Reading Log 2019 #5: Babylon: Mesopotamia And The Birth Of Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek

Writing a book about any aspect of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations has to be a right bastard to begin with. Writing a book about ALL of them is basically a monument to hubris. That said, Kriwaczek does a very good job of tackling this huge span of history in his Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization.

To put this in some perspective, the END of this book is as far removed from its start, in terms of years passed, as we are from the end of the book ourselves. He’s covering THOUSANDS of years here.

Starting with the first stirrings of civilization in the city-states of ancient Sumeria, such as Ur and Kish, and ending with the long fall of the Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian Empire at the hands of the upstart Persians, Kriwaczek takes us through what narrative we can construct from the available evidence.

And there’s a lot of evidence. There’s also a lot of gaps. The author’s job in such a case is to simply make sure the reader is aware of these factors, and Kriwaczek does a solid job on that front throughout.

Each chapter generally begins with a retelling of the archaeological dig that turned up the evidence that’s then used to provide the chapter it’s part of. It’s a nice way to let the reader know how confident the author is in the specific info he’s about to present.

As much as is possible, he includes details about the life of regular people as well as, of course, the ruling classes. That so much of the clay tablet-based evidence available is about economic and material transactions helps somewhat in this regard. We know more about how ancient Babylonian societies fed and clothed themselves than we do say early Ancient Greece or Ancient Egypt solely because their records-keeping took place in a physical format that could survive quite well for millennia, unlike any paper or papyrus-based writing systems.

This is shown by how much less data we have on the latest, Akkadian and Assyrian Empires that had converted to recording their language via an Aramaic, alphabet-based script on more paper-like substances that did not survive than we do on empires that existed a thousand years prior to them.

Kriwaczek also tries to tie a lot of how these civilizations operated to modern-day equivalents, which is… a stretch, to me. Sure, a lot of the evidence we have may relate to economic transactions, but making the leap from that to “they were obviously full market capitalists” seems a bit much. It’s a type of comparison the author makes repeatedly, and it never quite lands for me.

That nit aside, I like and recommend this book mostly because it’s engagingly written, and covers a vast territory and time about as well as any non-academic tome could in one volume.

Reading Log 2019 #4: Semiosis, by Sue Burke

Fun read, this. Classic sci-fi that takes a small group of plucky humans fleeing an increasingly ravaged and warred-over Earth to try again but better on an earth-ish planet elsewhere.

This new planet, which the colonists dub “Pax” (didn’t love that; a little on-the-nose), is juuuust-barely able to provide for the newcomers, at least under their original plan. Life is downright hostile, for the most part.

So, things therefore get weird when the younger generation of native-Pacifists (what the colonists refer to themselves as, in case the planetary name wasn’t clear enough for you that these folks are rejecting the violence of ol’ Earth and doing things differently) realize that their parents have set them up for suffering and are actively refusing to take steps that would make their lives materially easier to deal with on Pax. And, oh irony, are willing to use violence to enforce that suffering.

That may sound like spoilers but it’s not really, it’s effectively set-up and a good dose of world-building to get us situated in the environment and its unique properties that differ it from Earth (since it is alike in most ways). The actual Earth-born humans and their concerns are not the point of this book as Burke uses the enjoyable tactic of time jumps quite often to get us past the whole “struggling colony on the edge of disaster” thing that isn’t really the story she wants to tell. So, we quickly move along through a number of generations of the original Pacifists’ descendants, with each generation getting a star turn and a protagonist, though there’s plenty of overlap between chapters as well.

Books using this trope tend to suffer from the lack of a single protagonist for the reader to identify with, but that’s not a problem here. There IS one character who travels through the entire book with the reader, but I won’t spoil that… entirely

I will spoil it enough to note that it’s not an omniscient computer, a trope that exists in far too many books of this nature. Refreshingly, Burke acknowledges that, in the absence of the ability to bring along the entire industrial fabric that makes spaceflight from Earth possible in the first place, all of their computing and machining power will eventually, and not in TOO long a time, fail and become useless. This happens here, after a brief and expected period of cannibalizing dying tools to keep other ones going.  

