July 2015 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



The Merchant Princes Trilogy, Charles Stross – part portal/world walking fantasy, part sci-fi thriller. New.

Total: 1


Al-Ghazali – In Our Time episode about Al-Ghazali, a leading intellectual in the Islamic world of the 11th Century AD.

The California Gold Rush – In Our Time episode about the California gold rush in 1849 and its effects on the USA and the world.

Total: 2


“Horemheb” Charlotte Booth – July EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Ramasseum.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Valley of the Kings.

Total: 2

In Our Time: The California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush was sparked by the discovery of gold in a river in January 1848 and not only did it make some individuals rich but it also had a significant impact on the politics and economy of the USA and the world. Discussing it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

When gold was discovered in what would become the state of California the land it was discovered on was not actually under the control of the USA. War between the USA and Mexico ended in February 1848 with the signing of a treaty that had the Mexicans cede that part of the continent to the USA. I imagine once they knew what they’d signed away they weren’t best pleased. At the time the area was inhabited by around 150,000 Native Americans, down from a previous population of 300,000 due to diseases and other effects of the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans. There were also around 6,000 Mexicans and other assorted immigrants.

News of the discovery of gold was initially slow to spread, and didn’t get taken seriously by the outside world until late 1848. Thus the gold rush proper was in 1849 – and until I listened to this programme I hadn’t really put two & two together and realised that the song Oh My Darling Clementine refers to the gold rush (“In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner forty niner, And his daughter Clementine.”).

In 1849 the population of the area increased significantly – by 1850 there were 100,000 settlers who had been drawn there by the gold. Most of the new immigrants were young men looking to get rich. The region was not yet a state, and it had none of the apparatus of government – amongst other things no law enforcement nor even laws. One of the experts described it as like “a stag party, they came and trashed California”. Most came to mine gold and hopefully make their fortunes that way, but those who came to sell supplies (mining equipment & food alike) to the miners were the ones who were most likely to become rich. This second category included Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University.

These new settlers came from all over the world. From all 21 states of the USA and from 25 other countries. Not just Europeans either, there were settlers from various South American countries and from China. The journey to the territory was an arduous one no matter where you were coming from, and particularly so from Europe or the East Coast of the USA. By land it took 5 months, and there are few places where it’s possible to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. By sea – you could cross the Pacific from China, or sail round the bottom of South America, or cross the continent at Panama (by land, the canal is not there yet) – all of which options have their difficulties and dangers.

The scale of mining operations progressed quickly. At first the stereotypical image of the lone miner panning for gold in a river was pretty accurate, and it was possible for individuals to set up on their own and strike rich. But as time went on mining techniques became more intensive and required more capital to set up. No longer did a lone incomer have much of a chance of getting his lucky strike on his own. As it became more industrialised it also became more destructive. By this I mean they were doing things like diverting rivers and blowing up parts of the mountains in order to extract more gold. As well as this physical destruction of the environment there was also a lot of mercury used in the gold extraction processes – which ended up in the rivers of California.

California may’ve started out as a lawless place in 1849 but it became incorporated as a state of the USA very quickly. In 1852 they had got themselves organised and went to the Senate with their constitution already written and asked to be made a state. At this point they already had double the number of people necessary to be considered. This had an unforeseen knock-on effect – they were the 31st state and were a free state. At this point in the USA’s history tensions were rising between the North (free states) and the South (slave states) although it would be another few years before the Civil War broke out in 1861. To ease the tension states were being admitted in pairs, one slave and one free at a time. However California’s swift self-organisation side-stepped around that procedure and unbalanced the Senate. Utah and New Mexico were admitted as slave states to re-balance it but didn’t actually have a slave owning economy.

And in a reminder that the issues are never simple: despite being a free state California is actually one of the first to enact institutionally racist laws. One axis of this is the regulation specifically of Chinese immigration. Another is protection and governance laws concerning the Native American population. Despite the idealistic name these laws actually disenfranchised and dispossessed Native Americans. There was also official encouragement of the lynching of Chinese & Native Americans who “stepped out of line”.

