The Long View: The Translator

John J. Reilly’s book review of John Crowley’s The Translator comes up at an apropos time: I am digesting a history of science fiction in the twentieth century, and The Translator seems to be a good example of science fiction as a kind of secular scripture.

There is one definition I want to post from 1973, because it is very revealing as to the type of people who made this separation such an obsessive goal to begin with. This is by Bulgarian writer Elka Konstantiova:

"Even though the origins of science fiction go back to the mid-19th century, nonetheless as a new literary genre, charged with special social functions, science fiction is the undoubted product of the nuclear age. The more meaningful the scientific and technological breakthroughs and their impact on modern life, the greater the role of science fiction, stimulating our vision for things to come, especially in the aspect of the changes wrought in man's mentality by the scientific and technological revolution. Science fiction brings home the awareness that the future will continue to bring radical changes in all areas of man's life; science fiction is there to prepare him for this eventuality."

In other words, it's secular scripture. Science fiction is a way to guide the populace by informing them on what path they should take to build a better tomorrow. Which better tomorrow, you might ask? Well, the one that will advance humanity as a whole.

This novel is a metaphorical [or metahistorical] interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus very much fits the mold described above.

The Translator
By John Crowley
HarperCollins, 2002
295 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-380-97862-8

Remember the Great Atomic War of 1963? It's odd that you shouldn't, or so it seemed in later years to Christa Malone, the protagonist in this metahistorical interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"The final logic of this [20th] century, this century that believed in logic and history and necessity, the final spasm so long and well prepared: it didn't happen, and now seemed likely never to happen."

The Translator explains why the inevitable did not happen, as well as something of the conflict in a higher world that the historical incidents of those days darkly reflected. This novel is not the long-awaited fourth volume of John Crowley's great work, the Aegypt series, but it does treat of many of the same themes: the end of the world, the hermetic subtext of everyday life, and the multiplicity of histories. The book is not precisely fantasy or science fiction, though readers may be reminded of Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. Rather, the author tries to use just the suggestion of magic in order to rise above history and show that it is not what it seems. As a technique, that works well enough. However, the exercise also presents an example of the fallacy of "beyondism." Though affecting to view a historical conflict from the point of view of eternity, the author is really picking a side, and the stupid side at that.

A love story holds the novel together. Christa "Kit" Malone, a Catholic girl with a recently acquired dark past, comes to a Midwestern university in 1962. She makes many discoveries, some of them specific to her era. She is, for instance, slightly surprised to find that there really are Communists in America; she had begun to suspect that the nuns at school had make them up as minatory figures. Her chief discovery, though, is a Russian poet-in-exile, the mysterious Innokenti Isayevich Falin.

Falin is an uncanny fellow. He is one of those people, for instance, who seem able to appear and disappear without being seen to come and go. More concretely, there is the persistent question of why the Soviet government chose to exile him, when they did not exile, say, Pasternak. He also tells of a kind of life in the Soviet Union that has nothing to do with either the official world of the "gray gods," to use his phrase, or with the anticommunist polemics Kit heard from her nuns. Falin spent part of his childhood as a homeless vagabond in a Dickensian world of youth gangs and train stations, but "with no Dickens to make things right." Even in later life, Russia for him was a place where people just got lost, or were arrested for no reason even the jailors could name.

Kit becomes Falin's student, and later his translator. A fair amount of this book is about the difficulties of translation from one language to another, about whether a poem in translation is really the same poem. This being a John Crowley novel, however, we soon learn that translation is only a metaphor for the interface of worlds:

"Events in the world can perhaps be like rhyming words in poems: they can only, what would you say, pay off in one world, one translation, not in others. In one world people are cheering and weeping with joy, for best conclusion has been reached, heroes have come home safe. In another world, say this world, same events are events of no significance."

Falin's presence turns out to be of great significance in all worlds, however, because he is the way through which the apocalyptic logic of the 20th century can be confounded. Explaining it to her father long afterwards, Kit puts the reality of the Cold War this way:

"I think that back then, when he came to this country, there was a struggle going on between the angels of the nations, his and ours; and that in their anger and their fear, those angels came to destroy the world..."

Crowley's angels generally have more to do with the angels of the schoolmen than with those of popular comfort. Often they are like mathematical objects, insectile intelligences, both omniscient and stupid. There is more to be said about them, however. The great angels of the nations are attended by lesser angels, almost shadows, which complement their greater brethren's strengths and weaknesses. Falin describes the relationship in a poem written just before his disappearance, on the very night the danger of nuclear war crests and recedes. (There is a fair amount of original poetry in The Translator, and it's pretty good.):

"If a nation's angel is proud, then the other is shy
Brilliant if the nation's angel is dull
Full of pity if the angel shows none
Laughing if it always weeps, weeping if it cannot weep."

In a mysterious way, Falin embodies the lesser angel of Russia. In a wrap-around story set in a conference at St. Petersburg after the end of the Cold War, really a sort of Judgment Day in an afterlife, one of Falin's old friends expresses the real significance of Falin's exile:

"[The] worst thing such a corrupted great angel could do would be to send away into exile the lesser angel who is paired with him."

In some way that is not clearly explained, Falin intrudes himself into the attention of the idiot angels at just the right time to distract them from their work of mutual destruction. He dies, or returns to Russia, or otherwise vanishes, with only a car sunk ambiguously in a river to hint at his fate. The balance of the world begins to right itself, and we are given to understand that John Kennedy's assassination a year later was a compensating sacrifice.

The Translator reworks a notion that Crowley has been using for years. It is clearly set out in his famous story, The Great Work of Time, in which a disconcerted time traveler has this to say about an early 21st century world whose past has been unduly tinkered with:

"It was not simply a world inhabited by intelligent races of different kinds: it was a harder thing to grasp than that. The lives of the races constituted different universes of meaning, different constructions of reality; it was as though four or five different novels, novels of different kinds by different and differently limited writers, were to become interpenetrated and conflated: inside a gigantic Russian thing a stark and violent policier, inside that something Dickensian, full of plots, humor, and eccentricity. Such an interlacing of mutually exclusive universes might be comical, like a sketch in Punch; it might be tragic, too. And it might be neither: it might simply be what is the given against which all airy imaginings might finally be measured: reality."

This is not a bad way to put a story together, though we usually find it only in very long novels. The conceit of alternative realities lets us see the box-in-a-box structure. However, The Translator shows that this kind of structure is not necessarily a good way to think about history, or at any rate to write about it. If we can see the alternative worlds, we are outside them and can judge between them. The problem is that, in Crowley's telling, the view from eternity is awfully parochial. We get the first hint of this when Falin the Lesser Angel expresses reservations about a commencement speech that called on the graduates to simply "stick to your dream":

"Some dreams we do not wish that people stick to: we hope that they are weak, and do not cling to these dreams, that they fail to hold on. A dream that one day this world will be free of Jews. That Soviet Union will be destroyed. That all enemies of the state will be crushed. That only one God prevail everywhere."

One might plausibly object that these four aspirations do not belong on the same list. Indeed, it could be that anyone who thinks them morally equivalent is not unusually broadminded, but suffers from blinkered vision. In fact, as the story moves through the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we see that the view from eternity is essentially that of the early New Left. Kit learns that the sepia undergraduate world of the Kennedy years is a front for cruel and secret powers, as if the Land of Oz were really ruled by the East German Stasi. She even meets America's own lesser angel, in the person of an "intelligence agent" who could have walked out of an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. (He could not have come from The X-Files: Crowley does get the period right.) This discovery changes her life, even causing her to leave the country for a while. Eventually, though, she comes to grips with the powers that be:

"It was only when others who were braver than she was stood up to it - to them, to the secret power - gave a name to it, spoke truth to it; only when they came out in thousands and then tens of thousands singing Dona nobis pacem, that she found she could too."

It is perhaps some evidence that people really do live in different realities that I found this transformation so shocking. Could it really be the case that, even today, there are people who think that conversion to the New Left was a kind of enlightenment? Evidently, there is a world in which the victory of the West in the Cold War was an event without a rhyme.

