BOOK REVIEW: Old Man’s War

TITLES: Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale

AUTHOR: John Scalzi

SERIES: Old Man’s War

PUBLISHER: Tor Books

DATE: 2005-2008

Old Man’s War is one of the readable books I’ve ever read. It’s quick-paced and well-written; delivering rapid-fire actions scenes, witty dialogue, and believable world-building without much in the way of extraneous details or unnecessary verbiage. It was the first novel Scalzi published, and it rapidly catapulted him to a position of prominence in the SciFi world, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a really good MilSciFi adventure story, an almost perfect example of a “popcorn read”. It’s easy to just burn through it, and I have read it literally dozens of times. It’s also kind of great though? Old Man’s War portrays itself as a disposable, generic genre novel, and it certainly works on that level. But while it may not be as deep or as ambitious as some novels, as the series continues it subverts its initial premise and expands its universe in a way that, to me at least, earns it as a place as an enduring science fiction classic.

(BTW: SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING)

BACKGROUND:

When John Perry turned seventy-five, he left Earth behind and enlisted in the Colonial Defense Force. They took him far away from home, removed his consciousness, and gave him a superior genetically-engineered body. Now he fights on the front-line of an unending war, as Mankind struggles to hold a place for itself in a hostile cosmos. Jane Sagan never had that choice. Her body was grown from the DNA of the dead, her consciousness an artificial creation designed for war. With the other soldiers of the CDF’s Ghost Brigades, she’s been fighting since before she was a year old. Both of them think they know who they are and what they’re fighting for. But together and individually, they’ll discover that the universe is a far more complicated place than they ever could have imagined…..

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Qin Dynasty Follies

The First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang

There is an essential paradox about the Qin Dynasty. The first Imperial Chinese dynasty, the founding emperor Qin Shi Huang reunified China after the centuries-long Warring States period that had dominated the later Zhou Dynasty. Under the state’s new ruler, China would first see the development and promulgation of the massive, centralized bureaucracies and administrative agencies that would characterize the country for the next two thousand years. “Huángdì” or “Emperor”, the title invented by the first Qin ruler, would continue to be used by Chinese leaders until the fall of the Imperial System in 1912. The Qin carried out the standardization of weights and measures, and even more importantly, began the process of creating a universal and standard system of Chinese writing. It was this dynasty that began the construction of what would eventually come to be the Great Wall of China, and that built the legendary Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. The word “Qin” is often believed the etymological origin of the word “China” itself.

And yet, the dynasty lasted only from 221 to 206 BCE, a mere fifteen years.

Despite laying the foundation-blocks for the two two millennia of Chinese Imperial history, the Qin were a failure of a dynasty, quickly falling prey to arrogance, paranoia, and vicious court infighting. The story of this family’s meteoric rise and fall is hugely complex, and beyond the purview of this blog post. (For those interested in learning more, I strongly recommend The History of China Podcast as a great introductory resource). But we’re here to talk about a very specific aspect of that story.

We’re going to talk about how the unfortunate Qin habit of punishing basically all infractions with summary execution played a role in the Dynasty’s disintegration.

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The Confluence of Creation

This was just a world-building exercise that I put together five or six years ago and thought would be fun to post here. Oddly enough, I remember that this whole thing was inspired by a stage magician I saw at Brandeis during my freshmen year but I don’t remember why or how. I liked the idea of a secret war being fought on Earth, and the idea of nesting dimensions seemed really fun. Like most of my ideas, I then overthought it, added in a lot of stuff from stolen from other places, and ended up writing it all out for fun. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that the existence of Plane n.03 in particular was stolen from a sci-fi short story that I read years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t remember its name or the author or the anthology I read it in, but if it sounds familiar, please let me know!

