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.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

I often review books I don’t expect other people to read, but this one might take the cake: an anthology of French science fiction, dated 1971. The editor is Alain Dorémieux. I need to read more French, and it looked good at the library.

First, you might ask, what is ailleurs? Has anyone ever seen or held an ailleur? Is there a female form, the ailleuse? It can be translated “elsewhere”, and Larousse tells us that it comes from *alior, comparative of alius ‘other’. The –s was thrown on by analogy with other adverbs.

One book is hardly enough to judge all of French science fiction by; but fortunately I’ve read three. My general impression is that the idea, the sf germ that motivates the story, is often weak, but the storytelling and the writing are very good. In classic American sf– this is probably John Campbell’s fault– the Idea was everything, and the writing was workmanlike, the characters barely above the stereotype level. Of course, a few writers, like Alfred Bester and R.A. Lafferty, stood out for their writing style; and in the ’60s the dominance of the Idea waned. Many of the stories here (not all) excel in vividness and actually have characters.

There’s also maybe a certain proneness to structural or narrative problems– many of the authors seem like they’re feeling out how to tell the story, and have an absolute horror of rewriting. Curiously this was a problem also in one of the French sf novels I’ve read, Le Naguen. If you’re curious, the other one was La planète des singes (The Planet of the Apes).

(I’ve read quite a bit more of French sf comics, which are a different beast altogether, and generally are very well done.)

And now– why not?– a mini-review of each story.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

Yves Dermèze, “Demain, les chats”

An alien invasion where humans are treated exactly as humans treat pets. A simple horror idea but well imagined.

Nathalie Henneberg, “Le Retour des dieux”

It turns out the Sumerian gods are actually from Arcturus. Pretty well done, but too many errors about Babylonia for me, and this sort of sf/myth mashup gets on my nerves.

Jean-Pierre Andrevon, “Un petit saut dans le passé”

A man is the subject of a time travel experiment, and creates his first time paradox. It’s getting to be a pattern by now: the idea is not deep or new, but it’s very well written and told.

Claude F. Cheinisse, “Conflit de lois”

A direct tribute to Asimov: a robot is placed in a situation where it must permit harm to a human in order to save a life. Well executed, but kind of an idiot plot: even if you accept Asimov’s laws, this particular situation should have been anticipated.

Georges Gheorghiu, “Au fil d’Ariane”

Really a Borgesian fable, a reworking of the myth of Theseus with minimal sf trappings (a few references to computers). This sort of thing depends on the payoff at the end; I understand the twist ending but the final plot mechanics eluded me.

Philippe Curval, “L’Oeuf ovipare”

A bizarre little fable about an egg which cracks, revealing another egg– only, each time, the surroundings (including the narrator) get smaller. Entertainingly told (the bit where the now small narrator can’t get a store to accept his money is pretty funny), but I don’t think the author knew how to end it.

Christine Renard, “Transistoires”

In a world with access to parallel timelines, a woman buys a trip to see a more successful self. One of the best stories, not least because it uses the idea as an excuse to explore questions of ambition, regret, and free will.

Francis Bessière, “La Barbe du ministre”

Another time travel story. It has some interesting ideas about how, in effect, the timeline could protect itself against ‘too much’ modification. I think the author wasn’t sure how to tell the story: too many tonal shifts, no real characters.

Daniel Walther, “Assassinat de l’oiseau bleu”

A soldier, sole survivor of a massacre, is forced to relive the catastrophe until his superiors can see what happened. This one reminded me strongly of Alfred Bester, from the hallucinatory prose to the tragic ending to the anti-authoritarian sentiment.

Yves Olivier-Martin, “La Tourelle de Ngôl”

A space opera in 30 pages, featuring an eternal conflict between Arcturus and Ngôl, told in hallucinatory prose. Here (as in “la Barbe du ministre”) I think the author saw several ways to tell the story, and tried to used them all. At first it’s a quiet story about the discovery of interstellar agents in Paris; like Lovecraft, it takes forever to slowly reveal what we’ve already guessed the story is about. Briefly the narrator seems to take sides, find a love interest, get captured. Then the story leaps 3000 years ahead, narrating a strange voyage to Ngôl. Unfortunately none of this really works: the author just piles on strangeness without pursuing any plot threads, or making us care about either side.

Guy Scovel, “La Forêt de Perdagne”

This is mostly swords-n-sorcery, with an sf denouement. The main idea (a portal between worlds) seems too promising to waste on just one story, and indeed Scovel seems to have written several novels based on it.

Interesting linguistic bit: the main character is a noble, and when he comes to some two-horse town he uses tu for the locals, who use vous for him. He’s also pretty arrogant, but it’s a real weaponization of the T/V phenomenon.

Pierre Versins, “L’Homme”

A little fable which, contrary to the first story in the volume, pictures Humans as near gods, told in the form of an encounter between a people created by Humans, and another which believes that it created Humans. Maybe not so compelling in an epoch where Humans seem intent on being monumentally stupid.

