Review: Astounding Frontiers Issue 1

Short & Sweet: Well worth 3 of your entertainment dollars. Fun, well-written stories and three old-school-style serials, a quick read. Grab a beer or an ice tea, your copy of Astounding Frontiers, and hit the hammock or the beach for a few enjoyable hours. Wear sunscreen.

Astounding Frontiers is a new magazine devoted to stories that astound and push frontiers. It hits the mark, although, by their nature, serials may do their astounding and pushing of frontiers over a larger time-frame than one issue. Onward:

First, we have the short stories. The Death Ride of SUNS Joyeuse by Patrick Baker is military SciFi covering a space fleet and space marines dedicated to protecting an outpost from some nasty customers intent on enslaving them. Epic and heroic battles ensue, complete with way-cool space weapons and strategy . Fun read, and it’s obvious Baker knows what he’s talking about – he’s a veteran working at the Dept of Defense, so the command structure and tactics ring true. Good story.

Next, is Lou Antonelli’s Riders of the Red Shift, a very cool sort of Western/Mystery in space story, about a space station and worm hole out in the Oort cloud near Sedna. Seems a group of Texans, after a failed rebellion, headed out with a load of decommissioned nukes – which nukes were later found useful as fuel for propulsion into the wormhole the Texans accidentally discovered.  Exploration of the galaxy takes place through this wormhole. At the time of the story, crews retrieve these nukes from the Texan’s long abandoned ship to use as fuel.  There are some mysteries that need solving…

According to Culture by Declan Finn is a space riff off the wisdom contained in a famous (legendary?) exchange between a British commander in India and a Hindu leader (whether Finn knows it or not, although I suspect he does). The Hindu explains to the Brit that it is their custom to throw live widows on the pyres of their dead husbands; the Brit explains it is his custom to hang people who murder women. If the Hindu insists on following his culture, he can hardly object when the British follow theirs.  A father who turns out to be a sort of tech/mech/ninja, has to make this point to a ruler who has purchased his kidnapped daughter.

This story has a very good opening sentence:

Neti Gwai looked over his latest batch of slaves, going from one holographic image to another, when the wall exploded.

And it hardly lets up from there. Epic battles ensue. Fun read, especially as a father of daughters.

Stopover on Monta Colony by Erin Lale is a story of empathy and mistaken identity that harkens back to a famous Star Trek episode which it would completely spoil things to name, and also a William Gibson story (and another mid-80s story in SF&F that’s sitting on the edge of memory) involving a singer who, with the aide of technology, is able to echo back the emotions of her audience.  A captain giving passage to just such a singer stops by an outpost for some repairs, and finds himself in the middle of a mystery. Can’t say much more without giving too much away – fun story.

Watson’s Demon by Sarah Salviander, is an elaborate gag, of sorts, a bit of an inside joke for physicists – and a good story. What if a superior interdimensional being decided to mess with the experimental results of what it thinks of as a hopelessly simple-minded human? What if you could really make all the energetic molecules move *here* and all the less energetic molecules move *there* just as the experimental measurements were being taken? You could drive a physicist crazy! But never underestimate a crazy physicist. Fun read.

Next up: the first installments of 3 serials – an evil marketing genius trick to hook us on future issues.

I think it’ll work.

First up is Nowither, the follow up to John C. Wright’s Dragon award winning Somewhither, the first book in the Tales of the Unwithering Realm series. Wright gives us a brief recap of Somewhither (reviewed here) to open the episode, so the reader isn’t completely lost, but I think it really helped that I’d already read it.

When we last left Our Heroes, Illya, a teenage ‘boy’ who cannot be killed, has just rescued Penny Dreadful (yep, that’s her name) an insanely beautiful and buxom young woman who is the object of Illya’s desires and happens to be a mermaid and nymph/goddess from another parallel timeline, along with 150 or so beautiful and scantily-clad slavegirls. He’s aided by Abby, an heroic young girl with The Most Tragic Backstory Ever ™, who, by virtue of her ‘two natures’ is able to circumvent the astrology of the Ur people; Ossifrage, an Air Bender/Old Testament Prophet/Gandalf hybrid (he’s really cool); and Nakasu, a Blemmyae, or headless giant who is super strong, brave and knowledgeable about the ways of the Ur. Also along is Illya’s childhood friend Foster Hidden, a gypsy/spy/warlock whose skill with the bow makes Hawkeye look like an amateur. They find themselves in some sort of switching station used by the Ur to zip around between parallel universes via golden Mobius gates. All hell breaks loose.

Got that?

If you’re tired of stories without much action, you’ll get all the action – gruesome, blood-soaked yet somehow hopeful action – you can stand.  For example, Illya gets decapitated – but it’s only a flesh wound! Slap that head back on, summon all the blood back into your veins, and you’re good to go! Excellent fun.

