What I read this month:
Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages
Writings of Martin Luther
Galileo's Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences
...and the usual array of historical murder mysteries, this time including Josephine tey's The Daughter of Time and several by Kate Sedley.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's Hard Choices
Robert Jordan's The Great Hunt
Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood
John W. Campbell's Who Goes There
Ian McEwen's Enduring Love
Thelonius Legend's Sins of the Father
James Thurber's The Wonderful O
...and Kos contributer Thelonius Legend's Sins of the Father.
You Kids Get Offa My Monastery: The Waning of the Middle Ages, by Johan Huizinga
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All expereience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life. Every event, every action, was still embodied in expressive and solemn forms, which raised them to the dignity of a ritual. For it was not merely the great facts of birth, marriage and death which, by the sacredness of the sacrament, were raised to the rank of mysteries; incidents of less importance, like a journey, a task, a visit, were equally attended by a thousand formalities: benedictions, ceremonies, formulae.
Passing from the works from and about the Italian Renaissance to those of Northern Europe during the Reformation, I've gone back to the 14th and 15th Centuries and looking at Huizinga's alleged masterpiece. This was the only work of history written in the 20th Century that was included in the revised Great Books of the Western World set, and I'm puzzled at the choice. Mortimer Adler appears to have been obsessed with the idea of a "great conversation" between thinkers of the ages, most of whom never knew one another, but who had read the ones who came before when considering the "great ideas". To the extent that Huizinga refers to a lot of ancients and medievals, The Waning of the Middle Ages is a good choice for the set. In terms of being coherent and persuasive, not so much.
Huizinga was a pioneer in "cultural history", where the emphasis is on the way things were done in the population as opposed to particular events and individuals. Huizinga's thesis seems to be a disgruntled, conservative opinion that the end of the Middle Ages was a step backwards for civilization, not a step forward; however, what he does is more like a presentation of a snapshot of beliefs and practices during a period of roughly two centuries (phrased as several "People thought/did X" statements, followed by sets of examples), with not much indication of the direction those beliefs and practices are taking, from and towards what. So we have a culture of "pessimism"; a "cult of death", a "violent tenor of life", without much mention of how violent or pessimistic people had been in the 13th century (answer: more so than in the 14th).
Where Huizinga does show transitions from one value to another, his moral sense is...odd. Because the (very rough) shifting zeitgeist arguably followed a two-sided Centauri/Narn dichotomy in which the Mediterranean states moved toward luxury, corruption, decadence and innovative art while the North/Atlantic states moved toward austerity, discipline, strength and judgmentalism, Huizinga can pick and choose among trends, and his prime focus is on Flanders and Burgundy, with very little mention of England, Spain and Italy, at least one of which was likely doing the opposite of what Huizinga says "Europe" was doing. Huizinga bemoans the decline of "chivalry" in favor of more practical, destructive warfare, as if the existence of a "warrior code" was proof that the warriors of prior ages actually followed such a code. Chivalry, as with many modern "moral ideals" foisted on the age, operated mostly as an excuse for the high and mighty to shame the peasants and claim superiority while in practice doing whatever they pleased in a consequence-free environment. Similarly, Huizinga is disappointed that "people were beginning to regard poverty as a social evil instead of an apostolic virtue", whereas it seems to me a sign of progress that the people were less willing to remain as pig-wallowing peasants who let the Feudal Lords have all the wealth in return for the promise of a happy afterlife.
The Waning of the Middle Ages was considered a classic for decades after its initial publication in 1924; lately, there's been pushback against it (see, e.g., Discarding Images, by Christopher Page, included in my February 2013 Bookpost). Seems to me, the criticism is more justified than the original argument.
EVEN MORE Too Many Words: The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan
Lying there in his blankets, he stared northward. He could not feel al'Thor now; the distance between them was too great. Or perhaps al'Thor was doing his vanishing trick. sometimes, in the keep, the boy suddenly vanished from Fain's senses. He did not know how, but always al'Thor came back, just as suddenly as he had gone. He would come back this time too.
