve those conflicts. It becomes a game of tic tac toe against the self--the only way either side could win is by accident. In such books, you can predict that any problem that crops up will be solved within the same chapter.

In stories like this, it's common for authors to simply put their own opinions into the mouths of the main characters, and to put opposing opinions into the mouths of the 'bad guys', a la Ayn Rand. This is a silly, unconvincing technique, because the implications drawn are completely false. You can't say 'the villain kills babies and is socialst, therefore socialism is evil', because that doesn't actually demonstrate any connection between the two activities.

A slightly more sophisticated author will intentionally create a character who is more naive than them (at least, to start out with). Then they can have the character make the same mistakes the author used to make when they were younger, before they figured things out. Part of the popularity of the bildunsroman ('growing up story') is that it's easy to think up conflicts and solutions for the characters.

Authors who operate on this level can't just put their lengthy monologues in the mouth of the hero, because the hero is too naive to have everything figured out. Instead, they leave the speeches to a wise mentor figure, who stands in for all that is good, and who may be recognized in the unremitting slurry of kindly, ironical wizards in much modern fantasy.

But if a writer is self-aware and pays attention to the world, they will eventually realize that what makes people interesting is that they are flawed, troubled, and struggle through life. They will start exploring different sorts of people, people who are very unlike them, people who might disagree with them fundamentally, but who are still interesting and sympathetic.

But there's still a tall hill to climb for authors who want to write characters unlike themselves. Few authors have the grasp of psychology necessary to write a realistic character who is fundamentally different from them, so most authors just cobble together some strong character cliches and play them up. But even if he is capable of sticking to the personality he chooses, he risks giving himself away in other ways.

An author might create a sexist character, who constantly says and does sexist things, but that isn't damning--authors often explore deeply-flawed characters. The real problem is if the narration and structure begin to support those same conclusions. If a character calls someone a 'slut', that could just be an expression of how real people sometimes speak. If the narration actually refers to a character by that slur, we have a problem--where is that judgment coming from, if not the author?

It's often a problem with genre authors, who try their hardest to make strong female characters, making other characters speak self-consciously about the power and strength of women, but then completely undermining all of that by never actually having the women do anything active or make any important decisions. Narrative descriptions of women are lengthy, in florid, sexualized terms--even when there is no male present in the story to appreciate them. Men, contrarily, may never have their face or eye color mentioned.

In the case of Flashman, we have another complexity at play. Our main character is often despicable, unsympathetic, sexist, racist, and rarely deserves the victories he gets. But the entire story is from his perspective--there is no all-seeing narrator voice to tell us what's going on. All the views, all the descriptions come from Flashman, himself.

Whenever an author completely veils himself behind the character, we must decide what to believe--this technique is called the 'unreliable narrator', for obvious reasons. Sure, Flashy is a selfish coward who beats his servants, but does that mean Fraser is for cowardice? Is he arguing for toadyism and self-promotion over all?

Certainly, Flashman recognizes that, according to social ideals, he is not a good man, nor a deserving one--but then, he is surrounded by important, influential men who are even worse than he is. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that unpleasant people often end up on top of the totem pole, and never get their comeuppance, but that can be a rather depressing message.

Luckily, in this tale of rollicking adventure, the message is delivered with thick humor and irony, not dour nihilism. If money and fame are doled out regularly to the most foolish and detestable of our race, perhaps it is because only the foolish and detestable desire them enough to keep seeking them. Most worthwhile people will end up too distracted by positive human relationships and personal growth to continue self-possessed social climbing for long enough.

Happily, our dear Flashy has no such hangups. Throughout the ceaseless, rousing, ridiculous tale of Victorian colonial mishaps, he rarely fails to disappoint. Yet I kept finding myself sympathizing with him--at times guiltily. I knew he deserved punishment, but I didn't actually want to watch it administered. I didn't want the poor chap to suffer.

It just goes to show that we'll always feel more attached to the rascal we know well than to the saint we've never met. And while he's not apologetic, at least he doesn't suffer from the terrible mental disability of the average internet commentator, who cannot critique stupidity and hypocrisy without being a stupid hypocrite, himself. Flashman may be many unsavory things, but he's no hypocrite. He not only accepts his cowardice, he clings to it like a lifeline--which in fact it often is. He is not, like all the fools he serves under, a fool with grand pretensions--he is merely a fool, and glad enough to remain one as long as life's grip holds.

Fraser's Victorian is meticulously researched, and his footnotes are often funnier than his witty banter--mostly because all the most absurd parts of his stories are completely true. Overall, he reminded me of the experience of reading The Three Musketeers--a nonstop adventure full of odd characters and occurrences, with life and death always at the shake of the next cup.

