New computer who dis?

If you sent me mail before August, and you didn’t get a reply and you still want one, please e-mail me. Especially if you’re a (potential) reader of the Middle East Construction Kit.

I got a new Mac at that time, and for some reason it imported all my mail except for things in my inbox before that date. And unfortunately I have a bad habit of leaving things in my inbox for years.

No problem, I thought: they’re still all there on the old computer. Only I checked today and they’re not. (I guess they should be on the backup drive, but I don’t know where Mail stores its data or if it’s at all readable.)

Not gonna lie, an occasional mail reset due to getting a new computer is kind of nice. But there’s at least some mail in there I wish I hadn’t lost…

If you are a MECK reader and haven’t sent me comments yet, please get in touch, as I’m getting the physical proof copy made and I have only a few weeks to make final changes.

Hebrew vs. Aramaic

I wrote this for my book, but at the last moment I decided to replace it with a different text more typical of Biblical Hebrew. This is pretty technical, so feel free to skip it till Middle East Construction Kit comes out and you can read the Hebrew mini-grammar there. Many thanks to Carlo Yehuda Meloni who provided the texts and transliterations.

Let’s take the opportunity to compare Hebrew and Aramaic. We’ll look at Daniel 7:2-4, which is written in Aramaic. The English translation is the JPS’s.

First, here’s the Hebrew. This is actually a +19C back-translation into Hebrew by Samuel Leib Gordon. As such it’s a far later Hebrew than BH, and highly influenced by Aramaic. The main difference is a very frequent use of the active participle rather than the PC or SC. (Prefixing vs suffixing conjugations.)

עוֹנֶה דָּנִיֵּאל וְאוֹמֵר: רוֹאֶה הָיִיתִי בַּחֲזוֹנִי עִם לַיְלָה, וְהִנֵּה אַרְבַּע רוּחוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם מְגִיחוֹת לַיָּם הַגָּדוֹל.

ʿōneh Dāniyyēl wə-ʾōmer, rōʾeh hāyītī ba-ħăzōnī ʿim laylāh, wə-hinneh ʾarbaʿ rūħōṯ ha-ššāmayīm məgīħōṯ la-yyām ha-ggāḏōl.

answering-sm Daniel and-speaking-sm / seeing-sm be.SC-1s in-vision-1s with night / and-behold four.f wind-pl.cons the-heaven-du stirring-pl.f to-sea the-great-sm

Daniel related the following: In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea.

וְאַרְבַּע חַיּוֹת גְּדוֹלוֹת עוֹלוֹת מִן הַיָּם, שׁוֹנוֹת זוֹ מִזּוֹ.

Wə-ʾarbaʿ ħayyōṯ gəḏōlōṯ ʿōlōṯ min ha-yyām, šōnōṯ zō mizzō.

and-four.f beast-pl great-pl.f coming-pl.f from the-sea / differing-pl.f this.sf from-this.sf

Here zoṯ ‘this.sf’ is replaced by zō, as in Mišnaic Hebrew.

Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea.

הָרִאשׁוֹנָה כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְנָפַיִם שֶׁל נֶשֶׁר לָהּ, רוֹאֶה הָיִיתִי עַד אֲשֶׁר נִמְרְטוּ כְנָפֶיהָ וְנִשְּׂאָה מִן הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל רַגְלַיִם כְּאָדָם הוּקָמָה, וּלְבַב אָדָם נִתַּן לָהּ.

Hā-riʾšōnāh kə-ʾaryēh ū-ḵənāpayīm šel nešer lāh, rōʾeh hā-yīṯī ʿaḏ ʾăšer nimrəṭū kənāpēyṯāh wə-nissʾāh min hā-ʾāreṣ, wə-ʿal raglayīm kəʾāḏām hūqāmāh, ū-ləḇaḇ ʾāḏām nittaw lāh.

the-first-sf as-lion / and-wing-du which eagle to-3sf / seeing-sm be.SC-1s until sub scour.nip̄ʿal.SC-3pm wing-du.cons-3sf and-3sf-raise.nip̄ʿal.SC from the-earth / and-on foot.du as-man stand.hop̄ʿal.SC-3sf and-heart.cons man give.SC-3sm to-3sf

You’d expect the construct state for ‘wings of eagles’, but Aramaic preferred the construction X di Y, and Gordon translates this literally as X šel Y.

The first was like a lion but had eagles’ wings. As I looked on, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted off the ground and set on its feet like a man and given the mind of a man.

Daniel was written as late as the 2C, so the transliteration I’ve been using, suitable for the Iron Age, is anachronistic. Carlo Yehuda Meloni provides the following phonemic transcription:

ʕonɛ daniyyel wəʔomer: roʔɛ hɔyiθi baħazoni ʕim laylɔ, wəhinne ʔarbaʕ ruħoθ haʃʃɔmayim məɣiħoθ layyɔm haggɔðol. wəʔarbaʕ ħayyoθ gəðoloθ ʕoloθ min hayyɔm, ʃonoθ zo mizzo. hɔriʃonɔ kəʔarye uxnɔfayim ʃɛl nɛʃɛr lɔh, roʔɛ hɔyiθi ʕað ʔaʃɛr nimrətˤu xənɔfɛhɔ wəniśśəʔɔ min hɔʔɔrɛsˤ, wəʕal raɣlayim kəʔɔðɔm huqɔmɔ, ulvav ʔɔðɔm nittan lɔh.