"This time, you come to me, Rand al'Thor. Before, I followed you like a dog driven on the trail, but now you follow me." His laughter was a cackle that even he knew was mad, but he did not care. Madness was a part of him, too. "Come to me, al'Thor. The dance is not even begun yet. We'll dance on Toman Head, and I'll be free of you. I'll see you dead at last!"
This one is worse than The Eye of the World, the first in the "Wheel of Time" series, which I ranted about in last month's Bookpost. It's not that the story is necessarily bad, really, so much as that it doesn't have a new thing to say at all, and that it takes so many pages to not say anything new.
Several times I got bogged down in an incomprehensible miasma of
Will Stanton Rand al'Thor seeking magic doodads, Bene gesserit Aes Sedai magic women, Ogres, wormy henchmen, alternate futuures, cursed doodads, enchanted doodads, stouthearted yeomen, brutal palace guards, chances for the hero to succumb to the Dark Side, things not being what they seem (which they didn't really seem to begin with) and looming ultimate battles of ultimate destiny, realized i was utterly lost in the plot and needed to go back and reread, and didn't want to, because I was intent only on getting through the 689 pages (not including the special glossary of world-specific terms) of muck that make up #2 in a 15-volume series. This is no way to read for pleasure or enlightenment, and I don't like the person I am when I read this way.
Keep in mind, within the past 365 days I've read long, dreary Players' Guides for RPGs I don't even play: Aquinas, The Old testament, John Calvin, and they were much more objectionable than Robert Jordan. But I chose those books as part of a planned reading program. "Wheel of Time" was thrust on my by virtue of the Hugo nominations (what were the people who voted for this mountain of dischordant sentences thinking?) and I resent it.
One more book, tops, by which time the Awards will have been decided. And then no more unless and until I decide to finish it, which isn't likely.
The Yorkist Murders: The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. The Wicked Winter; The Brothers of Glastonbury ; The Weaver's Inheritance ;The Saint John's Fern ; The Goldsmith's Daughter, by Kate Sedley
Slowly I refolded the thin parchment sheet and pushed it into the leather pouch at my belt. I would take the rest of the day to think the matter over and, if necessary, sleep on it as well. The faces of Philippa Talke and Adela Empyringham kept surfacing in my mind, and who knew what others among the Cedarwell servants had borne a secret grudge against their mistress? I cast another look around the chapel, now restored to its original order, then started to descent the stairs.
I was standing on the second step of the worn and slippery flight when someone pushed me hard in the back, and I went plunging through the air to the floor below.
--from The Wicked Winter
I heard the pounding of hooves behind me and turned to look over my shoulder. a man wearing the livery of the Duke of Clarence reined in his mount beside me and slid to the ground.
"Roger the Chapman?", he demanded, and when I nodded he continued. "You're to come back with me to Farleigh. His Grace so orders!" Then he added, unable to keep the note of incredulity from his voice, "My lord says he has need of you."
--from The Brothers of Glastonbury
It was her turn to lean forward, the hazel eyes with their distinctive green flecks suddenly blazing into life, the light from the fire reflected in their depths. "I want you to work for me," she said. "I'll pay you well, never fear. I want you to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that this man who says he's Clement is really an imposter. I want him revealed for the rogue he is. And above all, I want to know the name of his partner in this crime."
---from The Weaver's Inheritance
"The countryside's been scoured for miles around, in all directions, but no one's ever found hide nor hair of him." He drew in a deep breath. "The truth is that quite a few of the sheriff's officers, as well as a number of other people, are coming to the conclusion that Berec Gifford..." He hesitated before continuing. "They're saying...well, they're saying that he must have eaten of Saint John's fern."
The carter stared for a moment, his blue eyes wide with dismay, then he shivered and made the sign of the cross. "He's made himself invisible," he whispered.
---from The Saint John's Fern
"I--I want Isolda exonerated," he stuttered at last. "She didn't do it. I know she didn't. She loved Gideon, whatever he might have said to the contrary. I'm sorry, christopher, my boy, if it means that you and others fall under suspicion. But if it's of consolation to you, I don't believe that anyone who was present here that day is guilty either. In fact, I'm very sure no one is."