 

Ben Wheeler’s In the Seraglio of the Sheik of Mars is something completely different, based on the first chapter. In this installment, boy sorta meets girl, boy chased off from girl, boy gets his grandfather to arrange a marriage with girl. On Mars, in a transplanted 1,001 Nights style universe.  Not exactly what you’d expect, but it did leave me wondering where it’s going – and that’s the point of a serial, right? This first installment is more scene setting, I suppose, than actual story, but it works.

Galactic Outlaws, from Dragon Award winner Nick Cole and Jason Anaspach, is the first installment of what promises to be an epic yarn, a True Grit (maybe) in space.  The story opens with a hard-bitten captain landing his tramp hauler of a spaceship, which was falling apart when he stole it 6 years ago, on a planet that is suddenly under attack by the Republic that is supposed to be its government. As civilians flee onto the docks, he tries desperately to unload his cargo so as to gouge any passengers who want passage off the planet and away from the Republic.

Things do not go well for him.

He has one passenger: Prisma Maydoon, a girl whose family has been murdered, who only wanted a ride someplace where she might hire an assassin to get revenge. She is accompanied by KRS-88 an obedient robot she has named Crash, that spends its time pointing out how risky and insane everything she’s doing is (as is its duty). She ignores it, flees the ship and heads to a bar where the most notorious (and hunted!) hit man might be found.

Conclusion: great fun. Go buy this. Read it. Way more entertainment for the dollar than your typical hollywood movie or Big 5 novel.

Update: Reading, Writing, Futzing Around

Added a couple more blog post drafts on Important Things – you know, Important Things – bringing the draft total to just under 100. Sheesh. Started writing about how behavioral scientists (whatever that’s supposed to mean) don’t care about brain science, as changing people’s behaviors are all they’re interested in, not how the brain actually works. Um, what? Very Bacon-ish (the British scientist, not the gateway meat): we’re in it for the Domination of Nature, not merely to understand anything. Let’s not get all philosophical here, we got behaviors to change! And how YA fiction provides something to kids sadly missing from their real lives: responsibility for meaningful stuff, especially stuff they *don’t* get to choose. Kids want to grow up, and the dirty little secret is that we choose here and there, but happiness and meaning are mostly found in living out duties we didn’t really choose: to family, friends, country. Kids need that, and YA fiction often provides at least stories of it.

And so on. Got partial drafts on bad philosophy and stupid theories, an attempt to explain supply and demand avoiding the baleful conventions of economics (not as easy as one would hope) and airfleet finance basics that I promised somebody months ago. And about 90 more! Things I thought important at the time!

Anyway, here’s two turntables and a microphone:

A. Reading, among other things, the first issue of Astounding Frontiers, a new publication from some of the people involved in Sci Phi Journal and Superversive stuff in general. About 80% through, need another hour or two. A full review will follow in a few days.

Short & sweet: great stuff, all kinds of fun. The format, at least for the first volume, is a set of short stories followed by the first installments of a set of serials. All the stories are at least good; the first serial is of Nowhither, the next volume following the Dragon-award-winning Somewither from the Tales of the Unwithering Realm books by John C. Wright. As good as you’d hope. You’d better love cliffhangers, though. Old-school serials are the model, after all.

Writing: So, I started to do what I said I’d do – pick a market and submit the recently-finished short story. Aaaand, that proved harder than I thought – while I’m pretty familiar with the old dead-tree markets – Analog, Asimov’s, SF&F – I’m not really up on all the new markets. So I asked myself: does this slight little story work in those old-school markets? Aaaand – IMHO, not really. It’s a gee-whiz story, where a guy faces death and second thoughts. Probably overthinking it (you’re shocked, right?). Other stuff I’m working on might fit better, maybe.

Anyway, I decided to keep looking for a better match. I began at the top of a list I’d gotten off the web somewhere, sorted by how much they pay, and started down, trying to imagine how what I wrote could fit within their guidelines.

Some not-fits were obvious, either from tone or just not fitting the guidelines. I soon became obvious I needed some quick filters to eliminate the obviously not gonna happens: In addition to wild mismatches on the guidelines, ended up crossing off ones who lead with SJW stuff, as it’s hard to imagine them wanting my stuff.

This still left a whole bunch of interesting possibilities. But I’d never heard of these publications, many of which seem to have mushroomed on the web in the last few years. So I find myself reading the sample stories, to get a feel.

By now, I’ve spent several hours reading stories online from the various publications. Unfortunately, while I did get a few decent stories read, I didn’t end up with much additional clarity. A couple of the stories I liked were so utterly different from what I’ve written that my brain sorta locked up.

And then life got busy. It may calm down for a few weeks, maybe not. Thinking I’ll just look among the PulpRev and Superversive markets for this particular story; others might go elsewhere, need to get my brain around what’s what.