I genuinely enjoyed this aspect of the story; the original settlement mission doesn’t happen TOO far from now, so there aren’t deus ex machina-style self-healing, self-replicating nanofactories or any of the usual suspects authors bring along when they want their tiny precarious space colonies to generally resemble future Earth as much as possible. In effect, the Pacifist society, for the bulk of the story, is at about a late medieval-level of technological advancement. They have their forebears’ modern knowledge, which certainly puts them above the level of actual medieval societies, but, lacking modern infrastructure, they can rarely act on that information, which to me is almost worse. Things are not helped by the great scarcity of mineable ores on Pax.

This is what provides the tension in the tale; the original colonists barely have enough folks to provide the basement level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and for all of their knowledge and still-working computers, they’re still dealing with a very alien ecology that seems actively engaged in killing them.

This tension then turns, in later generations, to the Pacifists figuring out how to make accomodations with at least parts of their environment and to start to thrive, if never to the point of what the reader would understand as modern levels of physical comfort and material satisfaction. This culture seems to be pleasant to live in, but everybody works hard, and the random death of young, healthy people is a much more common event than it is for ours.

After setting all of this up, the book moves into essentially two primary conflicts, both of which are very enjoyable and which introduce concepts that aren’t entirely new to sci-fi, but whose extrapolations at the hands of this author are very fun to read. I don’t want to spoil those, but suffice to say that I’m greatly looking forward to the sequel.

That said, Semiosis stands as a complete story on its own as well, so don’t be put off by the fact that a sequel is coming. It ends at a good point, having wrapped the major points up but leaving the reader able to easily speculate any number of possible options to start new stories with in a sequel. It’s a solid basis for a universe of stories, but also a cohesive novel of its own.

I did have a few gripes, all of them pretty minor; characterization is mostly excellent, but a few characters were a bit one-note. The cast is large, given the time period covered, so of course not everybody can get a full fleshing-out, but some folks were pretty one-dimensional in a way that strongly hinted “I need someone like this to move this part of the plot forward, so here she is”. Again, though, most of the major characters were quite believable given the time available to spend on them.

Certain happenings also happened in time frames that just seemed entirely too short, but said shortness was obviously necessary for plot tension purposes. Explanations are given, but they don’t always land as completely believable. Also a minor issue, but one that had me swallowing some suspension of disbelief here and there.

Overall, though, this is a stellar debut novel and I eagerly await the sequel and what else Ms Burke has in store for us. 

Reading Log 2019 #3: All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

This one was recommended to me by a buddy who shares my fascination with Central Europe’s experience in the 20th Century. I consume a lot of fiction and non-fiction on this topic.

As I’ve gotten older, I find myself less interested in the march of armies or the words of politicians in this era; that story is exhaustively documented, and I’ve ingested enough of it to where I think I’m solid on that front. Now, I find myself much more interested in how regular folks got on (or, more often, didn’t) during these cataclysmic upheavals and their aftermaths. And All for Nothing falls squarely into that wheelhouse.

The book traces the story of a fading aristocratic estate in Eastern Prussia that is in the direct path of the final Soviet offensive that ended up ending the Third Reich entirely. Starting in January 1945 and carrying through into the summer, with tons of flashbacks as well, we follow the story primarily through the eyes of the 12 year old protagonist, Peter, who is apparently loosely-based on the author himself, though the book is fiction.

The story is intimate, and goes into obsessive, almost repetitive detail on what the family does to sustain and entertain itself during this period. Nursery rhymes are repeated in the text over and over, lists of possessions and foodstuffs appear on the regular, in great detail… the overall effect is to hammer home what was being consumed, destroyed, never to return in the all-encompassing fire of the Reich’s Gotterdammerung, all of the family and friend connections and rich material history that would be rendered into ash.

