Thursday, March 28, 2013

Raiding the Stacks: The Aeneid, by Virgil

Aeneas flees the sack of Troy
Once again I decided to go super old-school for this month's Raiding the Stacks, going with the Roman epic poem, The Aeneid, written by the great Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro between 29 and 19 BCE. The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan prince who flees his city at the end of the Trojan war and sails across the Mediterranean to found a people who would eventually become the mighty Romans who would dominate the world for several centuries. Even after the fall of Rome in 476 CE, The Aeneid remained an important example of Latin writing and remained an important text for students of Latin grammar and style. Although today only us crazy saps who decide to study Latin encounter it in its original form, The Aeneid remains an important cornerstone of Western literature two thousand years later.

The Aeneid was written at a very critical time in Roman history and had a very important purpose for the Roman people. It was at this time that Augustus Caesar had defeated all of his rivals and transformed the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, although the Roman Republic had been an empire in all but name as John Green has pointed out elsewhere. With the dramatic addition of an imperial court and the chaos of the preceding civil wars, many Romans had begun to wonder about their identity as Romans and had lost faith in the might of Rome. In addition, many Romans, well the Romans who were in charge, were concerned  with the decay of morals and increased sexual licentiousness and Rome's traditional founding myths, filled with the rape of the Sabine women, the fratricide of Romulus, and the general bad behavior of Rome's first kings, were no fit examples for the Roman people. So Virgil sought to create a new origin myth for the Roman people with an emphasis on the traditional Roman value of pietas, or devotion to duty to one's country or family, which Aeneas exhibits throughout the epic.

In creating an origin myth for the Romans, Virgil drew on the great epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey for content and if you aren't familiar with those then I'd suggest you go read them first. (Although at least with the Iliad many chapters can be omitted because of their repetitive nature.) Just as the Iliad in many ways defined Greek virtues and what it meant to be Greek, regardless of your city-state, the Aeneid extols the virtues of duty to country and skill at warfare which were seen as vital for the continued survival of the Roman state. At many points Aeneas is tempted to cease his quest to found a city in Italy that shall be the wellspring of the Roman people, especially with Dido of Carthage, but he continues on his divinely-appointed fate regardless. (Although with a few swift prods in the buttocks by the gods.) Furthermore Aeneas and his entourage do a lot of fighting. A lot. To the point where much like the Iliad it's people I have never met before getting killed by other people I have never met before and as a result have no reason to care about the conflict. I am aware I am judging a two thousand year old poem by the standards of today, but I still find it difficult to get invested into the battle scenes when it consists of one scene characters. Much like the very combat-heavy chapters of the Iliad, such scenes could probably be omitted by most readers.

Another interesting element that I noticed in the Aeneid was frequent mention of the importance to observe the proper burial rites, lest the souls of the dead be left wandering the shores of the river Styx for a hundred years. I don't think Rome had a particular problem with safe burial practices at this time, with laws prohibiting burial within city limits for sanitation purposes, but it's odd how frequently proper due to the dead is mentioned within the story and people go to great lengths to retrieve the corpses of their comrades and provide them proper tombs. I suppose it is possible that observance of such rites was another virtue that Virgil was attempting to emphasize, but I have seen no such statements in the extensive interpretations of the Aeneid since its creation.

While the Aeneid is firmly cemented as a "classic", I think it's really only interesting to people who have an interest in classical history or mythology and doesn't have as much to offer to modern audiences. While duty to one's family and country are admirable traits to an extent, taking them to selfless levels can have dire consequences. If you're interested in Rome then I'd recommend looking at it, but for the most part it can safely be ignored.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

Well, we finally bring Foundation month to close with the last of the first three books, Second Foundation, which deals with both the Mule's and the First Foundation's search for the mysterious titular Second Foundation. While the First Foundation was made entirely of physical scientists and was designed to keep the spark of technology and research alive, the Second Foundation was composed of psychohistorians like Seldon whose duty was to manipulate galactic events to keep the Seldon Plan on its thousand year track. Although the Second Foundation prefers to act from well within the shadows and influence events indirectly, the recent turn of events caused by the mutant known as the Mule has forced them to take a far more direct role in galactic affairs. Now the Second Foundation faces the very real risk of discovery and destruction which may ruin any chances of the Seldon Plan reaching fruition.

As much as I really loved this book, I actually have one recommendation for how this and the previous book, Foundation and Empire, were organized. As I mentioned in my previous review, Foundation and Empire consisted of two stories, one which detailed the exploits of the Empire general Bel Riose, and the second dealing with the Mule's conquest of the First Foundation. Second Foundation also contains, as I mentioned, a story involving the Mule and a story involving just the First Foundation. If I were editing this series I would recommend putting Bel Riose's story in the first volume with the other Foundation short stories and then give both of the Mule stories their own book, leaving the last story on its own. I feel like it would work better thematically, regardless of how the stories were initially published, but that's my opinion.

