Parade o’ books

Any of these books deserves a full review, with neat facts plucked from the pages to entice you– but at this point, that would require a lot of re-reading. So a quick survey will have to do.

Emily Willingham, Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (2020). Yep, a book about the penis in all its forms in the animal kingdom. Willingham has a serious point here: researchers and outsiders often import archaic attitudes into biology, getting the penis wrong and forgetting the vagina. But it’s also both educational and entertaining to simply look at the weird stuff animals get up to. A good place to start is trying to figure out what is a penis and what isn’t… there are some wacky edge cases, such as at least one invertebrate which inserts its eggs into the male with a copulatory organ. Or there’s the spiders which lose their penises when they copulate. It’s not that bad: they have two.

This is one of a number of books by women that offer a lighthearted critique of misguided male scientists, who are often eager to push an idea of aggressive promiscuous males and picky, passive females. Oh, there is so much more variation than that. Others in this genre include Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, Meredith Small’s What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. Nature is weird, and does not inherently support alt-right prejudices.

Benjamin Brose, Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator (2021). If you read my China Construction Kit, you’ll remember Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk who took and arduous trip to India in the 600s to understand Buddhism better, coming back 16 years later with hundreds of precious manuscripts. This story is the key to the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. But the real story behind it is just as interesting, though perhaps it’s disappointing to learn that only the first couple weeks of the journey were perilous, as he set off alone. As soon as he reached the first stop, he met the local king, who received him graciously and sent him on to the next local ruler, and so on for years. Brose explains what Xuanzang wanted to know and how he affected Buddhism, and includes several narrative passages from the man himself.

Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa times to the present (2003). I read this because I thought I could borrow some modern Japanese history for Almea, and I did. The book covers nearly 500 years, which allows quite a lot of detail but not exactly depth– e.g. WWII is covered in just one chapter. The chapters on the Meiji period are the most interesting. I was most interested to understand how Japan could modernize when China didn’t (until Deng).

The Meiji ‘restoration’ was more or less a top-down revolution: two of the most advanced daimyo (nobles) took over militarily. Or more broadly, the revolution empowered two classes that were near but, crucially, not at the top: the samurai, and the nouveau-riche rural elite, who had worked their way up from peasants to craftsmen to notables in the last century or so. (A peculiarity of Japan was that the prosperous bourgeois class in the 1800s was not in the big cities but in small rural towns.) And in Japan, that was enough to get things going; whereas in China merely getting rid of the Manchu did not give power to any more modern or modernizing class.

Another fascinating tidbit: Japan’s 1889 constitution, which lasted till the end of WWII, produced a lot more democracy than its writers expected or wanted. The winners of the revolution really only wanted to stay on as the new rulers. They made sure that the new Diet did not control the army, or even really the ministries. They also limited suffrage, in hopes that the members would be well-off and conservative. They only allowed the Diet at all because people were already writing constitutions and hoping for democracy, and they thought they’d better get their own version out fast. But the very existence of the Diet, and national propaganda for building the nation, encouraged national debate, expectations that the Diet would matter, and expectations that the Japanese people should all benefit from modernization. The constitution allowed the elite to govern without the Diet, but in practice (and until the 1930s) power was essentially shared between the army, the bureaucrats, and the parties.

Paul Lockhart, Firepower: How weapons shaped warfare (2021). If your conworld gets at all beyond the medieval period, you should read this or something like it. It’s about guns, including their big brothers artillery and cannons. I’m still in the middle of it, but one of the main takeaways is that like most technology, it’s a matter of small but constant improvements– and ongoing challenges. E.g. I knew that rifling was important: if you cut a spiral groove in the barrel of a gun and make bullets engage it, they get a spin that makes them far more accurate and deadly. This was known from the 15th century, so why didn’t it take over till the 1800s? Well, because firing a gun (especially with black powder) produces residues that clog the interior. You can’t fire too many shots before the balls don’t fit– unlike a musket which has more leeway. Good rifles had to wait till the ball was replaced with the bullet, and rifles had mechanisms to deform the bullet to force it into the rifling. Another example: breech loading is far more efficient than ramming shot in through the barrel. This too was known early on, but didn’t entirely take over till the late 1800s. Here too there were just many little technical problems to overcome: early breech loaders had a tendency to blow up, or leak hot gases.

Another takeaway: any old empire could afford muskets and cannons. But as the technology developed, only great powers could afford the newest guns– and they had to acquire them (and in enormous quantities) at any cost, because falling behind in the arms race was devastating. When explosive shells were developed that set wooden ships on fire– well, everyone had to shift to ironclads if they could. It’s no coincidence that nearly-free nobles were subjugated to kings, and smaller states became the prey of great powers. Even in the 1800s, the hot new tech might only last for a couple of decades.

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