Welcome to the new world

I’m reading Civilizations by Laurent Binet. It’s an alternate history novel about the conquest of Western Europe by the Incas.

It starts with a different end to the Viking expeditions to Vinland and continues centuries later with Christopher Columbus getting his just desserts from the Taino. Decades after that, the bulk of the book covers the Sapa Inca Atahualpa’s conquest of Western Europe, and then there’s a substantial epilogue covering the young mercenary Miguel Cervantes’ adventures across the Mediterranean.

The book gives a lot of lucky coincidences to its protagonists, while the indigenous Americans adopt and invent new technologies too quickly, but I’m not complaining since otherwise the story wouldn’t exist. The realistic outcome would have been the one that actually happened in our world, and who needs to run over that again? We can just handwave all that science stuff about Eurasia’s larger disease pool and virgin soil epidemics and whatever.

Anyway, if you’re familiar with Spain’s conquest of the New World then a lot of the Inca section is basically that with the parties reversed. In our world Atahualpa’s father the emperor died from smallpox and a civil war broke out, with Atahualpa defeating his brother to become emperor.

However, here Atahualpa loses and is chased out of the empire with his last 200 followers. They desperately repair Columbus’ wrecked ships and escape east to unknown lands with a Cuban princess who learned Spanish from a certain enslaved Genoese captain.

They end up in Portugal immediately after the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1531. The chaos gives them a chance to survive and they end up meeting the queen of Spain. However, they’re forced to attack and capture the queen and kill 3000 of Toledo’s Christians after learning that the Inquisition is planning to kill them. There’s a short detour to the centre of learning, Salamanca, for the group to learn about this New World, but the Toledo massacre marks the beginning of a series of escalations that ends with Atahualpa capturing the king of Spain.

The small band had only been doing what they needed to survive each succeeding crisis, but after making contact with Atahualpa’s brother and making peace, they gain the resources to aim higher. Atahualpa uses the gold, silver, and gunpowder supplied by his brother, in exchange for technology and various cultural products (wine, trompe l’oeil paintings, honey, and so on) to become first king of Spain, then Belgium and the Netherlands, and then eventually he unites Germany to become Holy Roman Emperor. Along the way he triumphs over the pirate Barbarossa, takes half the North African coast, and is dubbed conquistador.

Atahualpa’s success is due to the radical reforms he enacts, somewhat by accident and somewhat by design. After first taking the Spanish crown, he guarantees freedom of religion to reward his first European followers, the oppressed Moors and Jews of Spain, but also to allow space for the Incan worship of the sun so central to their rituals and politics. Ending the Inquisition is a popular move and converts quickly flock to a religion backed by a victorious conqueror.

Atahualpa’s second radical reform involves Germany, where by now he has gained a reputation as a champion of the poor, thanks to implementing in Spain certain quasi-socialist Incan political structures (taxes paid in labour, housing provided free by the state, abolition of serfdom, and various radical changes that accord with historical records from our world). Germany has seen repeated peasant revolts over the years and the downtrodden see in Atahualpa their salvation. In turn, Atahualpa is glad enough to invade various German states at the invitation of the residents in his lust for Charlemagne’s throne. A complicated public dialogue with Martin Luther ensues so that Atahualpa can secure the votes of the Protestant electors, but it breaks down and the peasants rise up in anger that their greatest chance has been lost. The electors beg Atahualpa for help and he imposes order and becomes Emperor of the Romans.

Thus, in this alternate world Atahualpa has forestalled Europe’s Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany, enacted the Peace of Westphalia a century early, and sidestepped the enclosure of the commons that was to come in later years.

Anyway, this book is pretty fun if you’re familiar with the history it changes. It’s just deliciously clever at developing a world that parallels but doesn’t mirror our own. I probably missed a bunch of stuff in the Cervantes section since I’ve never read Montaigne, who appears as a character, but oh well.

The book is translated from French but I didn’t really notice anything awkward because of this. The vast majority of translated works I read are Japanese, Korean, and Chinese comics, but now that I think about it, the few translated novels I read tend to be French.

So yeah, I recommend this book for aficionados of history.

Read any good books lately?