Even so, it would be a mistake to miss this book because you might not find the political subtext congenial. The Translator succeeds in portraying the days of "The New Frontier" as the haunted time it actually was, as full of premonition in its way as the years before 1914. One need not be metaphysically inclined to accept that there may be more to history than meets the eye. For those who are so inclined, this book has good and bad angels for all.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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Underlord Book Review

Underlord: Cradle Book 6
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (March 1, 2019)

If you have been following along with the Cradle series, you will have a pretty good idea of what to expect by now. Our young protagonist, Wei Shi Lindon Arelius, will have adventures, face insurmountable odds, and advance his Path. Wight has got a good thing going here, and he sticks to what works. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: these books are just fun. But I want to stop a moment and look at why it works. Indulge me.

And work it does. When Underlord released on March 1st, 2019, it rose at least as high as #5 on Amazon’s Kindle store, and maybe higher. Wight doesn’t run any sort of amazing social media campaign, his books mostly sell by word of mouth and through the praises of reviews like this one. His release schedule helps, you don’t have to wait years in between installments. But I think this is good evidence that Wight gives his readers what they want. What they [I] want is a good story, and Wight does that.

Fresh off of reading J. D. Cowan’s multi-part review of Sam J. Lundwell's Science Fiction: An Illustrated History, I have a new appreciation for just how good the Cradle series is, and new gratitude to Will Wight for writing the things I like to read. In particular, I learned something about just what it is I like about stories like this. Lindon needed insight into himself in order to advance, and in much the same way I needed insight in what makes a story good in order to be able to understand my own tastes.

One of the things I learned from Cowan’s review is that science fiction isn’t really a genre. In fact, debates about what is or isn’t science fiction tend to get bogged down, because the usual definitions don’t cut nature at the joints. By analogy, what is usually called fantasy isn’t a genre either. Cowan proposes instead that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all subgenres of adventure fiction, which is meant to evoke the emotion of wonder in the reader.

Wonder is a trait from adventure fiction and its subgenres fantasy and horror. It is the adventure of exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities.

This was the insight that I needed, because now I can understand what I like, and what I don’t. There is an irreducible element of personal taste in all of our entertainment, but I learned that adventure fiction is the kind that I like to read, precisely because the emotion of wonder is what I am after. There are lots of books labeled as sci fi or fantasy that I don’t like, but this is because genre, the emotion meant to be evoked, has been confused with milieu, or setting.

In the sense that I mean the term, setting a story in the future doesn’t make it science fiction. Swords and dragons don’t make a book fantasy either. If the emotion the author is trying to invoke in me is despair or rage, I don’t really want to read that book, no matter what trappings it has. I finally understand why Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance. He was connecting his work with an older tradition, not inventing a new one.

Wight’s books work for me because he is taking me on an adventure! I see the remarkable world of Cradle: Iteration 110 though Lindon’s eyes, and I get to see him grow up as he learns about the marvelous world in which he finds himself. The speculative fiction element is subdued, but not wholly absent. The focus here is on Lindon and his journey, rather than exactly what kind of society you would get if we lived in a simulation and cheat codes were enabled. There is just enough thought given to the structure and sociology to make it plausible. Everything else is about fun.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Will Wight

Cradle Series:

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5 Review

Traveler’s Gate series:

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

The Crimson Vault: Traveler's Gate Book 2 Review

City of Light: Traveler's Gate Book 3 Review

Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

The Long View 2007-01-09: Anti-Freeze Life; Ethical Racket; Charles Fort Lives; Towards Universal Health Care; Steyn on Russia

John Reilly had a minor sideline in Fortean phenomena, named after Charles Fort, strange and uncanny events sometimes described as being outside of what science can explain, but often better seen as low frequency events that are difficult to describe. In that vein, the recent juvenile humpback whale found in a mangrove swamp in Brazil is an excellent example. Not quite far enough from the water to be truly inexplicable, but strange nonetheless.

Small whale in Mangrove forest

Small whale in Mangrove forest

There is also a line in this post which I’ve thought about for a long time, and I think I finally understand what is going on.

If the California system is implemented, we can expect it to work better than the plans in the New England states, for the simple reason that California has a younger population. There are more workers to support the system. Still, I do not expect any of the state plans to be altogether satisfactory. As I have remarked before, health insurance may follow the pattern of bank-deposit insurance. That had been tried in a few states in the early 20th century, but the insurance systems kept collapsing because the the risk pools were not big enough. As an afterthought, Franklin Roosevelt included mandatory national deposit insurance among the bank reforms at the beginning of his administration. To everyone's surprise, the insurance restored popular confidence in the banks immediately.

John thought that the difficulty with universal healthcare systems in the United States was that the risk pool wasn’t big enough. That never seemed quite right to me, but it took a long time to figure out why. There are plenty of healthcare systems in the world that cover smaller and older populations than many US states. For example, in 2005, Sweden had just over 9 million resident. Massachusetts at the time had about 6.4 million. It is at least conceivable that the extra 2.5 million people would make the difference, until you look at the population pyramids.

Massachusetts population pyramid 2000  By No machine-readable author provided. WarX assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5,

Massachusetts population pyramid 2000

By No machine-readable author provided. WarX assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5,

Population Pyramid of Sweden 2016  By Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). - CIA World Factbook, 2017., Public Domain,

Population Pyramid of Sweden 2016

By Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). - CIA World Factbook, 2017., Public Domain,

Massachusetts is relatively younger, even though smaller. In theory, this should make your healthcare system, especially if seen in the insurance model, work better. However, universal healthcare didn’t work out as well in Massachusetts as it does in Sweden, because it cost more than expected. Pseudonymous blogger Random Critical Analysis provided me with the reason why: Americans spend much more on health care than Swedes because we are a lot richer, and people don’t understand this and keep being surprised.

John Reilly always insisted that healthcare wasn’t a right, but rather a matter of public order, but I think he was missing some critical quantitative details that would have really made his case better.

Anti-Freeze Life; Ethical Racket; Charles Fort Lives; Towards Universal Health Care; Steyn on Russia

We can probably bet against this ingenious speculation:

Two NASA space probes that visited Mars 30 years ago may have stumbled upon alien microbes on the Red Planet and inadvertently killed them, a scientist theorizes in a paper released Sunday....Dirk Schulze-Makuch...a geology professor at Washington State University. ...In the '70s, the Viking mission found no signs of life. But it was looking for Earth-like life, in which salt water is the internal liquid of living cells. Given the cold dry conditions of Mars, that life could have evolved on Mars with the key internal fluid consisting of a mix of water and hydrogen peroxide, said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, author of the new research.

Perhaps the paper addresses this issue, but there are many places on Earth where an anti-freeze biochemistry would be very useful, yet we do not find it here. That strongly suggests it is not possible.

* * *

When I see this kind of story (from the LA Times, in this case), I think "racket:"

Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation:

Ebocha, Nigeria — Justice Eta, 14 months old, held out his tiny thumb.

An ink spot certified that he had been immunized against polio and measles, thanks to a vaccination drive supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But polio is not the only threat Justice faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it "the cough." People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Could someone be gingering up a law suit against the foundation, or are we dealing here with honest idiocy?

* * *

Fortean phenomena should stay off the frontpages, but we have had a flurry of prominent ones in the past few days. Yesterday we had the Manhattan gas incident that interrupted some underground train service and caused buildings to be evacuated, plus the bird die-off that closed much of Houston. That brazen (as in "bold," not "made of bronze") UFO actually visited O'Hare in November, but we heard about only last week. The odds are that all these things, including the UFO, probably were caused by weather conditions that really are unique in our not-very-extensive records.

Regarding the gas smell, I could hear the fire department vehicles looking for the source here in Jersey City, but I could not smell it: I'm getting over a cold.

On the other hand, National Public Radio saw fit to advise its listeners of this development:

Poems, songs, and stories praising Saddam and lamenting his death are popping up all over Arab Internet sites. A few mosques in Baghdad announced that an image of his face could be seen on the moon, and people spilled into the streets this week for a glimpse of their former leader in the night skies.

It's much too early in the year for Silly Season stories.

* * *

In the realm of sober public policy, we see that Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed a state health-care system that would add California to Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont as states that require universal coverage. The plan looks plausible, but I note that almost half the funding would come from new federal money to which the state believes it would be entitled under existing federal rules. I am not pleased that at least some of the funding would also come from new payroll taxes, but that could be a wash in terms of the business climate, since a state with universal coverage is going to be a more attractive place to work. The great red herring in the debate over the Schwarzenegger Plan is going to be its coverage of illegals. The objections to that rather miss the point of the exercise: this is a matter of public order, not social generosity.

