Tuesday, August 14, 2018
This book focuses on Connie, a Mexican-American woman in her mid thirties, living on welfare in New York. Connie has been abandoned by her family, her daughter taken away by the state, and been in and out of government institutions for a significant part of her adult life. Recently Connie has been seeing an individual who identifies themselves as Luciente. Luciente claims they come from the year 2137, a society that has returned to a closer-knit and more ecologically sound way of living. Connie and Luciente are able to connect mentally across time and communicate, learning about each other's society.
The main conflict comes from a fight Connie had with Geraldo, her niece's pimp. Geraldo knocks Connie out and gets her recommitted to an insane asylum. The rest of the book focuses on Connie trapped within the ruthless institution determined to crush her into a predetermined form of socially acceptable. This is the part where Piercy's research especially shines, she says she got workers to sneak her into mental institutions and did countless interviews with both workers and patients to get insights into the mental health system. Through her writing Piercy manages to capture the tedium, the helplessness, and the desperation of people trapped in a system that sees them as a problem to be fixed, rather than people to be helped. With the evocative portrait Piercy creates, it really shows the deep-seated problems of the mental health system and if not how it needs to be reformed, at least revealing the desperate need for reform.
I will say that in my experience there seems to have been changes for the better in the past forty years, but my experience is far, far different from Connie's. First, I'm a middle-class white man opposed to a poor latinx woman so people are more likely to listen to my thoughts and concerns than Connie's just because of background. Second, I've spent the equivalent of a long weekend in a mental health institution while Connie spends at least one year and probably longer trapped in an institution. So while the glimpse I saw looks a lot better than what Connie experienced, my own experience was very different from Connie's and it's certainly possible that things haven't improved for many other people.
As for the life in the future that we saw, I feel like that's weaker compared to Piercy's commentary on society in the seventies. There are some interesting ideas but a lot of things are left a little too vague and just raise more questions, specifically the practice of defense. The people in the culture of 2137 volunteer to spend part of their time working on defense, fighting against enemies. It's implied that these enemies are last vestiges of the old corporation-dominated way of doing things and we get to see a little bit of that different society, but I would have liked just a little bit more exposition.
Overall I think the time travel and alternate society that Piercy establishes in her book are the less interesting parts of the book. The best parts, for me, were Connie's struggles against the system and revealing just how a woman of color can be disempowered by a system that sees her as a problem rather than a person. If the future society is underdeveloped and maybe a little confusing Connie's own story more than makes up for it. Definitely worth checking out.
Thursday, August 9, 2018
The main argument of Graeber's text is that humanity has used debt and virtual currency for most of recorded history and the usage of hard money, specifically coinage, is actually an aberration rather than the standard. He begins with the assumption made in many economic textbooks that barter as a system of exchange existed before money, with the problems involved as economies became more complex and the issue of a coincidence of needs became harder to fill. Graeber argues that barter as a system is actually fairly rare and usually only occurs when people used to a cash economy no longer have money to do business. Instead, Graeber argues that trade has mostly used virtual currency even before physical currency existed. The units of currency, such as talents, minas, and shekels, were merely a way for people to keep track of exchanges and overall balances of credits and debits, rather than actual units of coinage that passed from hand to hand. When gold and silver entered the equation at all it was for international trade rather than local transactions.
Graeber then argues that for a period of about 800 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. we see the emergence of a cash-based economy and coinage with coins becoming part of the day-to-day economy. Graeber's explanation for this is the creation of large, professional standing armies which, inevitably, require equipment, food, medicine, and a thousand other things that makes armies function. To streamline the process, governments issued coins to the soldiers as pay, and then collected the coins from their subjects as taxes. This meant that the subjects had to find a way to get the coins from the soldiers to pay their taxes, and the easiest way was to sell the soldiers something the soldiers needed. There is a certain elegance to this explanation so it makes a decent amount of sense, and explains why coinage was able to circulate at a purchasing price well above the market price of the metals. In addition, armies are interested in portable wealth, one of the largest benefits of using coinage instead of credit-based systems. Graeber goes into a lot more detail, obviously, but this is his main argument. Once the program of imperial expansion ended, most of the world reverted to a credit-based system until the fifteenth century.