As the story proceeds, it is not just the family that is affected. Refugees fleeing the Red Army steamroller just east of the manor start appearing, and either choose themselves to ask for shelter, increasingly, are imposed upon Peter’s family by the Nazi potentate who is in charge of this district. We get to see how various classes of lives are affected by this calamity; these characters weave in and out of the story, first spending some time at the Manor and then being met again under even worse circumstances as the family itself finally flees home and joins the massive, hopeless exodus clogging the roads of East Prussia in search of an escape that is no longer open to most of them.

In the background but important are the various foreigners who didn’t exactly choose to be at the manor; from the Ukrainian domestic workers who were basically enslaved by Peter’s father as he performed his duties of brutal resource extraction for the Reich’s war machine and sent to do labor at his home, to the Polish POW who tends to the manor’s small farm and its animals, to the variety of POWs and forced laborers from all over occupied Europe who are stabled up the road in a former hotel and who become an increasingly (and understandably) menacing presence.

As should be needless to say, it’s not a pleasant story, there is no happy ending, and, by the later chapters, the tempo of Bad Shit Happening increases to the point that this reader was actually somewhat depressed upon finishing the book.

Kempowski is apparently a big deal in Germany. After surviving the war, the Soviets accused him of being an American spy and tossed him into prison for eight years before releasing and deporting him to the west. He spent the rest of his life writing novels set in this lost era, and embarking upon a project to collect the diaries and writings of East Prussians and their war experiences, which he did to the point of having to put an addition onto his house to store the collected materials.

This novel shows why he and his work is important. For very understandable reasons, the rest of the world isn’t inclined to get weepy over the fate of Germans in 1945. Large swaths of the planet was ash and rubble due to wars started by Germany and her allies, tens of millions were dead all over, and if a few of those millions were freshly-killed Germans, well, Jesus, wasn’t that just the bare beginnings of justice anyways?

Maybe yes. The point of this book isn’t to judge the suffering, it is simply to record it; it’s up to the reader to decide if any individual act of suffering or pain requires any further analysis beyond “this person is suffering”; the strength of this work and others like it is in forcing the reader to examine their own feelings on the nature of suffering; can it ever be deserved? Should it always be alleviated? The author here isn’t going to tell you one way or the other; his job is just to document that suffering happened.

Given that, I think the essential question this book asks of the reader is: is suffering quantfiable beyond “survived it or not”? Is a moment of extreme pain more or less worthy of a witness’ sympathy if we know that the sufferer themself caused great pain to others earlier on? If so, how far out do the circles of complicty range?

It’s a tough question with no clear answer; sure, it’s easy to say “fuck that guy” when “that guy” is a brutal Nazi functionary who has spent the entire war out of harm’s way behind the front ruthlessly stripping conquered peasants of their very sustenance if not killing them outright and he’s finally getting his just desserts; less so when it’s a 12 year old child caught in the gears of two insanely violent war machines meshing into each other.

The writing doesn’t demand that the reader come up with an answer either way; the prose is dry, matter-of-fact, and laden with description. While scenes of the characters experiencing sentiment are common, these are presented unemotionally, relying instead on a factual “these are things that happened” recitation that eventually becomes numbing. The first death of a major character (I don’t think it’s a spoiler in THIS kind of book to mention that death occurs) is presented so dryly that I had to reread it a few times to make sure that what was being described was what actually had happened.

There’s a weight to this kind of presentation; all of the dry retelling of individually unremakable happenings slowly turning into life-changing, usually for the worse, events, ends up creating a slowly-building atmosphere of just complete, oppressive dread in the reader. It’s clear that the other shoe, that ALL of the other shoes, are going to drop at some point, and by the time it does, ending the book in a basically non-stop parade of increasingly-worse horrors, you’re almost relieved to be getting on with it.

I liked this book a lot, but don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone I care about and presumably would prefer to be happy than sad. It’s a sad book about a massive human disaster almost entirely brought upon the victims by their own complicitly in equally horrific, but different, disasters. And the book doesn’t even try to impute a moral or lesson to all of this suffering; it’s just a chronicle of it. At best, one comes away with a strong feeling of “we should do everything in our power to prevent anything like this from ever happening again”, but that is clearly a lesson lost to our current times so there is no solace to be found even in that.

