Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Khyber Connection (1986) by Simon Hawke

I really ought to like Kipling – as the so-called ‘bard of Empire,’ he represents the personification of the jingoistic colonial attitude that both repels and fascinates me. As a son of British India, and a writer who chronicled its zenith, he should be right down my street. But for some reason, I don’t enjoy much of his prose. I think it stems from a problem common to some fiction from times past: contemporary writers of the Victorian period weren’t trying to give their works a Victorian flavour, and as a result, readers today used to period fiction, with an interest in Victorian settings, are left wanting. For me, I find it strangely difficult to get a feeling for what life might have been like during the British Raj by reading Kipling… either he neglects to mention aspects of culture, or he overloads the reader with alien phrases and concepts without explaining them. Don’t get me wrong, I know my jemadar from my pukka-wallahs, but when but when a barkandaze and a havildar go out for a chukka on the maidan, well that’s where I check out.

His poetry, on the other hand, I often find quite inspiring. Check out this excerpt from Arithmetic on the Frontier, which Simon Hawke uses to warm the reader up for his Afghanistan-set piece of sci-fi pulp nonsense, The Khyber Connection:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come down to cut up your remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
And go to your God like a soldier.

Masterful. Kipling was writing about the Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, which was only the second time the British had stuck their bayonet into Afghanistan’s business. To be a completist: they got a sound drubbing in the war of 1839, did a little better in the war of 1878, ended things quite quickly in the war of 1919, and as for 2001? Well, they’re still there. It’s their longest one yet, and still counting! I love that for the recent BBC show Sherlock, they updated Doyle's characters to modern times, but didn't have to change the plot point that Watson had fought in Afghanistan because it was still contemporary!

Incredibly, there was another skirmish tucked in there between these encounters; one not quite large enough to have earned the title of a ‘war.’ This was the siege of Malakand, a region in what was then called the ‘Northwest Frontier Province.’ The British had set up this area as a buffer zone to prevent British India from sharing a border with Russian territory, but their careless border-shifting had irritated enough tribesmen to cause them a headache. Dissatisfaction eventually spilled over into violence and rebellion. It is this conflict that is described in The Khyber Connection.

The book is from a completely insane (but enjoyable) series called Time Wars. The central conceit is that after time travel is discovered, nations at war send agents back in time to historical conflicts to fight it out there rather than in their own time. A group called the Time Commandos (hell of a goofy name) attempt to police these conflicts in order to prevent temporal anomalies. But things are even more complex than that, because it appears that in a previous book, our heroes accidentally created an alternate timeline that merges with their own at certain points in history. Both timelines may cause the destruction of the other, so each is out to destroy the other. The Time Commandos encounter alternate versions of themselves from this other timeline; they’re essentially the same people, though they may have lived their lives differently.

Anyway, typically for a time-travel story, things get off to a confusing start. A temporal soldier (that is, a soldier from the future) who has been sent back to the 1987 conflict gets himself murdered by an Afghan dervish who looks strikingly similar to him. More than similar: they are the same man. During a clean-up operation, Future War Control (that’s what I’m calling it, anyway) figures out what this means: the alternate timeline people are up to something nefarious in the Khyber Pass in 1897! And so the Time Commandos are sent to nineteenth-century Afghanistan, and before you can say ‘Elphinstone’s ghost’ they’re up the Khyber without a paddle, or however the saying goes.

Leaving aside their base-dwelling, cigar-chomping boss, the Commandos are a power trio: Priest, an everyman character, Delaney, a hot-headed Irishman and typical rule-breaking maverick, and Cross, a 12th-century French peasant girl who’s taken up living in the future. Yeah, she’s basically Laureline from the weird French comic Valerian. They’re simply drawn but likable characters. They disguise themselves as a missionary, soldier and nurse respectively to infiltrate the British forces invading Afghanistan.

Early on in the proceedings the reader comes across one of the odd conceits of the series: in this universe, certain fictional characters are real historical persons. The Commandos come across three soldiers called Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris. Yeah… I guess there aren’t that many well-known literary characters associated with the Afghan Wars. I’d not heard of these three before and I didn’t even suspect that they were a literary reference until I read the afterword. They’re taken from several short stories by Kipling as well as a book called Soldiers Three, as it turns out. Later on, they meet a Hindu water-carrier called Gunga Din, who is to play an important part in the proceedings also.

Apart from these, Hawke has packed his version of the Khyber Pass with an array of bizarre characters. Most of them we get only the barest introduction to; six books into the series, Hawke has amassed quite a lot of continuity baggage. There’s Dr Darkness, a man who has become able to travel instantaneously anywhere in the universe but can’t touch anyone else, there’s an enemy agent who has impersonated so many other characters that our heroes no longer know what to call him, and there’s not one but two rabble-rousing Islamic messiahs stirring up trouble, one or both of whom may also be imposters from the future. In fact, there are scenes in which it seems that barely anyone in this historical scenario is who they’re supposed to be. Oh, and did I mention Winston Churchill? Yes, Churchill really was involved in the Siege of Malakand as a young man. Hawke has juggled the dates around slightly to make him fit in with the other historical events he references, but in a novel that messes with history so much already this hardly seems worth griping about.

For a short, pulpy book the science-fictional elements and time-travelling shenanigans are both rather complex and in-depth. The reader very quickly gets buried in a mess of techno-babble that’s hard to keep up with but does have an internal consistency if you’re paying attention. The universe created is lively and interesting, with much world-building done in very few pages. It’s perhaps telling that the multiple time-streams plot is actually less baffling that the real-life explanation given for the political machinations of Afghanistan at the time: not even a sci-fi author could make those sound sensible!

There’s so much going on in this little novel that the history gets short shrift, though there are interesting tidbits, and anyway I’m always happy to read about 19th-century Afghanistan. I’ve enjoyed one other Time Wars book so I’ll pick up a few more if ever I see them, though they’re definitely not common in 2nd shops these days. Recommended if you like cheesy scifi action that actually gets rather complex. And as a final aside, the book did provide me with a few more works of Kipling’s that I enjoyed, in particular during a drunken bar scene where Cross, the female Time Commando, surprises the other soldiers by belting out a few verses of this song from Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. Great stuff!

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