B. Meanwhile, working on some other half (or more) finished stories. With the long daylight hours, I’m tending to work out in the yard until dark or dinner, meaning it’s after 9:00 before I’m in for the night – and, if I’ve been doing physical work, I’m probably tired. Yes, I’m a disorganized sissy with too much going on. Anyway, still need a bit of time to finish the 3-4 in the pipeline. The good news is that I should have a better idea what markets to pursue for them after getting myself caught up on what’s out there.

General experience: when I take a second look at something I’ve set aside for a long while, I tend to like it much better than when I set it down. Obviously need to get over these amateur emotional reactions that keep me from just getting it done. Story of my life, I suppose.

C. Speaking of late daylight hours, been working on the brick oven. When we last checked in, I’d decided to add a little shelf or lip on the oven’s front, changing my mind from when I’d poured the oven slab last summer, and left off the lip in the front.

IMG_4050
While beautiful after a fashion, this whole thing here is frankly insane. Spent hours trying to get it level enough so that the planned wooden butcher block would be level-ish and sturdy enough – and I just couldn’t see it working. Don’t know if any of you have this experience, but at least on projects like this, I’ll get a nagging feeling that it won’t work that eventually stops me cold. Got there on this.  Had to change course. Not getting any dubious vibes on plan D? E? where are we? Yet, anyway. 

Well, after way, way over-engineering it and spending hours (and way too much money!) building this metal angle-iron and threaded rod support system, changed my mind again and decided to pour a little more concrete. Had no confidence in the metal supports – too many things could go wrong, and even if I got it all installed successfully, if somebody decided to sit on it, it might even crack the bricks. So, reengineered. Again.

It should have only taken a few hours total to do this, but it’s been over 100F each of the last two weekends, and even I, home improvement project berzerker, can’t do a lot of manual labor when it’s that warm. So now I’m going to finish it after work, with any luck, before the summer ends. On the positive side: once I’ve gotten the lip finished, the actual oven build should go pretty quickly. Yea, famous last words.

SciFi Classic Book Review: Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky

Short and sweet: this book is a good read and short and sweet – maybe 125 pages. Cool scifi ideas, and a couple memorable characters. One of the earliest stories to introduce the idea of generation ships. It explores some classic Heinlein themes of militarism, leadership and hard tech, and the idea of high adventure within a world that refuses to take its eyes off the mundane.

Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky is on John C. Wright’s list of essential SciFi reading. Grabbed a copy at Half-Priced Books, took it on last week’s trip as backup to the backup to the backup read, finished it last night. First published in two parts in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, Orphans of the Sky was published as a novel in 1963.  Image result for Orphans of the Sky

Hugh Hoyland* is coming of age inside a five-mile long, 2,000 yard in cross section cylindrical generational ship. A mutiny centuries ago left almost all the scientists and engineers dead and ‘muties,’ short for both mutants and mutineers, in control of the upper levels near the ship’s core. Not only is the core where all the navigation and flight command centers are, it’s also the only place where there are windows to the outside universe. The non-‘muties’ hold the levels out near the hull and farm and live like illiterate peasants, ruled by the literate but not-comprehending crew and scientists. All the books left by the Jordan Foundation, builders of the Vanguard, are taken as religious and moral allegory – they pass along an elaborate mythology in which the journey is a metaphor for life, and the ship is the Universe.

Hugh is selected for his intelligence to become one of the Scientists, but, before he gets very far, is captured by the muties when recklessly exploring the inner levels of the ship. His captor wishes to eat him, but has brought him first to Joe-Jim, the two-headed leader of a powerful mutie gang. Joe-Jim takes a liking to Hugh, and spares him so as to have another intelligent person to talk to – the muties, for the most part, aren’t very intellectual if not out and out mentally deficient.

Joe-Jim teaches Hugh the truth: that the ship is flying through space, and that all those weird teachings in the sacred books were not metaphor but stone truth. Hugh is shaken to his core, and devotes himself to learning how to pilot the ship – and realizes he’ll need help.

The rest of the story concerns Hugh’s efforts to get Joe-Jim and the muties on his side, and then to get more help from among the scientists. After intrigue, bloody battles and betrayals, Hugh and a couple of his companions and a few women manage to escape the ship on its last remaining boat as Joe-Jim dies defending the door to the launch. They miraculously find a habitable moon orbiting a gas giant, and even more miraculously manage to land and find food.

(Heinlein does manage to get them all naked by the end – hey, it’s Heinlein – but nothing more is said about it. 1940s, and all.)

