2013 Roundup: Other TV

And this is the final list of TV programmes we watched over the last year. I’ve sorted them into categories, but possibly in many cases this tells you a bit more about the inside of my mind than the programme itself. For instance I put the current affairs programmes like the Panorama programme about North Korea into the same category as travelogues because some of those (like Simon Reeve’s programmes) also have a theme how the world’s fucked up and it’s all our fault. But also in there are some nature programmes (like Wild Arabia) that are much more about the beauty of the world than the problems in it. And some nature programmes belong with science. Oh, and “Fiction & Related” should possibly be called “Doctor Who”…

I don’t think I can pick a favourite or a least favourite of these, it’s far too varied. And some programmes were good to have watched, but not particularly enjoyable (see Depressing Current Affairs as a category). So without further ado, the list:

Depressing Current Affairs & Travelogues

Culture & Biography

Fiction & Related


The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 2

After a fairly long hiatus over Christmas we’ve started listening to radio programmes with our Sunday morning breakfast again. This week we listened to the second episode of The Making of the Modern Arab World. From the brief descriptions on the BBC website the first three episodes are covering the three major strands of political ideology in the region, and the fourth one looks at the lead up to the Arab Spring. The first episode had been about the secular liberal movement that rose during the early 20th Century, which moved away from the Muslim nature of the preceding Ottoman Empire but didn’t change the old class hierarchy nor did it succeed in winning full independence from the European colonial powers. This episode was looking at the Arab Nationalist movement that rose as the opposition to this.

Tarek Osman opened the programme by talking about the war in 1948 where several Arab nations fought against the new state of Israel. This conflict had been presented to the ordinary people of the Arab nations as having a foregone conclusion – obviously the Arab states would win against this upstart nation. And when this wasn’t the way that things turned out, the ruling elite of the countries lost a lot of face and respect. Particularly in the case of Egypt there was also a feeling amongst the army officers (among them Gamal Abdel Nasser) that the ruling elite was lazy and self-indulgent, and were responsible for the failure of the war. When Nasser returned to Egypt after the war he organised what started as a military coup, but turned into a popular revolution.

The coup had started as an alliance between the army officers (who were generally younger) and the Muslim Brotherhood (which had been a political organisation since the 1920s). Osman said that the Muslim Brotherhood leader had anticipated being the real leader after the revolution was over, regarding the army officers as not knowing what they were doing. For instance he wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to be given a veto on any policy decisions. But this was not well received by their allies and the alliance broke down – the army officers with Nasser at their head were now ruling the country alone.

Nasser was incredibly popular in Egypt. Osman talked about some of the things that helped to make this the case – one of which was a Muslim Brotherhood assassination attempt on Nasser while he was giving a speech. He reacted with courage (as well as a clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood), and gained a lot of respect from people for it. He also gained a lot of respect because of the dispute with Britain over the Suez Canal – Nasser nationalised it, which upset the British & the French because they no longer controlled this strategically important waterway. So the UK and France allied with Israel, and sent troops in hoping to retake the Suez Canal and get rid of Nasser. However without the support of the US this military action failed – greatly boosting Nasser’s popularity not just in Egypt but across the Arab nations. He had beaten the old colonial powers, and Israel.

In terms of more practical reasons, he & his government also passed laws reforming land ownership. During the monarchy & before there were very few landowners – and most peasants lived on land owned by someone else, with a restrictive feudal system in place. Nasser’s reforms meant that many more people owned the land they lived on, and so they could then make money (and family members could get other jobs and make more money). They could send their children to the towns for education if they wished, and could aspire to become middle class. Many did, and so saw Nasser as someone on the side of social justice and the common people. Also during Nasser’s regime the Aswan High Dam was built, invigorating the economy.

Nasser believed in Arab Nationalism, and talked a lot about the idea of a single Arab country. This didn’t go down well with the still existent monarchies in places like Saudi Arabia, but met with a much better reception in places like Syria’s fledgling democracy. The Ba’ath party was formed by Syrian army officers, as a secular Arab Nationalist party – and took inspiration from Nasser. The rhetoric of a single Arab nation met with such approval that the Syrians offered to merge with Egypt, creating the United Arab Republic. This met with great approval at first, but after only 3 years Syria seceded and the United Arab Republic was over. The reality had been that Syria was to become part of Egypt – it was Egyptians in charge, it was the Syrian military and political parties that had to dissolve – and this was unpalatable to both ordinary Syrians and the ruling elite alike.

