Posted by Sari
Kim Stanley Robinson The Years of Rice and Salt
I have problems with alternate history novels. I either think that the point of divergence is too small or trite, or badly imagined. In this case, I can not really say that the chosen point of divergence is too small. Robinson after all, wipes the whole population of Europe off the map with the plague in 14th century, and re imagines the history of the world from that point until approximately present date. The result is a very robinsonian novel, a vast panorama of world and time which somehow ends up pretty much like our world in the end. To create some sort of continuum Robinson introduces the idea of reincarnation and follows three intertwined souls, K, B and I through history.
Somehow this just did not work for me. I kind of liked the idea of a longue duré novel but there were just too many points where I found the argument unconvincing. What kind of plague would wipe out all the people of Europe (including very sparsely inhabited Scandinavia?) but miraculously stop short of Asia? Could one Japanese really prepare the North American Indians for the onslaught of invaders from East and West? Could scientific revolution really be the work of few isolated geniuses in Samarkand? A trench war of sixty years without the invention of tanks? And how and why would everything happen pretty much the same and exactly the same pace as in a world where European culture dominates? If you take out such a huge thing like Europe out of the calculation, I think there would have been cumulatively more changes and differences than Robinson shows us.
Maybe Years of Rice and Salt is meant to be a meditation on humanity and history more than a nuts and bolts kind of alternate history, but even so, the point escapes me. It is bold, it’s language has surprising power, but in the end… just no.
Fawn Brodie: The Devil Drives
Sir Richard Burton was undoubtedly one of the strangest and most compelling men Victorian age ever produced. A solider, a truly remarkable linguist, ethnologist, explorer, adventurer, spy, one of the greatest swordsmen of the period, a poet, a translator, a diplomat and collector and publisher of erotica. He served in India and in Crimea, went on a Hajj to Mecca and Medina in disguise, discovered lake Tanganjika, served as a consul on four continents, had a tragic and well publicized quarrel with John Speke on the sources of the White Nile, and wrote about all of it in voluminous detail.
He also translated oriental erotica like Kama Sutra, and most famously Thousand and One Nights into English, was friends with such more or less notorious characters as Monckton Milnes, Algernon Swinburne and Fred Hankey, and suspected his army career in India was blocked by his rather frank report on male brothels in Karachi. He spent most of his life restless, always looking for something, always shocking the establishment and often taunting his superiors because usually he had known better than they.
Brodie’s biography of Burton from 1967 is thorough, engaging and well written, but it does leave reader asking for more. Burton’s life was so rich and full of controversy, his writings and opinions so varied, so simultaneously at odds with and reflecting Victorian England that the four hundred pages barely seem to scratch surface. Unfortunately his wife Isabel – a fascinating woman on her own right – burned Burton’s diaries and manuscripts after his death leaving generations of historians and anthropologists devastated. Even so I think more modern biographies might open up his character better. This one sounds really interesting. And here is a link for a short lecture given by its author.
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
Dawkins is witty and funny and passionate and I pretty much agree with him, so reading God Delusion was one of those reaffirming rather than revealing readings experiences. It is bit of a sprawl, discussing religion (mainly Christianity and Islam) and religious questions from arguments of God’s existence or nonexistence to morality to possibility of evolutionary explanation for religion. Many of the arguments and examples are familiar from Dawkins earlier writings, and there are a few “yyeeess but…” moments, at least for me.
Nonetheless, The God Delusion is a worthy argument for atheism, wonderful debunking of ID and sent me surfing information on sundry things from Russell’s Teapot to Cargo Cults. Also, it is dedicated to one of our ages true humanists, Douglas Adams. How could it be bad?
Oh, and if you get BBC World, try to catch Hard Talk with Dawkins, it gives you the arguments from the book in a nutshell.