Archive for the ‘Books I’ve Read’ Category

Murder and Magic

September 1, 2016

Writing a detective story in a science fiction or fantasy setting can be a hazardous undertaking because of the temptation for the writer to cheat by having his hero pull out some gadget that will destroy the suspect’s alibi by showing everyplace he’s been for the last twenty-four hours or casting a magic spell that shows the blood on his hands, literal or not. In order for the mystery writer to play fair with the readers and write a whodunit worth reading, he has to set out the rules and limitations of the advanced technology or magic that his world uses to solve crimes. He need not make the rules explicit in the story, but they have to be there in the background, and they have to be reasonably consistent.

Randall Garrett did an excellent job of combining the mystery and fantasy genres in his Lord Darcy series of stories. Set in an alternate world in which Richard the Lion Hearted managed to survive the accidental crossbow shot that killed in real life.  Instead, the near death experience prompted King Richard to settle down from fighting and crusading and seriously try to govern the lands he ruled, resulting in an Angevin Empire that survives into the twentieth century. Richard also patronised scholars and scientists which led to the discovery of the laws of magic. By the time of Garrett’s stories, the Angevin Empire of England and France, along with the Americas and other colonies is the leading world power and magic is used in everyday applications, much as science and technology are used in ours. Magicians can cast spells to preserve food, secure homes, communicate over long distances, and help solve crimes.

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In this world, Lord Darcy is the Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy. In the course of his duties, Lord Darcy solves crimes and untangles international intrigues, assisted by the forensic sorcerer Sean O’ Lochlainn. Despite the fantasy setting, the cases Lord Darcy investigates are mostly the sort that can be found in any mystery story. Magic is not often used to commit the crimes and Sean O’Lochlainn’s techniques are rather like the more scientific procedures that might be familiar to a viewer of a show like CSI. Magic is a substitute for science in Lord Darcy’s world and a forensic sorcerer can no more solve a crime by magic in that world than a crime scene technician can “magically” solve a crime in our own.

Murder and Magic is Randall Garrett’s  first collection of  Lord Darcy stories. The collection includes four short stories with cases involving a supposed suicide, mistaken identities and blackmail, and a plot by the King of Poland, England-France’s chief international rival, to disrupt the Atlantic trade. I found each of the stories to be entertaining and finished the book wanting to read more. I think that anyone who enjoys reading either mysteries or fantasies will find the stories that combine the two genres to be worth reading.

Basidium

July 8, 2016

My favorite books when I was in the fifth and sixth grades were the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. These books were published back in the 1950’s and so were a little before my time, but fortunately the school library didn’t have a lot of new books. I must have checked out each of the books hundreds of times.

The Mushroom Planet, Basidium, was Earth’s second moon, a small asteroid orbiting just 50,000 miles away. Although only an asteroid, Basidium is made of a dense substance called Brumblium so it is able to retain an atmosphere and support life. The predominant form of life on Basidium is various forms of mosses and fungi, particularly tree sized mushrooms, hence the name Mushroom Planet. Even the inhabitants of Basidium are mushroom people, though they are humanoid in appearance.

Mushroom People

Mushroom People

Because Basidium is made of Brumblium, it cannot be detected by telescope without a special filter invented by Tyco M. Bass, himself a member of a race of terrestrial Mushroom people called the Mycetians, descendants of Basidiumites who perhaps travelled to Earth in the form of spores. In “the first book, “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet“, Mr. Bass, with the help of his two young friends David Topman and Chuck Masterson builds a spaceship for the two boys to travel to Basidium and save the natives from a threat to their existence. In later books in the series, Chuck and Dave return to Basidium with a stowaway, meet Tyco Bass’s cousin Theo, and have other adventures.

Tyco Bass

It was a bit silly, I suppose, and the science is woefully out of date, but I really enjoyed reading them and always wished that I could meet Mr. Bass and travel to the Mushroom Planet. For that matter, I still like the books today, though I haven’t actually read them for many years. Too bad there isn’t really a second moon orbiting the Earth, or is there? According to this article in phys.org, maybe there is at least a “quasi-moon”.

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the , this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid—2003 YN107—followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroid 2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

There is no indications that there are any mushroom people in HO3. Too bad. I guess I won’t be meeting the Great Ta, the king of Basidium and his foolish wise men, Mebe and Oru.