Francis Carsac, “Dans les montagnes du Destin”

The longest story in the book, and one of the better ones. It’s essentially a space Western: lone superhero adventurer, mining town, corrupt director, local bully, downtrodden natives. It takes its time, with plenty of character interaction and intrigue before the final sf mystery is explored. For once the payoff is real, and actually explains everything that’s gone on. It also has a book-length sequel.

A Desolation Called Peace

So, Arkady Martine wrote a sequel to A Memory Called Empire. Might as well use the same graphic, though. I won’t avoid spoilers here for the first book, so go read it first.

We’re back in Teixcalaan, which is addressing the alien threat that arrived in the first book, just a few months later. The war is not going well: the aliens are hard to find, and have a way of showing up out of nowhere and causing destruction. A yaotlek or admiral, Nine Hibiscus, sends for someone in the Information Ministry to see if it’s possible to talk to the aliens. The message reaches Three Seagrass, who pounces on the idea and swoops by Lsel Station to pick up Mahit Dzmare. If you like the first book, it will be comfortable and fun to get back into this world and see how everyone is doing. 

Though it’s about first contact, it’s mostly a novel of intrigue. The plot takes place in several venues– Lsel Station; Nine Hibiscus’s flagship; a desert planet recently attacked by the aliens; the imperial capital– and each of them is provided with multiple actors who hate each other’s guts. And I have to admire how good Martine is at intrigue. It’s all too easy, in political stories, to make the antagonists idiots, or to make them just act out of pure malice. (Think about Darth Vader, who’s wicked stylish, but has absolutely no believable motivation.) That’s averted here: each character, for good or ill, has reasons for what they do and who they despise.

Amid all the drama, Mahit and Three Seagrass take up their romance, though only after having a huge fight. 

I liked the book, but not quite as much as the first one. That may just be author fatigue– it might have been better to wait a year or two. What I think doesn’t work quite as well:

  • Mahit, though smart and competent in the first contact situation, and enjoyable as a romance partner, seems to be a complete idiot this time in the intrigue department– including in her own home station. It wasn’t very clear why she came home after Book One, and all she does when she gets there is get into more trouble. For unknown reasons she never bothers to debrief her own government.
  • The intrigue is maybe too neatly plotted? One of the pleasures of Memory was its unpredictability– we were discovering this huge weird empire, we are as confused as Mahit, and whenever things threaten to become too stable the author throws in some violence. The alien situation should provide opportunities for similar surprises, but it never really does.
  • (To avoid spoilers, I’ve put these in white text.) The nature of the aliens is not at all mind-boggling– it has its own TV Tropes page, dammit.
  • The ending: again, Mahit, alone of all the characters, just doesn’t seem to make sense. I know she’s had a hard time, but it doesn’t seem fair to Three Seagrass, now does it?

But again, it’s fun to be in this universe again, and it does do what a sequel should do: present a new kind of problem rather than rehashing the last one.

The Dawn of Everything

I just finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Sadly this was Graeber’s last book. There is a lot to this book, I wish I’d read it before finishing the MECK, and anyone interesting in history or conworlding should run out and get it. But there are caveats, oh yes. They can be too breezy, they don’t always prove their points, and sometimes prove the wrong points.

What says “hierarchy” more than the temple of a divinized king? (Šu-Sin, of Sumer, circa 2000 BCE.)

I liked Debt: The First 5000 Years when it stuck to Graeber’s specialty, anthropology: his account of modern times was, as the kids say, cringe. This book barely discusses anything past 1800, which is a huge improvement. His co-author is an archeologist, and this helps too.

They started out to write a history of inequality, and (spoiler alert) found out that there could be no such thing. Too many assumptions, you see. The whole idea depends on what “inequality” is, and there is no real definition; and neither anthropology nor archeology unearths a period when there was equality and then a sudden, inexorable eruption of inequality after it.

Rousseau vs Hobbes

They trace our received notions back to two opposing theorists, Rousseau and Hobbes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t really talk about the “noble savage”, but that’s a fair summary of his ideas. His 1754 Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind supposed that prehistoric humans lived in idyllic conditions, which were egalitarian but only because there was no way not to be. Then agriculture and the state came in, and everything went to hell: we got not only inequality, but patriarchy, war, debt, property, and slavery.

In the other corner, we have Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 Leviathan famously asserted that prehistoric life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A state of continual war and poverty, in other words, only ended when people started living in cities (civitas > civilization; polis > politics and politeness).

The first thing to notice is that political theorists have barged in and chosen sides. Conservatives tend to like Hobbes: they like the past, but not the far far past… they tend to be happiest with the 19th century UK or USA, and think that Western civilization was a matter of progress and prosperity, until the hippies appeared. Plus, you know, they like inequality, so they blame Rousseau for even questioning the idea, and probably causing the American and French revolutions.

