Sep 242015

too like CoverAt long last, my forthcoming novel Too Like the Lightning has a cover!  You can see it, and the first teaser description of the book, on So I thought I would share a few author’s thoughts on what it feels like to have a cover.

It’s an amazing, numinous feeling seeing the world I created materialize into a visual, quasi-real in such a different way.  Of course, authors generally have no control over the cover art, which is something I have known for a long time, so I spent years preparing myself for a terrible cover. I even picked out the scene from the book which I thought would make the worst possible cover, making it look pulpy and the wrong genre, so that, if I imagined that cover, anything would be better. At one point my wonderful housemates even made a terrible CG mockup of the terrible cover, which I still treasure as a mouse pad, my long preparation bracing myself for the worst. (I will not post that image since it’s a spoiler, but it’s so bad!)  It has made me smile and wince for many years.

The real one, executed by Victor Mosquera, is wonderful.

When my editor said he thought the covers for the Terra Ignota series should be cityscapes, a different city on each of the four books, I was overjoyed. It was perfect. (And not only because if there are no characters pictured on the cover so they can’t look wrong.) Just as this blog is called “Ex Urbe” (From the City) because so much of what I look at is the culture and complexity of cities, and the identities, histories, peoples and events they shape, so this novel series focuses a lot on cities, especially the different global capitals which reflect the cultural and political developments which are the heart of this science-fictional world.

The Terra Ignota books take place in 2454, so some of its cities are present day capitals which I extrapolate forward, asking what Paris or Alexandria will be like in 400 years. Others are new cities founded as results of social, political and technological changes. This first cover shows the city where the action begins, Cielo de Pajaros, a “spectacle city” in Chile, built onto a mountainside overlooking the Pacific coast. The illustration has absolutely captured the idea of the city, built for people who want to enjoy the vista of sea and stone and sky, and the hundreds of thousands of wild birds which are encouraged to live around the city by “flower trenches” which run between each of the layered tiers of the city, and are seeded with native plants that encourage birds to feed and nest. The sheer, cliff-like surface shown here is even steeper than I had imagined, but I like it because it makes it instantly clear how intimately the city is bound to the flying cars we see coming in to land. These cars make it possible for cities like this to rise in areas that could never be reached by land, and for a teeming metropolis to leave the wilderness around it un-scarred, without roads, rail lines or shipyards, since the arteries which connect this city to the rest of civilization need nothing but air. Before I saw this illustration I had not visualized the cars and birds flocking together, but it’s perfect, a feeling of an exciting, technologically-sophisticated future with flying cars and high-tech cities, but also with birds and waves and sunrise, warm inviting colors, air and sea spray.  A healthy future, and an Earth which advanced but still familiar, and welcoming.  Positive.  I think that is what I like most about the cover, the fact that the mood is right, suggesting a science-fictional future which is beautiful and positive.

Everyone involved in publishing this book–editors, agent, publicists, author friends–constantly complains that the book is impossible to pitch.  Describing the skeleton of the plot doesn’t work because it leaves you with the wrong impression of what the style will be; describing the style leaves you with the wrong impression of what kind of story it will be.  “It’s not like anything” is a frequent refrain when people try to come up with books to compare it to.  My agent Amy Boggs told me that, when she was first reading the manuscript, she felt a little smug because all the other agents at her agency were complaining that they were drowning in dystopian submissions, and reading dystopia after dystopia after post-apocalyptic dystopia was a real downer, so she got to gloat saying “I’m reading this nice utopian book!”  And it is utopian in some sense.  I’ve also caught my editor on panels about the state of the genre, when he was asked about the super-popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff which is saturating the field, saying with some excitement that he’s going to publish this great series set in an exciting, good future with utopian things going on.  It made me smile.  However, I myself am very careful about how I apply the words “utopia” or “utopian” to this book, since it’s definitely not supposed to be a perfect future.  But it is a good future.  And, for me, “utopia” and “utopian” are not quite the same.

I should say that I love dystopia as a genre (my first term paper way back in middle school was on 1984, Brave New World and We), and when I discuss it in analysis I always try to distinguish between what I call “a dystopia” and what I call “a dystopian work”.  For me (these are my own idiosyncratic terms) a “dystopia” means a work that is about its terrifying future, more about the world than it is about the people in it, who serve as portals for us to see the world, and a dystopia–for me–generally also means a story in which the characters are living in the world but powerless to change it.  In contrast I call “dystopian” works which are using a dark future setting as a background for a story which really is focused on the characters and their actions, and where the characters end up leading a revolution, or an exodus, or a counter-strike, or escape to a different non-dystopian place, or all the other ways of using dystopian elements as a tool for a wide variety of stories in which the world itself is not the protagonist, the way it was for Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin.

So, similarly, when I talk about a “utopia”–a work intending to depict an ideal future–that is not quite the same as a work which is “utopian” i.e. addressing the idea of utopia, and using utopian positive elements in its future building, while still focusing on people, characters and events, and exploring or critiquing the positive future it depicts, rather than recommending it.  2454 as I imagine it is not a utopia.  There are many flaws and uncomfortable elements.  For example, as you can learn from the reveal (and the first page of the book) there is censorship, a very uncomfortable (and traditionally dystopian) element for an Earth future to have. But there are flying cars, and robot trash-collectors, and low crime rates, and spectacular cities, and awesome jobs, and high-tech fashions, and cool new family structures, and all sorts of things which are, if not perfect, a bit better than 2015, just as 2015 is a bit better than 1915, and a lot better than 1515.  It is using utopia and commenting on utopia without being a utopia.  But in our tendency to slot futures into different familiar categories (dystopian, cyberpunk, golden age, post-apocalyptic, space opera, eco-catastrophic, post-scarcity decadence…) it can be difficult to articulate what this future is like.  It isn’t those.

That is why I think the cover is so excellent, the mood, the feel of it: warm with a bit of shadow, inviting, airy and numinous but also concrete, futuristic but integrated with the familiar realities of Earth.  A future where humanity has done pretty well, botched some things but solved some others, created a lot of exciting innovations worth exploring, and has lots more still to do.

So, thank you, Tor, and Victor Mosquera, and Irene Gallo, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, for creating a picture which finally pitches Terra Ignota in a way that makes it feel like the books actually feel, when all the rest of us have failed!

The book comes out May 10th 2016, and you can pre-order it from Powell’s, from Barnes & Noble (also on nook), from Amazon (also on kindle), through Kobo, or you can use Indiebound or Goodreads to find independent bookstores to order it for you.

Here is the cover at full size:


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Sep 122015
Different approximations of the Platonic Ideal eclair.

Different approximations of the Platonic Ideal eclair.

(Best to begin with Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

Socrates, Sartre, Descartes and our Youth have, among them, consumed twelve thousand, six hundred and forty two hypothetical eclairs in the fourteen months since we left them contemplating skepticism on the banks of a cheerily babbling imaginary brook. Much has changed in the interval, not in the land of philosophical thought-experiments (which is ever peaceful unless someone scary like Ockham or Nietzsche gets inside), but in a world two layers of reality removed from theirs. The changes appear in the world of material circumstances which shape and foster this author, who in turn shapes and fosters our philosophical picnickers. Now, having recovered from my transplant shock of being moved to the new and fertile country of University of Chicago, and with my summer work done, and Too Like the Lightning fully revised and on its way toward its May 10th release date (YES!), it is time at last to return to our hypothetical heroes, and to my sketches of the history of philosophical skepticism.

When last we saw them, Socrates, Sartre, Descartes and our Youth had rescued themselves from the throes of absolute doubt by developing Criteria of Truth, which allowed them to differentiate arenas of knowledge where certainty is possible from arenas of knowledge where certainty is not possible. (See their previous dramatic adventures with in Sketches of a History of Skepticism Part 1 and Part 2).  To do this, they looked at three systems: Epicureanism, which suggests that we have certain knowledge of the world perceived by the senses, but no certain knowledge of the imperceptible atomic reality beneath; Platonism, which suggests that we have knowledge of the eternal structures that create the material world, i.e. Forms or Ideas, but not of the flawed, corruptible material objects which are the shadows of those eternal structures; and Aristotelianism, which suggests that we can have certain knowledge of logical principles and of categories within Nature, but not of individual objects.

Notably, neither Epicurus nor Aristotle was invited to our picnic, and, while you never know when any given Socrates will turn out to be a Plato in disguise, our particular Socrates seems to be staying safely in the camp of doubt: he knows that he knows nothing. Our object is not to determine which of these classical camps has the correct Criterion of Truth.  In fact, our distinguished guests, Descartes and Sartre, aren’t interested in rehashing these three classical systems all of whose criteria are not only familiar, but, to them, long defunct. They have not come through this great distance in time to watch Socrates open the doors of skepticism to our Youth to just meet antiquity’s familiar dogmatists; the twinkle in Descartes’ eye (and his infinite patience dolling out eclairs) tells me he’s waiting for something else.

cicero1Cicero Skepticus

Descartes and Sartre expect Cicero next — Cicero, whom many might mistake as a voice for the Stoic school (the intellectual party conspicuously missing from the assembly of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus) but who is actually more often read by modern scholars as a new and promising kind of Skeptic.  Unfortunately, Cicero is currently busy answering a flurry of letters from someone called Petrarch, so has declined to join our little gathering (or possibly he’s just miffed hearing that I’m doing an abbreviated finale to this series, so he’d only get a couple paragraphs, even if he came).  So we must do our concise best to cover his contribution on our own.   Pyrrho, Zeno and other early skeptical voices argued in favor of doubt by demonstrating the fallibility of the senses and of pure reason: the stick in water that looks bent, the paradoxes of motion which show how logic and reality don’t match. Cicero achieves unbelief (and aims at the eudaimonist tranquility beyond) by a different route, a luxurious one made possible by the fact that he is writing three centuries into the development of philosophy and has many different dogmatic schools to fall back on. In his philosophical dialogs, Cicero presents different interlocutors who put forth different dogmatic positions: Stoic, Platonist, Epicurean; all in dialog with each other, presenting evidence for their own positions and counter-arguments against the conclusions of others.  Each interlocutor works strictly by his own Criterion of Truth, and all argue intelligently and well.  But they all disagree.  When you read them all together, you are left uncertain.  No particular voice seems to overtop the others, and the fact that there are so many different equally plausible positions, defended with equally well-defined Criteria of Truth, leaves one with no confidence that any of them is reliable.  At no point does Cicero say “I am a skeptic, I think there is no certainty,” — but the effect of reading the dialog is to be left with uncertain feelings. Cicero himself does not seem to have been a Pyrrhonist skeptic, and certainly does seem to hold some philosophical positions, especially moral principles, quite strongly.  There is certainly a good case to be made that he has strong Stoic leanings, and there is validity to the Renaissance argument that he should be vaguely clustered in with Seneca and Cato, who subscribe to a mixed-together digest of Roman paganism, Stoicism, some Platonic and a few Aristotelian elements.  But especially on big questions of epistemology, ontology and physics, Cicero remains solidly, frustratingly, elusive.

There are many important aspects of Cicero’s work, but for our purposes the most important is this: he has achieved doubt without actually making any skeptical arguments, or counter-arguments.  He has not attacked the fundamentals of Stoicism, Platonism or Epicureanism.  Instead, he has used the strengths of the three schools to undermine each other.  All three schools are convincing.  All are plausible.  All have evidence and/or logic on their side. As a result, none of the three winds up feeling convincing, even though none of the three has been directly undermined. This is not a new achievement of Cicero’s.  Epicurus used a similar technique, and Lucretius, his follower, did so too; and we know Cicero read Lucretius.  But Cicero is the most important person to use this technique in antiquity, largely because 1,300 years later it will be Cicero who become the centerpiece of Renaissance education.  And Cicero will have no small Medieval legacy as well.

WIK_Meeting-of-doctors-at-the-University-of-ParisMedieval Certainty, and the Big Question

Stereotypically for a Renaissance historian, I will move quickly through the Middle Ages, though not for the stereotypical reasons. I don’t think that the Middle Ages were an intellectual stasis; I do think that Medieval philosophy is fully of many complex things that I’m just starting to seriously work through in my own studies. I’m not ready to provide a light, fun summary of something which is, for me, still a rich forest to explore.  Church Fathers, late Neoplatonists, Chroniclers, theological councils, monastic leaders, rich injections from the Middle East, Maimonides; all intersect with doubt, certainty and Criteria of Truth in rich and fascinating ways that I am not yet prepared to do justice to.  So instead I will present an abstraction of one important aspect of Medieval thinking which I hope will help elucidate some overall approaches to doubt, even if I don’t pause to look at individual minds.

When I was in my second year of grad school, I chatted over convenience store cookies in the grad student lounge with a new student entering our program that year, like myself, to study the Renaissance.  He poked fun at the philosophers of the Middle Ages. He asked me, “How could anybody possibly be interested in going on and on and on and on like that about God?”  And in that moment of politeness, and newness, and fun, I laughed, and nodded.  But, happily, we had a good teacher who made us look more at the Medieval, without which we can’t understand the Renaissance, and now I would never laugh at such a comment.

Set aside your modern mindset for a moment, and your modern religious concepts, and see if you can jump into the Medieval mind. To start with, there is a Being of infinite power, Whose existence is known with certainty.  (Take that as given — a big given, I know, but it’s a given in this context.) Such a Being created everything that ever has existed or will exist. Everything that happens: events, births, storms, falling objects, thoughts; all were conceived by this Being and exist according to this Being’s script. The Being possesses all knowledge, and all good things are good because they resemble this Being. Everything in the material world is fleeting and imperfect and will someday be destroyed and forgotten, including the entire Earth. But — this Being has access to another universe where all things are eternal and perfect, which will last beyond the end of the material universe, and with this Being’s help there might be some way for us to reach that universe as well. The Being created humans with particular care, and is trying to communicate with us, but direct communication is a difficult process, just as it is difficult for an entomologist to communicate directly with his ants, or for a computer programmer to communicate directly with the artificial intelligences that she has programmed.

Spot the Saint! This painting from Berlin tries to capture the intensity of the collective project of trying to understand the Most Important Thing Ever: God.

Spot the Saint! This painting (in Berlin) tries to capture the intensity of the collective project of trying to understand the Most Important Thing Ever: God.

Now, the facetious question I laughed at in early grad school comes back, but turned on its head.  How could you ever want to study anything other than this Being?  It explains everything.  You want to know the cause of weather, astronomical events, diseases, time?  The answer is this Being.  You want to know where the world came from, how thought works, why there is pain?  The answer is this Being.  History is a script written by this Being, the stars are a diagram drawn by this Being, the suitability and adaptation of animals and plants to their environments is the ingenuity of this Being, and the laws that make rocks sink and wood float and fire burn and rain fall are all decisions made by this Being.  If you have any intellectual curiosity at all, wouldn’t it be an act of insanity to dedicate your life to anything other than understanding this Being?  And in a world in which there has been, for centuries, effective universal consensus on all these premises, what society would want to fund a school that didn’t study them?  Or pay tuition for a child to study something else?  Theology dominated other sciences in the Middle Ages, not because people were backward, or closed-minded, or lacked curiosity, but because they were ambitious, keenly intellectual and fixed on the a subject from which they had every reason to expect answers, not just to theological questions, but to all questions.  They didn’t have blinders, they had their eyes on the prize, and they felt that choosing to study Natural Philosophy (i.e. the world, nature, biology, plants, animals) instead of Theology was like trying to study toenail clippings instead of the being they were clipped from.

To put it another way: have you ever watched a fun, formulaic, episodic genre  show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the X-Files? There’ll be one particular episode where the baddie-of-the-day is Christianity-flavored, and at some point a manifest miracle happens, or an angel or a ghost shows up, and then we have to reset the formula and move onto the next episode, but you spend that whole next episode thinking, “You know, they just found proof of the existence of the afterlife and the immortality of the soul. You’d think they’d decide that’s more important than this conspiracy involving genetically-modified corn.”  That’s how people in the Middle Ages felt about people who wanted to study things that weren’t God.

Doubt comes into this in important ways, but not the ways that modern rhetoric about the Middle Ages leads most people to expect.


Spot the Saint! Who is this flanked by Aristotle and Plato who is triumphing over false philosophy? (Detail from a panel from the Louvre)

Why Scholasticism?

Wikipedia, at the time of writing, defines Scholasticism as “a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics (“scholastics,” or “schoolmen”) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. ” It was “a program of employing that [critical] method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context.” It “originated as an outgrowth of, and a departure from, Christian monastic schools at the earliest European universities.”  Philosophy students traditionally define Scholasticism as “that incredibly boring hard stuff about God that you have to read between the classics and Descartes”.  Both definitions are true.  Scholasticism is an incredibly tedious, exacting body of philosophy, intentionally impenetrable, obsessed with micro-detail, and happy to spend three thousand words proving to you that Good is good, or to set out a twenty step argument it is better to exist than not exist (this is presumably why Hamlet still hadn’t graduated at age 30).  Scholasticism was also so incredibly exciting that, apart from the ever-profitable medical and law schools, European higher education devoted itself to practically nothing else for the whole late Middle Ages, and, even though the intellectual firebrands of both the Renaissance and the 17th and 18th centuries devoted themselves largely to fiercely attacking the scholastic system, it did not truly crumble until deep into the Enlightenment.

Why was Scholasticism so exciting?  Even if people who believed in an omnipotent God had good reason to devote their studies pretty-exclusively to Theology, why was this one particularly dense and intentionally difficult method the method for hundreds of years?  Why didn’t they write easy-to-read, penetrable treatises, or witty philosophical tales, or even a good old fashioned Platonic-type dialog?

The answer is that Christianity changes the stakes for being wrong.  In antiquity, if you’re wrong about philosophy, and the philosophical end of theology, you’ll make incorrect decisions, possibly lead a sadder or less successful life than you would otherwise, and it might mean your legacy isn’t what you wanted it to be, but that’s it.  If you’re really, really wrong you might offend Artemis or something and get zapped, but it’s pretty easy to cover your bases by going to the right festivals.  By the logic of antiquity, if you put a Platonist and an Epicurean in a room, one of of them will be wrong and living life the wrong way, at least in some ways, but they can both have a nice conversation, and in the end, either they’ll both reincarnate and the Epicurean will have another chance to be right later, or they’ll both disperse into atoms and it won’t matter.  OK.  In Medieval Christianity, if you’re wrong about theology, your immortal soul goes to Hell forever, where you’ll be tormented by unspeakable devils for the rest of eternity, and everyone else who believes your errors is also likely to lose the chance of eternal paradise and absolute knowledge, and will be plunged into a pit of absolute misery and despair, irrevocably, forever. Error is incredibly dangerous, to you and to everyone around you who might get pulled down with you.  If you’re really bad, you might even bring the wrath of God down upon your native city, or if you’re really bad then, while you’re still alive, your soul might depart your body and sink down to Hell, leaving your body to be a house for a devil who will use you to visit evil on the Earth (see Inferno Canto 27). But leaving aside those more extreme and superstition-tainted possibilities, error became more pernicious because of eternal damnation. If people who read your theologically incorrect works go to Hell, you’re infinitely culpable, morally, since every student misled to damnation is literally an infinite crime.


