Thursday, January 31, 2013

Raiding the Stacks: Epic of Gilgamesh

So for this month's Raiding the Stacks I decided to go way way back to the beginning of the written word with the Epic of Gilgamesh! Well, okay, about two or three thousand years after we started writing things down, but the Epic of Gilgamesh is roughly four thousand years old and is the oldest story known to modern humans. Of course we only know the epic in a highly fragmented form today, even clay tablets can be worn down by time, but the the exploits of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu remain relevant to a twenty-first century audience.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, as we know it today, appears to be a collection of fragments from earlier stories of Mesopotamian civilizations. (I am referencing largely the gloss from the free version for the Kindle from Amazon in this paragraph.) Mesopotamia saw a number of successive civilizations whose cultures built upon and expanded the previous cultures. As such the story of Gilgamesh, at least according to scholarly research, is a retelling and elaboration of previous stories that existed in previous cultures. Evidence of this gradual retelling includes the existence of Gilgamesh's companion Enkidu who appears to be the hero of an earlier story that was melded with the later story of Gilgamesh.

In regards to the plot, which as I mentioned is largely fragmented, we begin with Enkidu who is created by the gods as a rival to Gilgamesh but lives out in the fields as a wild animal. Eventually Enkidu is brought to civilization and after an initial fight with Gilgamesh becomes his boon companion. Eventually, after many adventures, Enkidu is struck down by the goddess Ishtar and dies which prompts Gilgamesh to undertake a final great quest to find the secret of immortality and escape the clutches of death himself. Ultimately Gilgamesh is fruitless in his quest for immortality and is advised to not only enjoy life now, but ensure the proper observation of burial rites to ensure the well-being of the spirits of the dead.

The story of Gilgamesh is, as most stories we have from years with BCE behind them, a myth. Now, I should point out that myth from a historical and anthropological perspective has a very different meaning from the regular English vernacular. In the case of the vernacular a myth is something fantastical which has no existence in reality; Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster for example. From an anthropological and historical perspective, however, myth generally means a story which is passed down within a culture that attempts to convey specific information to succeeding generations. Myths are especially useful for cultures without a formal education system because they can convey to successive generations important practices necessary for survival. In the example of the Gilgamesh myth it conveys a few very important messages in its content.

First, as I mentioned before, the Epic of Gilgamesh talks about the importance of observing burial rites to ensure the well-being of the spirits of the dead as well as the importance of enjoying life while you can. The second message, which was gone about at great length in the gloss of one of the versions I read, was the importance of cities and civilized life for mankind. This particular message is included in the story of Enkidu and his gradual evolution from little more than a beast of the field to a civilized and cultured warrior. This is of particular interest from an anthropological standpoint because this message is actually contrary to the message contained within the Torah. The Hebrew scriptures, for the most part, idealizes a pastoral and nomadic existence and disparages a life of cities and toil. Specific mention is made of Cain, who is cursed to toil forever by the Hebrew god and is the founder of the first city. It is a very interesting contrast between two geographically similar cultures and I think it's an interesting field for future research.

Ultimately the Epic of Gilgamesh attempts to answer humanity's persistent questions regarding our mortality and it seems in four thousand years we haven't come up with many more answers. I must admit that because of its largely fragmented form the epic makes for fairly poor reading, and its interest is largely from a historical and anthropological perspective. While it was a very interesting research project for myself, I must admit it probably would not have much interest for a majority of my readers.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It's Only a Revolution if You Win

With many of the English nobility seemingly constantly in a state of revolt, we find ourselves surrounded by opportunities for more land grabs. On the flip side however, our growing realm and desmense prove fertile ground for continued revolts against our own power. Can't we all just get along...?

Part 16:

Part 17:

Part 18:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Most Useless Office Ever Devised by the Mind of Man

Spoiler Alert. We pick up the title of King of Ireland in this part, but the King of England becomes emperor of Britannia. Furthermore it seems that all of our luck with securing more claims has wholly dried up. Just when we grab at some real power, everything slows down. This must be what being the vice president is like.

Part 14:

Part 15:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Friday, January 25, 2013

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

Growing our power, we take advantage of fights and revolts both to the north of us in the Scottish lands and to the south of us in Lancaster. Truly an English way to wage a war I think. Let people fight amongst themselves and then come in and take everything while they're looking the wrong way.

Part 12:

Part 13:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett

So in my attempt to finish the rest of the Discworld series I am continuing with the Tiffany Aching series with the next installment, A Hat Full of Sky. In this novel Tiffany goes away from her family farm on the Chalk into the mountains to study witching with Miss Level. While Tiffany is learning that witchcraft is about far more than casting spells and riding broomsticks, it turns out that a very powerful creature known as a hiver is after Tiffany. No one's been able to fight off a hiver in the past, but with the help of Granny Weatherwax and the fearsome Nac Mac Feegle Tiffany might be the first.