Nasser’s regime lost more of its glitter before the end – he lead the disastrous war (for the Arab nations) against Israel in the late 1960s. Israel’s decisive victory meant Nasser, like the King before him, lost face. Nasser died not long after, but his legacy still shapes Arab politics. Many leaders in Arab countries modelled their regimes after what they had seen work for Nasser. However, Osman pointed out that they took the wrong elements from it – instead of the charisma and bond with his people that had made Nasser so popular, people like Gaddafi and Assad instead emulated the autocratic despotic and militaristic aspects of Nasser’s rule. The programme talked to people who were less glowingly complimentary about Nasser than the above summary makes it sound. His policies of social reform were criticised for not going far enough, and for not actually being targeted at those most in need rather at those most useful or supportive of the state. The often brutal nature of the state was also discussed – and its capricious nature was illustrated by a woman who talked about how her father was a poet whose work was liked by Nasser, and several of his friends were incarcerated. But her father never was, because Nasser would cross his name off lists of “seditious” people who were due to be rounded up – so the poet escaped torture only by the whim of Nasser.

“Mage’s Blood” David Hair

I’ve read a lot of fiction of varying qualities, and generally so long as it’s fun or interesting in some way I’ll overlook a lot of flaws. Sadly sometimes a work has a flaw that keeps popping up in your face and waving its arms around, shouting “Hey, remember me? Don’t you find me annoying? Yoooooohooooo! Over here!”. Mage’s Blood had one of those, and despite feeling that there was something there to appreciate in the story I couldn’t get past the clunky world building.

Mage’s Blood is technically a secondary world fantasy – set in a world that’s not our own, rather than our own world with some fantastical element added. Technically. But it’s full of things like these:

“Have you seen Ramon?”
“Nope. I imagine the Silacian sneak-thief is probably running his village familioso by now.”

I guess Silacian == Sicilian where the mafia come from, get it, get it, get it?? We are hit over the head with this several times, and Ramon even sprinkles Italian words & phrases through his speech … Or how about this:

The Rimoni men were clad in white shirts and black leggings; their hands rested on their knife hilts. The women, wrapped in shawls, were scowling in suspicion. […] the head of the gypsies, Mercellus di Regia,[…]

Well, what do you know, the Rimoni are gypsies, amazing what you can do with a few vowel shifts and a great big helping of stereotypes, isn’t it? The Rimoni also do double duty as the Romans – having had a large empire around a thousand years ago in this world’s past. And so the Rimoni also scatter Italian through their speech.

We’re also at the time of some great wars being fought at intervals between two continents – from the perspective of the cultures mentioned above (plus others on that continent) these are the … wait for it … Crusades. And how about the cultures on the other continent I hear you ask? Would it surprise you to find out that the people there look Arabic or Indian? And one group have a monotheistic religion, greet each other with the phrase “Sal’Ahm” and have a concept of holy war called “shihad” which they have declared against the crusaders – we’ve found our Muslims, I think. And another group wear sarees, have many gods (including Gann, sometimes referred to as Gann-Elephant in case we don’t figure out it’s Ganesha), and the author even says thanks in the acknowledgements to someone for her help with Bengali wedding rituals – I guess these are Bengali Hindus then!

Some stuff was original, but there was enough of this clumsy “oh if I just change the letters a bit no-one will notice” world building, and it was reiterated often enough, to yank me back out of the story over and over again. I wish he’d taken the time to come up with some less obvious equivalences and had the setting feel less like he’d picked a bunch of stereotyped ingredients from our world and mixed them in with his new stuff.

And it’s a shame, to be honest. There were things about the plot and characters that I did enjoy. For instance there’s a plot line with a young woman in an arranged marriage to an immortal mage – she was promised to someone else, but the mage offered unbelievable riches to her family. And her young lover follows to rescue her, and you just know it’s all going to end in tragedy of an almost Shakespearean sort especially as you see (and Hair makes you believe in) the growing affection between her and her husband. And I almost want to know what happens next, but I can’t see myself ever reading the rest of this planned quartet of books.