Graeber also argues that we only returned to a cash-based economy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because of ideas by people such as John Locke and Adam Smith who idealized a cash economy and people entirely free of debt. This also ties with an expansion of European empires across the globe which brought European ideas and institutions, incredibly violently, to the rest of the globe. Because this sees another increase in militarization and violence, Graeber argues that this was merely a repeat of what happened in the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and China for over a millennium. However the fact that the U.S. dollar, and all currencies, are now backed by credit rather than precious metals, means to Graeber at least that we are entering a new era of currency.
The biggest problem I have with this book is that Graeber gets far too tied down in the philosophical questions behind currency. This is an age-old debate, especially during the nineteenth century, when people questioned what exactly counted as money. There were hard-money advocates who strongly supported that only gold and silver could serve as money because of their intrinsic value. This, however, causes a problem for several reasons. First, gold and silver have no intrinsic value aside from what we give them. In fact, aside from ornamentation, electrical conductors, or tokens of value, they have no real use. This led to credit-based explanations for money, that really money is just a token of value that stands in for other things and it doesn't matter what we use for currency as long as we all agree to accept and use it. The problem is that Graeber seems to accept the credit-based position throughout most of his book, with his argument that credit-based systems of accounting have been used for most of human history. However when he gets to the decision to abandon the gold standard in 1971 he seems to then turn on credit-based systems because they can manufacture money from nothing There is room here to make a sophisticated argument, but Graeber simply leaves insufficient time to build such an argument and left me disappointed with the result.
Overall the result was kind of disappointing. Graeber makes arguments which are so broad it's difficult to refute them because of their own generality. Although there are times where Graeber gets into the history of credit institutions throughout the world, for the most part he seems to get bogged down in the philosophical questions about money which for me were a lot less interesting. The result is a fragmentary book at best and fails to examine perhaps the most important developments in the past two centuries which have created our current economic and financial system.
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
When we left off with Temeraire and Laurence they were settling on the edges of Botany Bay colony trying to make a life for themselves. This of course is upset at the start of the book when Arthur Hammond, ambassador plenipotentiary for the British Empire, arrives from China to announce that the war has taken a turn for the worse and Britain needs Laurence and Temeraire to help their Portugese allies in Brazil who have been invaded by the Tswana of Africa, determined to liberate and repatriate all the slaves. Once more on the Allegiance Temeraire, Iskierka, and Kulingile must fight for king and country.
There actually was a point I liked about this book and it was when we got to see the Inca Empire in South America with its own unique dragons and their own system of government. If there's one thing I like it's Novik's different approaches to how cultures treat their dragons and it seems that the number of people compared to dragons is a huge influence on this. In Europe there are a large number of people and relatively few dragons, so dragons are kept separated from people and are at the start of the series basically pets or property. In China, the number of dragons is much greater and so dragons have a roughly equal status with humans. And with the Tswana in Africa, dragons are believed to be the reincarnations of revered ancestors and occupy leadership and advisory roles for their descendants.
The Incan Empire is a far different example. The majority of the Incan population, much like in regular history, has been wiped out by smallpox and other diseases. This has resulted in significant changes to Incan society and now the humans are practically the pets or arguably property of the dragons. Much like historical Andean cultures, the Incans are organized into ayllu, which function as both a local government and as an extended family group. Previously ayllus would compete for the honor of having a dragon as a member, but after so much of the Incan population has been wiped out the dragons took responsibility for taking care of and protecting the allyus. It has gotten to the point where the dragons guard the members of their allyu jealously and if humans are found alone a dragon will capture the human for their own allyu. It's an interesting inversion where the dragons appear to rule and the humans serve, in distinct contrast to the other books.
The thing that bothers me, though, is that I wish Novik had spent more time talking about the culture of the Incan Empire and seeing more of how their society works. I kind of got an impression based on the information but so much of the book is focused on other stuff that it feels kind of shortchanged. Part of the book focuses on their leaving Australia and then their various misadventures in the Pacific Ocean. After experiencing a five-day storm, a fire breaks out on the Allegiance and hits the powder magazine, bursting the ship to splinters. The dragons and survivors get picked up by a French ship and get marooned on a remote island in the Pacific. Because they manage to find a wrecked ship on the island our main characters are able to reach the Incans on their own and that whole part of the plot feels like a massive distraction. It makes me really wish Novik had spent more time on the more interesting parts of the series instead of the stranded on an island drama.
I'm hoping the last two books will go well and hopefully provide a nice conclusion. But as I said, this series feels a lot more like literary candy to me.
