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.

A Life in Books

A certain website asks How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die? It estimates your lifetime total by using a life expectancy calculator and 3 different levels of reading consumption: 12 books per year for average readers, 50 for the voracious, and 80 for the super-readers. The website says I have something like slightly over a 1000 books left in me.

This exercise made me realize I haven’t been reading much lately in 2021. After counting up the physical and electronic books I’ve borrowed from my library and the webnovels I’ve read so far (I’ve bought zero books), I think I’m only at like 9 or 10 books this year. I’m not counting all the manga issues I’ve read because that would easily push my total into the hundreds.

Anyway, I’m really surprised at my 2021 total since like 10 years ago I specifically counted how much media I consumed annually and it came to something like 80 books for that year (after checking it was actually 83). I think it’s because back in the old days I would read during my subway commute and in the lounge during lunch, whereas now that I’m at home I’d probably be washing dishes or something. I suppose I should really pick up my pace if I want to race against the grim reaper and finish more of the books in my various to-read lists.

Ode to Oblivion

The story behind the Oblivion mod Terry Pratchett worked on

The only Pratchett books I’ve read are The Long Earth books he collaborated on, but I found this article interesting anyway. The mod in question is for a custom companion you can get for Oblivion. The part where you can get her to lead you if you’re lost, or have her pick a destination for you at random, actually sounds like it would have been neat to have in the base game. Anyway, it’s not every mod that has dialogue written by a bestselling fantasy author.

An Introduction to Manga

Front cover of Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics showing a collage of various manga covers

Thanks to the Japan Foundation, I’m reading Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik Schodt (and if you want to know what the Japan Foundation was like I tweeted about it here). It was published in 1986, well before the manga boom of the mid-90s. Or was it the late 90s? I can barely remember a time when manga wasn’t the default comic book format for the majority of readers, at least in terms of sales.

So the book was written in a time when only specialists in Japan and the most dedicated of comic book hipsters knew anything about Japanese comics. It therefore explains manga from the ground up, going through its history and providing examples of manga of each era and type (mangas from the 50s, boys’ manga, girls’ manga, etc). It does the same thing that many comic book histories do in locating the origin of this mass market disposable entertainment in antecedent forms with greater cultural cachet but weak connections to the medium (i.e., I’ve seen people arguing that the Bayeux tapestry is also comics in that it combines pictures and words to tell a story). I understand why the comics historians do it, they’re trying to impart greater respectability to their medium by connecting it to older and more respected media, but I dunno, I think it’s more productive to define the medium by its relations of production and it stops you from going down ridiculous formalist arguments about whether magazine cigarette ads count as comics.

Moving on, I hadn’t realized I knew so much about manga as I’d already heard of quite a lot of apparently obscure works, or at least they were obscure back in the 80s. Time marches on and Rose of Versailles, for example, has an anime that I watched on streaming a few months ago. And of course there’s the scanlation community, which has probably done as much to spread knowledge of manga as any official initiatives from various industry groups.

The last chapter deals with manga’s future and in hindsight it completely failed to anticipate the explosion of overseas interest in the medium just ten short years later. In fact, it basically says that manga will probably remain a mostly Japanese thing, instead of something French schoolkids save their allowances for and whatnot.

Anyway, it’s an interesting snapshot of a specific moment in time in manga’s history.

The war of two worlds

I’m finally up to date on Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s about a hidden family who can travel between parallel universes – our world and one that’s still in a quasi-medieval level of technology. They use this power to smuggle drugs and shit and have become rich and powerful in two worlds.

The series was mostly written in and is set during George W. Bush’s War on Terror years, and it’s almost nostalgic to read paranoid descriptions of Dick Cheney’s secret intelligence empire. Old Dick is in the series as an unseen antagonist, by the way, though he is referred to by his Secret Service codename WARBUCKS (Dubya is BOY WONDER).

It gets pretty crazy by the end. Cheney was apparently in the pay of the worldwalkers back in the 80’s so when their existence is revealed, he moves to exterminate them to hide all evidence of his corruption. There’s blowback, the interdimensional narcoterrorists steal a backpack nuke, and the White House along with Bush II explodes in nuclear fire.

But the USA has unlocked the secret of worldwalking and retaliates by carpetbombing the other world with nukes. Some of the narcos manage to escape to a third parallel world, one where New Britain rules the Americas. The 44th President of the US is Dick Cheney, who dies of natural causes not long after taking office. The 45th President is Donald Rumsfeld. And thus ends the first series.