Yet there was something of Conrad's The Duel, with humor and absurdity often rubbing shoulders with dire consequences and the horrors of war. The return march of the army through the snowy crags of Afghanistan brought me back to Conrad's harrowing depiction of the French invasion of Russia--and the dwindling return of that broken army, immortalized starkly in Minard's famous image.

Creating a sympathetic antihero is a difficult task--particularly when they aren't of the violent, ass-kicking variety--but Fraser displays why flawed, unusual characters will always trump a flat romantic hero. Like The Virginian or The Moonstone, this is another exciting, surprisingly touching piece of fun which easily outstrips the limitations of its genre.
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Slap Happy (new) - added it

Slap Happy That's a charming cover.


Keely I've actually got a different copy, but it's about the same vibe: Conan the barbarian by way of the British Raj.


Keely Well, I'm afraid I don't have a lot of time to read it, I'm spending most of my time studying, but hopefully I'll be able to get to it before too long.


Keely Well, I took the GRE in December, which is the entrance exam to graduate school, but since I'm planning to go directly into a PhD program instead of a Master's, I'm also going to take the GRE subject test in English Literature, since this will make me more competitive for the sort of paid program that I'm looking for.

But the test is a broad look at the general English canon, which is a bit of a problem for me since I've spent most of my time reading epic literature in translation and esoteric stuff like Gormenghast, neither of which are going to appear on the test, so I've got a lot of ground to cover before I take it.


Keely On the Subject Test or the normal GRE?


Keely Oh, I already took the normal GRE, next up is the Subject Test in English.

It's true that tests are not complete measures, and the companies who make them are more concerned with money and monopoly than psychology. However, are you suggesting there is some way out there to get a measurement of aptitude? Are you sure we aren't talking about a Quarterback Problem? Remember, just because something has a flaw doesn't mean it should be discarded. Every plan has flaws, our goal should be to put up the most effective one.


Keely After years of living the struggling artist's life, I think it might be easier to do a bit of rote memorization for a test rather than trying to forge a path through the world alone, scorning the system.


Keely Yeah, but sometimes choosing the less-traveled path means toiling pointlessly in obscurity--not all iconoclasts make their mark, though we tend to focus on those that do. It's also not like getting a PhD is that common, as life paths go.

"Sometimes its also helpful if you believe in a higher power"

That is a well-traveled path I have managed to avoid--and it has made a difference.


Keely Oh, it's not that I want one badly, or that I idolize people who have them. But I like reading books, thinking about them, discussing them, writing them, and writing about them. I liked being in school, and I liked having brilliant professors who could open up whole new worlds of understanding to me.

I should be able to do well on the entrance tests, and if I do, then I'll be able to get into a paid program (no worthwhile PhD program makes you pay), so then, for the next five-to-eight years, I will be paid a salary to read, discuss, and write about books. Even if I don't find a tenure-track position after I graduate, I'll still have an interesting paid job as long as I'm in the program.

I've had a few jobs since college, but really, nothing that fulfilled me, so this seems like an option that will fit my needs pretty well. Plus I will probably be able to take some classes on my other interests, like math, science, economics, history, Latin, and music, which I haven't kept up with as much as I'd like. Then, if I can't find a job when I graduate, I can just go back and get paid to get a PhD in a different field.


Keely Self-improvement isn't a worthy goal any more?


Keely Paid programs aren't based on scholarship, you're paid to do research for professors and to teach classes.

As for helping others, it's a noble goal, but without intense study of psychology and economics, it's difficult to actually do. Unless a program is designed specifically to deal with the economic and psychological issues that cause the problem, it just ends up being a waste of time, energy, and money.

I know people who run non-profit organizations, and they often waste the money they raise on ineffective programs that don't change anything, not to mention having high operating costs because they don't know how to run a business. I know people who joined the peace corps and lived for half a year in a place where the people didn't want them and wouldn't talk to them.

What's worse is that there are programs that are run with the best intentions, but that end up hurting the people they are supposed to help, such as the whole charity debacle in Africa, where the charity money either undercuts the local economy, undermining infrastructure, or is eaten up by bribes and other government corruption, never even reaching the people it was meant to help. Even something as simple as volunteering in a soup kitchen often means little more than prolonging suffering, not actually helping people who have chemical or mental problems which require real treatment.

So yeah, the idea of helping people is great, but actually doing it is another matter.


Keely Yeah, I have. In my experience, they are usually run by the wives of wealthy men because they have nothing else to do. They love talking about how great it feels to 'help people' despite the fact that they spend most of their time organizing fancy fundraising banquets with other rich white ladies and then squander most of the money on bad infrastructure.