If the California system is implemented, we can expect it to work better than the plans in the New England states, for the simple reason that California has a younger population. There are more workers to support the system. Still, I do not expect any of the state plans to be altogether satisfactory. As I have remarked before, health insurance may follow the pattern of bank-deposit insurance. That had been tried in a few states in the early 20th century, but the insurance systems kept collapsing because the the risk pools were not big enough. As an afterthought, Franklin Roosevelt included mandatory national deposit insurance among the bank reforms at the beginning of his administration. To everyone's surprise, the insurance restored popular confidence in the banks immediately.

* * *

Even the House of the Seven Gables demographics of New England looks perky compared to that of Russia, as Mark Steyn recently noted:

The Toronto Star (which is Canada’s biggest-selling newspaper and impeccably liberal) recently noted that by 2015 Muslims will make up a majority of Russia’s army...

The Litvinenko murder is only the first of many stories in which Islam, nuclear materials and Russian decline will intersect in novel ways.

Which brings me, alas, to the Iraq Study Group. This silly shallow report, of which James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the rest should be ashamed, betrays no understanding of how fast events are moving. It falls back on the usual multilateral mood music....By 2050, Russia will be the umpteenth Muslim nuclear power, but the first with a permanent seat on the UNSC. Or maybe the second, if France gets there first....forget the extrapolations: already, domestic Muslim constituencies are an important factor in the foreign policy thinking of three out of the big five. Are Baker and Hamilton even aware of that?

I suspect that France will be the first European country to pull out of the deathspiral. The question is how much discontinuity there will be with mid-20th century liberal modernity. In Russia the problem is more serious, but Russia has fewer inhibitions to overcome in order to solve them.

Now that was a scary sentence.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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Dragon and Thief Book Review

Dragon and Thief: Dragonback book 1
by Timothy Zahn
231 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)

The Dragonback series is a what they now call a YA [Young Adult] series, but I still like the older designation of a juvenile novel, since I grew up with it, and also because a lot of what is branded as YA seems like utter crap. Here is what Jerry Pournelle had to say in 2011 about juveniles:

I followed Robert Heinlein’s rules on ‘juveniles’ when I wrote it: no sex scenes, and as Robert used to say, a juvenile has young protagonists and you can put in more science and explanations of what’s going on in juvenile works; which is to say it’s a good story, and has always appealed to adults as well as to the 10 – 15 year olds it was sort of written for.

I like re-posting Jerry’s re-iteration of Heinlein’s definition because I find that my appreciation for a well-done juvenile novel only grows with time. I am of course influenced by having small children that I want to share stories with, but I also just like this kind of story, and I have for a long time. Something that is truly only fit for children cannot really be a juvenile novel in this sense, because the author needs to craft something as interesting to adults as to teenagers. A good juvenile is also mildly didactic, which fits well in the general hard sci fi mold. In this case, Zahn’s juvenile series is less about some useful aspect of science than about a young man learning what it means to be a good man after growing up as the orphan apprentice of a con man and a thief.

The hook which sets this series in motion is our young protagonist, Jack Morgan, stumbling across the wreckage of an unfamiliar starship. Within, he finds a lone survivor, desperate and near death. That survivor is dying precisely because he is alone. The K’Da are interdimensional symbionts. Draycos can push himself into three-dimensional space for brief periods, but in order to rest he must allow himself to relax by becoming two-dimensional on the surface of a compatible host. Unfortunately, his host, and all the other crew of his ship, were killed either in battle or in the subsequent crash.

Lacking recourse, Draycos gambles his life upon the possibility that Jack may provide the sanctuary he needs. Gathering his failing strength, he jumps! Zahn will likely have a lot of fun working out the implications of what this means over the next five novels in this series, but for now, Jack Morgan has gained an impressive tattoo/traveling companion with fierce claws and a strong sense of justice.

After this unlikely meeting, Jack and Draycos find that their lives are entwined in more ways than either initially suspects. Jack, despite [or because of?] his past life of crime, is hiding on this desolate planet because he has been unjustly accused of a crime. Draycos and his former crewmates were there seeking a new home, refugees of the losing side of an interstellar war. Somehow, this all hangs together, and part of the fun is finding out how and why.

Jack and Draycos immediately find themselves in each other’s debt, for Jack saves Draycos from dimensional dissolution, and Draycos returns the favor by saving Jack from the mercenary soldier prowling about the crashed ship looking for survivors, or witnesses. Fear and necessity bind them together initially, but the rest of the book, and presumably the following books in the series, are about Jack and Draycos learning about one another while trying to unravel the mystery in which they find themselves entangled.

The structure of Dragon and Thief is primarily a caper, as Jack uses his apprenticeship in crime to good advantage. This makes the novel rather fun, as we get to see Jack and Draycos bluff and scam their way through various adventures. However, Draycos himself makes for an interesting contrast, because his rather grand sense of honor is a continual foil for Jack’s primarily self-serving survival skills.

Jack is simultaneously fascinated and annoyed by Draycos, who like a knight of old, is fierce in battle, but he will not press an unfair advantage or abandon a fallen enemy in distress. Draycos, for his part, is occasionally appalled by Jack’s instincts, but mostly sees their fortuitous meeting as an opportunity to set Jack back on the straight and narrow in recompense for saving his life.

The interplay between them, mediated by the ship’s AI which houses the memory of the con man who raised Jack, is what raises this from an entertaining caper novel to a disquisition in very very applied ethics. The stakes in the story are dramatically high, but the basic questions are more fundamental: do you help someone because you expect recompense, or simply because it is the right thing to do? Do you defend yourself with maximum ruthlessness and force, because your enemies will not deign to extend you the same consideration, or do you seek the minimum of force which will allow you some measure of safety? Who can you really trust? And what hidden agendas lie behind offers of help and good intentions?

Since this is a juvenile novel, and not a work of historical fiction or political intrigue, these questions receive relatively straight forward answers. Which is in my opinion appropriate for the intended audience. At some point, harder questions and harder answers need to be proposed and given, but the result will be better built upon a foundation like this. It is far too easy to drift into nihilism otherwise.

I really liked this book, and I recommend it to fans of adventure fiction and juvenile novels in the Heinlein mold. You can pick the first three of six volumes up on Amazon right now for $2.99 USD, which is a great deal. I’ve got reviews coming of volumes two and three, so don’t fret.

My other book reviews

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review


Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Blackcollar series:
The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

The Long View 2007-01-05: Goddard, Mahdi, Climate, Anti-McCain

John J. Reilly proposed this scheme of immigration reform once before:

(1) Physical control of the borders;

(2) Legal immigration restricted to family reunification and political asylum;

(3) Amnesty with parallel tracks for repatriation or naturalization

He intended it as a compromise in the name of domestic peace, even knowing that 1) and 2) would be opposed from the Left, and 2) and 3) from the Right, but he hoped that a broad enough centrist coalition might go for all three. John was of the opinion that America was almost unique in the world in its ability to accept and assimilate new arrivals, but thought it worked best when you took the pressure of continual change away. I suspect this is not the moment for such a thing, based upon poll data.

Goddard, Mahdi, Climate, Anti-McCain

Jeff Bezos is a member of the class of optimates who aspire to become The Man Who Sold the Moon, an ambition that has, perhaps, been advanced by last year's successful testflight of the Goddard -- a first development vehicle in the New Shepard program of his Blue Origin spaceflight company.

The you can find a video of the brief flight by following the link above. For me, at least, the bluntly conical Goddard does not inspire confidence: it's more like an unusually dangerous helicopter than a spaceship. Nonetheless, my hopes for Blue Origin rose when I saw its logo:

The Latin motto, Gradatim Ferociter, lends its self to whimsical translations, such as "Madly Methodical," but the party-line version is "Courageously Step-by-Step," and that will do fine. I am a great fan of tortoises, and here we have two of them.

* * *

Persons who need to add Doomsday to their datebook will be interested to learn that the Mahdi will reveal himself around the time of the spring equinox (though not necessarily this spring's equinox), if we believe this information from Iran:

In our discussion of the world in the last days of the earth we had said in our previous editions of this programme that no source has pointed to the exact date when the Savior will appear and only God knows about the exact timing of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (AS). The Prophet had said: He will certainly appear and if only a day were to be left to the end of the world God will make that day so long for Mahdi to appear and rise. There are various versions of the exact day of his reappearance. Some say it would be Friday and the date will be Ashura or the 10th of Moharram, the heart-rending martyrdom anniversary of his illustrious ancestor, Imam Husain (AS). Others say the date will be the 25th of the month of Zil-Qa’dah and may coincide with the Spring Equinox or Nowrooz as the Iranians call. A saying attributed to the Prophet’s 6th infallible heir, Imam Ja’far Sadeq (PBUH) says the Mahdi will appear on the Spring Equinox and God will make him defeat Dajjal the Impostor or the anti-Christ as the Christians say, who will be hanged near the dump of Kufa. The 6th Imam goes on to add: There will be no Nowrooz when we will not be waiting for him.