Joe-Jim is the most notable character, a two-headed genius with the smarts to rule a gang of muties but without the drive needed to do anything much beyond enjoying life as a petty mafia don. He dies heroically at the end. Bobo, his microcephalic muscle, is a murderous cannibal with a heart of gold, so that his death is felt as a tragedy. The other characters are pretty much perfectly functional stock, but hey, he’s got 125 pages to do this in, so two memorable characters is pretty good.

Writing aside: Orphans of the Sky is the second story featuring a generation ship I’ve read since beginning TNTSNBN, my stab at a story about a generation ship.**  The other was the first book of Gene Wolfe’s  Long Sun series. I cannot remember reading any other generation ship stories, although that says more about my memory, perhaps, and my switch to philosophy and history after age 17 or so, than about the prevalence and importance of such stories.

What attracts me is the idea of building and sustaining a culture – and the simple historical fact that virtually every culture, and absolutely any culture anyone would want to live in as anything other than a ruler, are built on families. Families are no guarantee of peace – hardly! – but lacking them gives you Stalin and Olympius. The bloody battles between families might get bad, but are nothing compared to the fighting once families have been destroyed – at least, that’s where I’m going.  The idea, expressed both in Heinlein’s novel and Wolfe’s, that people trapped in a generation ship would more or less quickly succumb to social gravity and settle at a base state of Mafia-style social organization, is my concern, too – only I’m trying to start from the position that everybody understands this and is trying to work around it. In fact, several aspects of the precautions are so antithetical to ‘enlightened’ thinking that they must be implemented on the sly….

Anyway: good book, short read, just do it!

* Don’t want to get too crazy with analysing names, but Hoyland is a town in South Yorkshire, where the English hicks live – see Monte Python’s Four Yorkshiremen – and Hugh means heart or soul. So our hero has, but rises above the, soul of a hick.

** Although, after crunching some numbers and taking relativistic effects into account, it seems there are a lot of places such a ship could get to in one very long lifetime with any decent level of continuous acceleration – so the generations in my book will include great-grandchildren of still-living members of the original crew. I guess that still qualifies as generations.

Book Review: Dawn Witzke’s Path of Angels

Short & Sweet: Buy and read Dawn Witzke’s Path of Angels – it’s fun, cheap at the moment on Amazon, and different. I liked it quite a bit, and it’s a quick read. Support indie. Support superversive.

All in all, a fun read, good characters, and the action both physical and spiritual never stops. It reminds me a little of two very different authors’ works – Jagi Lamplighter and Robert Hugh Benson. Both these authors are very successful in very different ways at portraying the inner workings of their characters’ minds and souls. Witzke is likewise able to describe how things look to a 17 year old girl trying hard to be good in a world set up as an attractive slip-n-slide to evil. Everywhere, her world is ready with both pleasures and pains to push you down the wrong path. Benson derives his force by austere and deep insights into three different souls. Lamplighter puts her lead characters in fantasy world’s emotional and spiritual  blender where decisions good and bad have to be made with never enough time or calm. Witzke put her heroine on a journey paced more like real life, with decisions big and small coming at the most awkward and dangerous times.  All three capture an essential truth: we can only find our true selves in this world when we are not of this world.

If you had to categorize it – and you don’t – this would be a distopian YA story with a twist: it’s full of virtue, hope and heroism by characters who – gasp! – are Christians. This short (199 pp – in the range of all those 1950’s Heinlein books!) stands all those Post Apocalyptic Preludes I was on about on their heads:  After the end of the world as we know it, religion is outlawed because nobody would ever fight and steal and murder and bully if it weren’t for religion. Religion here meaning, of course, not atheistic communism (100 M murders and counting) nor Islam (14 centuries of uninterrupted bloody conquest, slaughter and slavery) but Christianity, specifically Catholicism, which, while hardly violence free, pales in comparison to those last two. Hey, it’s just history.

Path Of Angels (Underground Series Book 1) by [Witzke, Dawn]Back to the book. The characters are hardly goodie-two-shoes. The book opens with some rather shocking violence in the name of Christ – understandable as you read the story, but hardly cricket. As the book progresses, Aadi and Mischa, two young people living under an atheist regime in a partly ruined world, are given a task: bring a relic of Mother Theresa to a priest in a distant town.  After many adventures and narrow escapes, and seeing both friends and foes suffer horrible fates, they reach their destination, only to run into their greatest spiritual threat so far. They suffer temptations like those suffered by our teenage children (of all ages) and even fail – but that doesn’t destroy their faith or make them surrender to evil.

The ending is a bit of a cliffhanger, because you strongly suspect that they’re not getting away *that* easy! But the story stands.

If you decide to give it to your kids to read, be advised: there are some scenes that will make anybody under, say, 15 or 16 blush. They’re done tastefully enough, but I’m just thinking how *I* would have blushed reading these scenes to my kids, and – no.

So, good book. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.