Reading Log 2019 #2: Fallout, by Todd Strasser

I’m conflicted on this book. On the one hand, I generally enjoyed it? I think? I mean, I started it at like 9:30 on a work night after finishing my previous book and finished it at midnight the same night, so it definitely kept me turning pages.

That said, I also think the book could’ve been so, so much better.

The gist of the plot is: the Cuban Missile Crisis goes hot (note: this is NOT an alt-history of any sort so don’t expect any detail on how that all goes down or anything; the point is simply that it’s early-60’s American and the nearest big city to our cast gets nuked). The one guy in the neighborhood who had the foresight to build a fallout shelter in his backyard orders his family in as the sirens go off. The neighbors, who know about the shelter but did nothing but make fun of the family for being paranoid, bum rush his place and, after a struggle, some of them make it into the shelter with the main family.

The bulk of the story, then, is about how these people get on when forced to live in a dubiously-supplied shelter, particularly given that half of them forced their way in against the will of the guy who built it.

It’s a very small-scale story that focuses on the various pair-relationships between shelter inhabitants. Backgrounds on those relationships are provided via flashback chapters quite often, showing how those folks interacted prior to the bombs going off.

The story does best when focusing on the protagonist, Scott. He’s a nearly-teenaged boy, the son of the shelter-builder, who I identified quite a bit with. He’s a “good kid”, but his best “friend”, who ends up in the shelter as well, is quite not, and keeps trying to lead him astray. These tensions amp up in the shelter, naturally, and the author handles this relationship in particular with a deft hand. It reads honestly as a relationship that could’ve existed in reality.

Scott’s father is portrayed with a kind hand as well. He reads like a lot of dads I’ve known (though not my own): he means well, but lacks some of the tools, particularly in the empathy category, to be a truly-good dad. And a lot of his mistakes are effectively made against his own will and correct instinct, driven by societal pressure instead. After the bombs go off, the dude is in a truly shit situation, and he handles it (and this is a beef I have with the book in general) just about as well as anybody could. I’m not sure if this character is believable in extremis, but his pre-war characterization reads pretty true.

Some of the “bad” characters, however, are pretty ham-handed. Bad Kid’s father, in particular, is almost a caricature of an effete, college professor liberal of the nascent go-go 60’s, letting his kid drink wine at dinner until he’s hammered, leaving Playboys about, and sneering at his less-refined neighbors construction of a shelter in the first place. The guy sucks, in an almost unbelievable way.

Likewise, the women characters are pretty thin, the black housekeeper particularly so. They serve largely as props for the men to act against, even though they’re often the smartest people in the room.

My prime beef with the book is that it’s somehow too optimistic. I don’t think this scenario would or even could play out as neatly as it does; even given the death and conflict involved, it’s… not enough, somehow, given the enormity of the catastrophe that has obviously occurred to the world. I don’t want to spoil how it all plays out, but I ended the book with a pretty heavy sense of “well, that could’ve been much worse”.

Lastly, I want to mention that the book miserably fails the test of Chekhov’s Gun, which is always infuriating.

So, I dunno… I chewed through the book fast, it’s a page-turner, but I think I was turning pages mostly waiting for the other shoe to drop, which it effectively doesn’t. I also enjoyed the writing of the lead character enough to be invested in his fate, at least, if not of many of the others. If you like explorations of how people forced into extreme close-contact scenarios will behave, you’d probably enjoy Fallout, just know that it certainly lies on the optimistic side of the genre. Even though New York gets nuked.

 

Reading Log 2019 #1: Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo (The History of England, Vol. 4), by Peter Ackroyd

The fourth of five (so far) volumes in Ackroyd’s “History of England” series, Revolution covers, well… a lot of revolt.

Starting from the end of the Glorious Revolution that wiped the Cromwellian grimness out of power, continuing through the American Revolution, and ending with the English reaction to the French Revolution and its Napoleonic successor, Revolution stays on-topic with its title throughout. Oh, and let us not forget what was arguably the most important revolution of them all: the Industrial Revolution. Ackroyd presents the latter as more of a process than a singular event, but its impact reverberates throughout every other event in the book. 