Thursday, August 2, 2018
Basically this book starts with Bane and Zannah having several problems they need to overcome. Bane gets infested with Dark Side Force-eating parasites called orbalisks. The orbalisks are impossible to remove and cause Bane excruciating pain, but they form armor over his body that is impervious to even lightsabers, so that's kind of neat. Bane is also trying to create his own Sith holocron but keeps failing for reasons he doesn't understand and he suspects there's some secret to forming holocrons still concealed from him. Zannah meanwhile is performing her Sith training and is slowly working to become more powerful than Bane so she can finally kill and replace him, but she has to bide her time until Bane can teach her nothing more.
The thing that bugs me about this book is that for most of it the Jedi assume that the Sith are extinct after the thought bomb exploded on Ruusan. It's really only because one Jedi, Johun Othone, won't give up the idea that there are still Sith out in the galaxy and he manages to find Zannah's cousin who witnessed her and Bane attack him at the epicenter of the thought bomb. Once Othone, Valenthyne Farfalla, and a couple other Jedi find out, they go to hunt down Bane and end up...dead. Like, really anticlimactically dead, and once again, the Jedi think that the Sith order is extinct. So in that respect it feels like we got reset back to where we were at the beginning of the book which makes me wonder why we bothered in the first place. And the deaths of Othone and Farfalla are even more disappointing because I felt they weren't well-developed as characters but with intriguing possibilities for development that are literally cut short.
And the shame is there are some things that I really liked about this book and other stuff set thousands upon thousands of years before the movies when Jedi and Sith battled each other across the galaxy. There seems to be a freedom to include whatever weird cool stuff you could think of and throw it into the stories. I think it's kind of neat that a Sith alchemist came up with a way to use the Dark Side to turn flesh into metal and circuitry and create an army of cyborg zombies. I thought that was a neat idea. And I find it intriguing that the Jedi have a far more militant bend prior to the Ruusan Reformations and seem to allow things like emotional attachments. I say this because Farfalla has this ridiculously pimped out bed showing key scenes from his life including his birth and becoming a Jedi Master which seems like a really important emotional possession that the Jedi Order I'm more familiar with wouldn't permit. There's just a lot of neat stuff in how things look different compared to how they look in the movies.
Maybe if I want more of the cool, different, but still Star Wars stuff I need to go track down the comics and/or books set even further back in the history of the Republic. This book is okay, but I find the stuff that makes it so much like the movies I like less than the stuff that makes it different.
Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Roberts pulls on a variety of resources, including the voluminous documents available at this time period and letters by Napoleon that were not previously available. The result is a book that feels very well-researched but I'll admit at the beginning I was a little concerned about this being a little hagiographic. Because there is so much acrimony surrounding Napoleon I can understand Roberts's efforts to dispel the opprobrium surrounding him, but I was worried at times that Roberts went a little too far in the other direction. I will admit that there are things Napoleon did which were net positives, such as the reform of the French civil code which has influenced legal codes in countless countries today. But there are some simple facts, like Napoleon's decision to overthrow the French Directorate and get declared consul, then consul for life, then emperor reflect badly on him. I'm aware this is very much my American-ness coming out with the example of George Washington an exceedingly rare example of a man who could have become king if he wanted (and in fact some people thought about making him king) but instead chose to step down from political power and created a precedent of peaceful transfer of power for two centuries.
However, Roberts does point out numerous mistakes Napoleon made, especially later in his reign, and takes Napoleon to task for these mistakes. Examples include the invasion of Russia which was a logistical nightmare and the point where the Grand Armee's hubris became a weakness rather than an advantage. On top of that was the continuation of the Peninsular campaign, a drain of troops and resources that Napoleon could ill afford as Russian troops continued to batter his main force. Napoleon also trusted people he definitely shouldn't have, such as Talleyrand. Napoleon had already caught Talleyrand playing both sides against each other for his own advantage. Napoleon did briefly remove Talleyrand from positions of influence, but later found himself relying on Talleyrand which would prove to be Napoleon's undoing. So I think Roberts's opinion of Napoleon for the whole of the book is fairly balanced. And like most people Napoleon is a mix of good and bad so it comes out complicated in the end.
Overall I think this book did a pretty good job of talking about Napoleon. Roberts uses a variety of sources and while he gushes about Napoleon at some points, he is equally hard on Napoleon at later points as well. It's a long book with a lot of information, but well worth the read to gain insight into the most influential figure at the start of the nineteenth century.