 

Book Review: Belloc’s Europe and the Faith

Short and sweet: Read this book. It is available free through Project Gutenberg. It’s only a little over 100 pages – a long essay, really – in which the conventional presentations and meanings of many central European historical events as understood by those educated in the second half of the 20th century – me, for example – are convincingly challenged. Think you understand the Fall of Rome, the Dark Ages, the Saxon and Norman conquests of England and the Protestant Reformation? Even if you disagree with Belloc’s take, you’ll never think of them the same way again.(1)

Image result for Europe and the Faith by Hilaire BellocHis main premise: Europe is the Faith, the Faith is Europe. What he means – and here’s where conventionally educated Americans of the 21st century are likely to recoil –  is that all those things, those institutions, habits of thought, habits, indeed, of soul, that make Christendom special and – hope you’re sitting down – superior to all other civilizations are features of the Church, of the Faith. What positives we see in Protestant and decayed nominally Catholic Europe are the embers of that fire that welded the lands of the Roman Empire into a Civilization, the greatest the world has ever known.(2)  Belloc, being Catholic, understands greatness to necessarily include the welfare of the weak.  He argues that the fracturing of the Faith and Europe lead to the peasants getting a much more raw deal.

Hillaire Belloc might be remembered today more for his friendship with Chesterton than any of his writings. Based on the small sample of his works I’ve read, there is a lot more of fire and less of that pervasive good cheer that characterizes Chesterton’s works. He sees and cries doom, and is ready to take up the sword to die defending the good, the beautiful and the true. It’s not that Chesterton is any less willing to defend the Truth that is a Person, it’s just that in his mind he sees banners, knights, and glory even in defeat – and that cheers him, and comes through in almost everything he writes.

Published in 1920 immediately after the first World War,  Hillaire Belloc’s short Europe and the Faith is, most simply, a defense of Europe’s fundamental Catholicism. Such a defense necessarily must often take the form of  a counterargument to the way history has been told or mis-told for the last 4 centuries.  The long essay covers the period from Rome to the fall of England to Protestantism, with a concluding chapter describing how this history has shaped the choices faced in Belloc’s day.

While Belloc makes no effort to hide or soft-pedal his Catholicism, his most pointed criticisms are most often launched from his position as a scholar. One recurring theme is how it is always wrong to read history as if what happened next, and especially what is happening now, is inevitable, and that the past is to be understood as merely a preface without much meaning independent of those modern inevitabilities. Thus, the great Reformers must have intended to fragment the Faith (and thus fragment Europe) because that is what happened. Belloc points out that there is no contemporary evidence they thought anything of the kind. Rather, the Reformers imagined the uniform and united world in which they found themselves to be a sort of permanent state, not something made by men as the very broad and universal philosophy of the Catholic Church informed their lives.

He denies that Rome fell in the sense of being overrun and replaced by barbarians, and makes the point that the transition from central Imperial rule to decentralized rule under kings was a gradual and to a surprising extent superficial change. The procedures, organization, political assumptions, and most important the Catholic spirit remained Roman even as small numbers of already Romanized peoples – the barbarians of history – fought over who got to be the local king.

He goes into no detail here, but Lafferty’s description of Alaric comes to mind: he was a Roman general of largely Romanized Gothic troops, who, when he was crowned king of the Goths, became the first Catholic king ever so crowned.  He followed in the footsteps of Stilicho, in many ways his model and teacher, another Romanized Catholic ‘barbarian’ general whose life was dedicated and spent to preserve the Catholic Roman Empire. Even as far back as the sacking of Rome in 410, the ideal of a Catholic Empire given the divine duty to preserve and promote the Faith had taken hold – and nothing that happened in the next few centuries changed that. Rome gradually became the feudal society ruled by kings, governed through a complex hierarchy of personal relationships and obligations, and animated by the Catholic faith.

He denies that England was invaded and conquered by Germanic tribes – Angles and Saxons – pointing to the complete lack of historical evidence that such a thing ever happened. Instead, he notes that historian, backfilling from their own biases about what they’d like to have happened, fill in a 150 year gap in the written record with an invasion that never took place. Belloc instead appeals to what we know about what was happening in the neighboring areas, what the people wrote before and after the gap, and how things proceeded after St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived and the writing of history resumed.  He asserts that, just as in all of the rest of the Empire, auxiliary troops made up of barbarian recruits were settled in England prior to 410 AD, and remained behind after the Legions left. Then, constant piratical raids along the coasts and navigable rivers of England’s east coast drove the native populations westward, cutting them off from commerce and communication with the mainland and allowing for some settlements of the pirate peoples. But in no sense did these ‘invaders’ conquer – when St. Augustine arrived, he found Germanic pagan peoples in tiny kingdoms along the coasts and rivers, and more Celtic Catholic peoples inland. In one of those historical quirks, St. Augustine and his missionaries worked with the Germanic peoples they converted to re-evangelize the rest of Britain, leading to the oddity of Germanic languages coming to dominate, instead of Celtic or Latin.

