Cipri and Yu

I was going to review Nino Cipri’s Defekt, but then I started reading Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and they were so similar I had to treat them together.

To wit:

  • The protag is a young man in a dead-end job
  • They work for soulless but happy-faced corporations
  • They are almost entirely alone and don’t entirely understand why
  • They’re kind of failures, though they do their jobs well
  • Something paranormal happens to jolt them out of their rut
  • Nonetheless this brings more dangers, possibly lethal
  • There are frequent extracts from in-universe manuals
  • Some of the most compelling characters are not human
  • They both meet other versions of themselves
  • There’s a hint of escape, though nothing systemic

Defekt is set in a big retail store called LitenVärld (‘little world’), and my first reaction reading it was “Wow, is working at Ikea that bad?” The hero here is Derek, who’s a top sales associate, totally dedicated to LitenVärld, and a huge nebbish. He lives out back of the store in a storage container, and his only problem is that he seems to have a bloody cough. This will turn out to be the least of the horrors visited upon him over the next two days.

This bit is technically a spoiler, but it’s on the damn back cover of the book, so: LitenVärld allows sick days, but it doesn’t appreciate them, not one bit. Derek is reassigned to the inventory team, whose job is to find furniture and other merchandise that have mutated into monsters. Also his team is composed of alternate-universe versions of himself.

The tone reminds me a bit of Christopher Moore, whose Bloodsucking Fiends also spent a lot of time with dead-end retail workers. But apparently the times have darkened– Moore’s crew were jolly rogues compared to the dead-enders at LitenVärld. Cipri is very evocative of joyless work and abusive managers, and the bullying corporate pretense that it’s all great for everyone.

The book is short, but manages to tell a full satisfying story. Cipri is good at making a situation increasingly worse, and I didn’t expect some of the directions they took. (Cipri is nonbinary, and so are a couple of characters in the book.) The alternative-worlds idea is used for both plot and thematic reasons– naturally LitenVärld uses it in the crappiest way possible. In an afterword Cipri explains the genesis of Derek– they’ve worked with people like him, and wondered, “what was up with that guy?”

The book is a sequel to Finna, which I haven’t read, though I intend to.

In How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the protagonist calls himself Charles Yu, and the paranormal bit here is time travel. Charles has his own time machine, the TM-31, with a depressed operating system named TAMMY, and a dog who doesn’t really exist but thinks he does. He spends all of his time– well, sometime else, except when he’s doing his job. His job involves stopping time paradoxes. People visit their past and want to change it, only they can’t, and if they insist they’ll get stuck in an alternative timeline.

Charles also has a dilemma: at one point he meets his future self. And shoots him. (Also not a spoiler, it’s in the first paragraph.) This creates a bit of a problem since this universe (it’s actually a Minor Universe) is deterministic. But Charles’s real problem turns out to be his family of origin. His father was a huge nerd, you see, who devoted years of his life to inventing a time machine, and seems to have disappeared with it.

The book is longer and more ambitious than Defekt, though I think less successful. It’s very immersive on the father’s hopes and dreams and failures, and there are a lot of cute bits– e.g. Charles’s boss is Phil, who’s a computer program but doesn’t know it, which makes things awkward.

There are also some metanarrative digressions… the title is not entirely ironic, apparently it really is a science fiction universe and all the characters know it. He doesn’t commit to the bit as in Scalzi’s Redshirts, but I don’t think the idea does the book any favors. Many authors have been fascinated by metanarrative; it probably comes with the territory, as they are acutely aware of their characters as both people and as creations. But I think it rarely works for the reader. Fortunately it’s not a deep part of the book.

I’m a sucker for time travel books, but the minimalism of this one is a bit dissatisfying. In Charles’s view, people would mainly use time machines to revisit their own past. That’s cool, but I think I’d prefer to go solve old historical puzzles, or go to the future and read the best comics.

SF is a balance: there has to be an SF idea, or it’s not SF at all; but like all fiction it need a plot and characters too. Cipri manages this balance: their book functions both as an adventure story, and as a satire on late capitalism. Yu I think doesn’t: the SF part is fun, but is neither developed as a concept or exciting as an adventure in itself. So it doesn’t support the heartfelt family story very well.

Take these gruntles with a grain of salt, because it usually isn’t a great idea to read the same kind of book one right after the other. (It wasn’t intentional!) These books might look quite different read in the opposite order!


Nona the Ninth

To my surprise, Nona was available at the library. I thought I wouldn’t get my hands on it for a year. This is, of course, the third book in the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir.

Possible spoilers for the Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth below so go read them already.

This one switches things up a bit, in that it’s way less goth. The basic situation, hinted at at the end of HtN: someone in Harrow’s body is being kept safe by Palamedes Sextus, Camilla Hect, and Pyrrha. There are a lot of strange soul + body combinations in this book, starting with each of these folks. The soul in Harrow’s body may or may not be Harrow– if it is she doesn’t remember it, and goes by Nona. Palamedes (male, necromancer for the Sixth) and Camilla (female, his cavalier) are time-sharing a body, which happens to be Camilla’s. Pyrrha (female) was the cavalier absorbed by Gideon the First (male) an eon ago, and is now sole occupant of his body as Gideon was killed by a Resurrection Beast.