I’ve liked the way Ackroyd writes since I first read his London: The Biography (a book I can’t recommend enough if you have any interest in any aspect of that city at all). While the scholarly rigor is fully present in the facts presented and sourcing and all that, Ackroyd is anything but dry. Broad-sweep views of the politics or background events of the day are interspersed with tight, personal vignettes drawn from the people being impacted by those politics and events. More academic chapters covering the government and wars and such alternate with chapters focused on the economics of regular people trying to get by, or on the arts of the era. It’s a well-rounded read that moves along quickly given how much it has to cover.

If there is a fault to be had with Revolutions, it’s in the conscious choice of the author to focus it tightly on _England_; you’re not going to get much discussion of the slave trade or India save as to how they directly impacted on the English in England itself. It’s emphatically NOT a history of the Empire. But, he’s clear about that in the very first volume, so it’s not so much an issue as it is just something to be aware of. 

Ackroyd also doesn’t cast much of a critical voice into the narrative, either; you won’t get much sense of how the author feels about any of the events he’s retelling. The lack of easily-discernible bias is honestly somewhat refreshing, but some sense of point of view would be appreciated by some readers, I’m sure.

That said, I like his approach and recommend this book and series to anyone who wants a deeper dive into English history than any single-volume book could do justice to. 

 

Amazon Is Stupid

I found out from a guy I follow on Twitter (the excellent Chicago Sun-Times general columnist Neil Steinberg, for the record) that Mark Kurlansky, one of my favorite non-fiction writers, has a new book out.

This post isn’t about that book, although I’m gonna burn a graf or two here on a recommendation; the new book is called Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas, and I’m recommending it even though I haven’t read it yet and it doesn’t even come out for a few more weeks. Why? Well, because I read his prior books, Cod, Paper, and Salt, and greatly enjoyed each of them.

In case you can’t tell by the titles, he picks a single thing that is immensely important to human history and development, and then writes about the how and why of that importance. He’s a great writer, finding ways to work in all sorts of fascinating and interesting little human vignettes into these long-arc stories of the history of physical things. The books are highly entertaining, and I’ve learned a shitload I didn’t know about the topics from them. Go buy them.

That said, I want to bitch about, well… how I found out about this book.

You see… I’ve been an Amazon customer (don’t get me started on their evilness and how much Bezos sucks; they are, he does, but there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under Capitalism so it is what it is) since they were still just an amazing online bookstore. My first purchase there was in 1998 and, natch, it was a book.

I’ve since bought, let’s see… checks Amazon account

Jesus Christ.

I’ve bought, um, five hundred and fucking seventy books on Amazon since then.

Sure, some were gifts, but most of them were for me, me, me. There’s also been at least a few hundred books I didn’t buy on Amazon as well, given that I blew a few paychecks a year at Borders until they closed, and also was a steady user of the Chicago Public Library throughout this period, too. But, point being: Amazon has 570 points of fucking data on me regarding what kinds of books I buy, who my favorite authors are, etc… they have thousands of points of data on me if they’re tracking which books I’ve added to wishlists but not bought, which books I’ve spent time looking at the store pages of but then neither bought nor wish-listed, etc… and I’m sure they ARE tracking that data, too.

I bought each of the three Kurlansky books I’ve read previously through Amazon as well, just to be clear.

And yet… in no way, shape, or form, did Amazon figure out a way to say “hey smr, that guy you’ve bought all of his previous books from from us, usually immediately when they come out? He’s got a new one coming soon; interested?”.

This has happened recently with other authors, too. Authors I love, whom I’ve bought tons of books from Amazon by, and they have huge, important new works come out and I find out about them via sheer happenstance because Amazon’s algorithms are apparently as smart as a three-year old on a sugar high who just got kicked in the soft spot of the skull.