So, herewith is a recap of my summer (and now fall) reading history.

The first book I’m discussing is Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones by David Moscrop, a Canadian former political scientist and current op-ed columnist. It’s about the psychological short hand that people in Western democracies use to vote and the tricks that political parties and governments use to try to guide those same voters to preferred outcomes. The book is actually quite easy to read and replete with personal anecdotes and examples from psychological studies to demonstrate the principles being talked about, as well real world examples drawn from US, British, and Canadian politics. However, I can tell that I actually know more than the author about the psychological side of things (or he’s content to keep things at an introductory level for his audience), whereas I’m also something of a news junkie and a poli sci nerd and so am already familiar with what he’s talking about on that end. So the book is a good introduction on these topics but not really something I personally found educational.

The second book is one I really enjoyed reading, which is Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. Scott is also a political scientist, but in addition he trained in anthropology and specializes in comparative politics, especially with regard to peasants and agriculture. The book itself is about the historical transition from hunting and gathering to state societies, as well as the people who refused to join the state (a.k.a. the barbarians). The whole thing is completely my jam. Scott is an anarchist, so he’s of course got a low opinion of the state, but his description of how human misery increased once people took up agriculture is old news among anthropology circles (and probably familiar to anyone who read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

However, Scott goes quite a lot into the comparative details and argues that the state is inherently an unstable formation that requires incredible amounts of resources to keep going, but which is also doomed to fail thanks to the unsustainable demands it makes on the environment, the punishing taxes and labour it demands of its people (usually to fund wars to capture more territory where workers live which in turn demands more wars to capture even more workers in an endless race) which drive the citizens to escape into the hinterlands or revolt, and the regular return of lethal epidemics that are cooked up thanks to all the animals that agriculturalists live with and the cities and trade networks of a complex state society that concentrate and spread pathogens. Scott even argues that the collapse of a civilization might be better termed a reconfiguring, since it’s basically the people of a territory reorganizing themselves into a less precarious status quo.

Of course, preying on the states are the infamous barbarians, which Scott points out weren’t necessarily just alien societies robbing from the civilized. In fact, when the workers of historical states – the peasants, serfs, slaves, and everyone else who’s not an elite at the top of the social pyramid – get fed up with forever being drafted into wars and literally breaking their backs working the fields, they always had the option of joining the barbarians. Why bust your ass when you can have someone else do it and then take their stuff? In turn, a state had the option of repelling the barbarians or paying them off, but either way, it was another state expense. So a state inevitably had its barbarian “dark twin” (more than one sometimes) which grew when the state flourished and disappeared when the state did.

But alas for the barbarians, technological progress ended their viability, since you can’t exactly build Maxim guns out on the great plains, otherwise the Navajo might have forced the early US to cough up protection money like for example how the Uyghurs did to the Chinese or the Celts did to the Romans (though the Chinese usually called this tribute “gifts” and pretended that it was all from the emperor’s munificence).

Anyway, my one criticism of this book is that it just abruptly ends. It goes into the barbarian thing and then that’s it, no closing chapter, no summary, no discussion of the argument that was presented. But otherwise I’d say this is my favourite book of 2021.

Finally, the last book I’m covering is actually the first three books of the Giants series by James P. Hogan: Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants’ Star. I actually read the manga adaptation first and wanted to know how the original compared. Well, you can tell that these books were written in the 1970s because of the incredible amount of sexual harassment in them. I’ve read lots of Asimov and Heinlein and others of that generation – who all came before Hogan – and I don’t remember these other authors having this much sexual harassment in their works. I wasn’t tracking it, but I think every female character in the story is sexually harassed at least once, whether it’s the gals in the stenography pool being seduced by the married physicist, or the telephone operator being pestered for a date, or the secretary whose incredible ass the protagonist admires as she bends forward to look at a computer monitor.

There’s also a lot of smoking and drinking, which especially stood out in the scene where the protagonists are smoking some after-dinner cigars on a spaceship with presumably limited supplies of oxygen (and this is set in the near-future, not some Star Trek utopia with limitless energy and whatnot). So yeah, it feels very Mad Men. But whatever, I remember when smoking indoors was a thing, I can get past that. It really is the sexual harassment that’s the most notable thing about this series to me.