Christopher Babcary glanced at me, then back at Miles. "But it stands to reason, Uncle, that one of us must have poisoned Gideon. Besides himself, there were nine of us in the house that evening, and apart from those nine, no one else could have put the monkshood in his drink. The shop was locked and shuttered as soon as the guests had arrived."
--from The Goldsmith's Daughter
As far as historical mysteries go, I've found a series or two set in the time of Henty VIII, but for a while now I'll be stuck in the 15th Century.
It's not particularly tedious. Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time is considered one of the great classics of detective fiction, even if, like Titanic, the ending is common knowledge. It isn't set in the 15th Century; instead, a 20th Century detective, off duty in the hospital, whiles away the time by looking into the actual mystery of whether Richard III really murdered his nephews to obtain the crown, or whether the Tudors made it up to justify their hold on the crown.
Tey comes down on the pro-Richard side, and the facts "discovered by the detective" are so compelling as to make one wonder how anyone could have been fooled all these centuries. It made me wonder how many of Tey's "facts" were actually grounded in history, and how much is just a good work of fiction. A brief look online indicates that Tey's facts are correct, but some of the history books looked at by the detective are fictional--part of the fun is the skewering of different kinds of historical sources, starting with Sir Thomas More, who was 5 years old when the battle of Bosworth took place but whose account of Richard III was the basis for Holinshed, and then Shakespeare, to assume the king's villainy as unquestioned---and continuing through history books written by schoolboys and "novelizations of history" by ladies with three names who have more imagination than scruples. The Daughter of Time is a joy to read and comes with my highest recommendations.
Kate Sedley is the most prolific of the historical mystery writers whose work covers the period I'm studying this year, and maybe the most formulaic. Her protagonist Roger (the) Chapman always, or usually, begins the adventure du jour with a long bit of wandering as he sells his wares, not reaching the main setting for the crime for three or four chapters, and coming to a seemingly unrelated household along the way where he always picks up a key bit of information that he uses to solve the case. Read those chapters carefully. Also, watch for the trope of some crime in the past, the perpetrator of which ran off with the stolen gold, or fleeing the murder scene, or whatever, and happened to be killed before being caught, having died in so gruesome a way that they could only identify him by his clothes. Yeah, right.
The Wicked Winter follows the formula perfectly. The Chapman goes through four distinct locations, each of which turns out to be important, before reaching the house full of suspects where the Bad Things Happen, and the past event and the key clue pointing to it might as well be circled. The Brothers Glastonbury, which revolves around the meaning of a cryptic piece of parchment and the disappearance of two brothers who have it, is equally formulaic and predictable, but the process is a good yarn. The Weaver's Inheritance brings the chapman back to what passes for his hometown, and introduces us to characters from the first book in the series, Death and the Chapman, as a man purporting to be the thought-long-dead son of an old, wealthy alderman suddenly "returns", and Roger is called upon by the old man's other heirs to determine if he's really the son or an imposter. Predictably, it gets ugly.
The Saint John's fern is maybe the easiest in the series to solve, though the person I first guessed would be the killer turned out to be the next victim, at which point I pretty much knew the whole hidden truth. The closed community in this story isn't as complex as in some of the other stories, and when the primary suspect in a murder has never been seen since it happened and "must have spirited himself away somehow", it's not too hard for a mystery reader to guess the suspect's actual role in the crime and what happened to him. I deduced the poisoner and what happened, though not the ultimate motive, in The Goldsmith's Daughter, a classic "poisoned cup at the banquet" puzzle with a finite number of suspects and a set of goblets embossed with the initials of their owners and placed onto the table settings by the suspect Roger is supposed to clear of suspicion.
These five books bring the Chapman chronicles to Edward IV's first sickness and the Duke of Clarence's imprisonment and appointment with the Malmsey Butt of Destiny. In Sedley's world, Richard is actively working to protect Clarence. Sedley and Tey are in agreement as to Richard's good intentions and malignment by More, Holinshed and Shakespeare.