And so on, through a number of other critical events. Belloc wants us to understand what Rome was, how it became Catholic, how it fought off would-be invaders throughout the Dark Ages, how it flowered in the Middle Ages, how it has persisted to this day, and what price we pay for rejecting it. He aims to provide a framework within which to understand the history of Europe and the world.  There can hardly be a more noble and needed goal for a historian.

It also helps that Belloc includes philosophy in this discussion, both from an historical perspective, and by including basic metaphysical and epistemological considerations in the discussion:

There are three forms in which the human mind can hold the truth: The form of Science, which means that we accept a thing through demonstration, and therefore cannot admit the possibility of its opposite. The form of Opinion, which means that we accept a thing through probability, that is through a partial, but not complete demonstration, and therefore we do not deny the possibility of the opposite. The form of Faith, where we accept the thing without demonstration and yet deny the possibility of its opposite, as for instance, the faith of all men, not mad, in the existence of the universe about them, and of other human minds.

When acknowledged and defined Faith departs, it is clear that of the remaining two rivals, Opinion has no ground against Science. That which can be demonstrated holds all the field. Indeed, it is the mark of modern insufficiency that it can conceive of no other form of certitude save certitude through demonstration, and therefore does not, as a rule, appreciate even its own unproved first principles.

Well, this function of the isolated soul, inquiry and the necessity for demonstration for individual conviction through measurement and physical fixed knowledge, has occupied, as we all know, the three modern centuries. We all are equally familiar with its prodigious results. Not one of them has, as yet, added to human happiness: not one but has been increasingly misused to the misery of man. There is in the tragedy something comic also, which is the perpetual puzzlement of these the very authors of discovery, to find that, somehow or other, discovery alone does not create joy, and that, somehow or other, a great knowledge can be used ill, as anything else can be used ill. Also in their bewilderment, many turn to a yet further extension of physical science as promising, in some illogical way, relief.

There is much more worth discussing in this book, and resistance to the temptation to write a comparision of it to Lafferty’s Fall of Rome is only possible due to crushing time constraints at the moment. But do go read this if you wish for more knowledge of European history and a much needed antidote to modern critical theory style ‘history’.

  1. I am reminded of the aha! moment I had when discovering that Sir Francis Drake, never discussed without the ‘Sir’ here, is considered a bloodthirsty pirate in Latin America – because he was. Don’t remember where I finally read about his raids on coastal towns, a la Pirates of the Caribbean, but it wasn’t in any mandatory California History class.  Here, if any mention of Drake’s piracy comes through, what we hear is how he spared the civilians. Very comforting for the soldiers charged with protecting the ships he plundered, I’m sure.
  2. After reading this, it’s hard not to see the EU as feeble dream inspired by the half-remembered unity of the 15th century. Feeble, because that primitive unity was won by the sword against foes external and internal, forged in fire and loved with passion. The EU, attempting to rise from the ashes of twice-burned Protestant Europe, is built more on fear than fire, and is as feeble as fear in the face of fire. A Europe which held Islam at bay for a thousand years and more with the sword has now convinced itself that no slaughter of the innocents is too great an offering to make for ‘peace’, which only means to the weakened European mind the avoidance of war at any cost.

Book Review: R. A. Lafferty’s The Fall of Rome

First off, thanks go out to Mike Flynn for recommending The Fall of Rome. Rarely have I enjoyed a book more, and suspect the stories and personalities in it will linger for years to come. Vivid hardly describes it.

Short & sweet: Stop what you’re doing, and read this book. Lafferty mentions in passing that the machinations of Olympius in the court of the Eastern Empire were far too complex for a modern mind to grasp. That passage pokes fun at the larger issue, that we are enslaved by our age unless we make the effort to learn about other ages. There are few more enlightening ages to learn about than that of the Roman Empire. It is a small, enslaved mind indeed that is not fired, humbled and saddened at the story of the Fall of Rome and the epics and, ultimately, tragedies of Alaric, Stilicho, Stairnon, Sarus, Singerich, Theodosius and the Empire itself.

IMG_3834Lafferty I knew of only from his unclassifiable SFF-ish short stories. Are they myth? Legend? Parody? They’ve been called tall tales, which seems about right, but hardly does them justice. The casual brilliance of stories such as the Narrow Valley make it clear we’re dealing with a really smart guy.