Now, if you keep up with these topics at all– or if you’ve simply read my books– you know that Hobbes was simply wrong. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers are pretty happy in general: they are usually egalitarian, they work only about 10 hours a week, they have an impressive command of their local environment. And archeology confirms that when people take up agriculture, they live shorter lives, are unhealthier, pick up diseases and parasites, and of course suffer from patriarchy and all those other ills. When comparing time periods, people often bring up modern medicine; but modern medicine got going surprisingly late: well into the 20th century. Any time prior to 1900, you were better off as a hunter-gatherer than as a peasant.

This is so well established that the Davids don’t spend much time on Hobbes. (They don’t engage with conservatism at all, really.) Rousseau is another matter.

We can now get to the thesis of the book:

  • Things were way more complicated– and more interesting– than Rousseau thought. (To be fair, Rousseau was consciously idealizing.)
  • Historical utopianism is just as alienating and dismissive as dystopianism. If hunter-gatherers were happy because of their lifestyle, they have nothing to teach us, because we sure as hell aren’t going to adopt it.
  • Viewing prehistory as an idyll also means that nothing really happened in it. It’s like the doctrine of the Fall: it’s an explanatory myth, but also a distancing one: as we can’t recapture paradise, we can dismiss it.

Do they make a case for this? Well, they do later. First they focus on something rather more interesting.

The indigenous critique

Their Chapter 2 is the most brilliant part of the book. It addresses what they call the indigenous critique of European culture. This means, what native Americans thought of European settlers in the 1600s and 1700s, of how they lived and related to each other, and (once they visited) of how they lived in Europe. They weren’t impressed.

Here’s a French report from 1611, about the Mikmaq: “They consider themselves better than the French: “For [they say] you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor.”

Another friar, from 1632, about the Wendat (Hurons): “For our excessive and insatiable greed in acquiring the goods of this life, we are justly and with reason reproved by their quiet life and tranquil disposition. …They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being an indigent beggar in all their towns and villages.”

The indigenous critique focused on several elements:

  • The greed and combattiveness of the settlers.
  • The fact that they did not take care of each other.
  • The fact that they constantly gave orders and expected them to be followed.
  • (Once they could see Europe for themselves:) The way they let kings lord it over them.

In the native societies of eastern North America, there were chiefs, but no one had to obey them. No one could force a native to do what they didn’t want to do. There was not even punishment of crimes. (Payments could be required, but there was no way to force even that.) If someone really didn’t like their situation, they could simply leave– and they could find a place even hundreds of miles away, across tribal and language barriers. This was in part due to the clan system, which extended almost all the way across the continent: you could find someone of your clan far away, and they would take you in.

Under such conditions no one could be a tyrant. But a good chief was a persuasive one, and both men and women were good talkers.

Also of note: it was extremely hard to assimilate natives to European norms, but quite a few Europeans went to live with the natives.

(If your recollection of Native North American history is rusty, by the way, we’re not talking about hunter-gatherers, though both activities were common and important. They grew a wide range of crops, and their towns could be large. Their political groupings could be respectably large: e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy included most of New York State, an area about the size of Ireland.)

Rousseau’s book was an entry in a contest sponored by a French academy, to answer the question “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” The Davids point out what an odd question this was to ask in 1754. Every country in Europe was steeped in hierarchy, and most people and philosophers took this as the natural condition of mankind, established by God. This was before the revolutions; it was not a commonplace then, as it would be today, that society ought to aim at liberté, égalité, fraternité. Why did an institution in the middle of Catholic France under Louis XV (le Bien-Aimé) ask such a question?

In part, we learn, because Europeans were fascinated by the indigenous critique. Reports by the early friars were eagerly read, and the Baron de Lahontan achieved great success with his Dialogues with a Savage (1703), which consisted of dialogs between himself and a Wendat chief, Kondiaronk. Soon all the scholars were inventing foreigners to teach Europeans to criticize their own societies. The academy in Dijon was if anything late to the party. Two decades later and the French were ready to throw out their king– agreeing with Kondiaronk who alleged that kingship turned the French into slaves.

It’s become common to acknowledge that the US Founders were well aware of the Iroquois Confederacy and imitated some of its features; but the indigenous critique and its reception in Europe were new to me.

How do we know that the Europeans were impressed with the natives? Well, because they said so in contemporary books. History tends to ignore the natives’ role, however, presenting the modern ideas of liberty and equality as a pure European invention. It turns out to be a lot more like modern art, which owes an immense debt to African and Japanese art.

Another data point: around 1700, Leibniz admired and advocated the Chinese system of government. Within a couple of centuries, European countries were governed by people given a liberal education concentrating on ancient classics, gated by competitive entrance exams… that is, roughly like the Chinese system. The Davids don’t claim that this was direct causation, but they point out that it doesn’t seem like complete coincidence either. This system was entirely unlike any previous European system of governance, and ideas obviously bounce around the punditosphere long before they’re adopted. And a lot of the ideas that transformed Europe came from the cultures that it encountered as it expanded.