The Bubble Popped: Enduring Love, by Ian Mcewan
What were we running toward? I don't think any of us would ever know fully. But superficially the answer was a balloon. Not the nominal space that encloses a cartoon character's speech or thought, or by analogy, the kind that's driven by mere hot air. It was an enormous balloon filled with helium, that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including ourselves and all our thoughts.
We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help.
The secret of this book's suspense, for me, was not knowing which of two possible ways this book was going to go. It begins with a fatal ballooning accident in which the narrator and another man are among several good samaritans who try to help; the other man commences stalking behavior against the narrator in ways that escalate. The police refuse assistance; the narrator's lover believes the narrator is crazy.
Maybe this is an unreliable narrator, and it's going to turn out that the stalker doesn't really exist, or that his behavior is different from what the narrator perceives---or maybe it's going to go all Fatal Attraction and end with a fight to the death, probably with the narrator having to rescue his lover from attack. The way it's written, you don't really know until just before the end whether the narrator is insane, being stalked, or maybe both insane AND being stalked---and certain plot developments, such as the narrator buying an illegal gun for protection, are frightening in that you know he's getting deeper in trouble, but you're not sure what kind of trouble! Very high recommendations.
Old Style SF: Who Goes there, by John W. Campbell
Van Wall, six feet and 200 pounds of ice-nerved pilot, gave a queer, strangled gasp and butted, stumbled his way out to the corridor. Half the company broke for the doors. The others stumbled away from the table.
McReady stood at one end of the table, watching them, his great body planted solid on his powerful legs. Norris from the opposite end glowered at the thing with smoldering hate. Outside the door, Garry was talking with half a dozen of the men at once.
Blair had a tack hammer. The ice that cased the thing schluffed crisply under its steel claw as it peeled from the thing it had cased for twenty thousand years...
This is THE John W. Campbell, as in the Campbell Award for SF writing. His name kinda jumped out at me from the library bookshelf and I realized I knew nothing about the guy who got an SF award named after him.
Turns out, Campbell's biggest contributions to the genre were as an editor of Analog and other periodicals, but his writings, at least as evidenced by this short collection of stories, are well worth reading.
Many of them read like Asimov's "puzzle stories", where the whole thing is a vehicle to set up a particular ironic plot twist or a way to get out of a diabolical situation. In the title story, for example, an exploration team in Antarctica wakes up a self-replicating, shape-shifting monster that could potentially pod-people all life forms on earth, and the team must prevent this from happening while detecting which members of the team have already been doppelganged and replaced (I know. Total ripoff of The Thing, right? No, it turns out "Who Goes There" came first, and they based the movie on the story).
This is one of those classics that everyone who likes old SF should read once. Highly recommended.
Strong Girls and Superpowers: Sins of the Father, by Thelonius Legend
This is absurd, Mr. Little thought, as the fire alarm went off as scheduled. Mr. Little was not pleased with the Parker girls being treated differently than other students. Eve had been absent from school, and no explanation would be required if she chose to return. Also, Eve was the only student Mr. Little knew of who could attack a popular student athlete and suffer no repercussions. And although Ana was some type of math savant, she was also a definite basket case. The principal told him it was OK if ana slept in class and that he should be thankful that's all she did. And he'd heard about Gwen's exploits before he'd even started working at this school. The school had plans for fires, tornadoes, and Gwen. It was surreal.
I have a policy that, if anyone cares enough to actually send me a book, their own or someone else's, because of my Bookposts, I WILL read it within a reasonable period and write it up online. This was important a few years ago, when several people sent me unsolicited books and I was surprised and pleased at the attention and the free books. I don't promise to be kind or instantaneous, though, and some of the offerings I received were...strange. Lately, no one has offered, and that's fine. It gives me time to work on my mountain of planned books.
Sins of the Father is the first love offering in a long time, and fortunately, it's an enjoyable, zippy YA book. Not heavy duty food for thought, but then it doesn't pretend to be anything more than a good story. It reminded me of the Gallagher Girls series (see Bookposts from Sept. 2012 through April 2013), with the distinction that the empowered female protagonists are POC, and eventually known (and feared) for what they are by the mundane community.