The Hazards of Theological Error

So, if you are a Medieval person, Theology is incredibly valuable, the only kind of study worth doing, but also incredibly dangerous.  You want to tread very carefully.  You want a lot of safety nets and spotters. You want ways to avoid error. And you know error is easy! Errors of logic, errors of failing senses.  Enter Aristotle, or more specifically enter Aristotle’s Organon, a translation of the poetic works of Aristotle completed by dear Boethius, part of the latter’s efforts to preserve Greek learning when he realized Greek and other relics of antiquity were fading. The Organon explains in great detail, how you can go about constructing chains of logic in careful, methodical ways to avoid error.  Use only clearly defined unequivocal vocabulary, and strict syllogistic and geometric reasoning.  Here it is, foolproof logic in 50 steps, I’ll show you!  Sound familiar?  This is Aristotle’s old Criterion of Truth, but it’s also the Medieval Theologian’s #1 Christmas Wish List.  The Criterion of Truth which was, for Aristotle, a path through the dark woods and a solution to Zeno and the Stick in Water, is, to our theologian, a safety net over a pit of eternal Hellfire.  That is why it was so exciting.  That was why people who wanted to do theology were willing to train for five years just in logic before even looking at a theological question, just as Astronauts train in simulators for a long time before going out into the deadly vacuum of space!  That is even why scholastic texts are so hard to read and understand – they were intentionally written to be difficult to read, partly because they’re using an incredibly complicated method, but even more because they don’t want anyone to read them who hasn’t studied their method, because if you read them unprepared you might misunderstand, and then you’d go to Hell forever and ever and ever, and it would be Thomas Aquinas’s fault. And he would be very sad.  When Thomas Aquinas was presented for canonization, after his death, they made the argument that every chapter of the Summa Theologica was itself a miracle.  It’s easy to laugh, but if you think about how desperately they wanted perfect logic, and how good Aquinas was at offering it, it’s an argument I understand.  If you were dying of thirst in the desert, wouldn’t a glass of water feel like a miracle?

zcyLWEyNzTo give credit where credit is due, the mature application of Aristotle’s formal logic to theological questions was not pioneered by Aquinas but by a predecessor: Peter Abelard, the wild rockstar of Medieval Theology. People crowded in thousands and lived in fields to hear Peter Abelard preach, it was like Woodstock, only with more Aristotle.  Why were people so excited?  Did Abelard finally have the right answer to all things?  “Yes and No,” as Peter Abelard would say, “Sic et Non“, that being the the title of his famous book, a demonstration of his skill.  (Wait, yes AND no, isn’t that even scarier and worse and more damnable than everything else?  This is the most dangerous person ever!  Bernard of Clairvaux thought so, but the Woodstock crowd at the Paraclete, they don’t.) Abelard’s skill was taking two apparently contradictory statements and showing, by elaborate roundabout logic tricks, how they agree.  Why is this so exciting?  Any troll on the internet can do that!  No, but he did it seriously, and he did it with Authorities.  He would take a bit of Plato that seemed to contradict a bit of Aristotle, and show how they actually agree.  Even ballsier, he would take a bit of Plato that pretty manifestly DOES contradict another bit of Plato, and show how they both agree.  Then, even better, he would take a bit from St. Augustine that seems to contradict a bit from St. Jerome and show how the two actually agree.  “OH THANK GOD!” cries Medieval Europe, desperately perplexed by the following conundrum:

  1. The Church Fathers are saints, and divinely inspired; their words are direct messages from God.
  2. If you believe the Church Fathers and act in accordance with their teachings, they will show you the way to Heaven; if you oppose or doubt them, you are a heretic and damned for all eternity.
  3. The Church Fathers often disagree with each other.
  4. PANIC!

Abelard rescued Medieval Europe from this contradiction, not necessarily by his every answer, but by his technique by which seemingly-contradictory authorities could be reconciled.  Plato with Aristotle is handy.  Plato with Plato sure is helpful.  Jerome with Augustine is eternal salvation.  And if he does it with the bits of Scripture that seem to contract the other bits?  He is now the most exciting thing since the last time the Virgin Mary showed up in person.

Abelard had a lover–later, wife, but she preferred ‘lover’–the even more extraordinary Heloise, and I consider it immoral to mention him without mentioning her, but her life, her stunningly original philosophical contributions and her terrible treatment at the hands of history are subjects for another essay in its own right.  For today, the important part is this: Abelard was exciting for his method, more than his ideas, his way of using Reason to resolve doubts and fears when skepticism loomed.  Thus even Scholasticism, the most infamously dogmatic philosophical method in European history, was also in symbiosis with skepticism, responding to it, building from it, developing its vast towers of baby-step elaborate logic because it knew Zeno was waiting.

Credit for this excellent diagram goes to a Huff Post article.

Credit for this excellent diagram goes to a Huff Post article by Nathan Schneider.

Proofs of the Existence of God

We are all very familiar with the veins of Christianity which focus on faith without proof as an important part of the divine plan, that God wants to test people, and there is no proof of the existence of God because God wants to be unknowable and elusive in order to test people’s faith.  The most concise formula is the facetious one by Douglas Adams, where God says: “I refuse to prove that I exist, because proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing.”  It’s a type of argument associated with very traditional, conservative Christianity, and, often, with its more zealous, bigoted, or “medieval” side.  I play a game whenever I run into a new scholar who works on Medieval or early modern theological sources, any sources, any period, any place, from pre-Constantine Rome to Renaissance Poland.  I ask: “Hey, have you ever run into arguments that God’s existence can’t be proved, or God wants to be known by faith alone, before the Reformation?”  Answers: “No.” “Nope.” “Naah.”  “No, never.” “Uhhh, not really, no.”  “Nope.” “No.” “Nothing like that.” “Hmm… no.”  “Never.”  “Oh, yeah, one time I thought I found that in this fifth-century guy, but actually it was totally not that at all.”  Like biblical literalism, it’s one of these positions that feels old because it’s part of a conservative position now, but it’s actually a very recent development from the perspective of 2,000 years of Christianity plus centuries more of earlier theological conversations.  So, that isn’t what the Middle Ages generally does with doubt; it doesn’t rave about faith or God’s existence being elusive. Europe’s Medieval philosophers were so sure of God’s existence that it was considered manifestly obvious, and doubting it was considered a mental illness or a form of mental retardation (“The fool said in his heart ‘there is no God’,” => there must be some kind of brain deficiency which makes people doubt God; for details on this a see Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, vol. 1).  And when St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus work up technical proofs of the existence of God they’re doing it, not because they or anyone was doubting the existence of God, but to demonstrate the efficacy of logic.  If you invent a snazzy new metal detector you first aim it at a big hunk of metal to make sure it works.  If you design a sophisticated robot arm, you start the test by having it pick up something easy to grab.  If you want to demonstrate the power of a new tool of logic, you test it by trying to prove the biggest, simplest, most obvious thing possible: the existence of God.

(PARENTHESIS: Remember, I am skipping many Medieval things of great importance. *cough*Averroes*cough*  This is a snapshot, not a survey.)

Three blossoms on the thorny rose of this Medieval trend toward writing proofs of the existence of God are worth stopping to sniff.

William of Ockham

William of Ockham

The first blossom is the famous William of Ockham (of “razor” fame) and his “anti-proof” of the existence of God.  Ockham was a scholastic, writing in response to and in the same style and genre as Abelard, Aquinas, Scotus, and their ilk.  But, when one read along and got to the bit where one would expect him to demonstrate his mastery of logic by proving the existence of God, he included instead a plea (paraphrase): Please, guys, stop writing proofs of the existence of God! Everyone believes in Him already anyway. If you keep writing these proofs, and then somebody proves your proof wrong by pointing out an error in your logic, reading the disproof might make people who didn’t doubt the existence of God start to doubt Him because they would start to think the evidence for His Existence doesn’t hold up!  Some will read into this Anti-Proof hints of the beginning of “God will not offer proof, He requires faith…” arguments, and perhaps it does play a role in the birth of that vein of thinking. (I say this very provisionally, because it is not my area, and I would want to do a lot of reading before saying anything firm).  My gut says, though, that it is more that Ockham thought everyone by nature believed in God, that God’s existence was so incredibly obvious, that God was not trying to hide, rather that he didn’t want the weakness of fractious scholastic in-fighting to erode what he thought was already there in everyone: belief.

Aside: While we are on the subject of Ockham, a few words on his “razor”.  Ockham is credited with the principle that the simplest explanation for a thing is most likely to the correct one.  That was not, in fact, a formula he put forward in anything like modern scientific terms.  Rather, what we refer to as Ockham’s Razor is a distillation of his approach in a specific argument: Ockham hated the Aristotelian-Thomist model of cognition, i.e. the explanation of how sense perception and thoughts work.  Hating it was fair, and anyone who has ever studied Aristotle and labored through the agent intellect, and the active intellect, and the passive intellect, and the will, and the phantasm, and innate ideas, and eternal Ideas, and forms, and categories, and potentialities, shares William of Ockham’s desire to pick Thomas Aquinas up and shake him until all the terminology falls out like loose change, and then tell him he’s only allowed to have a sensible number of incredibly technical terms (like 10, 10 would be a HUGE reduction!). Ockham proposed a new model of cognition which he set out to make much simpler, without most of the components posited by Aristotle and Aquinas, and introduced formal Nominalism.  (Here Descartes cheers and sets off a little firecracker he’s been saving).  Nominalism is the idea that “concepts” are created by the mind based on sense experience, and exist ONLY in the mind (like furniture in a room, adds Sherlock Holmes) rather than in some immaterial external sense (like Platonic forms).  Having vastly simplified and revolutionized cognition, Ockham then proceeded to describe the types of concepts, vocabulary terms and linguistic categories we use to refer to concepts in infuriating detail, inventing fifty jillion more technical terms than Aquinas ever used, and driving everyone who read him crazy.  (If you are ever transported to a dungeon where you have to fight great philosophers personified as Dungeons & Dragons monsters, the best weapon against Ockham is to grab his razor of +10 against unnecessary terminology and use it on the man himself).  One takeaway note from this aside: while “Ockham’s Razor” is a popular rallying cry of modern (post-Darwin) atheism, and more broadly of modern rationalism, that is a modern usage entirely unrelated to the creator himself.  He thought that the existence of God was so incredibly obvious, and necessary to explain so many things, from the existence of the universe to the buoyancy of cork, that if you presented him with the principle that the simplest explanation is usually best, he would agree, and happily assume that you believed, along with him, that “God” (being infinitely simple, see Plotinus and Aquinas) is therefore a far simpler answer to 10,000 technical scientific questions than 10,000 separate technical scientific answers. Like Machiavelli, Aristotle and many more, Ockham would have been utterly stunned (and, I think, more than a little scared) if he could have seen how his principles would be used later.

Treasures of my bookshelf. I aspire someday (Thanks to U Chicago's wonderful resources!) to write something on skepticism worthy to add to this particular pile.

Treasures of my bookshelf: Kors’ Atheism in France, Popkin’s History of Skepticism, Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea, and Hunter & Wootton’s edited volume Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. I aspire someday (Thanks to U Chicago’s wonderful resources!) to write something worthy to add to this particular pile.

The second blossom (or perhaps thorn?) of this Medieval fad of proving God’s existence was, well, that Ockham was 110% correct.  Here again I cite Alan Kors’ masterful Atheism in France; in short, his findings were that, when proving the existence of God became more and more popular, as the first field test to make sure your logical system worked, (a la metal detector…beep, beep, beep, yup it’s working!), it created an incentive for competing logicians to attack people’s proofs of the existence of God (i.e. if it can’t find a giant lump of iron the size of a house it’s not a very good metal detector, is it?) Thus believers spent centuries writing attacks on the existence of God, not because they doubted, but to prove their own mastery of Aristotelian logic superior to others.  This then generated thousands of pages of attacks on the existence of God, and, by a bizarre coincidence *cough*cough*, when, in the 17th and 18th centuries, we finally do start getting writings by actual overt “I really think there is no God!” atheists, they use many of the same arguments, which were waiting for them, readily available in volumes upon volumes of Church-generated books.  Dogmatism here fed and enriched skepticism, much as skepticism has always fed and enriched dogmatism, in their ongoing and fruitful symbiosis.

The third blossom is, of course, sitting with us dolling out eclairs.  Impatient Descartes has been itching, ever since I mentioned Anselm, to leap in with his own Proof of the Existence of God, one which uses a more mature form of Ockham’s Nominalism, coupled with the tools of skepticism, especially doubt of the senses.  But Descartes may not speak yet! (Don’t make that angry face at me, Monsieur, you’ll agree when you hear why.) It won’t be Descartes’ turn until we have reviewed a few more details, a little Renaissance and Reformation, and introduced you to Descartes’ great predecessor, the fertile plain on whom Descartes will erect his Cathedral.  Smiling now, realizing that we draw near the Illustrious Father of Skeptics whom he has been waiting for, Descartes sits back content, until next time.

But do not fear, the wait will be short this time.  Socrates is in more suspense than Descartes, and if I stop writing he’ll start demanding that I define “illustrious” or “next” or “man”, so I’d better plunge straight in.  Meanwhile, I hope you will leave this little snapshot with the following takeaways:

  1. Angels at a Last Judgment (in Berlin) sorting correct souls from souls guilty of ERROR!

    Medieval thought was not dominated by the idea that logic and inquiry are bad and Blind Faith should rule; much more often, Medieval thinkers argued that logic and inquiry were wonderful because they could reinforce and explain faith, and protect people from error and eternal damnation. Medieval society threw tons of energy into the pursuit of knowledge (scientia, science), it’s just that they thought theology was 1000x more important than any other topic, so concentrated the resources there.

  2. When you see theologians discussing whether certain areas of knowledge are “beyond human knowledge” or “unknowable”, before you automatically call this a backwards and closed-minded attitude, remember that it comes from Plato, Epicurus and Aristotle, who tried to differentiate knowledge into areas that could be known with certainty, and areas where our sources (senses/logic) are unreliable, so there will always be doubt. The act of dividing certain from uncertain only becomes close-minded when “that falls outside what can be known with certainty” becomes an excuse for telling the bright young questioner to shut up.  This happened, but not always.
  3. Even when there were not many philosophers we could call “skeptics” in the formal sense, and the great ancient skeptics were not being read much, skepticism continued to be a huge part of philosophy because the tools developed to combat it (Aristotle’s logical methods, for example) continued to be used, expanded and re-purposed in the ongoing search for certainty.
  4. Remember Cicero; he’ll be back.

Jul 162015

ilpdzsC The great New Horizons Pluto fly-by has occurred.  We have our mottling, our iron colors, and large patches of light and dark which will keep astrogeologists like Jonathan active and excited for months and years to come. I wanted to make sure you all had a chance to see the NASA reports on the Pluto surface, and Pluto’s moon Charon, whose surface shows every sign of a very active interior.

I am also happy to announce that I have just launched a new Kickstarter campaign, to support the production of two new CDs of my music.  “Stories and Stone” is a companion album to “Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok” containing variant arrangements of my Viking music, plus new recordings of my anthem for Space exploration and human progress “Somebody Will”.  “Trickster and King” will be the first album recorded by myself and my singing partner Lauren Schiller as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King”.  The whole first album and half of the second are finished and streaming online, so please listen and enjoy. And if you enjoy, please consider supporting the Kickstarter, and spread the word about it (NOW OVER – it was a great success, THANK YOU!  Hear the music here).  Much of the goal of this campaign is to raise money so I can afford to hire help, including my assistant Mack who works with me here on Ex Urbe and with other projects.  I am having more and more demands on my time as teaching and research at Chicago become more intense, and especially as the release of my novels approaches, and the more help I can hire the more time I can devote to Ex Urbe posts and other creative projects. So if you’ve been wondering if there’s a “tip jar” or some other way you can support Ex Urbe, this is a great way, as is spreading the word about the campaign.

The finished album, to be released in August:

 And the second album still in progress:

Somebody Will with guitar:

It’s hard to pick a single favorite track, but if I had to it is probably Hearthfire in five parts, with guitar performed by my (wonderful and Space exploration-championing!) editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

The first CD should ship in September, with an instant digital download when the Kickstarter finishes in August.

Meanwhile, to split the difference between Viking music and Pluto, I recently had the good luck of a daytime flight over Greenland in beautiful weather, so please enjoy this photo essay on the wild and icy geology of our own little planet, and the frosty habitat of our native Jotuns and trolls:










Jul 072015

Celestial-BuddiesA week from today, the NASA New Horizons Spacecraft will perform its close flyby of Pluto, beaming back the first color images of our solar system’s last uncharted world (and finally telling the makers of the Celestial Buddies line what color they should make their long-awaited cuddly Pluto). In celebration of the occasion, I have solicited a guest post from my good friend Jonathan Sneed, an astrogeologist/ paleobiologist, currently working as a research technician with the Solar System and Exoplanet Habitability Group here at the University of Chicago. Jonathan studies rocks, and what rocks tell us about how planets and other astronomical bodies form and develop, especially when life gets in the mix. These are the skills we need to predict which planets and other space rocks might have life, or the chemicals necessary to support us as we launch out into the vast and black frontier.  Jonathan’s essay offers predictions about what New Horizons might find when it makes its flyby next week, gives a taste of how much photos alone can teach us about the history and potential of Pluto, and offers a glimpse of how astrogeology lets us learn about the celestial stepping stones scattered around us.


So, Pluto.

When she’s talking about the history of skepticism, our host likes to talk about Pluto, and in particular about the argument that scientists had about it.  Shall it be a planet?  A dwarf planet?  A planetoid?  Megarock?  Especially large ice cube?  In her classroom, Pluto is the enemy of eudaimonia, a didactic example of the stress we experience when our perceptions shift and the maps are all rewritten.  She discusses the ways that we use doubt to insulate ourselves against collisions between truth and belief, how the ancient Pyrrhonists found a refuge in uncertainty.  It’s all rather grim.

Obviously, I can’t let her be the one to talk about the imminent New Horizons flyby.

It is, after all, a unique moment in human history!  For most of us, most of the time, discovery is a kind of communication.  You turn to page 57 and look at a full-page spread of the Krebs Cycle, or stop by a street performer on your way to the grocery store and hear real jazz for the first time, or open your RSS feed and read a quote by Sartre, and your world shifts under your feet just a bit.  But moments like this are a reminder: there are things that nobody knows, and you have the ability to know them.  If you’re willing to admit a little uncertainty, that is.

Over the next few weeks, a great many things will become known about a whole new world.  I thought this might be a good opportunity to sketch out some of what you might look for, so that you can participate a little bit more actively in that moment, if you have a mind to do so.  The New Horizons craft is outfitted almost entirely with cameras, imagers, and spectrometers of one sort or another, so we’ll have basically one thing to go on: what color is it?

Granted, some of those photons will be well outside the range of the human eye, so I’m using ‘color’ with a certain amount of poetic license.  But at the end of the day, it’s a remarkably straightforward little device.  We were curious about Pluto, so we looked at it.  The atmosphere should be quite visible, and it’s more than thin enough for us to peer through that atmosphere to the solid surface beneath.  From there, we’ll see not just the elements that make up pluto, but also the chemical arrangements that they’ve made for themselves and the large shapes and geological formations that have emerged.  Are there mountains and valleys?  Volcanoes?  Some kind of erosional process that cycles and recycles the surface?

And these things, in turn, will tell us more than you might expect.  Because we don’t just know what Pluto looks like now; we have a pretty good guess about where it started, and two points make a line.