In the Fall of Rome, Lafferty applies his brilliant story telling talents to Roman history, which he clearly knows and loves deeply. Instead of a dry list of kings being born, fighting battles and dying only to hand power over to other kings who do the same ad infinitum, Lafferty starts with chapters dedicated to helping us learn who the Goths were and how they were ripe to produce so many tragic heroes. He disabuses us (well, me) from any lingering thoughts that the Goths were barbarians in the sense of uncivilized. True, there were more wild elements on the northern fringes largely outside the influence of Rome, but huge swaths of Goths, Vandals and Huns were members of highly sophisticated cultures with ancient traditions and technology as good or better than that of the Romans. (1) These ‘border peoples’ had been trading with and working in and for the Empire for centuries – and enriching it. The ideals of the Empire, especially in its post-Constantine form that embraced of Christianity, held a strong grip on their imaginations. Lafferty’s book is about the consequences of a lapse in that grip among a few key people, and how that brought about the End of the World.

Laferty also makes the point that we of European descent have inherited our foundational emotional relationship to the world from these border people, and not from the Romans. (2) He emphasizes the point in his telling of Alaric’s first invasion of Italy. While a battle raged, Stilicho – wiley doesn’t begin to describe him – sent a team to round up the women and families of the Gothic leadership who were, according to Gothic practice, accompanying the men at arms. Stilicho treated his hostages well – Alaric’s wife Stairnon was sent to live with Stilicho’s own family – but made it clear that the fighting needed to end and the Goths withdraw from Italy if the Gothic leaders ever wanted to see them again.

A true Roman would expect his wife and children to die noble deaths rather than be used as bargaining chips against the Res Romana, and carry on the fight. Stories, generally horrifying, of the sacrifices Romans were willing to make for the Republic and Empire make this assertion about their families easy to accept. But a Goth could not imagine a Gothic Thing that was fundamentally different from his family, making the very idea that you’d willingly sacrifice your family for an Empire, however conceived, incomprehensible. Thus, the Gothic leaders quickly retreated to Illyricum, and within a few months were reunited with their families. Alaric held out for a year, but even he eventually retreated and Stilicho sent his wife to him.

We understand Alaric and the Gothic leaders in a way we will never understand the Romans.

Aside: Before reading this, I would have argued that our emotional foundations were laid by Greek-flavored Hebrews via the New Testament and subsequent interpretation of the Old in light of the New. Much of the emotional landscape of the Pentateuch is very foreign, so that to get the emotional impact of many of the stories requires some effort, an effort we don’t generally have to make with, say, a Grimm’s fairytale. But once Greeks culture was sown by Alexander across the Levant, and once the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus converted the Greek-speaking world, the emotional landscape changed – gradually, imperfectly. The Romans – and the pre-Christian Greeks and nearly everybody else down to this day – would have expected the beggar Lazarus to crawl off and die, and would not have thought any less of Dives for having not cared for him. But the Jews got it. The Christians got it. And so now the world gets it, or pretends to. Likewise, Christians are troubled by Joshua putting conquered peoples under the ban – a notion that would have bothered no one previous, the only question being prudence.

Thus, 2000 years later, we are nearly as horrified by the cruel heroism of the Romans as by the treachery and casual bloodthirstiness sometimes evident among the border peoples. But now that Lafferty raises the issue, it clears up something I’ve often wondered about: the border peoples and other ‘barbarians’ were unable to set up anything like a Res Romana, but instead invented feudalism, which extends family obligations formally to what might be called the state. The problem is that the state is hardly distinguishable from the family, at least formally, so that lords are now fathers. A Roman could have fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty to a state he might not have any direct family interests in – he’s not related to any of the people in charge who might order him to his death. A feudal citizen? Subject? Family member?  is sworn into a ‘family’ so that his lord is his ‘father’ – his ‘Sire’.

The Patriarchal structure of the Romans might appear to contradict this, but it seems more of an along-side rather than an in-place-of arrangement: the local patriarch might be the ‘Big Daddy’ locally, but a Roman would see his obligations to the Res Romana as something only accidentally effected by his local patriarch. I think, I’m a good bit in over my head here. End Aside.

But some just wanted to see the World burn. Olympius, a master at manipulation and court intrigue, finally managed to bring down Stilicho. Then, in an event that makes Olympius into a Joker-like madman, at the peak of his power, having defeated Stilicho and seized the reigns of the greatest Empire on earth, he orders, or encourages, or allows the slaughter of the families of the tens of thousands of Gothic soldiers in Italy, by a Roman is for Romans faction. 30,000 Gothic troops defect to Alaric and Athaulf – soldiers who would have died under Stilicho or Alaric to defend Rome are now hell-bent on sacking it. And when Rome the unifying, civilizing idea was no more, and the dust settled, the new Emperor Constantius had Olympius clubbed to death.

I can hardly recommend this book enough if you have any interest in history at all.

