Friday, November 28, 2014

Twilight's End

Star Trek: Twilight's End
© 1996 Jerry Oltion
279 pages

Somewhere in space lies a planet that's not spinning, and that just shouldn't be so.  Tidally locked, it poses a great inconvenience to the colonists who occupy the permanent perimeter between frozen wastelands and scorched deserts. Their swelling population of 2 billion has destroyed what fragile biosphere there was, and rather than deciding to stop with the whole being-fruitful-and-multiplying business, they have decided instead to litter the planet with great big engines and then turn them on. The planet doesn't want to spin? Too bad, because they're going to MAKE it spin, and Captain Kirk is going to help.

Twilight's End is a classic Trek adventure in which the Enterprise attempts to come to the aide of a world president/damsel in distress. Smooching with Kirk before he's even gotten his bearings, her plan  for spinning the planet is scoffed at by a full panel of naysayers.  While there exist sensible opposition (attempting to force a planet to spin is rather drastic) and somewhat more suspect opposition (Denialists who contend the poisoning of the atmosphere is perfectly natural and will correct itself eventually),  there are others who are on the crazy violent side, those who believe this is Fate, that mother nature has decided that any race that could break two planets is just begging for extinction. (The colonists fled to this planet after stripping their last planet of all resources, then accidentally rendering it inhabitable when they hijacked an asteroid and directed it their way to mine it.)  The crazy violent ones in due course kidnap a scientist, attempt to blow the Enterprise up, and give all the characters something to do while they are waiting for the planets to align the correct way. The sensible opposition, with McCoy on their side, believe that bioengineering is eminently more practical and less likely to blow the planet up:  simply pore through the major plant species' genomes, find genes that would make the plant hardier, turn them on, and hey presto! An elegant solution to the problem. The plants will correct the toxicity by dumping oxygen into the atmosphere. Can McCoy find a suitable breed of tree before the engines start up? It would be nice if he could do it before, because  between the crazy-violents and class warfare,  this place won't stay peaceable for long.

Written in 1996, the book's tone seems vaguely reminiscent of the then nascent arguments about global warming, though the baddies are less global warming deniers and more ecological nuts, the kind who believe that human beinsgs are a cancer on the body of Earth who need to be eradicated. The leading opponent of the spinning planet is personable enough, and even causes some friction on the Enterprise when Kirk realizes his chief medical officer agrees more with the opposition than the people the Enterprise is helping.   It's a fun novel, sometimes on the silly side; the author is obviously partial to beer, since characters throughout the story comment on their favorite kinds, and Kirk at one point comes up with an escape plan that involves brewing  beer and getting some hostiles good and drunk.  In the end, of course, technology saves the day; this is Star Trek, after all, where technology can do anything. The dialogue produces a few good moments between the core characters, and all told it's a fun bit of light reading.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
© 1998 Steven Pressfield
442 pages

When Xerxes, Ruler of Asia, god-king of men, finally stood over the bodies of the few Greeks who had withstood his hordes drawn from half a world, he could not understand. Hailed as all-knowing,   he could not fathom why a few hundred men would have opposed his army of millions, even after they were offered the greatest seats of influence in the Empire.  Finding a Greek still holding on to life,  the Persians looked for answers; nursing him back to health, they coaxed out this, the story of the Spartans. The story of an orphaned boy who fled to the strength of Sparta after his parents and home were destroyed by the Argives, Gates of Fire is his growing up among them, his quest to become like them, to be the quintessence of strength and valor, unbreakable.

Though not born of Sparta, Xeones lived in awe of them from his youth. So fiercly did he admire them that after war turned him into an orphaned child, wandering the wilderness with a cousin, he left her behind to pursue the Spartan way.  He could never be one of them; criminal violence had robbed him of the strength needed to wield the heavy oaken shield and the lance. He could string a bow, however, and let it fly with accuracy, and so he devoted his life to the service of Sparta.  He is motivated by youthful admiration, but also haunted by the memory of his parents, ashamed of not having been there to defend them,  agonized by knowing he ran away from his conquered city. In the Spartans he looks for the strength and fortitude he missed in himself, and when he takes his stand among them at the last, it is quite personal.  