Great Ta and his wise men

Great Ta and his wise men

A Maze of Stars

May 23, 2016

I found A Maze of Stars by John Brunner to be an intriguing and slightly unusual book. The book does not seem to read like a novel with a continuous story from beginning to end, so much as a series of short stories or vignettes. The story takes place in the Arm of Stars, the last section of our galaxy to be colonized by humanity. A vast sentient Ship was built to travel along the Arm of Stars, seeding each habitable planet with the colonists who chose to settle there. After its great mission was complete, the Ship was supposed to stand by and monitor the progress of the colonies and rescue any population that was in danger.

Maze of Stars

Such was the plan. Instead the Ship found itself to be cast back and forth through time, compelled to retrace its journey along the Arm of Stars again and again centuries after the settlement of the Arm, observing but not contacting like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. At the end of each journey, the Ship travels through time again, emerging at the first planet it visited at a seemingly random time. In A Maze of Stars, the Ship finds itself at the earliest of its voyages, only 500 years after it seeded the colonies. The Ship travels from planet to planet with some knowledge of each planet’s future history, though there is much that remains hidden from the Ship. Some of the colonies have been successful, with a few even beginning to build star ships of their own. Many more are surviving with difficulty and more than a few are failures, the colonists destroyed by the hostile conditions of the planet they colonised. The Ship can recognise that some apparent successes will falter and fail, while some failures will recover. Occasionally, the Ship is able to exploit a loophole in its programming and take along a passenger on its travels. By the time the Ship reaches the end of its path, it learns why it was built and why it is sentenced to retrace its path again and again.

There is one issue raised by A Maze of Stars that I have not seen anywhere else in science fiction or nonfictional speculations about colonizing extra-terrestrial worlds. No life form on Earth either as an individual or a species exists in isolation. Every type of plant or animal lives in a complex ecosystem, composed of not just the obvious predators and sources of food, but also on a microscopic level with the bacteria than live around us and within us. Every form of life on Earth is to some extent depended on a vast web of interactions that are not always well understood. What would happen if some organisms are removed from that web and transplanted to a world with its own native lifeforms? Would the newcomers compete with the native life. Would alien organisms be toxic to creatures from Earth? What about the ecosystem of bacteria that each of us carries around with us and helps with our digestion? Could we maintain the proper balance in an alien world? Scientists have also recently learned that it is possible for DNA to be transferred between different species by viruses, and that these transfers have helped the process of evolution along. What if human colonists pick up alien DNA? Will they be able to remain human. The attempts of the various colonists to protect themselves against  and adjust to the alien environments they have found themselves in is an important backdrop to the story of each planet the Ship visits and is a major factor in the success or failure of each colony, and the questions raised about the future of human development make the book worth reading.

 

 

The Czars

April 11, 2016

There is a tendency, when writing of the history of a nation, to focus on the actions of rulers of that nation. American history books tend to divide American history by presidents, while British books differentiate the eras of British history by kings and queens, and later prime ministers, Chinese by dynasties, and so on. This approach is understandable since while kings and emperors may not have as much control over the events of the nations they rule as they would like, their reigns do give convenient dividing points between periods and eras. Still, there is often a lot going on that has little to do with the actions of any rulers and a history focused on the ruling class risks overlooking many factors and events in the country’s history.

This approach may be more justified in the case of Russian history, than in the histories of most other nations. For much of its history, Russia has been ruled by a strong, centralised government with political power vested in one man or woman, the Czar. The personality of Russia’s Czar was the most powerful influence on the development of the Russian nation. Russia only became a unified nation when the earliest Czars were able to establish control over the unruly boards and the Orthodox Church, become strong enough to defeat the invading Mongols, Poles and Lithuanians and take the title of Czar. The history of Russia is the history of its Czars.

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The Czars by James P. Duffy and Vincent L. Ricci tells the story of Russia’s czars, from their messy beginnings as the Vikings who raided, traded, and then settled the vast Russian lands to the murder of Nicholas II at the hands of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. It is a fascinating story, well told by the two authors. They give a biography of every Czar, the early and obscure princes of Kiev and Muscovy no less than such titanic rulers as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, giving something of the personalities and lives of each Czar as well as the historical circumstances of their reigns. I found the early history of the unification of Russia to be particularly interesting as this was a period that I didn’t know much about. Most histories of Russia seem to cover this time in the first chapter before quickly moving on to Ivan the Great and his son Ivan the Terrible.