Thursday, July 26, 2018
When Hatshepsut's images and carvings were first discovered by Egyptologists historians (all men, of course) assumed that Hatshepsut was an example of a woman usurping power from a rightful male leader. This was explained because many of her statues and inscriptions were deliberately demolished or defaced, reflecting a backlash during the reign of her successor Thutmose III. Cooney draws upon more recent analysis of Hatshepsut's inscriptions and other existing evidence of her reign to create a more nuanced and ultimately positive understanding of her place in Egyptian history.
Egyptology is a difficult field because the reality of politics and the ideology of politics were almost never separated. Central to Egyptian culture was the idea of the god-king, an aspect of the eternal sun who always had and always would rule over the land of Egypt. Who the king happened to be was largely irrelevant so long as there was a king and in both official and unofficial sources opinions on the king and the royal family were largely reserved. We are unsure about how the Thutmosid dynasty came to power. We know that the previous dynasty failed to produce a viable heir and the mantle of kingship was passed to Thutmose I. Why Thutmose was chosen or any familial connection with the previous dynasty he may have had has been obscured. But we do know among his many children were Hatshepsut who took on the powerful and influential role of God's Wife of Amen, the principle deity of the city of Thebes associated with the sun. The God's Wife was a position traditionally held by a member of the royal family close to the king and came with control of the temple's wealth and influence. We assume that this role gave Hatshepsut sufficient experience to become a political operator in her own right.
Thutmose I was, in his turn, followed by Thutmose II, probably Hatshepsut's half-brother who she married as his Great Wife. Although the couple produced one daughter, Neferure, if they produced any male offspring it does not appear in the record. In fact Thutmose II had trouble producing any offspring and by most accounts appears to have been a sickly individual dying only a few years into his reign. This created yet another succession crisis within perhaps fifteen years of resolving the last crisis. Thutmose II had produced another son, Thutmose III, but he was just an infant and from a low-ranked birth mother, giving him a weaker claim in the complex web of Egyptian royalty we still don't fully understand. With the high child mortality it was questionable Thutmose III would even survive to rule, much less produce an heir of his own. But Hatshepsut stepped into this vacuum and provided much-needed continuity as regent.
It was not uncommon for queen mothers to step in as regents for their sons, and even made good sene because a mother was unlikely to sabotage her own son's reign. Hatshepsut's case, like so much else about her, was unusual. Hatshepsut was not Thutmose III's birth mother, but his own mother Isis was considered too low-ranked to actually serve as regent. Cooney argues, however, the fact that Hatshepsut became regent, and ruled unchallenged for nearly twenty years suggests that the religious and political elites trusted Hatshepsut and supported her role as regent and later king, to ensure that Egypt would continue to prosper while Thutmose III could grow up.
We know that Egypt prospered during Hatshepsut's rule because of several events. First was a series of highly successful campaigns in Nubia to maintain Egyptian hegemony and continue the flow of gold, gems, stone, and slaves which were immense economic boons for Egypt and Hatshepsut was able to channel the wealth to government figures, including new political appointees like Senenmut, ensuring their continued support for her reign. Hatshepsut also launched a successful trading expedition to the Land of Punt (believed to be somewhere around the Horn of Africa) which brought back even more wealth including the all-important incense which was not so much a luxury as a staple for the deeply religious culture of ancient Egypt.
This economic wealth was then channeled into massive construction programs throughout Egypt, resulting in upgrades of many temples from structures of the near-ubiquitous mud brick to worked stone, creating a new permanence to Egyptian life and the temple complex of Luxor at Thebes, making a veritable bonanza for archaeologists and Egyptologists of today. During all of this Hatshepsut continued to accumulate more power to herself and adopting the title of king, tying her legitimacy and right to rule with her descent from her father, the respected Thutmose I. Hatshepsut was formally coronated as a co-ruler in or about year 7 of Thutmose III's rule, and Hatshepsut celebrated the Sed Festival, a celebration of a king's successful rule, in year 16 of her and Thutmose III's ''joint'' rule of Egypt.