Through Xeo the reader is introduced first to a harsh world in which children can be reduced to scrounging about the countryside, begging and stealing food, and then to the Spartan soul. The Spartans are different than other Greeks;  even when the Persian hordes threaten to reduce Hellas' cities to ashes, its women and children to slavery, the Spartans sneer and laugh while other cities kneel in the dust in homage. There are fates worse than death for a Spartan.   The proud city is a severe place in which the souls of men are tempered like steel against the vagaries of fate, against pain;  these  cannot be avoided, but they cannot be allowed to rule. Discipline must rule; loyalty to the clan must prevail.  Xeo, like all men of the city, becomes subject to Spartan law, a demanding law that forces greatness of the soul even from the lowly.  Having found a place in the ranks as a squire to one of Sparta's knights, Xeo lastly becomes the narrator of the battle of Thermopylae This is the finale, a last  stand so audacious in courage that its telling has survived through the centuries, wherein 300 Spartans and a few thousand Allied Greeks attempted to stop the Persian millions in their tracks.

Although it lives on in the western imagination like no other battle, Thermopylae was for the Greeks a defeat: the Persians broke through after losing thousands upon thousands every day of combat to a mighty, valiant few heavy infantry, and Xerxes swept across Greece, burning even proud Athens. For those who remain, however, for those who later rose against the Persians, for any number of people who have protected a flicker of hope against the gaping maw of darkness--   the British expeditionary force standing in Belgium against the German invasions of 1914 and 1940, for instance -- Thermopylae was a triumph of the human spirit. Pressfield does a magnificent job of giving it poetic due; perhaps, considering the drama of the situation, an artful rendering of it is unavoidable. Time and again Pressfield ensnares the reader in the glorious action, or awes the soul is descriptions of the great slaughter. This he does without much hyperbole; the Persians are not demonized, nor are the Spartans lionized; the two sides meet repeatedly before the slaughter, emissaries hailing on another as brothers. The Spartans, whom  we grow to know through Xeo,  have a severe discipline, but even though they seem to fight like demigods they are still human, and herein they weep, laugh, and love fiercely Their antidote to the fear of battle is fear of failing one another, of failing to give selflessly to their brothers-in-arms.  It's an extraordinary work, as gripping for the martial telling as for the exposure to a culture whose stoic-like dedication is staggering.

Monday, November 24, 2014


© 1956 Alan Moorehead
416 pages


 As the Great War ensnared powers beyond Middle Europe, it became  in truth a world war,  providing the spark to reignite old tensions in places like the middle east.  In late 1914,  the nations of the Black Sea became party to the conflict, and Turk railed against Russian and Bulgar as in conflicts of yore.  After months of bloody stagnation in Europe,  certain persons in Britain had an idea for altering the dynamics of the war;  invade Turkey, the sick man of Europe,  and encourage the Balkan Powers to rise against it. Not only would that force Turkey to release its pressure on Russia – allowing the tsar to concentrate fully on Germany and Austria – but it would put a handful of allied powers right behind in Austria’s backyard if the Balkans joined in.  The Central Powers would be well and truly surrounded.  The invasion would be so easy – use modern ships to blast a way through the narrow channel leading to Constantinople, using landings to help secure the forts if need be, and stand by and smile as the Turks fled before the might of modern military prowess. By awful luck, problems in command, and the feistiness of the Turks, however,  Gallipoli became a year-long tragedy,  a distraction from the west that never realized its promise.

Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli covers the campaign from its planning through its execution to the end, when the greatest victory of the episode was realized in a bloodless retreat.  Addressing both the naval campaign and the months of trench warfare, and considering both the Turkish and Allied sizes,  Gallipoli impresses with its thoroughness and easy reading despite the grim nature of the work.  He covers the larger maneuvers in full, but during the months of gruesome gridlock breaks way to address the political ramifications of Gallipoli’s floundering, both on the Turkish and Allied sides. The book contains some of the best maps I've seen in a text of this kind, including three-dimensional renderings of the hills that deliver the difficulty of fighting in this terrain much more than a simple topographical map could have.  Gallipoli seems nothing if the difficulties of WW1 warfare concentrated into the narrow stretch of the Hellespont. In some areas of the ANZAC front, the opposing trenches were scarcely ten yards apart from one another, or within a grenade's -- or a tin of jam's - throw. In such confined quarters,  the two sides could not help but realize one another's essential humanity, and this is often a tale of well-meaning men making awful mistakes against one another. Moorehead's Gallipoli is what Churchill's campaign was not: most effective.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Varieties of Scientific Experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
ed. Ann Druyan, © 2006
304 pages