The only fault that I can find with The Czars is the absence of maps. A map of the Ukraine and the European part of Russia would have been very handy, especially if it included all the little principalities and cities that were absorbed by the growing Russian state in its earliest years. I found myself having to consult Google maps to get some idea of where the various regions of European Russia were in relation to each other and where the battles against the Mongols and the Poles took place. A genealogy of the two Russian dynasties, the Ruriks and the Romanovs would also have been useful, especially with the early Ruriks who had not yet established the tradition of handing down power from father to son, and with the more tumultuous times of trouble in which several short-lived and distantly related Czars followed one another in succession. Despite these shortcoming, I still found the Czars to be interesting and informative.

The Rise of Rome

March 3, 2016

If I were to mention the Roman Empire in any sort of word association context, many people might respond with some variation of “decline and fall of”. It seems that every historian or history buff who is at all familiar with the history of the Roman Empire thinks largely in terms of its decline and fall and they all seem to have their favorite theories why the Empire fell; moral decay, economic collapse, climate change, etc. The impression seems to be that Rome was somehow doomed to fail and that the only lessons to learn from Roman history is what great powers ought not to do in order to avoid their own decline and fall.

Yet, Rome was an enormously successful state. For almost six hundred years, 146 BC to AD 410, Rome was uncontested ruler of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, a feat unmatched by any of the many great powers since, and even after the “fall” of the Empire in 476, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantine Empire manager to last for another thousand years. No other, more recent, great power has managed such longevity. Perhaps the question we need to ask about the Roman Empire is not how it fell, but how a small, Italian city-state rose to rule the known world, and how they managed to rule for so long.

This is the question which Anthony Everett seeks to answer in “The Rise of Rome”. In his book, Everett traces the history of Rome from its legendary, even mythical, beginnings to the generation before the rise of Caesar. Everett recounts the legends of Rome’s founder, Romulus, and its kings, the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Republic, and the wars in which the city fought for its life against its neighbors. Everett then considers what truth, if any, may be behind these legends based on the findings of archeology, while noting that the true events are less important than the fact that the Romans themselves believed the legends to be true and were influenced by them.

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The Republic slowly came to dominate Italy, in part because of Rome’s military prowess, Rome was an aggressive, militaristic state, but also because the Romans repeatedly demonstrated a statesmanlike common sense in their relations with defeated enemies and in their own internal politics. Here we begin to have somewhat more reliable historical accounts and we can begin to understand what the Romans were doing right. The Romans did not seek to destroy their enemies once they were defeated, but to have their former enemies join them. Italians could become allies in league with Rome and perhaps even gain Roman citizenship. Rome suffered from the same sort of class conflicts as the Greek city-states, but while the Greek factions usually tried to destroy each other, the Roman ruling class generally managed to find some compromise which kept the city together. More than any thing else, it was the Roman refusal to accept defeat and determination to continue fighting, even when their cause seemed lost, that led to the many Roman victories, as such warlords as Pyrrhus and Hannibal discovered.

The Punic Wars were a turning point in Roman history. For the first time, Rome acquired territories outside of Italy, and by the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Rome had come to dominate the Mediterranean. Rome had become a wealthy superpower. This success was not altogether favorable to the development of the character of the Romans. The Republican customs and institutions which suited an Italian city-state did not scale all that well to a mighty empire and the traditional good sense and willingness to compromise that had been displayed by Rome’s ruling class began to falter in the newly affluent society. Everett ends his account of the rise of Rome with the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies, who, perhaps uniquely in history, did not seek to overthrow Roman leadership, but to be allow to become Roman citizens themselves, and rise and fall of the Roman generals and statesmen, Marius and Sulla, who set the precedents for Caesar’s dictatorship and the end of the Roman Republic.

I can highly recommend “The Rise of Rome” for anyone interested in the history of the Roman Republic, particularly the early centuries that do not get nearly so much attention time of Caesar and the early emperors. Maybe we could learn some lessons in how to manage an empire.