A friend and I once redesigned the website of one of a nonprofit because the website they had was terrible. All the pictures were blurry and pixelated, many of the buttons and links didn't work, other pages simply didn't exist, or had nothing that linked to them, and most of the information was incorrect, incomplete, and out of date. We later found out that they had paid thousands of dollars only a few months ago to have a 'professional' make this site, only to have two young college students ended up having to fix it for free.

The idea of helping people is great, but watching rich people waste the money people have donated is depressing. By the time they start on a project, most of the money has already been spent on bureaucracy, and most of the projects they do start end up being a waste of money, anyways, because they weren't well-researched enough to actually have an impact, so they just shut them down after a few years and start over.

You know that the government in India has spent more money on starting NGOs than hospitals or schools? It reminds me of the TED Conference in Africa, where a number of speakers talked about how destructive aid can be when it is not properly planned and distributed.

Sure, we all want to help people--it's a good thing to do--but that also makes it dangerous, because people don't question it. People don't want to doubt good intentions, but they should, because good intentions, mismanaged, can prolong problems or even cause new ones. You cannot help without interfering, and you cannot interfere without disrupting. With that in mind, I think it is extremely important to make sure you know exactly what you're doing before you condescend to help someone.


message 13: by Richard (new)

Richard If you get hooked on the Flashman series and end up reading more of them, there's actually a discussion group on goodreads devoted to the series.


Keely Thanks for the heads-up, we'll see how it goes.

Nafiul said: "Then you've seen a pretty crap NGO"

In my experience it's really not that unusual, whether in America or worldwide, to find charitable organizations that are largely wasteful, ineffective, or even harmful. I don't automatically trust people who say they 'want to help people', because a lot of people just say it to feel good about themselves, and don't have the knowledge or experience to actually help people.

"I personally like more investment into places like science and economics because they solve real problems, investing into literature seems to give no returns to be honest."

Heh, alright. I'd argue that whatever you're studying, you're studying humanity and the human mind--there are no necessary delineations between economics, mathematics, and literature, only the false separations of people who limit themselves. Great writers have changed how people think throughout the ages--they inspire scientists, economists, peace protestors, philosophers--and all of those people inspire writers, in return, creating a cycle of thought and change.

There's nothing intrinsic about economics or the sciences that make them any more useful, because a person can learn all of the mathematics and rules involved and still remain fundamentally naive. It can be easy to get lost in the pure theory of the numbers and then use the sciences in ways which are fundamentally destructive to mankind.

Take for an example Alan Greenspan's tenure as the Chairman for the Federal Reserve in America. He worked his whole life and became one of the most respected economists in the world, but when it came time to put his theories into practice, he ended up contributing to the downfall of the world economy, because his theories were based on idealized numbers and faulty psychological premises.

Literature without economics, science without philosophy, archaeology without psychology, any single discipline, alone, is liable to blind those who study it by teaching them to see the world in only one way. The sciences are hardly a cure for bigotry or ignorance, especially since they have their own politics, institutions, presumptions, and internal strife.


Keely "Your main argument is that these aid programmes do not work, and thus the idea of ‘doing good’ is overrated. In your examples you illustrated how the lack of good intentions and proper ability has failed to create something that could potentially be very helpful."

No, that's not my argument. The idea of 'doing good' is not overrated, I said several times, that it was a good goal to have. The problem is that intention is not the same as action. Those rich white ladies I met who run NGO's do actually want to help people, and they actually think they are helping people.

That's the danger.

The idea of helping someone else is very appealing. It feels good to think that you are helping people. However, helping others is a skill, like anything else. A person may intend to help others, a scientist may intend to create something useful, and an author may intend to write a great book, but in order to actually do any of those things, a person must be informed and experienced.

When someone tells me "I want to help people", that doesn't impress me, because it's like someone saying "I want to write a book". They are both things that are easy to mess up. What impresses me is a person who can come forth and prove to me that they have the experience and understanding required to actually do it.

Sure, show me someone like Norman Borlaug who has helped to save a billion people from starvation, and I'll be impressed. He actually helped people. It is possible to help people, but it's not easy to do.

It's also easy to talk a lot about helping people, to believe you are helping people, but actually fail to accomplish anything. Look at someone like Mother Theresa, who has a worldwide reputation as someone who helped people. What did she actually do? She raised a lot of money, but no hospitals were ever built with that money. It went into the coffers of the Vatican and they used it to build religious buildings.