In 1985, Carl Sagan delivered a series of lectures to the University of Glasgow on the general subject of natural theology, or rational bases of religion.  Not being a religious man, Sagan’s own lectures (“A Search for Who We Are”)  probe for the instincts that give rise to religion, compare them to man’s search for knowledge through science, and suggest that in ways religion has been superseded by the scientific enterprise.  This is the record of a naturalist’s examination of religion, and his failure to be convinced. But unlike the works produced by the ‘new atheism’, Sagan’s approach is without bellicosity.. He doesn't savage religion in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, or cold-bloodedly shoot it down in the manner of Richard Dawkins.  He begins by talking about subjects that seem to be unrelated – UFOs, for instance --  before skillfully guiding the chat toward more relevant material; having appealed to the readers’ skepticism regarding prehistorical aliens, for instance, he merely suggests it be directed towards another subject: miracles, say.  His conclusions are not pompous accusations and grandiose speeches: they are the gentle question, the urging to follow a thought or an instinct through to its conclusion. It strikes me as a potentially effective way to create room for skeptical thought in a religious mind, but there are limits. Sagan never touches on his own religious experience, but his biographies suggest he grew up in a secularized Jewish home, with no meaningful belief in deity or religious practice. For the religious reader, Sagan's argument may lack some strength  he explains what he imagines religious conviction to be based on, but as an outsider his reach is limited.  Religion has a power beyond the mental distractions Sagan catalogs here, the feelings of warm-fuzziness and wonder. At one point he refers to the Christian sacrament of wine and the native American use of peyote to generate religious hallucinations, but a sip of wine at the Communion table is hardly comparable to mind-altering substances.  Sagan isn't an opponent of religion; he hails it as a potential source of moral order, especially in the dark times of the Cold War.  He thinks it should know its place, however, that faith should cede victory to the scientific method in realms like the acquisition of knowledge.  The deeply religious will find his argument reductionist; is there nothing more to life than that which can be measured and weighed?  Sagan's strength here is arguing for more skepticism in everyday affairs, but I think he misses in his  simplistic appraisal of religion.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc: A Spiritual Biography
© 1998 Siobhan Nash-Marshall
176 pages

In 1429, France in her darkest hour was startled by the sudden appearance of a shining star -- a teenage girl from a minor village, wielding a standard and claiming that God had ordered her to  lead the nation to victory. The Hundred Years War,  the long struggle between the French and English nobility over Guyenne, Normandy, and the French crown, had left France seemingly nothing but a lost dream.  France had no leader; her last king had gone mad, his queen denounced the heir, and now civil war between the Dukes of Orleans and Valois paved the way for English triumph. But Joan answered the call, raised an army, and within twenty years the war was over. She is one of the most remarkable characters in European history, and this brief biography is a highly complimentary if slightly restrained story of her life.  Though it avoids being too mythical -- the author discounts stories of animals sounding off in happiness at her birth, and does not attempt to make her out to be a poor peasant girl when her father was a fairly well-established landowner --  it avoids being critical as well. The voices and the miracles attributed to Joan -- her foresight in ordering men to move a bit to the left so they wouldn't be stricken by a cannonball, her raising an infant to life long enough to be baptized so its wee soul would be saved, and not linger in limbo -- are repeated here, without either affirmation or skepticism.  [Author]'s focus is on Joan's drive and intelligence,  whpch imparted courage to the French people and struck a blow to build a victory upon. Even when in the custody of her enemies, assailed and jeered at by a hostile court, she maintained  the presence  of mind and the strength of spirit to deliver enigmatic answers that mocked their wrath --  the fury of a band of warriors, priests, and kings focused on a teenage girl.  [Author] provides solid context, however, demonstrating how the Hundred Years War was less an English invasion of France, and more of a French civil war, and an exercise of feudal peculiarities in which the English king was a vassal to the French king, despite legitimately controlling more of France (through inheritance and marriage) than le roi himself.  It's not the strongest of biographies, but delivers a feeling of Joan that is saintly, strong, and sweet.

Joan of Arc: Legend and Reality, Frances Gies

Monday, November 17, 2014

This week: fiction, the writing and reading of

Dear readers:

            The past few weeks have been taken up with National Novel Writing Month, of course. I got off to a roaring start, 20,000  words in the first week, before slowing down to the recommended average of 1667 words per day. Having nearly run out of plot, I was forced to set things on fire.   While I should reach the 50,000 words ahead of schedule, reading-wise I will probably be resorting to lighter fare like the historical fiction that's been seen so far. The approach of winter makes me yearn for outdoors adventures stories, as was the case with my Mt. Everest set last year. My library just acquired a couple of local history titles which I've already started to investigate: No Hill too High for a Stepper and Images of America: Selma, authored by a woman who used to own the local main-street movie theater.  I also recently finished a short work on distributism, called Beyond Capitalism and Socialism.