Rise of the Warrior Cop

January 24, 2016

Police officers are not soldiers. Despite a superficial similarity, both soldiers and cops wear uniforms and carry weapons, the skills and attitudes required to be successful in these professions are very different. A soldier is trained to kill the enemy. He often has to shoot first and analyze the situation later if he wants to stay alive. A soldier need not concern himself with the civil rights of his enemies. His job is to destroy them and win the war. A police officer, on the other hand, is trained to keep the peace. For him violence is the very last resort. His job is to protect civilians, not kill enemies. Why, then, are law enforcement personnel increasingly taking on the look and attitudes of soldiers?

A SWAT team is meant to be used in emergency situations, when there is a hostage situation, an rampaging shooter, or a riot. There should be few cases in which a SWAT team is ever used and probably only larger jurisdictions really need one, particularly since small city police forces may not have the resources or personnel or properly train or equip a SWAT team. Why are SWAT teams increasingly found to be necessary by small town police departments and why are they being used to perform what ought to be routine, non-violent duties such as serving warrants or making arrests in drug possession cases or illicit gambling rings? Why are various federal departments using armed agents to enforce administrative regulations?

The fourth amendment to the constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and guarantees that any searches and seizures cannot occur without a warrant issued after a demonstration of probable cause. Generally, this has meant that the police are not to enter a residence without knocking and identifying themselves as law enforcement. Why are no-knock raids complete with flash-bang grenades becoming ever more common and accepted as appropriate procedures? Why are there more and more cases of the police raiding the homes of innocent persons, injuring and perhaps killing people, without a word of apology or accountability?

We are supposed to be a nation of equal justice under the law. How is it that police officers can assault and kill with impunity, can steal under the cover of civil forfeiture, and generally act as if they are above the law they are tasked to enforce? When did the friendly neighborhood policeman become the warrior cop?

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Radley Balko attempts to answer these questions in his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop. Balko traces the history of law enforcement in the United States from the beginning, noting that before the American Revolution and for the first few decades after independence there were no police forces in the United States or, for that matter in Britain. There were country sheriffs, but their role was largely serving court warrants. Law enforcement depended on social pressure in small communities and informal, volunteer town watches and posses. As the population grew and became more urbanized, it became necessary to adopt a more formal approach to law enforcement and the first police departments were organized in the 1830’s. This was controversial, both in America and Britain, as the political cultures of both nations were strongly against having a standing army of soldiers patrolling the streets and care was taken to make a clear distinction between the newly formed police forces and the army.

This distinction began to become somewhat less clear in the twentieth century. Prohibition and later the War against Drugs with fights against well armed gangsters and later drug dealers seems to indicate a need for police officers to be more heavily armed, at least in certain special circumstances. The possibility that incriminating drug evidence could be hurriedly disposed of, seemed to make traditional procedures of knocking and waiting for a suspect to answer a door to be somewhat foolish. The upheavals and riots of the 1960’s showed a need for a heavily armed and specially trained task force, or SWAT agents, to handle extreme circumstances.

Since the 1960’s, tactics meant to be used rarely and under specific conditions have become routine. If one is fighting a war against drugs, than the drug dealers are not simply fellow citizens who have committed a crime, but the enemy who is working to bring down the country. One does not concern oneself too much with the civil rights of the enemy in time of war. After 9/11, terrorism began to take the place of drugs as the enemy and justification for police departments around the country to acquire cool military equipment.

There is much more to be said about this issue, and Radley Balko says it in his book. If you are at all concerned with civil rights, and our country’s slow erosion into a police state, than I highly recommend Rise of the Warrior Cop, though you may be surprised and shocked to learn how widespread and serious the problem of police misconduct has become. Balko lists many, many examples is his book.

Some might accuse Radley Balko of being anti-police. He denies the charge and I believe him. As he notes, the vast majority of police officers are good people. The problem is not really the cops. The problem is that the system we have in place tends to reward the bad cops and to create incentives for even good cops to behave badly, particularly in the sense that often develops in police departments that it is us (the department) against them ( the criminals and increasingly civilians). Balko does make suggestions for reforms at the end of the book, and I hope that someone in a position to do something will heed his warnings.

The Myths Really Happened

December 18, 2015

One of the nice things about reading e-books on a Kindle is that a great many books are available either for free or for a very low price because they are older books whose authors are long dead and the copyrights have expired. These low-priced or free books are some of the greatest classics of literature and naturally I have been interested in reading them, particularly the classical Greek and Roman mythological epic such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Now I have recently come across a pair of news stories that suggest that the backgrounds of these epic poems may not have come entirely from the minds of the writers, that there may be a kernel of fact behind the fiction.