Eve, Gwen and Ana (the determined jock, the sassy one, and the alienated loner, respectively) go to the rich kids' school and excel at basketball, track, tae kwon do, music, and would probably be getting 4.0s but for prejudiced teachers (Perfect answers in math, but an F "because she didn't show her work"). You know--typical girl stuff. Unfortunately, Dad did a dumb thing this one time while drunk, and so his daughters are blessed/cursed with, respectively, super speed, super strength, and super intelligence, which manifest as they hit puberty, and the use of which makes them sick and is likely to kill them. Additionally, shadowy government-conspiracy people are following them around and mysterious "accidents" are happening to people who get too close to the truth about them. Oh---and they're noticing boys.
"Thelonius Legend" (yes, that's really the name on the cover) writes teenage girls convincingly, especially the jubilant showoff Gwen. The dichotomy between life-and-death situations and school angst is comically effective, used in a similar way to that of Veronica Mars and Buffy. It's part one of a series, reads as if it's shorter than it really is because the suspense works well, and is pretty much a promising start.
Freud for Kids: The
Story of Wonderful O, by James Thurber
"It's all the vowels except the O," Black said. "I've had a hatred of that letter ever since my mother became wedged in a porthole. We couldn't pull her in and so we had to push her out....I'll issue an edict! All words in books or signs with an O in them shall have the O erased or painted out. We'll print new books and paint new signs without an O in them."
And so the locksmith became a lcksmith, and the bootmaker a btmaker, and people whispered like conspirators when they said the names. Love's Labour's Lost and Mother Goose flattened out like a pricked balloon. Books were bks and Robin Hood was Rbnhd. Little Goody Two Shoes lost her Os and so did Goldilocks, and the former became a whisper and the latter sounded like a key jiggled in a lck.
James Thurber was an icon of the New Yorker in the mid 20th century, both for short stories and cartoons, probably best known for creating Walter Mitty. He also wrote children's books. This one is one of the shortest books on the 1001 list, and, as far as I know, the only kid book. I'm not sure why this one was chosen and not, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Anne of Green Gables.
The Wonderful O gave me a double-take. Rough men who try to abolish the letter O, while they break things and dig holes looking for hidden treasures because they have mommy issues? Really?
Actually, once you get past the premise, it's a fairly harmless adventure story about pirates invading and oppressing the inhabitants of an island. It gets Lewis Carrollian in both linguistic structure and nonsensical plot elements. Because the villains have abolished the letter O, and are haunted by it thereafter, there are long passages where characters talk without using the letter (see my review from January 2014 of George Perec's A Void, in which the whole novel is written with no Es; The Wonderful O is the scale he should have used. It makes for a whimsical story, or a very tedious novel), and other passages where every word has Os. There are categorical lists of, for example, all the jewels with or without Os, and all the body parts that would have to be lopped off, followed by a justification for keeping them by using valid substitute names for them. There is clever wordplay (A woman named Ophelia Oliver has to go into hiding rather than say her name without Os), and so on. Takes under an hour to read, and will give you both child and grownup giggles along the way.
Aspiring to the Level of Platitudes: Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton
In one of my first meetings with the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, I asked, "What are you going to do to prevent the Tea Party and other extremists from destabilizing the United States, and in particular, Washington DC?" his response was, "Why would they do that? We have a conservative Congress now." Expecting solidarity from terrorists was either quite naive or shockingly sinister. "Because you will never be pure enough," I explained. "I don't care what your positions are. They will come after you. And you'll have to protect your country and your government." He would hear none of it.
Wait...I must have misquoted that by mistake. Clinton actually had that conversation with Mohammed Morsi, the new President of Egypt, and she was talking about dealing with Islamic militants. Silly me! Dealing with Republicans is still (for reasons someone will no doubt explain to me) considered "domestic policy", not negotiations with a hostile foreign power, such as the Secretary of State would handle. sorry about the understandable error. Let me find a different quote. I promise I'll get it right this time....