Its front cover is startling similar to that of Bill Kauffman's Look Homeward, America, and both deal with similar themes. Suffice it to say they're both in the realm of Small is Beautiful and Human Scale;  E.F. Schumacher, and Kirkpatrick Sale provides the foreword.  They don't share publishers, but Beyond identifies its frontspiece as Grant Wood's Spring in Town. Wood also created American Gothic.  

I realized recently that my science reading this year has been rather pathetic, so now I'm halfway into Varieties of Scientific Experience, and my hope is that it will whet my appetite enough to take on Galileo's Finger.  I will knock out that sole item on the TBR list before the end of the year!  

Is anyone else doing NaNo? How are you faring? I can be stalked on the Nano forums as 'smellincoffee', for those who are registered there.  Well, happy reading!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

No Hill Too High for a Stepper

No Hill Too High for a Stepper: Memories of Montevallo, Alabama
© 2014 Mike Mahan
384 pages

No Hill Too High for a Stepper is a work of reminiscence, a country dentist's recollections of growing up in a small Alabama town during the 1930s through to the 1950s. Though listed as a biography. Mike Mahan's intent is not to talk about himself, but to regale the reader with interesting stories from his childhood, stories that are meant to bring to mind the reader's own -- assuming he or she grew up in the era.  The book is part of a fundraiser by a nonprofit, the Cahaba Trace Commission, dedicated to protecting the history of communities along Cahaba River, sharing the lives of people who have lived upon its banks.  My own interest in the book stems, of course, from its chief setting in my adopted hometown of Montevallo, though anyone with an interest in folk history will find it appealing, especially if they're the nostalgic sort who dearly miss the days of mom and pop shops,  train service even in small towns, and entire lives lived without the benefit of beeping, blinking, shrinking gadgets.  Mike Mahan's childhood wasn't as wild as say, Tom Sawyer's, but he made a go of it. Contained therein are stories of boyhood --  killing a snake, then thinking up a system by which pulling a rope would cause the snake's body to suddenly drop down from a tree onto unsuspecting pedestrians -- and tales of adolescence, like  boys anxiously trying to sneak peeks of girls dressing at a coed water hole. Fashions, careers, and diversions come and go, but regardless of the passage of time somet things are  eternal:  boys will forever find trouble, or make some if need be.

Reading stories set in this era have an innate charm, especially set as they are  in a small town; this is the allure of Dickie William's The Other Side of Selma.  The reader is invited in to a life of intimacy; here there are no inhuman institutions; everything is personal. The stories are owned by people who live in them; the politics are local. It's Mayberry life readers made privy to, of  solid, down-to earth citizen yeomen, quirky characters, even the odd scoundrel or two. The multitude of stories has a common cast of characters, Mahan's community, and one story's co-conspirator is another's antagonist.  It is romanticized, no doubt; despite this being the Depression most seem hard at work, and there is in the background the unfortunate racial tension that is the South's great curse.   The University of Montevallo is part of this story, but not its whole; as a Selma boy I was enormously amused to learn that airmen from the base once here used to drive into Montevallo to hunt dates from 'the Angel farm', as the once-girls-only college was then known.   Mahan works his way through the down, street by street,  reflecting on the characters who lives once dominated them. If nothing else No Hill Too High is a visit back to the idealized American hometown of yore, the kind of place that no longer exists in these days of constant suspicion and the devastation of main streets by sprawl.

Images of America: Montevallo,  Clark Hultquist and Carey Heatherly
The Other Side of Selma, R.B. "Dickie" Williams.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front

Life, Death, and Growing up on the Western Front
© 2013 Anthony Fletcher
352 pages

In 1914 Britons marched to war, and with them they took their hearts. Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front takes in the experience of the average Tommy as he lived, endured, and died in the trenches of France and Belgium. Taken from a cross-section of Great Britain, from all classes and creeds,  half the subjects of the book will perish before war's end. But death and horror are not the fixation here; instead, author Anthony Fletcher stresses how the constant stream of letters between home and the Front allowed absent fathers to parent from afar, to give missing brothers the chance to encourage their younger siblings left behind, and constantly work to buttress the spirits of their parents and wives who they knew to be suffering.