Hey, stuff like that happens, and all kinds of people can make a family. Roughly the first half of Nona is in fact how they get on together in their daily life. It’s told from Nona’s point of view, and she’s both childlike and very trusting– she loves almost everyone she knows. She couldn’t have picked better adoptive parents; unfortunately they’re living in a wartime city filled with refugees, as the Blood of Eden group is fighting the necromantic Houses. Nona is also an assistant teacher at an impromptu school run by some of the refugees, and gets to know the older kids in that group. This rank is only due to her apparent age: she can’t read or write, so she mostly helps the teachers.

In interspliced chapters, John– the Emperor, the Necromancer Divine, etc., etc.– reminisces about his past: how he went from a researcher to Emperor, with stops at Murdering Everyone and Resurrecting A Bunch of Them. This in effect does the worldbuilding that connects the baroque sci-fi-medieval-necromantic empire we learned about in the first two volumes to an Earth not long past our era. (A cute touch is that John is a New Zealander, like Muir. He favors Australia plus Oceania for his resurrection.)

I’ve read a couple of quite contradictory reviews, but I agree more with the positive one. The negative one was basically “why couldn’t we have Book One again”, and that’s never a good path for a reader. Muir has changed gears once again: Nona is sweet and loving where Harrow was acerbic and self-hating; we see the Empire from outside rather than inside; we only get glimpses of what the Emperor is up to. It’s clear by now that Muir likes to switch things up (HtN was a jarring change from GtN, too); also that she’s a master of voice. You could tell who’s speaking even if the names were removed. As for the outsider perspective, I think it’s necessary; it develops what we learned in HtN, and we really can’t evaluate John without knowing, not just how he behaves at a dinner party, but what his empire is like. (Hint: like any empire.)

John is about my favorite supervillain, because he’s evil, but not eeeevil. He’s not a Dark Lord, and almost everything he does makes sense. If his account here can be trusted (but nothing is as it first appears in Muir), his early crimes were well motivated, because of even worse assholes. He was even the most well-adjusted person on the Mithraeum, though that’s an extremely low bar. If you had to spend time with him, you probably wouldn’t sense a stench of psychopathy, just a great neediness. His great failing– shared with Blood of Eden– is an inability to think past patriarchal, hierarchical structures. (In a world where necromancy works, are pseudo-medieval noble houses the best way to organize it?)

The negative review also complained that Nona had very little agency. This is like complaining that Dr. Watson never solved a case. The whole point is to see things happening (and things do happen) from off to the side. It’s customary in sf to talk about world-ending crises from the viewpoint of the tiny number who can start or end them, but some crises (e.g. nuclear war or climate change, both referenced here) need to be understood from the viewpoint of the victims.

But it turns out Nona is not powerless at all; when she does act, it’s all the more important. If I understand the plot, Nona is the spirit of humanity that John destroyed and then remade; thus she is arguably human, but has never lived an ordinary human life. She is presumably the Alecto the fourth volume will be about.

I should note that you may or may not like Nona’s teenage friends. There’s maybe more about them than is strictly necessary, but they’re very important to Nona, and trigger a few plot points, and they’re part of the process of humanizing her.

In the middle of the book we see Gideon Nav return… under a new name, and in her own body, though it’s somewhat the worse for wear, as she’s dead. But as in ancient Hindu literature, death in Muir’s books is just a weird transition, a chance to change worlds or bodies or status. What’s curious is that Gideon comes off as kind of a dick here. She’s acerbic as usual, but she’s not the sweet friendly goth from the first book; she doesn’t seem attached to anyone or anything. I wonder if this is because we’re seeing her from the outside, or because she’s been corrupted by love-bombing from Ianthe and John, or because she’s pining for Harrow and can’t show it.

Overall, I liked the book a lot. It’s a welcome change of tone from the tortured-goth trauma of Harrowhark, and Muir manages to show us what the Empire amounts to for the commoners without losing her trademark thing of letting a few strong personalities at each other in a cramped space.

Now to wait for Alecto the Ninth, which should be a rip-roarer. (And come on, let’s get Harrow and Gideon to kiss, at least!)

Lucy Cooke on animal sex

I recently read Bitch: On the Female of the Species (2022), by Lucy Cooke. Great book, unfortunate title.

There is by now an entire bookshelf of books by women scientists and journalists examining sex and gender in animals, and gently skewering the bias of male scientists.  In brief: if you ever heard that males are dominant in nature, that males are naturally aggressive and unfaithful and interested in spreading sperm widely while females are demure, concerned only with offspring, and prefer a single mate… all that was widely believed well into the 20th century, but it’s pretty much all wrong.