Above: the old black & white photographic plates from which we discovered Pluto.


One of my favorite facts (up there with ‘birds are dinosaurs’) is that the number of mineral types in the universe is increasing at an exponential rate.  For a geologist, every day is the most exciting day the universe has ever had!  A while back, the first stars and the preposterous forces at work inside them, gave us the first heavy elements and the few mineral grains they can form drifting in interstellar space.  Eventually, those first primitive grains clumped together to form rocks and then whole planets, with solid bits and fluid bits and change, and new minerals emerged from that dynamism.  The kind of minerals that are only formed when water evaporates into an atmosphere and leaves a residue behind.  The kind that are only formed when some kind of fancy-pants self-sustaining carbon-based chemical process decides to secrete a shell for itself.  The kind that first come in to being when a state legislature settles on new safety standards for concrete.  And so on, accelerating ever onwards.

(Actually, human-created objects don’t technically count as minerals, but this is an arbitrary semantic line. ‘Anthropocite’ is far too wonderful a word to not get used in a scientific journal eventually.)

What this means for Pluto is that, despite the huge variety of things that a (dwarf) planet(oid) might do, the starting ingredients have to be drawn from a set of things that can be cooked by a star and are willing to clump together in space.  As to what it did with those things in the four and a half billion years since… well, that’s harder to guess.  But here are some of the most important  ingredients that might go into your Pluto recipe, drawn straight from the primordial dust itself:

Water ice.  Ammonia.  Silicates, with a variety of elements thrown in for flavor- potassium, phosphorous, a great many metals.  Iron and sulfur compounds, usually bonded with oxygen or mixed in with the silicates.  Carbon, doing its crazed carbon dance, probably already forming a few amino acids and alcohols as it falls into the gravity well.  Carbon, being less creative, oxidized or in the form of methane.  Hydrogen and helium, as much as you like, although those will run away from the world almost as soon as they arrive.

Not Pluto yet, but could be some day.

I’ve been careful to emphasize some of the ones that I think are going to be important, so this is isn’t comprehensive.  But it’s a lot closer to comprehensive than you’d think.  All in all, there are a little more than a hundred different molecules floating around between the stars, a shockingly finite list.

Even more conveniently, we have a category we can use.  No, not ‘planet’, alas.  The category I am thinking of is ‘Kuiper Object’.  On Ex Urbe, categories are a deep and compelling subject in their own right, but for the time being I shall take a narrow and cowardly view.  All I mean is that Pluto is quite similar to a lot of other things in the ways we have already measured, and so I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was also similar to those things when we measure new aspects of it.

Kuiper Objects are a fascinating bunch, named by the region just outside Neptune’s orbit.  They’re quite icy (some would even float), and they come in a range of exciting colors for the discriminating consumer (gray is common, and red and black are, as always, favorites).  There are many things we don’t know about Kuiper objects, but we’ve also had one tantalizing opportunity:

Not Pluto, but might be Pluto on a higher hypostasis.

This is a picture of Triton, one of the moons of Neptune, given to us by interstellar traveler and Blind Willie Johnson fan Voyager II.  Triton is quite icy, although it would not quite float in water.  It comes in a range of exciting colors, primarily gray and red.  And it’s going around Neptune in basically the wrong direction, which implies that it fell into Neptune’s gravity well a good deal after planetary formation.  It also, for the record, has an atmosphere, surface composition, and density shockingly similar to that which we infer for Pluto.  So, there’s that.


A while back, I shared an office with a guy who wrote a thesis about how confusing Kuiper Objects are.  He had written an efficient and cutting-edge program that would transform reasonable assumptions into arcane squiggles and crying graduate students.  I learned a lot from that guy, especially about the perils of trying to predict the behavior of (dwarf) planet(oid)s given even very simple starting conditions.  What happens when you make a very, very large pile of ice and silicates, and then wait for four and a half billion years?  What do we expect to see when we take our picture of Pluto?  Potentially, a lot of things.

But for any big pile of rocks, there are basically four ways to get the thing to move: sunlight, radiation, gravity, and chemistry.  Actually, gravity and radiation make a nice twofer.

The idea is this: shuffle silicate rocks and water ice into a big ball.  A lot of the heavier metals mixed in with your silicates are a bit radioactive, so they warm the ice around them into a kind of slush (same reason the Earth is a fluid once you go a few miles down).  That’s just enough lubrication to let the heavy stuff fall to the bottom, and the lighter stuff rise to the top- and now we have some density gradients to work with, and maybe even some liquid(ish) water.  Even more excitingly, everything in that ball that isn’t easily trapped in mineral form (the nitrogen compounds, the methane, and all those wonderful mad organic molecules) will tend to get squeezed out to the exterior surface, or near it.  We call those ‘volatiles’, which is one of those charmingly literal phrases that scientists sometimes use.  They explode, is what I’m saying.

Almost certainly, this is the process that first set Pluto in motion.  But what happens then, especially on the surface? Once you squirt out all the gasses and form an atmosphere, and expose your wiggly mad carbon to sunlight, what does it do next?  Well, here’s where the graduate students start crying, but let’s give it a shot.  We’ll start with the most sensible and least speculative feature, giant ice volcanoes.

The plumes of Enceladus are not Pluto, but are a good example of cryovolcanics.  I did say ‘volatile’.

Ice volcanoes are a good sign of an active world, for the same reason that molten rock volcanoes are on Earth- they have to be refreshed by ongoing tectonic activity.  As far as we know, they’re exactly the same kind of structure.  At temperatures this low, ice is just another kind of rock, and it takes geological forces to warm that rock up to its melting point and expel it as magma.  Except, the magma is water (plus a complicated mix of other volatiles like nitrogen)- so we call it ‘cryomagma’, a truly fabulous word if ever I saw one.

If we’re exceptionally lucky, we’ll see an active volcano during the flyby- on Triton, our closest analogue to Pluto, these eruptions can last for (Earth-) years, so it’s not an unreasonable hope.  But even if we don’t, we should be able to find strong evidence that they did happen; look for dark smears in the calderas as frozen nitrogen ‘ash’ falls back to the surface.

Another really important thing to watch out for is the craters.  Specifically, there not being any.

Here’s a puzzle for you: how do we date rocks on Mars?  If you’re lucky enough to have a rover right there, you can run any number of exciting tests, but it’s a big planet and there aren’t that many rovers.  Yet, we have guesses about the age of Olympus Mons and Hellas Planitia.  How?

The answer is that Mars is fairly inert- enough so that the craters are more or less permanent fixtures.  So if you know how often a meteorite is going to blow a hole in a given area, all you have to do is count the craters and then you have a pretty good measure of how long that surface has been exposed.  ‘Pretty good’ means plus or minus 600,000,000 years, granted.  But I think it’s a pretty cool trick anyway.

Mars is also not Pluto. By my calculations, this surface originates on August 5th, give or take the entire duration of multicellular life in the universe.

So if we make it to Pluto and it’s covered in craters like Earth’s moon or Mars, then that means Pluto has slowed down a lot in the last few billion years.  If, on the other hand, it’s fairly crater-free, then something is busy removing those craters.  That smells quite a bit like active tectonics.  So: ice volcanoes, or craters, but not both- those tools could give us a pretty good idea of whether there is an active mantle in the subsurface, pushing the outer (nitrogen, methane, ice) crust around and otherwise being interesting.

Only, that mantle would be a fluid made of, among other things, water.


As a species, we’ve gotten very good at looking, so even before New Horizons we knew a few things about the surface of Pluto.  Broadly, it has the coloring we expect for a Kuiper Object: grey, black, and red, and is sharply mottled.  But what, actually, do these colors mean?

I mentioned sunlight as one of the forces that must move Pluto.  Granted, the sun lacks a certain degree of strength at that distance, but in combination with the rotation of the (dwarf) planet(oid), the sun is going to be the primary cause of temperature variations at the surface, far away from all that radioactive rock at the center.  As the ice volcanoes have shown us, it’s not so much the absolute temperature that matters, as whether or not that temperature cycles around any interesting phase transitions.  And as it happens, there are three (and only three, that I know of) materials in our original Pluto recipe that have an interesting phase transition at Pluto’s surface temperatures: carbon monoxide, methane, and nitrogen.

This blackened and mottled carbon is not the surface of Pluto, but it does share many interesting chemical properties.

These can have seasonal rhythms, they can precipitate or frost, and are generally going to provide a lot of the bulk material for all the really interesting chemical reactions at the surface.  If the ice of Pluto is as rock on Earth, then these are its water and air.

Nitrogen doesn’t help us with that coloration problem too much, but the other two?  Those are interesting.  Because the beating heart of both is a bit of carbon, and carbon is flexible enough to explain a great many things and a great many colors.  This is the element that gives us black graphite and transparent diamonds, after all.  When our carbon molecules are left outside for a few billion years of exposure, through years of those interesting phase transitions, something will change- the carbon will fry in the ultraviolet light.  Very, very slowly, and it has to be peeled away from the hydrogen and oxygen first, but it will fry all the same.  And as it happens, this can explain both the red and the black against a grey ice background.


Ceci n’est pas une Pluto.

These are not, of course, the only explanations for the colors that we see on the surface of Pluto.  Red has a classic association with iron oxides (you and Mars are red for the same reason, as it happens), and there is a potential universe out there where the surface of Pluto is rusted.  But the world is not very dense, and so this would require a great many odd things- not only that there be no mantle fluidity to pull dense minerals inward, but that some inverse process pulled it away, concentrating that metal on the outer circumference.  I can’t think of what that might be.  But nonetheless, it could be what reality gives us.  The disadvantage of this theory is not that it is impossible, just that it requires a great many things to be true.  And so I lean towards an explanation that doesn’t demand further concessions from reality, using only the processes that we already acknowledge on the parts that we started with.

Carbon and Water:

I have done a mean thing.  I used cryovolcanics and an analogy to Triton as a way of suggesting that there might still be liquid (or at least slushy) water on Pluto.  And then, I invoked a reasonably elegant explanation of Pluto’s mottled coloration to suggest that surface processes are driving chemistry of complex carbon molecules.

You are now thinking about aliens.

Or at least, I assume so.  I would be.  Not flying saucers or anything out of our drive-through horror shows.  No, you’re considering the possibility of some simple microbe, maybe a Plutonian lichen of some sort, with subtle but radical implications for our role in the universe as living things.  Then again, maybe not; I spend a lot of time thinking about aliens, so my calibration may be off.  But if you were thinking about aliens, I apologize.  There are not aliens on Pluto.  Definitely not, certainly not.  I am at least 95% sure, and even that is rounding down.  Probably.

There’s a funny inverse to the eudaimonia of skepticism.  If we remember that anything we believe might be false, then we can indeed let go of our beliefs with a certain grace.  But if anything might be false, then just think of all the things that might be true!  And there’s the danger.  Before long, we look up and see the canals on Mars that we hope for, rather than the Vallis Marineris as it actually is.

Every planet and moon that we’ve investigated in this solar system has been utterly unique.  These worlds are awesome, and frightening, and alien.  Crystal cities on Venus would have been amazing, but they would have been amazing in a very human way- they would have been our fantasy, not an encounter with a genuinely new reality.  And in the same way, whatever is really on Pluto, it’s going to be an experience that wasn’t bent to fit our expectations, a thing that nobody knows.  It will be wonderful, even though it won’t be life.


Pluto, viewed by New Horizons on approach.


I hope you will join me in thanking Jonathan for this delightful contribution! -Ada

Jun 262015
Vicenzo Foppa, Young Cicero Reading, 1464

Vicenzo Foppa, Young Cicero Reading, 1464

Welcome to a new feature here on Ex Urbe — the promoted comment.

From time to time, Ada makes a long substantive chewy comment, which could almost be its own post. Making it into an actual post would take valuable time. The comment is already written and fascinating — but hidden down in a comment thread where many people may not notice it. From now on, when this happens, I will extract it and promote it. I may even go back and do this with some older especially awesome comments. You’ll be able to tell the difference between this and a real post, because it’ll say it’s posted by Bluejo, and not by Exurbe, because it will say “a promoted comment”, and also because it won’t be full of beautiful relevant carefully selected art but will have just one or two pieces of much more random art.

This comment is promoted from a discussion of Machiavelli and Intellectual Technology.

Nahua Kang says:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this new post. As I am reviewing macroeconomics, especially the different variations of Solow Model, I cannot help but link “intellectual technology” with the specific endogenous growth model, which attempts to led the model itself generate technological growth without an exogenous “manna from heaven”. In this model, technology growth is expressed endogenously by the factor capital as “productive externalities”, and individual workers, through “learning by doing,” obtain more “skills” as the capital grows. Of course, the “technology factor” in the model I learned is vaguely defined and does not cover the many definitions and various effects of “intellectual technology” not directly related to economic production.

Your conversation with Michael reminds of me the lectures and seminars I took with you at Texas A&M. By the time I took your Intellectual History from Middle Ages to 17th Century, I have already taken some classes on philosophy. Sadly, my fellow philosophy students and I usually fell into anachronism and criticized early thinkers a bit “unfairly” on many issues. That is why your courses were like a beam of light to me, for I was never aware of the fact that we have different logic, concepts, and definition of words from our predecessors and should hence put those thinkers back into their own historical context.

It seems to me that Prof. Peter E. Gordon’s essay “What is intellectual history’ captures the different angles from which you and Michael construe Machiavelli: Michael seems more like a philosophy/political science student who attempts to examine how and why early thinkers’ ideas work or not work for our society based on our modern definitions, concepts, and logic, thus raising more debates on political philosophy and pushing the progress of philosophical innovation; your role as an intellectual historian requires one to be unattached from our own understanding of ideas and concepts and to be aware of even logic that seems to be rooted in our subconsciousness so that to examine a past thinker fairly without rash judgement. Michael is like the one who attempts to keep building the existing tower upward, while you are examining carefully the foundation below. For me personally, it would be nice to have both of these two different ways of thinking.

I have a question: I have been attempting to read a bit of Karl Marx whenever time allows. He argues that our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions. If we accept his point of view, would it be useful to connect intellectual history with economic history?

Ada replies:

Nahua, I think you have hit it spot on with your discussion of Peter Gordon’s essay. When I worked with him at Harvard (I had the privilege of having him on my committee, as well as being his teaching assistant for a course) I remember being struck by how, even when we were teaching thinkers far outside my usual scope like Heidegger, I found his presentation of them welcoming and approachable despite my lack of background, because he approached them in the same context-focused way that I did, evaluating, not their correctness or not or their applicability to the present, but their roots in their contemporary historical contexts and the reasons why they believed what they believed.

For Marx’s comment that “our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions” I think it is often very useful to connect intellectual history with economic history, not in a strictly deterministic way, but by considering economic changes as major environmental or enabling factors that facilitate or deter intellectual change and/or the dissemination of new ideas. I already discussed the example of how I think the dissemination of feminism in the 19th century was greatly facilitated by the economic liberation of female labor because of the development of industrial cloth production, more efficient ways of doing laundry, cleaning, cooking etc. Ideas about female equality existed in antiquity. They enjoyed a large surge in conversation and support from the intellectual firebrands of the Enlightenment, through figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Wollstonecraft. But mass movements and substantial political changes, like female suffrage, came when the economic shift had occurred. To use the “intellectual technology” concept, the technology existed in antiquity and was revived and refined in the 18th century, but it required economic shifts as well to help reach a state when large portions of the population or whole nations/governments could embrace and employ it.

As I work on Renaissance history, I constantly feel the close relationship between economics and the intellectual world as well. Humanism as I understand it began when Petrarch called for a revival of antiquity. Economics comes into this in two ways. First, the reason he thought a revival of antiquity was so desperately necessary was because Italy had become so politically tumultuous and unstable, and was under such threat of cultural or literal invasion from France–these are the consequences, largely, of economic situations, since Italy’s development of banking and its central position as a trade hub for the Mediterranean had filled its small, vulnerable citystates with incomparable wealth, creating situations where powerful families could feud, small powers could hire large mercenary armies, and every king in Europe wanted to invade Italy for a piece of its plump pie. Then after Petrarch, humanism’s ability to spread and succeed was also economically linked. You can’t have a humanist without books, you just can’t, it’s about reading, studying, correcting and living the classics. But in an era when a book cost as much as a house, and more than a year’s salary for a young schoolmaster, a library required a staggering investment of capital. That required wealthy powers–families or governments–to value humanism and have the resources to spend on it. Powers like the Medici, and Florence’s Republican government, were convinced to spend their money on libraries and humanism because they believed it would bring them glory, strength, respect, legitimacy, the love of the people, that it would improve life, heal their souls, bring peace, and make their names ring in posterity, but they couldn’t have made the investment if they hadn’t had the money to invest, and they wouldn’t have believed humanism could yield so much if not for the particular (and particularly tumultuous) economic situation in which Renaissance Italy found itself.

Yesterday I found myself thinking about the history of the book in this light, and comparing it to some comments I heard a scientist make on a panel about space elevators. We all want a space elevator–then space exploration will become much, much less expensive, everyone can afford satellites, space-dependent technologies will become cheap, and we can have a Moon Base, and a Mars program, and all the space stations we want, and all our kids can have field trips to space (slight exaggeration). To have a space elevator, we need incredibly strong cables, probably produced using nanofibers. Developing nanofibers is expensive. What the engineer pointed out is that he has high hopes for nanofiber devlopment, because nanofibers have the ideal demand pattern for a new technology. A new technology like this has the problem that, even if there are giant economic benefits to it later on, the people who pay for its development need a short-term return on that, which is difficult in the new baby stages of a technology when it’s at its most expensive. (Some of you may remember the West Wing episode where they debate the price of a cancer medication, arguing that producing each pill costs 5 cents so it’s unfair to charge more, to which the rebuttal is that the second pill cost 5 cents, but the first pill cost $300 million in research.) Once nanofiber production becomes cheap, absolutely it will be profitable, but while it’s still in the stage of costing $300 million to produce a few yards of thread, that’s a problem, and can be enough to keep a technology from getting support. One of the ways we work around this as a society today is the university system, which (through a form of patronage) supports researchers and gives them liberty to direct research toward avenues expected to be valuable independent of profit. Another is grant funding, which gives money based on arguments for the merit of a project without expecting to be paid back. A third is NASA, which develops new technologies (like velcro, or pyrex) to achieve a particular project (Moon!), which are then used and reused in society for the benefit of all. But looking at just the private sector, at the odds of a technology getting funding from investors rather than non-profits, what the scientist said is that, for a technology to receive funding, you want it to have a big long-term application which will show that you’ll make a steady profit once you can make lots of the thing, but it needs to also to have a short-term application for which a small number of clients will be prepared to pay an enormous amount, so you can sell it while it still costs $300 million, as well as expecting to sell it when it costs 5 cents. Nanofibers, he said, hit this sweet spot because of two demands. The first is body armor, since it looks like nanofibers can create bullet-proof fabric as light as normal fabric, and if we can do that then governments will certainly pay an enormous amount to get bullet-proof clothing for a head of state and his/her bodyguards, and elite military applications. The second is super-high-end lightweight golf clubs, which may seem like a frivolous thing, but there are people who will pay thousands of dollars for an extremely high end golf club, and that is something nanofibers can profit from even while expensive (super lightweight bicycles for racing also qualify). So nanofibers can depend on the excitement of the specific investors who want the expensive version now, and through their patronage develop toward the ability to produce things cheaply.