While very much concerned with the Great War, Life, Death, and Growing Up is more a personal history than a martial one; through the letters, readers become the acquaintances of the men soldiering on, become versed with their dreams for their families, their hopes, their fears. Their letters betray a mix of bravado and anxiety about the beginning of the war, and call to mind the memory of how storied public life was in earlier times. They seem far less cynical than us, honestly believing themselves to defending a land of hope and glory against the brute force of empires.  Their dreams of defending the realm make them chivalric knights both at large and at home; they face a tension between wanting to  bare their souls to someone about the life they lead on the front, and wanting to protect their loved ones from fear.  Though Fletcher's own modern jadedness flickers through a few times, he hesitates from criticizing a band of men who he has grown to admire through their letters.  Despite the horror they witness, some of the men who live look at the war years as some of the best of their lives. While the past is always a prettier place in retrospect, their letters give some idea as to why that judgment might be sincere;  some men are overjoyed at the wildness of the front, rejoicing that they have not showered in several days, gloating in the fact that there they are able to be dirty.  It's as if they were boys playing in a yard again. More  substantial are the bonds of brotherhood forged in war; Fletcher remarks on how, despite the awful waste and obscenities seen in war, it entrances us, brings to life instincts that set the soul on fire. The soldiers are devoted absolutely to their comrades, and it is that feeling of being part of a great troop that they miss when the peace is come and they find themselves turned out, sent back to ordinary lives. The horrific impact of war is brought home in full to the reader during the Battle of the Somme, however, when the book's subjects begin dying, and the last recorded is one the author has focused on most. Having grown to know these men as sons, brothers, and fathers -- not just as members of the unit -- their sudden and seemingly senseless deaths are a dark shock.   Life, Death, and Growing Up is thus quite effective in  communicating the human experience, and cost, of the war.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Under the Eagle

Under the Eagle
© 2000 Simon Scarrow
256 pages

If given the choice between being attacked by foul-smelling, weirdly-painted Germans, and being attacked by foul-smelling, weirdly-painted Celts, which would you choose? For Centurion Macro, it's rather obvious: the Germans! At least monitoring the Rhine doesn't involve crossing a temperamental sea and fighting on the edge of the world, where foggy bogs hide all manner of monsters and men. But the Emperor Claudius says, "Invade Britain!" and so it's off across the channel and into the slime. To make matters worse, his second in command is a gangly boy who the emperor wanted appointed centurion despite the fact that he was a palace slave who knows more about literature than combat. The boy can't even throw a javelin without almost decapitating the man in front of him!   But you can't defy the emperor, not unless you're plotting to assassinate him, and it's hard to do that in Germany. So it's off to Britain, and so starts a fairly entertaining series of Roman military fiction.

Under the Eagle is the first book by Simon Scarrow, and he makes it easier on himself and readers by having his Romans speak what makes for contemporary English.  That's British English, of course, complete with slang, reinforcing the Hollywood-based conceit that the Romans went around chatting in RP. (New recruits' induction features a screaming DI who might as well be R. Lee Ermey in sandals.) That slight absurdity, coupled with the author's deliberate humor -- including some physical, like the aforementioned javelin foul-up, but mostly rendered in dialogue -- provide plenty of laughs. Part of that is laughing at little Cato, the aforementioned gangly youth, for whom army life is a decidedly harsh adjustment. He is a prim and proper boy in the company of rough and tough men, and worse yet, in a position of trying to force them to take him seriously as their commander despite the fact that he's still going through basic training.   The amount of danger the plot throws at them (ambushes by screaming Germans, ambushes by screaming Celts, ambushes by scheming Romans, and every altercation ending with something on fire) offers him plenty of opportunity to prove his Roman manliness, often to his own surprise.

It's an interesting start to the series, no doubt; my sympathies are wholly with both of the leads, Marco and the boy-on-his-hero's-journey, and considering that the invasion of Britain just started there's a lot more to look forward to. Most of Under the Eagle takes place in Germany, with the final chapters featuring the British landing and a quest to recover something buried during the last Roman invasion of Britain, led by Julius Caesar.  It's part military fiction, and part political intrigue  which is unavoidable given the setting of Rome. The battles are more interesting at this point, though I hope the Britons become more than just generic screaming hordes; considering how new the invasion is there is plenty of room for them to develop as proper antagonists.  I'll be continuing in the series, no doubt about that!

