“Shift” Hugh Howey

Shift is the sequel to Wool which I read earlier this year (post). In Wool we saw a few months in a post-apocalyptic world where what’s left of humanity is cooped up in a great underground complex (a silo) with a hidden rottenness somewhere at the centre of their society. When I wrote about that book I said it was clear that despite the reveals we hadn’t quite got to the heart of it yet, and Shift gets there.

It starts before, in a world that’s almost our own, a future only 50 or so years away. In the middle of a familiar world there’s a few technological advances that matter to the story – nanotech is a reality, cryogenics too & there are drugs that make you forget traumatic events. Through the book we mostly follow Donald Keene, who’s a newly elected Congressman pulled into a top secret project designing & building an underground bunker – he’s told it’s a safety feature to go next to some nuclear waste disposal facilities. His story is interspersed with other stories of events between this near future and the time of Wool. At the end of the book we see some of the events from the end of Wool from the other side – and they look different form this perspective. So I think we now know what’s rotten at the centre of this world, and book three is going to be what our protagonists from both Wool & Shift do about it.

Shift continues to have interestingly flawed characters. Front & centre is Donald – one of the characters later on says that “good men” like Donald should be in charge. But I don’t think that’s a particularly good description of Donald – he’s certainly not a bad man, but good would be stretching it. He’s very self-centred, on more than on occasion not looking past his own concerns to the wider picture and doing the wrong things because of this. He’s also prone to willful blindness, there are definitely hints even before he’s told what’s going on – and once he’s told he would rather forget than face it until it’s nearly too late. Rather do his job & think about the career opportunities, rather than face up to an unpleasant truth. Equally, he’s still someone I’d rather have running things than the people who were – he’s not a good man, he does things that are morally wrong & does selfish things, but he’s not ruthless and he still sees people as people instead of pieces on a board.

One of the themes running through the book is that if you set up a system and protocols for situations then people follow them – it ends up with the system in charge rather than an individual. This thing happens, do what it says here. And everyone does their little bit, acts like a cog in the machine, and even if no-one knows the whole plan it will still get done. Another thread running through both this book & the first one is that if your information stream is faulty/censored then so are all your conclusions. That’s rather obvious as a statement, but Howey shows us it working out over & over – he even does it to us. As I said above there’s a bit of overlap with the end of Wool, only this time we see a few conversations from the other side. Knowing what we know by the end of this book changes things.

Book 3 doesn’t come out till August – just need to remember about it nearer the time to get hold of it from the library! πŸ™‚

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 3)

These are the next four sections of the catalogue – the first two cover international relations (with those they conquered and those they didn’t). If I had planned it out a little better I would’ve split this up differently because the next three essays are about each Emperor in turn – and better planning would’ve kept them together in a post, however I didn’t think of that till too late! πŸ™‚

“Territories of The Qing” Evelyn S. Rawski

This essay covers the other places the Qing conquered as well as China and some of the politics that drove their conquest. First they unified the northeast Asian tribes under Manchu rule (this is in the 1620s & 1630s) and their first conquest was China. Rawski says that this started as a campaign to “defend the Ming” when a rebellion had captured Beijing & the Emperor had committed suicide but soon turned into outright conquest (as detailed in the first essay in this book (post)). After this was successfully completed the Ming moved to consolidate their northern borders, with Inner Asia and with Mongolia. Some of this involved some sabre-rattling with Russia resulting in a fixed border being negotiated (in 1689 & 1727).

The incorporation of Mongolia & Tibet into the Qing Empire involved taking advantage of the internal politics of those regions. In Mongolia they took advantage of a war between two different Mongol tribes – the one that was losing submitted to the Qing so that they’d come to their aid. The Qing interventions in Tibet also started with that conflict. The relationship between political leaders of the northern Asian tribes and Tibetan Buddhism goes back to the Mongol Yuan dynasty (about 300 years earlier, post) who established the lama-patron relationship. So the Qing backed other lamas than the Zunghar Mongols did. They also took advantage of a succession dispute over who was the true sixth Dalai Lama to not only get their prefered lama in charge, but also to reorganise the political leadership of Tibet as the first step towards true conquest.

The objects in this section of the exhibition catalogue are to do with war and conquest. They include ceremonial armour, weapons and paintings of the Emperor as a warrior. There are also paintings of processions and banquets, presumably to do with the conquest of various regions.

“Diplomats, Jesuits and Foreign Curiosities” Joanna Waley-Cohen

One reason the Qing Emperors collected foreign curiosities was as a means of legitimising their rule and proving themselves civilised. They had to know everything and possess everything for they were the universal rulers. This interacted poorly with the European colonial efforts which were reaching China at this time. The Qing Emperors tried to fit the European diplomats into the sort of tributary relationships they had with nearby non-Chinese states, such as Japan, Vietnam etc. They were also cautious in their dealings with Europeans because they could see evidence of what happened when you weren’t – they were aware of other colonial European adventures such as the British in India or the Spanish in Manila.

Missionaries were treated differently – the Qing apparently didn’t think they were connected to international politics. This strikes me as odd, because the Qing were busy using Buddhism as a means of taking over Tibet at the time. But perhaps that’s down to the Jesuits strategy of integrating themselves into the existing court structure and providing secular knowledge & gifts to the Emperors – including becoming court painters, like Giuseppe Castaglione who worked for all three of these Emperors. Christianity was tolerated to some degree, so long as Christians still acknowledged the Emperor as their pre-eminent ruler but emphasis on the Pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church caused friction & a loss of tolerance.