Afghan women faced constant threats to their security and status, and not just from the resurgent Taliban. In the Spring of 2009, for example, President Karzai signed a terrible new law that dramatically restricted the rights of women belonging to the minority Shiite population, targeting an ethnic group called the Hazara, which had conservative cultural traditions. The law, which included provisions effectively legalizing marital rape and requiring Shiite women to seek permission from their husbands before leaving the house, blatantly violated the Afghan Constitution. Karzai had backed the measure as a way of shoring up support from hard-line Hazara leaders, which was, of course, no excuse. I was appalled.
I called Karzai three times over the course of two days to urge him to revoke the law. If the Constitution could be ignored and the rights of this minority rolled back, then nobody's rights were secure, men's or women's. It would undermine his regime's moral case against the Taliban. I knew how much personal relationships and respect mattered to Karzai, so I also made clear that this was important to me personally. I explained that if he allowed this outrageous law to stand, it would make it very hard for me to explain why American women, including my former colleagues in Congress, should continue supporting him. Now I was speaking the language he understood.
As of this writing, Hillary Clinton is headed for a landslide Presidential victory. Polling consistently shows her with commanding leads over all named Republicans in every state that Obama won twice, and with some degree of a lead in eight more. She's ahead in Missouri, ahead in Arizona, ahead in, holy fuck, Alaska, Montana and South Dakota. She has a shot in Georgia. Has a shot in Texas. Has a shot at a Democratic-majority House and a 60-Democrat Senate (all the crazies elected in 2010 are up that year). There are no capable Republicans trying to run, and those who are running are a clown car show that will spend the next year and a half attacking each other.
The Republicans cannot win the 2016 election. however, Clinton and the Democrats can still arrange to lose. And that's the concern raised by Hard Choices.
I've noted the difference between President Obama's books Dreams of my Father (Bookpost, February 2009) and The Audacity of Hope (Bookpost, December 2008), the first of which was written before his decision to run for President and is therefore much more genuine and willing to risk controversy. Hard Choices was definitely written in advance of a Presidential run, and was therefore written
by with substantial assistance from a huge Public Relations with the goal of pleasing everybody and offending nobody.
Except liberals. Presidential candidates don't care about their vote; liberals are to be described in the third person when addressing those voters candidates DO want attention from, the way Republicans talk about voters of color, or the poor. Democrats promise the generic "you" that they will do something about the liberals.
Hard Choices is about Clinton's four years as Secretary of State, though it does visit the years before and after from time to time. It therefore is almost exclusively about foreign policy, and each chapter covers a different country, region, or international crisis, from China and Burma to Afghanistan, Israel, Russia, Latin America and Africa, and the ways in which Clinton influenced world affairs there.
Despite her handlers' insistence that she attempt to be perky, Clinton comes across as a dignified and effective world leader who would continue to wow the international world as President and who would make a difference for women in particular, worldwide. She rarely misses an opportunity to point out that her predecessor's administration's policies profoundly damaged America's popularity in every corner of the globe, and what a challenge it was for her to mend fences. She also comes across as someone who would serve the interests of large industrialists, push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a job-destroying race to the bottom initiative that do what her husband's NAFTA did to American workers, except that the jobs would go to Asia, not Latin America) and treat global climate change as "controversial". On the other hand, she would make a priority out of addressing human rights violations in countries without significant oil reserves or American debt holdings.
I want Clinton to be a good President, and I know she'll inevitably be a better choice than whatever frothy-mouthed puppy masticator the Republicans put up (it'll be a very low bar to clear). I do wish she'd give me a reason to be more enthusiastic about it.
Accountant to the Stars: Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross
Child slavery as an institution has one mitigating feature: Once you reach the age of majority, you are no longer alive only on your owner-creator's sufferance--you become a legal person, albeit one still burdened by the debt of your creation. If you manage to keep your nose clean, keep working, save money, and pay off the mortgage on your body, then in no time at all--a billion seconds, thirty years if you count time planetary-style--you can escape. (Even if you're not so energetic, you may escape servitude in the event that a Jubilee is declared). It takes a certain cold patience and cunning--and a determination not to provoke the mater into aborting you before you come of age--but nine out of hexteen of us made it through childhood alive, and seven of us eventually earned out.