The British History Podcast; season one covers the Roman period. I'm up to the aftermath of Boudica so far.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Master of Rome

Master of Rome
384 pages
© 2011 John Stack

    Winning a naval war against the Carthaginians is such a pain in the ol' gluteus maximus. Invade Africa, threaten their very capital, and what do they do? They break an entire Roman legion with a handful of elephants. Seriously, who uses elephants? Why can't they just use horses like decent people do? And if losing a legion to some rampaging beasts from hell wasn't bad enough, a consul of Rome commanding has vanished (either imprisoned or trampled by elephants, maybe both -- who knows?) and the fleet sent to rescue him has just had itself ripped and blown and sucked to kingdom come by some freak storm. Okay, maybe it wasn't such a freak storm -- a Greek captain warned them about sailing across the Med in this season -- but what do Greeks know? Besides, Rome has a Destiny,  one not to be cowed by storm gods and elephants! (What do you mean, hubris? That's a Greek word, go away.)

  Master of Rome opens with Rome's pride enduring several setbacks, partially out of rotten luck (seriously, elephants?) and partially out of its own stupidity. These are not happy times for Rome, what with the consuls missing, the fleet smashed, one army eradicated in Africa and another stranded in Sicily. The Carthaginians may be fighting some enemy of theirs in the Africa interior, but they are doing a pretty good job at holding the Romans at bay -- and by the throat. And there's no easy fix. From day one, the Romans have been at a disadvantage fighting the Carthaginians on the sea, seeing as the sons of Phoenicia are second only to Greeks in seamanship. But earlier the Romans, at  Greek captain's prompting, installed devices on their ships that let Rome bring its advantage on land (the hard-to-break line of legions) to the sea. Those devices seriously diminish Roman ship's ability to withstand storms at sea, though, and if you have commanders who laugh in the face of thunderclaps, maaaaaybe you don't want to unbalance your ships. That was the thought of the Roman navy, who refused to sail after seeing the great weakness in action. That means instead of forcing the sea to adopt to them, they must...adopt themselves to the sea. It's very un-Roman. Fighting man to man, like barbarians? That's not how enemies of Rome were broken!

Atticus Perennis is the aforementioned Greek captain whose advice is usually on the nose but always resented by Roman politicians who, by right of being born on the Italian peninsula rather than the Greek, are manifestly superior. A cretin named Scipio is particularly resentful,  obsessed with maximizing his own power, and spends the entire book turning Roman misfortunes into a path to power for himself, one he can use to finally rid himself of that rotten Greek who keeps winning battles. So Atticus, stalwart captain and our faithful main character, must contend against a talented Carthaginian general (Hamilcar Barca), a loathsome Roman political lead, and the entire character of Rome itself, with its contempt and mistrust of all things Greek. (Part of that is snobbery, but on the other hand Greek mercenaries do keep setting things on fire and thwarting Roman sieges.)  On top of that his best friend has bailed on him because said buddy's family is dead against him dating their daughter, best friend's sister. And Atticus wants to give up, because Rome  isn't worth all this. Sure, it's not very hero-like, but he doesn't know he's a hero. He's just a man with a ship, a ship of friends and compatriots who have weathered every storm with him.  In the end fate serves up a few twists and turns that allow him to make peace with his inner demons, and allow Rome to inflict its own kind of peace on the Carthaginians.

Master of Rome ends the Punic War naval trilogy, and on a happy note. It had to end that way, of course: Rome won the Punic Wars, all three of them.  But victory has never been quite certain in this series, nor served in the usual way;in  here, in Master,  what I thought to be the final battle turned out to be yet another wreck for Rome,  Stack is able to fit a lot of plot into a few pages, executing dramatic reverses in close quarters. It makes for exciting reading, especially considering the characters.  The Carthaginian general is Atticus' foe, but not quite a villain; he's a proud son of Carthage who views Rome, rather properly, as his enemy. Rome makes for a good enemy, too, being a malevolent and wracked by petty politics even now,  centuries before Caesar and the empire. Beyond the military action, on land and sea, this series has delivered some personal crises as well, as Atticus struggles to resolve why he keeps fighting for a republic that hates him, while at the same time he and his best friend have that Greek-hound-dating-my-sister issue to work out.  It's been most enjoyable, so much different from what one might expect from Roman books, and I look to read John Stack's other work, namely Armada.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Short History of Byzantium

A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich
© 1997 John Julius Norwich
431 pages

            Rome fell in a.d. 474? Tell that to the Byzantines, who for centuries persisted in being an afterimage of the classical world, evolving through the medieval before their collapse a century after the west had fallen to barbarism. A Short History of Byzantium takes in over a thousand years of history, from Diocletian’s administrative division of the Roman Empire into two halves to the fall of the great city Constantinople to the Turks.  There is great difficulty in a hurried survey like this,  subjecting the reader to a tide of dates and names, but John Julius Norwich is a storyteller; under his pen, some  events, and some people,  are so outstanding that they serve as landmarks for the rest.