Waley-Cohen also points out that the fashion for “western” curiosities & objects mirrors the European chinoiserie fashions of the time – both in the fascination with the exotic and in the way it’s not really authentic. The objects in this section of the exhibition include several paintings by Castiglione and other European court painters, as well as paintings of the court receiving foreign dignitaries & scientific instruments. There was also three pages of beautifully decorated snuff bottles – snuff was imported from Europe during this period.

“The Kangxi Emperor: Horseman, Man of Letters, Man of Science” Regina Krahl

Krahl’s thesis is that the Kangxi Emperor deliberately set out to make himself the quintessential Chinese Emperor, better than all that had gone before. As only the second Emperor of a conquest he didn’t have an obvious role model (his father, the Shunzhi Emperor was neither the conqueror of China (being a child at the time) nor an effective independent ruler, so doesn’t quite count), he also had non-Chinese ancestry which was important and needed acknowledged. The Kangxi Emperor took the throne at the age of 7 and took control at the age of 15, he reigned for 60 years in total. He honoured his Manchu heritage by participating in the various practical skills that were valued by Manchu cultures – archery, horseback riding etc. He was open to new ideas, and interested in the Western science (and art techniques such as perspective) that the Jesuits taught him.

As the Emperor of China with a Mandate from Heaven he had expectations to fulfil & a role to fill. Krahl argues that he set out to become educated in all aspects of this role – he learnt from leading scholars about Confucian philosophy, and about precedents in Chinese history for the imperial decisions he would be making. He learnt calligraphy, and became familiar with Chinese literature in order to phrase and write his decisions properly. He also demonstrated his learning to document his legitimacy as a true Chinese Emperor by publishing many writings on a wide variety of appropriate subjects including morals, agriculture, poetry. He also commissioned collections of writing by others – for instance an anthology of 50,000 Tang dynasty poems.

As well as this he patronised the arts, like a Chinese Emperor should. In fact he moved the various artists & craftsmen further into the Forbidden City than before and so they were in closer contact with the Emperor than before. Thus the material produced during his reign & his immediate successors reflected the personal tastes of the Emperor in question.

This section has a lot of examples of calligraphy done by the Kangxi Emperor, and beautifully decorated writing instruments and accessories. There are also many objets d’art that he had made for him during his life time – I was particularly struck by the peach-bloom porcelain, which is simple & elegant porcelain vases etc with a particular copper-red glaze.

“The Yongzheng Emperor: Art Collector and Patron” Regina Krahl

The Yongzheng Emperor gets overshadowed by his father and his son – he ruled for a much shorter time (13 years instead of 60 years) and Krahl says there is little positive proganda available from his reign. There were questions about the legitimacy of his inheritance of the throne and he had to take measures to prevent instability such as eliminating his enemies. His official persona was secretive, distant and ruthless – which did lead him to make the government more efficient and China was prosperous under his rule.

Less official sources indicate he was more interesting than that sounds – he had a sense of humour & whimsy, and apparently sometimes expressed himself in “colloquialisms that he must have learned […] from soldiers”. Informal portraits of him in Manchu dress show him ill at ease, but portraits in Chinese dress show him looking at ease. He didn’t go hunting or travel as much as either his father or son, another indication that he was more a product of his Chinese role than his Manchu heritage. Unlike his father his art collection was down to interest rather than because that was what an Emperor did. He commissioned many stands and display boxes for pieces of art from his collections, and inspected his collection frequently. During his reign he also commissioned many new works of art, and encouraged his artisans to rediscover & further develop old techniques. Krahl ends by discussing how the Qianlong Emperor gets credit for some of the Yongzheng Emperor’s works of art – because he was better at cultivating his image than his father and because he stamped them with his seals etc. Also styles that first show up in the Yongzheng period are often known from more examples in the Qianlong period and so again the son’s reign gets credit for the art.

This section of the catalogue contains paintings of the Yongzheng Emperor in a variety of costumes, and many beautiful objets d’art (including some porcelain vases with bluey-purpley glazes that I particularly liked). It also has a couple of sections from a scroll called “Pictures of Ancient Playthings” – which is paintings of his favourite antiques.

Ice Age Giants; Australia with Simon Reeve; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The last episode of Ice Age Giants looked at why there are none of these large animals left. The first half of the programme concentrated on North America where there were the greatest proportion of extinctions. Roberts started by talking about the idea that it was people – we were treated to a proper true crime documentary moment where the voiceover was all “but beneath the peaceful streets of this Tennessee town lies a dark secret” etc etc. And saw how there is an excavation pretty much in someone’s back garden – of mastodon bones that look to have been hunted & butchered by humans. So was it people? Roberts pointed out the problems with that theory – not many people in North America at the time, lots of megafauna, and a few thousand years of overlap of people & megafauna.

So what else? How about the floods that created the coulees (also known as the Channeled Scablands) in Washington (the state). These features of the landscape are vast vast canyons that have been scoured out of the rock, but there’s no sign of a river. The theory to explain what caused them is that as the glaciers melted a great lake of meltwater was formed in Montana which is known as Glacial Lake Missoula, this was penned in by a dam formed by the melting glaciers. When it broke through it did so catastrophically and the water rushed to the west of the continent carving its way through the rock as it went. This happened several times as the glaciers advanced & retreated, I think she was saying a couple of hundred times over just a few thousand years. This would’ve killed anything in it’s path (and created what still looks like a blasted landscape today). But that can’t’ve killed all the animals, it would just’ve got the ones in its path.

