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.

Mighty Joe Steel

https://youtu.be/F3fsqXx8CoM?t=14

As a young time traveler, you receive the opportunity to meet the greatest dictator of all time — Stalin. And then what? Everything’s up to you! Speak with Joseph, reveal his most hidden secrets, give him advice, and help the vozhd come to world domination! Or… show him what true love is!

. . . Huh.

Wait, what do the reviews say?

‘Sex With Stalin’ Is Surprisingly Dull

Sex With Stalin, a newly released game by the independent Russian developer Georgiy Kukhtenkov, is incredibly boring. That’s too bad, because traveling back in time to seduce Joseph Stalin is a truly depraved idea. It promises subversive heterodoxy and cutting satire. Even just taking him for a spin through rooms that are most remarkable for their leather accessories promised at least some sort of excitement. But, though the game holds itself out as a transgressive thrill, what you get instead is a PowerPoint presentation inviting you to invest in the game creator’s incoherent ideological timeshare.

Well, I think we can all trust Foreign Policy magazine’s opinion on video games.

Anyway, if I was a time traveller who wanted to have sex with Stalin, I’d obviously go for the younger and hotter version.

Stalin: handsome as a devil at 23 years old with tousled hair and short beard

Remember the Ides of November

Legends of Eisenwald looks to be a fantasy roleplaying and strategy game about leading a noble family in medieval Germany.

However, while researching it I found out about its standalone spin-off, Eisenwald: Blood of November, which apparently is about the 2016 US elections.

No, I have no goddamn idea why or how the game developers did this but almost every review on GOG states that Blood of November transposes the electoral showdown between Trump and Clinton into a fantasy version of medieval Germany. According to one review the story works like this:

The gameplay and the low fantasy medieval setting has all the qualities that made me love Legends of Eisenwald. But this stand-alone spin off is also an absolutely hilarious rewriting of the recent American elections. Here it’s the Duke that died heirless, and the barons have to elect his successor. The 2 main contestant are a man named Dieter Horn , and a woman, Hanna Eisig , and you have to pick a side and help it win. The extravagant rumors about both candidates are often medieval views of the actual campaign events , and it’s amazing how medieval it does feel indeed! The game is still great even if you don’t want to pay attention to that double entendre, but much funnier this way.

So, uh, yeah. I bought Legends of Eisenwald but now I wonder if I should buy this spinoff as well, since it sounds either stupid or brilliant. I don’t think I’d be able to catch every in-joke since these days I avoid consuming too much news about the minutiae of US politics, but campaign season for the 2020 elections has already started so playing it almost seems topical. And it’s only like $3. Maybe I can buy one less coffee next week?

Kung fu TV

Warrior is the shit. It’s a violent kung fu spaghetti western that’s so very over the top. It’s set in 19th century San Francisco and I think is basically what Bruce Lee had wanted the original Kung Fu TV show to originally look like. The protagonist is literally fresh off the boat from China, but unlike other FOBs he knows kung fu and starts kicking racist ass as soon as he arrives.

The show has a lot about the politics around Chinese immigration at the time – the way politicians stoked working class racism at lost jobs, the way the Irish workers shat on those lower down the ladder than them, the way the rich businessmen gladly exploited the Chinese, the resentment the Chinese had against their oppression, and the gangsters and criminals who didn’t give much of a shit as long as they profited. But all this is expressed in modern-ish language (in fact, very hip hop language), and thanks to the magic of TV we hear English when the Chinese characters are talking all funny among themselves.

Did I mention the show is violent? Because it is. It’s what I wanted out of Into the Badlands and damn if it doesn’t deliver. If nothing else, just watch the opening, it’s stylish as hell. I like the whole 70’s kung fu movie poster thing.

Je suis un espion

Nest of Spies: The Startling Truth About Foreign Agents At Work Within Canada’s Borders is, as one might expect from the subtitle, a non-fiction book about the spy scene in Canada. Its authors are a journalist and a former operative of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, so the book ends up being more descriptive than deeply analytical.

I rather wish a sociologist had been the one to write this book, as I think one could have teased out some interesting insights from the inside knowledge that the authors clearly possess. As it is, the book mostly recounts spy stories that took place in Canada and organized by the country of the perpetrators. At the very least I wish the authors had organized the book around the traditional divisions of spy work – e.g., human intelligence, signals intelligence, etc. And some deeper comparisons with other countries would have helped put things into context.

But the book is still pretty eye-opening. I’m a big spy buff, so a lot of the generalities of intelligence work are familiar to me, but I hadn’t been aware of the specifics of how the whole thing works in Canada. There are a couple of anecdotes from the Cold War (did you know that when the Soviet consulate in Montreal burned down in 1987, CSIS painstakingly sifted the ashes and exposed at least one Soviet mole in France?) and the newer free-for-all today (did you also know that French spies steal anything not nailed down from not only their enemies, but also their allies such as the UK and Canada?).