Overall, I'm actually of mixed opinions of this book. On the one hand, I really liked seeing Tiffany again and seeing her learn what witchcraft is, but on the other hand I felt that this book retrod ground that has been covered before in the Discworld series. A major theme is witchcraft isn't about spells and magic amulets and wands, but about taking care of people when no one else will. While this is a pretty good message, I have to admit that a lot of these issues were covered in previous books like Lords and Ladies. I especially feel that the message that all the magic amulets, circles, and frooh-frah was very well covered in Lords and Ladies and I'm not sure why Pratchett decided to revisit it in this novel. If you're new to the Disc then I can see how this book would be a good introduction to what Discworld witches are really all about (especially for young adults) but for Disc veterans it felt very much like a retrod.

I had some difficulty with the larger plot of this book as well. As I mentioned, Tiffany is being chased by a hiver, a being which is incredibly powerful and no one has ever successfully defeated before. My concern mainly stemmed from Tiffany being one of the most powerful witches of all time which makes her a ripe target for the hiver. While I understand that without that specific threat then the plot would suffer significantly,  I tend to get irritated with various eleven-year-olds being one of the most powerful witch/wizard/ Jedi/whatever evers. I know it's designed to appeal to the target demographic, but I just get so tired of there being so many most powerful evers who aren't old enough to shave. My other issue was kind of with Tiffany being able to (mostly) fight off a hiver through sheer force of will. (Although she had some help as well.) However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Sam Vimes also fought off a possessing demon through sheer willpower alone and so I decided I was okay with Tiffany using willpower to get through as well because it's at least possible within the universe.

If you've read Lords and Ladies I feel like you really could skip A Hat Full of Sky because it doesn't really cover anything that hasn't been covered in that book. If your teenagers are interested in starting reading about the Disc, though, then the Tiffany Aching series is still a great place to start. I definitely recommend you start with The Wee Free Men, though, because it helps to know something about Tiffany before jumping into her adventures.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Filling the Cumberland Gap

Greetings and salutations! We return back to the Crusader Kings LP with Ireland firmly under our thumb we change our focus back to mainland Britain and also the Isle of Man for some more land grabbing, and also find ourselves up against our first (surely of many) rebellions within the realm.

Part 10:

Part 11:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Rust: Secrets of the Cell, by Royden Lepp

As my readers may recall, I reviewed the first volume of Rust a long time ago way back in April of last year and at the end of my review I told my readers I'd be reviewing the second volume when it was due to come out in September of 2012. Well...funny story. You see, for whatever reason, the release of Rust: Secrets of the Cell got initially pushed back until October, and then got pushed to January of 2013. I was actually a little worried that the book would never get released at all! Fortunately the January release date remained the "true" release date and I received my copy of the second volume to much rejoicing.

Overall, I liked this new volume because it explained a lot of things happening within the series's universe and established what a "cell" is and why it's important. (Short version, it's a power source for the various mechs that inhabit Rust's universe which is a closely-guarded secret. Only the highest of military brass and scientists know how they work.) Furthermore we get more of Jet Jones's backstory and his character motivations which I enjoyed because it made him more than just "some guy." 

In addition, this volume has some more awesome jetpack action which, to be honest, is kind of what sold me on this series in the first place. Despite the relative lack of dialog, except in fairly large exposition chunks, I thought the story was fairly well-told with an economy of art style with no panel wasted. Furthermore I felt that this issue answered enough questions about the story to make the plot move along at a decent pace while keeping plenty of deeper mystery for a good plot burner like A Song of Ice and Fire. We even got some more information about the war which serves as a lot of the backstory for this setting, although I hope we get more information in newer volumes. 

Despite the things that I liked about this book, there were a couple of problems I still had with the series. In the first case I am still not really sure about the timeline of this series still. As I mentioned in my first review, the war apparently occurs forty-eight years before the main events of the series but is still going at least thirty-ish years later, and possibly still is. This is confusing because it's implied that the country the main characters live in won the war, but Mr. Taylor, the father of Roman and Oswald, is still away at the front. If the war's still going on I quite frankly have a hard time believing that it's been going for fifty-odd years in an industrialized war. Even with World War I Germany was ready to collapse in 1918, without American involvement. If a second war broke out after the first one mentioned, then I might find it more plausible, but no one mentions that in the story and I am given the impression that they're at peace so, as I mentioned, confusing. I really wish I could just get a straightforward answer regarding the timeline of this series.

