Through Darkest Europe

Saint Thomas Aquinas, courtesy of Wikipedia

I just finished a new alternative history novel written by Harry Turtledove. I definitely recommend it…even though there’s no dramatic conclusion to it. Plenty of drama, lots of action, good character development…but no major wrap-up of an overriding theme.

Alternative histories are tales that explore what-might-have-beens had some critical event gone a different way. In this case, it was Thomas Aquinas, St. Aquinas, who, rather than trying to incorporate Aristotelian rationality into Christianity, rejected rational discourse in favor of maintaining faith. Because Al-Ghazali, a corresponding figure in the Muslim world, elevated the importance of rational discourse, the modern scientific, rational, increasingly secular world grew out of the Muslim kingdoms rather than their European counterparts.

By what was in effect our time, it’s the Muslim world that has to deal with European dictatorships, barely functional European states, European refugees and immigrants seeking a better life, European suicide bombers, etc.

If this road not taken sounds a bit arcane, you have to remember that Turtledove was at one time (and may still be) a professor of Byzantine history. He is intimately familiar with how the various Mediterranean/Western societies evolved. Some of his earliest alternative history tales are set in a world where the Byzantine Empire never fell…because Mohammed, later Saint Mohammed, became a devout Christian, rather than the founder of Islam.

All in all a fascinating speculation on what can happen when rationalism is rejected or accepted, regardless of a society’s underlying religious orientation.

RIP, Jerry Pournelle

I just read that Jerry Pournelle, one of my favorite sci-fi authors, passed away. Unlike many of his compatriots, he wasn’t an engineer or scientist. Instead, his background was in political science and psychology, coupled to a deep knowledge of history. If his libertarianism got the better of him in his old age he remained a great storyteller.

While he will probably be known for the books he co-authored with Larry Niven — among them Inferno, about a sci-fi author dealing with coming back to life in Dante’s Hell, The Mote in God’s Eye, about first contact with aliens, and Footfall, about an alien invasion of Earth — I’ll always remember him for the stories set in a world which could’ve evolved out of the 1970s.

It was one where the US and the USSR came to realize the only thing they feared more than either of them beating the other was some third power rising up to replace them. Thus was born the CoDominium, a world empire maintained by two nations who hated and feared each other. 

It eventually failed, as all human institutions fail. But in preserving an uneasy peace it bought time for a number of interstellar colonies to be founded, so that when resurgent nationalism in the US and the USSR brought about a long-delayed global thermonuclear holocaust, the species had a shot at surviving.

The price of maintaining that peace was high. From a dialog between a young Marine who’s just seen part of that price tag and his more experienced superior:

“You asked what good we do. We buy time. Back on Earth they’re ready to start a war that won’t end until billions are dead. The Fleet’s the only thing preventing that. The only thing, Hal. Be as cynical about the CoDominium as you like. Be contemptuous of Grand Senator Bronson and his friends — yes, and most of his enemies, too, damn it. But remember that the Fleet keeps the peace, and as long as we do, Earth still lives. If the price of that is getting our hands dirty out here on the frontiers, then it’s a price we have to pay. And while we’re paying it, just once in a while we do something right. I think we did that here.”

Even if you strip out the admittedly romantic view of the military present in that speech, I think something important remains: sometimes the best you can do is just hold on, and take whatever minor victories come your way. Because if you hold on, there will be a tomorrow. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be better.



A Great Book About Nothing

I just finished reading A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss. It’s a grand tour de force that attempts to explain why there’s a universe with a bunch of stuff in it rather than nothing.

Interestingly, it turns out our latest understanding of physics and cosmology allows an attempt at answering the question. Krauss makes a cogent argument for why a universe filled with stuff — that could give rise to things like us — is inevitable, based solely on physics. Because a true state of nothing is inherently unstable. No creator need apply :).

What makes the book enjoyable are two things: Krauss’ irreverent sense of humor (he seems to enjoy poking fun at even himself and his earlier, incorrect perspectives) and the way he lucidly explains how the theoretical understanding on which he bases his argument is derived from, and validated by, empirical data.

As an added bonus, there’s not one piece of mathematical symbolism in the entire book. Although he does occasionally blyihely traipse through written explanations which require a certain amount of mental algebra to keep straight. 

If you’re looking for some mind-bending entertainment incorporating a lot of color and humor, check it out.

Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution

Another great book for your reading pleasure and edification… 🙂 This one’s about how Benedict Arnold transitioned from being a hero of the Revolution to its almost-successful betrayer, and thereby earned the dubious distinction of having his name become a synonym for traitor in American English.

That story is worth the read in its own right. But along the way Philbrick colors in a lot of Revolutionary history that I was unaware of, and which explains a bunch of things. For example, why didn’t the American Revolution devolve the way the French Revolution did a few years later, with Committees of Public Safety, the Terror and the rise of Napoleon? Answer…it started down that path (gulp), with witch hunts dragging people who didn’t express enough support for the Cause out of their homes. In fact, Philbrick asserts that part of the reason it didn’t go further was because of Benedict Arnold turning traitor, which gave enough people pause to remember Franklin’s observation “we must all hang together, or we shall all surely hang separately”.

I also enjoyed reading about how Washington repeatedly put the Revolution in danger by trying to foment “one glorious battle” to defeat the British…failing miserably every time he tried. Which eventually forced him to overcome his naturally aggressive instincts (he was an upper-crust, self-made Virginian, after all) and switch to a war of attrition, and let the nascent United States hang on long enough for the French to make it not worth England’s while to keep the colonies (England made far, far more money off of its Caribbean possessions, which France’s entry into the conflict put immediately at risk, than it did off of the 13 colonies combined).