As I have noted previously, there was a medieval opinion that the Second Coming of Jesus would occur on March 25. The Second Coming of Jesus, by the way, is also a feature of Islamic eschatology, even in those versions that do not include the Mahdi.

Be that as it may, I find the notion of the world ending in early spring terribly counter-intuitive. In contrast, for the end to come on a blazing summer afternoon, as in On the Beach, would make perfect dramatic sense, but no one consults me about these things.

* * *

Speaking of dubious Doomsdays, I note with grave displeasure the recent reports that Monsoon records link demise of the Tang in China and Maya in Mexico:

They lived in resplendence, half a world apart, before meeting their respective downfalls within decades of one another. Now a new theory suggests that the decline of the Tang Dynasty in China and that of the Mayan civilization in Mexico may both have been due to the same worldwide drought.

Sediments collected from Lake Huguang Maar in southeastern China suggest that Asian summer monsoon rains were weaker during the eighth and ninth centuries AD, the time during which the Tang Dynasty faded from glory. And intriguingly, the same pattern is seen in sediments from Cariaco basin off the Venezuelan coast, suggesting that a similar drought might have been occurring in nearby Mexico...

The events may both be the result of a southward shift in rain patterns that deprived the entire northern tropics of summer rains, suggest researchers led by Gerald Haug of Germany's National Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. The hardship caused by this drought could have been a key factor in the declines of the two cultures, they suggest.

I have been reading conjectures like this for as long as I can remember. With very few exceptions, the climatic explanation has proven to be a dead end. As a rule, within the era of civilizations, climate explains nothing.

Consider the vast disparity between the events that are "explained" by this particular determinist pastorale. The Mayan Classical civilization disappeared like Cinderella's coach, leaving only six white mice and a library of creeper-covered glyphs. In China, there was a change of regime, but Chinese civilization was not threatened. The weather while these things were going on became part of the material of history, in rather the way that theatrical directors take up current events and fashions when they stage a production of a classic. These features do not, however, determine the plot.

* * *

Regarding 2008: Mark Steyn bids fair to become the ideologist for a new kind of conservatism. However, we see that he has set his face against the candidacy of Senator John McCain:

MS: Well, I think he's very thin-skinned. I think that is what was clear to me in 2000. I actually regard him as a very unpleasant man, and I don't say that lightly. There's a lot of politicians who are sort of angry and slightly deranged. Al Gore, for example, when you see him campaign, certainly the last couple of years, seems to have pretty much flown the coop. And when I saw Al Gore at close quarters campaigning, one could recognize the sort of human side to him. McCain, I think, is a very different kettle of fish. I think he is someone who is very thin-skinned, very vain, and has a sort of cavalier attitude to big questions, particularly Constitutional questions. So I think he is someone who in fact, the more you know him, the less you warm to the idea of having him...I said rather, I said at one point, you know, he'd be our version of President Ahmadinejad, the crazy guy with his finger on the nuclear button. And I think there's actually quite a bit of truth in that.

The gravamen of Steyn's complaint is plainly false: we know what looney senators look like, and nothing in McCain's history fits that description. The bit about Ahmadinejad is particularly excessive: readers will be reminded of the "diagnosis" published in 1964 and signed by numerous psychiatrists which said that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was insane. Steyn's chief problem with McCain seems to be that McCain is, more or less, an open-borders Republican. Actually, considering McCain's background in the restaurant business, his attitude toward cheap labor is not surprising. If he wants to be president, he will have to not just receive the memo on this issue, but also initial it.

At this writing, it does look as if immigration is going to be the issue on which both sides of the political establishment will founder. The new Democratic Congress is likely to abandon plans for the border wall, a dereliction in which they will be abetted by their Republican minority colleagues, even as the region on the other side of the border slides into infectious chaos. Meanwhile, some state governments seem intent on suppressing local enforcement of the existing immigration laws.

What are the elements of a workable immigration policy? One more time:

(1) Physical control of the borders;

(2) Legal immigration restricted to family reunification and political asylum;

(3) Amnesty with parallel tracks for repatriation or naturalization

None of this is hard, but does anyone consult me?

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-02: Overdiagnosis; Literature Maps; Starship Jesus Conversion from Islam; Spengler's Deal; Shabby Hanging

I do agree with John here that our diagnostic tools often don’t improve health, and that the definitions of “disease” are often too broad, but I disagree about why healthcare doesn’t do much as you might think to improve our health. I definitely don’t blame administrative costs, although I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find something to cut there, it wouldn’t make healthcare in the US cost half as much. Universities are another matter.

Overdiagnosis; Literature Maps;
Starship Jesus Conversion from Islam; Spengler's Deal; Shabby Hanging

The smartest thing anyone has said in years about the US health-care system appears in an editorial in today's New York Times by members of the VA Outcomes Group of White River Junction, Vt.:

For most Americans, the biggest health threat is...our health-care system..more and more of us are being drawn into the system not because of an epidemic of disease, but because of an epidemic of diagnoses...First, advanced technology allows doctors to look really hard for things to be wrong. ...These technologies make it possible to give a diagnosis to just about everybody: arthritis in people without joint pain, stomach damage in people without heartburn and prostate cancer in over a million people who, but for testing, would have lived as long without being a cancer patient...Second, the rules are changing. Expert panels constantly expand what constitutes disease: thresholds for diagnosing diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and obesity have all fallen in the last few years. The criterion for normal cholesterol has dropped multiple times. With these changes, disease can now be diagnosed in more than half the population.

It's perfectly true: doctors will keep ordering tests no matter your physical condition until you tell them to stop. This practice is particularly pernicious in the case of the trusting and fragile elderly. That's half the explanation for the runaway insurance costs. The other half is bloated and duplicative (and triplicative) administration.

* * *

And if we must do tests, the best personality test I know of is to look at the books in the subject's home library. We soon learn that certain books belong in the same bookcase. Now comes Marek Gidney and his ingenious literature map, essentially a search engine where you input the name of an author and then see what other people who read that author are likely to read. (There are parallel engines for film and music). If this engine to be believed (and we should take it no more seriously than the "recommended books" feature at Amazon), communities of taste are not what we supposed. For instance, there is strangely little overlap between the readership of JRR Tolkien and that of CS Lewis. Tolkien fans favor high-concept science fiction; CS Lewis, to judge by this search engine, is read mostly as a devotional author. I also see that, if you read William Shakespeare, then quite likely you also read HP Lovecraft.

* * *

I don't believe it literally true that there are Millions of Muslims Converting to Christianity, but the reports to that effect multiply:

Around a million believed in Jesus over the past decade in Egypt. The Egyptian Bible Society used to sell about 3,000 copies of the JESUS film a year in the early 1990s. But last year they sold 600,000 copies, plus 750,000 copies of the Bible on tape (in Arabic) and about a half million copies of the Arabic New Testament. "Egyptians are increasingly hungry for God's Word," an Egyptian Christian leader told.

Does anyone have any hard information about this? And if so, why haven't you told me? What don't you want me to know?

* * *

Asia Times Spengler, seeking, no doubt, to annoy me in particular, suggests in his latest that President Bush's fortunes could be about to improve so dramatically that yet another Bush might successfully be elected to the White House in the near future:

[B]rother Jeb, about to step down as governor of the state of Florida, will be elected president of the United States in 2008, thanks in large measure to the rebound of the current president's standing.

For one thing, Spengler notes, the US position in the world is far better than the political class in advanced countries have reason to admit:

Asians cannot earn money to be saved without selling to the American consumer, and they cannot invest their savings except in United States. ...For all America's embarrassment in Iraq, none of its fundamental interests is impaired by Iraq's misery.

The real problem in that part of the world, as Spengler exhorts us every other Monday, is Iran:

There is no point negotiating with the present regime in Teheran...