We don't know when Hatshepsut died, but evidence suggests it was about year 22 of Thutmose III's reign because that is when he launched his highly successful war into Syria and inscriptions make no mention of his co-ruler. The success of this first campaign made Thutmose III a warrior king who executed multiple successful campaigns to neighboring regions and exacted enormous tributes. But interestingly the evidence suggests that Thutmose III's attacks on his aunt, step-mother, and predecessor's legacy did not begin until fairly late in his reign, some twenty years after Hatshepsut's death. Why Thutmose III began this attack and destruction is unclear, but Cooney thinks the traditional explanation of a usurping woman being put back in her place is not only unconvincing but unsupported by the evidence of the continued respect and support of elites for Hatshepsut even after her death.
Cooney instead argues that perhaps it was the status of Thutmose III's own son, Amenhotep II, whose legacy Thutmose sought to prop up. Cooney suggest that Amenhotep II, much like his father, was born to a lower-ranked wife. Because of this lack of direct links with the dynasty, usually reinforced by brother-sister marriages in the royal family to keep the bloodline concentrated, Cooney argues that Thutmose III was seeking to change the source of legitimacy to a father-son link rather than a larger dynastic link. It wasn't important if the mother wasn't of sufficient background or even within the family group, as long as the next king was son of the previous king. To this end Thutmose III tried to connect his kingship to his father and grandfather, Thutmose I and II, and edited many of Hatshepsut's statues to be dedicated to his father and grandfather. by eliminating or reducing his aunt, Thutmose III shifted the focus from a family dynasty to a male line, reinforcing Amenhotep II's own claim on the throne.
Overall I thought this book was really interesting. Ancient Egypt is an area I have little to no knowledge so a lot of this was new to me and I thought Cooney did an excellent job explaining not just the history but the larger context of Egypt some 3,500 years ago. The image of Hatshepsut that emerges is a queen who is, above all else, successful. It seems her reign enriched and expanded Egypt, to the benefit of at least the elites, if not everyone. It certainly seems unlikely that a cruel and wanton usurper would be able to rule unchallenged, even in Egypt, for twenty years. Even if Cooney has to rely on conjecture to fill in the blanks left by the fairly sparse historical record, I highly recommend people check out this book.
Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Personally, Murcatto is hoping that this year will be the last fighting for Orso and she and her brother can finally retire. This all goes out the window very literally when Orso and six other men betray Murcatto and her brother and throw them from Orso's mountaintop castle out a window. Miraculously Murcatto survives, despite her body being desperately broken, and as you can imagine from the title she swears revenge on her attempted assassins. But killing seven of the most influential men in Styria will be no easy task, and Murcatto will have to put a team together including the northman Caul Shivers, former Inquisition practical Shylo Vitari, a numerical savant known only as Friendly, and a handful of other cutthroats, scoundrels, and criminal scum to accomplish the task.
This book feels a lot like the other books in Abercrombie's series, although in this case I was less invested in the characters than I was in the earlier books. With this being a revenge/assassination plot I was hoping that there would be a little more variation, figuring out how to get at people who are probably in highly secured locations. And there's some element of that with the effort to get to a banker which includes a break-in into a bank to put poison exactly where the banker will encounter it. But most of the rest of the time the characters are just going in and killing people in the messiest way possible. As a result it doesn't feel like a variation on the previous books, instead it feels like more of the same and it starts to get old after a while.
As you can probably see on the cover, there's a quote from George R.R. Martin ''This is his best book yet.'' and I feel like it's because Abercrombie and Martin have similar approaches to their writing. Martin and Abercrombie seem to favor gratuitous sex and violence in their books. On the one hand I can understand upping the amount of sex and violence in fantasy. There's always been violence in fantasy from Lewis and Tolkien to going as far back as Beowulf and beyond, but not quite on the brutal levels that Martin and Abercrombie take it to. Sex hasn't really been as much a part of mainstream fantasy and I can understand the desire to incorporate it into more modern fantasy works.
Now I'm not saying that sex and violence shouldn't be in fantasy works, there's every reason to have fantasy as a genre handle complex topics. But what I'm concerned with is that Martin and Abercrombie don't really do it in a reasonable way. I feel like they're putting the sex and violence into their works for the shock value rather than to really contribute to the story. Obviously there's a way to include sex in fantasy in a way that's meaningful, but including it solely for shock value probably isn't the best way to go about this.
Overall this book is okay at best. I feel like people seem to be excited over it because of the sex and violence factor rather than the plot and characters which seem underdeveloped in comparison. I'm probably going to avoid Abercrombie's stuff in the future just because there doesn't seem to be that appeals to me personally.