Thursday, August 30, 2018
The biggest issue I had with this book was the decision to start the book with Laurence having amnesia, which seems to serve no purpose but create filler. When we last left our characters, the Potentate, Laurence, Temeraire, and the rest of their dragon wing set sail from Brazil to China for an official visit with the Imperial family, Laurence's adopted family, for a potential alliance between China and Great Britain. Along the way the Potentate runs into a storm and ends up washed on rocks off the coast of Japan. Along the way Laurence is washed overboard and wakes up in Japan with amnesia, having completely forgotten the past eight years of his life, incidentally completely wiping out any memory of Temeraire or his service in the aerial corps.
Personally I disliked the amnesia plot because I felt it didn't really serve any purpose in the story. I think it would have been fine to have Laurence wash up on Japan and get the taste of Japanese dragons versus Chinese dragons (although based on what little we got I don't know how different Japan was) before heading onward to China. Instead we have Japanese officials wondering what exactly to do with Laurence especially because he says he has amnesia and the Japanese don't believe him anyway. Really the only thing that the amnesia does is create drama for later on between Laurence, Temeraire, and the other aviators. First there's the drama of Temeraire feeling guilty that Laurence has missed out on all the things he could have experienced with a naval career instead. And then there's the awkwardness around talking about Laurence's past, specifically when he gave the cure to the dragon plague to the French and as a result was convicted of treason. And it felt so tiresome to tread over this ground over and over again.
This is the point where the amnesia plot starts to feel like so much filler because we're going over the same psychological problems that Laurence and Temeraire have gone over before and we resolved them. Now since I have psychological problems myself I understand that deep-seated issues aren't solved overnight, or even solved once and for all. But with fiction it gets frustrating that the characters keep going over the same issues that were resolved in previous books And it feels like Laurence gets amnesia just so we could go over the same ground again, but regardless of whether he'd had amnesia or not, Temeraire felt responsible for losing Laurence's fortune and the need to make it up to Laurence somehow. So there still would have been an issue whether Laurence had amnesia or not.
I say this feels like filler because this book finally returns to the war with Napoleon by having Laurence and Temeraire lead three hundred Chinese dragons to the Russian front to help the Russians drive back Napoleon. Students of history will of course recognize this is Napoleon's 1812 Russia campaign, widely regarded as the major reason for his empire falling. When we leave our main characters the outcome of the Russian campaign is in doubt, the Russians and Chinese have been driven back, their lines of supply destroyed, and despite all their efforts Napoleon appears to once again have the upper hand. With winter setting in, the situation looks desperately grim for the coalition powers. But for me it didn't feel like a natural stopping point in the narrative and now I'm worried that the end to the Russian campaign in the last book is going to be rushed so Novik can put other things in. Maybe I'll be wrong but we'll have to find out.
Honestly, the amnesia plot is my biggest complaint because it doesn't seem to serve a purpose beyond filler. Especially when we've gotten this deep into the series and are on the cusp of wrapping everything up once and for all. The rest of the book feels a lot like the rest of the series so it's fair to middling, I just think Novik could have used time more profitably.
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
I will give Polk some credit by managing to achieve his objectives of tariff reduction and the independent treasury. Polk faced stiff opposition from the Whigs as well as members of his own Democratic Party, revealing the deep sectional divisions hiding within the national parties. It was only through using political capital to get his legislative program accomplished. Furthermore he had to spend considerable effort quelling rebellion and insubordination within his own administration, a process that could have been simplified by removal of James Buchanan as Secretary of State. It does reveal that Polk had considerable skill as a negotiator and coordinator which certainly makes him equal with other presidents who faced equal challenges with an opposed Congress.
If Polk has a biggest flaw, it's his refusal to engage in confrontation and deal with subordinates who undermine or actively act against him. The best example of this is the aforementioned James Buchanan. This really comes to the fore with the negotiations over the boundary for Oregon. Polk was elected on a platform of ''54-40 or Fight'', the extreme boundary of the territory. Merry argues, probably correctly, that Polk adopted this extreme measure to force Britain to negotiate over the boundary, especially since previous attempts to negotiate at the 49th parallel had been rejected by the British. Although there was legitimate concern that Polk's stance would provoke war with Great Britain, Buchanan repeatedly undermined Polk's attempts by providing conflicting information to British diplomats. And when Polk managed to finally negotiate a boundary at the 49th parallel Buchanan immediately reversed course and demanded that Polk accept nothing less than 54-40. Buchanan also opposed the treaty ending the Mexican War, even after it accomplished all the goals Polk proposed. It seemed that Buchanan adopted any contrary position just to cover his own ass for his future presidential prospects.