This is because the current regime there knows its oil exporting period is nearly over, but has dealt with that fact by turning to apocalyptic fantasy. In contrast, we are told, China and Russia will pursue their real interests with sober good sense:

Securing Russian and Chinese cooperation with US strategic objectives, I believe, is a far simpler proposition than is portrayed in the myth of US imperial decline...

China must settle perhaps 15 million rural migrants in cities each year, while building infrastructure and employment in the interior and correcting urgent environmental problems. To do this, China requires stability and predictability in its foreign economic relations.

What does Russia want? Stability on its borders, often at the expense of the aspirations of peoples who have the misfortune to occupy the Russian near abroad, and a free hand in arranging the economic affairs of the Russian state.

According to Spengler, the US should and will drop its fancy notions about spreading democracy universally, but especially in the Russian Near Abroad. Similarly, the US should let it be known that it will stop pestering China about the yuan-dollar exchange rate. Then, Spengler assures us, the US would have all possible options for dealing with Iran, some of them much better than a speculative strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Henry Kissinger believed during the Vietnam War that the Soviet Union was offering to give the United States a free hand in Vietnam, even to invading and overthrowing the government in the North, if the US would acquiesce in a preemptive Soviet strike against China. Then Secretary of State Kissinger and President Nixon showed the proposal no favor.

In this they did wisely. Deals of this sort are like multilevel marketing schemes. They sound like good idea, but they aren't.

* * *

Speaking of impending atrocities, Anthony Sacramone at First Things has alerted an incredulous world to this project:

In this month’s Empire magazine Paul Verhoeven opened up about his upcoming project based, perhaps surprisingly, on the life of Jesus.

Verhoeven is a director with many films to his credit, but he holds a special place in the hearts of Heinlein fans for his 1997 adaptation of Starship Troopers. Anyone who is familiar with both the Heinlein story and the movie knows that we need not take Paul Verhoeven seriously about any book in the world.

* * *

Mark Steyn has some cutting things to say about the recent execution of Saddam Hussein, but not least about the official European reaction to it. We read:

According to a poll published in Le Monde, the majority of Spaniards, Germans, French and British were all in favor of executing Saddam. ...When Die Zeit and The Times and all the rest say that "Europe" condemns the death of Saddam, what they mean is that a narrow, remote, self-insulating politico-media elite condemns it....Whatever one's views on capital punishment, that's not what it's about. Hardcore dictatorships have to be not just politically but psychologically liberated. When one man is so murderously powerful, incarceration cannot suffice - because as long as he lives there will always be the possibility that he will return. ...

On the other hand, the hanging was not all we might have wished:

Unfortunately, when the US handed him over to the Iraqi authorities, the "authorities" did their best to look entirely unauthorized. Saddam was dispatched in some dingy low-ceilinged windowless room of one of his old secret-police torture joints by a handful of goons in ski masks and black leather jackets.

Steyn suggests that someone from the US embassy, or at least the military, should have been on hand to advise on the proper protocol. To that suggestion, I reply that the execution really was not supposed to be public. American executions these days are normally short on pomp and circumstance, too.

On the other hand, the addition of the ceremonial of public executions to the education of the diplomatic corps would add a whole new dimension to Foreign Service School.

Thank you
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---John J. Reilly

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Best of C. L. Moore Book Review

The Best of C. L. Moore
by C. L. Moore
452 pages
Published by Diversion Books (September 22, 2015)

Catherine Lucille Moore  By Source, Fair use,

Catherine Lucille Moore

By Source, Fair use,

I had heard of Catherine Lucille Moore, but this was my first exposure to her work. I saw this collection of her short stories come on sale on Amazon, so I decided to give it a try.

In my typical fashion for a short story collection, I’ll do a short review of each story, and then look at the collection as a whole.

Shambleau *****

Not only is this story my introduction to Moore’s work in general, it is my introduction to one of her most famous characters, Northwest Smith. N.W., as his partner-in-crime Yarol calls him, is very much the anti-hero. I call him an anti-hero insofar as he doesn’t particularly demonstrate the chivalry of other nearly contemporaneous characters like the Geste brothers. However, I think you could almost as accurately call him a hero, if the hero you have in mind is someone like Odysseus.

Northwest Smith is a pirate and a smuggler, a desperado of renown. Like Odysseus, he is cast adrift from his home. He definitely shoots first and then neglects to ask any questions. He is happy to lie to your face and then rob you blind. He is not, however, a force of random destruction, he just is wholly out for himself. In the pre-Christian moral universe of the Homeric Greeks, N. W. would have fit right in. However, he does not actually live in that moral universe, but in one whose foundation is Christianity, which is a thematic element we will return to later.

In addition, the story itself is a re-working of Greek legend, but with an eldritch horror element that feels quite natural here. Greek myth itself doesn’t have the existential dread of living in a universe that contains many things older than, more powerful than, and also indifferent at best to man, but it readily compatible with it. The Greek Gods were anthropomorphic, but often cruel and indifferent. However, the real monsters do not even rise to that level.

“Shambleau” uses the venerable conceit that old stories often contain a gem of truth. Stories in this vein treat their subjects as not at all metaphorical. With suspension of disbelief, such a story can be strange and frightening because you can imagine it to be mostly true. Many of my favorite authors have recycled myth and history to great effect, and Moore does an excellent job here. Even more remarkable, since this was her first commercial sale. “Shambleau” is one of the stories almost everyone talks about when speaking of C. L. Moore’s work, and I think it a remarkable piece. I can see why Moore had such a long career and so much influence on other authors.

Black Thirst ***

Whereas “Shambleau” had a touch of eldritch horror, “Black Thirst” is quite simply Lovecraftian. This is the second Northwest Smith tale, and in typical planetary romance fashion, it is set on a young and torrid Venus, whereas “Shambleau” was set on an old and dusty Mars.

This story gave off a pretty strong Tim Powers vibe for me. Powers’ early novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, in particular. The antagonist of “Black Thirst”, the Alendar, has a likeness to Powers’ Norton Jaybush. Most of Powers’ protagonists are nothing like Northwest Smith however.

Unfortunately, while this possible connection is intriguing to me, I started to lose steam on the collection here. “Black Thirst” is very much in the vein of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. I liked the John Carter stories well enough, but not enough to read again, so I found more of the same unispiring. Not even the Lovecraftian element was good enough, since it was more of a mood than a repetition of Lovecraft’s peculiar way with words.

Mantorok – The Corpse God

Mantorok – The Corpse God

The Bright Illusion **

“The Bright Illusion” is the weakest story in this collection. I might actually have given up here, but I am glad that I did not. My best description of this is Lovecraft in spaaaace! It features a human coerced into serving as an agent in a titanic battle between two beings so great in power and majesty they are worshiped as gods, although they are nothing of the sort.

Except, this story ends on a curiously hopeful note, which in the hands of lesser author would have been merely schmaltzy. We get “Love conquers all” mixed up with “There are fates worse than death”, but I am most fascinated by the way in which this is used to illustrate the fundamental inadequacy of the victor of the titanic battle of the “gods”, who is forced to admit that the worst it can actually do is kill you.

This is curiously not like Lovecraft, and piqued my interest despite the overall weakness of the story compared to the rest.

This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

Black Kiss *****

“Black Kiss” was the story that rescued the whole collection for me. It helped that I stumbled upon a recently written blog post, Fandom: An Illustrative History (Part I: Origins and Tales From the Crypt). This blog post illuminated Moore’s work in particular, and my love of science fiction in general.

The blog post has a lot of sci-fi inside baseball that need not detain us here, but this part stuck out to me:

The Gothic is the beating bloody heart in any good traditional romance story and is what gives it the universal core so needed in fiction. White against black. Dark against Light. Hero against Villain. Eternal Life against Endless Death. Temptation against Virtue. It goes beyond the surface into weighty themes of the Ultimate, God, and True Justice. The knowledge of a battle between forces beyond both parties at play that haunt the scenery and the overall world behind the story. It underpins every action and decision, and the thought that salvation or damnation is a stone throw away is the most nail-biting experience of them all. Now those are stakes, and they were an integral part of all fiction until the second half of the 20th century where the worst thing that can happen to you is that a monster might kill you in the dark where you can't see it.

The term romance, as used here and in my own musings above, echos the sense in which J. R. R. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance, by which he, and I, means a story of heroism and adventure and wonder. This was a development of the earlier chanson de geste, such as the Song of Roland. Not a bodice-ripper, although you might actually be confused if you search of images of Jirel of Joiry. I picked the one image I found that matched the story best.