(One cavil– there will be many more later: the Chinese system turned out not to be helpful with, well, running China after 1905. Tech schools were much more important for a developing nation. They were in the West too.)

What and when is equality?

Now so far, their actual discussion is fairly Rousseauvian. They mention that early European descriptions of Native Americans were nuanced, but their own is not: they hold up Wendat and Iroquois society as an ideal, and use it to define the three basic freedoms of pre-state societies:

  • everyone’s freedom from coercion
  • everyone’s freedom to move
  • communities’ freedom to think about and choose their own structures

Somehow, they say, we’ve lost especially that last one– we’ve “got stuck” in hierarchy.

If they’d stopped there, this would still be a provocative and fascinating study; but they are emphatic about not stopping there; they want to criticize pure Rousseauvianism. This takes them most of the book, and gets far more speculative, and isn’t always convincing.

Frankly, their major point is related to modern politics without addressing it directly: they want to make room for their basic freedoms in dense, advanced societies. Rousseau leaves them cold because he places paradise solely and ineluctably in the past: the freedom of primitive humanity cannot be recovered today. They would, it’s pretty obvious, like a modern but anarchist society, so they reject Rousseau’s closed door.

Now, this point might be better addressed directly: if you think a modern anarchist society is possible, describe how it works and/or how we’d get there; cover all the obvious objections; think about what mores and values would prevent a relapse. (They’re actually quite conscious about how good systems can go bad, so this is not a big ask.) Well, suffice it to say that this program would be an entirely different book, and way out of their fields. It’s why the second half of Debt is nowhere near as good as the first half.

What can they do remaining in the far past, and in their own fields? Mostly, point to examples where the traditional view doesn’t quite work. Thus, they emphasize:

  • Forager societies can be quite complex, and undertake megaprojects. The picture of foragers living in bands of 10 to 25 people, forced by circumstances to be egalitarian, is misleading at best, quite wrong at worst.
  • Forager societies can be dense, creating state-level entities, can accumulate wealth, can be despotic, can even include wars and slavery. (Examples of the latter include the NW Pacific Coast and Florida.)
  • Agricultural societies can function for millennia without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Cities can function for centuries without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Fairly advanced societies can throw out overlords and purposely establish an egalitarian settlement of thousands of people.
  • Kings are not inevitable; alongside kings and empires you can have republics. An unexpected one is Tlaxcala, in the time of the Aztecs.
  • A system where land reverts to the community when the owner dies is not uncommon. Nor do you have to go anywhere exotic to find them: there are examples in medieval England, Germany, and Russia.
  • “Egalitarian” societies may have systems of temporary despotism: seasons or situations where someone can tell you what to do.
  • Literal patriarchy– the despotic rule by men– is not inevitable either. Though there was no “matriarchal period”, there are cultures where women held substantial power, and at least one case (Minoan Crete) which arguably really was a matriarchy.

Again, if they’d stopped there they’d have a lot to say to historians, anthropologists and archeologists, and conworlders. Theories of a uniform progression– or regression– from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to kingdoms, theories that agriculture or cities per se ruin everything, theories that state formation is irreversible, are all dubious.

The main takeaway here is that the range of options is far greater than we might have imagined. If you know about the Kalahari Bushmen or the Yanomamo or the Pirahã, great– but they are not the only models of premodern people. If you’re a conworlder thinking about how agriculture or the state developed– slow down, there are multiple stages involved in each, and you needn’t be in a hurry to throw in power-mad pharaohs and emperors.

Some but not all of this you may have absorbed from James Scott, either directly or from my discussion of him.

The Davids don’t seem to have read Marvin Harris (he’s not in their bibliography), but they are out of sympathy with cultural materialism, because they don’t like the idea that material conditions determine the forms of human society. They think that people in all periods are perfectly capable of sitting down and debating how society should work, and that people who reject hierarchy and the state know exactly what they’re doing.

A lot of this is backed up mostly by their discussion of the Wendat and Iroquois. That’s great as far as it goes, but by their own account, these people were dealing with massive historical changes: not only the European settlers, but a rather coercive (proto-?)state based in Cahokia that had collapsed just a few centuries before. Their prickly individualism, and their interest in rich debate, may be reactions to a particular historical situation.

I’ll have a list of cavils later, but the lessons above are pretty solid, I think.

The villainous state

As the Davids recognize, the problem in all this for their political project is that despite all these nuances, the State seems to have won almost everywhere: not only in Europe but in India, China, Arabia, Africa, Central America, and the Andes.

(Scott’s nuance, which the Davids accept, is that a pretty wide range of people was an exception up till at least 1800: the nomads, some large populations of foragers or horticulturalists, and some resilient populations of state-avoidant people, e.g. in SE Asia. For most of history they could resist states, and the nomads could even conquer states. But this escape route is now closed.)