In this sense the history of the book, especially in the Renaissance, was very similar to the situation with nanofibers. In the early, manuscript stage when each new book cost the equivalent of $50,000 (very rough estimate), libraries were built and humanism was funded because wealthy people like Niccolo Niccoli and Cosimo de Medici believed that humanist libraries would give them and their home city political power and spiritual benefits, helping them toward Heaven. That convinced them to invest their millions. Their investments then created the libraries which could be used later on by larger populations, and reproduced cheaply through printing once it developed, but printing would not have developed if patrons like them weren’t around to make there be demand for the volume of books printing could produce. It took Petrarch, Niccoli and Cosimo to fund a library which could raise a generation of people who could read the classics before there was enough demand to sell the 300-1500 copies of a classical book that a printing press could print. And, working within current capitalism, it may take governments who really want bullet-proof suit jackets to give us our space elevator, though universities, NASA, and private patronage of civilian space programs are certainly also big factors pushing us forward.

In sum, I would say that economics sometimes sparks the generation of new ideas–as the economically-driven strife Petrarch experienced enabled the birth of humanism–but it also strongly affects how easily or quickly a new idea can disseminate, whether it gets patronage and support, or whether its champions have to spread it without the support of elites, patrons or government. Thus, in any given era, an intellectual historian needs to have a sense of funding patterns and patronage systems, so we can understand how ideas travel, where, and why.

One more thought from last night, or rather a test comparison showing how the concept “intellectual technology” can work. I was thinking about comparing atomism and steel.

Steel is a precursor for building skyscrapers. Despite urban demand, we didn’t get a transition to huge, towering metropoles until the development of good steel which could raise our towers of glittering glass. Of course, steel is not the ONLY precursor of the skyscraper–it also requires tempered glass, etc. And it isn’t the only way to build skyscrapers, you can use titanium, or nanotech, but you are very unlikely to get either of those things without going through steel first. Having steel does not guarantee that your society will have skyscrapers. Ancient Rome had steel. In the Middle Ages Europe lost it (though pretty-much everywhere except Europe still had steel). When steel came back in the Renaissance it still didn’t lead immediately to skyscrapers, it required many other developments first, and steel had to combine with other things, including social changes (growth of big cities). But when we look at the history of city development, studying steel is extremely important because the advent of steel-frame construction is a very important phase, and a central enabling factor for the development of modern cities.

My Lucretius book looks at the relationship between atomism and atheism in the same way that this analysis looks at steel and skyscrapers. Atomism was around for a long time, went away, came back, etc. And you can have non-atomic atheism, we have lots of it now. But atomism, as the first fully-developed mechanical model of the working of Nature (the first not dependent on God/gods to make the world work) was, in my opinion, one of the factors that you needed to combine with other developments to reach a situation in which an intellectual could combine mechanical models of nature with skepticism with other factors to develop the first fully functional atheistic model of the world. It’s one of the big factors we have to trace to ask “Why did atheism become a major interlocutor in the history of thought when it did, and not before or after?” just as tracing steel helps us answer “Why did skyscrapers start being built when they did?” There had almost certainly been atheisms before and independent of atomism (just as you can make really tall things, like pyramids or cliff-face cities, without steel-frame construction) but it was rare, and didn’t have the infrastructural repeatability necessary to let it become widespread. Modern atheists don’t use Epicurus, they more frequently use Darwin, just as modern skyscrapers use titanium, but the history of skyscrapers becomes clear when we study the history of steel. Just so, the history of atheism becomes much clearer when we study atomism. Of course, we now use steel for lots of things that aren’t skyscrapers (satellite approaching Pluto!), and similarly atomism has lots of non-atheist applications, but we associate atomism a lot with atheism, just as we think a lot about “towers of glass and steel” and usually think less about the steel bolts in our chairs or the steel spoons we eat with. All applications of steel, or epicuranism, can be worth studying, but skyscrapers/ atheism will never stop being one of the biggest and most interesting, at least in terms of how they changed the face of our modern world. And finally, while minority of buildings are skyscrapers, and a minority of contemporary people are atheists, the study of both is broadly useful because the presence of both in the lives of everyone is a defining factor in our current world.

Jun 222015


Hello, patient friends.  The delight of brilliant and eager students, the siren call of a new university library, the massing threat of conjoining deadlines, and the thousand micro-tasks of moving across the country have caused a very long gap between posts.  But I have several pieces of good news to share today, as well as new thoughts on Machiavelli:

  1. Most important: I have a new essay up on “When Less Plot is More Play: Love’s Labour’s Lost vs. Pericles Prince of Tyre.”  I’m sure anyone who enjoys my usual pieces here will enjoy it in the same way. It’s part of the wonderful Shakespeare Reread series, which has a lot of other great authors contributing, so I hope you’ll check out their pieces too.
  2. The next installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series is 2/3 finished, and I hope to have it up in a week or three, deadlines permitting.
  3. I have an excellent new assistant named Mack Muldofsky, who is helping me with Ex Urbe, music, research and many other projects.  So we have him to thank in a big way if the speed of my posting picks up this summer.
  4. Because I have a lot of deadlines this summer, I have asked some friends to contribute guest entries here, and we have a few planned treating science, literature and history, so that’s something we can look forward to together.
  5. For those following my music, the Sundown Kickstarter is complete, and it is now possible to order online the CD and DVD of my Norse Myth song cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok. In addition to the discs, you can also order two posters, one of my space exploration anthem “Somebody Will” and one which is a detailed map of the Norse mythological cosmos.  CD sales go to supporting the costs of traveling to concerts.
  6. IMG_3888

    The finished CD, with its full-color lyrics booklet. So many hours of layout and proofreading, but so worth-it!

    I have several concerts and public events lined up for the summer:

    1. At Mythcon (July 31-Aug 2), Lauren Schiller and myself, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King” will join Guest of Honor Jo Walton for “Norse Hour,” in which she will read Norse myth-themed poetry in alternation with our Norse-themed songs.
    2. Sunday August 9th, I have been invited do a reading of the freshly-polished opening chapters of my novel Too Like the Lightning (due out in Summer 2016) at the Tiptree Award Ceremony event honoring Jo Walton, who couldn’t make it to the initial ceremony but received the Tiptree this year for her novel My Real Children. The event is being held at Borderlands in San Francisco at 3 PM, and will feature readings by local authors, and music performed by myself and Lauren.
    3. Monday August 17th, at 7 PM, I am joining Jo and Lauren again at Powell’s, where Jo will read from her books, Lauren and I will sing, and I will interview Jo and talk about my writing as well as hers.
    4. Finally at Sasquan (Worldcon, Aug 19-23) Lauren and I will have a full concert, I will do another reading from Dogs of Peace, and I will be on several exciting panels.
For those who read and enjoy my Tor Shakespeare post, one addendum: the recent Globe production of Love's Labour's Lost (available on DVD) is VERY good, highly recommended!

For those who read and enjoy my Tor Shakespeare post, one addendum: the recent Globe production of Love’s Labour’s Lost (available on DVD) is very very good, highly recommended!

Meanwhile, I have a little something to share here.  I continue to receive frequent responses to my Machiavelli series, and recently one of them sparked such an interesting conversation in e-mail that I wanted to post it here, for others to enjoy and respond to.  These are very raw thoughts, and I hope the discussion will gain more participants here in the comment thread (I have trimmed out parts not relevant to the discussion):

In this discussion, I use a term I often use when trying to introduce intellectual history as a concept, and which I have been meaning to write about here for some time, “Intellectual Technology.”

A little conversation about Machiavelli:

From Michael:
I have been reading your blog posts on Machiavelli. You write with tremendous learning, clarity and colour, and really bring past events alive in a brilliant way.  But……..  I think you’re far too soft on Machiavelli!!!
I’m working on a PhD about him and it’s fascinating to see that nearly all present-day academics, and indeed academics during much of the second half of the 20th century, have a largely if not completely uncritical admiration for him and his works. He is lauded, for example as a forerunner of pluralism, and supporter of republicanism/democracy, yet his clear inspiration of Italian fascism is almost completely overlooked.  The fact that Gramsci revered Machiavelli is dealt with by many scholars, but Mussolini’s admiration for him is hurriedly passed over.
In the absence of a relevant illustration, please enjoy this beautiful hand, on a ceramic Madonna, in Berlin.

In the absence of a relevant illustration, please enjoy this beautiful hand, on a ceramic Madonna, in the Bode museum, Berlin.

Your post on Machiavelli and atheism is really interesting – in that context the 2013 book Machiavelli by Robert Black would be of interest to you…
Best regards, Michael Sanfey, IEP/UCP Lisbon.
Reply from Ada:
Michael,Thank you for writing in to express your enjoyment of my blog posts. I think your criticisms of Machiavelli are interesting and largely fair, and my own opinions overlap with yours in many ways, though not in others. I agree with you completely that there are inappropriate tendencies in a lot of scholars to praise Machiavelli inappropriately as a proto-modern champion of Democracy, republicanism, pluralism, modern national pride etc., all of which are characterizations are deeply inappropriate and also deeply presentist, reading anachronistic values back into him. But there is also a tendency, dominant earlier in the 20th century, to villify Machiavelli too much in precisely the same anachronistic and presentist way, characterizing him as a fascist or a Nazi and reading back into his work the things that were done in the 20th century by people who used some of his ideas but mixed them with many others. My way of approaching Machiavelli focuses above all on trying to distance him from the present and place him in his context, to show that he is neither a modern hero nor a modern villain since he isn’t modern at all. The question is separate, which you bring up, of how much to blame him or criticize him for opening up the direction of reasoning which led to later consequentialism, and also to fascism which certainly used him as one of its foundational texts. Here I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of historical blame at all, particularly when it’s blame over such a long span of time.

I tend to think of thinkers as toolmakers, or inventors of “intellectual technology”, innovators who have created a new thing which can then be used by many people. New inventions can be used in many ways, and in anticipatable and unanticipatable ways. Just as, for example, carbon steel can be used to raise great towers and send train lines across continents, it can be used to build weapons and take lives, so it is a complex question how much to blame the inventor of carbon steel for its many uses. In this sense, I do believe we can see Machiavelli as a weapon-maker, since the ideas he was generating were directly intended to be used in war and politics. We can compare him very directly to the inventor of gunpowder in this sense. I also see him–and this is much of the heart of my critique–as a defensive weapon maker, i.e. someone working in a period of danger and siege trying to create something with which to defend his homeland. So, imagine now the inventor of gunpowder creating it to defend his homeland from an invasion. Is he responsible for all later uses of gunpowder as well? Is he guilty of criminal negligence for not thinking through the fact that long-term many more people will be killed by his invention than live in his home town? Do the lives saved by gunpowder throughout its history balance out against the lives saved in some kind of (Machiavellian/consequentialist) moral calculus? I don’t think “yes” or “no” are fair answers to such a complex question, but I do think it is important, when we think about Machiavelli and what to hold him responsible for, to remember the circumstances in which he created gunpowder (i.e. consequentialist ethics), and that he invented other great things too, like political science and critical historical reasoning. The debts are complicated, as is the culpability for how inventions are used after the inventor’s death. So while I join you wholeheartedly in wanting to fight back against the distortion of Machiavelli the Mythical proto-modern Republican, I also think it’s valuable to battle against the myth of Machiavelli the proto-Fascist, and try to create a portrait of the real man as I see him, Machiavelli the frightened Florentine.

More beautiful ceramic Madonna hands, from Berlin.

More beautiful ceramic Madonna hands, from Berlin.

I do know Bob Black’s Machiavelli book, but disagree with some of his fundamental ideas about humanism itself – another fun topic, and one I enjoy discussing with him at conferences. He’s a challenging interlocutor. There is a very good recent paper by James Hankins on now about the “Virtue Politics” of humanists, which I recommend that you look at if you’re interested in responses to Black.

Best, Ada Palmer, University of Chicago

More from Michael:
First, I want to thank you for this fantastically detailed and brilliant response…  I’d like to “come back at you” on consequentialism and some other points:
* Regarding your point about Machiavelli not being modern at all, I see what you mean, albeit you do say of Machiavelli in the post on atheism that “he is in other ways so very modern”. Leo Strauss certainly thought he had a lot to do with the introduction of what we know as “modernity”.
* When you seek to balance the need to fight against the Proto-republican myth and against the Proto-fascist myth, the first of those “myths” enjoys immeasurably wider currency than the second, and I ask myself, why is this?
*  On the “intellectual technology” point below, and its being essentially neutral, in this case I wouldn’t agree with you, because we are not talking here about an object like gunpowder, it’s actually concerning something much more important. In ethical terms, Machiavelli took transcendent values out of the equation. As you put it, Machiavelli created “an ethics which works without God” – except that it doesn’t work!!!
* Machiavelli has had a questionable impact in regard to “realism” in International relations. You mention in one of the posts that he backed an alliance with Borgia so as to protect Florence, agreeing to offer money and resources to help Borgia conquer more – a very good example of Machiavelli‘s undoubted sympathy for imperialism.
PPS  On the question of Machiavelli being an atheist or not, I really was fascinated by that part of your Ex Urbe writings.  I’ve concluded that, whatever about him being an atheist or not, one could certainly describe him as “ungodly” would you agree?
Quick response from Ada:

I think “ungodly” does work for Machiavelli depending on how you define it; it has a connotation of being immoral–which does not fit–but if instead you mean it literally as someone who makes his calculations without thinking much about the divine then it fits.

Teach yourself German! "Schweinerassel," a ceramic bottle in the shape of a pig. 2nd century!

Teach yourself German! “Schweinerassel,” a ceramic bottle in the shape of a pig. 2nd century! I had fun in Berlin, and this year’s Renaissance Society of America conference there was one of the best academic conferences I’ve ever attended.

A supplementary comment on “Intellectual Technology”:

I find “intellectual technology” a very useful concept when I try to describe what I study.  Broadly my work is “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas” but what I actually study is a bit more specific: how particular kinds of ideas come into existence, disseminate, and come to be regulated at different points in time.  The types of ideas I investigate–atomism, determinism, utilitarianism–move through human culture very much the same way technological innovations do.  They come into being in a specific place and time, as a result of a single inventor or collaboration.  They spread from that point, but their spread is neither inevitable nor simple. Sometimes they are invented separately  by independent people in independent places, and sometimes they exist for centuries before having a substantial impact. When a new idea enters a place and comes into common use, it completely changes the situation and makes actions or institutions which worked before no longer viable. I compare Machiavelli’s utilitarianism to gunpowder above, but here are some other examples of famous cases of technological inventions, and ideas which disseminated in similar patterns:

The Bicycle and Atomism

Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a bicycle in the Renaissance, and may have seriously tried to construct one, but afterward no one did so for a very long time. Then many other factors changed: the availability of rubber and light-weight strong metals, the growth of large, centralized cities and a working population in need of inexpensive transit, and suddenly the bicycle was able to combine with these other factors to revolutionize life and society in a huge rush, first across Europe and then well beyond.  We have moved on from it to develop more complex technologies that achieve the same function, but still use it and develop it more, and even where we don’t, and cities would not have the shapes they do now without it, and it is still transforming parts of the world it has touched more slowly.  Similarly atomism was developed and used for a little while, then languished in notebooks for a long time, before combining with the right factors to spread and rapidly transform society and culture.

The Unity of All Life and Calculus

Newton and Leibnitz developed Calculus independently at the same time. Similarly, both classical Stoicism in Greece and Buddhism in India roughly simultaneously and independently, as far as we can tell, developed the idea that all living things–humans, insects, ancients, people not yet born–are, in fact, parts of one contiguous, interconnected, sacred living thing.  This enormously rich and complex concept had a huge number of applications in each society, but seems to have been independently developed to meet the demands for metaphysical and emotional answers of societies at remarkably similar developmental stages.  The circumstances were right, and the ideas then went on to be applied in vastly different but still similar ways.

Feminism and the Aztec Wheel

Aztec wheeled toyFor a long time we thought the Aztecs didn’t have the wheel.  More recently we discovered that they had children’s toys which used the wheel, but never developed it beyond that.  Which means someone thought of it, and it disseminated a bit and was used in a very narrow way, but not developed further because what we think of as more “advanced” or “industrial” applications (wagon, wheelbarrow) just weren’t compatible with the Aztec world (largely because it was incredibly hilly and didn’t have the elaborate road system Europe developed, relying instead on human legs, stairs, and raw terrain, which were sufficient to let it develop a robust and complex economy and empire of its own.  The wheel became more useful in the Americas when European-style city plans and roads were built).  Similarly Plato voiced feminism in his Republic, arguing that women and men were fundamentally interchangeable if educated the same way, and people who read the Republic discussed it as a theory among many other elements of the book, but didn’t develop it further (again, I would argue, this was at least in part because the economic and social structures of the classical world depended on the gendered division of labor, particularly for the production of thread in the absence of advanced spinning technology, which is why literally all women in Rome spent tons of time spinning–spinning quotas were even sometimes required by law of prostitutes since if there was a substantial sliver of the female population employed without spinning Rome would run out of cloth.  Feminism was better able to become revolutionary in Europe when (among other changes) industrialization reduced the number of hours required for the maintenance of a household and the production of cloth, making it more practical to redirect female labor, and question why it had been locked into that in the first place).

In sum, there is a concreteness to the ideas whose movements I study, a distinct and recognizable traceability. Interpretive analyses, comparative, subjective analyses, analyses of technique, aesthetics, authorial intent, authenticity, such analyses are excellent, but they aren’t intellectual history as I practice and teach it.  I trace intellectual technology. Just as the gun, or carbon steel, or the moldboard plow came in at a particular time and had an impact, I study particular ideas whose dissemination changed what it was possible for human beings to do, and what shapes human society can be. It is meaningful to talk about being at an “intellectual tech level” or at least about being pre- or post- a particular piece of intellectual technology (progress, utilitarianism, the scientific method) just as much as we can talk about being pre- or post-computer, gunpowder, or bronze. Such things cannot be un-invented once they disseminate through a society, though some societies regulate or restrict them, and they can be lost, or spend a long time hidden, or undeveloped. Elites often have a legal or practical monopoly on some (intellectual) technologies, but nothing can stop things from sometimes getting into the hands or minds of the poor or the oppressed. Sometimes historians are sure a piece of (intellectual) technology was present because we have direct records of it: a surviving example, a reference, a drawing, something which was obviously made with it. Other times we have only secondary evidence (they were farming X crop which, as far as we know, probably requires the moldboard plow; they described a strange kind of unknown weapon which we think means gun; they were discussing heretics of a particular sort which seems to have involved denial of Providence).

One last excellent sculpted hand, again from my conference trip to Berlin this year.

One last excellent sculpted hand, again from my conference trip to Berlin this year.

I realize that it would be easy to read my use of “intellectual technology” as an attempt to climb on the pro-science-and-engineering bandwagon, presenting intellectual history as quasi-hard-science, much as we joke that if poets started calling themselves “syllabic engineers” they would suddenly be paid more.  But it isn’t a term I’m advocating as a label, necessarily.  It’s a term I use for thinking, a semantic tool for describing the specific type of idea history I practice, and linking together my different interests into a coherent whole.  When I spell out what I’m working on right now as an historian, it’s actually a rather incoherent list: “the history of atheism, atomic science, skepticism, Platonic and Stoic theology, soul theory, homosexuality, theodicy, witchcraft, gender construction, saints and heavenly politics, Viking metaphysics, the Inquisition, utilitarianism, humanist self-fashioning, and what Renaissance people imagined ancient Rome was like.  And if you give me an hour, I can sort-of explain what those things have to do with each other.”  Or I can say, “I study how particularly controversial pieces of new intellectual technology come into being and spread over time.”