The other main issue I had was the direction that this plot seems to be taking. Jet Jones, as I probably mentioned, is a warmachine from the original war forty-eight years ago. This book opens with Jet escaping from a research facility where he was created and he is very against being a tool just for killing so he runs away. While this is a common plot for artificially created people and has been in science fiction for forever, I feel like it's covering ground which has been extensively covered and isn't bringing anything new to the plotline. In addition Oswald, Roman's kid brother, finds out that Jet is a machine and instantly hates him. Granted, Oswald disliked Jet before he found out, but it's a very typical hating artificial people because they're artificial storyline. I kind of expect that Oswald's opinion will be changed by some sort of event in the future, and I'm left wishing Lepp had been a little more creative with his storyline.

Despite my issues with this book, I am still looking forward to the next volume. (However, I have no idea when that will be.) I will admit that I'm hoping the next issue will really get this series off the ground because while I've been enjoying it, I'm still kind of waiting for it to go forward. If this next volume doesn't really go anywhere I'm afraid I may have to drop the series. 

- Kalpar 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kalpar Lectures: The Trillion Dollar Coin (and why it's a bad idea.)

Happy Tuesday! Today we have a video lecture for you on the whole Trillion Dollar Coin debate and why, as far as The Kalpar is concerned, it is a terrible idea for everyone. Be sure to come by on Thursday for Kalpar's review of Rust: Secrets of the Cell.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bayonets for Hire: Mercenaries at War 1550-1789, by William Urban

As I was perusing a local Half Price Books, I came across this text written by William Urban, a professor of history at Monmouth College in Chicago, Illinois. Having used some of Urban's earlier research in one of my own undergraduate papers I thought this would be a very interesting book to read and I was looking forward to an analysis of the developments in military technology between the end of the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment era, with the gradual shift from feudal levies to professional standing armies. However, I ended up dissatisfied with this book, beyond my misconceptions of its content matter.

I would like to begin by stating that I had some initial misconceptions about how this book would be executed however this is not why I am disappointed in Bayonets for Hire. I went into the book expecting it to be a sort of big-picture analysis of the development of military technology, organization, and ideology that happened during the time period the book covers. This period is especially critical for the study of mercenaries because it begins with the end of rulers depending upon their feudal levies of knights and armed peasants for military needs and beginning to use professional soldiers such as the landsknechte. Eventually rulers would rely on standing armies of full-time professional soldiers with an emphasis on drill and discipline, however this would be replaced in Europe with the citizen-soldier of Revolutionary France and the expansion of the military ideology of universal conscription. What this book ended up being, however, was an in-depth focus on the various wars that occurred during this time period, such as the Great Northern War, the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years War. It was still an informative history, but didn't bring much focus on the large-picture developments throughout the two centuries I was hoping to read about.

In addition, a significant part of the focus of Bayonets for Hire is what Urban calls the mercenary officers, expatriate men who had experience as officers in a variety of countries and would float from one army to another for employment. Urban goes to great detail providing the biographies of a number of these officers, however I ended up not enjoying those parts. I will admit that as a historian I tend to emphasize the big picture and do not care for biographical works. However, that is my own personal preferences as a historian and should not be taken as points against this book.

As for specific problems I had with this book, there were a few that are legitimate concerns beyond my just not liking Urban's choice in focus. The first problem, and this is a problem that is extremely common in the history books more geared toward popular audiences, is that Bayonets for Hire is not footnoted in any manner whatsoever. While this may seem like merely the concern of a historian, an exhaustive list of footnotes citing where an author is getting his information, whether primary or secondary sources, is absolutely vital for a well-researched history book. While Urban provides some footnotes with an author and their text with an argument he is addressing, the majority of his footnotes are asides written by Urban and while humorous and informative, are not the type of footnotes needed in a sound history text. This may just be my demands to meet standards I was trained to follow, but I think it is absolutely vital.

Another problem I noticed within Urban's text is that he tends to rely on national stereotypes and anecdotes for his research. Specifically, at several points in Bayonets for Hire, Urban states that the troops of Brandenburg-Prussia were the best available within the Holy Roman Empire. While my colleague Carvan will be the first to point out I will defend Prussia to the best of my ability, I am forced to admit that Urban provides no facts for these statements of excellence. While Brandenburg-Prussia developed a reputation as a military power over time, that reputation had not developed in the 1600's. If Urban was to make these claims he really would have to support it with hard evidence, rather than just relying on assumptions. In the cases of Sweden and Saxony, which Urban also states were excellent troops for the time, he points out that both were well-equipped, well-paid, well-organized, and benefited from excellent leadership, making the armies of those nations rightly feared by enemy powers. Reputation helps in many respects, but you've got to have something to back it up as well. And this is not the only example of the use of national stereotypes. At a couple of points in the book Urban mentions the tendency of landsknechte (a type of German mercenary) to indulge in heavy drinking and usually adds a comment along the lines of, "Oh, those Germans!" Putting aside the fact that everyone, including children, drank alcohol because of unsafe water supplies, it would be safer to assume that mercenaries drank a lot based on personality rather than any nationality. It takes a certain kind of personality to decide rape, murder, and looting is an appropriate profession and I would assume it's not much of a stretch to conclude that sort of personality would indulge in binge drinking as well. Much later Urban also mentions one of France's Irish brigades which was found stone cold sober while the rest of the army was nursing a massive hangover. Urban makes a quip that perhaps the Irish had depleted their alcohol supply well before the rest of the army and were not sober by choice. I find this aside to be in very poor taste and designed more to get a chuckle rather than having any historical merit.