I’d assumed it was a debut novel, and perhaps one that should’ve been trunked and another one written using the lessons learnt writing this one. But I looked him up, and it seems this is not his first published work – he has a couple of series of YA fantasy novels set in our world. Which makes sense given what I think worked and what I think didn’t work about the book – the secondary world setting is one of the things he hasn’t done before. And sadly the stuff that worked just couldn’t keep me engrossed enough to ignore the clunkyness.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 6)

The next chapter of this book about Plantagenet England covers the decline and fall of Edward II’s reign – from the death of Piers Gaveston in 1312 through to the aftermath of Edward’s deposition.

Orientation dates:

  • The Yuan dynasty ruled China from 1279 to 1378 (post).
  • Philip IV (the Fair) ruled France from 1285 to 1314.
  • Edward II reigned from 1307 to 1327.
  • Edward III born 1312, and reaches his majority in 1330.

Times of Trouble, 1311-1330

Prestwich doesn’t think highly of any of the major players in this 20 year period of English history. He sums up Edward II as “A brutal and brainless man would probably have done better as king; Edward’s unconventional ways, combined with his lack of ability in politics and war, were disastrous in a king.”. The primary opposition to Edward’s regime in the first 10 years of this period was Thomas of Lancaster, who is dismissed with this sentence: “Thomas of Lancaster, like his cousin Edward II, was not worthy of the position that hereditary right gave him.”. The Despensers, Edward’s favourites after the demise of Gaveston, are talked about as follows: “This regime was characterized by astonishing greed and political folly”. And Edward’s deposers, his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, are discussed with statements like “It was in the land settlement that the new regime revealed its political ineptitude.” and “Roger Mortimer was a classic example of a man whose power went to his head. […] his greed paralleled that of the Despensers, and his political sensitivity that of Piers Gaveston.”.

So, this twenty year period is almost farcical in its turmoil. Edward II’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, was captured in 1312 and subsequently executed after a show trial. This new violent low in politics, of a sort that hadn’t been seen since the 1250s polarised the realm into two factions – those who were with the King, and those with Thomas of Lancaster (who had been one of those responsible for Gaveston’s death). Prestwich lists a variety of reasons for why the country didn’t descend into outright civil war, one of which is that Edward III was born later that year which not only provided Edward II with an heir but also thawed relations with his wife’s family, the rulers of France. Negotiations between the two factions dragged on over the next couple of years until the catastrophic defeat of the English by the Scottish at Bannockburn changed the balance of power once more. Not only did this make the king look weak, but Lancaster and some of his allies had not been involved and so looked wiser in comparison. And in addition one of the noble casualties, the Earl of Gloucester, had been a powerful influence for moderation.

Edward II had no choice but to give in to the earls’ demands to enforce the Ordinances set out in 1310 (see previous chapter) and Thomas of Lancaster was now in a position of power. Prestwich says he was unlucky (as well as the damning summary above) – the harvests in 1315 and 1316 were both poor due to appalling weather, causing problems for the royal finances as well. Lancaster also had internal issues that distracted him from matters of state – one of his retainers rebelled against him. At a parliament in Lincoln in early 1316 he was formally declared head of the King’s council, which he’d been acting as since 1314, and although various matters appeared to be sorted out in this parliament the King refused to co-operate with the reforms. Lancaster left government in August 1316 and the two factions began to build up their household knights and retainers.

The dispute rumbled on for another few years before civil war actually broke out. During this time Hugh Despenser the younger became increasingly important as Edward II’s favourite. War eventually broke out in 1321, and at first the rebels had the upper hand. This changed in the autumn of 1321, and the climatic battle of the war took place at Boroughbridge in February 1322 ending in total defeat for the rebels. The captured leaders, including Lancaster, were brutally executed. Prestwich sees this as Edward II’s revenge for the earlier brutal death of Gaveston. One of the reasons the war went so wrong for the rebels, and why Prestwich is so anti-Lancaster, is that this cause really lacked the idealism of earlier conflicts (like Simon de Montfort’s campaign in the 1250s). Lancaster was too obviously out for his own personal goals, rather than the country’s, to build up a solidly loyal powerbase and the period is characterised by a high degree of volatility in the loyalties of the nobles.