Nature can be unkind to females… but the females fight back, and sometimes they’re unkind to males. And sometimes it’s just mondo weird out there.

Cooke’s book is organized by overall myth, and it largely consists of descriptions of one animal after another. This makes it easy to read (I can eat up wacky animal facts like popcorn) but hard to review. So rather than review the book I’m going to list a bunch of facts from it that caught my fancy.  There are a lot more in the book.

If you have a conworld, this book is a great resource for evolutionary oddities. Why not use some for your sentient species?

Ch. 1: You can’t tell a male by the “penis.”

• Moles have an enlarged citoris that looks identical to the male’s penis. Hyenas too.

• Among barklice, females are more aggressive, and have erectile ‘penis’ that inserts into a male ‘vagina’. Sperm still travels from the male into the female, through this connection.

• Spider monkey females have a long pendulous clitoris, always on display. Males tuck their penises away inside!

Testosterone is not a “male” hormone and estrogen a “female” one. Both sexes produces both, and both derive from progesterone. It’s all about the timing and relative amounts. Female hyenas produce a load of testosterone in their ovaries, which results in their ‘masculinized’ genitals.

There’s a gene called SRY, on the Y chromosome, that triggers male development— but it works in concert with 60 sex-determining genes, which exist in both sexes and most animals; they interact in very complicated ways to build either testes or ovaries. (In the 1950s Alfred Jost stated that “default” development was to produce a female, but this is now seen as naïve: it’s just as complicated to build an ovary as to build a testis.) Moles achieve their unusual anatomy with changes to just two genes.

The platypus has the same set of 60 genes, but no SRY gene— though it has no less than 10 sex chromosomes rather than our two. Females are XXXXXXXXXXX and males and XXXXXYYYYY. A different gene takes over the role of SRY.

For unknown reasons the human Y chromosome is losing about ten genes every million years, and has only 45 genes left. So we could lose the whole thing in 4.5 million years. (See chapter 10 for species without males.)

Birds and some reptiles don’t have our XY system at all; they have ZW for females and ZZ for males.

Turtles don’t rely on SRY at all: eggs incubated at 88° or higher become females, those incubated below 82° become males. There are all sorts of other environmental triggers used in various species.

Females, and estrogens, came first: at least 600 million years ago.  Males appeared about 300 million years ago. As they derived from females, it’s not surprising that a lot of male function depends on estrogen.

Ch. 2: Female choice in mating

Females were assumed to be “passive” in their mate choice, but this is not true at all. E.g. sage grouses participate in “leks”, displays where males dance to attract mates. It’s hard not to focus on the males, who are doing the hard work. But the females are actively watching, and responding to their feedback is key to a male actually succeeding.

Ch. 3: Monogamy, or more likely not

Females were assumed to be naturally monogamous, while it was in the interests of males to cheat. Not so. It turns out in 90% of bird species, the females play around. Social monogamy (i.e. raising offspring together) does not imply sexual monogamy.

It was once assumed that males philander because producing sperm is cheap.  Producing one sperm is cheap compared to an egg— but no male generates just one sperm at a time. In mammals, at least, the energy needed to produce one ejaculation is more than that needed to produce one egg.

Often sperm includes nutrients or other substances useful to the female— sometimes in the form of a ‘sperm packet’. This also make philandering a good strategy for the female!

Ch. 4: Eating males

You can’t get more of a picture of females in control than in species where eating the male is common. Note, this is an even better protein source than a sperm packet. Mantises are famous for this, but also many species of spiders. One spider keeper offers a tip for keeping males alive: make sure the female isn’t hungry. Some species have figured this out themselves, waiting to approach till they see the female eating. The nursery web spider takes an even safer approach: bondage. He ties up the female in silk before sex. (Don’t worry, she can free herself, but it gives him time to escape.)

Ch 5: All about genitals

Genitalia are amazingly diverse. And these days you can’t just look at penises, as biologists used to do— you have to look at vaginas.

Birds don’t normally have a penis, but some do. It’s likely that the lack of a penis is the innovation, not the opposite. Ducks have one, and often use it ruthlessly in forced copulations. But female ducks have a complex vagina, with dead end pouches. She seems to have control over these, and can divert an unwanted penis into the pouches. The result is that while 1/3 of duck matings are forced, only 2–5% of pregnancies result from forced matings. 

Also, both males and females ducks have seasonal genitalia. They get larger and more complex during mating season.

Some biologists have complained that the clitoris is useless— the female doesn’t need to feel pleasure to have sex. But, all vertebrates have a clitoris, which suggests it is useful. And we can easily find species where females don’t get pregnant without arousal— if nothing else, they may just reject the male. (This is easy for animals with cloacae, since then mating requires female cooperation.) There is some evidence that orgasm promotes conception in humans. Also, vaginal contractions may be necessary to get the sperm to the egg— it often can’t do it on its own. 