In that light, then, we can think of Machiavelli as the inventor of a piece of intellectual technology, or rather of several pieces of intellectual technology, since consequential ethics is one, but his new method of historical analysis (political science) is another.  We might compare him to someone who invented both the gun and the calculator.  How do we feel about that contribution?  Positive?  Negative?  Critical?  Celebratory?  I think the only universal answer is: we feel strongly.

See more thoughts on this in the follow-up post: Intellectual Technology–A Promoted Comment.

Nov 182014

late-gothic-pulpit-with-carvings-of-the-original-four-doctors-of-the-church-st-jerome-on-the-left-and-st-ambrose-on-the-rightHello, all.  I must thank you all for your patience during the long lag since my last post, but they were months well spent on  my move to Chicago, settling into a rich new community, plus a lot of  work on my Norse mythology album project which is now, at last, nearly complete.

In addition, my essay-writing time usually directed toward ExUrbe went, over the last few months, toward a new essay now live on, which is very like my earlier double review of the Borgia TV series, but takes as its subject the new BBC series The Hollow Crown, a TV adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V), comparing it to several other film and stage versions of the same plays.  If you’ve enjoyed my ExUrbe posts then I highly recommend the new essay, since it really in the ExUrbe spirit.  (Some may also enjoy my earlier post recapping a panel I was on at Worldcon about which comics of the last 15 years will be remembered in 50).

Meanwhile, since I’m not yet prepared for the next installment of my skepticism series, here’s a fresh Spot the Saint:

First, a Review of Saints’ Hats:

Hats are often one of the best clues for narrowing down who any given saint might be, so BishopHat1anyone who wants to become a Spot the Saint expert needs to get good at differentiating between different categories of hats. Some are easy to confuse with each other, but the critical basics are these:

Bishop Hat (mitre) vs. Pope Hat (tiara):

These can be easy to mix up because they’re both tall and pointy, but if you look closely the fundamental structures are different.

A bishop hat, properly called a “Mitre” is fundamentally diamond-shaped, usually with two subtle corners on the sides a little below half way up.  When seen from the front, it is often decorated with a cross and/or a pair of symmetrically placed gems.  In art, the distinctive decoration with an up-side-down T or partial cross is often an essential distinguishing feature since no other hat, even similar-looking pope hats, will have it:










The two images above are simply identified as “a bishop saint” since the hat and crosier let us spot a bishop but they have no other details so we can’t know more.

When seen from the side, the structure of a bishop hat becomes clearer: two flat semi-triangular pieces of fabric connected together at the top by a flap that goes across above the head.  There are two flaps hanging down in the back, but the centerpiece is that it is not a cone but a flat structure:











In contrast, the pope hat, or “papal tiara” also called the “triple tiara” is a cone or beehive shape rather than a flat triangular structure.  Whether viewed from the front or from the side the round shape remains identical.  It is decorated with three crowns set above each other.  If a bishop’s mitre is a soft hat made of fabric which becomes flat when in storage, a papal tiara is 100% stiff, often made of metal, and the same shape whether or not there is a head inside:













It is important to remember that a pope is also bishop of Rome so entitled to wear a bishop’s mitre in addition to wearing the papal tiara, and in real life it’s pretty common for live popes to wear a mitre since it’s much less heavy and much more practical, being made of fabric rather than metal as the tiara usually is.  But in art, popes will usually have pope hats.

In the case below, you can see two decorated mitres on the outside and two papal tiaras on the inside (all from behind):


Any saint who was a pope is entitled to wear a papal tiara in art, and usually they will.  The fun exception here is St. Peter who is usually differentiated just by holding the keys and being dressed like an apostle, but sometimes they will depict him with a pope hat just to be trixy.  (In the image below the old bronze statue of Peter in the Vatican has been given a pope hat for a holiday):


Cardinals’ Hats vs. Cosmus and Damian:

Also essential is identifying a cardinal’s hat.  In daily life a live-on-the-street cardinal may wear any of several different designs of hat, and will usually opt for one of the smaller hats:








Little Hat







But symbolically, and reliably in art, a cardinal’s hat is a very large wide-brimmed bright red hat:





This wide hat, with dangling tassels, is in fact a red version of the technical formal priest’s hat which also exists in black for ordinary priests and in green for bishops. Tassels hanging from it differentiate rank.  This type of hat is pretty-much never worn, and those that exist in physical reality are pretty-much all in museums as the historic property of the famous cardinal so-and-so, but the hats serve a major purpose in heraldry, since when one becomes a priest, bishop or cardinal one is entitled (indeed expected) to add the hat above one’s coat of arms to distinguish rank, just as a king or duke adds a crown and a pope adds the papal tiara and crossed keys.

Here is a real life museum piece cardinal’s hat:

images (2)

A cardinal’s hat and robes:


Here is a real life coat of arms of someone who is very excited to be a cardinal, and advertising that he has been “given the cardinal’s hat” which is a traditional way of referring to the promotion:


Here are the technical heraldic formula for arms of clerics different ranks, showing different numbers of tassels.

Note also how, rather than just red, the hat and tassels are sometimes a pinkish color:

images (3)Here are some examples of the arms of priests who are not cardinals.  One does occasionally see the black priest’s hat (though mostly in movies) but I have never in my life found an image of one of the green bishop hats in real life since bishops are generally represented by the mitre, and use the green flat hat only in heraldry:


A bishop’s arms, with the hat green instead of red, sometimes decorated with silver in illuminated manuscripts:


And here are the specific arms of some highly-ranking clerics.  Note the differentiation of cardinals of different ranks.  The arms at the op left are the arms of the Patriarch of Lisbon.  A few places (like Constantinople and Venice) had a special rank called “Patriarch” which is effectively above cardinal, and the quasi-peer of the pope.  A patriarch’s arms could have the triple tiara, but could not combine them with the papal keys, which were reserved only for the pope.


In art, the tassels are generally too complicated to bother depicting, so the key is to look for the big flat red hat with its distinctive crisp brim.  Sometimes it will be on the cardinal’s head, but often, especially in the case of Jerome, it will be sitting on the ground nearby, representing that this person is a cardinal but doesn’t care about the ostentation of rank:


On occasion, the same will be done for popes, as in this image of Gregory:

gregory2The one point at which cardinals’ hats get tricky are when Cosmus & Damian get involved, because they too usually have red hats.  But cardinals’ hats always have a crisp, stiff brim, whereas Cosmus & Damian’s hats are soft and bag-like:










Similarly important is the ability to tell when hats are NOT any church rank hat but are simply a person wearing a random hat because all medieval and Renaissance people (except monks) wore hats pretty-much all the time.  These two hats, for example, differentiate people who were simply merchants or ordinary members of their society and not monks or priests:


And with this review of hats under your belt, you are prepared to look at an image like this one and understanding who is bestowing what rank on whom:


You are also prepared to identify the Four Doctors of the Church.

514px-Pier_Francesco_Sacchi_-_Dottori_della_Chiesa_-_ca._1516The Four Doctors of the Church

I already discussed St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, recognizable by his cardinal’s hat, his gaunt, hermit-like appearance, his friendly lion, and often a skull, a crucifix, or a rock so he can beat himself when he catches himself wanting to read Cicero. Jerome is also one of the four original “Doctors of the Church” i.e. four early, learned theologians who wrote fundamental works explicating Christian metaphysics and theology, which were adopted as major authorities by the Catholic Church.  Jerome’s companions in this set of four are St. Augustine (bishop), St. Ambrose (bishop) and St. Gregory the Great (pope).  Jerome himself was, of course, a cardinal, so the four are easily recognized as a set when you see four saints, two with bishops’ hats, one with a papal tiara and one with a cardinal’s hat.

Because Renaissance art loved symmetry, the Four Doctors were particularly popular because they could be depicted alongside the Four Evangelists, for example painting four on the four panels of one vault and the other four on the panels of a matching vault.  In the painting at the right, the four doctors, clearly differentiated by their hats, are accompanied by the four companion animals of the evangelists, making the comparison explicit even in the absence of depictions of the evangelists themselves.


Sometimes, as in the piece above, they make it very easy by all being in full, clear robes, but sometimes Jerome is tricky, leaving his hat behind and being mostly naked (hermit) with just a snatch of red fabric to remind you that he’s a cardinal:


The doctors often have books, and are frequently still writing in them, or pictured debating with each other, or with other theologians, as in this excellent group image where a now-familiar monk saint has gone over to see what Gregory and [Augustine] are doing.  Note here how Jerome is trying to throw us by being in pink instead of red:


In the image above it’s not actualy possible to tell which is Augustine and which is Ambrose among the two bishops, beyond guessing that Thomas Aquinas is probably checking with Augustine since he used Augustine a lot more.  Often the two bishops are impossible to tell apart, since artists are content so long as we realize it’s the four doctors, butall four do also have individual attributes that you sometimes see if artists are kind and thorough.

54Saint (Pope) Gregory the Great (540-604):

  • Common attributes: Papal tiara, dove representing the holy spirit
  • Occasional attributes: beehive, book, pen
  • Patron saint of: Teachers, musicians, singers, masons, protection against gout
  • Patron of places: England
  • Feast day: Sept 3, March 12
  • Most often depicted: With the other three doctors, writing a book, writing music
  • Relics: St. Peter’s, in Rome

Gregory was a Roman born of Christian parents and was given an excellent education in math and science as well as rhetoric and eloquence.  He became a Benedictine monk, then a deacon working for the pope (like St. Stephen and St. Lorenzo).  He was the first monk to become pope.  He was responsible for the creation of Gregorian chant, and for sending legates to evangelize in England.  In addition to being dressed as a pope (and sometimes wearing a Benedictine white monk’s habit under his cloak) he is distinguished by the addition of a white dove representing the holy spirit whispering in his ear inspiring his writing.

AmbroseGiuLungaraSaint Ambrose (340-397)

  • Common attributes: Bishop robes, hat and crosier
  • Occasional attributes: Book, beehive, scourge, model church
  • Patron saint of: Bishops, beekeepers, chandlers, schoolchildren
  • Patron of places: Milan
  • Feast day: December 7
  • Most often depicted: With the other three doctors, writing a book,
  • Relics: Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

While Gregory had Christian parents, Ambrose was a convert, born of a Roman noble family with traditional power in Milan.  He studied the classics and law, and became Governor of Milan during the middle of the controversy over Arianism.  Shortly after his conversion to Christianity, the Archbishop of Milan died and there was a fierce squabble over who should succeed him.  When Ambrose stepped in, as governor, to try to resolve the dispute, his words were so sweet, mild and wise that everyone decided to make Ambrose bishop, even though he had only been Christian a short time.  Ambrose reluctantly accepted.  He helped battle the Arians, and had an important influence on Augustine.  His theological writings were so sweet and eloquent that he was called the “honey-tongued doctor” and is sometimes depicted with a beehive or another representation of honey.  At one point when Gothic raiders kidnapped some of Milan’s citizens, he not only used all his own wealth but also melted down the treasures from the church to ransom them, saying that people were the true reasure.  He is sometimes depicted with a scourge, possibly connected with his position battling the Arian heresy.  Usually, though, he is depicted as just a bishop with a book, or with nothing, making him hard to definitively identify outside the context of the other three doctors.

Saint_Augustine_PortraitSaint Augustine (354-430)

  • Common attributes: Bishop, book
  • Occasional attributes: Pen, flaming/glowing/pierced heart, dark skin, monk’s habit
  • Patron saint of: Brewers (because he drank a lot as a youth), printers, theologians
  • Patron of places: Bridgeport CT; Cagayan de Oro, Philippines; San Agustin, Isabela
  • Feast day: August 28 (June 15)
  • Most often depicted: With other doctors, writing books, debating theology
  • Relics: Church of San Pietro in Ciel D’Oro, Pavia

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote a jillion skillion books.  He wrote books and then more books and then more books until he had a big pile of books and then wrote even more books.  We have more surviving works by St. Augustine than the entire classical Latin corpus put together.  In art, he is often depicted still writing yet another book.

We know much more about Augustine’s life than most saints because he left an autobiography, the Confessions, which is an enormously important text in the history of philosophy in general, and one I teach regularly.  He was born to a well-educated and ambitious father who paid for him to have an expensive Greek education so he could have a career as a lawyer or sophist. Augustine’s poorly-educated mother Monica was a deeply pious new Christian convert, and his accounts of her tell us a lot about the conversion process.  Monica tried to get young Augustine to embrace Christianity, but, thinking of the philosophy and metaphysical detail he had learned from his teachers, he kept demanding that she explain the technical details of Christianity (“Where is Heaven? What’s it made of? What is the soul made of? Does it have parts? How does it touch the body? How is God three things and one thing at the same time?” <= imagine all this in an obnoxious, scornful teenaged voice).  When Monica couldn’t supply satisfactory answers, Augustine became contemptuous of Christianity as a religion for idiots.  He had a wanton youth, drinking and sleeping around, smashing things with his drunken friends, and flirted with other religions, first Manicheeism, then Neoplatonism.  Patient Monica continued to attempt to get him to convert, enduring ridiculous abuse from him (including one time they were traveling in Italy and he ditched her and jumped a boat for Africa without telling her, stranding her alone).  In more mature years, however, with a full knowledge of Platonic Augustinelargmetaphysics under his belt, he looked again at Christianity and suddenly everything clicked, and he could see, using Plato, where Heaven was, what it was made of, how many parts the soul had, etc. and he converted eagerly, and dedicated his remaining years to writing the detailed explanations of metaphysics and theology whose absence had let his thirteen-year-old self to turn his back on Christianity. Augustine remains in essence the most influential architect of Christianity outside scripture itself, especially because of his influence on Luther and other Protestant reformers, who rejected most later Catholic dogma but still largely embraced Augustine’s contributions, seeing him as a voice of the early, “pure” Church.

Because it is known that Augustine as born in northern Africa, he is sometimes depicted with dark skin and African features, both in medieval illuminations and in modern icons. While he is often assumed to have been of Greek ancestry, and often depicted as white, his African status has led to him being embraced by some as a role model for Christians of African descent.  Monica too is a saint, often depicted in the habit of an Augustinian nun, while Augustine is sometimes depicted in the habit of an Augustinian monk, though inevitably with the trappings of a bishop (hat etc.) over the top.

In art, Augustine and Ambrose can be very difficult to tell apart, but my rule of thumb is that if only one of them has a book it’s Augustine, or if they both have books but one is writing and the other just holding it, Augustine will be the one writing.

Below, a rare image of the four doctors all with clear distinguishing attributes beyond just hats.  

Note how Augustine, in addition to having the flaming heart, is actively working with a book:


The original four doctors, also called the “Latin Doctors” since they wrote in Latin, were extremely influential in the Middle Ages, and especially in the 1200s when scholasticism was taking off.  Later on many new doctors were added, including scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury, “Greek doctors” who had been popular with the Eastern Church such as John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, and female doctors including the legendary St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was supposed to have confounded pagans in a debate, and the not-legendary St. Catherine of Sienna, the first great female Dominican nun saint and a powerful and articulate theologian.

 And now, for the first time in a long time, it’s Spot the Saint Quiz Time!

In this set of six you should get five with certainty.  Hint: this is tricky because it DOESN’T have all four Doctors of the Church. The artist expects you to verify who’s who by reading the text, but even without you can tell who they have to be.


Aug 082014
The 1984 stage play, one of this year's London highlights

The 1984 stage play, one of this year’s London highlights

The British Library often brings me here to London, to use the mass of early Italian books which were transported to the UK by the book collecting mania which was endemic in the wealthy classes in last two centuries, but this year the library has teamed up with Loncon (the London-hosted World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon) to bring many of my friends as well.  So while I travel (and don’t have enough reference books or tranquility to do justice to another post on skepticism) this seems a good moment to share what is half a reflection on my enjoyment of London, with something of a guide recommending activities, and half a series of of some of the more distinctive plays I’ve seen here.

My approach to enjoying London is very much a hybrid of my approaches to Venice and Disneyland, and has never failed to work out delightfully.

The gorgeous central book stack of the British Library

The gorgeous central stacks of the British Library

The Venice half of the strategy is to do everything I can to avoid having a plan.  I simply arrange cheap accommodations as close as possible to an exciting walkable center that’s easy to find again, and then wander at random.  Unpredictable intersections of twisting streets reveal layers of exciting architecture, monuments, vistas, fun people with creative fashions speaking many languages, and in the case of London (though not Venice!) excellent food.  When I stumble upon a museum I go in it; a church I have a look; concert I have a listen, and by avoiding having anything to do or anywhere to be I can just look and walk and look and walk until the long summer days stretch on into suppertime sunsets.

Don't forget the "Treasure Room" of the British library: in, up the stairs on the left, no card or payment, and within seconds you're looking at the Beowulf manuscript, the Magna Carta, Wilfred Owen's poetry notebook, the manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, Scott's diary... one of Lond's most overlooked highlights.

Don’t forget the “Treasure Room” of the British library: in, up the stairs on the left, no card or payment, and within seconds you’re looking at the Beowulf manuscript, the Magna Carta, Wilfred Owen’s poetry notebook, the manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, Scott’s diary… one of London’s most overlooked highlights.

My usual Venice hotel is behind St. Mark’s Square because it’s the only thing in Venice one can reliably find, while my favorite London stop is the youth hostel directly across from the British Library. Being right by King’s Cross St. Pancras, the hosel is a short tube ride from everything, and a comfortable long walk southwest takes me past many of my favorite spots.  First are the specialty bookshops that cluster around the British Library like offshoots of a cypress tree (Judd Books and Gay’s The Word).  Next, the open park at Russell Square which is always packed with picnicers.  Next I pass the British Museum, where I might pop in to visit some Mesopotamian or Greek treasures, or just visit the strip of shops out front, to gaze at the lovely but staggeringly overpriced replica antiquities in It’s All Greek, or the real antiquities in the windows of the less-coin-specific of the two Coincraft shops, where I occasionally buy something small (I got a remarkably affordable 400 BC Attic little jug there, and a 1,000 BC Persian spearhead; they also have a bin of 1st to 4th century Roman Empire oil lamps for 45 pounds a pop, less if you get two and haggle, which for the sparkle of awe they bring to someone who’s never touched an artifact over 1,000 years old is definitely worth the price).