The authors clearly wish to avoid libel lawsuits by carefully avoiding naming some individuals, companies, and even entire countries in their anecdotes. This is rather to the book’s detriment, since details are scarce enough in a world as secretive as the spy’s. Quit dangling juicy tidbits if you can’t deliver. I mean, tell me you don’t want to know more about Big Pharma hitmen after reading this passage:

Then there is the tactic of eliminating the [rival company’s] researchers [as a part of industrial competition]. We wish this were a tongue-in-cheek way of suggesting they be bribed, but we are in fact talking about murdering them. The pharmaceutical research industry has a remarkable reputation for brutality. The development and marketing of a single new medication costs on average $800 million, which means that a professional killer’s $50,000-$60,000 tab is just so much small change once the competing company’s two or three lead project researchers have been identified. (p. 306)

I suppose this reticence might be attributed to the inherently guarded nature of a spy (though spies aren’t immune to the lure of Hollywood – witness how this nameless intelligence worker gushes over their organization being featured in an episode of The Good Wife).

Entwined throughout the book’s  anecdotes are the authors’ calls for Canada to up its counterintelligence game at the corporate and governmental level. It’s true that no one in Canada really gives a shit about spying. Even after finding out just how much proprietary information is stolen in Canada by friends and rivals alike, I still can’t find it in me to care too much. If it ever comes to a choice between spending money on infrastructure or increasing funding for spy work, I say build that damn Toronto to Montreal hyperloop already. Or just that high frequency rail for the Quebec City to Windsor corridor.

Anyway, this book got me started in reading more about Canada’s spying history. Did you know it’s rumoured that Ian Fleming was the sniper who killed a Japanese spy in New York when the US was still neutral in World War 2, as part of a secretive UK-Canada “corporation” operating with the tacit approval of Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover? Or that throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Canadian government hired the Pinkerton detective agency to keep tabs on Irish malcontents in the US? I didn’t, until I started down this fascinating rabbit hole. These stories were from Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peacable Kingdom.

I’ll be doing some further reading on the subject, but for the uninitiated, I’d say Nest of Spies is a fascinating introduction.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

Just here to post an interesting little interview I found with Kim Stanley Robinson (author of one of my favourite science fiction books, The Years of Rice and Salt. I especially liked his observation on the cultural construction of beauty:

SP: I wonder if we would develop a different sense of beauty if we went out into the Solar System. When we think of natural beauty, we tend to think of gorgeous landscapes like mountains or deserts. But out in the Solar System, on another planet or a moon, would our experience of awe and wonder be different?

KSR: You can go back to the 18th century when mountains were not regarded as beautiful. Edmund Burke and the other philosophers talked about the sublime. So the beautiful has to do with shapeliness and symmetry and with the human face and figure. Through the Middle Ages, mountains were seen as horrible wastelands where God had forgotten what to do. Then in the Romantic period, they became sublime, where you have not quite beauty but a combination of beauty and terror. Your senses are telling you, “This is dangerous,” and your rational mind is saying, “No, I’m on a ledge, but I’ve got a railing. It looks dangerous, but it’s not.” You get this thrilling sensation that is not beauty but is the sublime. The Solar System is a very sublime place.

The Union Forever

When Britain and France Almost Merged Into One Country

I thought this was about the Angevin empire in the Middle Ages but nope, it was about a proposed Franco-British Union after the defeat at Dunkirk which was actually supported by Churchill and De Gaulle. I don’t know if it wouldn’t have fallen apart like 5 minutes after they signed the paperwork but kind of an interesting counterfactual to consider besides all the Nazi victory ones.

Middle Ages: The Video Game

So the book Pillars of the Earth (though I only know the story from the TV miniseries) is coming out in video game format. Specifically it’ll be an interactive novel. It looks like there’s some level of game-like playing in there, judging from the pic below.

A medieval monk stands before another, and at the bottom of the screen two choices are presented: to Lie or to Tell the Truth

But seeing as how it’s based on a book with a definite plot and resolution then I assume you can only change the story so much. Perhaps you’ll be railroaded slightly more than in a typical game from Telltale Studios. And seeing as how it’s set in the Middle Ages, it’ll be full of rape, murder, and irrational persecution, so it’ll feel pretty close to Telltale’s Walking Dead series too.

It’s odd that this is coming out, but the art is interesting. I liked the TV show, so I hope the thing is at least decent.

Spies in the night

I love spy stories. I especially love ones that are based on real events. That’s why I was fascinated by this news article about the only known Soviet agent to have infiltrated the CIA. The entire thing is a great read, but I especially liked this part:

In a psychological evaluation from that year, [the Czech intelligence service] described Koecher as “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile towards people, money driven, showing a strong inclination to instability, emotionally unstable, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, intolerant of authoritarianism”.

In other words, just the man for the job.