Friday, May 7, 2010

Reviews for Friday May 7, 2010

S.M. Stirling - Conquistador Stirling writes alternative history novels. The most prominent of them, I think,are the Dies the Fire novels, which chronicle life in the United States after an event (the Event) results in all combustion based power stopping work - gasoline burns slowly, gunpowder doesn't explode, etc. The inhabitants are forced to adapt to a pre-industrial era. Those novels are very good, especially considering that they were spin-off of a trilogy, the Islands in the Sea of Time trilogy, which follows the lives of the inhabitants of Nantucket after they have been thrown backwards in time to the age of Alexander the Great. (The Event which resulted in the loss of Nantucket is the same Event as the one which begins the Dies the Fire series.) Conquistador is one of his stand alone novels, and I'm not sure how to handle it, actually.

A little plot. At the end of WWII, American Marine John Rolfe accidentally discovers a gate to an alternative Earth, where, for reasons that are not actually that important, Europe did not develop, and so European settlers did not arrive in the Americas. He decides to move in, and create an alternative United States, inviting members of the unit he led in the Pacific to join him. Most of the novel takes place in 2009, on both sides of the "gate", with periodic flashbacks to earlier periods to explain the developments which led to the 2009 incidents. The critical thing is that Rolfe and his fellow founding fathers decide that the best way to find recruits to help settle the land is to find people desperate for a place to disappear. In the late 1940s, they recruit a family of Germans who are, in fact, Nazis. Over the course of several decades, they bring in British colonialists forced out of Africa (Kenya, South Africa), French colonialists forced out of Algeria, and former Soviets forced out of everywhere. In short, the population of New Virginia is very white, and often quite unpleasant in a racist sort of way. Stirling does caution readers not to take the views of the characters as the views of the author (in fact, quoting Niven, he suggests that readers who do so are idiots), and there are sympathetic Black and Jewish characters (a few) throughout the novel, and Stirling makes it clear that the younger generation of New Virginians do not necessarily share the views of the founders. Indeed, and I don't think this counts as a spoiler, but some may disagree, so: the heir of the Nazi family ends up married to the daughter of one of Rolfe's original soldiers, who is Jewish. The thing is, it's tough to read so many characters who are, frankly, odious. Some of them have redeeming characteristics which balance things out, but the villains display their villainousness (if that is a word) through highly racialized attitudes. It didn't stop me from reading the book all the way through, but, well, meh. I think, if this were my first exposure to Stirling, I might not have finished. His other books tend to be deeper, with more nuanced characters - this feels like Stirling is playing with an idea which he isn't fully committed to - and maybe that's exactly the case.

That being said, Stirling has carefully thought out the background of the novel, and there's a fair bit of research done. Why didn't Europeans arrive in North America? There is a reason, and Stirling has clearly thought through the implications of that reason. What will happen when Rolfe et al arrive in New Virginia? Stirling has through that through as well. There is solid research behind the book, that comes through in a lot of places, not the least of which are the technical descriptions of technology and the procedural passages about various police organizations on either side of the gate. Stirling does good work in that regard, and, to a greater or lesser extent, it is that which allows me to excuse the thinness of the characters.

A final thought - another author that I am quite fond of is Steven Gould, and the premise of this novel - the "what if" of a gate which offers an alternative to the heavily industrialized present - is very close to the premise of Gould's novel, Wildside. I even suspect that this is intentional, given the last scene of Stirling's book, which is highly reminiscent of an opening scene in Wildside. I'm not saying Gould did it better, or that Stirling did - these are completely different books, which go in completely different directions. I'm just saying, sometimes authors tumble to the same initial Big Idea. And that's entirely ok.

Jonathan Phillips - Holy Warriors Ha! I finished it! I wasn't entirely sure I would, actually - that is, not before today, anyway. But I did, so I can review it.

So, I don't know if I mentioned it, but professionally, I am an historian. So I have some interest in how the discipline is presented. This is a very approachable narrative history of the Crusades. Phillips knows his stuff - he is an established expert on the Crusades - but has managed to present a long (multiple centuries) and complex (vast political and dynastic networks, movements of large armies across huge spaces) period without coming across as dry or academic. As a reader, very enjoyable. As a historian, a) I'm jealous - no, jealous is the wrong word; appreciative, perhaps - this is the sort of thing that I want to write, eventually. b) I wish that there had been more in the end notes - Phillips includes only reference data in his notes, and there were several places where I wanted a little amplification, a small aside, or a piece of additional information. As a specific example, when Saladin re-captured Jerusalem, he installed a pulpit in the al-Aqsa Mosque. Phillips mentions that it was burned up by an arsonist in 1969, and I found myself wanting to know more about that - a few lines in a note would have sufficed.Historians often do not have the luxury of writing the notes they want to - publishers struggle to keep the work as succinct as possible - and often Phillips includes the sort of aside which might be put into a note within his text.

One passage which struck me as particularly apropos to the current international situation  was a quote from Louis IX of France, in 1250, "our departure would simply leave it [the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem] exposed to the Saracens, particularly since at the this time it was, alas, in such a weakened and wretched condition. In the wake of our departure the Christian prisoners ... could be regarded as dead men, since all hope of release would have been removed ... But if we stayed, some good, it was hoped, may come of our presence ... although many urged us not to remain overseas, nevertheless in our pity on the miseries and adversities of the Holy Land, to whose aid we had come, and in our sympathy for the incarceration and sufferings of our prisoners, we have chosen to postpone our passage ... rather than leave the Business of Christ in a state of such utter hopelessness."  This was after a disastrous attempt to re-capture Jerusalem which ended with a barely mutually acceptable peace with the Mamluks. It's not hard to hear any other European/Western leader justifying their (or their military's) continued presence in the region - substitute "our allies" for Christian prisoners and "democracy" for the Business of Christ, and this would fit very nicely in the media of today. Which is Phillips' point, in the end. The Middle East - the Holy Land - has become an obsession for at least three different religious groups, and many of the attitudes surrounding that obsession cab be traced back to the beginning of the second century CE. Phillips stresses that the attitudes are the same on both, or all, sides of the religious divide - indeed, in several places he points out that a sermon by a Christian cleric, with some words changed, would work just as well coming from an Islamic cleric, and vice versa.

Phillips offers no prescriptions for how to address the Middle East. It is not his job, after all. However, it is revealing to consider that the regimes which tended to be successful in the region (for instance, the Franks ruled Jerusalem and the surrounding territory for almost a century, Saladin and his children were equally successful) were the ones which treated their neighbors with respect, and sought to find common ground. Both the Christian Franks and their Muslim neighbors were equestrian people, both enjoyed hunting, both had societies which placed a high value on honor. When the rulers (regardless of their religion) grounded their relationships in these common elements, relations were relatively smooth. When the religious differences came to the fore (either due to incidents within the region or pressure from outside), relations tended to break down under the strain.

Phillips does suggest that our modern impressions of the Crusaders and the Jihadis are heavily coloured by modern and slightly pre-modern romanticism. A closer look reveals these groups to be deeply complex, and ultimately quite hard to categorize, something which a) tends to be true about every group of people and b) is very easy to forget.