Monday, April 10, 2006

The Last Ship - William Brinkley

The Last Ship by William Brinkley is a novel of life in the tin-can Navy after a global nuclear disaster.

Bereft of communications of any sort, the Captain of the U.S.S. Nathan James believes his ship is the last remaining bastion of humanity in the war torn world. Thestory begins with the remnants of the crew searching the Southern Hemisphere for an uncontaminated island where they can set to repopulating the earth. This is the modern U.S. Navy; there are women aboard.

The society that is created is not much different than a ship at sea, with the Captain as supreme judge. I found this a bit unbelievable in that, despite being well trained and used to taking commands, without the existence of the United States of America, all U.S. Navy rules and regulations become an historic curiosity. As a veteran, I find it hard to grasp why the men would not revolt in a grand fashion. Certainly there is no love lost between a Captain and his men, in spite of what foolishness the Captain may believe.

To repopulate the 'Earth,' a small island in the South Pacific, the female sailors are forced into state sponsored prostitution. The Captain forces the women to sleep with all of the men in rotation, in hopes of finding a man who was not sterilized by the high levels of radiation, and so can procreate. When one man and one woman find love and wish to make their relationship exclusive, they are tossed from the civilization to die in the wild. At this point, th story lost all believability to me. Service men would simply not put up with this behavior from their officers.

Then the Russians arrive in a submarine, peace between men is finally realized, and the Russian men prove to be capable of reproducing, and so this brave new world will be populated by the children of the enemies who caused the devastation in the first place.

Yawn. It barely even works as Deus Ex Machina.

At times, I truly enjoyed this book. Brinkley obviously know quite a bit about the Navy in general and Destroyers in particular, but upon completing the story, I find that he lacks any understanding of the REAL Navy -- the brave and strong willed men and women who make it work.

The Last Ship comes off as a way for Brinkley to live out his adolescent and misogynistic fantasies of being the King of the World. While enjoyable in spells, there are much finer post-apocalyptic novels that actually make sense. I'd suggest looking for some of those if the interest strikes you.


Comments on "The Last Ship - William Brinkley"


Blogger J. McDonough said ... (9:32 PM) : 

The Last Ship by William Brinkley

In the post nuclear holocaust world, one ship survives, the destroyer, U.S.S. Nathan James under the command of a captain through whose point of view is told an epic story of a society at sea. This then is the device which allows William Brinkley to look at some of the major issues of our society--at sea?--today, in the manner of Herman Melville’s great sea novel, Moby Dick. This captain is called only a few times by his first name, Tom, almost always by his title, for it is Captain he is to all about him. No, he’s not Ahab...or is he? The unsophisticated reader might be tempted to mistake the first person narrator for the voice of the author but that would clearly be a mistake. As is often the case, the first person narrator has a clear function here. As we follow the Captain’s reasoning, perceive the others around him through his eyes, we sympathize with him, agree with him, and hope with him. But as critical readers we must take a step back and ask serious questions about his motivation, about his perceptions, about his judgment.

The central theme in this novel is authoritarianism vs democracy. The Captain repeatedly insists on his authority, indeed his sovereignty; he is the absolute monarch of his floating fiefdom. Even suggesting a course of action to him is stepping over a line; his senior officers may present him with information but it his function, and his alone, to make decisions. His crew of good navy men and women accept this as a normal part of their lives. This may be where the reader would expect, hope for, some display of independent thinking; surely Americans, “rugged individuals” as we Americans commonly fancy ourselves, would take issue with this watery autocracy. But is our fabled tough-mindedness the reality? This is the question Brinkley puts to us, and considering the politics of today, as America engages in a demented unending war under an unelected and clearly criminal president, it may well be the political question of our time. It is indeed hard to stand against authority for anyone, and the crew of the James are, after all, not exactly independent thinkers. They are navy people, who have for whatever reason joined the military and willingly submitted themselves to whatever fool wears the right salad on his collar. The Captain himself is of the same ilk, as is clear in the description of that critical moment when he is ordered over an electronic device to push the button that he knows will launch inconceivable destruction on a city for which he even has developed a certain abstract affection as the home of the Russian writer Turgenev. The sole recrimination he feels afterward, so obedient is he, is that for an instant he hesitated, asking his radio operator if there isn’t a callback order.

Nevertheless, the Captain’s shipmates do stand against him at several crucial junctures, such as the point at which the decision must be made to proceed south through the Suez Canal seeking uncontaminated land or to explore after the possibility that some part of what had been the U.S.A. might be still habitable. The artistry of the author is such that we follow the Captain’s thinking, accept his rationalization. Indeed we are lured into believing that his authority is not only justified, but necessary--simply because he is right! A large part of the crew, fully a third of the crew, want to return to the U.S.A. for purely emotional reasons which run counter to all available information. When they set out on a “Captain’s Boat” trailing life rafts to make the quest, the reader can believe such a thing might happen only by recognizing the power of the deluded heart. But the Captain is obviously right and therein lies the reader’s seduction. The real question here should be not the correctness of his decisions, but the propriety of his process.

And what would good process be under such circumstances? By presenting us with this limited society, this contained community, in which one individual has usurped absolute authority, Brinkley may be inviting us to conceive our own utopian contrivances. Majority rule (the “tyranny of the majority”)? Consensus process (feminist anarchism)?