            A Short History of Byzantium begins with a story more familiar, for the first chapters are a history of the Roman Empire as the west remembers it: Roman. Constantine the Great moved the center of the Roman Empire to  the  east, founding a new Rome on the site of an old trading-city, Byzantium,  a city that would later assume his name: Constantinople.  The move created a fresh start, but allowed the Emperor to focus on the nation’s rising threats:  powers to the east, especially the Parthians. Rome vs. Persia; it’s a battle between titans of the classical era.  The book’s scope is such, though, that the classical gives way to a world at its conclusion which is more like ours; we see here the birth of the Holy Roman Empire,  the rise of Islam, the explosive expansion of the Ottoman Turks.  Throughout all this tumultuous change was the Empire,  warring against and making common cause with these changing powers through the ages.  Byzantium was also witness and party to Christianity’s evolution.  The effective founder of the Byzantine heritage, Constantine, was the man who legitimized Christianity within the Empire as a whole, and put it on the path to becoming the binding religion of the west as a whole. But that binding could not quite stand the stressors of the ages, the gulf of cultural differences between Rome proper and the east, and Christianity once unified eventually severed into two halves, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. But the cut was never a clean one; instead, there were tiny fractures that opened and closed through the centuries, forever dynamic but trending in the end toward rupture.  

            The empire itself is the subject of considerable interest, somehow holding on through the centuries despite the staggering variety of challenges it faced. It defended itself from one invasion after another, from Bulgars, Goths, Vikings, and later on Arabs and Turks, and relied on the oddest allies. In resisting the Norman attack on southern Italy, for instance, it employed disgruntled Anglo-Saxons who had left England in disgusted after  the Normans conquered it. A nation surviving a thousand years of history must have some institutional stability, but it is hard to see after this survey;  only 88 people held the throne in that span,  but they seem to go with great haste,  and often bloodily. At times even western Rome appears sane by comparison, though that’s excepting monsters like Caligula and Nero. Not that Byzantium is without its characters, listing as emperor men like “Michael the Sot”.  There are utter boors and monks, noble heroes and complete, degenerate cowards.   There are women, too, some who reign through their husbands, and some who reign in their own right.  They make for a colorful cast, and though I knew the general trend of the story (an image of the Turks besieging Constantinople has haunted my mind since seeing it in grade school), the turns it took were surprising indeed. The empire rose and fell through the centuries, contending against all manner of adversaries, but the fatal dagger came at the hands of those who ought to have been its defenders; the Crusaders, who in the Fourth Crusade, sacked the city. Even the fluke victory the Turks inflicted on it years prior did not break the empire so badly as that sacking. 

    This was in short quite a treat, exposing me to a world of information previously hidden away, but of utter interest. From the word go, Byzantine history was wrapped up in the west; how its memory became lost is a puzzle, considering how important western powers viewed it almost until the last, straining to wed into its line to unite the  German 'Roman' empire and the empire of Old.  Entertaining in many respects, it also delivers a history of Europe from another aspect, and is quite commendable.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Player Piano

Player Piano
© 1952 Kurt Vonnegut
352 pages

"I'd be in exile now, but everywhere's the same..."

     Not since the roaring twenties was American society so giddily obsessed with newfangled stuff than in the 1950s.  Americans were awash in material prosperity, filling their homes with labor-saving devices -- the future had arrived, buddy-boy, in gleaming chrome and with automatic controls. While some starry-eyed futurists looked forward to a world in which machines took care of all of the dirty work and left humans free to paint, compose, and ponder the mysteries of the cosmos, others saw a darker vision.  Player Piano casts a critical eye against the future machines might create, where mankind lingers in despair not from want of food, but want of purpose.

In this world, the entire economy is automated by massive plants of machinery, one per city, and so extensive is machining that most of the  population is functionally idle. Aside from an infinitesimally small group of people with jobs machines cannot usurp (among them, bartenders and barbers offering a friendly ear), the only truly employed people are the managerial elite, who run the machines and think up new ones.