This seems kind of insane to me. Everybody touts these algorithms, that Amazon and Google and whoever can predict what we want before we even fuckin’ want it, yet the most reliable ads I get from them are, like, for toilet seats but only after I JUST FUCKIN’ BOUGHT ONE and in complete ignorance of the fact that modal number of toilet seats an individual purchaser on Amazon probably buys per decade is without a doubt: one.

You have way north of 50% of the data on my book purchases for the last two decades. You also own Goodreads, which I’ve been fairly well-integrated with for years, too. You know exactly how much and how quickly I’ve read each of these fucking books, because I read them in your apps or on your e-reader. So you know if I’ve punted on a given book after 20 pages, or if I’ve devoured a given author’s huge door-stopping brick of a book in a frankly embarrassingly short period of time right after it comes out.

In short: YOU KNOW WHAT BOOKS I LIKE, AMAZON.

So why in the fuck don’t I get an email or something from you, or a prominent ad or placement on your website during my basically weekly visit to the book part of your website telling me that this guy has a new book dropping very soon?

You’ll happily show me books by authors I’ve never read before but who’ve written books even vaguely related to subjects I have read books about before.

You’re MOST likely to show six books on exactly the same exceedingly narrow topic I just finished a book about, even though you have my ENTIRE ADULT READING HISTORY and therefore could easily determine that one thing I don’t do, ever, is read two books about basically the same topic back to back, ever, ever, EVER. That’s NOT HOW I READ. AND YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT ME.  As much as I may love the topic of Roman governorship during the Principate era, nobody who ain’t paid professionally to study that shit is gonna read TWO books on that topic in the same year. Yet the most prominent placement I get when I go to the History Books section of your website while I’m reading a book on that exact topic will be six more books on the exact same goddamned thing.

But a brand-new book from a guy whose every other book I’ve bought the instant it came out and read basically immediately in a very short period of time? All of which are facts you have in your data about me?

THAT book, you never tell me about.

Apple Music figured this out, and I haven’t been using that service even a year yet. Every week I get an email that basically says “you have albums by these artists in your library, and they all have new shit out this week. Click here to get it, enjoy”, and it’s sorted with the artists I have the most of and listen to the most upfront.

But this is somehow beyond Amazon. The closest they can get is “hey man, you bought a mattress last week, want six more right now? Are you sure? Are you SURE SURE?!?!?!? Okay, that’s cool, don’t buy one now, but we’re going to show you nothing but mattress ads across the entire internet for the next, say, oh, six weeks. That cool? Cool”.

I don’t get it.

Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey

Babylons_AshesA solid entry in the series, but starting to strain the suspension of disbelief that the same six-seven people are constantly at the center of these epochal, shattering moments for humanity. So, on that note, I’m glad that they’re moving into the “final” trilogy of The Expanse with the following book, Persepolis Rising.

As for THIS book, it brings a generally satisfactory conclusion to the story of Marcos Inaros and his Free Navy’s rebellion against Earth/Mars/OPA. I’m basically just glad to see Marcos go away (spoiler, but c’mon, you knew it was coming) because he’s a paper-thin caricature of an evil bad guy who was never really developed much beyond being a necessary plot agent. His background with Naomi was rather insubstantial, his relationship with their child almost Darth Vader-ian in its comical abuse… what he did to Earth is genuinely disturbing, and I almost wish they spent more time dealing with the effects of the attacks, but the background info we get via Avasarala does a pretty good job of conveying just how fucked things are.

That said, the fact that the 1300 new worlds and many new colonies that we know are out there spend this entire book basically out of sight entirely is distressing; I get that we have to settle our home solar system’s story here, but Jesus Christ do I hope that the final trilogy takes place amongst these new worlds already (I know the first book is already out and thus I could already know if that’s what’s going on, but I’m saving the entire final trilogy to binge on once it’s all released, inshallah).

So, while not quite as cool as the first trilogy (Marcos is no Miller in terms of being Holden’s primary foil), Babylon’s Ashes does a solid job of fulfilling the usually-difficult mission of wrapping up the middle act of a series. If you’ve enjoyed the series to this point, I doubt you’ll not enjoy this entry as well.