How about climate change? This isn’t a case of it just getting a bit warmer all over – the melting of the ice sheets released more water into the rainfall systems, so the world got wetter as well as warmer. Still not quite that simple, the swamps that the glyptodonts lived in dried up & became desert because the rainfall moved north as the ice sheets retreated and the more southern regions warmed up. Roberts now skipped across to Europe and the woolly mammoths & woolly rhinoceroses of the Mammoth Steppe. These enormous herbivores relied on the dry grasslands to provide them with sufficient food all year round. As the world warmed up, and got wetter, forests grew where there had just been grassy plains. And it started to snow in the winters on the Mammoth Steppe. Woolly rhinos couldn’t cope with that – snow covers the grass and makes it harder to find, it’s also hard to walk through so you need more energy to move around and so more food. So that’s what killed off the woolly rhinos – an Ice Age Giant killed by it snowing too much, not at all what you’d expect.

And now we circled back to the mastodons of North America. There is research being done on fungal spores in soil that can indicate how many herbivores have left their dung on the land – if you look at soil from the past you can estimate herd sizes (or at least changes in herd sizes) over time. And these show that the large herds of mastodons & other herbivores died out before the climate change changed the vegetation (which you can tell by looking at seeds & pollen in the same soil samples). So probably not climate change as the whole story here. Roberts then talked to a palaeontologist who thinks he has an answer for the mastodon extinction. He has looked at the types of injuries on female mastodon specimens, and also looked at the types of mastodon that show signs of butchering. In modern elephants (which are close cousins of the mastodons) preferential hunting of mature adult males destabilises the herd structure. Normally a dominant male swoops in to a female plus offspring herd when the females go into heat and mates with the females. He also suppresses the behaviour of the adolescent males. When there is no dominant male, the younger males that still live in the female herd will go on a rampage when the females come into heat – and can injure females & calves (and each other) in the process. This palaeontologist thinks he sees evidence of this happening to the mastodons, so it was people that caused their extinction but in a very slow process caused by preferentially hunting solitary adult males which they wouldn’t’ve been able to see happening.

Last up for extinction were the woolly mammoths – which survived on a remote island north of Sibera until around 2000BC (when people arrived on the island). Apparently from the evidence on this island the mammoths were becoming dwarf mammoths … by mammoth standards anyway. Roberts talked a little bit here about the potential cloning of mammoths that is now becoming possible due to the extraction of DNA from very well preserved frozen specimens.

And Roberts ended the programme with a romantic notion of how we’ve also saved some of these Ice Age Giants – like horses. They became extinct in America, their ancestral home, but survived across Europe & Asia and were then domesticated. She was talking about it as a beautiful partnership, but I’m afraid I was amused by it rather than moved by it πŸ˜‰

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed the series. The CGI wasn’t perfect (something always looked a little off about the way the animals moved, and there was a lot of repetition of sequences that made it a bit too obvious it was generated) but it was good. And the science was presented in an un-sensationalised way – lots of “we think” or “this is a possible explanation” rather than grand solutions to mysteries.

Having finished watching Brazil with Michael Palin (post) we started to watch another travelogue we had been recording – Australia with Simon Reeve. We’re both pretty sure we’ve seen Simon Reeve present another programme in the past, but neither of us can quite remember what it was.

In the first episode of this series he started in central Australia then headed south to the coast followed by west to Perth. In central Australia he focused on an animal you don’t expect to be the subject of a programme on Australia – the camel. Camels were brought to the country as a means of transport, being well suited to the desert conditions in the centre. With the advent of cars they weren’t needed any more & were released to the wild where they now roam freely. Unsurprisingly they cause a lot of damage to the ecosystem and to the farms in the region & so they are regarded as pests. Some farmers just shoot them when seen, but Reeve talked to one farmer who was rounding them up and selling them back to the Middle East for food & for racing.

Next Reeve went to visit a winery – a vast commercial winery with gallons & gallons & gallons of wine in big tanks, supplying relatively cheap wine to supermarkets across the world (this was owned by Hardys). This segued neatly in to a segment about how water is a limited resource & it’s being over used in Australia as a whole. Reeve then visited another limited resource – tuna, which is being overfished in the seas near the Australian south coast. He visited a facility where they’re trying to breed tuna in captivity, which involves conning the tuna into thinking they’ve migrated by changing the lighting and so on as it would change if they really were migrating.

From there to resources that are booming – he visited an area which has a modern day gold rush & talked to some weekend hobbiest prospectors, and also visited a huge commercial mine. Next, Reeve visited a village where an aboriginal community lives having been moved off their land when the mining companies discovered resources underneath it. They haven’t been compensated for the loss of the land, nor have they earnt anything from the metals being dug up from under what they still regard as their land. Reeve said that the situation is complicated & the government is trying to help, but the aborigines are still living in third world conditions.

From there he went to the other end of the spectrum – he took a train to Perth where he visited some British ex-pats who are living the dream. The man he spoke to had been a bin man in Sheffield, he’s now teaching people to drive trucks so they can work for the mining companies. His pupils earn more than he does, but he earns about Β£60k and has a big house with a pool etc, just what he came out to Australia for. And the episode finished up with Reeve visiting an airport where “fifo” commuters fly from – that’s “fly in fly out”, the commuters work in the mines (doing things like driving trucks for lots of money) and live in Perth getting back & forth by plane.

The second episode covered the north of Australia, which is particularly sparsely occupied. He started out in a national park (Kakadu) helping to trap & cull cane toads. These are a non-native species that was introduced to eat beetles that were pests … they didn’t eat the beetles, and being poisonous & non-native they have no predators amongst the native animals. So they’ve spread & are killing off the wildlife in the park which dies trying to eat the toads. The cull seemed a bit like it would just make the people doing it feel like they were trying – if there’s millions of toads then catching & killing a couple of bin bags full won’t do much good.