The biggest issue around Polk is of course the Mexican-American War which was provoked through a variety of diplomatic incidents between Mexico and the United States and started Zachary Taylor and a detachment of dragoons were sent into the disputed boundary between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers in Texas. Taylor was attacked by Mexican troops which prompted Congress to grant Polk's request of a declaration of war. However even as the war began, Polk's Whig opponents criticized him for starting what they saw as an illegal, unconstitutional, and imperialist war and those criticisms have remained. This is the point where Merry gets most apologist for Polk, arguing in essence that while the United States provoked the war, it was in some ways justified because of Mexico's inability to meet legal reparations, their mishandling of the diplomatic overtures, and their decision to adopt a hostile stance with a larger and more powerful neighbor. I feel like this is almost a case of victim-blaming that Merry adopts, ignoring any notions Mexicans may have had of national honor offended by American treatment of their nation as inferior, just as strong as American indignation at Mexican offense of American honor. While it may have been rational for Mexico to negotiate with the United States and perhaps end up losing less territory than they did after the war, it may not have been the rational choice for a proud, nineteenth century Mexican nationalist who would rather fight than surrender unilaterally.
And if there's one topic Merry definitely avoids as it pertains to Polk it's the issue of slavery. Polk owned twenty-five slaves and was selected as a candidate for the Democratic party because of his willingness to tolerate slavery. While Polk did not take an adamant stance in favor of slavery, such as contemporary John C. Calhoun famously did, he was no abolitionist or even apologist such as Henry Clay who at least went through the motions of saying it was bad and should be removed even if Henry Clay's scheme of colonization never really worked. Merry makes absolutely no mention of Polk's slaves or his relationship with them, and Polk does not seem to have been bothered by the institution in his personal writings. At most Polk's desperate opposition of the slavery debate seems to have been an effort to keep the country united as the regional fault lines between slave and free became more obvious in the 1840s and 1850s. Furthermore, Polk's acquisition of new territory was responsible for the opening of the slavery debate because those territories had not been covered under the Missouri Compromise legislations. While some people, including Polk, supported extending the compromise legislation to the new territories, a growing abolitionist faction made a simple solution to the slavery question impossible and concerns over the status of new territories added further fuel to the flame of sectional strife.
So while I can understand and appreciate the significance of Polk's achievements as a politician and president, I still think that there's quite a lot to critique as well. Regardless of what Merry thinks, I am still of the opinion that the Mexican-American War was a war of imperialist expansion in keeping with the U.S.'s other (undeclared) wars of expansion against Native American Indian tribes. While there are parts of this book that are highly informative, I think it goes to being a little too laudatory for Polk for me to truly appreciate it.
Thursday, August 23, 2018
The need for an American navy became apparent, however, due to conflict with the Barbary States and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The conflict with the Barbary states is gone into much greater detail in another book I read, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. While this book spends at least a decent portion talking about the Barbary States since it's an examination of the Navy as a whole it also explores the Quasi-war and the War of 1812 which further emphasized the need for a navy.
From the beginning the leaders of the United States realized that a large navy with ships of the line modeled along European lines would not be sustainable with the resources that the United States possessed. The initial plan in 1794 called for six frigates, four heavy and two light, constructed at six different shipyards through the United States. The main designer Joshua Humphreys, planned the frigates on designs that would make them heavier, stronger, and better-armed than British and French frigates, but also make them fast enough to still evade ships of the line against which the frigate would be hopelessly outmatched. The result, proved eventually in the War of 1812, was that the American frigates could go toe-to-toe (or more accurately yardarm-to-yardarm) with British frigates and in many cases still win.
The amazing thing is that the Navy managed to survive despite almost being dissolved numerous times. It seems to be a consistent policy that when war is looming, the United States went through a flurry of trying to get ships together and ready to fight, but once a treaty has been made and peace declared the United States decides to mothball its frigates and furlough its officers, squandering valuable institutional experience in the interim. Only to have to bring the ships back up to fighting trim when the next round of hostilities opened. In some ways it's amazing that the navy managed to survive until the War of 1812.
If the War of 1812 did anything, it proved that the navy was a necessary element for national defense and that the United States could, and would, stand up against British naval power and win. Compared to the debacles of the various attempted invasions of Canada and the disgrace of Washington D. C. being burned by redcoats, the multiple victories at sea against the best navy in the world dramatically boosted American morale. Naval commanders such as Stephen Decatur and Oliver Hazard Perry became household names and lithographs of the nation's frigates became popular decorations. After the war ended, support and funding for the navy remained strong and the United States navy continued to grow.