After Lancaster was defeated Edward II had 4 years where his regime, or rather that of his favourites, the Despensers, was dominant. There were positive reforms, this wasn’t a complete disaster for the country. However the Despensers, in particularly Hugh the younger, were primarily operating in their own interests, to make themselves rich and powerful. They also weren’t popular, due to operating via blackmail and bullying instead of rewarding those who worked with them. They “persuaded” people to co-operate by making them sign recognizances – papers which said that they owed the Despensers a debt. These were set very high, and beyond the means of the so-called debtor to pay – the threat of the recognizance being enforced is what kept people in line. This didn’t provide the Despensers with a broad or loyal powerbase, and set them and Edward II up for the disaster of 1326.

Another factor leading up to the events of 1326 was that Edward was neglecting Isabella again – possibly by an affair with Hugh the younger’s wife, possibly with Hugh the younger himself. Whichever it was it set Isabella at odds with Hugh the younger. When she was sent to France to negotiate a peace in a war that had broken out between England and France she refused to return. With her son in France with her she joined forces with Roger Mortimer who had his own reasons to dislike the Despensers. Isabella and Mortimer embarked on a scandalous affair, and also gathered together allies to invade England. The primary of these was the Count of Hainault – in return for his daughter Philippa marrying the future Edward III he would support the invasion with troops and ships.

The Despenser regime collapsed in the face of the invasion. Both Despensers and Edward II fled westwards to the Welsh Marches, but were quickly captured. The Despensers were brutally executed, and Edward imprisoned. A parliament was called and Edward II was formally deposed. Prestwich says he thinks it is futile to try and work out precisely what legal or customary justification was used to depose Edward as parliament made use of every precedent they could come up with. This need to cover all bases was because this was the first time it had happened in England, so there was no obviously legal way to proceed. And Edward unsurprisingly didn’t long survive his deposition – he was murdered, quite possibly by a red-hot poker up his bottom, and very probably with the approval of Mortimer and Isabella. There were stories afterwards about how he might’ve survived, but these are implausible and even if true he didn’t play any further part in English politics.

Isabella and Mortimer seemingly lost no time in making themselves as unpopular as the Despensers, and for many of the same reasons. They both gained new lands and increased wealth. They failed in a campaign against the Scots, negotiating the “Shameful Peace of May 1328”. Despite a full treasury when Edward II was deposed their expenses drained it – the Count of Hainault needed paying for his assistance, and the Scottish campaign was expensive too. New opposition rose in the form of Henry of Lancaster (Thomas’s brother) but his rebellion failed. Finally, in 1330 Edward III was 18 and was keen to take a greater role in the government of his country than Isabella and Mortimer were permitting him. He and a small group of men broke into the private chambers of Isabella and Mortimer and captured them – Mortimer was executed, Isabella imprisoned, and Edward III now ruled in his own name.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt (Ep 1); The Art of the Vikings

There’s a new series just started called Treasures of Ancient Egypt, so of course we’re watching it not long after it airs (the day after, actually, but because of the way I’ve scheduled my blog posts this post has gone live 8 days after). The series is presented by Alastair Sooke, and is similar in format to the Treasures of Ancient Rome series that he did a while ago (post). It is a chronological survey of the art of Ancient Egypt from the early pre-dynastic through to Cleopatra, each episode will have 10 “treasures” and this first episode covered the period up till the end of the Old Kingdom.

I’m not going to name check each piece of art, but he covered quite a wide range of types and styles. Some were well known iconic pieces (like the Great Pyramid or the Narmer palette), and some were less well known. Although having said that, I think we thought we’d seen most (but not all) of the items in the flesh – we have seen rather more than the average number of Egyptian museum collections tho! He started with petroglyphs out in the Sahara dating from before the Sahara was a desert, which pre-dates the association of the people who will later become the Egyptians with the Nile. But he was able to point out features in this carvings that anticipate the later art style we expect (like figures with front facing torsos but legs in profile). Because he was looking at each piece as a piece of art rather than in terms of what it tells us about the historical context there were things I’d not thought of before. For instance he used the Meidum geese (a personal favourite of mine) to illustrate how the Egyptian artists used small variations in their strict symmetry to stop it looking sterile and boring – so with the geese there are differences in tail position etc that keep it interesting. There were also a handful of segments with modern Egyptian artists working in the same mediums as the ancient artists, which to be honest I found less interesting.