Which is not to denigrate Washington. Real character, and genius, IMHO, is not in having amazing gifts (or at least not just having amazing gifts), but learning how to surmount the limitations we are each born with, whatever those may be. That’s what made Washington the guy we named our national capital after.

Definitely worth picking up.

East Meets West

I just finished reading a pair of wonderful books, 1491 and 1493, both by Charles Mann. The first, 1491, is an in-depth survey of the history and civilizations of the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and what happened to the folks who had been living here after that event. I found it riveting, and chock full of things that I either had no knowledge of whatsoever, or whose significance I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier.

For example, the “virgin forest” described by early colonial settlers appears to have been the result of intensive farming by the native Americans. As also appears to be the case with the Amazon rainforest. The reason neither was appreciated by the Europeans was because there was little or not tradition of “farming” trees in Europe, and diseases to which the original inhabitants had little resistance spread in advance of the wave of colonization, killing off as much as 95% or 96% of the inhabitants. I cannot imagine what the impact of that extinction level event was to the previously-thriving cultures, which, like the Europeans, had no understanding of how bacteria and viruses cause disease, let alone how to combat them.

1493 focuses on the global paroxysms that resulted from that first contact, as Western Hemisphere crops — and pests — flooded the world, along with Inka silver destabilizing both European and Asian societies. 

Definitely worth reading.

Even Favorite Authors Can Write Too Much

I’m a big fan of David Weber’s work, both his series (Honor Harrington, Empire of Man) and his standalone stories.

I also really enjoy his Safehold books, about a human colony struggling to recover after being set up in scientific and technological stasis by its founders. They wanted to ensure the colony, the last remaining human settlement in the galaxy, wouldn’t be exterminated by an alien species that had wiped out everyone else. The books follow the work of a warrior android, set up by a faction among the original starship’s crew who objected to the cultural stasis, who is brought back to life almost a thousand years after the initial settlement.

It’s a great yarn, spanning quite a few books…but those books are getting amazingly, groaningly long. The latest, Hell’s Foundations Quiver, clocks in at 679 pages (plus a hundred pages listing all the major and recurring characters in the books)! I tend to buy books by favorite authors as hardcovers, for my library. But these massive tomes have almost forced me to switch Weber to eBooks just to keep my wrists from being injured.

Worse yet, while there’s plenty of plot development and action in each of the novels, it’s what’d suffice for, say, 300 pages. When spread over more than twice as many words there are pages and pages of exposition and embellishment and recounting of internal musings galore. So much gubbage that I lose track of where I am, who’s speaking, why they’re important, and how they fit into the developing story.

As a result I’ve done something I’ve never done with novels: I’m skimming them. I really want to see how the story evolves, and maybe even ends someday, but it turns out you don’t miss much by just skipping over most of the verbiage. It feels wrong to do it, but at least I’m preserving my sanity.

I suspect this is all because Weber is immensely popular…and hence immensely profitable for his publisher(s). I’ve noticed before that tends to make books get longer. Editors know that if they push too hard for cuts, their company will be cut out of the gravy train. I first noticed this effect years ago with Tom Clancy.

But it’s sad. Weber’s a hell of a novelist. But his books need to shed some pounds, literally, and go back to the fast-paced work on which he made his name.

Masonry Foundations

Today I went to a 150th anniversary celebration for the local Masonic lodge. While San Carlos, where the lodge resides, hasn’t been around that long, the lodge itself traces back to one which was founded in San Mateo in 1863, moved to Redwood City sometime around the early 1900s and then merged with the San Carlos lodge.

It was a very interesting experience, as I hadn’t known anything about the Masons. Except that they figure in a large number of conspiracy theories, I suspect because they don’t share the details of their beliefs with outsiders.

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Chet and Bernie

Mysteries told from the perspective of a detective’s dog. Sounds weird, but it not only works, the stories are fun to read. That’s the Chet and Bernie series, authored by Spencer Quinn.

Quinn has a knack for getting inside the head of Chet, the canine component of the detective team. Sure, this requires a certain suspension of disbelief, and there are anomalies aplenty. But if you’ve ever spent time with a dog you’ll immediately recognize the “reality” behind Chet’s internal monolog, and laugh your derriere off to boot. Even the continuity lapses — Chet, like any other dog, is easily distracted by food, smells, and other dogs — make sense. And the way he wanders into certain situations (“I really don’t like this guy. Wait, how’d I get over here with my teeth in his pant leg?”) does, too.

Granted, you won’t find social commentary or deeply convoluted plots here. But for a rollicking good time, give Chet and Bernie a try!

The Zeroes

Ah, the zeroes! While it’s admittedly a little early to look back on the first decade of the 21st century – it only ended a couple of months ago – it merits some reflection given all the stuff that happened, particularly on Wall Street. Which is where Randall Lane’s The Zeroes comes in – it’s a “tell all” book about the Masters of the Universe and how their shenanigans and excesses brought us all to the brink of Great Depression II.

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I just finished reading a new book by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit. It’s called Unbroken, and it’s about the life and times of someone who was once quite famous but I had never heard of.

His name is Louis Zamperini, and he was an Olympic-class track star who likely would have been the man to have broken the four minute mile in the 1940 Olympics, which were not held due to the outbreak of World War II. Which war then took Louis into its embrace, setting him adrift across the Pacific in a liferaft no larger than our little inflatable vacation boat with two other downed airmen, before consigning him to the tender mercies of Imperial Japan’s POW system.

Yet for all that — and there’s much more all in the that — it’s an uplifting story. I highly recommend it.

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