The story itself is about a mummified astronaut being discovered on the moon, the scientists investigating this mystery, and the interplanetary journey to find the truth behind all of the secrets hidden in the past. Anyway, the books are clearly from a certain old school style of science fiction writing because the characters have barely any personality and mostly just jabber about science at each other. Which is mainly why I kept reading, because sometimes I just want to read about nerds arguing over theories of human evolution.

But this paper-thin characterization explains the sexual harassment, which quite frankly feels jarring when it’s inserted into the story, because it’s a clumsy attempt to humanize the male characters. Yes, this was how Hogan thought he could bring his characters to life: by giving his readers something they could relate to. Obviously, he took it for granted that his readers were all men.

I did appreciate how much better the 2011 Yukinobu Hoshino manga adaptation was, not least for removing the sexual harassment, but also adding the worthwhile female and non-white characters into the story that a white British engineer from the 70s would never have done. It even fixed up some of the science stuff that the original books messed up and moved stuff around so the plot was more engaging.

So yeah, the Giants series. That was a thing.

The Future of Capitalism

Well, I’ve finally been out of graduate school long enough that I can read stuff related to my former scholarly interests again.

The first book I’m covering is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Milanovic is a Serbian-American economist who kind of deals with similar global income inequality stuff as Thomas Piketty. I don’t know enough about him to definitely say what his politics are except that from this book I feel he’s a “reform capitalism with redistribution” type.

Anyway, the book is mostly about present-day capitalism, but it necessarily covers two older kinds first in its survey: the classic robber baron kind of 19th century capitalism and the post-war kind where the bosses and the unions made a pact to play nice for a bit. Of course, he then covers the breakdown of that unwritten agreement with the rise of massive inequality and the hollowing out of the state, which he calls liberal capitalism, though which many others simply call neoliberalism. This is of course the mode of Western capitalism today, but he contrasts that with what he calls state capitalism, which is of the type exemplified by China, where captains of industry are given some leeway so long as they never challenge the primacy of the state.

Anyway, I live in Canada and am already familiar with how our kind of capitalism is fucking everyone over, so I didn’t find anything revelatory in the discussion of the Western economic system. I suppose it’s somewhat novel that Milanovic discovered the term “assortative mating” from biology – it refers to a type of mating pattern where individuals tend to mate and reproduce with those who are similar to them more than otherwise. He brings this up to contrast the old capitalisms with the present kind. Specifically, he provides charts and stats showing that assortative mating was more common among high-income individuals in the past than now (he doesn’t mention what this actually looked like but I assume it’s bosses marrying their secretaries and such). This compares to today, where the university-educated tend to marry each other and where lawyers marry CEOs. Milanovic also brings up that while wealthy individuals in the past were mostly people who didn’t work (i.e., the owners of capital), today many of who we would point to as wealthy might only make money through work (see certain software engineers, management consultants, etc).

But what of state capitalism as developed by and exemplified in China? This part is what I found the most interesting since I never knew much beyond the broad strokes of how exactly the Deng Xiaoping reforms turned the China of the Cultural Revolution into the China of Alibaba and Tencent. The main thing is that economic growth became the guiding principle of the state. Local Communist party groups (and by that I mean extremely local) were allowed to implement practically any policy they wanted, and so long as it succeeded in driving growth then it was given the green light for other regions (and if it failed then the sponsors would be sacked). In theory the sponsors would need to make a case for the policy changes not conflicting with socialist ideology, but in practice the sponsors could just make up some bullshit and it would be accepted so long as it sounded vaguely like socialism, so long as it actually got results. Milanovic points out that China after market reforms somewhat resembles China before the Communist Party, with the very large exception that landlords have been greatly curtailed in the countryside.