Obviously the biggest effect of the gold rush was on the economy – not just of California and the USA but also globally. For instance one of the experts made a case that the gold rush was critical for the Industrial Revolution in the UK. If there had not been more people with more money to buy the goods that the newly mechanised UK industry was producing then it would not have happened so fast or so succesfully.

The gold rush also affected the culture of the USA. For instance the American Dream mythology began as a spiritual Puritan vision of the City on the Hill being a shining beacon of virtue for the rest of the world to look up to. But after the gold rush this changes to a more material idea – you don’t go to the USA (or to the West Coast) to live the best life you can, you go to get rich quick. California still occupies this sort of cultural space – you go to California to [find gold]/[be a film star]/[join a tech startup] (delete as appropriate). Hollywood and Silicon Valley are the descendants of the strike it lucky & get rich quick ethos of the gold rush.

Towards the end of the programme they talked a little about the role of women in this era of California’s history. The main point they brought out was that there weren’t many women, and so in some ways their social capital was higher than in other parts of the USA. The example used was that divorce was easier for a woman to initiate. I’d’ve liked it if they’d spent a bit more time on this – my notes that I’m writing this up from say that I thought they had more to say about the knock-on effects of this on modern US society.

The Merchant Princes Trilogy, Charles Stross

When I first read The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross (of which the first trilogy is currently published) several years ago they were advertised as fantasy rather than as a science fiction/techno thriller and were published as six books. I’d been getting them out of the library then but stalled out on the third or fourth of the books as the library didn’t have the next one. So when I realised the books had been revised and re-released as 3 books it seemed the perfect time to pick them up and finally find out what happened. These three are The Bloodline Feud, The Traders’ War and The Revolution Trade

The story opens with Miriam Beckstein getting herself fired from her job as a biotech journalist by being just a little bit too good at following where the dodgy looking funding deals are coming from. Turns out that if your employer’s owner is involved he might not be so keen on having you break the story … When she visits her adoptive mother for sympathy she brings home a box of heirlooms/trinkets, one of which is a locket with an intricate design on it. Examining it more closely she ends up somewhere else, with a splitting headache. And nothing will ever be the same again … for her, or either (any!) of the worlds. It turns out that Miriam is, in fact, a princess of sorts – her family in the other world might be nouveau riche but as they and they alone have the ability to walk between the worlds they have political power and wealth that the better bred aristocracy of that world can only dream about.

When Miriam first stumbles into her heritage the Family make their money and generate their power in fairly simple ways. Their own world is technologically less advanced than ours so communication and transport across the landmass of the Americas is very slow, and they make their money by transporting goods and information very quickly via our world. In our world they make their money by transporting drugs very slowly but utterly securely in their own world (as well as growing their own heroin to sell). A pretty medieval way of doing business, and to Miriam’s mind it’s about time it was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. She’s hampered in that goal by many of the other medieval aspects of this new world … the status of women, for instance, and the Machiavellian political situation. And it turns out that these are not the only worlds, and they are not quite the only people who can walk between them.

They’re pretty hard books to give a summary of even the jumping off point – I’ve written those two paragraphs and feel like I’ve barely touched on the elements that are in the books. It starts out as a fairly straightforward portal fantasy/wish fulfilment fantasy trope: adopted girl finds out that she’s a princess in another world. And then Stross takes a good look at the ramifications of that. What would it really be like as a 30-something 21st Century American woman to suddenly become a medieval/early modern noblewoman? Answer: It would suck. And not just in the obvious ways, Miriam also doesn’t have the cultural toolkit necessary to navigate such a hierarchical world where honour and losing face matter – it’s not like she was particularly good at it even in her own world, just look at how she gets herself fired.

And it’s not just the ramifications of that fantasy. For instance: once deciding to do business by transporting drugs (such an obvious step), the Family are then embroiled in the rest of the drug trade in the US … and the law enforcement agencies, the government etc etc. As the series progresses the ways in which the two worlds’ political, military and security establishments are tangled together get more clear, and the consequences of the events set in motion by Miriam get ever more severe.