In regards to anecdotal evidence, there were many uses by Urban of events that happened to specific people to provide a slice of what life was like for mercenaries and their commanders during these time periods. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it is in no way indicative of how things normally are, and anecdotes survive largely because they are unusual examples. In researching history, anecdotes are fun and interesting, but should never be assumed to be representative of the whole.

Overall, there are some problems with Bayonets for Hire, and I would not recommend it for my readers. While providing some detailed information on specific people active between 1500-1789 and a general overview of the wars of this period, at best it is a jumping off point to other research. At worst, it relies too heavily on assumptions and anecdotes without always presenting the hard research backing up its thesis. I must regretfully recommend everyone pass this book by and hopefully I can find you a better book about this particular subject matter.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kalpar Lectures: The War of 1812 in (about) 25 Minutes

Hello everyone, I apologize for the relative length of this video. I just get started talking about something and there's no one there during shooting to get me to shut up. Now, this is by no means a comprehensive history of the War of 1812 and is really just a clumsy attempt at describing it in broad strokes. That being said, if this is something that interests you then by all means feel free to go read more about it. Hopefully I helped people learn something today and made the world a better place. Maybe.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Compleat Bolo, by Keith Laumer

I decided to start 2013 with a bang and review the first couple of books from the Bolo series by Keith Laumer. If you haven't watched my introduction video to the Bolo series, I suggest you go watch it first. I actually read The Compleat Bolo, which combines the first two books Bolo: Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade and Rogue Bolo into one anthology. Overall I enjoyed this book but I was not without a few disappointments with this story. Fortunately, this is just the beginning of a rather long series and it shows definite promise in these early, if rather old, novels.

As I mentioned, The Compleat Bolo actually contains two separate novels combined in an anthology. I found this a definite bonus because the earlier books in the Bolo series were written nearly forty years ago and can be very difficult to obtain. The Compleat Bolo, on the other hand, was published in 1990 and so it will probably be much easier for my readers to obtain. In addition I would recommend getting this book because it has more stories with the fully sentient bolos, which is what I was really interested in reading about. I had actually read Bolo: Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade before reading Compleat Bolo and was a little disappointed that the two largest stories in the novel didn't involve sentient bolos. (And in fact had very little to do with the bolos to be perfectly honest.) So if you're new to the series, like I am, I'd suggest getting The Compleat Bolo and starting there.

Once the stories started including sentient bolos, I really got into the stories. For whatever reason I really like these sentient tanks that are willing to risk their very existence for the sake of their human creators and masters. I will admit that it's a little unsettling that the bolos, which are sentient beings, are a kind of warrior slave for us humans, but I'm hoping that the relationship between humans and bolos in future books of the series is more developed and develops into a partnership rather than a master-slave dynamic. I also thought it was amazing that characters in the stories, as well as myself, could be touched by the sacrifices of these gargantuan war machines.

I do have a couple of issues with the book but I think they're more the teething issues of a new series rather than inherent problems. The first thing I noticed, especially since this is a collection of short stories rather than one book, was that there wasn't a lot of context provided for the stories. Yes, I ended up understanding the stories regardless of the context, but I would have enjoyed more information about the First Terran Empire, the Concordiat, and other organizations and their formation and organization. I was able to infer an amount of information from the stories, but I would have enjoyed more world-building and I hope to learn more from later books in the series.

The other problem I had was a couple of these short stories were actually a collection of documents or quotes from different people that show the development of a story over a period of time. While this is a legitimate means to tell a story and has been done elsewhere, I ended up not enjoying the stories as much because they felt disjointed in comparison to the more linear narratives. Again, I think this is more an issue with the series being relatively new in these books rather than a portent of future problems. Hopefully there will be more linear stories, from Keith Laumer at least, which make me love these honorable warrior tanks even more.

If you're a fan of sci-fi combat and really like tanks, like I do, then you really can't afford to let the Bolo series pass you by. The oldest books are readily available on Amazon and I highly recommend you at least get The Compleat Bolo and give it a try. I will definitely be reading more books from this series, which goes through a number of authors, and it will hopefully become a favorite series.

- Kalpar