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 zompist.com, 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.

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.

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.)

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.)

Lucian

One question I used to have was, when did modern comedy appear? Not comedy itself, but the absurdist, completely cynical type that dominates American and British humor? Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, MAD Magazine, Sam & Max, the Hitchhiker’s Guide. There’s hints of this style in Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome, maybe a bit in Moliere, but how early does it go?

One answer is: back to Lucian of Samosata. Or Λουκιανος, to his mother. He was a Syrian (Samosata is on the Euphrates, in present-day Turkey) who wrote excellent Greek, and was one of the most popular writers of the 2nd century. More than 80 of his works survive, a very high number for an ancient author. I just read a good selection, Lionel Casson’s Selected Satires of Lucian (1962).

I first met him with his “Sale of the Philosophers”, where Lucian imagines Zeus and Hermes running a slave market, selling philosophers. His satire of the various schools is vicious and irreverent, and especially funny if (say) you’ve just finished a yearlong course in philosophy. His work must have been widely copied and criticized (or maybe he read the piece as a performance) because he found it necessary to write a sequel, “the Fishermen”, which carefully explains that he loves all the actual philosophers; he just hates their modern representatives, who happen to mostly be sophistical, greedy hypocrites.

Lucian is also cited in histories of science fiction, as his “True Story” is a novella of absurdist adventure, a parody of the Odyssey with a few jabs at credulous historians like Herodotus. After noting that the story is a pure lie, he describes taking a ship of adventurers past the Pillars of Hercules and into the Atlantic, where a storm blew them up to the Moon.

Whether it’s sf or not depends on how you split your hairs; it’s certainly an early form of fantasy (but so is Gilgamesh). Lucian’s method is to pile on absurdities:

Moonmen have artificial penises, generally of ivory but, in the case of the poor, of wood… They never die of old age but dissolve and turn into air, like smoke. The diet is the same for everyone: frog. … They don’t urinate or defecate. They have no anal orifice so, instead of the anus, boys offer for intercourse the hollow of the knee above the calf, since there’s an opening there.

This is probably the best story in the volume– always entertaining and inventive, if not very deep.

One of the more curious selections is the story of a man turned into a donkey by magic. (Pro tip: don’t ask a witch for a demonstration of her transformation magic.) The most notable bit is how much abuse the donkey is in for. It’s hard to say what Lucian intended here: to a modern, it reads like a condemnation of human cruelty to animals, but it’s possible Lucian thought it was comic, like Shakespeare’s Bottom given an ass’s head.

Lucian was known for comic dialogues– which etymologically is ‘conversation’, not limited to two people. (It’s δια ‘with’, not δί ‘two’.) The ones in this volume rely heavily on gods and mythological figures, though there’s also one featuring various literary courtesans.

His own beliefs come out most clearly in a dialog set in Hades, where the Cynic philosopher Menippus has a grand time mocking the other newly dead. This mostly amounts to making fun of dictators and rich men, who have lost all their power and gold– the afterlife is a democracy of misery. There a certain acerbic morality to this– a rebuke to greed and vanity and authority because they are all ultimately meaningless; it’s the same sort of wisdom as the medieval scholar who keeps a skull on his desk as a reminder that we all die. At the same time… well, it’s pretty nihilistic, isn’t it? “We’re all dead and equally miserable in Hades” is a great position for attacking pretension, but I kind of prefer an ideology that promotes actual benevolence.

One of the more interesting pieces is a biographical sketch of a prophet and oracle, Alexander of Abonoteichos. Lucian is not a fan, to put it mildly. By his account, the prophet is a scammer, whose shtick is to interpret the words of a new god, Glycon, who consists of a tame snake plus a hand puppet. (If you want to scam your own flock, make sure you do this in a dark room, and speak in an eldritch voice when you pass on the words of Glycon.) His method is to read and respond to sealed scrolls. This is done only after an interval– which gives Alexander time to use various methods to unseal the scrolls, read the question, and create an appropriate response. One trick was to slice through the wax, and later reheat and reseal it. Another was to make an impression of the seal in clay; the seal could then be broken, and resealed using the clay model. If the scroll was too hard to unseal, Alexander would simply give an outlandishly obscure prophecy– he would even allow associates to interpret the obscurities for an additional fee.

We don’t have Alexander’s side of the story, but we know he was real– coins were struck with the image of Glycon. Whether Lucian was an accurate reporter can be doubted (e.g. he inserts his own confrontation with the prophet– he bites his hand– which is hard to credit.) Still, it’s a convincing portrait of a charlatan, and suggests the sorts of methods that such people have always used.

Would you like Lucian? Well, you may or may not find the laughs. I don’t respond to absurdist humor quite as much as I used to; your mileage may vary. I found it most interesting as anthropology– a reminder that not everyone in the past was serious and reverent. The echoes to modern humorists may be misleading: as I noted above, his appreciation for Cynicism is precisely the sort of rebuke to the material world that philosophers valued in almost every era. I also suspect that his style of satire is not as populist as it sometimes sounds: Lucian is too well educated to be a real voice of the masses. A pose of disaffected virtue has long been popular with the more literate strata of the elite.)

On the other hand, it may be relevant that he lived in perhaps the most peaceful and best-governed century of the Roman Empire. It’s not that, as he himself might have believed, his targets were particularly decadent– that the Golden Age had passed. It’s that a culture may need a certain maturity to laugh at itself. And maybe a certain spiritual tiredness: he can treat Zeus and the gods with levity precisely because the elite no longer really believed in them (but still knew all the stories).