First, there is this interesting article from the Guardian on some recent research about the mysterious Etruscans who lived and ruled in Italy before the rise of Rome. The Romans themselves were not Etruscans but the Etruscans heavily influenced Roman culture. Unfortunately, the written language of the Etruscans remains undeciphered, so little is known of them, except what the Greeks and Romans have written about them.

They gave us the word “person” and invented a symbol of iron rule later adopted by the fascists. Some even argue it was they who really moulded Roman civilisation.

Yet the Etruscans, whose descendants today live in central Italy, have long been among the great enigmas of antiquity. Their language, which has never properly been deciphered, was unlike any other in classical Italy. Their origins have been hotly debated by scholars for centuries.

Genetic research made public at the weekend appears to put the matter beyond doubt, however. It shows the Etruscans came from the area which is now Turkey – and that the nearest genetic relatives of many of today’s Tuscans and Umbrians are to be found, not in Italy, but around Izmir.

The European Human Genetic Conference in Nice was told on Saturday the results of a study carried out in three parts of Tuscany: the Casentino valley, and two towns, Volterra and Murlo, where important finds have been made of Etruscan remains. In each area, researchers took DNA samples from men with surnames unique to the district and whose families had lived there for at least three generations.

They then compared their Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son, with those of other groups in Italy, the Balkans, modern-day Turkey and the Greek island of Lemnos, which linguistic evidence suggests could have links to the Etruscans.

The latest findings confirm what was said about the matter almost 2,500 years ago, by the Greek historian Herodotus. The first traces of Etruscan civilisation in Italy date from about 1200 BC.

About seven and a half centuries later, Herodotus wrote that after the Lydians had undergone a period of severe deprivation in western Anatolia, “their king divided the people into two groups, and made them draw lots, so that the one group should remain and the other leave the country; he himself was to be the head of those who drew the lot to remain there, and his son, whose name was Tyrrhenus, of those who departed”.

But the latest conclusions may add weight to a rival, apparently more fanciful, theory that links their name to Troy, the “city of towers” and a part of the Lydian empire. The most likely date for the fall of Troy, as described by Homer, is between 1250 and 1200 BC.

Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan prince named Aeneas who fled with his family when the Greeks destroyed Troy. Aeneas led his followers around the Mediterranean until they settled at last in Italy where after many adventures he established a kingdom. His descendants were Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in the hope of creating a national epic for the Romans in the same way that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were for the Greeks, and he consciously inserted what might be considered political propaganda justifying the leadership of Rome over the known world, and also the role of his patron Augustus Caesar as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. This does not mean that Virgil simply invented the plot of the Aeneid. Instead, it seems that he made use of Roman legends concerning the Trojan origins of the Roman people that had been told for generations by combining them into a more unified and coherent story.

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The Romans were not themselves Etruscans. They were clearly natives of Italy, closely related in language and culture to many other people living in south and central Italy. The Etruscans clearly influenced the development of Roman culture and it is likely that they brought the alphabet to Italy, as well as many other elements of civilization. If the recent findings about the origins of the Etruscans from Lydia in Asia Minor, the actual location of Troy, then it is possible that the legends that Virgil drew upon to create the Aeneid are a distant memory of a real migration from Asia Minor to Italy, perhaps by refugees fleeing war and the destruction of their homeland.

But what about Homer? Unlike Virgil who lived at around the time of Christ and so is well known to history, Homer lived at a time when Greece was emerging from a dark age. Not much is known about Homer, even whether a poet by that name ever really existed. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of an dispute between Achilles and the other leaders of the Greeks during the Trojan War and of Achilles’s personal feud with the Trojan prince Hector. The Odyssey tells the story of the Greek Odysseus’s trials as he sails home after the war. It wouldn’t seem likely that these fanciful tales are based on real, historical persons, yet, there really was a Troy, or at any rate a city at the legendary location of Troy. This city was burned down several times and rebuilt, but it is not clear whether the Greek stories of the Trojan War are a memory of an actual siege of the city. Still, there is this story I read in the Independent.