Fifth time's the charm. I've found my pick for Best Novel Hugo award, though if you prefer Ancillary Justice (see last month's bookpost) or maybe Parasite (the bookpost before that), I'm not about to argue the point.
Neptune's Brood appeals specifically to my mind and what I look for in good books. It has a combination of intellectual meat, entertainment, deadpan humor and a suspenseful story. There are lessons in the economics of high finance, the special problems of financial transactions that have to cover long distances and thus won't be closed right away, giving deal-breaking disasters time to intervene. There are more lessons in financial fraud, especially as applied to long-distance transactions. There are pirate bats. There are evil mermaid queens. There are communist squids. There are churches with hidden agendas. There are doppelganger assassins. There are---SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY ALREADY!
The similarities with Ancillary Justice are downright fascinating. The narrative that alternates between events of years past and events in the "present" (with many digressions about the given universe); the gynocentric cast of characters; the rulers with many iterations of themselves...the two books are completely original, but it's almost as if Stross and Leckie were given the same set of basic concepts on a slip of paper and told to run with them, both achieving awesome results.
Another common feature is an abundance of plot twists that start early, change the game, lather, rinse, and repeat. Just read it. NOW.
My picks for Best Novel Hugo, in order:
1. Neptune's Brood.
2. Ancillary Justice
5. The Wheel of Time
Narns versus Centauri: The Writings of Martin Luther
Since by means of those Romish tricks, commendams, coadjutors, reservations, expectations, pope’s months, incorporations, unions, Palls, rules of chancellery, and other such knaveries, the Pope takes unlawful possession of all German foundations, to give and sell them to strangers at Rome, that profit Germany in no way, so that the incumbents are robbed of their rights, and the bishops are made mere ciphers and anointed idols; and thus, besides natural justice and reason, the Pope’s own canon law is violated; and things have come to such a pass that prebends and benefices are sold at Rome to vulgar, ignorant asses and knaves, out of sheer greed, while pious learned men have no profit by their merit and skill, whereby the unfortunate German people must needs lack good, learned prelates and suffer ruin—on account of these evils the Christian nobility should rise up against the Pope as a common enemy and destroyer of Christianity, for the sake of the salvation of the poor souls that such tyranny must ruin. They should ordain, order, and decree that henceforth no benefice shall be drawn away to Rome, and that no benefice shall be claimed there in any fashion whatsoever; and after having once got these benefices out of the hands of Romish tyranny, they must be kept from them, and their lawful incumbents must be reinstated in them to administer them as best they may within the German nation. And if a courtling came from Rome, he should receive the strict command to withdraw, or to leap into the Rhine, or whatever river be nearest, and to administer a cold bath to the Interdict, seal and letters and all. Thus those at Rome would learn that we Germans are not to remain drunken fools forever, but that we, too, are become Christians, and that as such we will no longer suffer this shameful mockery of Christ’s holy name, that serves as a cloak for such knavery and destruction of souls, and that we shall respect God and the glory of God more than the power of men.
Like Wycliffe (Bookpost, January 2014), Martin Luther's bulkiest written work was translation into the vernacular of works previously held in Latin as a tool for the elite to oppress the poor; unlike Wycliffe, he did write some (thankfully) short tracts of great importance that are still studied at college Humanities level today. The "95 Theses" (the one he famously nailed to the church at Wittenberg), "Address to the German Nobility", "On the Babylonian Captivity", and "Concerning Christian Liberty" are great examples of rhetorical spleen-venting against religious tyranny, all of which together fit into a small volume under 300 pages. It would be a lot more satisfying if he was merely lashing out against religious tyranny instead of intending to replace it with a different religious tyranny.