Vonnegut escapes being predictable in that the misery of his novel is not a luddite view of poor, starving wretches denied wages because machines do their jobs more effectively. Indeed, the standard of living for Americans, from an economic point of view, has never been better. Taxes on capital support most of the population, who can have a world of consumer good before them for pennies. Their homes are filled with miraculous wonders that make our laundry machines and ovens look like Franklin stoves and washboards. Yet for all their material prosperity, the characters throughout the book are deeply miserable. The masses huddle in bars, drinking and talking about the good ol' days, when a man's work was worth something, while management tends to its machines and seeks relief from tedium in petty office politics.  

Main character Dr. Paul Proteus is a late-blooming reactionary; having been accepted by the managerial class, indeed being one of its most promising up-and-comers, he finds no satisfaction in his work and often steals over into the other part of town to sit in a bar, drink, and listen to chatter. Eventually he becomes a key figure in a revolution against the machines, as disgruntled people attempt to seize control of their lives again, to restore dignity and purpose to their work.

Player Piano is one of Vonnegut's earliest works, but for me the most poignant.  There are obvious marks of a writer beginning his craft;  the seams as Vonnegut switches from character to character are rough, and the revolution lacks a lot of dramatic punch.  Vonnegut's essential vision, however, has never been more potent;  there are many elements of the story that seem prophetic, but Vonnegut's predictions are more chilling than those of 1984's or Brave New World's because his world is so ordinary, not nearly as removed from our own as are those two dystopian classics. Player Piano's modernity is Plato's republic, realized in full, with the Machine set as the ultimate ideal form. People are judged by this ideal their entire lives long;  nothing matters except for the economy, and the computer analyzes them and determines their place within the economy, and by extension within society.  They are constiuent parts serving it.  In our own world,  even those applying for a job in fast food must submit to lengthy psychological assesstments of dubious merit, which are graded by no one but a machine, and whost will not even managers can contest.  We are beholden to systems that not even the operators understand fully, and no aspect of life escapes being reduced to the machine's standardized level.

In the end, the revolution of Player Piano is one against anomie and emasculation, an attempt to restore the striving to life. It provokes questions. How close are we to Player Piano's despair? How engaged in our lives are we?  Do we Live, or do we merely exist, producing and consuming -- does the work of our hands makes a difference? It is difficult these days not to be overwhelmed by the machine. We rely on them for entertainment, for sustenance, for validation. But people don't simply want to be administereds, clients of some system;  this race that conquered the world is filled with restless energy that must find some creative outlet, and  our souls contain greatness that cannot be contained by chronic subservience. Man yearns to be free, to act independently, to be the agent of his own prosperity.  It is a yearning ignored in Player Piano, and increasingly overlooked in our own world  of automated cars, canned music, factory food,  and a state that wants to take care of everything.

Ultimately, Player Piano is less a triumph than a tragedy, an ominous suggestion of the world to come.

The Sea Wolf, Jack London, with a similar theme of man's actualization in striving against the world on his own merits
Technopoly, Neil Postman, whose work was mentioned prior
Average is Over and The Glass Cage, two recent works on automation and social stratification by Tyler Cowan and Nicholas Carr
Compendium of the Social Doctrine, which calls for meaningful work.

A Ghostly Watch and Wait: A Reading

"The most hideous scenes of all, however, were enacted in St. Sophia. Matins were already in progress when the beserk conquerors were heard approaching. Immediately the great bronze doors were closed, but the Turks soon smashed their way in. The poorer and less attractive of the congregation were massacred on the spot; the remainder were led off to the Turkish camps to await their fate. The priests continued with the Mass until they were skilled at the altar, but there are among the faithful those who still believe that one or two of them gathered up the patens and chalices and mysteriously disappeared into the southern wall of the sanctuary. There they will remain until Constantinople becomes once again a Christian city, when they will resume the service at the point at which it was interrupted." 

 p. 380, "A Short History of Byzantium". John Julius Norwich

 Throughout October I listened to Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a podcast series giving a history of the Eastern Roman Empire through leaders whose reign punctuated its waxing and waning. The last episode on Constantine XI is worth listening to itself,  if only for the descriptions the last Emperor, going down fighting, and of the legend of priests 'melting into the walls' of the church, waiting for the city's redemption so that their shades could resume the Great Thanksgiving.  It's the kind of legend that makes for the very best of ghost stories and reminds one of the legends of Arthur and Frederick Barbarossa, both of whom are said to be resting in some ethereal realm until the moment they are needed.