The Odyssey is one of the great works of ancient Western literature, written eight centuries before the birth of Christ and four centuries after the fall of Troy. Generations of classicists have pored over the many lines of Homer’s epic description of the long journey taken by the hero Odysseus to his home island of Ithaca. Now two scholars have found evidence to support the idea that one line, in the poem’s 20th book, refers to a total solar eclipse that occurred on 16 April 1178 BC – the day when Odysseus returned home to kill his wife’s suitors. If true, this would date the fall of Troy itself to precisely 1188 BC.

The idea that The Odyssey refers to a total solar eclipse, when the Moon blocks out the Sun completely, is not new. It was first suggested by ancient scholars, but it was only in the 1920s that astronomers were able to calculate that such an eclipse over Greece around that time could only have taken place on 16 April 1178 BC.

 

Instead of looking at when a solar eclipse occurred in history, as other astronomers had done, they investigated the timing of a new moon, the simultaneous appearance of two stellar constellations in the evening sky, and appearances of the planets Mercury and Venus. All four phenomena are mentioned in The Odyssey which gave Constantino Baikouzis of the Observatorio Astronomico de La Plata in Argentina, and Professor Marcelo Magnasco, of the Rockefeller University in New York, another way of checking the date when Odysseus is supposed to have returned to his home on Ithaca to kill his wife’s suitors.

They calculated the pattern in which these four events occurred, from the references mentioned in The Odyssey, and compared them against patterns gleaned from 135 years of astronomical data – nearly 5,000 days. The result was they found just one date that could have been the fateful day. It was the same 16 April 1178BC that was known to have been a total solar eclipse. “What are the chances of having two different ways of dating the text and both agreeing on the same date? We calculated the chances of these two dates agreeing by chance alone is something like one in 50,000,” Professor Magnasco said.

“Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important but, if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described.”

“Under the very large assumption that there was an Odysseus, there were suitors that got massacred, that it indeed took 10 years for Odysseus to get back … yes, in that case the fall of Troy would have happened 10 years before the death of the suitors, thus in 1188BC. The current dating of the destruction layer of Troy VIIa is around 1190 plus/minus a few years.”

Obviously the more fantastic elements of Homer’s tales such the cyclops or the miraculous involvement of the gods, but it is altogether possible that the legends of the Trojan War are derived from a real war and the Iliad from an actual incident in that war. The Odyssey may be a dim memory of actual troubles faced by men returning from this war to find matters at home not as they might wish. Who can tell?

OK, this part was probably made up.

OK, this part was probably made up.

The Spanish Civil War

November 2, 2015

Like most Americans, I never knew very much about the Spanish Civil War. Outside of Spain, it mostly seems to be seen as a sort of prelude to World War II; the first battle of the epic struggle between Fascism and Democracy. In the movie Casablanca, that Rick fought on the Loyalist side in Spain was a quick way to indicate that he had, at least at one time, been on the side of the good guys.

At first glance, this impression seems to be true. The Spanish Civil War did begin as a military insurrection against the democratically elected left wing government of Spain. The Nationalists under Francisco Franco were backed by Fascist Italy and Germany who saw the civil war as an opportunity to test new weapons and tactics. A closer examination quickly shows that the issues surrounding this war were much more complicated than this simple view. For one thing, since the democracies such as France and Britain were determined to remain neutral in this conflict, the Republican government of Spain had little choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for help. This help came with strings attached, the Soviets hoped to increase the influence of the Communist Party in Spain and ultimately to create a Socialist dictatorship controlled by the Communists. On the other hand, there were never very many Fascists, or Falangists as the Spanish Fascists were named, in Spain until just before the Civil War. There was an increase in membership of the Falangist Party as the conflict began, mostly as a reaction to the apparent attempts by the left wing parties to convert Spain into a Soviet state. Franco himself never had much use for Fascist ideology and by the end of the end he had subordinated the party to his personal rule.

As for democracy, the truth is that neither side really supported the idea. The Right, whether Falangist, monarchist, or conservative, was frankly authoritarian in outlook. They were prepared to play the game of running in elections, but they didn’t much care for the process. The Left seemed to not understand the whole purpose of democracy is too allow the people to choose their rulers. They believed that they were on the side of History and Progress and thought of elections merely as a way to confirm their mandate. When a right-wing coalition won the elections in 1933, the left demanded that the vote be invalidated, not on the grounds of any evidence of fraud or irregularities, but simply because the wrong people had won. When they won the next elections, they began to rig the system to make sure they wouldn’t lose again. This refusal to follow the Spanish constitution, along with a threatened purge of the military caused the military to rise up against the left-wing government, beginning a terrible civil war. Neither side were the good guys, or even altogether the bad guys.