Introduction

For many centuries mankind believed that the universe was constructed along a geocentric model. Now, we hold the heliocentric model to be true. But in reality, both of these are wild miscalculations based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the universe is constructed. Rather than a single planet orbiting a star in the midst of a vast sea of space, or as the focal point around which the cosmos spins, Earth should actually be understood as a membrane or crust. The Universe consists of eight concentric, spherical dimensions, folded around each other like Russian nesting dolls. Earth, as we know it, is merely the outer shell that contains the rich and myriad worlds of the Universe (or ‘Confluence’, as it’s inhabitants call it). Mankind did not evolve here, but rather migrated, some lost tribe or offshoot climbing through some crack or chasm between the worlds tens of thousands of years ago, until we left the Confluence and climbed out onto the surface of Creation. Nobody remembers this now. Nobody knows. But today, we stand on the ceiling of infinity.

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Forever We Marvel at the Walls of Uruk

The Epic of Gilgamesh ends with the eponymous protagonist returning at last to his city. He has long been away on a journey, traveling for beyond the boundaries of the known world. His friend Enkidu had died, and unable to understand or accept this, the King had gone on a long journey to try and learn if there was some way to escape the inevitability of death. Unshaven, dirty, dressed in the skins of wild dogs, he wandered far and at last reached Utnapishtim, the last surviving human from before the Great Flood. But he finds no comfort from him. Death is inevitable, he learns. Nothing is permanent, and we have no choice to but live as best we can with this knowledge. Wiser, chastened, and ready now to resume his rule over the city of Uruk, he returns home and says:

Gilgamesh said to him, to Urshanabi, the Boatman,

“Go up, Urshanabi, onto the walls of Uruk.

Inspect the base, view the brickwork.

Is not the very core made of oven-fired bricks?

Did not the seven sages lay down its foundations?

In Uruk, home of Ishtar, one part is city, one part orchards, and one part claypits.

Three parts including claypits make up Uruk.”

I’ve known about this ending for a long time actually. Several years ago, I attended a Passover seder where someone read aloud excerpts from the story, ending with Gilgamesh returning and “looking up at the walls of his city and marveling at the heights they had reached.” I assume that was from a more lyrical, less-rigorous translation than the one I’m currently reading (the 1984 John Gardner and John Maier one). That line has always stuck with me, though.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memoirs of Lady Trent

TITLES: A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, Voyage of the Basilisk, In the Labyrinth of Drakes, Within the Sanctuary of Wings

AUTHOR: Marie Brennan

SERIES: The Memoirs of Lady Trent

PUBLISHER: Tor Books

DATE: 2014-1027

When I was a kid, I loved fantasy field guides. Books like the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or the Spiderwick Chronicles Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, that charted out a whole universe of magical monsters and strange beasts in dry, technical prose, with lots of drawings and notes on their preferred habitats and food sources. What can I say, I was a strange child. But there was something about that mix of the magical and the mundane that always appealed to me. Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent is not that. It’s a series of novels, with a plot and characters and everything! But it has a lot of the same energy, which is what I suspect drew me to them. Set in a psuedo-Victorian analogue of our world, the Lady Trent Memoirs are a kind of Victorian Science-punk, if that’s a thing, chronicling the adventures of the world’s most famous draconologist. They’re really fun books, that do a great job of building a believable fake natural history while also providing a compelling plot and some surprisingly good character development. It’s very rapidly become one of my favorite series.

BACKGROUND:

Everyone in the world knows who Lady Isabella Trent is—the first female member of the Philosophers’ Colloquium, the foremost draconologist of her day, the woman who revolutionized our understanding of natural history. But never until today has the general public been permitted to know the full and complete story of how she accomplished this. Now, in this five-volume memoir, Lady Trent tells the story of how she forged her stunning career in defiance of her sex, her station, and the prejudices of her family and peers. For the first time, readers will learn the truth behind so many of the legends that have surrounded her storied life, as she journeyed through the trackless jungles, the deeps of the ocean, and the summits of the highest mountains in search of the Truth.