The next episode will cover the Middle Kingdom & the New Kingdom – so I imagine we’ll have Akhenaten-era stuff and something of Tutankhamun’s as our well known items.

Amongst the other programmes we watched over the week was a one-off programme presented by Janina Ramirez about Viking art, called The Art of the Vikings (part of the Secret Knowledge series, which are all one-off half hour programmes, I only recorded this one). Ramirez was showing us the Viking items from an exhibition in Edinburgh, and giving us some context for them – demonstrating that the Vikings weren’t solely the destroyers of popular culture. There wasn’t particularly any new information (to me), but it was nice to see the objects. Especially fine was a large silver brooch (for holding a cloak shut), and I also liked the bead necklaces.

But I mostly mention this programme because it was somewhat startlingly amateur. Ramirez was a good presenter as she generally is, and the filming was also good – but the sound was very variable, with some bits sounding like Ramirez was recorded in a bathroom. And the onscreen titles were dreadful – the chosen font/layout had really weird spacing between the letters, with every “i” seemingly suspended in space making words like “Ramirez” read more like “Ram i rez”.

Other TV watched this week:

Episodes 1 & 2 of Strange Days: Cold War Britain – series about Britain and British culture during the Cold War, presented by Dominic Sandbrook.

Episode 2 of Rise of the Continents – series about the geology of the continents and how that’s shaped them and their wildlife (and us) presented by Iain Stewart. This episode was about Australia.

Episode 5 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

Episode 1 of Sacred Wonders of Britain – Neil Oliver visits several sacred sites in Britain dating from prehistoric times through to the Reformation.

The Truth About Immigration – one-off programme presented by Nick Robinson about immigration into the UK. He talked to immigrants, Brits, employers & politicians, and got across how complicated the subject is and how little it’s actually debated in an informed fashion.

2013 Roundup: Modern History TV

The joke in our household is that if you mention some historical event of, say, the Anglo-Saxons or the Vikings or some such then J will say “oh that’s practically modern!” because he’s used to thinking of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Pharaohs (who stop with the famous Cleopatra) as being the “most recent”. Skews your perspective a bit.

If J’s thing is Ancient Egypt, then mine is Tudor England (spreading outwards round the world from there, and back and forth in time). And the BBC did a Tudor season relatively recently, so there were several programmes to my tastes (although I don’t think we ended up watching all of them). Again I drew the cut-off between Ancient and Modern as the fall of Rome, and some serieses straddle that boundary so have appeared on both lists. I’ve shunted some of the truly modern stuff (like Dan Snow’s recent histories of Syria and the Congo) into the next list as I think of them more as current affairs, somewhat arbitrarily!

This is still a pretty long list – 42 programmes or serieses in all. Picking high and low points is hard – there’s not a stand out “why did we ever watch that” like there was in the ancient history list, but I think the weakest was Janina Ramirez’s programme about the Viking sagas. In part because I expect better from her programmes, and from that subject. Games Britannia also deserves a mention, the one episode we watched was OK but I was left with the impression that the later episodes would’ve had me rolling my eyes somewhat.

Best is incredibly difficult to pick, even picking a shortlist of half a dozen seems difficult! But I think the one I shall pick out specially is The Last Days of Anne Boleyn. It stands out not only because it’s obviously slap bang in the middle of my interests but also because it’s a slightly different format to the standard sort of history programme. It didn’t just present one interpretation and call that the truth, instead there were seven different historians or novelists who talked about four different theories about what actually happened. So we got to see more of the complexity of the issue.