A few blocks further south I enter the theater district, stop off at the nerd mecca Forbidden Planet, and enter the warren of zigzagging streets surrounding Leicester Square and Covent Garden where I can spend a whole afternoon just walking.  The whole area is full of London’s signature layered architecture, crumbling stone and decorated brick and sparkling steel all in a pile together, with colorful woodwork and hidden alleys. I would swear that once I went down an alley and wound up in some kind of Chinatown, where I ate lotus buns and steamed bao, but I’ve never managed to find it again, and it’s just possible it might have been a dream.  Unable to find that again this trip, I contented myself with falafel, tapas, a Jamaican curried goat pie, and photoa hearty Egyptian street food called Koshari, which is a mixture of pasta, rice and lentils with chickpeas, spicy tomato, caramelized onions and spices, vegetarian but with that mix of heavy complex carbs and partial proteins that make it as filling and long-term sustaining as any meat—the shop is called Koshari Street (and they deliver!).  Oh, and gelato; two good gelato places in the area, La Gelateria (27 New Row) and a branch of the Italian chain Amorino.  If my path takes me southward far enough, I might stumble by accident on Trafalgar Square, and visit the National Gallery or Portrait Gallery, or stray as far as the river if my evening plan wants me to cross.  And if at any time I’m too tired to want to walk back, a saturation of underground stations will bring me back to King’s Cross.  (One detail relevant to this strategy: I seem to have the magic power that whenever I come to London the weather is beautiful and sunny the whole time, but the ‘wander outside’ plan may not work so well for those who don’t share this inexplicable blessing).

You can't take photos at the Globe (or other theaters) so I must rely on borrowed ones.

You can’t take photos at the Globe (or other theaters) so I must rely on borrowed ones.

The Disneyland half of my strategy involves tailoring this peaceful meander around maximizing the one unique activity which is so brilliant and unique that it’s worth tailoring everything else to get to do it as many times as possible.  At Disneyland this is Space Mountain.  In London it is going to the theater.  I count it a successful London visit if I’ve been to the theater more times than I spent nights, making intelligent use of matinees and how the proximity of many theaters makes it possible to catch one show in the afternoon and another the same evening, most days at least (Sunday and Monday present challenges since most of the shows are closed).  What makes this work so well is that all the plays are good in London, even the ones that aren’t.  What I mean by this is that the acting, direction and general production standards are so high that even when it’s a show which I might be skeptical about elsewhere I can rely on it being so well done that I’ll enjoy them anyway.  Over separate visits I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant writing and acting of The Tempest and The Importance of Being Earnest, the daring and precarious experiments of stage adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and 1984, the stagecraft spectacles of War Horse and The Lion King, even the formulaic nostalgia of Lady in Black and The Mousetrap.  And I always go to the Globe, consistently, unquestioningly, sometimes without even checking to see what show is on, I just know there’s a magical spot on the Earth where you can show up at 7 pm, give them 5 pounds and they’ll let you see Shakespeare, and it’s always good.  And it is always good.  Even The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labors Lost were thoroughly enjoyable, even though their combinations of unpalatable period sexism and general vacuousness make them hard to take in anything but an extraordinary performance.

Theater contributes especially to my jetlag strategy.  Going from West to East (US to Europe) I have found it most effective to take an overnight flight, get 2 or 3 hours’ sleep on the plane, and arrive in London early in the morning.  The essential step is to make sure I don’t nap that first day, exhausted as I am; if I can force myself to stay up until a good solid bedtime, 10 or 11 pm, then I can go to bed, get up at a normal time, and my clock is solidly reset onto London time thereafter with no further trouble.  But how to keep myself awake during that long draggy first day?  All I want to do is nap, but even a quick nap will doom me to sleepless nights and draggy days for close to a week.  Solution: theater.  I walk around the West End all morning, acquiring tickets for a double dose—matinee and evening shows—of theater, and thus can rely on writing, acting, sound and spectacle to keep me thrilled and awake until well after dark.  Depending on the day of the week the Globe can supply one or both, but this time I was saving the Globe shows (King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra) until friends joined me a couple days later, so I booked the stage blood double-whammy: 1984 followed by Richard III.


The first was a new stage adaptation of 1984 by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, in London for a short run, and excellent.  Powerful.  Vivid.  When I close my eyes now I can still see Winston in the chair with OBrien looming over, against the stark glowing white walls of Room 101.  And the agony on Winston’s face.  I was sufficiently impressed that I bought tickets to see it again with friends, and returned the next day to deliver a letter to the cast expressing my enthusiasm, though the playwright deserves it too.  The script and structure made great use of the fact that we in the audience all know the story already, know what’s coming, know that striking girl in the red sash has to be Julia before anyone speaks, and know where it has to end.

2minutesThe adaptation blurs time, using repeated actions and phrases and glimpses of thing out of order.  Winston hears O’Brien’s voice already interrogating him in his head long before he is taken to the Ministy of Love, a blur which creates a metatextual framing: is this the real, live Winston experiencing these events, or are we already in Room 101 and these are his memories breaking down under the pain?  And the play also incorporates Orwell’s own framing story, the final section of the novel which is written as if by someone from a later period after the 1984 regime has fallen, who is examining Winston’s account as an historical document; by presenting this early in the play, the adaptation further blurs time: are we seeing live events, Winston’s decaying memory’s, a later period’s ideas of Winston’s account, or both being read by us, the real live reader?  The mixture lets us experience all of these layers at once, while all of them are trapped in the same inevitable story. As we watch the events march inevitably forward we are all—Winston, Julia, O’Brien, Orwell, the actors, the viewer—equally aware what room we will soon enter, or in a sense have always already entered.  Reuse of actors, most of whom play numerous characters over the course of the performance, highlights in a literal physical sense how the whole populace of Orwell’s dystopia is complicit in the horror that enslaves them, a dystopia made of its people, even Winston as he turns up to work each day to delete the records of people who have been erased, as he will be erased in turn.  The play has no intermission, no break or escape, which I think was a wonderful choice, and gave it a powerful momentum.  The live enactment of the Two Minutes’ Hate left one deeply terrified of human beings (it had rather the same effect as the room full of Otto Dix I once saw in a Dada exhibition), and Room 101 itself was… well, one of these rare cases where something has infinite buildup and then lives up to that buildup completely, by being precisely what it always had to be.  And they have made such great advances with stage blood.

MF-Rich-III-posterTen times as much stage blood, sloshed in all directions and over all characters, gave the evening show of Richard III all the crowd-thrilling power Shakespeare intended.  I hadn’t bought a ticket in advance and tickets were almost unachievable, because it was both very good by a very good director (Jamie Lloyd) and starred Martin Freeman (Watson in Sherlock; Bilbo in the Hobbit movies), which added to the general population of Shakespeare and Theater lovers a 40% additional attendance by bouncy Sherlock fangirls.  Seats were scarce, but arriving two hours in advance made me first in line for the last-minute returned tickets, providing a fascinating opportunity for polyglot as I and a Sweedish actress and two French Sherlock fans cooperated to manage taking turns running off for sandwiches with our mixture of imperfect languages.  Ten minutes before the show my patience was rewarded.  I rarely enjoy Shakespeare re-set in modern costume, but this was a delightful exception, set almost in the round with a stage crammed with 1950s-ish office furniture—desks with huge brown typewriters and avocado green rolling chairs—recasting the historical setting so that the aftermath of war was not a distant civil war but the wake of WWII.  This gave a visceral immediacy how terrible it is to see the hard-earned peace turned into war again by Richard’s selfish schemes.  The violence too felt very modern and therefore real, and the production succeeded in something I have seen several attempt: using contemporary violence tropes from Hollywood to recreate the feeling a richard-iii-martin-freeman-and-lauren-oneil-photo-marc-brennerperiod play would have had of showing the audience violence that feels like the violence we see in real life instead of something gilded and distanced by antiquity (a production of Webster’s White Devil which I will shortly see in Stratford is trying the same).  In some of the murders the audience could tell from the stage setup and general knowledge of Hollywood how the murder had to end, and I felt myself almost silently cheering for the murders to come as expectation’s tension ripened inside me.  Martin Freeman proved an amazing Richard, perfectly balancing his endearing and repugnant facets to woo the crowd enough but not too much, playing with audience complicity.  Also remarkable was the fact that, instead of cutting Margaret’s curse (as so many productions do when you haven’t just sat through Henry VI so don’t really care about her), this production expanded it into a centerpiece which dominated the story and balanced against Richard like a second real human power at work in the story instead of events being Richard vs. Fate, as it often feels, or Richard vs. the-trope-that-villains-aren’t-allowe- to- win.  I didn’t have one of the seats where you actually got spattered with stage blood, but I was offered one, and I was tempted.  Needless to stay, it kept me awake and delighted until a healthy bedtime, and I promptly bought tickets to see it again with friends as well.


Falstaff and Pistol, in Henry IV pt. 2

Despite all this, I fully expect the best theater I see in London this trip to still be coming up: Shakespeare at the Globe. I always unquestioningly see everything that’s on at Shakespeare’s Globe, no matter what it is.  Standing tickets are only five pounds (and have the best view by far).  Recent productions have concentrated on the comedy, even in tragedies and historical plays, since there are always humorous scenes or scenes with clowns and comic characters.  Modern directors tend to try to play these scenes for pathos, seriously or as social commentary, but the Globe is instead doing what my studies of period theater confirm is more likely to have been the original style: playing up the humor to the maximum, with the addition of lots of physical improvisation in the style of Commedia dell’Arte.  The result turns what are often the boring (or excluded) scenes into refreshing and hilarious windows on period humor, lively and intense and incredibly entertaining. For those curious, I cannot recommend enough the DVD of their Henry IV, which has such a stunningly entertaining Falstaff that many sections which had never made much sense in any other production suddenly come together as rollicking and wonderful centerpiece scenes.

lordrings_450x304And since I’ve mentioned it, I should finish by sating your curiosity: Yes, there was is a The Lord of the Rings stage musical; no, it was not a particularly good plan.  I recently learned it’s going to come back and have a world tour starting in 2015, but the version I saw in London previews in 2007 was—much like the achievements of Voldemort—terrible, but great.  I saw it on a ten pound discounted last-minute ticket, and morbid curiosity has never been better rewarded.  Some parts were brilliant.  Hobbiton and Bilbo’s birthday party could never have a better setting than a lively, colorful stage full of cheerful, dancing hobbits and raucous music.  The sets and costumes spared no expense.  Gollum was magnificent, incredible physical acting and great writing too; every time Frodo had a song Gollum would repeat it in an eerie minor key, to great effect, and the actor received a well-deserved standing ovation.  The stage itself was complicatedly segmented so they could raise and lower bits of turrain to create mountains and hills and towers, and the long march across the mountains looked every bit as exhausting as it should be.  Shelob was also incredible: they blacked out the house completely except for a tiny spotlight on Frodo, and had an enormous puppet but all you could see were the vague shadows of the legs just moving in the edge of the light, with the body always invisible, far more terrifying than anything CG has produced.  Orcs came out during intermission to terrorize the audience, which was fun, using weird stilts, which was… weird.  And the horseback Nazgul were excellent, great horse frames and billowy black cloaks which were genuinely awesome… almost as awesome as the gazelles from The Lion King musical… but then again a Nazgul inherently is about fifty jillion times as interesting as a gazelle, so perhaps that isn’t saying much, or perhaps it says more about Julie Taymor’s skill than about the play.

lordwolf460You may have sensed that I’ve rather run out of the brilliant facets of the musical and am approaching the more… well…  I applaud the decision not to have Gandalf sing at all.  I do not applaud the decision to have Gimli sing, and speak, in a weird high squeaky voice all the time.  Nor the decision to have Legolas make bizarre hyperstylized grand gestures every time he spoke, as if he was constantly doing sign language in an incomprehensible elven gesture code.  Nor other things.  For example, some people like the costume Galadriel wears in the films, or in this piece of art, or that piece of art, and some people hate them, but no matter what factions we usually fall into regarding Galadriel costuming I think we can all agree that Gold Sparkly Boustier is not really anywhere near anything one could ever possibly… I mean… how?  Why?  Help…? Galadriel was, in fact, a lot of the centerpiece of what made the show… odd.  You see, the trilogy has a lot of great characters, but it doesn’t actually have a lot of female characters, and those it has don’t have a lot of page count.  But musicals like to have lots of singing, and like to have a flashy female lead people care about to put on posters and promote.  So they wanted lots of singing parts for a woman, one woman, consistently throughout the story, even during the long stretches where there aren’t any.  So they picked Galadriel, and had her have songs.  Lots of songs.  Lots of songs all the time for no reason.  Frodo and Sam would be trudging along through Mordor dum-de-dum-de-dum and Sam would say, “Hey, Frodo, remember that time we met Galadriel?” and Galadriel would pop up *BWOOSH* from behind a rock and suddenly have a song, and then vanish again, leaving the audience (and the hobbits) in a state of bewildered shock, at least until Gollum came along to reassure us that we were back to our regularly scheduled one-ring-mindgames.

lotrclose460In case you were wondering, they couldn’t use Eowyn because there was no Rohan.  They cut Rohan.  They went straight from elves & co. to Minas Tirith and spidertime with nothing in between.  I understand why: you may have noticed that the Lord of the Rings is very long, and difficult to reduce to the length of a two-ish-hour stage musical.  But if you cut Rohan the whole thing becomes remarkably more efficiant, and you can turn the audience out on time while still having arguably done at least the beginning and end of the whole epic.  It was rather surreal but fascinating from a perspective of how it made me re-analyze the structure of the whole thing. That is, when sudden, inexplicable Galadriel wasn’t there to give me mental whiplash. Or Legolas making incomprehensible hand gestures. In fact, the elves in general were problematic. There were some we saw strolling around in long dignified robes, while others in the same place (Lothlorian I think) were dressed like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell hanging from vines swinging around like tarzan, which is, in the abstract outside of Tolkien, acceptable elf presentation, and I could even see someone thinking it was a good idea to make the musical’s elves like that, but not to have BOTH those AND dignified long-robed Tolkein elves together, it was like having an anime character walk into a Pixar film.  In the end I was very glad I saw it becuase it was an undeniably entertaining evening, and it’s certainly been fun describing it to people for the last seven years, but if someone asked me “Was it good?” I would definitely answer: “No.  But it was great!”  (And a great remedy for jetlag).

(A final note: thank you all for being patient this summer. I know my posts have been infrequent, but in addition to extensive travels and preparation to move from Texas to Chicago, this patch of silence has resulted from my intensive work finishing up 50 pages of carefully researched liner notes about Viking culture and mythology which will be printed in the libretto of my Norse myth a cappella song cycle (which you can pre-order here if you want to read them), and I’ve also been working hard finishing up the CD and DVD, preparing for my book launch next month (Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance), and doing many other sorts of work and writing. So the silence has served the greater good, but I will do my best to pick up the pace in fall after my move. And if you want to read something else right now, I have a new post up on about whether or not female Thor should count as a Disney Princess. Enjoy!  And, for all those who will be at Worldcon, do drop me a line – I’d love to see you.)

May 142014

Illustration by Allen Williams, for

On the one hand, I have been looking forward for ages to reading and then writing something about “The Litany of Earth,” an amazing novelette by Ruthanna Emrys, acquired for by editor Carl Engle-Laird.  But on the other hand I personally usually dislike reading reviews, at least traditional reviews of things I have already decided to read.  When a reviewer tells me about what I’m going to experience and what excellent things the author is going to do, it disrupts the reading process for me, makes the things mentioned in the review stand out too boldly, interfering with the craftsmanship of a good story in which the author has taken great pains to give each beat just the right amount of emphasis, no more, no less.  The memory of the review in my mind makes it like a used book which someone has gone through with highlighter, which can be fascinating as a window on a fellow reader, and delightful for a reread, but it isn’t what I want on first meeting a new text, which in my ideal world consists of me, the reader, placing myself wholly and directly in the hands of the author, with the editor’s touch there too to help spot us along the way.  I do not need a co-pilot.  And it is more of a problem, for me at least, with short fiction than with long fiction since the review could be half as long as the story and weigh me down with nearly as much weight as the whole thing carries.  So, today I have set myself the challenge of writing a review, or non-review, of “The Litany of Earth” that isn’t a co-pilot, or a highlighter, and does as much as possible to get across the story’s strengths and the power of the reading experience while doing my best not to change the relative weight of anything in the story, make anything jump out too boldly, leaving the craftsmanship as untouched as it can be.

I have a seven step plan.  (Personal rule: anything with three or more steps counts as a plan. Also, “Profit” is not a step, it’s an outcome, and does not count toward your total of three.)

  1. Recommend you go read “The Litany of Earth” now before I can spoil anything.
  2. Talk amorphously about things the story is doing with structure and world-canon, talking more concretely about a few other pieces of fiction that have done somewhat similar things.
  3. Ramble about Petrarch.
  4. Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…
  5. Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.
  6. Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.
  7. Sing.

Step One: I strongly recommend that you go read “The Litany of Earth” right now.  It’s free online, and if you read it now you won’t be stuck with an intrusive co-pilot even if I do fail in today’s challenge of writing a non-review.

Step Two: Talk amorphously, and compare the story to other works of fiction.

hb_1972.118.224One of the unique literary assets of current fiction is the proliferation of familiar but elaborate and thoroughly developed fictional worlds which authors can step into and use for new purposes.  There have always been such worlds as long as there has been literature.  Arthuriana is my favorite pre-modern example, a complex and well-populated world rich with explorable relationships and flexible metaphysics ready to be elaborated upon and repurposed.  Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory and Petrarch and Ariosto and the traditional artists in Naples who decorated (and still decorate) street vendor wagons with Arthur’s knights each repurposed Arthuriana just like Marion Zimmer Bradley and and Monty Python and Gargoyles and Heather Dale and Babylon 5 and the endlessly hilarious antics of the BBC’s Merlin.  Each of the later authors in the genealogy has taken advantage not only of the plot, setting and characters but knowing that readers have genre expectations.

In the early 1500s when Ariosto began his chivalric and slightly-Arthurian verse epic Orlando Furioso he took advantage of the fact that readers already associated the topic with epic works and grand tourneys and knights and ladies and courtly-love adultery, baggage which let him write a massive and endless rambling snarl of disjointed and fantastic adventurousness so unwieldy that traditional epic structure is to Orlando Furioso as a sturdy rope is to the unassailable rat’s nest of broken headphones and cables for forgotten electronics that I just fished out of this bottom drawer.  c_orlando20furioso2019511No reader, not even in 1516, would put up with it without the promise of Arthurian grandeur to make its massive scale feel appropriate.  (I will also argue that the BBC Merlin, for all its tomatoes and giant scorpions, has not actually done anything quite so unreasonable as the point when Ariosto has “Saint Merlin” rise from his tomb to deliver an endless rambling prophecy about how awesome Ariosto’s boss Ipollito D’Este is going to be.  Fan service long predates the printing press.)  In a more recent continuation of this tradition, modern Arthurian adaptations have given us the previously-silenced P.O.V.s of women, of villains, of third-tier characters, and in some sense it’s quite modern to think about P.O.V. at all.  But even very old adaptations take advantage of how not just setting but genre is an asset usable to get the reader to follow the author to places a reader might not normally be willing to go.  And, of course, in more recent versions authors have taken advantage of exploring silenced P.O.V.s to critique earlier Arthurian works and their blind spots, as a way of reaching the broader blindnesses and silencings of the past stages of our own society that birthed these worlds.

Japan's new "Princess Arthur" lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It's not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.

Japan’s new “Princess Arthur” lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It’s not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.