As a last resort, the egg itself may exercise some control over which sperm get to it. Eggs can secrete chemicals that act like a pathway, and sperm react to these differently, meaning that th egg is testing something.

Ch 6: Female care.

Only 1/10 of mammals exhibit direct male care. But 9/10 of birds do— probably tied to their lack of a penis and lactation.

For weird, look at the seahorse, of course. The female, er, inovulates the male, transferring eggs to him through an ovipositor. The male inseminates and feeds them in his pouch and eventually pushes them out in the water.

In mice, at least, caring for infants is controlled by one set of neurons, attacking them by another. Both sexes have both neuron types, and stimulating one produces the same behavior (caring or attacking) in either sex. Most animals have these neuron types too, including us.

Maternal care is by no means universal or automatic.  First-time monkey mothers can be very bad at it (mortality rates for firstborns are 60% higher than for laterborns). It may be adaptive to sometimes neglect the child, especially in very stressful or low-resource situations.  A kangaroo fleeing a predator sometimes ejects the near-independent joey from her pouch. This is bad news for the joey, but the mother survives, and she always has reserves: a fetus and a blastocyst held in waiting; they move to the next stage when the joey is lost.

Ch 7: female vs female. 

Another myth is that males do all the fighting. The topi are African antelopes; females fight each other for the chance to mate with the top males.

Male gorillas have small testes, usually a sign of little inter-male competition— the males dominate a harem. But the females compete to mate. Females may mate outside of estrus in order to drain his sperm; or high-rank females can harrass low-rank ones to prevent them from getting pregnant.

It was once thought that only male songbirds sing. In fact 71% of female songbirds do. It’s more complicated though: European and North American female songbirds sing less.  It seems female birds sing to compete with other females or to lure males. In Europe and North America, they are in the vicinity less because of migration; lacking time for competition, they concentrate instead on picking between males.

Ch 8 : Matriarchy

There are 90 species of lemur on Madagascar that are female dominant. The females frankly terrorize the males (and lower-ranking females)— all the more remarkable because they’re the same size. OTOH the males have evolved an ace: copulatory plugs, made of coagulated sperm; they don’t prevent further mating but have to be removed, and given the lemur’s very short mating period (sometimes just part of a day, once a year), it can help.

Ch 9: Menopause

The grandmother hypothesis is that active grandmothers make for healthier babies who wean earlier. This was demonstrated among the Hadza people in Tanzania.

Orcas are similar— they live to be over 60. And male offspring live with them till they die, basically.  Indeed, their death rates spike if their mother dies, especially if she’s post-menopause.

Ch 10: Doing without males

Laysian albatrosses, who nest near Hawaii, often live in lesbian pairs: 39 of 125 nests.  This may be because it’s a newish colony, and the females are more adventurous. Males tend to stick around where they were hatched.  This was discovered because there were two eggs in the nest!  But only one survives, because a bird can only brood one egg, and the partner has to go out foraging.

Or there’s the mourning gecko, also of Hawaii, which has no males at all. A gecko can reproduce all by itself— a trait shared with about 100 other vertebrates. Sex is seen as necessary for adapting to new environments, so it’s thought that asexual species are short-lived (100,000 years instead of several million). On the other hand, they can colonize a new area quickly as they can produce offspring so fast.   And double OTOH, some species (like the Ambystoma salamander) can grab genes from related species. It must work: the species is 5 million years old.

Some asexual species still have (lesbian) sex— because for them only sex stimulates egg production.

Ch 11: Fluid genders and genderfluids

Gender itself is fluid and nonbinary.  E.g. bluehead wrasse can be seen as having three genders: males, females, and females that turn into males. Curiously, the latter are far larger than the ‘other’ males and much more territorial. The small always-males tend to form coalitions to mate.  Different conditions favor each, so the mix remains.

Chalk bass can change sex pretty much at will. This allows them to take turns laying eggs, which spreads out the burden nicely.

Most sex-changing fish start out female, but the anemonefish at least goes male to female. Curiously the process starts in the brain— the gonads can take years to catch up.  A female-brained fish acts like a female and is recognized as such by other fish. In all of these fish species, the sex change is operational: you get functioning reproduction.

The hagfish is hermaphroditic and can self-fertilize, probably for good reason: it lives a very solitary life. It’s worked for 300 million years.

Do we understand brains yet?

Every ten years or so it’s wise to check on the philosophers and neuroscientists, in case they’ve accidentally explained consciousness and/or started a gray goo event. So I just read Being You: A New Science of Consciousness by Anil Seth.

He starts out strong by adopting two positions I like.

One, he is dubious of functionalism. That’s the idea that what defines consciousness is function, mostly external behavior. It’s the usual position of old-school AI, the idea that of course computer systems could be conscious (or intelligent or sentient or whatever). Seth basically just denies the “of course”. He doesn’t say they’re wrong, but he takes an extremely biologically based point of view– he doesn’t think it’s an accident that we are animals; it’s the key piece of the puzzle.