Moving towards the east Reeve visited the Australian army, first one of their tank regiments then he spent a bit of time on patrol with a unit doing observation in the outback. This segment reminded us that Australia is actually right next to Asia, rather than being a stray bit of Europe stuck in a southern ocean. In the bit with the patrol they talked about how the unit was mixed race & that this didn’t cause problems in a way that made it sound like that was an unusual situation. They also talked about how the aboriginal members of the team were vital in teaching everyone how to live off the land – they made green ant tea for Reeve, which apparently was quite nice … not sure I’d’ve been keen to drink it. The follow up to this section was a visit to an asylum centre, Australian law is that asylum seekers must live in these detention centres while their application is processed which can take months or years. Reeve spoke to activists on the behalf of these immigrants who say that conditions in the centres aren’t good – lots of the inhabitants self-harm or commit suicide. Reeve spoke through the fence to some of the inhabitants, who’d come from the sorts of places you’d expect – Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

From there we moved on to the slightly more cheerful subject of another aboriginal village which owns resource rich land. Whilst it looked as depressing as the place in the first episode the ray of hope here is a young woman who has set up her own company with the long term plan of the village itself doing the mining on the land closest to them. At the moment she rents 4 bulldozers out to the company who’re doing the mining, which I got the impression was proof of concept.

And the programme finished with another couple of segments looking at the natural world – first Reeve joined some scientists who were taking samples of the stinging tentacles from box jellyfish. These jellyfish are extremely poisonous, and live in shark & crocodile infested waters. From the way the scientists were acting (and not letting Reeve do much but observe) they weren’t exaggerating the dangers. The venom from the stings is useful for drug research – there’s a lot of complex biochemistry involved that does things like target the actual poison to particular areas of the body and other stuff like that. So understanding it might help make better more effective drugs.

Last up was the Great Barrier Reef. Changes in the water (due to increased use of fertilisers etc on land) have lead to destabilisation of the ecosystem there, and Reeve was shown how people are culling the starfish that are killing off the coral. He also joined a ship pilot who guides coal ships through the reef – there’s not much room to spare & it’s a dangerous task, but the wealth generated by the coal industry means that they are still permitted to run their ships through the area.

In our quest to free up some space on the PVR we’re watching all the programmes we have recorded in HD first – and only recording new stuff in SD. Just before that decision we started to record TOWN with Nicholas Crane in HD so it’s come up to be watched a little quicker after airing than I think we might’ve got round to it otherwise. It wasn’t quite what we expected, guess I didn’t read the description that closely when I set it recording. Instead of being about towns as a general thing each episode is about a particular town.

The first episode is about Oban, a town on the west coast of Scotland that’s where you go if you want to get a ferry to the Western Isles. And the main theme of the programme was that that isn’t all there is to Oban, that the town is itself a worthwhile place to visit.

Oban wasn’t a town until comparatively recently so his talk about the history of the place started off with nearby Castle Dunollie which was the seat of the Chief of Clan MacDougall until 1746 when the Clan Chief moved to a new house nearby. Surprisingly “Battle of Culloden” and “Jacobite Uprising” weren’t mentioned during Crane’s discussion of this. I had a little poke around on wikipedia and it seems like the 1746 move was a coincidence as the MacDougall Clan Chief wasn’t involved in that Jacobite Uprising, but I’d’ve thought that was worth mentioning on the programme just to say it wasn’t involved. Oban became a town after this – the first industry in the town was tobacco but this collapsed once the ship that brought the tobacco over from Virginia sank. After that the primary industry in the town was whisky, Crane visited the distillery which is still making whisky today. In the 19th Century Oban was finally linked by road & rail to the rest of the country. It was a tourist destination, partly due to the links with the Western Isles but people did visit the town itself. Queen Victoria was one of those tourists. After that it fell into decline & most people who visit aren’t stopping, just moving on to the ferry. One more recent bit of history is that Oban was where the first transatlantic telephone line ran to, and this was an important link between Washington D.C. & Moscow during the Cold War.

In terms of the modern town Crane spent a bit of time looking at the major employers in the area. Oban is the hub of the postal service for the Western Isles, and everything there has to be run like clockwork to match up with the ferry services. Another major employer is the granite quarrying operation a bit north of Oban – all the people who work there commute by ferry because there are no road links to the quarry. Crane also visited a few of the cultural offerings of Oban. He met a local painter who paints a lot of the landscapes around the area. He also visited a cΓ¨ilidh bar where there is a traditional band & traditional dancing. And he also ate at a gourmet restaurant which is on the harbour so that the fish & shellfish are very very fresh.

“The Alternate Asimovs” Isaac Asimov

I was a bit surprised when I saw this book was still on the shelf – I know I’ve boxed up some Asimov before (my librarything account lists a couple that aren’t on the shelf) and I’m a little surprised that this one made the cut. It’s a collection of three previously unpublished stories, one of which became “Pebble in the Sky”, one of which became “The End of Eternity” and one of which was published with an alternate ending. And the stories have forewords & afterwords explaining their history & how Asimov felt about them now (ie 1987 when this was published).

It’s an interesting idea for an anthology because it shows how the stories evolved, and I think this was probably my first proper introduction to the fact that books aren’t written by someone just sitting down and putting one word after another from beginning to end. That actually stories might be written in one form and then get re-drafted more than once before they get to the reader. But even though it’s interesting it’s still two stories that got rejected then turned into better novels, and one reasonable short story that got a happier ending for publication. Interesting rather than good.