It should be clear that I'm not just talking about the US, I also talked about Africa and India. I don't see this as an 'American problem', it's a world problem.

"say a guy studies literature his entire life and then goes onto writing something, compared to a guy who studies physics and then lasers and invents a laser that can kill all the microscopic germs in water and this can be used to purify many places that do not have access to drinking water. Which would you prefer?"

That's not a very good comparison. I could as easily say "imagine a guy who studies literature and then writes a book that changes how people all over the world think, versus a scientist who develops a new kind of bomb, which do you prefer?"

You gave very positive outcomes to the scientist, which isn't accurate, because not all scientists produce new inventions that help the world. Plenty of them work on making designer drugs, developing industrial chemicals, and building weapons.

You say 'anyone can write', but you could also say 'anyone could do science' or economics. A person who goes home and balances their budget is doing economics to the same degree that the average person could 'write'.

Sure, a piece of writing with substance is better than something without substance, but that isn't the difference between science and literature. Plenty of scientific papers have neither substance, nor eloquence to recommend them--just look at the The Sokal Affair.

The study of writing is the study of communicating ideas and experiences to other human beings. What good is a scientific paper if no one else can understand it? You say most people can write, but I don't think that's true. Most people can't express their ideas very well, can't create lucid arguments, can't provide supporting evidence.

Expressing your thoughts is a skill that must be learned, like any skill, in order for it to be effective.

"Now with Alan Greenspan, I doubt the outcome was something that he did not want."

Conspiracy theories, eh? Greenspan didn't want to cripple the economy, he just put a plan into place that was based on false theories. He thought that if he gave large business more freedom, then they would expand the economy on their own, and not do risky things that might make them go bankrupt. What he didn't account for was the fact that executives were willing to increase personal profits as much as possible, even if it wasn't the best thing for the future of the company. These executives didn't want to destroy the companies they worked for, they just didn't understand enough about economic theory to see what the eventual outcome would be.

Sure, there are those who made money off of the turndown, but many more lost money or went bankrupt. A flagging economy is simply not good for business, and while no one would deliberately destroy the economy that supports them, if then end up playing The Prisoner's Dilemma while looking only at short-term profits, it's inevitable that there will be drastic fallout.

Never forget the power of Hanlon's Razor when assigning guilt:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.


message 16: by babs (new)

babs hmmmmm...very interesting conversation...good stuff.


Keely Thanks, glad you got something out of it, though we did kind of go off on a tangent . . .


message 18: by Jim (new)

Jim Hi Keeley,

I see that the Giver comment string still heats up on occasion (somehow my email notifications stopped).

(and tangents are good)

Heinlein comes to mind as one who (likely) likes to have his protagonists speak for him. Lazurus Long in Time Enough For Love was probably the most transparent and long-winded (and I really like that particular indulgence).

Good Luck with grad school - hope that turns out to be a good job. My wife got some kind of "pay" teaching undergrads when she pursued her MA and PhD - but nothing like what you hope to arrange.

You've read plenty of science fiction, but perhaps not the "right" histories:

"not all scientists produce new inventions that help the world. Plenty of them work on making designer drugs, developing industrial chemicals, and building weapons."

I'm sure you get that inventions are, fundamentally, tools, which are not inherently good or bad but rather produce good or bad effects depending on the agent and circumstances of thier use.

Designer drugs have relieved suffering for millions. Industrial chemicals are essential to creating the wealth that permit you to consider the job you are pursuing. Weapons, especially the ones developed since (and during) the Manhattan Project helped at least a billion people escape Soviet aggression.

In Japan, two "small" fission bombs saved a million deaths (so our military planners estimated) by preventing a conventional invasion.

(moving on)

Nice subtle point about doing good. Borlaug is not well enough known (probably less, it seems, than dear departed Theresa).

One need not go farther than City Hall to find people with power "doing good" - some not elected and doing the same thing with regulations that those "professionals" did with that pixelated website.


Keely "Heinlein comes to mind as one who (likely) likes to have his protagonists speak for him."

Yeah, I almost mentioned him by name for Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Job, but I figured the review didn't need another tangent.

"I'm sure you get that inventions are, fundamentally, tools . . . Designer drugs have relieved suffering for millions . . ."

Yeah, I'm not denying that scientific discoveries are important and world-changing, I was just arguing against the point that the average scientist is doing more for the world that any writer. Most scientists, like most writers, are employed in mid-level positions in big companies doing unremarkable work that isn't going to save any lives. For every Neil deGrasse Tyson, there are thousands of scientists testing cosmetics or tweaking anti-depressants to facilitate new patents.


The Treeman Any intentions on reading more of the series?


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