Two, he is dubious of philosophical zombies. The notion here is that some people might look and act just like us, only they have no consciousness. His point of view is that as a thought experiment, it assumes too much. Just saying “imagine that such and such is the case” does not show that such-and-such could be the case.

I’d go farther than that. Philosophical zombies (I’ll follow Seth and just call them zombies here) are what Dennett calls an intuition pump, a story that seeks to funnel our attention in one direction and downplay serious problems. The tricky supposition here is that no one could possibly tell if someone is a zombie, including themselves. That’s actually a very strong, unsupported claim: that consciousness has no observable properties. Or more precisely, that it could be faked, and that the fakery would not itself be consciousness.

Imagine you ask a zombie how they make a decision. They say something like

I dunno… I feel like I consider the situation, think about what I want, what are the risks, what are the opportunities. If it's important, I go talk to other people, or I make a list of the pluses and negatives. I might let it sit for awhile and see what I think the next day. Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it's so obvious that it could be automatic. I guess I don't know exactly how I make the final choice, but if it turns out it's not what I really wanted, that becomes obvious.

Given the vagueness of introspection, is that much different from what you would say? But, isn’t the zombie describing an internal process that, when it happens to us, we call consciousness? The zombie-positor has to maintain that the zombie can use phrases like “I consider” and be wrong (or lying) about that, but in a way that fools outsiders and fools himself. I think this is allowing the positing process to produce absurdities.

It’s like saying there are grammatical zombies, who can produce correct and appropriate English sentences, but have no internal grammar. You can posit that– I just did. But it makes no sense: the ability to produce correct and appropriate sentences is an internal grammar.

Or if that’s still too theoretical, it’s like saying there is no gravity, there is only a force that acts just like gravity and cannot be distinguished from it by any experimental or theoretical test. That’s just playing games with words. (There are cases where we introduce a new concept and say it’s like a classical concept but different and better: Einsteinian gravity is not Newtonian gravity. But the key word is different: we are not claiming that there are no perceptible differences– quite the opposite.)

What the zombie positors elide is that we can interrogate the zombie. Or the zombie could write a novel or a blog post explaining what consciousness feels like to him. The zombie could be a liar, but we can often detect lying. Besides, continually adding new absurdities to an idea is usually a sign that the idea is off track.

Now, there are interesting phenomena that may remind us of zombies– Cotard’s syndrome, for example, where people think and indeed insist that they are dead. But my point is: we can recognize Cotard’s syndrome, it emphatically is not a case where someone lacks part of consciousness (the feeling that you are alive and connected to the world) but neither they nor the world can tell.

The zombie idea also seems to be that consciousness is some sort of artifact or emergent property, something that’s mostly an illusion and meaningless. Neurologists often sound like this. Refreshingly, Seth doesn’t: he foregrounds the existence of consciousness, and wants to explain what it is and why it’s there, from an evolutionary perspective.

He starts with Plato’s cave. Plato envisions people imprisoned in a cave such that they only see shadows of things, and they naturally take those shadows to be reality. Putting Plato’s own point aside, this concept has always worried philosophers. The modern version is that we live in a simulated world, no more real than the shadows. Very few people who worry about the cave think the viewers can determine if they’re looking at “real reality” or not; or if they know about the cave, that they can make any true deductions about true reality.

Seth boldly takes the cave as an analogy of how the brain works. The brain is a mass of tissue embedded in a bony prison. It has no actual information about the outside world, only neural messages. But it makes up a picture of what’s out there. The cave prisoners take their shadows for seeing reality, and so does the brain. It’s worse, in a way: shadows are at least real shadows on a real wall, but our perceptions are just a model we make inside our lightless skulls.

On the negative side, this picture strikes me as just wrong. It makes a theoretical distinction between the brain and sensory nerves, but why? The traditional view is that nerves are nerves! Arguably our retinas, like the whole network of nerves in our body, are part of the brain. Seth doesn’t exactly deny this, but he wants to focus on what’s available to “consciousness”. It does seem to be true that “consciousness” lives in the cerebrum, especially in the cortex, and in that sense all it has are neural impulses. (A neat factoid from Seth: brain scans that correlate with consciousness never involve the cerebellum.) Whatever our qualia are, whatever this view of the world we experience is, it’s not made of light. (Daniel Dennett suggests that our mental image is painted with figment.)

This strikes me as pretending not to understand indirection, ambiguity, and causal connection. A computer’s view of an image is an array of integers. But, so what? They’re numbers, but they’re direct representations of the light in one tiny area. More light, more number. Admittedly the number 276 might be an RGB value here, a dollar value there, a subscriber count yonder. Focusing on the fact that it’s “just a number” is missing the point. If you know what the number is, you can do things with it, and either perceive or affect something in reality. The semantic information is part of the information.