Now, Milanovic makes clear that the capitalism of China is similar to ours in that there’s also shocking inequality. There are billionaires and there are oppressed workers, same as here. In fact, the National People’s Congress is the richest parliament in the world, with a combined net worth of $700 billion from all members in 2018. The main difference between their capitalism and ours is that theirs is more nationalist. The wealthy elites are not automatically hostile to the government and do not think of themselves as being separate – in fact, they consider themselves as being participants in the project of China (which may sound a tad megalomaniacal but vaguely resembles France in the 70s). The state is supreme and corporations and capitalists are allowed some leeway so long as they never forget that fact. Of course, when so much money is involved and when the regulators collude so closely with the regulated, corruption and abuse of workers naturally springs up. This is why the Chinese government regularly and publicly punishes various officials for corruption. It’s not a show, exactly, as real punishments are doled out (up to even executions), but one big reason for the punishment is showing the masses that the top 1% are keeping in check the 2-5%. Since the government is institutionally incapable of systematically preventing this kind of thing from cropping up, then it must make regular public demonstrations instead.

But I think the biggest thing Milanovic says, and the most controversial, is his argument that the biggest contribution that communism has provided to the world is providing the development to former colonies that their colonizers were unable to do, allowing the Third World communist countries to build themselves up so that they could effectively join the capitalist system as China and Vietnam have done. In effect, he argues that communism is a transition state to capitalism. It’s an interesting thought, though I would argue that colonizers weren’t incapable of developing their colonies but were uninterested in doing so, as the whole point of them was to transfer the resources of the colonial periphery to the metropole. Postcolonial states didn’t necessarily need to be communist to develop, they just needed to break out of sending their resources elsewhere and instead invest them at home, but seeing as how the leaders of non-communist postcolonial states tended to have strong ties to their imperial masters then we can say that it was probably better to go communist than not if you were in the Third World. And Milanovic points out that, Cold War 2.0 rhetoric aside, it’s a good thing that China is loaning development funds to African countries even if there are strings attached, since it’s not like anyone else is offering them any funds.

I do have to say that there are a bunch of things Milanovic wasn’t good on, especially when he tried his hand at sociology or literary theory. One thing that stood out for me was that he took it for granted that the populations of Western countries would inevitably be hostile to too much immigration, which despite being economically and demographically necessary is too much for domestic populations to accept culturally. The solution he proposes is to create tiers of citizenship, which sounds to me like existing systems of guest workers and temporary residents but perhaps he envisions more levels of participation and obligation.

The biggest thing that I disagree with Milanovic on is something that he implies by never mentioning it: he accepts that there is no alternative and that capitalism is our only option. I increasingly feel that anyone today who writes of capitalist development as an unqualified good without mentioning the hard limits our environment imposes on us – the negative externalities, in the language of economics – is doing us all a disservice. But perhaps that is a story for another day. As it stands, I feel Capitalism Alone was kind of an okay book to get back to reading stuff with lots of academic verbiage and statistics and shit, but I don’t think it was a banger. 7 out of 10, if I were to give it a rating.

Turn of the century

I don’t know why but I’m watching Martian Successor Nadesico and Outlaw Star. I guess maybe it’s because both series came out back when you could have more than 13 episodes in a season and could actually spend time with the characters, but not like in the 80s when you’d have 300 episodes where nothing at all happened in each one. I like Outlaw Star more because it’s better at the cliffhanger ending which makes me want to keep watching, but both series are pleasantly unchallenging to watch.

Let’s cyber

Cyberpunk 2077 just came out and I’m not playing it. After reading about its iffy politics and the awful working conditions of the people who made the game, I may never end up playing it.

That’s fine. There are other games. But I’ve also never been fully comfortable with cyberpunk as a genre. Besides the orientalism and the generalized ham-handed handling of race, there’s just something about cyberpunk that never fully clicked with me.

After reading this article, though, I think I’m getting a better handle on my discomfort. I’m not into cyberpunk because it’s basically just the politics of the 1980s rehashed over and over. It’s a paleofuture: a vision of what is to come that has already been superseded by what has already come. It’s the past’s fantasy of the future and it’s as dissociated from our real lives as Buck Rogers serials with ray guns and rocket ships.

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling this December 2020.

King of the Hill

So Pathfinder: Kingmaker is actually pretty fun. I know that there were a bunch of bugs when it launched, but it’s been two years since then and I haven’t really noticed any so far. I think I may actually like computer role-playing game more than the classic Baldur’s Gate series (minus #3, which if I ever do get, will be years down the line).