Overall I really liked these stories and was really satisfied to actually see this mysterious Second Foundation at work.  Knowing that there was a group of people whose sole job was to oversee the Seldon Plan and account for accidents like the Mule made the premise much more believable for me. As I mentioned in my previous reviews I had a little trouble swallowing the idea that one man was able to carefully chart out the history of an entire galaxy for a thousand years, even if it was in vague generalities. However, the Second Foundationers continually remind the reader that the Seldon Plan is never complete and must continually be amended and reanalyzed with a constant risk of the plan being completely destroyed. Knowing that there was an active force ensuring the success of the Seldon Plan made the whole premise more believable for me.

I did have a slight issue with the ending of the first story which involved a mental showdown between the Mule and the First Speaker of the Second Foundation. I think it might be because it involved a psychic battle of wills and morale which isn't really something I can understand, not being psychic myself, but I think I grasped the general idea. I also kind of found the idea of the Second Foundation having well-placed double agents a little implausible, but considering they are a group of people dedicated to careful calculations of the future it makes sense for them to have that level of preparation. For most of the stories I liked the level of space opera battles and galactic intrigue which made for an interesting political narrative.

Overall I was very pleased with these three novels and am excited to read the rest of the Foundation series in the future to see the fate of the Seldon Plan and if the First Foundation can successfully create a Second Empire. Next month we shall be returning to more common books here on the blog like the Bolo series but hopefully Asimov will make another appearance here in the future. I recommend all my readers who are interested in history, politics, or a good space opera to check out the Foundation series.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Foundation and Empire, by Isaac Asimov

This week I continue my ongoing review of the original Foundation trilogy written by the great master, Isaac Asimov, in the 1940's and 50's. As I said last week, I really enjoyed the first book, Foundation which is a collection of short stories related to the process of forging a Second Galactic Empire a mere millenium after the fall of the first one and goes to about two hundred years into that process. Foundation and Empire picks up after Foundation and features two crises. The first crisis is the inevitable clash between the growing forces of the Foundation and still strong but rapidly receding and greatly diminished Galactic Empire, while the second deals with the emergence from almost nowhere of a figure known only as the Mule and his ability to defeat the previously unstoppable forces of the Foundation.

As I mentioned, Foundation and Empire is split into two longer stories that go much further in depth than the stories in the previous novel. As one of my main problems was the relative lack of development in the shorter stories I thought this was an excellent improvement for the series and I hope that the later books are just as developed, if not more so. The first story centers around the Empire general Bel Riose, an ambitious young warrior who seeks to expand his career and the Empire by finding the mysterious magicians said to exist in the galactic periphery who perform incredible feats of technological expertise. Perhaps what I found most interesting about this story was that the Foundation, despite being technologically superior to the Empire in many ways, still could not win open battles with the Empire and was on the defensive for pretty much all of Riose's campaign. Even in a state of advanced atrophy, the Galactic Empire still has a significant bite to it. The Foundation is only saved, in fact, because of larger social and political forces predicted by the great visionary Hari Seldon. As it's explained in the novel, Seldon predicted that a combination of a strong emperor and a strong general would lead the ambitious general to attack the Foundation to expand his career, the Empire, and perhaps place himself in a position to contend for the Imperial throne. While the Foundation would stumble over these defeats, the strong emperor would eventually be recalled to the imperial capital of Trantor because of the Emperor's own fear for his throne, halting the imperial advance. While it still kind of relies upon the very disputed great man theory of history, I appreciated its larger political and social implications.

One thing that kind of bugged me was that between the short stories the Sack of Trantor, the Imperial capital world, has already happened. It was foretold in Foundation and considered to be a major event that would mark the end of First Galactic Empire, much like the sack of Rome and death of Romulus Augustus in 476 CE marks the "official" end of the Roman Empire in western Europe. Basically we go from the story of Bel Riose to the story of the Mule and the Empire has already vanished. A rump state ruling over a mere twenty agricultural worlds exists, but any claims to imperial dominion over the entire galaxy are fanciful delusions at best. I had really hoped to see more of the empire falling and the dramatic Great Sack but sadly those were regulated to off-screen events.

The thing I really liked about the Mule's story is that we actually see the Foundation lose to something that hadn't been included in Hari Seldon's plan. While there was a civil war among Foundation forces that was brewing and Seldon did predict, the actions of the warlord known as the Mule were completely unaccounted for in Seldon's plan. (At least, that the First Foundation knows about, but more on that later.) It was actually really interesting for me because after facing down four crises, the Foundation had become complacent in the faith that Seldon had planned for everything and they need not worry about future events. Indeed, the myth of Foundation invulnerability is well know to all the characters at the three hundred year mark in our series' timeline and people assume the Foundation will win regardless. If the Foundation had won and successfully weathered the civil war crisis, as interesting as it could have been, it would have suffered the same problems as Superman suffers as a character. Superman is boring as a character because he is immune to pretty much everything that isn't kryptonite and has more powers than I have battle scars. There is never really any doubt if Superman will save the day or not because he can freaking FLY BACKWARDS IN TIME TO FIX THINGS, which completely destroys any dramatic tension. The same can be said for the Foundation who, while they cannot travel through time except in the usual manner we all do, are convinced that Seldon's great plan is completely flawless and will result in a Foundation victory regardless of other factors. Having the Mule come in and basically throw the game pieces out of the window was a refreshing change of pace.