The moral universe of Jirel is explicitly a Christian one. Defeated, and in extremis, Jirel seeks the possibility of a weapon beyond mortal ken in the bowels of her castle. She has previously explored the forbidden passage with her chaplain, but now she disregards his entirely sensible advice to turn back and she descends into a strikingly imagined Hell to exact vengeance. Jirel reaches a point where she can progress no further without discarding the Crucifix she wears about her neck. She proceeds.

I have no idea what Moore’s beliefs, or personal life, were really like. But at the distance of 85 years, what struck me was she simply assumed her readers would understand the peril in which Jirel was placing herself. If you don’t think there are fates worse than death, this story won’t make any sense at all. The stakes are not death, but damnation.

Jirel finds that which she seeks in that mysterious tunnel under her castle. But what we seek, and what we really want, often aren’t truly the same things. Moore’s denouement is so characteristically feminine that I don’t know how to properly do it justice, other than to say that the image I selected for this short story is simply perfect, and all the others are irrelevant cheesecake.

I am also almost certain that Tim Powers lifted parts of this story into his works, particularly The Drawing of the Dark. There is a scene in “Black Kiss” with a spiral tunnel that Jirel transits, and Powers wrote of a spiral staircase under a brewery in Vienna that his protagonist descended to seek power, claustrophobically close. Once I saw the similarity here, I couldn’t unsee it in other places too.

A Tryst in Time ***

A time travel/reincarnation/love story. I was impressed with how well Moore blended the masculine adventure elements with star-crossed lovers. Not exactly my thing, but well-imagined.

Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s   Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.    More information about this image:

Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s

Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.

More information about this image:

Greater than Gods ****

This short story feels to me like something written much later, for example Ballard’s work, with its elements of science run amok and managerial expertise turning into despotism. On the other hand, Heinlein’s first published story came out the same year as this, 1939, and Heinlein’s work is often similar to “Greater than Gods”.

Due to an accident in converging time streams, a scientist finds himself thrust upon the horns of a dilemma. In one future, his choice of a wife means that a pacifist, matriarchal, and quite stagnant society will occur. There is no more war, but no more technology or drive either, and that society’s grip on prosperity is slowly slipping away. In the other future, the other woman he is considering proposing to will bear him a son, who will beget a long line of sons who will dominate the Earth, and far, far beyond. This society is militaristic and regimented, but also capable of genuinely great things.

At this distance in time, I am fascinated by the dilemma Moore gives us. Today, no one could possibly propose this as a genuine dilemma in literature. I don’t think it could be done, because even I feel like maybe the peaceful but incompetent society is clearly better. However, the story makes no sense at all if you cannot truly feel that heroic deeds and exploring the universe and inventing new things are genuinely good things, which counterbalance the very very topical jingoism of this late 1930s tale.

Also, Moore superficially presents us with the thought that future history depends on whether each woman bears a daughter or a son first, but on another level, what really matters is the character of the mother, and what kind of child that union will create. I won’t spoil the choice the man makes in the end, which is what makes this story really transcendent.

Mary and Eve    by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Mary and Eve

by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Fruit of Knowledge *****

A dramatic retelling of the Fall of Man and the Temptation of Eve. Of Biblical stories, the sin of Adam and Eve retains popular currency even now, while other stories have begun to fade from our memories.

”Fruit of Knowledge” is perhaps a typical expression of the West in the twentieth century, insofar as the sin that truly separates Man from God is not simply disobedience, but sexual desire. On the other hand, if this story had been written today, Adam would have had sex with Lilith, not simply spoken to her and enjoyed her company for a brief time before the creation of Eve.

Like “Jirel of Joiry”, “Fruit of Knowledge” is set within a Christian moral universe. Moore sets the Fall shortly after the rebellion of Lucifer, an act which does not appear in the Hebrew tradition, but is instead from the Revelation to John. Also, there are hints that the Fall of Man was in some sense a happy accident, an event that was allowed to happen, because a greater destiny was in store. This is a speculation that goes back to Augustine of Hippo, so far as I know.

Finally, the children of Lilith, referenced by Moore here, were used by Tim Powers in his novels The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves.

No Woman Born *****

Moore explicitly links this to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, through the dialogue of her characters. This is a tale of the creation of a monster by means of good intentions, and also truly terrifying to me.

Daemon ****

I think I can trace this short story to two Tim Powers novels. First, the setting, Atlantic sailing in the age of the buccaneers tinged with Vudun, is much like On Stranger Tides, the book that was optioned for Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Next, The Drawing of the Dark, Powers’ contribution to the Arthurian legend, which hinges upon the titanic change in the world wrought by the first Christmas.

No, three, because the influence of the Grait God Pan, who was the center of Powers’ Earthquake Weather.

This was a fantastic little story, from near the end of Moore’s career. Poignant and well-crafted, with acute psychological insight. Not as striking as “Shambleau”, but far better written.

Vintage Season ***

A sad tale of time-traveling voyeurism, but a well-executed one.

Ben’s final verdict *****

I almost gave up on this collection, but I am glad I didn’t. Moore wrote some great stories, of a kind I don’t think you can find anymore. I can’t find any interviews or essays where Powers talks about Moore, but after reading this, I have a hard time imagining he didn’t read her works and find inspiration in them. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

The Long View: God's Plan for America

It is never prudent to completely dismiss the suggestion that the purpose of your life to serve as a warning to others. It may not be a leading hypothesis, but it is a possible one.

That being said, this essay contains John J. Reilly’s reflections on how Christians ought to relate to politics. This essay is brief, but only because John included most of his thought by reference, rather than repeating things he had already said.

Like all of us, John had particular political commitments and preferences, but I think he pointed toward something bigger than his party affiliation here.

God's Plan for America

That's the title of a column by Vox Day (hat tip to Brainbiter) where we read in part:

I do find it peculiar that there are so many people who make national politics a central part, if not the central point, of their theology. And I'm saying this as a member of the Christian right by blood; when Ralph Reed was in town with the Christian Coalition, he stayed at my parent's house.

Consider the state of the seven deadly sins in America...

There is, I suspect, an unconscious stream of omniderigence underlying the concept of divine American exceptionalism. Either God has inordinately blessed America because of the unique qualities of her inhabitants or because He has a special plan for America. The problem with the first possibility should be obvious in light of the character and behavior of said inhabitants; the problem with the latter is that it requires believing that the Christian God is responsible for the death of millions of unborn children, the establishment of transnational globalism and Paris Hilton.

Wise words (particularly "omniderigence"). One might point out that the United States could have been providentially preordained as an Awful Example, but I rather doubt that to be the case.

I see two issues.

The first is the status of politics and government in a Christian framework. I don't really find this problematical: all government is a divine institution, in the sense that legitimate authority comes from above. That by no means implies that all governments are or should be theocracies. However, there is a sacred, not merely prudential, obligation to participate in public life and not make a nuisance of yourself. Patriotism is a virtue. Get over it.

On the other hand, patriotism is not analytically the expression of the highest political loyalty. (In many eras in may be the highest available, of course). The common humanity of the human race implies natural standards of just treatment, which, as the human race interacts on a broader and broader scale, implies the establishment of ever more universal structures to ensure these standards. Dante famously argued that only a universal government could be altogether legitimate. The Catholic Church, after having skewered Dante (posthumously) for his inordinate affection for the Holy Roman Empire, has come around to an oddly similar point of view, in the sense that doctrine today asserts that certain sovereign prerogatives must, in the modern world, be reserved to supranational authorities.

This presents us with the second issue: the relationship between theodicy and macrohistory. If you accept that there is a tendency toward global unity, does that make the process a divine imperative? Contrariwise, is there an imperative to oppose it? (As C.S. Lewis once remarked, just because you have terminal cancer is no reason to be on the tumor's side.) For my part, I would suggest that this question tends to generate much the sort of category mistake that we see in sacralized environmentalism: anything as big as history or the atmosphere is presumed to be a theater of miracle and moral absolute.

Nonetheless, there is an level of loyalty that is ordinate to the ideal universal empire that Dante envisioned. For St. Augustine in the final generation of the Roman Empire, this loyalty was the highest form of patriotism he knew. Similarly, it would be possible to make the argument that some form of globalization merits devotion of this order, since the universal empire is also a divine institution, though most of the time it exists only virtually.

