May 062016

TooLikeLightning_coverHello, friends & readers.  This is a quick update to share links to a couple short essays I’ve written for other blogs.

My first science fiction novel Too Like the Lightning comes out very soon now, May 10th!  Initial reviews and reactions have been extremely enthusiastic, and these days Twitter sometimes feels like a surreal dream, with authors I’ve admired deeply for years gushing over… me?  (Karl Schroeder: “most exciting SF future I’ve encountered in years.” Ken Liu: “reflective, analytical, smart, beautiful.” Max Gladstone: “I’m kind of in love with this book.” Fran Wilde: “Too Like the Lightning = AMAZEBALLS! GET! READ!”)

In honor of the occasion (and to help pre-orders & first week sales which can do so much for a new author!) I’ve been asked to write a bunch of short guest blog pieces which I hope you’ll enjoy.  You can also read the first four chapters up on

On SF Signal I have talked “Middle Future Science Fiction” i.e.  SF set later than near future but while the majority of human culture is still on Earth, and why I think this is an exciting and new space for speculative fiction. Take-home quote: “We have many ways to talk about the End of History, so many that talking about the Future of History is now the novelty.”

On the Tor/Forge publisher blog meanwhile I have a piece on “World Building like a Historian” about how my historical training helps me build a future which is rooted, not only in the present, but in the past.  Take-home quote: “All humanity’s presents have been full of the past, for as long as there has been a historical record. So if there’s one safe bet we can make about the future, it’s that it will be full of the past too.”

Ten or so more guest blog pieces will be going up over the next weeks, many of which I’m very proud of, and I’ll gather and post links here. Meanwhile reviews on Barnes & NobleFantasy Literature and Romantic Times (<=best ever plot summary!) do a much better job describing the book than I can manage.

Here on Ex Urbe, with readers who know me well through my essays and travels, I can describe it a different way.  I’ve poured myself into this book. This is the real thing, the centerpiece.  You’ve seen my essays here.  You’ve seen my love of craftsmanship, and rhetoric, of playful structures and framing twists, describing a stick in water as the “antagonist” or suddenly letting Descartes stray into a dialog with Socrates.  You’ve also seen the depth of my empathy, my Machiavelli series which so many readers have written in to say moved them to tears, and moved me to tears too as I wrote it.  I love essay writing, and history writing, but every bit of skill I have at it, every hour I’ve put in, I’ve put in for the novels.  “Writing is a long apprenticeship.”  That was the best and most important piece of advice I got from my favorite writing professor when I started college.  He was right, and I took him seriously, wrote every morning for two hours before breakfast, did extra drafts beyond what class required, spent my summers and my breaks taking more writing classes.  Hours and hours and hours.  I love writing nonfiction, and I love writing essays, but it was these stories, the ones I wanted to tell in the novels which kept the fire burning through a long, long apprenticeship.  Too Like the Lightning isn’t an easy book and it’s not for everyone.  It takes a lot of concentration, reading with your brain at your best.   It takes skill at reading genre fiction, at picking out the puzzle pieces of world building and piecing them together, which can be difficult if you aren’t used to reading in the genre.  It takes patience as you watch very complicated things play out as fast as I could make them when you need to know so much to understand.  It takes trust as the narrator and narrative take twists or show idiosyncrasies whose true purpose may not be clear until the end (or until the next book, which comes in December).  I hate spoilers, and hate recommendations that give half the story away, and believe strongly that the very best recommendation is simply “You’ll like it, trust me” from a friend who knows me very well.  So I’m not going to talk about the plot and themes and characters, since Romantic Times does that much that better than I can.  I will just say that this book may be for you, if you like philosophy, and history, and challenging books that really stretch your mind, and new ideas about society and culture, and my essays here are a good sample.  But you have to enjoy and be able to handle challenging world building.  And above all you have to be willing to trust me, the author, that all the threads will come together, and that in the end the tapestry will be beautiful, the kind of tapestry I can only weave if you give me four books, 700,000 words, a lot more time and trust than I have with my essays here. I will absolutely keep writing essays for Ex Urbe (no worries there!), but if you have enjoyed them, then you may enjoy the real work they were practice for.  It comes out in five days; hard to believe it’s real.

Meanwhile, the primary reason it’s been so very long since I wrote a proper Ex Urbe entry is simple: a fire at the end of February drove me from my home. Happily no family members (or books!) were harmed, but the complications of temporary quarters, construction and insurance have eaten the few hours research that already consumed by research and preparing for the book launch.  I’m still struggling my way out from under the to-do mountain that has caused, but as I make my way out Ex Urbe is starting to get toward the top of the pile again, and I’m really, deeply looking forward to finishing the essay I did manage to start in February before fire became more than a metaphor.  Meanwhile I’ll post here when new guest blog pieces go up.  And I’ll try to write another little piece next week to share my feelings when the day comes.  May 10th.  Five days.  So many, many years… five days!

Too Like the Lightning is available through Powell’sBarnes & Noble (also on nook), Amazon, Kobo, Indiebound, Goodreads, and your own wonderful local bookstore which is always great to support!

Meanwhile, for general human edification, here are some photos of fascinating plants with cards explaining their interesting historic uses, which I got to see at the botanical gardens in Sydney Australia, where I was for a conference last month.  (Did I mention I’ve been overwhelmingly busy?)










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.


 Posted by on August 7, 2011  Travel  2 Responses »
Aug 072011

The Arno just before Dusk

Since the number of people who have asked to receive my e-mails from Italy keeps growing beyond my ability to keep track, I’m finally going along with those of you who suggested that it would be simpler to post them online.

This year’s Italian adventure was brought to you by the letter Φ, the number 1417, and the Villa I Tatti Harvard University Institute for Italian Renaissance Studies Fellowship.  Generous support from wealthy, art-loving Harvard alums enables a few early career scholars every year to come to Florence to conduct research on history, art history, musicology etc., using not only Florence’s various libraries but Harvard’s own Berenson library with its collection of primary and secondary sources in English and other languages, not to mention its famous lunches and private vineyard and olive groves.  Scholarship is indeed a tough life.  I am here to conduct research on classical philosophy in the Renaissance (more on that later), so most of my time will be spent in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana and other collections of rare books and manuscripts that contain early (now out-of-date) attempts to summarize the lives of ancient philosophers about whom we know little now, and knew less back then.

I have two earlier batches of Ex Urbe e-mails, from earlier research trips, mainly in 2005-2007.  Over time I hope to polish and post the old letters here as well.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you all enjoy!