Here’s the Aramaic Biblical text.

עָנֵה דָנִיֵּאל וְאָמַר, חָזֵה הֲוֵית בְּחֶזְוִי עִם-לֵילְיָא; וַאֲרוּ, אַרְבַּע רוּחֵי שְׁמַיָּא, מְגִיחָן, לְיַמָּא רַבָּא.

ʕɔne ðɔniyyel wəʔɔmar, ħɔze haweθ bəħɛzwi ʕim leləyɔ; waʔaru, ʔarbaʕ ruħe ʃəmayyɔ, məɣiħɔn ləyammɔ rabbɔ.

speak.act.part-sm Daniel and-speak.act.part-sm / look.act.part-sm see.SC-1s in-vision-1s with night / and-behold / four.sf wind-pl.cons heaven stir.act.part-sf to-sea great-sm

Daniel related the following: In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea.

וְאַרְבַּע חֵיוָן רַבְרְבָן, סָלְקָן מִן-יַמָּא, שָׁנְיָן, דָּא מִן-דָּא.

wəʔarbaʕ ħewɔn ravrəvɔn sɔləqɔn min yammɔ, ʃɔnəyɔn dɔ min dɔ.

and-four beast-pl great-pl.f come.act.part-pl.f from sea / differ.act.part-pl.f this.sf from this.sf

Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea.

קַדְמָיְתָא כְאַרְיֵה, וְגַפִּין דִּי-נְשַׁר לַהּ; חָזֵה הֲוֵית עַד דִּי-מְּרִיטוּ גפיה (גַפַּהּ) וּנְטִילַת מִן-אַרְעָא, וְעַל-רַגְלַיִן כֶּאֱנָשׁ הֳקִימַת, וּלְבַב אֱנָשׁ, יְהִיב לַהּ.

qaðmɔyəθɔ xəʔarye, wəɣappin di nəʃar lah; ħɔze haweθ ʕað di-mməritˤu ɣappah untˤilaθ min ʔarʕɔ, wəʕal raɣlayin kɛʔɛnɔʃ hoqimaθ, ulvav ʔɛnɔʃ yəhiv lah.

first-sf as-lion / and-wing-pl of eagle to-3sf watch.act.part-sm watch.SC-1s until till pluck.nifal.SC-3pm / wing-pl.cons-3sf and-3sf-raise.nifal.PC from earth / and-on feet.du as-man stand.hofal.SC-3sf and-heart.cons man give.SC-3sm to-3sf

The first was like a lion but had eagles’ wings. As I looked on, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted off the ground and set on its feet like a man and given the mind of a man.

Piranesi

Since I’m still awake, I’ll write another review, this one of something I liked: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

If you know nothing about it, it’s a fable, something of an urban fantasy. The title character lives in another world, which he calls the House– because it’s all one house or mansion. It extends for thousands of rooms in all directions, and despite years of exploration Piranesi has never found an end to it. The lower floors are filled with oceans; the upper floors with clouds. He lives off fish, shellfish, and seaweed he finds in the ocean, and he keeps an obsessive journal– the novel purports to be its 10th volume.

For company there are a few skeletons, and a mysterious man he calls the Other– the only living human he knows. The Other shows up twice a week for meetings. The Other is pursuing what he calls Great and Secret Knowledge which he thinks is hidden in the House; he does not search for it himself, but encourages Piranesi to explore. (He provides him with notebooks and pens.)

The first part of the book explores the House, the strange narrator, and his strange friend. Piranesi, oddly enough, is completely happy with his life. He has excellent recall of everything he’s seen in the House, and he’s satisfied with his daily routines and occasional longer journeys. Every room is full of statues, and he knows them all. He talks to the birds which fly through the halls, and leaves offerings to the skeletons. He regards the Other as a friend, though he is skeptical about the Great and Secret Knowledge.

This idyll is threatened by new knowledge– starting with a visit from another living person, who Piranesi calls the Prophet. The Prophet tells him things that put in question what he knows about the House, and the Other, and himself. He begins to explore these clues…

I won’t say here what he finds, except for what the book jacket reveals– that there is another world besides the House. And magic is involved.

The obvious comparison is to Borges’s Library of Babel– though the House is more a catalogue of the visual than the literary arts, and was more densely populated. It’s also reminiscent of Schuiten & Peeters’ brilliant and gorgeous French graphic novel La Tour (The Tower), which also depicts a near-infinite architectural monstrosity with few human residents and a mysterious origin.

Reviews usually mention C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, probably because it contains a few explicit references to it, and because the House also recalls the huge palace of Charn. But the comparison is not very illuminating. Piranesi’s House is not Charn: it’s not lifeless, it’s not the sinister end of an evil civilization, and there are no traces of Aslan or the Witch here. There is some human evil, but the House itself is– at least as Piranesi experiences it– a peaceful and even joyful place.

What it’s not much like is Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I liked that one, but it takes a long time to get going, while Piranesi is just 245 pages. One thing they do share is that in both novels, Clarke commits to the bit, as comedians say. Strange is written in the form and diction of long 19th century novels, while Piranesi showcases the oddness of its main character, who learns all sorts of things during his adventures but never becomes what we’d call normal.