The first reason I prefer this game to both Baldur’s Gate games is that I don’t need to install mods just to get it to look decent on current generation computers. I can read the text, I can zoom all the way in and see my characters clearly. I can actually see what they’re wearing instead of kind of squinting, and I can see the difference in clothes instead of the armour just looking like a slightly different shade. This is important to me since I like playing dress-up on these kind of games.

Second is that I understand the rules right off the bat. I’ve never played the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which is what Baldur’s Gate is based on, so I had to do a bunch of research to find out what stuff like To Hit Armor Class 0 was, and even when I did find out it was usually needlessly arcane and over-complicated. But the Pathfinder roleplaying ruleset is basically D&D 3.75 edition, so a bunch of stuff has been improved in the intervening 20-something years.

I’ve played a bunch of tabletop Pathfinder games, which also helps, but the game itself simplified the rules even more. It doesn’t have a million different types of Knowledge skills, all physical skills such as acrobatics and swimming have been subsumed under Athletics, and so on. I think all the options available can still be a tad overwhelming to a rank newbie but that’s more on the Pathfinder system itself needing, in my opinion, a really drastic streamlining and reconfiguration  (note that there’s a 2nd edition of the Pathfinder system which may have done this already but I haven’t tried it out yet).

Third is the turn-based combat. I initially stuck to real-time battles because that was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, but after trying out the turn-based fighting I’m not going back. Pathfinder in real life is obviously turn-based – six people rolling dice at the same time would get chaotic – and the CRPG just works a lot better when you follow this format as well.

Fourth is that I get to try out a campaign that I’ve been interested in for a while. Kingmaker is an adventure path in the tabletop RPG that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t found a group to do it with. This way I get to actually experience it for myself. Plus Wrath of the Righteous is already being worked on and that’s another campaign that I’d also like to try out.

I’d like to note that in Kingmaker you actually build a kingdom – you get advisors, build infrastructure like windmills and watchtowers, slay monsters threatening your land, and so on. However, I’ve yet to reach that part in the game and am just directing a party of adventurers as we explore the countryside. So I can’t comment on the kingdom-building mechanics yet, but the classic RPG party thing is already pretty good.

Anyway, I’ve got a Chaotic Neutral tiefling Inquisitor of Calistria leading a party consisting of an undead elf Inquisitor of Urgathoa, a halfling bard, a barbarian from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, a half-elf Wizard Rogue, and a half-orc Magus. There are a bunch more party members I benched pending their full recovery from being brought back from the dead or just plain because I don’t like them, but I think I like having a party where almost everyone is a magician of some kind. This is a pretty fun party to play and I like what I’ve seen of this game so far.

Kill or be killed

 I saw the Shane Black movie The Predator. It was a competently made movie that never rose above being mediocre. It can’t even dream of being as good as Predator 2, let alone the first movie.

I’m going to spoil the story because the movie isn’t good enough for anyone to care about being spoiled, but stop reading if this matters to you anyway.

So, in the movies the Predators are alien trophy hunters bagging human kills, right? And in this film, they’re stepping up their hunting trips because climate change will render Earth unlivable, so they’re taking the chance to harvest valuable human spines before the last of their cherished prey dies out.

One Predator wants to help humanity so it escapes to our planet with lifesaving technology to give us. It’s hunted by the other aliens as a traitor, hapless American soldiers get caught in the the middle, there’s lots of pro-military propaganda, a big shootout, and all the other cliches are as you would expect. So, in the denouement our heroes open the thingy the alien traitor was going to give us and what do they find? A high-tech cyber suit built for killing Predators.

So that was it? That’s what the Predator died to give humanity? It thought what our species needed the most in the face of mass extinction from anthropogenic climate change was a shitload of guns?

I mean, Jesus Christ but how many people does one of the Predators kill when they come by? A few dozen? Maybe a hundred? Is that even enough for insurance companies to adjust their rates to compensate for the increased mortality rates? I had thought we were going to get like cold fusion or something like that, but nope, the Predator solution to climate change was shooting it a lot.