That aside, this picture is only the starting point for a more startling idea: perception is not a bottom-up but a top-down process. The brain basically makes up this vision of the world– it predicts what is Out There. Then it corrects those predictions in a Bayesian way– it tries to minimize prediction error. The end result is to keep the vision more or less aligned with the world… when it’s not it’s a dream or a hallucination or a memory. Seth calls it a controlled hallucination— “controlled” meaning that sensory inputs don’t produce or determine it, but are used to constantly refine and correct it, as opposed to an uncontrolled hallucination like a dream.

What’s the gain in all this? Well, it puts consciousness in control. Our view of the world, our qualia, and this process of prediction correction, is not just an emergent phenomenon, it is consciousness… in effect consciousness is our primary data, also a valid object for investigation. It’s not something to be dismissed as meaningless, or explained away.

The next step is to link this up with our imperative as animals: to stay alive, and stay separate from the world. As Seth notes, the natural condition of things is for entropy to inexorably mount, and for things to evaporate into their surroundings– to become mush. Organisms are very complicated regions of low entropy, engaged in a constant, active struggle to avoid becoming mush. At the cellular level, this involves making walls and regulating contact with the outside world. At the cognitive level, it means forming a model of the outside world and pursuing the organism’s interest.

You can think of this in statistical terms. If we could be thrust into any random physical environment of all those that are possible, in the vast majority of them we’d be dead. We can only thrive in certain conditions. An organism can be seen as a device to manage probabilities– to maintain ourselves in those conditions that let us keep going. For a bacterium, that might mean “move away from your waste and up the food gradient.” For a human, it might mean “study so you can change careers.”

I find all this… well, just one step up from Dennett‘s Consciousness Explained. Actually, re-reading that post, I like Dennett’s focus on cognitive details, like how we do not and cannot have a high-res picture of the world though we think we do. Seth does talk about intriguing experiments or mental conditions, but they never prop up his philosophical argument as much as he thinks they do.

The brain can be fooled, sometimes simply (we mistake the TV in the next room for a person), sometimes in a very eccentric way (you can be fooled into thinking a rubber hand is yours, if you see it stimulated at the same time as your real hand is stimulated). But this is supposed to support the idea of controlled hallucinations, and all it actually shows is what we’ve known for millennia– that our senses are not 100% accurate. The puzzling scientific problem is not why the brain can be fooled, but why its model of the world is so good.

There’s a short but interesting chapter on animal consciousness. As Seth wants to link consciousness to staying alive, he’s pretty willing to ascribe consciousness to most animals. (No discussion of plants, which would be a nice test of his ideas.) He spends some time on octopuses, which are about as close to an alien mind as we know of– their brains are an independent development, unrelated to vertebrate brains. I’d happily read a whole book on octopus brains. One neat bit: their neurons are 60% located in their arms– they distribute a lot of processing. Octopuses can change their color and texture to match their surroundings; this is a local process, and doesn’t seem to be communicated to the central brain at all. Even stranger: the arms can mimic color, but their own light sensors are monochromatic. So an octopus can’t even tell what color its arms are.

There’s also a chapter on machines. Here he is careful to distinguish intelligence from consciousness; he points out that we may very well get “artificial intelligence” without artificial consciousness.

One problem for his theory: blindsight. This is a rare phenomenon where people lack visual perception, yet somehow see things. You can kind of trick them into doing it, e.g. just asking them to guess the color of the unseen object in front of them– usually they “guess” right. This suggests that simply declaring that the whole perceptual apparatus is consciousness, can’t be entirely right. You can have non-conscious perception.

There’s a discussion of Benjamin Libet’s 1980s experiments that upended theories of consciousness at the time. While monitoring brain activity, Libet asked people to decide to move their hands, and report when they had made the decision. He found that the “readiness potential” originating in the motor cortex occurs almost half a second before the conscious decision to act.

Now this is disturbing, but maybe it shouldn’t be. David Eagleman has compared consciousness to a bad CEO who routinely takes credit for his underlings’ actions. Surely it’s a naive view that the conscious mind does everything by itself, out in the open. It can delegate tasks, it isn’t aware of everything in the brain or body, and ideas can percolate up from the unconscious. We can easily believe that, so to speak, some subcommittee in the brain suggested the movement, which naturally occurs before Mr. CEO Consciousness made the final decision.

But Seth mentions an intriguing recent (2012) experiment by August Schurger which challenges Libet’s analysis. He redid the experiment, adding another wrinkle: he asked the subject to move their hand when a buzzer rang. Thus he could compare movements entirely initiated by the subject, and those induced by the buzzer. The buzzer movements also showed a readiness potential (sometimes; see below), before the buzzer rang. We can hardly claim that the person knew ahead of time when it would ring.

The readiness potential appeared when the subject responded to the buzzer quickly rather than slowly. Schurger posits that the motor cortex just initiates a readiness potential at intervals, and that this facilitates actions. It’s not clear from Seth’s description, but one should also find readiness potentials that don’t translate into any action: the subcommittee made a proposal but the CEO rejected it. The slow responses without readiness potential also show that the latter is not necessary for action.