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Stanley G Payne makes this clear in his account of the war, titled, simply enough, The Spanish Civil War. Payne gives a clear and coherent account of the years leading up to the war and is remarkably even-handed in assigning responsibility for the mistakes in policy that caused the war. Payne gives a good chronological account of the military history of the war as well as dealing with the policies each side developed to fight the war and to remake Spain according to their competing ideals. Both sides committed atrocities, and Payne is again even-handed in giving accounts on the inevitable horrors of war, alway worse in a civil war. He also explores why Franco and the Nationalist eventually won control of Spain and the motives of the countries that sought to intervene in the war.

The one thing that most struck me while reading through this book is that the Republicans really should have won this conflict. In 1936, when the fighting actually began, they controlled most of the territory of Spain, including the richest and most productive regions. They were considered the legitimate government of Spain internationally and they held the capital. They also controlled about half the navy, most of the air force, and even much of the army.  The Nationalists began the war as a few disgruntled army officers, mostly stationed in Morocco. How did they end up winning? They did get a lot of support from Germany and Italy and this did make a difference early in the war, but it seems the one advantage the Nationalists had over the Republicans was that they early became unified under a single leader, General Francisco Franco. The Republicans were divided between various factions including liberals who wanted some sort of social democracy, more doctrinaire socialists and communists who wanted to use the existing government to make Spain into a socialist state, and the radical communists and anarchist who wanted a revolution, not to mention nationalist Catalans and Basques. This division made it difficult for the Republican government to develop any sort of coherent strategy for winning the war, and the more extreme left-wing elements of their coalition, especially their anti-religious stance, frightened many Spaniards into supporting Franco as the lesser evil. They were probably correct, Franco was a dictator who crushed dissent after winning the war, but he probably didn’t cause nearly as much misery for the Spanish people as a Soviet backed Communist dictatorship might have, and Franco, at least, had the good sense to keep Spain out of World War II and he was inadvertently responsible for restoring democracy to Spain by arranging for King Juan Carlos to take power after his death. Franco was the least bad option for Spain at the time.

Franco and a young Juan Carlos

Franco and a young Juan Carlos

 

The Martian

September 30, 2015

I have just finished reading the most amazing book, The Martian by Andy Weir. Perhaps you have seen the advertisements for the forth-coming movie starring Matt Damon as the Martian of the title. The movie is not out yet, and it is unlikely that I will watch it before it comes out on DVD, but I did read the book to see what all the hype was about. I d not know how they will adapt this book to the movie, such adaptations are always a chancy business and I am rarely satisfied with the result, but if the movie is at all faithful to the plot of the book, it will be well worth watching.

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The Martian is not, as the title would suggest, a science fiction novel about a person from the planet Mars. Instead it is the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is one of a crew of six astronauts on a mission to explore Mars. A dust storm causes NASA to abort the mission after only six days on the surface of Mars and Watney is seemingly killed while the crew is trying to get to the Mars Ascent Vehicle which is designed to return the crew to their orbiting space craft Hermes which will take them home to Earth. However, Watney is not dead but has been left behind, all alone on Mars with no way to return to Earth or even to communicate with NASA. The rest of the novel is concerned with Mark Watney’s efforts to stay alive on Mars until he can be rescued.

 

In many ways, The Martian is a hearkening back to the great, old days of science fiction, to a more optimistic time when science fiction was about man’s exploration of the universe and nothing seemed impossible with the application of scientific knowledge and reason, rather than the pessimistic post-apocalyptic dystopias and social justice warrior crap that one sees too much of in the genre these days. The plot is well paced and exciting. Although I knew that Watney will make it off of Mars, this isn’t the sort of story that has him die at the last minute, the question of just how he will manage the next crisis kept me, almost literally, at the edge of my seat and made the book almost impossible to put down. Mark Watney himself is an engaging character, something of a twenty-first century Robinson Crusoe, clever and resourceful enough to find ways to survive. Just as Crusoe was able to salvage his wrecked ship to enable himself to survive on his island, Watney is capable of making use of the equipment left behind on Mars. Much of the story is told by way of the audio log he keeps and his often humorous commentary on the conditions and problems he faces helps to make what might be tedious exposition enjoyable to read. There is no Man Friday on Mars for Watney, but scavenging the Pathfinder lander allows him to regain contact with Earth which surely must be just as momentous as Crusoe’s finding a footprint in the sand and realizing that he no longer has to face his troubles alone.