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The Golden Age of Submarines

The French submarine cruiser Surcouf

In December 1944, the Kure Naval Arsenal completed work on the submarine I-400. The largest submarine ever built, she was 400 feet long, displaced 5,670 tons, and carried an arsenal of eight torpedo tubes, three antiaircraft guns, and a 5.5-inch naval rifle. However, her main purpose lay in the aircraft hanger, and the three Aichi M6A Seiran seaplanes she carried. I-400 was not the first submarine the carry seaplanes. But it was the first submarine built primarily as an aircraft carrier. The Imperial Japanese Navy intended her and her sisters to carry out long-range strikes against the Panama Canal and the west coast of the United States. In the end, only three of the proposed eighteen were completed, and all were turned over to the U.S. Navy without ever seeing action. It was a sad denouement to the Golden Age of the Submarine.

What do I mean by that? Submarines still exist today, obviously, and in terms of size and destructive capacity have far outstripped their ancestors from the 1930s and 1940s. An Ohio-class SSBN displaces 16,000 tons and is capable of launching twenty-four Trident II ballistic missiles, each one loaded with twelve nuclear warheads, at a range of 7,000 miles. But such weapons have (thankfully) never been fired. It was during the Second World War that submarines reached their apex as an actual weapon of war. During the Battle of the Atlantic, approximately 3,500 Allied merchant ships (14.5 million tons) and 175 warships were sank, in return for 800 German and Italian submarines. In the Pacific, American submarines sank more than 2,000 Japanese merchant ships (7.9 million tons), virtually paralyzing the Japanese economy by the end of the war. But even more than that, this era also saw the height of submarine experimentation. Modern submarines are built around a handful of extraordinarily capable weapons systems that have been tested and developed to the limits of the technology. But in the early 20th century, people still didn’t know for sure what ‘the modern submarine’ looked like. Events during WWI had proven that the submarine was a useful weapon, but the 1930s and 1940s still witnessed the admiralties of the world scrambling to figure out what worked, leading to a brief but glorious era, and some very strange weapons.

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Lord of the Rings, Queerness, and the Nature of Great Art

Over the last month or so, there’s been a bit of an ongoing meltdown over the contents of the Tolkien Society’s annual Summer Seminar. Specially, over the idea that the talks this year are too “woke”, that they engage with questions of gay interpretations of Lord of the Rings and other suchlike aspects of Tolkien scholarship that they deem too radical. Dreher, Tettenborn, and their compatriots do not actually attempt to make an argument against these views, instead they merely treat it as prima facie absurd to even entertain them, laughing at the idea that any “traditional bibliophile” could be interested in exploring concepts of queerness, colonialism, racism, or disability in the works of Tolkien. (Most confusingly, Tettenborn laughs at the very idea of discussing “traumatic stress or ecological frameworks” in Lord of the Rings, which makes me strongly suspect he has never actually read it). It’s tempting to respond to this contempt with the same, and merely mock these conservatives for being a bunch of whiny losers unable to deal with a changing world. Neither author here actually makes an argument coherent enough to be refuted. But, I actually do think this episodes provides a useful framework for discussing conservative misconceptions about art and literature.

To the people upset about “wokeness” at the Tolkien Society, analyzing art in an “incorrect” manner is a perversion or corruption or at least a mistake. In reality, it is the truest sign of a work of art’s greatness.

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The Witcher’s Wasted Ending

Recently I finished reading Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher Series. Bestsellers that have now inspired both a series of video games and a Netflix show, the series is a set of fantasy novels set in a pseudo-Medieval European continent, about a mysterious wanderer named Geralt of Rivia who travels the land, protecting people and killing monsters—for a price. Or at least that’s the premise. In practice, the series loses interest in Geralt’s Witcher-ing almost immediately, embarking on a much more involved story-line about politics, war, destiny, the fate of the World, and Geralt’s mysterious link to a girl named Ciri who may have the key to solving all of the above. I quite enjoyed the books! The writing is serviceable, the plot is interesting, the world-building is excellent. Sapkowski weaves his narrative together from a multitude of perspectives from different places and times, creating a mosaic of a story, in which we see everything not just as the protagonists do but as they will, and how their enemies do, and how future historians will. It’s very well-done. But I have one major complaint. The ending.