I like Casson’s translation on the whole– it’s lively and colloquial. Two cavils, though. One, I really wish he wouldn’t give money references in “dollars”. I understand that it’s shorthand, but I’d rather know what Lucian actually wrote– and not have to worry about what a dollar was worth 59 years ago. Second, it bugs me when he translates the wordplay and doesn’t give the original, even in a footnote. E.g. the “True Story” refers to the Saladbirds, the Fastcentaurs, and Waterburg. I’d like to at least know the Greek terms, especially since Casson leaves in most of the names of gods and historical figures, however obscure.

(Oh, another word on the original question. Lucian certainly didn’t invent the humorous dialog; the Egyptians had the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”; the Akkadians wrote debates between inanimate objects. It’s not quite the same, but it also probably indicates that there was more of the same that’s been lost. In premodern times literature was preserved when people copied it, and probably a lot of comedy was lost because the targets were no longer understood.)

A People’s History of Science

I just read this book, by Clifford D. Conner. Er, is it clear that the title of the book is the title of the post? If not, it’s called A People’s History of Science. Glad we could clear that up.

Anyway, the thesis of the book is that science, both theoretical and practical, though it owes much to the various geniuses everyone emphasizes, also owes much to a usually unknown army of craftsmen, assistants, and ordinary people.

I have mixed feelings about the book. Not because he doesn’t prove his thesis– he does, and there’s a lot to learn here whether you’re interested in the history of science/technology, or in conworlding. But he can’t resist polemic, and those parts are tedious.

So, when he sticks to his subject, it’s a great book. He has fascinating sections on the Polynesian navigators, on knowledge of plants from around the world, on the practical knowledge of miners, instrument makers, craftsmen, and midwives. It’s full of things I didn’t know, such as:

  • Portugal’s Prince Henry is famous for encouraging navigation; what’s less known is that his captains would kidnap Africans and learn the local sea routes and trade opportunities from them.
  • Similarly, when American colonists wanted to grow rice, which requires deep knowledge of wet-field cultivation, they stole the expertise, by buying African slaves who knew how to do it. Conner find newspaper ads from the 1700s which touted the availability of slaves who had “knowledge of rice culture.”
  • The famous Dutch microscopist van Leeuwenhoek was not a professional scientist but a draper. He was originally interested in lensmaking in order to get a close-up view of his fabrics.
  • The man who won the British contest for a way to accurately determine longitude was John Harrison, a carpenter who had taught himself watchmaking.
  • The invention of printing was followed by an explosion of practical manuals, written by and for craftsmen. Smart savants read these books, or talked to craftsmen.
  • We tend to think of painters and architects as an elevated class– Artists– but traditionally they were considered barely-respectable craftsmen. Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi were all apprenticed to goldsmiths, and Vasari called Michelangelo as “the wisest of all the craftsmen.”
  • Benjamin Franklin published the first chart of the Gulf Stream, which could shave two weeks off the trip across the Atlantic; he himself acknowledges that its was dictated to him by a whaleboat captain, who was his cousin.
  • One 19C account of the steam engine comments, “There is no machine or mechanism in which the little the theorists have done is more useless. It arose, was improved and perfected by working mechanics– and by them only.”

Conner quotes plenty of old-fashioned histories which exalt solitary thinkers and theorists, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Newton to Einstein, trumpet the ancient Greeks as if they invented inquiry and theory, and explicitly downplay craftsmen and practical workers. These ideas are easily demolished by quoting the very Greeks and Renaissance savants they extol, who praise (though they don’t often name) the practical workers their work depended on. The Greeks themselves tell us that they got much of their knowledge from Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The polemic sections, as I said, get tedious. The last few chapters in particular are a slog, as Conner mostly forgets his subject and indulges in a slapdash tour of modern capitalism and its disasters (though for balance he also condemns Stalin). A typical bit is the invocation of the Bhopal gas leak; his one-paragraph discussion has nothing to do with his main thesis and tells us nothing new.

A minor but annoying cavil: being anti-establishment in so many ways sometimes leads Conner into a defense of quack ideas. E.g. there’s a sympathetic discussion of Mesmer’s “animal magnetism.” He approvingly quotes a contemporary who accepted that Mesmer could cure “blindness, deafness, wounds, or local paralysis”, and Conner suggests that the dismissal of Mesmer by the savants was a “monumental missed opportunity for the… advancement of science.” Now, the history of science is largely the history of wrong ideas, and wrong theories are a necessary step toward better theories; but just because “the authorities” condemn a particular set of ideas doesn’t mean that those ideas need rehabilitation. Conner seems to like Mesmer because he railed against the Academy, but describing Mesmerism as “people’s science” is a stretch– as Conner himself notes, Mesmer was supported by a rich banker, and did his best to appeal to high society.

Finally, though there is some recognition of Polynesians, Chinese, and Babylonians here, the book as a whole is extremely Western-oriented. As a nonfiction writer myself, I very much understand the problem of research load. But though he insists on the debt the Greeks owed to Babylonia and invokes Joseph Needham, the Babylonians don’t rate a chapter, nor do the Chinese or Arabs.

MECK readers needed

It’s (finally) that time again: I need readers for the first draft of the Middle East Construction Kit.

The book is similar to my China and India books. It covers the history, culture, religion, and literature of ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, up till the Macedonian conquest, and includes meaty grammatical sketches of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

If you’re interested and have time, send me e-mail. If you’ve done this before, welcome back! If not, tell me if you have any special expertise. This is not required, as I need general readers too. If I get a load of replies I may save some of you for the second draft.

If you’re curious, that’s king Horemheb above, circa 1300 BCE, greeting Hathor in the afterlife, and hoping no one notices he has two right hands.