Final aside: while much of what I learned from this book fit passing well into what I thought I already knew, I think I either accepted much less flattering descriptions of Alaric (who, BTW, I’ve admired for years) or, perhaps, confounded his story with parts of Atilla’s. Either way, Lafferty’s portrayal of the Great King of the Goths as an ultimately tragic hero is dazzling and convincing.

  1. From years ago, I had the impression that Rome came to be technologically backward, at least comparatively, by the time of the Empire. They seemed uninterested in technology as a culture. But I had not realized they were surrounded by peoples who were not uninterested, and had largely passed them by.
  2. A glance at a map of the migrations and invasions of these border peoples shows that we also almost certainly ARE Goths, Vandals, etc. in large part. Europeans were the muttiest of mutts even before they got to America.

Brownson’s American Republic: Last Thoughts (for now)

As mentioned in the last post, over the last 20% or so of The American Republic, Orestes Brownson changes from description and apologetics to prophecy. He moves from fleshing out and defending a position he attributes to Lincoln, that the United States as a nation precedes the Constitution and even the Declaration, to describing what he sees as the all but inevitable spiritual and political destiny of America.

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Brownson: Proof one does not need to be a Marxist to have a righteous beard. 

Brownson has great faith in Providence. He sees nations not as glorified tribes run by flawed and feeble men, but as acts of loving Creator, meant for some higher goal. The United States, as brought into focus and matured by the Civil War, are Providentially destined to absorb into their beneficent arms all the remaining states in the Western Hemisphere, not by conquest, but by nations one after the other coming to realize the mutual benefits of Union.

There was no statesmanship in proclaiming the “Monroe doctrine,” for the statesman keeps always, as far as possible, his government free to act according to the exigencies of the case when it comes up, unembarrassed by previous declarations of principles. Yet the doctrine only expresses the destiny of the American people, and which nothing but their own fault can prevent them from realizing in its own good time. Napoleon will not succeed in his Mexican policy, and Mexico will add some fifteen or twenty new States to the American Union as soon as it is clearly for the interests of all parties that it should be done, and it can be done by mutual consent, without war or violence. The Union will fight to maintain the integrity of her domain and the supremacy of her laws within it, but she can never, consistently with her principles or her interests, enter upon a career of war and conquest. Her system is violated, endangered, not extended, by subjugating her neighbors, for subjugation and liberty go not together. Annexation, when it takes place, must be on terms of perfect equality and by the free act of the state annexed. The Union can admit of no inequality of rights and franchises between the States of which it is composed. The Canadian Provinces and the Mexican and Central American States, when annexed, must be as free as the original States of the Union, sharing alike in the power and the protection of the Republic—alike in its authority, its freedom, its grandeur, and its glory, as one free, independent, self-governing people. They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.

“They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.” This is the key feature, the one that did not survive 3 years after the Civil War: that states would retain all rights and powers to manage themselves after a fashion suitable to the local customs and traditions and the nature of the people therein, while only those rights and powers proper by nature to the Union would be surrendered. Mexico, to stick with Brownson’s example above, was destined to see the harmony and prosperity and benevolence of the U.S., note their lack of interest in, indeed, abhorrence of the very idea of imposing non-Mexican government on them in regards to all local matters. Defence, interstate commerce, settling disputes between states – those powers would be mutually shared and exercised through the federal government. The Mexicans would gain much, and lose nothing.

Except that the ink was not yet dry on this book when the spectacle of the North forcing passage of the 14th Amendment on the Southern states as a condition for reentering the Union showed the world exactly how wrong Brownson was. This, on the heels of a bloody war (of conquest, it would look like from the outside and the South), would certainly cause Mexico or anybody else to have serious doubts about the harmlessness of intentions of America. The Civil War preserved the Union, or at least something visually similar to the Union, and freed the slaves, but it did not advertise peace-loving American benevolence.

Brownson assumed the Reconstruction would be swift, fair and relatively painless, and lead to an economic boom. Brothers welcoming prodigal brothers home. He didn’t quite get that one right, either.

I almost think I hear a man horrified, as so many were, by the Civil War, trying to make sense out of it by appeals to destiny and Providence. Rather than the death of the very American ideals he so fervently hoped to see realized, he sees a renewal, a Phoenix rising. All the blood and wealth Lincoln describes as spilt and dissipated in Divine Retribution over slavery in his Second Inaugural Address Brownson believes rather paves the way to a glorious future.

A contemporary critic accused Brownson of arguing vehemently for ideas he wished he, himself, could believe in. I’m wondering if that critic didn’t have a point. Brownson ends the American Republic:

But the American people need not trouble themselves about their exterior expansion. That will come of itself as fast as desirable. Let them devote their attention to their internal destiny, to the realization of their mission within, and they will gradually see the Whole continent coming under their system, forming one grand nation, a really catholic nation, great, glorious, and free.