I liked the book a lot, and finished it in one long binge. Most everything gets explained eventually, at least one of the bad guys is dealt with satisfactorily, and Piranesi manages to adapt to his new knowledge without entirely losing the calm he found in the House.

It doesn’t explore its magic very thoroughly. I don’t think that’s a flaw, but it’s good to set expectations: if you like your sf ideas teased out in all their complications, this isn’t that.

I do think that– as with The Tower— the first half of the book works the best, when we are most exposed to the awesome and strange world of the House and don’t understand it yet. Schuiten & Peeters couldn’t really make the mystery pay off. I think Clarke does better at that, but some of the magic does leak out. One disappointment, perhaps (in white to avoid spoilers)… the Great and Secret Knowledge turns out to be a dud. Which is realistic, but it might have been more interesting if the Other’s project was more of an actual threat.

Sable: ugh

Negative reviews are kind of annoying; but I’m a bad mood and might as well express it, and maybe draw some game design lessons.

I’ve been looking forward to Sable for years. I tried it tonight and bounced off it so hard I got a refund.

From pictures, it looked like it took a lot of inspiration from Moebius. In-game, it’s not quite as impressive: it’s all flat colors and the overall effect is to turn a complicated 3-D scene into simple flatness. And the cutscenes for some reason are low-FPS. For what it’s worth, Moebius usually modeled his shapes with meticulous linework and subtle coloring. But eh, not a big problem.

The big problem is the terrible UI. This is foreshadowed by the moment you get control. You’re in some sort of temple, facing a big sculpture of a face. You can walk around, climb the face, stand on top of it looking outside through a hole in the roof you can’t get out of. Turns out you’re supposed to ignore all that and walk out the other way. Lesson 1: when you highlight something with details and lighting, players will think it’s important and spend time on it. Don’t waste those cues on nothing.

I walked out and ran into a child who offered something I was told I wanted, in return for some beetles. Fine, it’s My First Fetch Quest. You can talk to other people and they’ll give you a vague hint where the beetles are (“go east”). Fine, only…

  • There’s no indication of where east is. It turns out you need a compass, which you get later on.
  • I went east and saw no beetles. The compass highlights points of interest, but there was nothing to indicate where the beetles are. It’s a big world, you can lose insects in a lot of places.
  • Everyone you talk to will give you that same option to talk about the beetles, which you can’t skip.
  • Since I’m in a bad mood, I might as well complain that no one explains why I want the thing the child is offering. Is it a side quest, or something I need to advance the story? No idea.

Lesson 2: Playing hunt-the-pixel was tedious even back in the ’90s. Don’t be mysterious about what you want from the player.

Next, I talked to someone who was supposed to have a glider for me. Cool, supposedly this is the key to the whole game. It’s not ready yet for some reason… fine, it’s a multi-stage quest. But the first step is, he wants you to ride a beater glider to test it out (i.e. preview the skills). The conversation implies that it’s right next to him.

The glider isn’t there. All that’s around him are a few boxes. You can wander around camp or the surrounding desert… there’s nothing that looks like a glider. You can talk to people… no hints. You can bring up the compass… nothing points to a glider. You can talk to Glider Guy again, and he explains where the beetles are, then tells you he won’t talk to you till you’ve flown the glider which he won’t tell you where it is. There is no option to skip the beater glider and get the real one instead.

I looked around for awhile and gave up. If it’s a bug, it’s pretty bad that it makes the tutorial fail. If you’re supposed to wander around the big area available to you until you find it… come on. Lesson 3: don’t hate the player that much. When you’re obviously gating further progress to a task, don’t fucking hide the thing in some non-obvious location.

I did read a few reviews, and obviously some people are progressing easily enough. That’s nice. But to me, the time I spent with the game told me one of two things.

  • Maybe the developers really do hate the player– it’s supposed to be a frustrating grind. In which case, I’m glad I found out within the refund period.
  • Maybe the developers didn’t test their game. Like most developers, their idea of testing was “I ran it once and it didn’t crash.” They know where the damn glider is, so they don’t see a problem. Did they try watching someone else play their game? Even for an indie studio, that level of non-testing is not acceptable.

I’m mildly curious, but very mildly, where these things were. But that’s lesson 4: put the frustrating bits later in the game. Once I’m committed to a game, I’m willing to put up with grind. (It’s astonishing how much time I’ll put into grinding in Minecraft.) But the first hour or two of a game is key to making me feel committed. At that point, you’re still selling the game. Make it interesting and don’t make it impossible.

One more thought: a game can decide that a particular quest item shouldn’t just be highlighted on the map, but there are alternatives besides “randomly hide the thing in a large area and don’t show any clues at all.” E.g. the minimap in Borderlands will highlight you the area where you should hunt. Dishonored had the Heart which gives you the distance to the sought item; by heading to where it beats faster you get the direction. Minecraft has you locate strongholds by throwing an item which will point in the right direction.

The Psychology of Time Travel

I found this book, by Kate Mascarenhas, more or less by chance. It was on the next shelf from where Arkady Martine’s next book should have been, and it was about time travel– I’m a sucker for anything about time travel. And in fact it’s really good! Once I was into it I had to keep going till I was done. And now I’m out of books.