I think I read this anthology before I bought or read “Pebble in the Sky”. So “Grow Old Along with Me” was my introduction to that story (and I still prefer the original title). The novel is next in my re-read so I’ll have to wait until then to discover if I like the story better in that version (pretty sure I do), but structurally speaking this one isn’t great. Asimov makes a big song & dance in a prologue, intermission and epilogue about how he’s telling the story from both ends at once … and it’s not as interesting or entertaining as he clearly thought it was at the time. The afterword says that’s what he thinks by 1987 as well. The thing that struck me most when reading this so soon after reading “Nemesis” was that there are no real women characters in this story – there’s a couple of wives & a daughter but they’re plot devices not people, they only exist to be love interest or to have one conversation that lets someone exposition at the reader then they vanish from the story again.

“The End of Eternity” is one of the Asimov books my mother owns, and as a result I both read it over & over & over when I was in my early teens … and I don’t have a copy of my own. So now the version of the story in this anthology is the only version I have, and that’s probably why the book was still on the shelf. It’s not as good, though. The basic premise is that there is a secret collection of people living outside time in Eternity, and they can move between Reality & Eternity as well as move uptime and downtime in Eternity. They police Reality, making tiny changes which ripple through time to effect big changes later on and change Reality to make it “better” for people (better as defined by the people who live in Eternity, not necessarily anyone else). The plot has to do with the beginning of Eternity, and the novel version (as I remember it) is much more interestingly complex but this story has one of those neat “gotchas” of time travel tales so it’s still pretty good. My favourite of the three here.

“Belief” in its original version is a terribly depressing story of a man who discovers he can levitate but no-one will believe him. I like it in that form, and the happy ending that Campbell wanted instead strikes me as false feeling. But it’s hard to tell how I’d feel if I’d read the two versions the other way round.

Asimov’s bits & pieces in between the stories were informative, but as with his autobiographical stuff in the “Before the Golden Age” books (post) I’m less keen on the tone than I used to be. He comes across as a bit smugly self-satisfied and lacking in self-awareness. There’s a bit right at the end where Asimov says that he doesn’t get rejections or editorial insistence on change any more because he’s just that good & his editors all love him and would of course ask him to change things if it was necessary. This is more than a little undercut by the long section earlier devoted to talking about how he & one particular editor (Horace Gold) rarely saw eye to eye and throughout it Asimov comes across as someone who would be hell to work with. It contains sentences like this one talking about Gold requesting revisions:

“He was quite apologetic about it because by that time he knew very well that requests for revision would be met by me with the sternest possible resistance and that he might have to wait a long time before I was willing to try him again.”

Not quite the rosy picture Asimov paints in the afterword to this book then … There was also a somewhat unpleasant little story where Asimov is self-righteously saying how Gold had asked him to put a female character in a particular story. Asimov just can’t see why there’s any need for that (“since the plot didn’t demand a female”) but he doesn’t want to seem “totally unreasonable” so he writes in a shrewish wife to one of the main characters & Gold was “forced to run the story as revised”. This happened in the 1950s, but clearly in the late 80s he’s still trotting this out as an amusing little tale of how he put one over an editor. Seems a little odd that the man who wrote “Nemesis” (post) with all its female characters (who after all aren’t demanded by the plot to be female) around the same time as he wrote these autobiographical bits was still so smug about how he avoided having a woman protagonist back in the old days.

Overall, interesting but not good sums it up for me. I’ll hang on to it (in a box) because it’s interesting but I don’t think it needs to sit on the shelf.

In Our Time: The Putney Debates

The Putney Debates were held (in Putney) in 1647 when the Parliamentary forces first felt they had won the Civil War – Charles I was safely captured – and these meetings were held between differing factions in the New Model Army to discuss the way the country should be governed thereafter. They ended inconclusively, when Charles I escaped and the Civil War re-ignited. However their influence has been felt throughout political thought since then, as the re-discovery in the early 20th Century of the notes from the meetings made clear. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Justin Champion (Royal Holloway, University of London), Ann Hughes (Keele University) and Kate Peters (Murray Edwards College, Cambridge).

To put the debates in context they started the programme by talking about the causes of the Civil War – Charles I believed that as the divinely anointed King he had the right to do what he wanted but Parliament believed that he also had to heed their counsel. As well as the politics of the situation there was a religious aspect, many felt that the King was too close to Catholicism. Despite Parliament not really wanting to go to war against the King in the end it became inevitable, and hostilities broke out in 1642. At first the King had the advantage. Parliament’s troops were very localised, and often refused to fight outside their region, so eventually they decided that in order to win the war they needed to form a New Model Army.

This army was a professional army, which was under a cohesive chain of command rather than being lots of local forces stuck together haphazardly. I think they were saying that there was a rule that Members of Parliament couldn’t be part of the army, so that it was separate from the politics. Many of the soldiers were volunteers, and there was pride in the honour & professionalism of the force. As well as this the army felt they were fighting for a cause – for their country and for the True Religion (and many in the army were more radical varieties of Protestant).

The New Model Army turned the tide of the war and by early 1647 the King’s forces were defeated. The King himself was taken captive from the house he was staying in, by a relatively junior cavalry officer (backed up by the 500 soldiers under his command). And now the problem was to negotiate a settlement with the King. They were saying on the programme that really want people wanted at this point was to return the situation to normal – King back on the throne, peace time law & order restored. Obviously with the proviso that the King would now listen to Parliament and behave himself.