Rather than a simple takeover by despotism, they divide the state into three types of coercion:

  • sovereignty: a despot’s ability to use violence to enforce his will
  • administration: the ability to govern a large territory with rules
  • personal charisma: the ability to sway or rule people by force of personality and heroic deeds, often in competition with others; in later versions, politics

This is not uninteresting, as examples exist where only one or two of these strands is present. E.g. there are cultures where a chief can do as he likes, but only in his own village: that’s sovereignty alone. Administration alone exists in cultures where megaprojects are created without apparent coercion. Ancient Egypt can be described as sovereignty plus administration. But eventually all three threads engage and, as the Davids say, we’re stuck.

Of course, they would like to believe that we don’t have to be, even in a technological society. We’re just not used to thinking we have alternatives, and we’ll do better when we open Rousseau’s closed door. This is a hopeful but speculative point, and all I’ll say now is that given threats like climate change and oil depletion, to say nothing of fascist resurgence, we’re either going to solve these problems or have them solved for us by civilizational collapse.

Cavils and comments

This section will be quite miscellaneous; it’s drawn from the notes I took from reading– some positive, some negative. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

Paradoxically, they’ve shown that modern ideas of freedom and equality owe much to indigenous peoples; yet when they look at modern society as a whole it’s horrible. Do they really disapprove that much of (say) Denmark or the Netherlands? Maybe so, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re willing to give a huge benefit of the doubt to particular past societies, from the ‘Ubaid to Tlaxcala to the Wendat: their whole point is that partial freedom is not a nightmare. But when they look at modern times, it’s just a constellation of horrors.

(155) The coastal settlement of the Americas is now accepted. People used to insist that the interior could only be reached by a narrow inland corridor… this is extremely strange as walking or boating along the coast is a no-brainer.

(158) The first idea of property may have been tied to the sacred: secret knowledge, particular patterns or objects with ritual meaning, hidden from others. This could occur even when everyday life was quite egalitarian.

(167) A very cursory treatment of language change and language families which could have been cribbed from a pop sci article. It even invokes William Jones, who was emphatically not the first person to recognize a language family.

The Davids’ disdain for other scholars– even as they rifle the journals for supporting data– gets tedious. One of their favorite words is “silly”.

(220) They use art to argue that Çatalhöyük may have been “matriarchal”. As they admit, there’s no evidence from skeletons of differential treatment; but there are female figurines that seem to depict aged females, and none of aged men. On the other hand, wall decorations feature depictions of all-male hunters.

They use this sort of argument in several places, without ever making an argument why art tells us anything about power relationships. If you look at 19th century European art, you would surely conclude that Europeans were fascinated by women, and that European women spent half their time nude. I’d also point out that depictions of older women are not uncommon.

It’s not that we can’t tell anything from art. It may well be significant that ancient Egyptian art, but not Mesopotamian art, emphasizes elite women. A king seemed to require a queen by his side. (The female king Hatshepsut had to depict her daughter next to her.) What exactly this tells us is less clear, and has to be carefully hedged: I do suspect it tells us something about royal ideology, but also that it tells us precisely zilch about peasant women.

(250) Here are the examples of co-operative land management in Europe and elsewhere. These are interesting examples of non-inheritance, but their examples all seem to be of practices beneath the notice of the elite, or in accordance with their overall lordship. I don’t think the Davids mean to say that medieval Europe was a hotbed of communism, free of violent greedy elites. Rather, an oppressive system can make use of cooperative or communal subsystems. There are advantages, after all, if the peasants run their own affairs and don’t have to be micromanaged.

(280) Foragers often travel in family groups… except when they don’t. It’s not uncommon for bands to include members who are only related in the sense that they belong to the overall ethnic group. For that matter it’s quite possible to join a band hundreds of miles away from your family of origin.

(289) The first cities were in… Ukraine? Talianki, Maidanetske, Nebelivka, dating to 3500 or earlier. (I’ve updated the Davids’ spelling.) They say that these “existed even before the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia”, but here they are misinformed: Uruk was settled by 5000, though its more imposing structures weren’t built till 3400 or so. But Talianki is pretty impressive: 335 hectares (Uruk was 450 ha), possibly with 15,000 residents. The sites show no evidence of social stratification (i.e. the villainous State). The Ukrainians grew crops, kept cattle, supplemented their diet with hunting.

(300) I’m not buying this rehabilitation of corvée labor— here, in Sumer. Curiously, in Debt Graeber described the miseries of Mesopotamians; here, for his purposes, urban work was done in a “festive spirit.” He cites an Akkadian myth where the minor gods did forced labor, while seemingly forgetting the part where the minor gods went on strike, whereupon the major gods created humanity to do menial labor instead. In the MECK I quoted multiple ancient sources which acknowledged the brutality of labor, the oppression of kings, and the none-too-happy position of people at the bottom of the social ladder. But for their overall purposes they want to delay the entry of the villain, so they paint the Mesopotamians as far happier than probably were.