Now, look, I get that it’s supposed to be ambiguous and open-ended. I don’t have a problem with that. My problem is that it doesn’t really work. Instead of setting up a world of possibilities and potentials, the ending of The Lady of the Lake just feels like the story stops in the middle. Too many major plot points are forgotten, or left unresolved, or seem to just trail off. More importantly, the emotional and thematic arcs of the series do not have a firm or satisfying conclusion. I’ll forgive a lot from a book in terms of incoherence or plot holes if it makes me care about the characters, and the abrupt and unsatisfying ending of this series made that impossible. Let’s talk about why.

Needless to say, SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING.

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Would it Have Been Better if the Persians Had Won?

“I believe the helots will greet us as liberators” – Xerxes I

One of the most enduring tropes in popular history is that the Greco-Persian Wars were fought “in defense of Western Civilization”. It’s an extraordinarily common narrative, one known even to people who don’t know much else about Classical History. The Persian Empire, an oriental despotism, invaded Greece, a free land. The Greeks, despite being outnumbered, heroically defeated their foes, making the world safe for democracy. Battles like Marathon and Thermopylae remain deeply embedded in popular culture, with the movie 300 probably the best example. It’s by no means unique, however. “The Greeks were, ultimately, victorious and their civilization preserved. If they had been defeated then the western world may not have inherited from them such lasting cultural contributions as democracy, classical architecture and sculpture, theater, and the Olympic Games.” This quote, from World History Encyclopedia, sums up this popular conception rather well I think. But is it true? There’s an extraordinary bias towards the Greek side of the conflict in our understand of it for the simple reason that virtually all of sources we have on it are from the Greeks. Given that most Western nations claim Ancient Greece as a cultural primogenitor, it’s natural for us to assume the righteousness of their cause. But we are not obliged to do this.

The Hellenic poleis of the Classical Era were fascinating civilizations, one that left us an amazing legacy of art, philosophy, and history. But they were also a deeply dysfunctional civilization, one that would spend the generation following their victory over Persia in a series of escalating wars for regional dominance until Macedonian (and then Roman) conquest finally brought peace to the region. And the Achaemenid Persian Empire was a genuinely remarkable state, one that pioneered the development of a centralized administrative system, standardized currency, legal codes, and a government-run road and canal system. Would it have been better if the West had fallen?

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Treaties Ending the Great War (1914-1918)

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I have a long-time fascination with alternative history and a particular interest in the First World War. It should probably not be too surprising that these two areas of interest have collided. I originally wrote this all the way back in 2014, in honor of the Centennial. It’s been heavily re-worked and edited several times since then, which has hopefully improved the final product.

This is my attempt at mapping out what we might call a maximalist plausible victory for the Central Powers. It’s a level of success that I don’t believe Germany was likely to achieve, but I still attempted to base it off actual things that Germany and its allies were planning to ask for in eventual peace talks. Of the agreements listed here, the Treaty of Batum, the Treaty of Poti, and the Treaty of Bucharest are actual historical documents. For most of the rest, I based them off of the Septemberprogramm and the historical Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which I think do a good job of outlining German war aims. The Anglo-German Convention on Portugal is based off of several secret agreements between Britain and Germany (one from 1898 and one from 1913) that would partition administration of the Portuguese colonial empire between the two powers in the event of a Portuguese default on its loans. The Treaty of Shanghai is by far the most speculative, but I don’t think it impossible to imagine the Empire of Japan jumping ship to a victorious Central Powers coalition in return for concessions in China.

For this scenario, the main Point of Divergence is that the Pancho Villa Expedition of 1916-1917 here spirals into a major U.S. intervention into the Mexican Revolution, ensuring no American entry into WWI and a German victory in 1918 following a successful u-boat campaign and major breakthroughs at the Battle of Caporetto and Operation Michael. France, Italy, and Russia essentially collapse under the weight of the war, and Britain is forced to sign a compromise peace.

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