Overall I thought this book was interesting, if fairly brief. It's at best a brief overview of the history of the U.S. navy for its first twenty years of its existence. Because I did a report on the Battle of Lake Erie in seventh grade, I did a ton of research on the early navy so I vaguely remembered quite a few of the events described in this book. But if you're looking for a brief history this is definitely a good choice and worth the effort.
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
When I first checked out this book I thought it would be an investigation of various stories from folklore and giving a variety of explanations for why these stories exist. And I was initially proven correct in this assumption as Mahnke talks about stories surrounding vampires and how bodies can decompose in certain ways to make it appear that the hair and nails have grown, as well as distending the stomach, making an exhumed corpse appear ''alive''. Mahnke also talks about how creatures such as oarfish may have inspired stories of sea serpents and other great sea creatures. And this is something that I greatly enjoy, looking at folklore and finding a variety of explanations for how such stories may have come into existence.
What makes me concerned, though, is that Mahnke then jumps from full skepticism to full believer with certain stories, and I can't seem to find any particular logic to the stories he seems to believe versus the ones he doesn't. For example, Mahnke seems to believe in the Beast of Bray Road, a creature seen in rural Wisconsin about thirty years ago. But based on all the eyewitness reports the animal sounds like an ordinary bear and it turns out that yes, bears can walk on their hind legs. So it was probably a bear that people saw in Wisconsin thirty years ago. Mahnke also apparently believes in the real-life Annabelle the Doll (who, by the way, is a Raggedy Ann doll, which is far less threatening than you'd think). Even a cursory wikipedia examination shows that other demonologists dismiss the owners of the museum that Annabelle is housed in as mostly full of boffo and the story of Annabelle has no corroboration. It's a very odd story to choose as one that you believe as legitimate.
I find it very curious that Mahnke seems to veer so frequently between a total skeptic and a total believer. Even when there's a rational explanation available for some stories, he seems to go for the more fantastic explanation. As a strong skeptic myself I find it rather frustrating and the lack of rhyme or reason to the stories Mahnke seems to believe or disbelieve just further compounds it. If you're interested in stories of the unusual it's probably a good choice but don't expect every story to have an explanation.
Thursday, August 16, 2018
The book picks up another ten years after the last book, with Bane and Zannah living in secrecy, slowly building their plan to destroy the Jedi and the Republic. The problem for Bane is that so far Zannah hasn't made any attempt to challenge him and take the mantle of leadership. Bane has become worried that Zannah is merely waiting for the ravages of time to do him in, completely violating the principle of the Rule of Two. But if Bane is to successfully replace Zannah with another apprentice he'll need to find a way to cheat death itself.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Serra, the daughter of the healer Caleb who Bane intimidated and then murdered, has married into the royal family of the planet Doan. When her husband, the crown prince, is murdered by a rebel group, Serra ends up on a path of revenge that will take her to face her greatest fears and confront Darth Bane.
The biggest feeling I was left with at the end of this book was did we really need to tell this story? I mean, I kind of like Serra's arc and discovering that revenge truly isn't worth it in the end and making her peace with that, but this is really the first time she's a character in these books. I think I'd have preferred a more in-depth plot with the Jedi across all three books, rather than the haphazard sort of approach we have to the non-Sith characters. It's not that Serra's a bad character, but it feels like they had a couple different ideas for protagonists against the Sith and went with all of the instead of just focusing on a few. I think it would have made the books feel more connected, because as they are they feel like episodes rather than a complete arc.
As for Bane and Zannah, I feel like we didn't need to see the ending of their conflict. We knew one way or another that Zannah would eventually replace Bane and continue the line of the Sith which would end with Palpatine and Vader. I kind of took it for granted that Zannah would be the one to succeed in this conflict and the biggest question was who of the three Force-sensitive characters we have in this book would end up being the next apprentice. I'm just left wondering if this was a story that needed to be told.
I think what would have improved this series would have been more development on the light-side of things, maybe having a few consistent Jedi characters, perhaps motivated slightly by revenge or tempted by the dark side, to serve as a contrast or foil to Bane and Zannah. Instead we end up with multiple characters who get far less spotlight time than Bane and Zannah. It also could have produced a better arc over three books than each book feeling like its own story. These books are okay, but definitely leave room for improvement.
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.