One stumbling block that had to be overcome, from the New Model Army’s point of view, was that the army’s pay was significantly in arrears. They also wanted a proper legal statement of indemnity for the soldiers – i.e. that the blood they’d spilt in the war would not be counted as murder now the war was over. The first proposals put forward by Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and other Grandees of the army for a settlement with the King did not provide for these conditions to be met first – it would happen after the King was restored. This did not go down well with the more radical elements of the army which made their grievances known via petitions and via the Agitators.

The political culture of the time was a very informed one – the experts were telling us how all sides in politics published pamphlets and wrote petitions to be presented to their opponents or political leaders. So the population were generally politically active & well educated about the issues of the day & what the various sides of any debate were. Therefore it wasn’t an unusual step for the New Model Army to present a petition to its leaders putting forward their grievances about the settlement. What was a new step was that they began to organise themselves politically – each regiment elected its own Agitator and these men met to discuss the issues that each of their regiments wanted raised. And it’s the representatives of these Agitators that met with Cromwell, Ireton etc in the Putney Debates. Many of them were part of the movement that would become known as the Levellers.

When the Putney Debates started in October 1647 the subject had moved on from simply being about pay and indemnities. The Levellers had published a couple of pamphlets setting forward their opinions on how the country should be run now that the war was over, and so the constitution of the country was under debate. The Levellers’ ideas were pretty radical for their time – they thought that every man over the age of 21 should have the vote. Both of these were regarded as appalling by the more conservative participants in the debates. Ireton said that universal suffrage would be anarchy, that you should only get the vote if you had a fixed & permanent interest in the country (i.e. were a land owner). The Levellers felt that by their fighting for their country they should get a say in the running of it – the cause they had fought for was important otherwise the army lost its legitimacy.

On the subject of religion the Levellers were also pretty radical, they felt that people should be allowed to worship as they pleased (I suspect there was an unsaid “so long as they’re Christian & not Catholic” here…). This was also too radical for the other side of the debates – Cromwell & Ireton were in favour of increased tolerance of different forms of Protestantism but they felt there should be a universal Church to which everyone belonged and any tolerance was to be within this Church.

The debates ended inconclusively after a few weeks – the King escaped from custody, and the second phase of the Civil Wars started. The notes taken during the debates weren’t publicly available at the time, and were lost to historians until the early 20th Century. Despite their lack of conclusion at the time they can be seen as the first steps towards our modern Parliamentary Democracy.

This was a programme that seemed like it had bitten off more than it could chew! It felt like they needed to give so much context that the meat of the programme got a bit short-changed. And it reminded me how little I actually know about the Civil Wars.

Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell is primarily remembered for the dissolution of the monasteries and for his (probable) hand in Anne Boleyn’s fall. This programme presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch was a biography of the man which discussed how there was more to him than a cynical destroyer. It also featured footage from 3 of the 4 towns I’ve lived in – Cambridge & Oxford weren’t exactly surprises, and Ipswich shouldn’t’ve been but somehow was and it was a bit of Ipswich that’s only a 10 to 15 minute walk from our house too.

I know the overall shape of the Cromwell story but there are a lot of details I didn’t already know (I’d’ve enjoyed watching it anyway, but it’s nice to also learn stuff). It was good to see MacCulloch showing us so much of the primary sources for things, the actual documents that the information for these events comes from, right from the very start of the story. Cromwell was born in poverty, in Putney in London. His father was a brewer, and pub landlord, and MacCulloch described him as running the sort of pub you wouldn’t go to twice. He then showed us the court records for the region, which include 48 occasions where Walter Cromwell was fined for watering his beer. Thomas Cromwell left home and the country around the age of 17 (his date of birth isn’t known for sure, but a good guess is 1485). The next 14 years are unclear, later sources suggest he spent some time as a mercenary fighting for the French and subsequently working for a banker in Florence. Whether this is right or not when he returned to England he’d acquired an education (in languages & law) which allowed him to mix with a much higher social class and to marry up (to the widowed daughter of a financier, pretty good for a brewer’s son).

After Cromwell’s return he acquired a reputation as a man who could fix things. An important step in this was work he did for a Guild in Boston, Lincolnshire. The main income of this Guild (I forget which one MacCulloch said it was :/) in Boston was from the sale of Indulgences – they had a licence form the Pope to do so which was due to expire soon. So the Guild employed Cromwell to head a delegation to Rome to negotiate with the Pope for a renewal of the licence. MacCulloch showed us the documentation of the expenses that the Guild paid to Cromwell for this undertaking – he said it was the equivalent of Β£600,000 in today’s money, which both shows the trust they were putting in Cromwell and also how important this income was to them. Cromwell did his job well – and in a style that would characterise his future dealings. Instead of following the rules & protocol & joining the queue for an audience with the Pope he engineered a “chance meeting” – as the Pope was returning from a hunting trip he came across Cromwell & his entourage who were singing. Once he’d met once with the Pope Cromwell then at future meetings catered to what he knew as the Pope’s weaknesses – he was known to have a sweet tooth, so English delicacies were offered to him. Cromwell’s methods worked, he returned to Boston with a new (and extended) licence for the sale of Indulgences – the Guild’s income was assured. MacCulloch didn’t spell it out, but I was amused to note how ironic this was given Cromwell’s later evangelical zeal.