Anyway, that’s it, that’s my main takeaway from the movie.

Sword and Sorcery and Titties

I watched Fire and Ice this past weekend. I thought I’d seen it before but I remembered nothing except the two seconds in the climax where the guy with the ax kills the evil wizard. Possibly my older brother rented it at some point in the 90s and I saw it then?

Anyway, it’s not very good, especially when considered with modern sensibilities. It’s about Conan-like mighty-thewed heroes fighting against the conquering hordes of an evil wizard, but honestly, the plot feels like an excuse to animate several disconnected Frank Frazetta sketches and paintings – Death Dealer on a horse, the one where a warlord sits on a throne while a chick in a bikini and a jaguar lie at his feet, the one where Conan leaps into battle roaring in defiance as he brandishes his weapons over his head.

Animation-wise, the movie is fine. It uses that Ralph Bakshi rotoscoping technique so if you find it off-putting, I do not recommend watching this. And speaking of Frank Frazetta, I hope you like his fixation on scantily-clad thicc women and equally scantily-clad large-muscled men. Actually, I hope you really like scantily-clad large-muscled men since I reckon 90 percent of the camera’s gaze is lovingly focused on their powerful bodies in action. But that 10 percent focused on scantily-clad thicc women is, uh, pretty misogynistic. If you’re not clear on what “male gaze” means I would suggest watching all the scenes with female characters in this movie. Thighs, asses, nipples poking through bikini tops – the gaze of the unseen male watcher savagely wanking behind the camera is suffocatingly present.

In fact, aesthetically and politically, Fire and Ice reminds me of 300. I remember walking out after the end of 300 and remarking, “Boy, that was a really fascist movie”. Both movies are about perfect Aryan specimens defending their proud and noble people against hordes of dark-skinned degenerates. Women exist to be leered at but not have sex with while evil men exist to be killed and to be tempted into having sex with thanks to strong homoerotic undertones. It’s really hard for me to imagine how you could make a Nazi sword and sorcery film without essentially making this movie.

Anyway, the movie is an interesting look at what was considered politically acceptable to depict forty years ago.

Starry night

Screenshot of Stars in Shadow showing options available to the player for planetary bombardment and invasion.

Feeling a bit rough today since I haven’t got enough sleep for the last few nights thanks to staying up too late playing Stars in Shadow. Folks, this is exactly the “Master of Orion 2 with nicer graphics and User Interface” that I wanted.

I’ve tried the Galactic Civilizations games (I think I played 2 and 3) and they were definitely decent turn-based strategy in space but they were a tad complicated. I mean, I spent hours just designing space ships (I made a Klingon bird of prey once). And most of the factions in Endless Space were different kinds of humans and robots so I kind of got bored with them.

But Stars in Shadow scratches my itch. It’s exactly as complicated as it needs to be for me to fire it up for a quick game on easy mode (quick being 10 hours straight on a Sunday, apparently) and I like the colourful cartoonishness of the art style.

Bottom line? It’s fun.

The Emotion Engine

So Tales From the Loop is actually good. It’s set in a small town where everything is centered around a mysterious research facility. The whole thing appears to take place in the 1970’s, except there are decaying robots in the woods and inexplicable sci-fi encounters are a part of life. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it looks like there’s a core cast of characters loosely intertwined in each other’s lives, but with the protagonists shifting in each installment.

Even if I hadn’t known already, I probably would have guessed that this was originally a Scandinavian property as its general tone is off-kilter and contemplative. I understand the concept books focused more on the kids, but the show probably didn’t want to come across as copying Stranger Things since they’re both science fiction period pieces.

However, it’s way different anyway, since Stranger Things is awash in nostalgia for a specific period’s consumerism and pop culture, whereas this show feels more like it takes place in a timeless 20th century of no particular decade.

Also, Stranger Things foregrounds its plot elements – stop the Demogorgon, the commies, the thingamabob – whereas this show is all about the emotional consequences of the sci-fi twists. There’s no technobabble solution for letting your best friend down or having your mother break your heart.

Anyway, this is a hearty recommendation from me.