The story is also told from the point of view of Mark Watney’s crew-mates and the engineers and administrators at NASA who are desperately trying to find a way to bring Watney home, or at least send him supplies to last until the next mission to Mars. They are shown to be competent, loyal and determined and in that respect The Martian reminded me of the movie Apollo 13. The science in the Martian is rock solid and this is one of the hardest, on the scale between hard to soft, science fiction books I have ever read. Andy Weir is the son of a scientist and a student of science himself. All of the technology in the book is based on real life technology we have right now and the mission to Mars is based on real plans that NASA might adopt to send astronauts to Mars. Weir’s portrayal of Martian conditions is based on the very latest information from probes. If a man ever did get stranded on Mars, this is a realistic story of how he might survive.

I can highly recommend The Martian to any reader whether science fiction fan or not. There is just one problem. The Martian actually makes the prospect of living on Mars seem desirable. Ever since I finished it, I have had the most intense desire to hop on a spaceship and go to Mars myself. Where do I sign up?

The red hills of Mars

The red hills of Mars

 

Flowers for Algernon

August 27, 2015

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of those books which every literate person in America should be familiar with, at least to the extent of knowing the basic plot. It has been taught in schools, and has been challenged for being inappropriate. Flowers for Algernon has won awards and been adapted for the television, radio, and film. There aren’t many science fiction novels which have had the kind of influence that Flowers for Algernon has had.

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The plot is straightforward enough. Charlie Gordon is a thirty-two year old retarded man who works in a bakery. All his life, he has desperately wanted to be smart. He gets his chance when he is selected to be the first human subject for an experimental technique for raising intelligence. This new procedure has already proved to be effective on a mouse named Algernon and the scientists have good reason to believe that it will be just as effective on a human being. The procedure is successful and soon Charlie is as far above average in IQ as he was below. Charlie discovers, however, that high intelligence is not without its own problems. He becomes bitter and anti-social when he learns that his “friends” at the bakery only liked him because they laughed at him and took advantage at him. The scientists he believed were geniuses turn out to be knowledgeable only in narrow fields. Charlie is as much as outsider with a genius level IQ as he was when he was retarded and this time he knows it. Worst of all, Charlie’s own research reveals that the success of the procedure is only temporary. He will lose his intelligence as quickly as he gained it. In the end, Charlie is back to the level he was at the start of the book, except perhaps a little wiser than he was even at his height. He can no longer understand the contribution he made to science but he at least regained the humanity he came near to losing, and he understands what it is to be smart a little better.

Daniel Keyes did a wonderful job conveying Charlie Gordon’s growth and decline through the medium of Charlie’s journals or progress reports that he is required to write as part of the experiment. The earliest entries show a naïve and simple Charlie with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Charlie really doesn’t understand what is going on around him, yet he wants to be liked. People do like him, even his friends who laugh at him, because of his determination to learn as much as he can despite his limited intelligence. As Charlie gains in intelligence, his spelling and punctuation become more correct and he begins to use a more advanced vocabulary. He also begins to be less likable and more arrogant. As Charlie begins to revert to his earlier state, the language he uses in writing the progress reports also deteriorates. This last section of the book is heartbreaking and more than a little terrifying. There are few things that most people dread more than losing their minds. Even death is seen as preferable and fear of death is often really fear of oblivion or mindlessness. Keyes is very good at expressing Charlie’s dread and fear as he sinks back into subnormal intelligence.

Flowers for Algernon, then, is a book well worth rereading, or reading for the first time if you have somehow managed to avoid it all these years. The novel was published in 1966 and was an expansion of a short story Keyes wrote in 1958 so it may be somewhat dated. One hopes that people like Charlie Gordon are somewhat better treated today, though substitution intellectually challenged for retarded is not really an improvement if the people saying intellectually challenged still regard them as subhuman. These dated parts do not detract in the enjoyment of the book and are scarcely noticeable in a book surely to become a classic.

 


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