A bit later on they describe the temples of Sumer, which managed enormous areas of land, included workshops, and could employ over a thousand people. This is supposed to indicate that all this organization didn’t require the state or kings. But it only requires a small reorientation of perspective to view these institutions as totalitarian. (Do they think getting out of temple work was easier than changing jobs in the modern US?) The temples were economic enterprises rather than “churches”, yes. The same can be said of medieval European monasteries. But they’re not anarchist communes either, and if they weren’t “the state” they were precursors to it.

(Why do temples have workshops at all? Probably for the same reason that the first Middle Eastern kings had workshops: because they had to create what they wanted. Markets came later; when they did, gods and kings could just go shopping.)

They also make much of the Sumerian and Akkadian assemblies. Now, it is good to bear these in mind, and not portray the Mesopotamian kings as unfettered absolute monarchs. But we also don’t know too much about how they operated, and we do know that they did not prevent wars, slavery, or the fall of families into crippling debt that Graeber eloquently deplored in Debt. In short they were not like Iroquois councils, where everyone debated and no one gave real orders.

(317) They discuss the Hindu varnas in the context of Harappan civilization. Now this is more than a stretch; it’s one or two thousand years too soon. Their description of “wealth, power or prosperity [being] of lesser value… than the purity of the priestly class” is a mindless repetition of brahmin propaganda (as in Manu). Manu and other writers– 2000 years after Harappa– wrote about the superiority of brahmins because they were ruled by non-brahmins and didn’t like it. And really, anyone who thinks that the exaltation of brahmins was a reflection of “spirituality” or something knows nothing about Indian history.

(324) They talk about cities on China— the Longshan culture, dated 3000 to 1900 BCE– before the first historically certain dynasty, the Shang, from -1600. By the Davids’ own account, there was plenty of evidence for social stratification and warfare. I didn’t talk about these cultures much in my China book, and now I wish I had. The problem is that there isn’t much that can be said. We often start with the literate cultures not because the previous ones are uninteresting, but because we can know and learn so much more from people who can talk to us. E.g. the Davids mention Shimao, from -2000, which at 400 ha was also comparable to Uruk, and possibly practiced human sacrifice. But… they devote a paragraph to it, and the Wikipedia article isn’t much longer. About all we learn from the site is that there’s a tranche of Chinese prehistory that was probably pretty lively, but which we just don’t know about in detail.

(342) Teotihuacan, which flourished from about 50 to 550, is notable because it may preserve signs of an egalitarian revolution. There is evidence for stratification until about 300, when a major temple was desecrated, and after that the city was filled with hundreds of comfortable stone dwellings of about the same size. It’s hard not to see this as a quite purposive egalitarianism. The overall population might have been 100,000.

Reading this section, I wondered what archeologists would make of Nālandā if they had no literary evidence. It was a Buddhist monastery in northern India, which housed between 3000 and 10,000 monks at its height in the first millennium. It was the major destination for the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who reported (and archeology confirms) that it consisted of multiple large buildings with small individual monks’ cubicles opening into a central courtyard.

If you just look at the physical remains, life at Nālandā was thoroughly egalitarian, especially compared to other settlements in India. But Xuanzang reports that it was extraordinarily hierarchical: not only were the monks strictly ranked, but the more accomplished ones had servants. Moreover, the entire establishment was supported by royal grants– that is, it was fed by taxing the local peasants. Nor was Indian society of the time in any way egalitarian.

My point is not to dismiss the Davids’ speculations about egalitarianism based on equal-sized living quarters, but to recall that other interpretations are possible, and may be lost to time.

(346) Next they discuss Tlaxcala, which was a republic in Aztec times. Spanish sources compare it to Genoa and Venice, and recount the lively debates in its council on whether they should ally with the Spanish against the Aztecs. (Spoiler alert: they did, and helped the Spanish conquer Tenochtitlan.)

This is cool to know, and it’s good to recall that the historical landscape is not just kingdoms. But what the Davids don’t discuss, because it doesn’t fit into their agenda of chiding scholars, is that republics are pretty common… and can be very far from being democratic. Besides Athens, there’s Novgorod, the medieval Italian city-states, the Swiss, some ancient Indian ones, and the Iroquois. Oh, and several hundred modern states.

Now a republic has one big moral advantage over a kingdom: it has no king. But it may not be much better: it may be a republic because it’s an oligarchy, and no one notable has enough power to dominate the city. The fact that the Spanish chronicles compare Tlaxcala to Genoa and Venice may not prove what the Davids want it to prove: these were notorious oligarchies.

(392) As an example of sovereignty without the other aspects of the state, they discuss the Natchez, who had an absolute monarch residing in what was called the Great Village. He had the power of life and death and was known for killing his people… but only within his village. He could give orders to neighboring villages, but they would often be ignored.