The basic setup: four women– Margaret, Barbara, Grace, and Lucille– invent time travel, in 1967. One of them, Barbara, is overstressed and has a sort of breakdown in front of the media, and she’s kicked out of the group. The rest form an organization to manage time travel, the Conclave.

In July 2017 Barbara receives a cryptic note which turns out to be the report of a death six months in the future, and discusses it with her granddaughter Ruby. In January 2018, a girl named Odette finds a corpse in a locked boiler room… locked from the inside.

So, it’s a mystery, and an sf story, and true to its title it really is about the psychology of time travel: how it might mess with your head. What happens if you know the day you die? Or the day your loved one dies? More strangely yet… how do you grieve, or do you grieve, if after they die you can, whenever you want, take a trip into the past to see them again?

Fitting the subject, the structure of the book is all over the chronological map. Most of it centers on the murder and its aftermath in 2017-18, but chapters are set in the previous or following decades. There are quite a few characters, though the chief ones are named above.

Mascarenhas’s version of time travel is deterministic, and also future-oriented: time travel requires a receptive apparatus, so you can’t travel back before the device was invented. (You also can’t travel more than 300 years in the future. It’s hinted that the 24th century is pretty nasty, and perhaps all the machines are destroyed.)

Most of the focus is on the Conclave itself. Its structure is a baffling, because time travel sort of collapses its 300-year timespan. Any given agent may be given an assignment at a future or past time; people get intimately familiar with their past and future selves; you can even make a phone call to any Conclave employee at any time. There’s an extensive Conclave slang, which never changes since it’s shared over that entire time period. There are objects called “genies” which are acausal: a future you hands it to a younger you, so it exists uncreated in a years-long time loop.

A major subplot is a romance between Ruby and one of the pioneers, which has the brain-busting peculiarity that the lifespans of the two characters barely overlap. Romance is weird for time travelers: if they end up with a partner, they know who it is, often before they’ve met. Also, is it infidelity if, while you’re partnered, you also hook up with yourself?

The Conclave also turns out to be kind of a nasty thing. It’s located in London, but it’s outside the jurisdiction of British law, since the agents present at any one moment in time may be from anywhen, and it’s not clear what set of laws should apply. And it reflects the heavy hand of Margaret, at the top, and her determination that psychological problems like Barbara’s never recur. Naturally, worrying so hard about one problem leads into a set of opposite problems.

The book must have been hell to plot. It’s a lot of fun to explore all these concepts, and almost all of the characters are interesting to be with. (All the viewpoint characters are female; from an interview, it seems that the author tried male characters, and found that readers took the male characters as more important. So she just made everyone important be female.)

Mascarenhas works out lots of weird side-effects of time travel as the Conclave practices it, though I’m not sure they’re worked out enough. To try to explain without spoilers: information about future events is a phone call away. Sometimes the characters use this information; and to make the plot work, some of the characters (Barbara, Ruby, Odette) spend much of the book outside the Conclave and thus have to plod through normal time like regular humans. But some events proceed as if the Conclave weren’t using its own mechanisms. (Though, the timeline being unchangeable, perhaps the ultimate argument is “things happened that way because they did.”)

An example with spoilers: Odette joins the Conclave to dig up info. Because she had therapy, she is ineligible per Margaret’s rules, and she hides this for a time. When it’s revealed, she’s kicked out. There’s a testing process for entry, lovingly detailed; why isn’t part of it calling the future to see if she’s still employed in a month? There may be answers in this particular case– e.g. Odette is hired as a sort of internal detective, and perhaps policy is to not to mess with them. But the same issue comes up with larger plot points. E.g. after 2018 everyone knows that Margaret is a bit of a nutter. How could this be kept a secret before then, when travelers are constantly going back into her tenure? I don’t think these are flaws, it just worries me a bit.)

Buggy book

At the library I picked up a book on history which I hoped would be dull but informative– perfect for reading at the gym or just before bed. Almost the first thing in the book is a map of the ancient Middle East, which shows Sumer… as a city.

Oops! But maybe this was a singular error and the text would be OK. But no, it turns out to be full of little errors.

  • The author says that both Egypt and Mesopotamia tamed their rivers by means of elaborate waterworks. That’s more or less true of southern Mesopotamia; not so much Assyria or Egypt. Egypt barely needed waterworks: the entire Nile valley flooded every year, and the Egyptians just had to recover the locations of their fields after the flood.
  • He has Egypt founded by Menes, not Narmer. He describes the Nubians as being too weak to resist Egyptian domination, though in fact Nubia conquered Egypt at one point.
  • He describes the Amarna letters as showing the supremacy of Egypt over all other kingdoms, and to prove this quotes a letter from an Egyptian vassal. In fact the letters show that the major states were and presented themselves as fully equal to Egypt. A little clue that Egypt wasn’t top dog is that the letters are written in Akkadian!
  • He has the Sumerians as successors to the Akkadians, and declares that the Sumerians ruled from Ur. In fact the Sumerians came first, and were notoriously divided into fractious city-states. He talks about the Assyrians inheriting culture from the Babylonians– he doesn’t seem to realize that they spoke the same language.
  • He says that Babylon never recovered after the fall of Hammurabi– though in fact it was a major player for another thousand years, usually able to stand up to Assyria, and finally triumphant over it. He mentions the Kassite takeover of Babylon but doesn’t seem to know that the Kassites ruled peacefully for almost 500 years.
  • He summarizes Hinduism as the worship of Lakshmi and Vishnu, which not only erases Shiva but forgets that there was a whole different pantheon in Vedic times.
  • He says that India’s major external threat, until the Europeans arrives in the 16C, was the nomads of Central Asia. Which, um, forgets the Persians, the Greeks, and the Arabs.
  • He has the early Chinese surrounded by exotic peoples named Xirong, Beidi, and Nanman. This is a confused and truncated reflection of the Chinese giving a name to the barbarians in each direction: Róng to the west, Dí to the north, Mán to the south, and Yí to the east. The author’s versions redundantly add the Chinese direction name: Xī-Róng = ‘west Róng’. None of these names should be taken as ethnic groups or nations.
  • He uses temple names for (medieval) Chinese emperors, which leads to absurdity when he mentions a Khitan emperor crowning himself Taizu. First, temple names are posthumous; second, Tàizǔ is the traditional temple name given to the founder of a dynasty; it’s more of a title (‘great ancestor’) than a name.