The mention of feminist process, brings up another issue which may challenge some sensibilities. That there are women on the destroyer is of central importance in the story and the only factor to counter the Captain’s deliberate tyranny. The women as a unit, under the strong minded Lieutenant Girard, are fully in charge of their own bodies and therefore of the possibility of the continuance of the human race. The arrangement they come up with certainly will not be found acceptable by readers who like to see women bound one to one man in marriage, but under the circumstances is most practical. As the women come into such strength we see the possibility of an incipient matriarchy and even the reemergence out of the ancient past of the office of the sacred prostitute.

Related to this, the question of same sex relations among the crew members was given rather short shrift. It came out, if I may use that expression, that the women, during a long period when the ship had to be sealed against radiation and all crew were virtually entombed, enjoyed each other’s intimate company. Nothing much was said of this; it was as though the phenomenon was called up by a state of extreme duress and gone when the condition was alleviated. Well...if Kinsey’s one in ten ratio (which, considering the historical context, was probably conservative),out of a crew of 178, one would reasonably expect at least a dozen, women and men, to be less than excited about the women’s “arrangement,” as it was called. If one did not participate in the “arrangement” one was expected, rather required, to remain celibate. A (heterosexual) couple set off together in a boat to avoid participating, desiring to be monogamous, and died in the attempt. But the Captain himself hypocritically maintains a secret monogamous relationship. Brinkley thus adds another interesting comment to the exposition of power: that power takes its privilege.

This is a powerful novel as meaningful now as when it was written c. 1987, subtle, thoughtful, and beautifully written.

Jack McDonough


Blogger Driver8 said ... (3:21 PM) : 

This is not a particularly good
novel. Brinkley's prime purpose
appears to be to demonstrate his
command of the English language.
There are holes in the plot that
one could sail a frigate through- for example the passage south of
Singapore and then thru the islands
of Indonesia. Brinkley turns a few day's steaming (even at 12 knots) into a weeks long journey.
All of the ships systems apparently are functioning perfectly, BUT they almost ram drifting derelect ships that would be spotted from hundreds of miles out by the ship's radar- no mention that the radar has been compromised.

I haven't finished the book yet
but I can't help thinking that this
is a book by a decent author who has gone one book too far; a comparable example might be Robert
Heinlein who at the end of his literary powers wrote drivel such as "Time Enough For Love".

Not worth a read AFAIK.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (12:44 AM) : 

The original reviewer has a point when he says that the crew's willingness to continue on under the captain's rule stretches believability, but consider that it is no rare occurrence that humans desire to live under a strong leader following a catastrophe (read: Hitler, in the extreme case) and, as j.mcdonough wrote, that people are often reluctant to stand up to authority.

I would also repeat j.mcdonough's point that the 'arrangement' the crew lives by on the island is not quite what the original reviewer makes it out to be. The captain decided in the first section of the book to allow the women, led by Lt. Girard, to work it out for themselves what the arrangement would be. A MAJOR part of the novel is the growing fear that the captain has that the women - and specifically Girard - are becoming immensely powerful, so much so that they are essentially beyond his control. Without spoiling the end of the book, his fears are well-founded.

As for driver8's point, it seems a very minor one considering all that is going on in these pages. It has been stated in some other reviews that Brinkley's science on radiation and fallout is shabby, so perhaps the failure of radar to detect the drifting ships is part of that, or perhaps it is just a minor slip on Brinkley's part. I will admit, however, that there are places in the book - mainly in dialogue - where the author's age is evident.

The Last Ship is an immensely entertaining novel and I found myself being pulled deeply into its pages with a power that very few books have had over me. The lens through which we view this story - through the eyes of a brilliant captain who is devoted to his men, but must keep his distance from them and oftentimes clash with them - is quite unique and is really what earned this book a place among my all-time favorites.


Blogger John said ... (2:49 PM) : 

I totally enjoyed this book. I read it about five years ago and have waited for the sequel,,, OK Mr Brinkley,,,, where is the sequel. You left the ending at a point where everyone knew you were planning on a sequel. Do right by your fans and write the sequel. We've waited long enough.


Blogger Jake said ... (8:30 PM) : 

"an unelected and clearly criminal president"
Great. Another leftist moonbat.


Blogger J. McDonough said ... (8:23 PM) : 

It's always a pleasure to be intellectually engaged by someone who is insightful, whose ideas are profound, arguments elegantly marshaled, and who expresses himself with clarity, wit, and charm. You leave me with little more to say, Jake, my friend, than this: Hello! Anybody home?

L. Moonbat


Blogger Dick Smyth said ... (8:44 AM) : 

I have a love/hate relationship with this book (which I am still reading) On the one hand, I find the post apocalyptic scenario fascinating. On the other, I get irritated, frustrated and even angry at Brinkley's wordy, woolly, pretentious, orotund language, his overtly long and convoluted sentences and his endemic use of "ten dollar" words. I gave up checking them when I was unable to find one in the Oxford Dictionary I keep beside my reading chair. A Hemingway he is not! A good editor could trim this book by a third and leave a far more effective novel.


Blogger Unknown said ... (11:14 PM) : 

The original reviewer didn't seem to read the same book as I did. The women were not coerced in the LEAST. They made all of the decisions concerning sex themselves.
Don't review a book if you haven't even begun to understand it!


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