Anyway, the story had been on hold for a while, and I can see why. Where can things go from here? Well, in the first book of the sequel series, things have gone in a completely different direction. It’s now 2020 and the worldwalkers have ensconced themselves in the government of New Britain. They live openly as interdimensional travellers, occasionally returning to our world to steal technology. They’re frantically developing the industry of their new country as a bulwark against the coming of the Americans. The United States is now even more of a militarized panopticon society, a kind of digital age Soviet Union where smartphones occupy the role of Stasi informants.

And now the stage is set for the rest of the Empire Games series. Worlds collide! I’m actually rather interested in what comes next.

And on that note, happy Labour Day weekend, ye workers of the world.

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.

Korea in space

I started reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit because Ann Leckie said she liked it. So far, I like it too.

This Korean sci-fi novel most resembles for me a non-moronic version of Warhammer 40,000. You see, in the novel’s far-flung future, the repressive Hexarchate controls its vast territory with weaponized astrology. Through total obedience to the social order, devotion to a strict calendar of feast days, and ritual torture of enemies, the state can manipulate the very laws of physics. (And yes, this sounds like North Korea in a space opera setting, though the calendrical sacrifices as a means of controlling the cosmos also reminds me of the Mayans).

But like all empires, this one is obsessed with maintaining its power. Observing alternate calendars directly weakens the state’s power, and thus a vast military machine is tasked with destroying heretics. One cog in this assemblage is Kel Cheris: a captain, a footsoldier, and a literal brainwashed fanatic.

Having evinced an aptitude for heretical mathematics, she is charged with capturing the Fortress of Captured Needles lest the Hexarchate itself fall. Her primary weapon is an undead military genius and traitor who she probably shouldn’t trust.

In the backmatter copy Stephen Baxter describes the book as Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now, which so far in my reading seems accurate. He doesn’t mention that the book is also compulsively readable. There are some wonderfully inventive ideas all over the story, and even the names of the weapons are deliciously odd: the catastrophe gun, the neglect cannon, the abrogation sieve, the calendrical sword.

I hope I won’t stay up too late tonight reading this book, but it’s a very real possibility. If you want to try out a brand new talent from an underrepresented corner of the sci-fi world, I suggest picking this up.

Attack of the giant pile of bullshit

Remember that part in Ghostbusters where they’re spewing soft-headed pseudoscientific hogswaddle as they battle the fantastical and the supernatural? Imagine that in book form and you get the novel MM9.

The book is set in a world where giant monsters – kaiju – have always existed in human history. Big Ben and London Bridge, for instance, were destroyed by a sea monster in 1952 while the US Army fought giant ants during the Cold War (and yes, the kaiju are the ones from monster movies like Them!). The author is clearly a geek of the first order and gleefully mashes together various science fiction works in service of the story, as he explains in an interview.

Being regular creatures that are part of the order of the world, kaiju are treated as natural disasters. The study of these monsters falls under the discipline of meteorology, and it is the men and women of the Monsterological Measures Department who devise counter-measures for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in their fight against the kaiju. I rather like how the book makes clear that the anti-kaiju agency are merely public servants, who are eternally worried about getting receipts for their taxi rides and have to deal with dumb questions from the media while they’re desperately in the middle of the latest attack. It’s kind of like if Pacific Rim were about the scientists instead of the robot jocks.

MM9 is nothing but pure and excellent bullshit. It’s quite short and a breeze to read, so I most heartily recommend it.

Haruki Murakami: the video game

Behold Memoranda, a point-and-click adventure game that claims to be a magical realist experience in the vein of a Haruki Murakami novel:

Memoranda is a game about forgetting and being forgotten!

A point and click adventure game with magic realism elements that tells the story of a young lady who gradually realizes she is forgetting her own name. Is she really losing her memory or is there something else that could explain the strange circumstances? The story happens in a quiet little town where a few ordinary and strange characters live together. Including a World War II surviving soldier to an elephant taking shelter in a man’s cottage hoping to become a human. There is one thing all these characters have in common: they are losing something. It could be a name, a husband or even someone’s sanity!

I dunno, it seems rather annoyingly twee. I’d say it’s hard to translate the quiet strangeness of Murakami’s novels into the visual medium, but I rather think the Norwegian Wood movie pulled it off. I’m curious, but not enough to pay $17 and change. I’ll probably buy this if the price drops below $5 since I have an abiding lust for point-and-click adventures, but right now I think I’ll hold off.