Naturally, my upcoming book won’t have these errors. (Of course, in my less self-confident moments I worry that it will be riddled with other errors. But hopefully they’ll be more interesting and better-informed ones.)

I’m not going to name the book, because my intent is not to shame the author. I don’t expect to finish it, anyway, because he’s lost my trust. I expect he’s reading way out of his field, and he is trying to talk about all of history, which implies a pretty overwhelming research load. But still, didn’t he have any specialist friends who could give the manuscript a quick read?

Oh, one more complaint– he talks about a Middle Eastern “dark age” from 1200-1000. That’s not an error exactly, but it’s kind of an outdated way of thinking. In many regions historians focus on strong, high-profile states… largely because these are the places that left impressive ruins and lots of documents. It’s fair to say that these were nice times to be alive if you were in the elite and lived in the capital. It’s far less accurate to say that these were the best times for the rest of the population.

Take, say, the Old Kingdom of Egypt. We can trace the rising power of the leaders from predynastic times, culminating in the near-totalitarian power of the 4th dynasty (which built the Giza pyramids). Centuries later, the power of the kings declined; tombs of provincial leaders increased in size; there was a tendency toward regional art styles. Finally the central power collapsed.

Was this a “dark age”? For the royal family, sure! But arguably prosperity was spread far more equally at the end of the dynasty and beyond it, and the common people were perhaps better off when they weren’t being forced to build pyramids.

We get the “dark ages” concept from European history, and European historians’ eternal disappointment at the fall of Rome.

  • The prosperity of the Roman empire is frequently exaggerated, especially in the West. Urbanism didn’t have deep roots in Gaul or Spain, and largely collapsed when central authority did.
  • Rome was really pretty badly managed. There was never really a golden age of Roman republicanism, and the emperors operated at about the level of Third World warlords.
  • The collapse in power and technology we see in the western half of the empire should not be imputed to interregna elsewhere, e.g. China and India. A set of small kingdoms ruling where there was once an empire is not inherently bad.

The Collapsing Empire

This, by John Scalzi, was another of the books recommended by NPR, but it turns out to be very similar in theme to A Memory Called Empire. It’s also a space opera about (spoiler) a collapsing empire, and even explores the same idea of a sentient brainscan. What I learned: it’s best not to read two space operas in a row about collapsing empires.

It’s not bad, mind you. The basic setup: humanity lives in the Interdependency, a network of colonies dominated by guilds (basically megacorps with monopolies), linked by a para-space called the Flow that provides FTL travel. The problem is that the Flow is disappearing, which will be particularly bad because human society has been designed to be interdependent– so the colonies will probably die off on their own. Only one colony is an actual planet, called End.

There’s a number of viewpoint characters: Kiva, a roguish and foul-mouthed Owner’s Representative on a trading ship at End; Cardenia, the new and unprepared Emperox of the Interdependency; Marce, a scholar from End who has the best insight into how the Flow is failing.

Let’s start with the positive: the prelude, which sets the tone and the theme. It details an attempted mutiny on yet another spaceship. It’s fun and showcases what Scalzi seems to do best: tough asshole characters, tense but witty confrontations, quick reversals, and a good helping of comedy. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like the book. And the series; it’s a trilogy.

The overall situation is good too, though maybe it hits a little close to our little problem, the looming climate change apocalypse. The Interdependency feels like a bunch of overgrown Renaissance city-states, everyone trying to screw each other over without quite violating social norms. Throwing an existential threat at these people is an excellent way to see what they’re made of.

So, I like a lot of it but I also find it tiring. The comparison to Arkady Martine does not help it. I think the things that rub me the wrong way are these:

  • The characters are divided into good assholes and nasty assholes. (Not everyone, but close enough.) I actually like Kiva a lot– she’s lively and inventive. But, I dunno, there’s a reason Star Wars didn’t consist only of Han Solo and Boba Fett. It’s nice to have some actually likeable people in there somewhere.
  • The multiple viewpoint characters are a good fit for space opera, but I miss the focus provided by a single protagonist.
  • The Interdependency as Scalzi portrays it is hard to like– Martine is far better at explaining why an empire could be both dangerous and attractive. But the deeper problem is that the systemic problems are sidelined in favor of building up one particular clan as the archvillains. That is, Scalzi understands that the Interdependency is hopelessly corrupt, but still writes a story where shooting three people would pretty much fix everything.
  • Come on, Scalzi, you literally give your exposition of the Flow in the form of a lecture for schoolchildren?
  • The structure is weirdly digressive and repetitive. E.g. something like a third of the book is devoted on getting Marce from Point A to Point B. He’s threatened at home, then kidnaped, then they send assassins after him, then pirates. It’s competent thriller-plot, but did we need all four of these inconveniences, especially when the bad guy is the same one each time and we learn nothing new about him? The Chandler plot, careening from one danger to another, doesn’t work merely because it puts the hero in danger, but because it deepens the plot and provides surprises.
  • One more unfortunate comparison: Martine is far better at showing how it feels to be involved in apocalyptic events. It’s fun when a resourceful character like Kiva keeps sidestepping the enemy, but it’s more affecting when a character sometimes feels overwhelmed and panicky.

I’m afraid this sounds more negative than I meant it to. When something feels off about a book or game, I want to analyze that until I feel I understand it. But if I’d read this book first, or been in a slightly different mood, I’d probably have liked it more.

FWIW, re-reading my review of Scalzi’s Redshirts, I note that I had a very similar reaction: great idea, weird structure, and a certain difficulty in raising the emotional temperature.

Sales Report 2021

I haven’t done one of these in awhile. The kobolds in the Accountancy Wing of the Zompist Fortressplex have produced a chart on book sales for the last ten years. (Kobolds are cheaper than goblins, and easily replaceable after infestations of first-level adventurers.)

Total sales are just over 41,000 units. Of that, 25,000 are paperbacks, the rest are e-books. The LCK has sold about 18,000, which is quite respectable for a book. That probably means that it’s inspired at least 30,000 conlangs, which is a little frightening. (Obviously, many readers never produce a conlang, but Conlangs Georg, an outlier, creates one every day.)

The to-date chart is skewed a bit toward older titles. Month by month, the Syntax book does as well as the other linguistics books.

If you’ve ever wondered why authors keep writing what they’ve always written, look at the smaller slices. The best-selling novel, Against Peace and Freedom, has just 384 sales. I feel like I just can’t write more fiction yet. The history/language books do better but not great, but I can’t write an endless series of linguistics books.

(Oh, if the order in the pie chart is baffling, it’s chronological.)

If you’ve bought any books, thank you! Buy some more, they’re priced to move!

A Memory Called Empire

There was a great post on NPR on the best sf/fantasy of the last decade, and I’m trying to read some of them. The first one I found at the library is this one, by Arkady Martine.

The book is dedicated to “anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own”, and that pretty much sums up the theme of the book. It’s about the devastation and the allure of empire.

The setup is simple enough. The viewpoint character is Mahit Dzmare, newly appointed ambassador from a border space station to the Empire of Teixcalaan. As soon as she arrives at the capital city-planet, she learns that her predecessor is dead, probably murdered. She has an imago of him– a sentient brainscan– but it malfunctions, leaving her alone, unless she can trust any of the Teixcalaanli. At least she has a hypercompetent liaison officer / shadow, Three Seagrass. (This is a great standard way to explore a conworld, by the way: use an outsider, so as they learn about the culture we can too, in a natural way.)

The structure of the book is interesting. A lot of sf is emotionless problem-solving– think Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Stross. Empire is most reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler novel. As in a Marlowe novel, Mahit follows leads, has fraught conversations, gets into new predicaments, and when the author wants to shake things up, there’s a new assassination attempt. With one important difference: Mahit is the opposite of a native, and has no allies to start with– the one she should have, her imago, is gone.

As a consequence, the plot feels chaotic for about half the book. She doesn’t even meet the Emperor till page 229. A contrast is with N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the outsider heroine meets all the major players in a few chapters, and is even assured that there’s no one else who matters.

The names– plus a certain cultural fascination with blood sacrifice– come from the Aztecs, but much more comes from Martine’s academic specialty: the Byzantine empire. In interviews, she also mentions Rome and the US, but curiously doesn’t mention the closest parallel: the Chinese empire, which could be both a military juggernaut and a machine for cultural assimilation. Teixcalaan is portrayed as robustly exporting novels, films, and poetry, and even has an examination system like the Chinese. Mahit herself is a devotee of Teixcalaanli literature, though she realizes that to the imperials she’ll never be more than a barbarian.

(That may be true of her Byzantine models, but I think it’s not true of most empires, which are usually quite open to outsiders. I recently discussed Lucian of Samosata, who was Syrian but became a highly popular Greek writer; think also of Italian composers in Austria, Central Asian traders in Xi’an, Greek generals in Xerxes’ army.)

The para-Nahuatl names are cool but a bit misleading, I think: they suggest a more direct modeling of the Aztec empire than Martine is actually doing. A little actual conlanging would have been in order here.

Everything has a space opera sheen, but really the one sf element that’s carefully explored is the imago– a technology that Mahit’s Lsel Station has, but the Empire doesn’t. Here the plot gets in the way a bit: as Mahit’s imago malfunctions, we spend most of the book not seeing how the things work. Still, the idea eventually pays off.

A nice bit about the book is that character gender seems to be random or nearly so. Both Lsel and Teixcalaan have both women and men in positions of power, and no one makes a big deal of gender at all. (It’s fine if a sf writer wants to confront gender essentialism, but it’s nice to take a holiday from it sometimes. It’s not like either society lacks for other problems to explore.)