Overall: I liked the book, but I reacted about as I have to every other book on consciousness I’ve read: the authors never quite prove their points. I don’t really expect them to, but as in a few areas, like Chomskyanism or string theory, the theories are way more ambitious than convincing.

Each book is perhaps most valuable for pointing out other writer’s errors. E.g. Dennett is very good at showing the foolishness of thinking about consciousness as a homunculus inside the brain being presented with a fully rendered visual experience… which it has to process somehow. Eagleman is good on the vastness of our unconscious abilities. The lessons from Seth are mostly that perception does not have to be a passive process nor a transparent window onto reality. The brain didn’t evolve to be an accurate information processor; it evolved to keep the organism alive. It prefers utility to accuracy, and our perceptions may be active good guesses rather than a neutral display. I think the appeal to biology is also useful, if less convincing. The idea that evolution really wanted to produce a Turing machine is the wrong kind of anthropocentrism. We’re not computers unfortunately trapped in flesh. We are flesh that perpetuates itself by investigating and acting in the world.

Harrow the Ninth

Didn’t get enough lesbian necromancers in space? There’s more! This is book 2 in what is now an ongoing series by Tamsyn Muir.

It’s hard to even share the plot setup without spoiling the first book, so enjoy the picture of the cover, and go read Book 1.

So, Harrowhark Nonagesimus ended Book 1 as a Lyctor, one of the Emperor’s near-immortal knights, along with fellow fledgling Ianthe. She is technically now Harrowhark the First, i.e. part of the imperial House, but House identities are still important.

Did you ever play a Batman or Lara Croft game, accumulating more and more powers and flying around the map, then you start the next game and you forgot all the cool moves and left the Line Launcher at home? That’s basically what happens to Harrow here. Something’s gone seriously wrong with her Lyctorhood, and rather than having Gideon as her cavalier backup, she has an aching void where Gideon is supposed to be. Worse yet, she doesn’t even remember Gideon and in her memories of Canaan House, Gideon is replaced by the Ninth’s “real” cavalier, that big lump Ortus.

If that’s not bad enough, hanging out with the Lyctors and the Emperor, also known as God, or John, makes her stay in Canaan House seem like Disney World. There are only three Lyctors left of the original seven… four if you count Cytherea, the traitorous Lyctor who was the big bad in Gideon and died there… but like supervillains, necromancers are not easy to kill for good. None of them are wholly friendly. Plus there’s a Resurrection Beast on the way… i.e. the ghost of an entire planet. Planets the Lyctors have killed, by the way, though it’s apparently bad form to kill a planet with sentient life. So it’s understandably holding a grudge.

Now, Gideon was highly comic; Harrow is mostly melodramatic, with even more body horror. Part of this is the choice of protagonist: Gideon’s whole thing was that she was a normal person in an insane world. Harrow is a deep part of that insane world, first the head of her decaying House, now an apparently failed Lyctor in the Emperor’s decaying inner circle. The comedy isn’t entirely gone, but most of it is situational… e.g. Muir gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that the Emperor and the Lyctors have been doing this for 10,000 years. They’re in a bit of rut, they all kind of hate each other, and they view the new Lyctors as babies.

The narrration is pretty audacious. Harrow announces early on that she’s insane. She keeps seeing a woman she calls the Body– the dead woman she found in her House’s Locked Tomb tomb at the age of ten, and fell in love with, putting the romantic in necromantic. The Canaan House retelling is unsettling, because we read Gideon and know that it’s wrong. (Later on we learn that it’s not quite a retelling or false memory at all.)

Now, I devoured this book… I finished it in one setting and I am aboard for more Locked Tomb books. But I didn’t love it quite as much as Gideon. In brief…

  • Harrow is far less fun than Gideon.
  • It’s the middle book of a now tetralogy, which inherently means it has to set up more troubles than it resolves.
  • It really is hard to see a character diminished. It feels like Harrow’s character arc from Gideon got lost; and it takes an awfully long time for her to wise up again.
  • Unlike the first book, there are plenty of places where I think “Why would they do that?” Harrow and several other characters do some things that make little sense, and I’m afraid it’s for plot reasons– whereas in Gideon it can be said that people do atrocious things because they seemed smart at the time, according to their own character and perspective.

On the other hand, Muir obviously has a blast putting a bunch of baroque characters together in a small space and letting their festering conflicts explode. And kudos to her for inventing an Emperor who’s not a supervillain, or even particularly goth or imperious. Even the final revelations don’t shake the feeling that he’s a pretty nice guy, for the head of a necromantic death cult. (Of course there’s the Dishonored problem: why did he set up this appalling system in the first place?)

The sexual tension ramps up a bit here… not a whole lot, considering that Harrow is pretty damn prurient and technically a nun and crushing out on a dead girl she can’t physically touch. But there’s a couple kisses, at least, and a pretty funny seduction scene (which she observes but doesn’t participate in).