They suggest that the Great Village was fully populated only part of the year– which probably meant that it was some sort of ritual center. Anthropologists are probably too free with the words “ritual” and “religion”, but it is true that some very unusual behaviors can occur when some things or people become sacred. In this context (the origin of hierarchy) the important point is that one of those unusual behaviors may be hierarchical authority itself. In the book the Davids describe a society where there are sacred enforcers who have power for only three months out of the year. This turns out to be not uncommon, and suggests a progression: an “egalitarian” people might agree to give absolute power to someone temporarily for “ritual” reasons (that is, for reasons we don’t really understand, but which are probably very compelling to them). That isn’t kingship… but it may create the idea for it, to be revived and generalized under other conditions.

(409) I’m pleased that they believe, as I do, that Memphis was a ceremonial center rather than a “real city”.

(412) The Shang reliance on oracles stands in “striking contrast” to the other societies discussed? Um, hello, what about the hundreds of Akkadian omen texts? What about the oracles that dotted Greece and Anatolia, constantly consulted by the kings?

(413) “Mesopotamia, where regional hegemony rarely lasted for longer than a generation or two”. This is supposed to be a contrast with Egypt, where kingdoms could last centuries. But, there’s the Kassites who ruled for nearly 500 years, and Assyria, which dominated the region for a millennium.

(416) They give Egypt as an example of a state or proto-state which had mastered sovereignty and administration, but not politics– the competition for power based on personal charisma. Well, technically they’re just talking the Old Kingdom. But what we know of the Middle Kingdom looks like it has plenty of politics: powerful factions among royal women; Hatshepsut’s unusual reign, Akhenaten’s revolution; multiple coups after Tutankhamen. Was the Old Kingdom really different, or is it just that we have better records of the Middle Kingdom?

(434) Here’s the description of matriarchal Crete. The evidence is mostly from art, and I complained about that above. But they make rather a better case here. The authority figures in pictures are female. They’re depicted as larger than men, and men are shown bringing them tribute or bowing down. They’re shown conducting rituals or sitting on thrones or meeting together. There are depictions of men, too, often graceful naked athletes. It’s like a parodic inversion of every other Middle Eastern society.

None of this is a proof, but in this case the Davids’ point is good: if there is little evidence of other matriarchies, there is also little evidence of any male-run state whose art depicted only females as rulers and males only as subservient.

(499) They make a snarky comment that the inventor of bread would probably not be called “white” today. This is pretty silly. Bread seems to go back to ancient Canaan, and outside racist circles, Middle Easterners are generally considered white. (E.g. that’s what the US Census Bureau thinks. Maybe this was Wengrow’s contribution: the UK census seems to disagree. But the point is: who the fuck cares? No one who reads this book is likely to be a white supremacist.)

(506) “Even in Homeric-style warfare”, war was a matter of a few heroic champions grappling in front of a crowd, with only a handful of deaths. Um, dudes. Troy was destroyed. If you read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’d think 3C Chinese warfare was a matter of heroic grappling too. It wasn’t; it was like any state warfare, a matter of tens or hundreds of thousands of troops. Epics talk about heroes grappling because it’s great narrative.

And if they’re thinking of horticulturalist warfare– well, they should look up the Maring, discussed in detail by Harris. Yeah, in general casualties were low. But a war could easily turn into a rout with a much higher casualty rate.


If you’ve read this far, you’re ready to take on the Davids– their book is 526 pages of text, plus nearly a hundred pages of notes.

If this is your sort of thing, you’ll probably get a lot out of it– and disagree with a lot of it, not necessarily the parts I disagreed with.

Anthropology is perhaps the most fun part of the social sciences. It not only tells interesting stories, it tells what (to most of us) are new kinds of stories. Actual human history and ethnography is far weirder than you might imagine from school textbooks and fantasy novels. And putting just some of that weirdness into your own works will deepen them considerably.

Bester: Virtual Unrealities

Alfred Bester is my favorite classical sf writer– see my review of The Demolished Man here. Mostly this is because he’s a great storyteller and an energetic worldbuilder… his novels are some of the few which don’t contain monocultures, which show off the same sort of diversity and weirdness we find in the real world. This book collects some of his best short fiction.

It’s also because, to be frank, a lot of classical sf was distorted and deadened by a reactionary streak… mostly due, it appears, to John Campbell, editor of Astounding. Robert Silverberg, in his introduction, describes how Bester ran into this. After a break from sf, Bester returned in 1950, sold one story to Campbell, and no more. Campbell, as Silverberg says, was then “obsessed with Dianetics”, the precursor to Scientology, and Bester hated this. But really, once you’re aware of it, it’s hard not to see that reactionary streak. Mostly it’s expressed as a belief that an educated technocratic class, or maybe supersmart mutants, should control the world: Heinlein’s superscientists, Asimov’s Foundation and robots, Poul Anderson’s time police, Van Vogt’s Weapons Shops and Slans. Bester is one of the few to resist the idea. The Stars My Destination is explicitly populist, while Demolished Man is simply too chaotic a world for anyone to control.