If you accept the neo-Spenglerian hypothesis that the United States is going to play the same role in the modern world that Rome did in Classical antiquity and Qin did in ancient China, then you might be able to formulate "God's Plan for America" in terms of the providential formation of a universal state at the end of the modern era; however, this development would be "providential" only at the level of natural providence, not as a matter of divine election.

In other words, somebody had to do it.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-01: Whatever Can't Continue Won't

Here is John J. Reilly’s New Years’ predictions for 2007. Let us see how he did:

  • The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq. Flat wrong. This went on for another four years or so. And even after it petered out, the former Ba’athists enabled the later rise of ISIS.

  • Sub-replacement birthrates in advanced countries. Somewhat right. I was a little surprised by this one, since the US seems to be a bit of an outlier. Look at this chart, and then go look at any set of countries you want in the data set. There really was an uptick in several advanced countries in the late 2010s.

  • US Federal Deficit Spending. Tax revenues were trending up at the time. There was a huge jump shortly thereafter, but that was the housing bubble, and almost no one got that right.

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays  By Congressional Budget Office -, Public Domain,

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays

By Congressional Budget Office -, Public Domain,

  • Barack Obama. Clearly wrong. John’s partisanship probably didn’t help.

  • The Political Invective Industry. Also wrong. John missed out on Twitter.

  • Embryonic stem-cell research. Mostly right. The science really isn’t good on this, and John correctly perceived this.

  • Skepticism about climate change becoming a fringe phenomenon. Right on. This has definitely moved beyond the pale.

  • This wasn’t in the bulleted list, but John also correctly noted that the replacement for the Reaganite conservatism post GWB was going to be 1970s style identity politics.

Whatever Can't Continue Won't

If you are reading this, then I survived this year's New Year's Eve party: the point is uncertain as I write this on the preceding afternoon. So, in the spirit of gratitude for small favors, we will make a modest excursion down the via negativa. Here are some things that, I am pretty sure, will pass their sell-by date in 2007:

The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq: The traditional position of the Sunni minority in Iraq became untenable the last time Saddam Hussein left his office in 2003. The only question was whether they would exchange that position for a part in a national coalition, or whether they would prefer to be ethnically cleansed. Surprisingly (and some fraction of US bafflement about what to do next in Iraq arises from this), they have been leaning toward Option B. Time for them to change their mind is running out: this is the year when the Iraqi government will begin to have the military resources to conduct its own policy.

Sub-replacement Birthrates in Advanced Countries: This is not going to turn around in a year, but there has been considerable discussion of the issue and the beginning in France, Japan, and Australia of serious pro-natal programs. The issue could begin to surface in US politics this year: the matter has already been raised as one of the public-policy objections to gay marriage.

US Federal Deficit Spending: The predicate for this was always the position of the US dollar as the world's reserve currency: the money markets would absorb all the debt the US federal government chose to issue. There are good reasons for supposing that the US dollar will remain the principal reserve currency. I also don't quite see how there could be a run on the dollar: who would the dollars be sold to? However, the advent of the euro as an alternative currency means that there will now be upward pressure that was not there before on interest rates. We may see the Chairman of the Federal Reserve telling Congress that he cannot promise that there will be an adequate market for US sovereign debt unless the federal government increases taxes.

Barrack Obama: Perhaps his enemies arranged for him to have this much public exposure so early in his career. The result is the worst of all possible worlds: both a blank record and a a trailing pack of opposition political operatives eager to magnify his missteps.

The Political Invective Industry: Since the great age of snarky commentary began with the Clinton Administration, this has been a one-sidedly Republican enterprise. Throughout the period there have been Democratic editorialists at least as unhinged as their Republican colleagues, of course, but none was as much fun as, say, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter: certainly none was as popular. Now, however, they cannot claim to be the voice of a populist majority. They also suffer from a lack of risible opponents. The new Democratic Congressional leadership may do some very foolish things, but there is no Newt Gingrich among them to symbolize their malefactions. Meanwhile, the bitter and second-rate Democratic commentariat has further cause for bitterness in that they are the dog that caught the car. They have already discredited George Bush to their own satisfaction, but the very fact the Republicans lost an election discredited their darker fantasies.

Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Forgive me if I repeat myself, but this is looking more and more like a scam. Half the research money for the medical uses of stem cells (which in general do show promise) is going into the approach that presents the greatest theoretical difficulties and which is least likely to be of clinical use. The enthusiasm for embryonic stem-cell research differs from the enthusiasm around 1990 for cold fusion (which also got some public funding, by the way) in that the cold-fusion scientists believed what they were saying.

Skepticism about Climate Change: I think that this is the year when disbelief in climate change moves from minority opinion to fringe idea. The science more or less supports substantial recent climate change. The science also supports human activity playing a role. Be that as it may, the persuasion of the public in this matter has more to do with the fact the media have made it their business to report weird weather. That's not to say that weird weather is far to seek. It snowed in southeast Australia just before Christmas. That's like snow in Chicago in July.

Actually, what's most remarkable about the world today is the lack of plausible alternatives. The Reaganite conservative movement in the United States is dead, partly because its original deregulation agenda has been achieved and partly because it proved corruptible and inflexible in power. The opposition, however, stands for nothing but the multiculti patronage politics that could not tolerate the light of day in the 1970s and which has not improved with age.

Similarly, the international institutions designed to be the instruments of a small alliance of stable nation states has now become like a residential property whose apartments have been subdivided far past the point of safety and whose pipes and wiring are being stolen by the building managers in connivance with some of the owners. The only alternative offered to this system is American hegemony, an institution with no inherent legitimacy in the law of nations or, just as important, any institutional mechanism for coupling the hegemonic function to domestic politics or government.

I could go on in this vein, and indeed I will: that's why people have blogs. On the whole, though, I am not impressed by our problems. History is often more confusing than it is today.

Just watch.

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The Long View 2006-12-26: The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

One of the most fascinating things about P. D. James’ dystopia Children of Men is that so many people invest so much time and effort into trying to make it a reality.

The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

Once upon a time there were two goats that were eating old movie-film from out of a trash bin behind MGM Studios. One goat said to the other:

"Hey, this is a good movie!"

The other goat replied:

"Yes, but it's not as good as the book."

We should keep that cautionary exchange in mind whenever we suspect that a film adaptation has missed the point of the book on which it is based. We should in any case be cautious in commenting about a film we have not seem yet. Nonetheless, the laudatory review that Manohla Dragis wrote for The New York Times regarding the film version of P.D. James's novel, The Children of Men, gives me grave misgivings:

Based in broad outline on the 1992 dystopian novel by P. D. James about a world suffering from global infertility — and written with a nod to Orwell by Mr. Cuarón and his writing partner Timothy J. Sexton along with David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — “Children of Men” pictures a world that looks a lot like our own, but darker, grimmer and more frighteningly, violently precarious. It imagines a world drained of hope and defined by terror in which bombs regularly explode in cafes crowded with men and women on their way to work. It imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?...heavily armed soldiers are ubiquitous. They flank the streets and train platforms, guarding the pervasive metal cages crammed with a veritable Babel of humanity, illegal immigrants who have fled to Britain from hot spots, becoming refugees or “fugees” for short...“Children of Men” has none of the hectoring qualities that tend to accompany good intentions in Hollywood.

Actually, to judge by that review, the film sounds pretty hectoring to me, but hectoring about the wrong things. The novel does mention the sorry state of guest workers in Britain in a world in which there had been no births for over 20 years, but they are barely an afterthought. In fact, violence (unless you count the semi-voluntary euthanasia program) is almost absent from the book. This is, after all, a world without young people. James was not writing science fiction, but she thought through very carefully the economic and cultural implications of a population in which the ratio of elderly consumers to relatively young producers grows ever larger.

James was more interested in making metaphysical than demographic points, as we see in the review of James's book by Alan Jacobs in First Things:

Does the Warden's apparently benevolent despotism give people even a modicum of genuine comfort? Not if they are anything like Theo Faron, who writes in his journal that "without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins." But Faron is more honest and self-reflective than the majority, who prefer not to think hard thoughts or confront troubling facts.

Still, if you are looking for birth-dearth fiction, The Children of Men is a good place to start. (See also Brian Aldiss's Greybeard. This seems to be one case where, if you plan to see the movie, you should consider reading the book first:

I'm still cranky about David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, but don't get me started.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has more to worry about than cinematic adaptations of his ideas, as we see in this column:

Whatever the “realists” may say, nations talk to each other all the time. Unfortunately, when nation A opens its mouth, nation B doesn't always get the message, no matter how loud and clear it is. Syria and Iran, for example, have subverted post-Saddam Iraq for three years now. Rather quietly at first. But, like a kid playing gangsta rap in his bedroom, if there are no complaints, you might as well crank up the volume. So Iran began openly threatening genocide against a neighboring state. And Syria had one of its opponents in Lebanon, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated.