I don’t like everything about the ending– to be precise, the plot is wrapped up, but truncating the lesbian romance and sending Mahit back home are dissatisfying. But I see that there’s a sequel (A Desolation Called Peace), which seems to address those issues.

If it’s not clear, I liked the book a lot, and I’m eager to read the sequel. Mahit and Three Seagrass are both great characters, the mystery structure is fun, and Martine succeeds in her primary aim, showing how an empire can be both frightening and compelling.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that Lsel never becomes quite as real as the Empire. We learn a lot about it, but by the end of the book we care far more about Teixcalaanli politics. At the same time, and despite a cast large enough that Martine has to provide a glossary of names, it’s never quite explained how a station of 30,000 souls can be quite so important to the Empire and the Emperor. (I mean, plot-wise, it is explained; it’s just a weak bit of conworlding. And it could have been easily fixed: make the Stationers two or three orders of magnitude bigger. 3 million Stationers would still be tiny compared to the Empire, but more credible as a little outpost of high technology.)

The Russian Revolution

I just finished China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. It’s about Russia.

If you don’t know, Miéville is chiefly known as an sf novelist. Here’s my reviews of his Perdido Street Station and Kraken.

I knew very little going in: that there were two revolutions; some guy named Kerensky was in power in between; the Bolsheviks took over in October. (October by the Orthodox calendar then in use in Russia; November to outsiders.) And from Solzhenitsyn I remembered the stew of factions: the Kadets (constitutional democrats), SRs (Socialist Revolutionary Party, divided into Left and Right), Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, and more.

It is of course a much wider and weirder story, and Miéville tells it with gusto. It’s tempting to recount the story here, but I’d probably have to read the book again. Still, some points that surprised me:

  • Lenin was not the major player until very late: he spent much of the year in exile, external or internal, and very often was at odds with the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks.
  • Similarly, Stalin barely appears.
  • The Feb-to-Oct period was characterized by Двоевластие “dual power”, meaning that power was shared by the Duma (the Provisional Revolutionary Government) and the Soviet (Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), an amalgation of workers and peasants based in Petrograd, the capital. They both arose during the February Revolution and even used the same building, the Tauride Palace.
  • Kerensky didn’t become prime minister till July. He wasn’t a bourgeois but a socialist, a member of the SRs. He was one of the few people who had a leading role in both the Duma and the Soviet.
  • From Solzhenitsyn I learned about the Bolsheviks’ slow, totalitarian destruction of every other party, ending with a cannibalistic attack on its own. This had barely started in 1917; but what was new to me was that almost everyone (i.e. the other parties) wanted to do away with one or another political party at one time or another.
  • The final crisis was precipitated by an attempted counterrevolutionary coup, led by general Kornilov, who was in negotiations with Kerensky. They wanted what counterrevolutionaries always want: a vindictive military dictatorship. Partly due to a comedy of errors that the book gleefully recounts, Kerensky turned against it at the last minute, but he was hopelessly discredited, and the Soviet increasingly chose to rely only on itself.
  • Everyone was enthusiastically democratic during this year– soldiers wanted to elect officers, workers were electing soviets to run factories, peasants burned the landlords’ mansions and organized rural soviets. It was a strangely bureaucratic revolution, proceeding through endless meetings, special committees, votes, debates, rants published in the innumerable newspapers.
  • By world standards, both revolutions were amazingly bloodless. Large elements of the army had gone over to the Soviets, which for the most part was enough to make the regime defenders (the tsar in February, the PRG in October) surrender. More than once a wavering counterrevolutionary force was overcome by sending people to debate the soldiers. The fabled taking of the PRG’s Winter Palace in October was almost anticlimactic, so much so that the Bolsheviks had to rewrite it for their mythology as a bloody struggle. (The real blood came later on, when the counterrevolutionaries (the Whites) started a civil war.)
  • The tsar was a perfect illustration of Orwell’s analysis of conservatism as deeply imbued with stupidity. Nikolai seemed completely unable to understand anything that was going on, including the danger to his own rule. About his only response to events in Petrograd was to impatiently order the generals to suppress the unrest. The idea of even making conciliatory gestures seemed not even to register in his brain.

It’s pretty clear from the book– though this may not be Miéville’s intention– that the determining factor in 1917 was World War I. Russia was losing, it was tired of the war; the army was plagued by desertions; food was getting scarce in the cities. There was a sort of pre-revolution in 1905, when the Duma was created, but the tsarist system was able to largely ignore reformism until the war. The officers were almost all loyalists, but their military doctrine included harsh treatment of the soldiers: one of the first demands the rebelling soldiers made was for basic courtesy. The officers’ attitude (plus, you know, the threat of useless death) was a big part of why the army sided with the revolutionaries.

The war also put the PRG in a bind. It was effectively impossible to keep the war going. Kerensky convinced himself otherwise, and organized a small offensive that succeeded for only a few days, then failed. The army was barely up for defense, much less offense; nothing was done to address food shortages. Shackling itself to a deeply unpopular cause, the PRG was doomed. The only party that consistently took an anti-war position was the Bolsheviks, which contributed to their rising popularity.