Cromwell now got himself into the employ of Wolsey & this is where Ipswich came into the programme. Wolsey was also of low birth (in Ipswich) and had risen to the rank of Cardinal in the Church – and had also become Henry VIII’s “man who got things done”. MacCulloch said that when Henry took the throne he wanted the glory & prestige of being King, but was less keen on the work that was needed to actually run the kingdom and Wolsey became the man who did the work. So Cromwell became the fixer for Henry VIII’s fixer. One of the jobs that Cromwell did for Wolsey was to do with the establishment of Wolsey’s two colleges. Wolsey had benefited from an Oxford education and wanted to make sure more of his home town’s people would have this opportunity, so he established a college in Ipswich (which no longer exists, only the chapel remains – the church of St Peter’s at the Waterfront which J & I actually visited the other day) and a college in Oxford (now Christchurch College). Cromwell was involved in the actual set up of these, and presided over the dissolution of several monasteries which paid for these colleges – an act that resonates with his later career.

Wolsey fell from power with his failure to negotiate the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Eventually he was charged with promoting the rule of a foreign power and removed from power – effectively he was charged with doing his job as a Cardinal aka the representative of the Pope in England. Which as MacCulloch pointed out wasn’t exactly fair. Cromwell feared that his time in the sun was over because his career was tied to Wolsey’s, but still he continued to do his duty to Wolsey and also ameliorated some of the effects of Wolsey’s fall (in particular ensuring that Ipswich still had a school even if not the grand college Wolsey had envisioned).

The King’s Great Matter (his divorce from Catherine) was still not solved, and here is where Cromwell managed to put his talents for organising things to use and get himself into Wolsey’s old position as Henry’s fixer. Cromwell went through old histories of England to find some precedent that Henry could use to ignore the Pope (effectively), MacCulloch was saying that the King had to have come up with this idea but Cromwell was the man who implemented it. The legal fiction they used was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Britain, where King Arthur is said to have authority over the Roman Empire. Complete myth, but a useful one – if Arthur was an Emperor then so is his successor Henry and Emperors do not answer to anyone, not even the Pope. Cromwell now set about making this have some legal standing – he was by now a Member of Parliament (and had been for a while) so he was able to engineer the passing of an Act of Parliament that stated that Henry was (and always had been) an Emperor. MacCulloch said this had greater significance even than in the King’s Great Matter. Previously Parliament had only had two functions – passing on petitions from the people to the King and raising taxes. But with this Act for the first time Parliament had created a part of the constitution of the country, so MacCulloch was saying that this was the first step towards our current political system. And also that other European countries were gradually losing their councils and concentrating power with the monarch, but by solving the King’s Great Matter in this way Cromwell had ensured that the English Parliament continued to be relevant & powerful. I had the feeling that MacCulloch was overstating things here to make his point, but then again he’s the historian here not me πŸ™‚

This then is the decisive split of the English Church from Rome, and Henry appoints Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Who annuls Henry’s marriage to Catherine (on the basis of being illegal due to her prior marriage to Henry’s brother) and marries Henry to Anne Boleyn. We now come to the period of Cromwell’s life that he’s most remembered and vilified for. As Henry’s righthand man he presided over the dissolution of monasteries all across England. This wasn’t just done for the money, it was also done through a desire to reform the Church. The Reformation is sweeping across Europe at this time, and the wealth and corruption of the Church is one of the driving factors. Cromwell has, at some point previous to this, become a part of the Reform movement (I’m struggling with phrasing here – “movement” sounds a bit too organised, I mean this is where his religious sympathies lay and he was in contact with others in the court who also felt this way, like Anne Boleyn). So this is partly about cleaning up what Cromwell sees as the corruption of the English Church – some of the monasteries are dissolved after their “relics” are demonstrated to be false (and so the income they got from pilgrims is ill-gotten gains which they aren’t entitled to).

Henry, despite the break with Rome, isn’t really an Evangelical but he welcomes the extra money so is perfectly happy with dissolving the monasteries. However Anne & Cromwell fall out over where the money should go – Anne believes it should be used for good causes, Cromwell is the King’s man and believes it should go to the King to do with as he sees fit. Anne & Henry are also not on as good terms as they were, so Cromwell engineers the downfall and execution of the Queen. (Obviously MacCulloch is in the “Cromwell did it” camp (c.f. the Anne Boleyn programme that aired the day before this one for the other theories (post)). And MacCulloch admits that this is a pretty dark point in Cromwell’s career, hard to spin as anything palatable.

Now Cromwell is riding high. He’s made a Knight of the Garter & Earl of Essex (after the previous Earl died without an heir). He continues with his Reform efforts – he even gets the King to authorise an English Bible. This is a key part of the Protestant Reformation, it is a movement that wants to get back to the word of God as set down in the Gospels and to make that happen the Bible needs to be available to all worshippers, not just those that have learnt Latin. Henry has been against this in the past, and yet Cromwell still takes the risk & gives the King a copy of an English Bible. He’s counting on his popularity with the King and on the fact that with his third wife pregnant (hopefully with an heir) the King is in a generous mood. The risk pays off and the Bible is authorised, MacCulloch showed us the frontispiece of a copy of this Bible. King Henry VIII presides at the top of the page (below God but bigger than God) handing Bibles down to Cranmer & Cromwell who pass them along to the clergy (Cranmer) and the laity (Cromwell).

Cromwell is also the most probable hand behind another Reformist undertaking at this time. Zwingli in Switzerland is even more radical in his rejection of Catholic “superstition” than Martin Luther had been – he goes so far as to say that in the Mass (which he re-moulds as Holy Communion) the bread and the wine do not become the body & blood of Christ, instead they are a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the sins of mankind. Henry regarded Zwingli as a heretic, as did Archbishop Cranmer. Yet still an official looking delegation of Oxford graduates went to visit Zwingli & learn from him. MacCulloch points out that Cromwell is the only man with both the power & the inclination to send this delegation, and that this did in the end become the dogma of the Anglican Church.