Basically, the Mule is a mutant about whom very little is known and who has risen to considerable power in a short period of time. Because he is a mutant and apparently has powers beyond the scope of normal human abilities, he is well outside Seldon's plans for First Foundation and utterly derails the original crisis between the democratic free traders and the autocratic plutocrats. However, as it is hinted very strongly at the end of the book, it may be that Seldon counted on the Mule after all and the Second Foundation has the tools necessary to defeat the would-be galactic conqueror. I will admit that the mysterious and charismatic figure leading a galaxy-uniting military campaign bears more than a few passing similarities with the Emperor and his Great Crusade to reunite humanity in Warhammer 40,000.

The thing I liked the most about this novel in specific was its direct parallels with classical history and the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 300's and 400's CE. Having learned a little of those time periods from a number of different classes I found the transition to a sci-fi setting pretty darn cool and really enjoyed it. I also felt that Asimov really did his research before writing these stories and doesn't rely on some of the less credible explanations for why empires collapse, instead focusing on the clearly quantified social, economic, and political factors. So for all of my readers who happen to be Roman history buffs and science-fiction fans this is definitely a book you'll want to check out. As for all the other sci-fi fans, I really am seeing how this is a landmark series in the genre and you should definitely go check it out as well.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

So I finally decided to read the landmark science fiction series, the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. I initially had some hesitation getting involved because there's an original trilogy and then a combination of sequels and prequels. Ultimately I was recommended by friends to read the books in publication order, starting with Foundation, and this month I will be reviewing the original three books in the series written by the great master, Asimov himself. Overall I am extremely excited about this book series and I am looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

The Foundation series actually covers a series of events covering over a thousand years of history. The premise is that Hari Seldon and a group of other people have developed the field of psycho-history to such an extent that they can prove, with mathematical certainty, what events will happen in the future. What is most concerning to Seldon and his compatriots is that they have predicted the inevitable fall of the Galactic Empire within the next three hundred years followed by a dark age spanning thirty thousand years during which the vast majority of human knowledge will be lost. However Seldon has managed, through the field of psycho-history, to determine a plan to shorten the inevitable dark age by a thousand years and speed the foundation of the Second Galactic Empire. While I found the idea of being able to predict future history with mathematical certainty a little far-fetched, I thought the premise was interesting and it was exciting to watch the political and socioeconomic situations develop over hundreds of years.

I do have one minor issue with Foundation in specific, the division of the book into five separate short stories. The problem I had with the short stories was I felt that once I finally understood what was going on we jumped forward fifty years and had to be briefed on what happened in the meantime. While I personally found it frustrating for the first half of the book, I must admit I finally got used to it. Furthermore, since this is a series of stories that take place over a thousand year time span I understand the need to jump forward in time so the books don't take forever to complete.

The thing that I really ended up liking about Foundation was its really apparent influence on later sci-fi works, specifically some of my perennial favorites, Warhammer 40,000 and Star Wars. The capital of the Galactic Empire, Trantor, is probably the inception of the idea of a hive city, a planet completely covered by an urban landscape with a population in the tens or hundreds of billions. Furthermore such planets are completely dependent on dozens of agricultural worlds for daily supplies of foodstuffs to keep the billions of people fed. Countless such worlds exist in the 40k universe and the capital city of Coruscant from Star Wars is like Trantor to a T.

The influence of Foundation on Warhammer 40,000 is even more apparent when we get to the Foundation itself and the course of action that its leaders take to help shorten the dark age. The first is the creation of the church of the Galactic Spirit which I am going to say is definitely the inspiration for the Adeptus Mechanicus of the 40k universe, right down to the red robes. The only real difference I've noticed is that in Foundation the highest members of the techpriests actually know how the technology works, while in the Adeptus Mechanicus even the highest Magos of Mars only knows technology as a series of religious rituals and couldn't tell you how it works, just that it does. The other really fascinating influence was the Traders of the Foundation, merchants with licenses to do damn near whatever they see fit within a few rather loose guidelines in the pursuit of profit. The incredibly similar Rogue Traders of 40k are probably directly influenced by the Traders of Foundation and I'm looking forward to reading more from this series and seeing how it influenced the science fiction genre.

Perhaps the thing I found most interesting about this book was the initial discussion by Hari Seldon about the gradual fall of the Galactic Empire and a number of factors which are contributing to the downfall of that empire. The reason I found it particularly relevant to me was the fact that the American empire is collapsing as we speak. I know I don't really get political here on the blog but with the ongoing internal struggles facing the government of the United States and the apparent decline of American power definitely suggest to me that the American empire which policed the post World War II world is definitely on a rapid decline. Despite being written in the 1940's and probably being about the then-collapsing British empire, I find its commentary  still as relevant seventy years later.

I really ended up liking Foundation and I fully intend to read the rest of at least the original trilogy and review it this month. Hopefully in the future I will find the rest of the books in this series and will find them just as entertaining and informative as the first one. I definitely recommend all of my readers go read this book and look into reading more books from Asimov as well.

- Kalpar