However, this collection highlights another side to Bester– a darker side. Many of the stories are more horror than sf, and end unhappily. Two are about the end of the world; quite a few are about some superhuman ability that causes more trouble than it’s worth.

Bester decorated his works with the usual high-tech spaceships and such, but it’s clear that technology as such doesn’t interest him. The science he’s most interested in is psychology. (Which fits in with the novels: Stars is about teleportation, Demolished Man about telepathy. And both are particularly interested in how society should handle disturbed individuals.)

A glance over some of the stories:

  • “Disappearing Act”: a pretty sharp satire of 1950s conformity and the Cold War. The particular sf idea is cute but not deep, but it allows Bester to show how a society can lose the very things it claims it values.
  • “5,271,009”: An extremely surreal story, told with Bester’s characteristic stylistic gusto. In brief: Bester warns about indulging one’s childish fantasies– such as being a superhero or the last man at the apocalypse. The moral gets a little more bite if you imagine it aimed at his fellow sf writers.
  • “Fondly Fahrenheit”: the story of a murderous android. This one has been widely anthologized, but it’s rather typical of the short stories, which often take their idea inexorably to a horrible conclusion.
  • “Time is the Traitor”: here the idea is that one man, named Strapp, is a Decider. Things in his multistellar world are too complex for individuals or even AIs to figure out; but a man with abnormal intuition can decide things anyway. A neat idea presented with satirical verve (the rituals of Decision, and the nature of Strapp’s entourage, are lovingly described). As usual, things end badly.
  • “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”: also widely anthologized. Bester uses time travel in several stories– mostly as a way to parody human foolishness and the cussedness of the universe.
  • “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used to”: one of the end-of-the-world stories. Probably more interesting for its slice-of-post-apocalyptic-life portion than for its final revelations.
  • “The Flowered Thundermug”: I always like a heist story, and this one features two very accomplished heisters. The satirical world– it’s another post-apocalypse– doesn’t really connect.
  • “Galatea Galante”: About the creation of an artificial, perfect woman. Bester realizes and underlines how creepy the idea is, but still can’t really get past a very 1950s-male idea of femininity.
  • “The Devil Without Glasses”: another very surreal story– the basic idea is that two opposing forces from dreams are affecting reality, one pushing for human liberation, one opposing it. This might have made an interesting novel, but in short story form all Bester can do is turn it into another pessimistic fable.

I’m probably not selling the book well. I enjoyed it a lot while reading it. Bester can write, and he can be scintillating without losing the thread of the story. And if you like dark fables, he’s got plenty of them, and they’re a bracing corrective to the techno-optimism of some of his peers.

Still, the novels are masterful; the stories are merely fun. If there’s a common flaw, it may be that Bester gets too caught up in the surface details: the dialogs, the little swerves of plot. So some (not all) of the stories feel like they go on longer than they have to, or take a little too long to make their point.

Another biographical detail: Bester took another long break from sf in the late 1950s– instead writing for a travel magazine, Holiday. It must have paid better than sf, since he stuck with it for years. Also, before he got into sf he wrote for comic books… I’d love to see an anthology of his comics work!

Middle East Construction Kit

It’s here!! Here’s my descriptive page; here’s the Amazon page for the softcover. The Kindle will be out soon— sometimes this is quick and straightforward, sometimes it’s a mess. There will also be a hardcover option.

Edit: Kindle version is here. Hardcover too– see the description page.

The cover is a little different— I corrected the centering and changed the font for “Middle East” to Sanvito— but I’m too lazy to fix the pic. I can’t add much to the description on, so I’ll just talk about process for a bit.

I got the proof copy last week, and made a bunch of corrections, reaching the point any author will recognize: thinking that this bunch of corrections is the last. But I’m also at the point where I’ve almost memorized the text, meaning that errors are likely to escape my eye. (My wife found a bunch of typos my eyes just blooped over for months.)

The back cover of the proof had a horrible typo: the snatch of Hebrew I used as an illustration was backwards. It turns out that Photoshop Elements cannot handle Hebrew (or Arabic). I had to use a bitmap instead. I hope the Kindle doesn’t have this problem…

This book took about three years. This is longer than the India and China books. You can mostly blame Covid for that— the library was closed, for one thing. Anyway, I think it turned out pretty well! (The book, not the pandemic.) There’s a lot of fascination in these sandy empires, and it was fun to get to know Semitic and Sumerian.

What’s next? An alert reader gave me a great idea: a book devoted to creating religions. I’m also still tempted to do a follow-up to this book, starting in the 600s or so, and covering Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. But for the immediate future, I want to concentrate on my Almea+400 project.


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.

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.)

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.

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.)