“Is ‘The Litany of Earth’ Arthuriana?” you may wonder.  No.  It uses a different mythos.  I bring up Arthuriana in order to remind you of the many great things you’ve seen humans create by using and reusing a familiar collective fiction, and in order to reinforce my earlier claim that one of the great assets of current fiction is that we have many, many such worlds.  If pre-modern Earth had several dozen rich, lively, reusable mythoi and epic settings, the 20th century has added many, many more in which good (and campy) things have and can be done. Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Gundam, the massive united comics universes of Marvel and DC, these each provide as much complexity and material for reuse and reframing as the richest ancient epics, more if, for example, you compare the countless thousands of pages of surviving X-Men to the fragile little Penguin Classics collections of Eddas and fragmentary sagas which preserve what little we still have of the Norse mythic cosmos.  Marvel’s universe, and DC’s too, have a fuller population and a more elaborate and eventful history than any mythos we have inherited from antiquity, and my own facetious in-character reviews of the Marvel movies are but the shallowest tip of what can be done with it.

Marvels_(Alex_Ross)The specific case of this kind of rich reuse whose parallels to “The Litany of Earth” are what brought me down this line analysis comes from the Marvel comics megaverse, the unique and skinny stand-alone Marvelsby Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Alex Ross.  What it does with the narrative possibilities of the Marvel universe is very much worth looking at even if one doesn’t care a jot about comics.

Described from the outside and ignoring, for a moment, that these are comic books, the Marvel universe presents us with an Earth-like alternate history in which disasters–supernatural, alien, primordial, divine–have repeatedly threatened Earth, the universe, and, most often, New York City with certain destruction.  These have been repeatedly repelled by superheroes, somewhat human somewhat not, and the P.O.V. from which we the reader have always viewed these events has been as one of the superpeople at the heart of the battle, deeply enmeshed in the passionate immediacy of the short-term drama, nemeses, kidnappings, personal backstory, and who’s dead lately.  Only rarely have we had works that gave us a longer perspective over time, reflecting personal change, evolving perspectives, how being constantly enmeshed in superbusiness makes a person develop and self-reflect, though notably the works that have done so have been among superhero comics’ shining stars (Dark Knight Returns, Red Son, Watchmen.)

Marvels instead offers a long-term and distanced P.O.V., that of a photographer who lives in New York City and, during his path from rookie to retirement, experiences in order the great, visible cataclysms that have repeatedly shaken Marvel’s Earth.  His perspective gives historicity, sentiment, reflection and above all realism to Marvel, using it as alternate history rather than an action setting.  The effect is powerful, beautiful and highly recommended for the way it weaves the richness of Marvel’s setting together with good writing to create a truly valuable work of literature.  But it also reverses an interesting silencing which has been present in the back of Marvel, and superhero comics, since their inception: the silencing of the Public.

marvelsVery much like the women in early versions of Arthuriana, the Public in Marvel (and DC) has not been an agent in itself, but an object to motivate the hero.  The Public exists to be rescued, protected, placated, evaded, sometimes feared.  The Public has cheered P.O.V. heroes, hounded them, betrayed them, threatened them with pitchforks and torches, somehow being tricked over and over again into doubting the heros even after the last seventeen times they were exonerated.  The Marvel Public specifically also persistently hates and fears the X-Men and other mutants despite being saved by them sixteen jillion times, and somehow hates and fears the other heros less even though many of them are aliens or science freaks or robots or other things just as weird as mutants.  It is a tool of the author, manipulated by villains, oppressing misfits, causing tension, but virtually never is the reader asked to empathize with the Public.  The object of empathy is the hero, or occasionally the villain, but the reader is never supposed to identify with or even think about the emotions of the screaming and yet simultaneously silenced mob.  Marvels gives us, at last, the point of view of that mob, or at least one member of it, directing our self-identification and above all our empathy for the first time to something which has been hitherto faceless.

The effect is rather like a stroll through the Uffizi enjoying endless scenes of exciting saints surrounded by choruses of beautiful angels and then hitting the Botticelli room where each angel has a distinctive face and personality and you find yourself wondering what that angel is thinking when it watches Mary come to heaven to be crowned its queen, or sings music for young John the Baptist whose grisly end and subsequent heavenly ascension the angel already knows.  Only when Botticelli invites you to see the angels as individuals do you realize that no earlier painting ever did.  They had a failure of empathy.  They were still beautiful, but here is a rich new direction for empathy which no earlier work has asked us to consider, and which opens up a huge arena we had ignored.  Women in Arthuriana; the Public in Marvel; the angels that stand around in paintings of saints.

Cimabue-Pre-Giotto Alterpiece

Botticelli_1483-85 Magnificat Madonna

In just the same way, “The Litany of Earth” uses empathy and P.O.V. to open rich new arenas in one of our other well-known modern fictional settings.  And the setting it uses has a fundamental and very problematic failure of empathy rooted deep in its foundations, so addressing that head-on opens a very potent door.

And since I can feel the urge to talk about Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto becoming harder to resist, I believe it is now time to nip that in the bud by moving on to the next stage of my plan.

hob_france7aStep Three: Ramble about Petrarch.

Picture Petrarch in his library, holding his Homer.  He has just received it, and turns the stiff vellum pages slowly, his fingertips brushing the precious verses that he has dreamed of since his boyhood.   The Iliad in his hands.  His friends have always whispered to him of the genius that was Homer, his real friends, not the shortsighted fools he grew up with in Avignon, arrogant Frenchman and slavish Italians like his parents who followed the papacy and its trail of gold even when France snatched it away from Rome.  His real friends are long-dead Romans: Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, men like him who love learning, love virtue, love literature, love Rome and Italy enough to fight and give their lives for it, love truth and excellence enough to write of it with passion and powerful words that sting the reader into wanting to become a better person.

images (1)Petrarch was born in exile.  Not just the geographic exile of his family from their Florentine homeland, no, something deeper.  An exile in time.  This world has no one he can relate to, no one whose thoughts are shaped like his, who walks the Roman roads and feels the flowing currents of the Empire, whose understanding of the world connects from Egypt up to Britain without being blinded by ephemeral borders, who can name the Muses and knows how truly rich it is to taste the arts of all nine, and how truly poor one is without.  Antiquity was his native time, he knows it, but antiquity was cut off too early–he was born too late.  His friends are dead, but their voices live, a few, in chunks, in the books in distant libraries which he has spent his life and fortune gathering.  His library.  Each volume a new shard of a missing friend, those few, battered whispers of ancient voices which survived the Medieval cataclysm that consumed so much.  And now, after hearing so many of his friends speak of Homer, call him the Prince of Poets, the climax of all art and literature, divine epic, the centerpiece of all the ancient world, he has it in his hands.  It survived.  Homer.  In Greek.  And he can’t read it.  Not a word of it.  Greek is gone.  No one can read it anymore, no one.  Homer.  He has it in his hand, but he can’t read it, and for all he knows no one ever will again.


This historical moment, Petrarch with his Homer, is one of the most poignant I have ever met in my scholarship.  A portrait of discontinuity.  The pain when the chain of cultural transmission, of old hands grasping young, that should connect past, present and future is cut off.  The cataclysm doesn’t have to be complete to be enough to disrupt, to silence, to jumble, to leave too little, Greek without Homer, Homer without Greek. Petrarch is a Roman.  They all are, he and his Renaissance Italians, they have the blood of the Romans, the lands of the Romans, the ruins of the Romans, but not enough for Petrarch to ever really have the life he might have had if he’d been born in the generation after Cicero, and with his Homer in his hands he knows it.

ancient-booksPetrarch did his best.  He spent his life collecting the books of the ancients, trying to reassemble the Library of Alexandria, the pinnacle, he knew, of the culture and education which had made the Romans who had made his world.  He found many shards, eventually enough that it took more than ten mules to carry his library when he journeyed from city to city.  He journeyed much, working everywhere with voice and pen to convince others to share his passion for antiquity, to read the ancients that could be read, Cicero, Seneca, to learn to think as they did and to try to push this world to be Roman again, which for him meant peaceful, broad-reaching, stable, cultured and strong.  People listened, and we have the libraries and cathedrals and Michelangelos they made in answer.  And Petrarch never gave up on Homer either, but searched the far corners of the Earth for someone with a hint of Greek and eventually, late in life, did find someone to make a jumbled, fragmentary translation, nothing close to what a second-year-Greek student could produce today let alone a fluid translation, but a taste.  By late in life he had his New Library of Alexandria, and real hope that it might rear new Romans.

Venice's great late Renaissance Marciana Library.

Venice’s great late Renaissance Marciana Library, where Petrarch’s library isn’t.

Petrarch wanted to give the library to Florence, to help his homeland make itself the new Rome, but Florence was too caught up with its own faction fighting for anyone to stably take it.  Venice was the taker in the end, and he hoped his library would make the great port city like the Alexandria of old, the hub where all books came, and multiplied, and spread.  Venice put Petrarch’s library in a humid warehouse and let it rot.  We lost it.  We lost it again.  We lost it the first time because of Vandals and corrupt emperors and economic transformation and plague and all the other factors that conspired to make the Roman Empire decline and fall, but we lost it the second time because Venice is humid and no one cared enough to devote space and expense to a library, even the famous collection of the famous Petrarch. Such a tiny cataclysm, but enough to make discontinuity again.  We have learned better since.  Petrarch had followers who formed new libraries, Poggio, Niccolo, they repeated Petrarch’s effort, finding books.  Eventually princes and governments realized there was power in knowledge.  Venice built the Marciana library right at the main landing, so when foreigners arrive in St. Mark’s square they are surrounded by the three facets of power, State in the Doge’s Palace, Church in the Basilica, and Knowledge in the Library.  And now we have our Penguin Classics.  But we don’t have Petrarch’s library, and we know he had things that were rare, originals, transcriptions of things later lost.  There are ancients who made it as far as Petrarch, all the way to the late 1300s, through Vandals, Mongols and the Black Death, before we lost them to one short-sighted disaster.  Discontinuity.  We have Homer.  We don’t know what Petrarch had that we don’t.

This was one of two historical vignettes that came vividly before my mind while I was reading “The Litany of Earth.”  The second is…

Step Four: Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…

denis_diderot_2fm4I must be very careful here.  Even though my focus is Renaissance and my native habitat F&SF, Denis Diderot remains my favorite author. Period.  My favorite in the history of words.  So it is very easy for me to linger too long .  But I invoke him today for a very specific reason and shall confine myself strictly to one circumscribed subtopic, however hard the copy of Rameau’s Nephew on my desk stares back.

Three quarters of the way through my survey course on the history of Western thought, I start a lecture by declaring that the Enlightenment Encyclopedia project was the single noblest undertaking in the history of human civilization.  I say it because of the defiant, “bring it on!” glances I instantly get from the students, who switch at once from passive listening to critical judgment as they arm themselves with the noblest human undertakings they can think of, and gear up to see if I can follow through on my bold boast.  I want that.  I want their minds to be full of the Moon Landing, and the Spartans at Thermopylae, and Gandhi, and the US Declaration of Independence, and Mother Teresa, and the Polynesians who braved the infinite Pacific in their tiny log boats; I want it all in their minds’ eyes as I begin.

imagesThe Encyclopédie was the life’s work of a century on fire.  The newborn concept Progress had taken flight, convincing France and Europe that the human species have the power to change the world instead of just enduring it, that we can fight back against disease, and cold, and mountain crags, and famine cycles, and time, and make each generation’s experience on this Earth a little better.  The lion has its claws and strength, the serpent fangs and stealth, the great whales the force of the leviathan, but humans have Reason, and empiricism, and language to let us collaborate, discuss, examine, challenge, and form communities of scientists and thinkers who, like the honeybee, will gather the best fruits of nature and, processing them with our own inborn gifts, produce something good and sweet and useful for the world.  The tone here is Francis Bacon’s, but Voltaire popularized it, and by now the fresh passion for collaboration and improvement of the human world had already birthed Descartes’ mathematics, Newton’s optics, Locke’s inalienable rights, calculus, and the Latitudinarian movements toward rational religion which seemed they might finally soothe away the wars that lingered from the Reformation.  Everything could be improved if keen minds applied reason to it, from treatments for smallpox which could be preventative instead of palliative, to Europe’s law codes which were not rational constructions but mongrel accumulations of tradition and centuries-old legislation passed during half-forgotten crises and old power struggles whose purpose died with the clans and dynasties that made them but which still had the power to condemn a feeling, thinking person to torture and death.

DiderotLoomThe Encyclopédie had many purposes.  Perhaps the least ambitious was to turn every citizen of Earth into a honeybee.  Plato had said that only a tiny sliver of human souls were truly guided by reason–able to become Philosopher Kings–while the vast majority were inexorably dominated by base appetites, the daily dose of food and rest and lust, or by the wild but selfish passions of ambition and pride.  For two millennia all had agreed, and even when the Renaissance boasted that human souls could rival angels in dignity and glory through the light of learning and the power of Reason, they meant the souls of a tiny, literate elite.  But in 1689 John Locke had argued that humans are born blank slates, and nurture rather than an innate disposition of the soul separated young Newton from his father’s stable boy.  The Encyclopédie set out to enable universal education, to collect basic knowledge of all subjects in a form accessible to every literate person, and to their illiterate friends who crowded around to hear new chapters read aloud in the heady excitement of its first release.  With such an education, everyone could be a honeybee of Progress, and exponential acceleration in discovery and social improvement would birth a better world.  So overwhelming was public demand that Europe ran out of paper, of printer’s ink, even ran out of the types of metal needed to make printing presses, so many new print shops appeared to plagiarize and print and sell more and more copies of the book which promised such a future (See F. A. Kafker, “The Recruitment of the Encyclopedists”).

Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot's contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.

Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot’s contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.

Yet Diderot and his compatriots had another goal which shows itself in the structure of the Encyclopédie as well as in its bold opening essay.  The second half of the 17 volume series is devoted to visual material, a series of beautiful and immensely complicated technical plates which illustrate technology and science.  How to fire china dishes, smelt ore, weave rope, irrigate fields, construct ships, calculate distance, catalog fossils and decorate carriages, all are illustrated in loving detail, with diagrams of every tool and its use, every factory and its layout, every human body at work in some complex motion necessary to turn cotton into cloth or rag into precious paper.  With this half of the Encyclopédie it is possible to teach one’s self every technological achievement of the age.  The first half was intended to provide the same for thought.  With its essays it should be possible to understand from their roots the philosophies, ethical systems, law codes, customs, religions, great thinkers of the past and present, all aspects of life and the history of humankind’s evolving mental world. It is a snapshot.  A time capsule.  With this–Diderot smiles thinking it–with this, if a new Dark Age fell upon humanity and but a single copy of the Encyclopédie survived, it would be possible to reconstruct all human progress. With this, the great steps forward, the hard-earned produce of so many lives, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Polynesian log boats, will be safe forever.  We can’t fall back into the dark again. With this, human achievement is immortal. Yes, Petrarch, it even details how to read, and print, and translate Greek.

Let’s linger on that thought a moment.  A beautiful, unifying, optimistic, safe, human moment, warm, like when I first heard that, yes, eventually Petrarch did get to read a sliver of his Homer.  Because I’m not going to keep talking about dear Diderot today, much as I would like to.

Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.

Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.

In 2012/13 we lost 170,000 volumes from the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo to the revolution, 20,000 unique manuscripts in Timbuktu library to a militia fire, and we have barely begun to count the masses of original scientific material burned during a corrupt botched cost-saving effort to reduce the size of the Libraries of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada. More than half of the entries on Wikipedia’s list of destroyed libraries were destroyed after the printing of the Encyclopédie, and the libraries on the list are only a miniscule fraction of the texts lost to disasters, natural and manmade.  It doesn’t even list Petrarch’s library, let alone the unique contents of the personal libraries and works that accumulate in every house now that we’re all honeybees.  Diderot tried so hard to make it all immortal.  He tried so hard he used up all the ink and paper in the world.  Yet if my numbers for printing history are right, in the past half century we have destroyed more written material than had been produced in the cumulative history of the Earth up until Diderot’s day. And that does not count World Wars.  We’re getting better.  On February 14th 2014 a fire at the British National Archives threatening thousands of documents, many centuries old, was successfully quenched with no damage to the collection, thanks substantially to advances in our understandings of fluids and pressure made in the 17th and 18th centuries and neatly explained by the Encyclopédie.  That much is indeed immortal (thank you, Diderot!) but much is so very far from everything. It’s still so easy to make mistakes.

One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is

18217One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is this cenotaph monument of Diderot, in the Pantheon in Paris, celebrating his contributions and how the Encyclopedia and enlightenment enabled so much of the liberty and rights and change that defines our era. Voltaire’s tomb was moved to the Pantheon, Rousseau’s too, but for Diderot there is only this empty cenotaph. I went on a little pilgrimage once to visit Diderot in the out-of-the-way Church of Saint-Roch, where he was buried.  There is no tomb to visit.  During the French Revolution, Saint-Roch was attacked and mostly destroyed by revolutionaries (carrying banners with Encyclopedist slogans on them!) who, in their zeal to torch the old regime, forgot that their own Diderot was among the Catholic trappings they could only see as symbols of oppression.  Once rage and zeal had died down Paris and all France much lamented the mistake, and many others, too late.

Did I mention we very nearly lost Diderot’s work too?  A far more frightening loss than just his body.  Diderot didn’t include himself, his own precious original intellectual contributions, in his Encyclopédie.  He knew he couldn’t.  He was an atheist, you see.  A real one, not one of these people we suspect like Hobbes and Machiavelli, but an overt atheist who wrote powerful, deeply speculative books trying to hash out the first moral system without divinity in it, fledgling works of an intellectual tradition which was just then being born, since even a few decades earlier no one had dared set pen to paper, for fear of social exile and ready fire and steel of Church and law.  But Diderot didn’t publish his own works, not even anonymously.  He self-censored.  He was the figurehead of the Encyclopédie.  An atheist was too frightening back then, too strange, too other.  If people had known an atheist was part of it, the project would have been dead in the water.  Diderot left instructions for future generations to print his works someday, if the manuscripts survived, but gambling with his own legacy was a price he was willing to pay to immortalize everyone else’s.  The surviving manuscript of Rameau’s Nephew in Diderot’s own hand turned up by chance at a used bookshop 1823, one chance street fire away from silence.

Step Five: Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.

Here you get points if you read it before getting this far.  It’s free on, but you really liked it you can also buy the ebook for a dollar, and give money to Ruthanna and to Tor, and tell them you like excellent original fiction that does brave things with race and historicity.

Step Six: Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.


Illustration by Allen Williams

This is a Cthulhu Mythos story which is in no way horror.   The richly-designed populated metaphysics and macrohistorical narrative of Lovecraft’s universe is here, but as a tool for reflection on society and self, with a narrative that bears no resemblance in to the classic tense and chilling horror short stories I (for some reason) enjoy as bedtime reading. Ruthanna Emrys uses Lovecraft’s world to comment on Lovecraft’s writing and the deeply ingrained sexism and especially racism that saturates it, repurposing that into a tool to make us think more about the effects of silencing and othering which Lovecraft used his skill and craftsmanship to lure us into participating in.  But the message and questions are universal enough that the target audience is not Lovecraft readers or horror readers but any reader who has even a vague distant awareness that the Lovecraft Mythos is a thing, as one has a vague distant awareness of Celtic or Navajo mythology even if one doesn’t study them.  If there is any horror in this story, it is the familiar reality that the things we make and do and are are perishable, that human action often worsens that, and that at the end of all our aeons and equations we face entropy.  But rather than presuming (as Lovecraft and much horror does) that facing that will lead to mad cackling and gibberish, the story presents the real things we do to try to face that: spirituality, cultural identity, and the effort to preserve the past and transmit it to the future.  It turns a setting which was created a vehicle for horror into a vehicle for social commentary and historical reflection.