This fight, like the disorder caused by periodic concentration of wealth, has been showing up again and again throughout history. Jews against Babylon. Athens against Sparta. Republican Rome against Greece and Carthage. Imperial Rome against the Barbarians. Byzantium against Islam. Cavaliers against Roundheads. Abolitionists against slaveholders. Revolutionaries against monarchies. Sunni against Shia. The Federal Government against the Tea Party. Centauri against Narn. On one side, a luxuriant, softening, decadent, corrupt urban-centered system, often rich and innovative in art, philosophy, literature and science, in which those at the top climb the Maslow pyramid at the expense of the masses, who are made subservient by custom and authority. On the other side, a populous, strong, nominally egalitarian rural-centered system of unshakeable faith and strict morality that rejects or simplifies the creative arts, is suspicious of technology, in which those at the top live ascetically while keeping the masses subservient in the name of God.
And it happens this way, with minor variations, All. The. Damn. Time.
The masses, of course, are not only kept down by both sides, but usually bear the brunt of the inevitable wars. The most compelling claim each side has to the moral high ground is evidence of the other side's atrocities. Usually the decadent side, whose best days were behind it as the conflict began, is ground under the wheels of history and loses to the side of unshakeable faith, at which point a long and barren period of history ensues. Hence, after the mostly amazing 15th Century books I've been reading and commenting on for the past six months, I find that the pre-Shakespeare 16th Century has some pretty feeble pickings indeed.
Luther correctly points out that the Pope and the Catholic Church, having achieved temporal dominance over Western Europe, has devolved from a source of spiritual comfort to a pack of money-grabbing bandits. Tithes, mendicancy, indulgences for sale ("Commit sins without consequence at $$$ a pop!"), relics for sale, curses for sale, sacraments for sale, etc., all for the cause of maintaining the drunk, gluttonous, wenching bishops and cardinals in the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed. Luther then passes from the sensible condemnation of Catholicism to the more dubious Protestant proposal that the thing to do is take ancient scripture literally, justify one's elite status by faith, do without most pleasures and replace intolerant Catholicism with an even more intolerant Protestant church. As usual, one suspects that the most eager recruits had been made outcasts under the old system and were excited at the chance to make outcasts of someone else.
Will we ever learn?
King of Night Vision, King of Insight: Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences, by Galileo Galilei
From what has already been demonstrated, you can plainly see the impossibility of increasing the size of structures to vast dimensions either in art or in nature; likewise the impossibility of building ships, palaces or temples of enormous size in such a way that their oars, yards, beams, iron-bolts and, in short, all their parts will hold together; nor can nature produce trees of extraordinary size, because the branches would break down under their own weight; so also it would be impossible to build up the bony structures of men, horses or other animals so as to hold together and perform their normal functions if these animals were to be increased enormously in height; for this increase in height can be accomplished only by employing a material which is harder and stronger than usual, or by enlarging the size of the bones, thus changing their shape until the form and appearance of the animals suggest a monstrosity.
Galileo is popularly known as an astronomer who was forced by the church to recant his belief in the Coperncan, heliocentric model of the universe. The Two New Sciences was written later, while Galileo was under house arrest by the church and forbidden to write anything at all. The book was smuggled out of Italy to Protestant lands where the church could not get at it, and it has proved to be more influential than even Galileo's (not Copernicus's) astronomy.
The two sciences--falling bodies and load-bearing capacity (or, as set out in four sections of the book, Resistance to fracture; cohesion, naturally accelerated motion, and projectile motion) are the groundwork for engineering in the modern era. within the dialogues are a discussion of the infinity paradox that the number of odd numbers equals the number of numbers; the formula that shows that much larger objects of the same composition as a smaller object will be proportionally more fragile; and the revelation that projectiles rise and fall along the path of a parabola, thereby changing Appollonius of Perga's Conics (See Bookpost, October 2012) from abstract to applied science.
The sections on fractures and cohesion are more readable than the falling bodies sections, which drop the pretense of scientists having a dialogue and become strictly sets of theorems and problems, written in Euclidean form. Difficult, but recommended as a "great book" and food for stretching the mind.
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