Culture shock and the misunderstandings when one culture meets another are a theme across the series. This is most obvious in Miriam’s reaction to the new world she finds herself in. But it also comes across in how the politics between the worlds plays out – assumptions made about how “of course they won’t do X so we can do Y” don’t always turn out the way the people involved expect. And it’s present through all the small stuff too – Miriam constantly mis-steps because her cultural values aren’t the same as her new family’s and vice versa.

The science fiction aspect of them takes a while to show up, but one of the big things is that the “stare at this pattern and travel” ability isn’t magic. And one of the threads of this trilogy that I most want to see where it’s going in the next books is the exploration of both the worlds they can get to and where the ability comes from.

I could do with re-reading these, even fairly soon – to see how knowing the big reveals ahead of time changes what I think of the earlier sections. Also because I’m not sure I followed all the twists & turns of the Machiavellian politics and that might be easier the second time round.

Definitely a series worth reading 🙂

In Our Time: Al-Ghazali

Al-Ghazali was a leading intellectual in the Islamic world of the 11th Century AD, a philosopher, lawyer, teacher, thinker and mystic who made important contributions to Islamic philosophy and to sharia law. The experts on In Our Time who discussed his life and work were Peter Adamson (LMU in Munich), Carole Hillenbrand (Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities) and Robert Gleave (University of Exeter).

The era in which Al-Ghazali lived was one of political change. The caliphate was beginning to collapse, and the Christian Crusaders were fighting for and conquering parts of the Middle East. There was a rump of the old Umayyad caliphate in Spain, and their Abbasid replacement had for a while been a figurehead government with the Shi’ite military holding the actual power. When Al-Ghazali was alive the Shi’ites were in control in Egypt, but the Sunnis had restored the caliphate to actual power in the east (where Al-Ghazali lived). This was an intellectually rich era, with many important and influential scholars. An important piece of context for Al-Ghazali’s life and work is that he was born when the translation movement had just finished its project of translating the works of the Greek philosophers into Arabic.

Al-Ghazali was born in the 11th Century in Persia and was of humble origins. He was orphaned, and so doesn’t receive his education because of his family connections – instead he is identified as being particularly clever. He was educated in all the subjects that an Islamic intellectual of the era should be – including the Qu’ran and Sharia law. He clearly excelled as when he moves to Baghdad in 1090 he soon gets the best job in the city, when he is still only 33. During the 5 years he lives in Baghdad he is the most senior person in the biggest mosque in the city. His primary duty is teaching, but the role is also a political one – for instance he wrote a tract rebuking the Shi’ite rulers of Egypt.

During his time in Baghdad he writes a work called The Incoherence of the Philosophers which is a rebuttal of the use of Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers in Islamic religious philosophy. this sets him in direct opposition to the leading thinker of the previous generation. The main thrust of his argument is that the Greek notions of causality leave no room for the actions of God in the world. For example if you hold a flame to cotton then the Greek philosophers would say that the fire causes the cotton to burn. But Al-Ghazali believes you need to leave space for God and for miracles. So it is God that causes the cotton to burn when the flame is held to it, and God could choose that the cotton doesn’t burn (i.e. a miracle would occur).

Al-Ghazali was also influential in the field of Sharia law. His work on this topic was philosophical in nature and focussed on the principles behind the laws. These are more important than the details of the laws themselves because an understanding of the principle behind a law will allow the law to be adapted to the changing realities of the world.

After he had been in Baghdad for five years he suffered some sort of breakdown. He left the city and his high status job and wandered as a Sufi mystic. Sufism is focussed on a direct personal and mystical connection with God, and this contrasts with mainstream Islam (which focusses on obedience to the laws). Although he lived a life outside the teaching structure of Islam he continued to publish on philosophical matters – now within the Sufi tradition. At the time Sufism was not very closely aligned with the rest of Islamic thought and it was Al-Ghazali’s work in this part of his life that brought it and mainstream Islam closer together.

In their summing up at the end of the programme the experts said that although a lot of his writing concerned philosophy (and he played an important role at the time) his lasting legacy is in the field of Sharia law.