2013 Roundup: Ancient History TV

The amount of different TV that we’ve watched over the last year is why I split the roundup of the year into sections – and the non-fiction TV is split into three or so parts (vagueness because I’ve not written them all yet so I don’t know if it’ll stick to the plan!). This gathers together all the “ancient history” serieses or programmes we’ve watched over the year – 30 in all. I’ve drawn the boundary at roughly the fall of Rome, and as you might expect the list includes a lot of programmes about Ancient Egypt (given J’s obsession with the subject). Some programmes & serieses extend beyond that but if they’ve a significant chunk from before the cut off they’ll be in both lists. I’ve included in the list the ones that we watched but I didn’t really write about without links, most posts will have multiple programmes in them so you might have to scroll down and several serieses are split across multiple posts.

Picking a least favourite is easy – there was a dreadful documentary about Akhenaten called Sun Pharaoh where the narrator couldn’t even pronounce the name Akhenaten properly. Picking a favourite is harder! Ancient Egypt – Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings is one possibility, Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time another. And I did like Mary Beard’s Caligula one. There’s also Story of the Jews and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s one about Rome to add to the shortlist. I think I’ll go with the Ancient Egypt one as top. Tho I might change my mind tomorrow!

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Why hadn’t I got round to reading A Canticle for Leibowitz before? Not only is it one of the classics of the genre, it’s also right up my street – a post-apocalyptic novel written in the late 1950s about the recovery of society after a nuclear holocaust. And I’ve no idea why I’ve only just got round to reading it, should’ve done so long ago.

The narrative is centred on a Catholic monastery in the southwest of the USA (although by the time the story opens this is an anachronistic description of its location). It’s told in three sections (originally published separately then put together and modified into this novel). The first one is set about 600 years after the Flame Deluge, the nuclear holocaust which happened in the 20th Century. A backlash against technology and learning in the aftermath of the Deluge had left monasteries once again the storehouses of knowledge in a Dark Age. The story here centres round a novice who discovers relics of the blessed Isaac Leibowitz, beatified for his role in saving the knowledge of the world after the Deluge. His canonisation is being considered by the Church and there’s a tension between joy at the discovery of the relics and fear that this might jeopardise the canonisation if the Pope in New Rome thinks they’re faked. The protagonist for this part (the novice) is a sort of Holy Fool character – he believes, and he copies the knowledge of the ancients, and even understands some tiny part of it, but it’s all in a mystical way and he’d no more fake relics than fly in the air. Other monks are much more cynical, as you’d expect. And no-one really understands the knowledge they’re keeping, they are keeping it because that is their sacred trust.

The second part is around 500 years after that. New states are growing, and in conflict with each other – and the Church is no longer the only place for people who want to learn about the knowledge of the ancients. The story centres round a man who’s trying to rediscover the lost knowledge (in particular physics & electricity), and his visit to the monastery where he reads the books, debates philosophy with the monks. And meets a monk who has a knack for engineering and built a generator to power a lightbulb – the first since the Deluge. If the first part is the Dark Ages, this is the Renaissance or the early Englightenment – reading the old works and doing experiments and new work. Understanding not just preserving.

The last part is another 600 years later – the world has changed again, they have had space travel for over a hundred years and the spectre of nuclear weapons and nuclear war is rising. The world is organised into two superpowers, bristling at each other, and there have been “weapon tests” or maybe they’ve been fired in anger. Both sides have propaganda about how they didn’t do anything wrong, but the other side did and so retaliation etc etc. The story is partly about the Abbot sending out a group (with all the knowledge of the world) on a starship to join one of the colonies – to keep the Church and knowledge alive in the worst case scenario. And quite a lot of it is taken up with the Abbot’s fight against the secular authority’s regulations about permitting euthanasia for those who’ve been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Suicide is a sin, you see, so the Abbot is against ending one’s suffering early because he believes that will consign the soul to eternal damnation. The book ends with a hint that the escaping monks made it off planet in time, and a hint that much of life on Earth has been killed in the conflagration. Just enough of a glimmer of hope to stop it being completely bleak, but that’s all.