Finally, when Lenin took power, his decision to make peace with the Germans– at the cost of losing the Baltics, Finland, Belarus, and Ukraine (March 1918)– committed Russia to going it alone, and set the stage for nearly a century of polarized world politics. This was not Lenin’s intent– he thought Germany, at least, would turn communist. And it’s hard to imagine what else he could do. The irony remains, though, that he signed a disastrous peace treaty with the power that lost the war just six months later.

What Miéville probably wants the reader to focus on is the possibility of a workers’ revolt, as seen in one place where it really did happen. His sympathies are clearly with the Bolsheviks, though he is quite willing to criticize their frequent missteps and internal contradictions. But the real hero of the book is, fittingly, the mass of soldiers, workers, and peasants who rose up, demanded a voice, defeated the tsarists and counterrevolutionaries, embraced debate and democracy, and did their best to start work on a better state of their world. The politicians on either side of the Dual Power often had to scramble to keep up with the masses.

Miéville describes the odd theoretical predicament the socialists of all stripes found themselves in: Marx had told them that you couldn’t go straight from feudalism to socialism. First the bourgeois had to revolt and take power, and then you could take power from them. This makes some sense of the French and American revolutions, and it was what people were trying and failing to do in 1848; it was a poor match for Russia in 1917, even in its advanced and untypical heart, Petrograd.

The Kadets are usually described as “liberals”, though this is unhelpful if you take either the American or the French meaning. They were actually on the left in the Duma before the war, and were frustrated by the intransigence of the tsarist government. After the February revolution, they were the only major non-socialist party– thus the natural target of everyone else. If you want ruination for a centrist party, give them power during a war or a depression.

In any case, as representatives of the “bourgeois”, the Kadets and Right SRs were expected to take power and fail, and that’s more or less what they did. There were calls from the masses for the Soviet to take power directly, but it refused to do so, partly from this theoretical deference to the bourgeois, partly (possibly more likely) from the realization that actually governing would mean being blamed for the deteriorating condition of the country.

Any student of political power, in fact, would expect the idea of “Dual Power” would soon collapse, though the particular way it collapsed was arbitrary. From this book, it’s hard to see that either the PRG or the Soviet was engaged in what we’d call government at all. There were plenty of demands (for peace, for land reform, for recognition of national minorities), but everybody’s response was just to call for a new conference or congress. If anyone was (e.g.) drafting legislation for the peaceful transfer of land to the peasants, we don’t hear about it here. There’s a sense that the officials on both sides of the Dual Power had much less sway in the rest of the country than they hoped they had.

(One oddity Miéville picks up on: the revolution was also determined by trains: the trains connecting the cities to the front, the sealed train that sped Lenin from Switzerland to Russia; the train the tsar was traveling in the events leading to his abdication; the train lines torn up to prevent Kornilov’s coup. Almost as important was the control of telegraph lines.)

People have debated for a century whether Stalinism was the culmination of communism, or a terrible aberration, and if so whether it’s Stalin’s fault, or Lenin’s, or something else. Miéville is no tankie; he knows that something went terribly wrong, and the last chapter of the book is more or less a rueful admission of this, though he doesn’t go so far as to explain what exactly the error was.

I’m no expert either, but one smoking gun is surely Lenin’s rebuke to the early demands of “all power to the Soviet”. He countered with, in effect, “all power to the Bolsheviks.” He was, as Miéville fully admits, an argumentative and uncompromising person– not infrequently he took positions that shocked and hobbled his own party. (This was in part because for much of the year he wasn’t even on the scene, in contact with colleagues and opponents. He spent a lot of his time alone, writing polemics.)

As I noted, suppressing entire parties wasn’t just a Bolshevik notion: after a failed ultra-left uprising in July, many wanted the Bolsheviks suppressed, and after the Korilov attempted coup, the socialists largely agreed on suppressing the Kadets. And from other revolutions, especially in the wake of decolonization, we know that a nationalist movement easily turns into a one-party state. In times of great agitation, parties get polarized and stop recognizing that their opponents even have a right to exist.

You can make a case that the Bolsheviks could hardly compromise on the war, that the Dual Power was bound to fail and had to end in a takeover by one side or another, and even that by October the Bolsheviks were closest to the spirit of the workers and soldiers. Still, the story told by Solzhenitsyn is sad, even outrageous. Eliminating all your opponents is an admission that you cannot answer them honestly. Once you’ve taken that step, it’s a short further step to decide that fractious debate in the soviets themselves is “counter-revolutionary”, and the promise of actual worker democracy has been sacrificed. And for what? Wasn’t the whole point actual worker control? When you’ve throttled that, all you have left is a new way of oppressing the workers.

And yes, I’m aware of all the tankie justifications– the isolation of the Soviet state, the greater cruelty of the right-wing counter-revolutionaries. The thing is, revolutions are often necessary– but they are not the same as government, and they are not even the same as justice. At their best they open the way to a new and more just system. But the actions and habits of mind that produce a successful revolution are often precisely opposite to those needed to actually create that new system.

If it’s not clear– I liked Miéville’s book a lot, more than his novels in fact. He’s an engaging guide, with a nose for absurdities. He’s pretty far-left himself (he used to belong to a Trotskyite party), but he focuses on the story rather than political theory. I can’t say I’ll remember all the names and events in the story, but that’s hardly his fault: a revolution takes a lot of people. (For what it’s worth, I recognized all the names in the picture above.)