I suppose I should directly address Lovecraft’s failures of empathy, for those less familiar with his work, or who have met it mainly through its fun, recent iterations in board games and reuses which strive to leave behind the baggage.  Racism, sexism, classism and other uncomfortable attitudes are not unexpected in an author who lived from 1890 to 1937.  We encounter unpalatable depictions of people of color, and equally unpalatable valorizations of entrenched elites, in most literature of the period, from M. R. James to the original Sherlock Holmes.  In Lovecraft’s case, the challenge for those who want to continue to work with his universe is that many of the racist and classist elements are worked deeply into the fabric of his worldbuilding.  Many of his frightening inhuman races are clearly used to explore his fear of racial minorities, while the keys to battling evil are reserved for elites, like the affluent, white, male scholars who control his libraries, and the Great Race which controls the greatest library.

The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.

The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.

While many attempts to rehabilitate and use Lovecraft’s world do so by excising these elements, or minimizing them, or balancing them out by letting you play ethnically diverse characters in a Lovecraft game, this story instead uses those very elements as weapons against the kinds of attitudes which birthed them.  If the scary fish-people represent a demonized racial “other” then let them remain exactly that, and show them suffering what targeted minorities have suffered in historical reality.  By reversing the point of view and placing the reader within the perspective of the “other”, the original failure of empathy is transformed into a triumph of empathy.  Now we are in the place of a woman for whom Lovecraft’s spooky cult rituals are her Passover or Easter, the mysterious symbols her alphabet,  “Iä, Cthulhu . . . ” is the comforting prayer she thinks to herself when terrified, and a Necronomicon on Charlie’s shelf is Petrarch’s Homer.

And we aren’t asked to empathize with only one group. We empathize with those deprived of education, in the form of Aphra’s brother Caleb, taking on the classist negative depictions of “degenerate” white rural families common in Lovecraft’s work.  With the plight of the Jews and other groups targeted in Germany, invoked by Specter’s discussion of his aunt. With those facing physical and medical challenges, invoked in the powerful opening lines where Aphra describes the pleasure she finds in facing the daily difficulty of walking uphill while she slowly heals. And with women, rarely granted any remotely coequal  agency in literature of Lovecraft’s era. Not only is this story a powerful triumph of empathy, but after reading it, whenever we reread original Lovecraft, or anything set in his world, the memory of Aphra Marsh and her tender prayer will forever change the meaning of “Iä, iä, Cthulhu thtagn…”  The triumph of empathy diffuses past the boundaries of this story, to enrich our future reading.

Another striking facet is that this is a story about legacy, continuity and deep history that manages to address those questions using only very recent history. Usually stories that want to talk about the deep past use material from periods we associate with the deep past: medieval, Roman Empire, Renaissance, Inuits, Minoans, anything we associate with dusty manuscripts and archaeology and anthropology and old culture.  Even I in this entry, when trying to evoke the themes and feelings of this story, went back centuries and consequently had to spend a lot of time explaining to the reader the history I’m talking about (what’s Petrarch’s Homer, what’s up with Diderot, etc.) before I could get to what I wanted to do with it.  This story instead uses contemporary history, events so recent and familiar that we all know it already, and have seen its direct effects in those around us and ourselves, or have tried to not see said effects.  As a result, the story doesn’t have the baggage of having to explain its history. Instead of needing footnotes and exposition, it touches us directly and personally with our own history and makes us directly face the fact that we too are part of the link of transmission attempting to connect past to future, and our failures can still heal or harm that just as much as Visigoths, the Black Death or the Encyclopédie. The use of modern history makes it impossible for us to distance ourselves, greatly enhancing its power.

I have already discussed, in my own roundabout way using Diderot and Petrarch and Marvel comics, many of the key themes which make this story so powerful: othering, empathy, reversal of point of view, legacy, silencing, translation and transmission, and discontinuity, how easy it is for the powerful engine of society to make mistakes that cut the precious thread. The power with which this story is able to present that theme demonstrates perfectly, for me, the potency of genre fiction as a tool, not for escapism or entertainment, but for depicting reality and history. The tragic discontinuities created by World War II, the destruction of life, education and cultural inheritance generated not only by the most gruesome facets of the war but also by great mistakes like the treatment of Japanese Americans, are difficult to communicate in full with such accurate but emotionless descriptive phrases as, “people were rounded up and held in prison camps.”  Attempts to communicate the genuine human impact of such an event easily fall so short.  We try hard, but often fail.  As a teacher, I remember well the flurry of discussion which surrounded some High School history textbooks which, in their efforts to do justice to the often-silenced story of interned Japanese Americans, had a longer section about that than it did about the rest of the war.  Opponents of political correctness used it as a talking point to rail against liberalism gone too far, while apologists focused on the harm done by silencing the events.  Yet for me, the centerpiece was the fact that textbooks had to devote that much space to attempting to get the 9780802722775_p0_v3_s260x420issue across and still largely failed to communicate the event in a way that touched students.  “The Litany of Earth” communicates the same event very potently, using the tool of genre to make something most readers might see as only affecting “others” feel universal.  The large-scale horror of Lovecraft’s universe revolves around the inevitability that human achievement, and in the end all life, will fading into nothing.  The Yith and their library are the only hope for a legacy, one bought at the terrible price of what they do to those whose bodies they commandeer.  By creating a parallel between the fragility of all human achievement, preserved only by the Yith, and Aphra’s barely-literate brother Caleb writing of his doomed search for the family library which contained the history and legacy he and Aphra so desperately miss, the fantasy setting puts all readers in Aphra’s place, and the place of those interned, creating universal empathy which no textbook chapter could achieve; neither, in my opinion, could a non-fantasy short story, at least not with such deeply-cutting efficiency.  After reading this story, not only the events of Japanese American internment but many parallel situations feel more personally important, and one feels a new sense of personal investment in such issues as the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This stoking of emotion and investment is a powerful and lingering achievement.

Structurally, the story interweaves experiences from different points in Aphra’s present–where she encounters Specter–with her past arriving in the city and encountering Charlie and his interest in her lost culture and languages.  The choice to depict the present scenes in past tense and the flashbacks in present tense might seem counterintuitive, but I found it a powerful and effective choice.  Past tense reads as “normal” in prose, so much so that we accept it as an uncomplicated way to depict the main moment of a narrative.  In contrast, especially when we have just come from a past tense section, the present tense feels extra-vivid, raw, invasive.  It feels like a very certain type of memory, the kind  so vivid that, when something reminds us of them, they jump to the forefront of our minds and blot out the here and now with the tense, unquenchable emotions of a very potent then. Trauma makes memories do this, but it is not the traumatic memories of camp life that we experience this way. Instead it is the vividness of tender moments of cultural experience: seeing precious books in Charlie’s study, sharing his drying river, warm things.  The transitions to vivid present tense make the reader think about memory and trauma without having to show traumatic events, while simultaneously highlighting how, in such a situation of discontinuity and cultural deprivation, the experiences which are most alive, which blaze in the memory, are these tiny, rare moments of connection, even tragically imperfect connection, with the ghostly echo of Aphra’s lost people.

For me, the triumphant surprise of the story comes in the end, when Aphra approaches the cultists, and chooses to act. Specter’s descriptions of bodies hanging from trees, combined with our familiarity with the copes of creepy cults in Lovecraft and outside, prepare us mid-story to expect that when Aphra approaches the cult they’ll be evil and insane, and she’ll overcome her resentment of the government and do what has to be done.  Or possibly the reversal will be stronger with that, and the cult will be good and nice, like Aphra, and the take-home message will be that Specter is wrong and Aphra and the cultists are all just misunderstood and oppressed.  It feels like the latter is where the story will take us when we see Wilder and Bergman, and Aphra finds comfort and companionship in participating in a badly-pronounced imitation of her native religion.  Even when we hear about the immortality ritual and Bergman refuses to listen to Aphra’s attempts to make her see that her ambition is an illusion, it still feels like we are in the narrative where the cultists are good but misunderstood, and the tragedy is just that there is such deep racial misunderstanding that even Cthulhu-worshipping Bergman cannot believe Aphra’s attempts to help her are sincere.  It is a real shock, then, when Aphra called in Specter to shut the group down, because the genre setting raises such a firm expectation that “bad cultist” = “blood and gore” that even when we read about Bergman’s two drowned predecessors it doesn’t register as “human sacrifice” or “bad cult.”  Aphra, unlike the reader, is unclouded by genre expectations, and shows us that, precious as this echo of her lost culture is to her, life is more precious still and requires action.  The ghostly echo of Aphra’s people that she shares with Charlie is precious enough to blaze in her memory, but she is willing to sacrifice the far more welcome possibility of being an actual priestess for people who sincerely want to share her religion, when she realizes that their cultural misunderstanding will cost human lives.  And she cares this deeply despite being an immortal among mortals.  The triumph of empathy is complete.

Unlike the numerous vampire stories and other tales which so often present immortals seeing themselves as different, special, unapproachable, and usually superior to mortals, here Aphra’s potential immortality enhances the uniqueness of her perspective and the depth of her loss, but without in any way diminishing her respect for and valuation of the short-lived humans that surround her. The grotesque folder of experimental records which is her mother’s cenotaph does make her reflect on how the loss is greater than the human murderers understood, but does not make her present it as fundamentally different from the deaths of humans, or make her (or us) see her suffering in any way more important or special than that of the Japanese family with whom she lives. The history of Earth that her people have learned from the Yith make her recognize that living until the sun dies is not forever, nor is even the lifespan of the planet-hopping Yith who will persist until the universe has run out of stars and ages to colonize. The Litany of Earth that she shares with Charlie is an equalizer, enabling empathy across even boundaries of mortality by placing finite and indefinite life coequally face-to-face with the ultimate challenges of entropy, extinction and the desire to find something valuable to cling to.  “At least the effort is real.”  This is something Charlie has despite his failing body, that Aphra’s brother has despite his deprived education, that Aphra has despite her painful solitude, a continuity that overcomes the tragic discontinuity and connects Aphra even with her lost parents, with ancestors, descendants, with forgotten races, races that have not yet evolved, races on distant worlds, races in distant aeons, and with the reader.

My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.

My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.

One last facet I want to comment on is how the story portrays magic which is at the same time viscerally bodily and also beautiful and positive.  This is very unusual, and the more you know about the history of magic the clearer that becomes.  Magic, at least positive magic, is much more frequently depicted with connections to the immaterial and spiritual than the bodily: bolts of light, glowing auras, floating illusions, the spirits of great wizards powerfully transcending their age-worn mortal husks.  Magical effects that are bodily, using blood, distorting flesh, are usually bad, evil cultism, witchcraft.  This trope far predates modern fantasy writing.  I have documents from the Renaissance based on ones from Greece discussing magic and differentiating between the good kind which is based on study, scholarship, texts, words of power, perfection of the mind, the soul transcending the body, angelic flight, spiritual messengers, rays and auras of divine power, an intellectual, disembodied and male-dominated “good” magic contrasted, in the same types of texts, with the bad evil magic of ritual sacrifice, sexuality, animal forms, distortion of the body, contagion, blood and associated with witchcraft and with women.  Cultural baggage from the Middle Ages is hard to break from even now, and we see this in the palette of special effects Hollywood reserves for good wizards and bad wizards.  The tender, intimate, visceral but beautiful magic which Ruthanna Emrys has presented is authentic to Lovecraft and to the rituals we associate with “dark arts” and yet positive, a rehabilitation which works in powerful symbiosis with the story’s treatments of discrimination.  Since race and religion are so much in the center of the story, its treatment of gender rarely takes center stage, but in these depictions of magic especially it is potent nonetheless.

I’ll stop discussing the story here, since I resolved to make this review shorter than the story itself, and I’m running close to breaking that resolution.

Step Seven: Sing.

One of the most conspicuous effects when I first read “The Litany of Earth” was that it made me get one of my own songs firmly stuck in my head for many, many hours.  The piece is “Longer in Stories than Stone” and it is the big finale chorus to my Viking song cycle, a piece about the fragility of memory and the importance of historical transmission.  It is a different treatment but with similar themes, and I found that listening to it a few times live and over and over in my head helped me extend the feelings reading the story awoke in me, and let me continue to enjoy and contemplate its messages for several happy hours.  So to celebrate the release of the story (taking advantage of the fact that this blog is no longer anonymous) here is the song, and I hope it will do for you what it did for me and help me extend my period of pleasurable mulling.  I hope you enjoy:

If you want more stories by Ruthanna Emrys go here.  If you want to other excellent short fiction on with related themes I recommend “Anyway Angie” and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere”.  If you want to see more amazing things Kurt Busiek does by giving P.O.V. to traditionally silenced facets of modern superhero comics beyond just Marvels, try Astro City or the original run of Thunderbolts.  If you want to hear more of my Viking music, there’s some streaming on the Sassafrass site.

May 132014

Reading LucretiusI have news to share, though not yet a new post in my Skepticism series, so thank you for your patience on that.  I will have a post up tomorrow, though, on a different topic.  But for now, news:

First, I’m leaving Texas and starting this fall in a new position as an Assistant Professor in the History Department of the University of Chicago!  I’m positively giddy. The university and department are so excellent, and when I visited campus the student conversations I overheard were about Marx and Hegel instead of football, and Chicago is a grand metropolis filled with libraries and museums and architecture and food, and I’ll have grad students!  Real grad students! So, in the academic sense, as my dissertation advisor said when he heard the news, “now there will be grandchildren.” Anyone with thoughts or advice on moving to Chicago, please share them!

Second, my academic book is now up for pre-order on Amazon.  And it has a gorgeous cover!  (And relevant, since the diagram is from one of my manuscripts.)  It’s also on Harvard University Press’s page, where the money goes to the press, but they (A) don’t have a pre-order option and make you wait until September, and (B) charge $9 more than Amazon, so I understand many of those who want the book will prefer the easy, instant purchase to the inconvenient, expensive one even if the latter helps the press.

Title page of the 1563 Lambin annotated Lucretius, one of the editions I worked with most.  Lambin's Latin commentary is 3x the length of the original epic, and his name is the source of the French verb "lambiner," to go on at unnecessary length.

Title page of the 1563 Lambin annotated Lucretius, one of the editions I worked with most. Lambin’s commentary is 3x the length of the original epic, and his name is the source of the French verb “lambiner,” to go on at unnecessary length.

Here’s the write-up from the publisher:

After its rediscovery in 1417, Lucretius’s Epicurean didactic poem De Rerum Natura threatened to supply radicals and atheists with the one weapon unbelief had lacked in the Middle Ages: good answers. Scholars could now challenge Christian patterns of thought by employing the theory of atomistic physics, a sophisticated system that explained natural phenomena without appeal to divine participation, and argued powerfully against the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, and a creator God.

Ada Palmer explores how Renaissance readers, such as Machiavelli, Pomponio Leto, and Montaigne, actually ingested and disseminated Lucretius, and the ways in which this process of reading transformed modern thought. She uncovers humanist methods for reconciling Christian and pagan philosophy, and shows how ideas of emergent order and natural selection, so critical to our current thinking, became embedded in Europe’s intellectual landscape before the seventeenth century. This heterodoxy circulated in the premodern world, not on the conspicuous stage of heresy trials and public debates, but in the classrooms, libraries, studies, and bookshops where quiet scholars met the ideas that would soon transform the world. Renaissance readers—poets and philologists rather than scientists—were moved by their love of classical literature to rescue Lucretius and his atomism, thereby injecting his theories back into scientific discourse.

Palmer employs a new quantitative method for analyzing marginalia in manuscripts and printed books, exposing how changes in scholarly reading practices over the course of the sixteenth century gradually expanded Europe’s receptivity to radical science, setting the stage for the scientific revolution.

“This is a brilliant scholarly work that is deeply relevant to today. In exploring the influence of Lucretius on the Renaissance, Ada Palmer shows how the modern world became open to the  ramifications of mechanical science. More broadly, her book is a fascinating look at how ideas ripple and spread.” —Walter Isaacson

HoughtonInc-5271I promised to be direct and honest when I talked about this book here.  This is not a lite, lively fun history like the essays I post on Ex Urbe.  It’s a formal academic history. Ex Urbe readers will find that the beginning and the end are in the familiar, strong-strokes voice you’re used to (I moved myself to tears last night doing the page proofs of the Conclusion, a good sign at a stage when one is usually so sick of the manuscript as to be exhausted by the sight of it!) but the middle is meticulous and detailed, and unavoidably a bit dry.  It has to be. It’s new data, and new data has to be presented in full, with charts and lists and all that opposite-of-jazz.  I’m taking on a big question: how we got from the alien mindscape of the Medieval world to the familiar modern one, specifically looking at how we evaluate true and false, and how we use science and religion in our daily lives.  I can’t say something new about that without justifying it with facts and endnotes. This is the fruit of my years of research on manuscripts and marginalia, and I use my results to build up a portrait of how exactly thinking, scholarship and above all reading changed between 1400 and 1600 9780393064476_custom-90f41678e2d9b3883ed17ae22fff5d2273ca209e-s6-c30and how that transformed the way people thought about science and religion leading to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. There are many facets to how we got from Dante and Aquinas to Newton and Voltaire, and many people have addressed the question, but usually they look at the leaders and firebrands rather than looking, as I have, at the anonymous reading public where the deeper mass transformation had to happen for ideas which were once radical heresies to become comfortable parts of daily life. To put it another way, if you read or heard about Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (which won the Pulitzer in 2012 and which I am proud to say I helped with a little bit) it treats the same topic, the rediscovery of Lucretius which suddenly gave Europe access to radical materialism, but The Swerve is about the thrill of the discovery, not its context, cause or mechanism. As I say in my own introduction: “Previous studies have described the epicenter or the ripples–I shall endeavor to describe the medium that carried the ripples so far.”

So, that’s my first academic book.  If it sounds exciting to you, it’ll be out in September-ish 2014 through Amazon or HUP, or your preferred library or other book source.  And if you’re a bookstore person here’s the flier with the special bookstore info.  If it sounds like it’s not your thing, no worries: 2015 will bring the novels, and the fun stuff on Ex Urbe will continue to flow.

MyRealChildren_Jo-Walton-200x300My third piece of news is that, at the end of this May, I’m embarking on a train tour of major cities of the USA, accompanying my good friend and fellow Tor novelist Jo Walton as she tours with her new novel My Real Children (a 20th century alternate history story about life, small choices, and gelato, that makes everybody cry.) Starting at Balticon and culminating with Readercon and then Worldcon in London, it’ll be an exciting hop through many cities as I meet librarians and bookstore owners, plus Jo and I have a quest to eat great food with awesome people as many times as possible.  And on June 22nd, when Jo does her reading in the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe (an excellent independent venue owned by George R. R. Martin), I will do a concert of my music (some Viking some not) joined by my duet partner Lauren Schiller, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King.”

If any Ex Urbe reader (or Sassafrass friend) would like to come to one of the readings and say hello, please let me know in the comments here.

That’s it for today.  Tomorrow I will have a full post up, discussing an exciting new novelette, and in a few weeks we’ll have more Skeptics, once I’ve escaped the stack of deadlines that are looming on my desk all saying “May!”

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