The book isn’t just a “what might happen next” it’s also about knowledge and history. About how what we know now affects how we interpret the past, and about how chance and politics and circumstance affect what we have of the past to even interpret in the first place. How the events of one era can become the history of the next and the fables of the one after. And about faith (in this case in the particular form of the Catholic Church) and science – neither of which is shown as the One True Way and neither of which is without flaw. It’s also about cycles – and I guess about the question of is some knowledge just too dangerous for humankind. Miller is asking are we doomed to nuke ourselves back to barbarism or worse every couple of thousand years. That specific worry has retreated somewhat, but the more general form of it is still a disturbing one to contemplate. Are we just too curious and too prone to meddling for our own good?

One other thing I wanted to talk about was how much I appreciated the way Miller’s three parts show not only great changes over this large sweep of time (a thousand years between parts 1 & 3), but also continuity. And while the three eras were clearly analagous to periods in our own past & present, it wasn’t a case of recapitulating history exactly the same all over again. Basically the history felt real and solid, and plausible.

There was also a mystical thread running through the story – someone who is strongly implied to be the Wandering Jew of our own legend shows up in all three parts, and is even involved in nudging events at times. Knowingly? Is it really the same man? There are even hints this might be Leibowitz tho he himself denies it. I have a thought I’m struggling to articulate about how including this is intended to remind the reader that we aren’t all knowing gods – some things are still beyond our ken and who are we to say “impossible”.

I sort of think I might like to read a commentary on the book, if such a thing exists – I’m sure I’ve missed allusions to things both inside and outside the book.

“Against a Dark Background” Iain M. Banks

The last of the Iain M. Banks books we own is the non-Culture book Against a Dark Background. This story is set in some indeterminate future (or secondary world) and follows Sharrow as she tries to find the artifact that will buy off the people who’re hunting her – without losing too much in the process.

Sharrow is a member of the aristocracy, one of the party people with access to the wealth and lifestyle that implies. Expelled from several finishing schools she describes herself as a difficult child who became an easy adolescent.

Sharrow is a veteran, she fought, nearly died and lost her unborn child in a recent war. She and her squad mates were synchroneurobonded, able to anticipate each other’s reactions in combat. In some ways as close as family, in other ways, well, in other ways as close as family that knows how to twist the knife.

Sharrow is an Antiquities hunter, she hunts treasure for pay. A swashbuckling maniser*, with a smart ass reply for every situation (no matter how unwise it might be) and a plan for every heist.

*c.f. “womaniser”, she and her female team-mate Zefla play the James Bond role in love ’em & leave ’em relationships.

Sharrow is the product of her life so far – obvious perhaps, but not always true for fictional characters 😉 Through the book there are flashbacks to formative events in her life, the book even starts with the scene of her mother’s assassination in front of her when she was only 5.

Sharrow is the umpteenth (and last) descendent in the female line from a woman who stole (or not) an artifact from a religious cult (or was abducted by them, or was abducted from them, it’s legend and origin story and the details fade into obscurity). Now the Huhsz must kill her before the new millenium so that their promised Messiah can be born. Or she can return the Lazy Gun her ancestor took (or didn’t) from them in the first place. Which is where the story starts – with her cousin Geis bringing the news that the Huhsz have their licences to legally hunt her.

On one level this is a book of adventure – I compared Sharrow above to James Bond, but she’s a James Bond that works with a team, who she brings back together for this one last hunt. They plot daring escapades, there are thrilling escapes and rescues, there are monomaniacally cackling villains to outwit and foil. But underneath that all there is a darker undercurrent. Sharrow’s life so far hasn’t been easy, her family is pretty dysfunctional and finding your chosen family in a military unit has its own stresses and fracture points. She’s done bad shit in the past, often with good intentions or at least not intentionally bad ones. But intent isn’t magic and she has to live with the real consequences. I didn’t think the ending was as bleak as the end of Consider Phlebas, but it’s still pretty bleak. I certainly wasn’t expecting the highlighted similarities between Sharrow & the Lazy Gun, nor was I expecting who the primary antagonist would turn out to be.

I enjoyed this one more than Consider Phlebas, so that’s a good note to finish re-reading Banks on. Next author on the shelf is Elizabeth Bear, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve got 9 of her books (and there are many more to buy), but she’s a relatively recent discovery for me so I’ve not re-read those before and they struck me on first reading as books that would have more to notice on a second read.