Also– megaspoilers– Gideon does return, and that’s a blast. Oddly enough, though, the single sweetest moment in the book occurs because of Harrow’s other cavalier Ortus– a memory illusion and/or a dead man. He was mostly a big coddled lump in the first book; here he’s mostly mocked because he’s writing a horrible epic poem about a long-dead Ninth swordsman. But then in the final confrontation in Canaan House, he unexpectedly proves himself.

I can’t help quoting Muir’s own notes (from her tumblr) on what tropes she put into this book:


Gideon the Ninth

Yep, this is the one by Tamsyn Muir about lesbian necromancers in space. If that description made you think “That sounds awesome,” well, it is. If you thought “That could be awesome but it couldn’t possibly live up to the idea”… well, it could and does.

Let me try to soberly describe it. There is a decayed Empire run by the “Necromancer Divine, King of the Nine Renewers, our Resurrector, the Necrolord Prime.” It has a decayed aristocracy divided into nine Houses, each of which is also a necromantic cult. The smallest, darkest, and cultiest of them all is the Ninth.

The titular Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth, who by age 18 has tried to escape her dreary planet and its drearier death cult dozens of times. The first few chapters describe her latest attempt. All have been foiled by the leader of the House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, who’s only 17 but a stone-cold witch.

Does this sound goth as hell? Of course it is. Harrowhark can conjure up living skeletons from a knuckle bone, for God’s sake. She’s a tiny nasty thing who dresses in black, wears a corset made of bones– for a necromancer that’s like wearing bandoliers of ammunition– and she sports black and white makeup so her head looks like a skull.

OK, if you haven’t read it you’re going to think this can’t possibly work. If it’s intended to be serious it’s so over the top that it’s going to be comic, and if it’s intended to be comic it’s just going to be camp. But Muir somehow avoids both pitfalls, because her narration is in on the joke. There’s a glee behind the gothic: she knows its a fun idea and just pulls out the stops. And she pauses in the accumulation of ruins and duels and body horror to make very modern jokes. E.g. the very first description of Harrow:

“Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality.”

Or there’s Gideon’s explanation of why she’s leaving: “Because I completely fucking hate you, because you are a hideous witch from hell. No offense.”

Now, a whole book set on the Ninth’s planet might get tedious. Fortunately there’s a big change: the Emperor needs new Lyctors, near-immortal magic knights, and to train for this each House besides his own (i.e. 2 to 9) must send two people to Canaan House– a vast decaying mansion hovering over an ocean planet. That would be the House’s heir (thus a powerful necromancer) and its primary cavalier, their bodyguard and thug, an expert in the rapier. For the Ninth that means Harrow and a big lump of a man named Ortus. Only Ortus runs away, so it’s Gideon instead. And Gideon doesn’t know or like the rapier, she’s a longsword girl.

So now we have not just one frightening necromancer but eight, each provided with a cavalier. Canaan House is provided with a tiny staff of First House priests and a larger staff of animated skeleton servants, a wholly inadequate list of instructions, and quant. suff. of mysteries. The aspirants move around, explore the House and each other. And then the murders begin.

The comic elements, and Gideon’s outsider point of view, are never lost, but the book does get more serious as the tension ramps up. The book is well plotted, with plenty of puzzles, surprises, and deep secrets. It’s hard to say more without spoilers, so I’ll just say that there are some great characters and even greater character arcs.

Gideon’s inclination is obviously lesbian, and that makes a few possible relationships smoulder, but I have to say that Muir pulled her punches here– you could almost read this book in Florida.

How about the worldbuilding? Once you accept the overall premise, it’s surprisingly tight. You get at least one gimme with any sf story, and necromancy isn’t any harder to swallow than time travel or FTL. And the book doesn’t really need more than that: you get variations of necromancy, but no other types of magic.

The narrative problem with magic is that readers don’t know what it can and cannot do, and when it gets too handwavy it starts to feel artificial. I think it all works pretty well here. We can’t predict exactly what the necromancers can do, but nothing feels cheaty– the biggest monsters are legitimately scary, and I can’t point to any characters doing things that only make sense because the plot needs them to do that right then.

There are some well-thought-out touches… e.g. it’s said that necromancers hate spaceships, precisely because outer space is lifeless. Nothing living or dead means nothing to work with. Muir doesn’t say so, but I wonder if the emphasis on swords is actually a smart adaptation to living in space ships and space stations. Projectile weapons, after all, can destroy a space habitat fast. Swords are safer.

The setting shares with Dishonored some heavy moral questions about whether this empire is worth cheering on at all. There’s a scene early in the sequel which suggests it’s not: outside this star system, it’s simply evil. I don’t know how that will go, but you can’t say the moral ambiguity isn’t explicit here– cf. Gideon’s evaluation of the head of the Ninth House above. But as Gideon might say, duh, what do you expect from a hideous death cult? At the same time it’s not like rooting for Darth Vader, it’s more like seeing what Dr. Evil is going to do next.

Hopefully more soon, since I’m reading the sequel… 

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.