It’s not just in matters of religion that Cromwell had a lasting effect on the country. As a result of the closure of the monasteries there was much higher unemployment in the country, and Cromwell took measures to counteract this. To our ears his laws about parishes being able to force able-bodied men to work doesn’t seem a good thing, but MacCulloch was presenting this as a necessary first step on the way to our modern welfare state – the previous “solution” would’ve been to just drive them out of the parish, which only gives the people involved more problems. Cromwell was also responsible for the law against homosexuality – MacCulloch showed us the document of the law against “the sin of buggery”. This had been one of the charges laid against the monasteries, part of how they were seen to be corrupt, and Cromwell was keen to make this forbidden even after the monasteries were shut.

So Cromwell is well established, and getting his own way even in matters of religion. But he fatally missteps when Henry is looking for his next wife, after Jane Seymour’s death. MacCulloch showed us a 17th Century summary of a now lost contemporary record of a conversation between Cromwell & Cranmer on the subject – Cranmer is urging Cromwell to consider the King’s comfort (that the woman should be someone he likes the look of & can talk to) but Cromwell wants the woman to be a proper Protestant Princess to further lock England away from the Roman Church. He sends Holbein off to paint Anne of Cleves, his preferred candidate for the next Queen – and looking at the portrait she seems a pretty woman, and Henry agreed so the marriage was arranged. Unfortunately the reality did not please the King as much as the portrait, and so he had this marriage annulled. This was easier than the annulment of his first marriage, but more humiliating because he had to publicly admit to impotence & an inability to consummate the marriage. Henry blamed Cromwell both for the failed marriage and for the humiliation and Cromwell had not enough friends in court to stick up for him. He was arrested, and executed. Henry is said to have regretted this later – to have said that he had put to death the most loyal servant he had. But a bit too late for Cromwell.

I was struck throughout this programme how much I recognised of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell (post about “Bring Up the Bodies”) – a sign, I think, that she did her research. I’m not sure I entirely agree that we should look at Cromwell as a principled statesman instead of a cynical thug. I think rather that he was both.

“Flash” L. E. Modesitt Jr.

There’s a particular flavour to an L. E. Modesitt Jr. book, although I’m not quite sure I can describe it. Some of it is that his protagonists tend to be of a type (even tho distinct characters in their own right). They tend to be humble and to not quite believe that they are anything out of the ordinary. They have a core of integrity, and often feel forced into action by circumstances because they can’t comprehend choosing not to do anything and letting things go to hell in a handbasket around them. Most of the books I’ve read by Modesitt have been his fantasy books, and there the protagonist often ends up running a country or becoming a leader of some other sort because he or she can’t stand by, although that wasn’t the case here.

“Flash” is set in a 24th Century Earth that was also the setting for his book “Archform: Beauty”, which I don’t think I’ve read*. I don’t think this is a direct sequel, certainly it appeared to me to be complete in itself. In this future there’s been some sort of “Collapse” (ecological, I think) between our time & theirs and the rebuilt world feels different but like it came out of our world. Some politics continues as we’d expect (some early parts of the book have to do with senatorial elections in NorAm, the replacement for the USA), but large corporations called Multis also run the world. Tech has moved on – not just ubiquitous computing that’s way beyond current stuff, but also more out-there things like cydroids (non-sentient clones, remote controlled by computer or by a person). But some things feel familiar, wines have the same sorts of names for instance.

*Between writing that paragraph and this review going live I looked in my librarything catalogue and discovered I own “Archform: Beauty”. Ahem. It’s not on the shelf, must’ve been boxed up during a previous cull of the shelves and I’ve pretty much no recollection of reading it.

One thing I thought Modesitt did particularly well with his extrapolation was names. You can figure out what places were before in most cases, but the words have shifted in believable ways. For instance Denver is now Denv, Texas is Tejas. Other words also give you just enough to figure out what they are in combination with their context. Like safo = safety officer = police. Another example is you have a gatekeeper on your computer system that’s partly a firewall and partly there to announce callers, both at the door and on the equivalent of a phone. So the world felt quite solid and plausible, without Modesitt going into much detail.

The protagonist, Jonat deVrai is a consultant who analyses the effects of this future’s equivalent of adverts on sales of products. He’s the best at his job & has a reputation for honesty, and so he gets hired to investigate if a senatorial candidate is illegally using these adverts in his campaign and to analyse if it’s had an effect on the voting results. It soon becomes clear that there’s more going on beneath the surface than deVrai first thought, and the stakes are much higher than he anticipated. Jonat deVrai is also an ex-Marine with PTSD (who publically resigned on a point of principle, another pointer to his integrity), and his military training & background are important in how he reacts to the things he uncovers.

I’m not sure I always followed the details of what was going on, there are a lot of oblique conversations where what isn’t said is as important as what is said (and how it is said). But I did figure out what was going on with Central Four long before deVrai did (and I’m being vague because it would be a shame to spoil it) – to be fair, that was a case where he was blinded by his societal preconceptions whereas as the reader I didn’t have those, but still pleasing πŸ™‚

This was a book I enjoyed reading. I think Modesitt is one of those authors where if you like his stuff, you like his stuff and this book was no exception for me. But all his books do have a distinctive flavour, so if you’re not so fond of it then you’ll probably find it off-putting here as well.