Syria and Iran are talking, but are we listening?

Likewise, Russia. These days, we talk to the Bear incessantly, to the point of holding the G8 photo-op on Vladimir Putin’s turf. The old KGB man’s pals are also back in the assassination game, not just in his backyard but in London, too...when it became obvious that there was no price to be paid for obstructing American aims, the world got the message. Yet at home too many Americans are wedded to an absurd proposition: that somehow the lone “superpower” can choose to lose yet another war and there will be no consequences, except for Bush and sundry discredited “neocons”; that no matter how America stumbles in the world it can stay rich and happy and technologically advanced even as it becomes a laughingstock in Tehran and Damascus and Pyongyang and Caracas and Moscow and on, and on, and on.

Not so. We are on the brink of a terrible tipping point.

Let me reiterate that I am not sure that Vladimir Putin has poisoned anyone. If you want to worry about Russia, worry about what they are doing to the customers for their natural gas. Still, Steyn's points are well taken, so much so that I am reminded of these words from Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties by Paul Johnson, pages 309-311:

During the 1920s, the civilized Western democracies had maintained some kind of shaky world order, through the League on the one hand, and through Anglo-American financial diplomacy on the other. At the beginning of the 1930s, the system -- if it could be called a system, broke down completely, opening an era of international banditry in which the totalitarian states behaved simply in accordance with their military means...In the 1920s the world had been run by the power of money. In the 1930s it was subject to the arbitration of the sword....A careful study of the period reveals the extent to which the totalitarian powers, though acting independently and sometimes in avowed hostility towards each other, took advantage of their numbers and growing strength to challenge and outface the pitifully stretched resources of democratic order.

(Incidentally, the book was first published in 1983, but the author revised it after 1989. Read the first edition.)

What we see here is not "re-balancing" against one power or alliance by other powers, but a situation in which it became clear that the rules no longer applied, so opportunistic behavior appeared. Call it a geopolitical version of the broken windows effect.

Don't worry, though. I'll try to have a solution by Monday.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Scott Locklin on Quantum Computing: More Support for my Cocktail Party Theory of Science

Scott Locklin has a new post up on quantum computing, Quantum Computing as a Field is Obvious Bullshit. I have to agree, quantum computing [and AI] is largely bullshit, and we should probably nuke and pave the whole field. On a side note, I wonder whether this post functions as an extended reply to this comment thread on Greg Cochran’s West Hunter blog.

Which reminds me, I really should update my cocktail party theory of why science doesn’t work anymore. Locklin makes a much longer and more detailed argument than I did that a major problem for science in the twenty-first century is that too many scientists never actually build anything with their own hands to see whether their ideas work. In the case of quantum computing, the problem is as simple [and as hard!] as aligning all of the optical elements in the system well enough that you don’t introduce errors. A foolish idea has crept into science that such things are the tasks of mere technicians!

The great scientists of the past were often obsessed with problems that would now be derided as mere engineering, however the challenge of applying the powerful ideas of science to the real world often informed further theoretical advances. Since I’ve worked for years in manufacturing, I think you also learn a lot by trying to have someone else follow your instructions, and still make the thing work every time. Your idea of what a big problem is changes once you try to make it happen, either in the lab or the factory, and that is exactly what modern science doesn’t seem to want to do.

I love this image because of the silly conceit that AI research is the example of the hardest thing people do

I love this image because of the silly conceit that AI research is the example of the hardest thing people do

I am of course exaggerating for effect, but you really should try on Locklin’s argument for size. It is fundamentally similar to the reason I don’t worry much about automation taking jobs anytime soon, because I have tried to do it myself, and I know how hard it really is. McDonald’s has been applying automation for almost 80 years, which is why they can successfully put kiosks in their stores to replace cashiers. Lots of people see the kiosks, and wrongly conclude that all such jobs will disappear in a few short years. It just isn’t that easy, because there is a very deep foundation of streamlining, elimination of waste, and optimization of workflows in the background that such people do not see.

Others can imitate what McDonald’s has done in a shorter timeframe, but someone still has to understand what needs to be done and do the work to make it happen. The greatest of fools assume that AI will do this work too.

Locklin also makes an argument that is similar to my reaction to Paul Romer’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics:

…the total number of Einsteins in the world, or even merely serious thinkers about physics is probably something like a fixed number. It’s really easy, though, to create a bunch of crackpot narcissists who have the egos of Einstein without the exceptional work output.

It isn’t at all clear that we have really benefited by vastly increasing the number of people who work in research. We should redirect many of the bright and technically minded people who do dead end science like quantum computing into more applied fields. Hell, we would probably be better off if we just convinced them to actually apply what they are doing now. They might learn something useful.

The Long View: War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth

If I could find a reasonably-priced copy of this book, something like the proceedings of the annual meeting of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, I might pick it up. I’m sufficiently intrigued by John’s précis that I want to read all the contributions. I’m also curious whether the Damian Thompson listed is the current editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald. I suspect so, but a quick internet search didn’t turn up the article in question.

John provides links to his contributions to the Center for Millennial Studies conference.

Soft Landings

The World After Modernity

After the Third Age

Each one is well worth a read, and they can function as a useful summary of John’s thinking on the subject of millennialism at the close of modernity.

War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth
Theories of the Apocalyptic
Edited by Stephen O’Leary and Glen S. McGhee
Equinox Publishing, 2005
290 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN 1-90476-888-1

Millennialism is not a new subject. Casual readers are likely to have encountered the topic in such books as Norman Cohn’s classic (if dated) study of early modern millennial “revolutions,” The Pursuit of the Millennium, or Leon Festinger’s application of Gestalt theory to the evolution and breakup of a flying-saucer cult, When Prophecy Fails. Considered most broadly as the expectation of an imminent, collective, terrestrial, and total transformation of the world for the better, millennialism has long interested not just theologians and anthropologists, but also social scientists, experimental psychologists, literary theorists, and political scientists. In the 1990s, scholars in various disciplines prepared to observe what was expected to be an outbreak of millennialist activity in and around the year 2000. One of the chief venues for discussing the results of this activity was the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, which held international conferences from 1996-2002. War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth is one of three anthologies in the Center’s “Millennialism and Society” series, which contains papers by the Center’s members.

The writer of this review was also a member of the Center. None of the papers I presented at the annual conferences appears in this volume. One is here; another is here; the last is here.

The Center and its conferences provided unexampled opportunities for scholars who otherwise would have had little occasion to encounter each other professionally to discuss their own findings and theoretical models. The result was not quite a general theory of millennialism, but the definition of a set of important methodological and substantive issues. One thing the Center did not provide, however, was a forum for discussing contemporary millennialist outbreaks, since, for the most part, they did not occur. In the 1990s, of course, there were some mass suicides by apocalyptic cults, and attendant to the year 2000 itself there was an extraordinary (and expensive) wave of anxiety about the ability of the world’s computer systems to handle the date change. However, the social reaction to the millennium was not what the members of the Center had anticipated.

In this anthology, Damian Thompson suggests in his contribution, “The Retreat of the Millennium,” that classic revolutionary millennialism may no longer be possible in the developed world. Millennial and apocalyptic idea systems are if anything more easily available than they have ever been, but as entertainment. The “structures of plausibility,” which is to say, the social networks that turn ideas into movements, are so transparent to modern mass communication that self-reinforcing communities of the elect cannot form. To me this seems improbable. Modern communications are quite capable of facilitating the organization of new movements. Often these are movements with apocalyptic premises, though in the West itself these ideas are more likely to have a scientific or pseudoscientific basis. In this anthology, David Redles’s contribution, “‘The time is not far off…’: The Millennial Reich and the Induced Apocalypse,” we see that the Nazi movement in Germany was in many ways a millennialist movement, one that seemed quite consistent with modern conditions, indeed with modern conditions when the only media were the mass media, which one would think would favor consensus rather than cultic views.

One of the dangers of millennial studies is the temptation to expand the concept excessively. Still, one of the great merits of this book is the range of phenomena that the authors usefully treat as millennial. Marc Fonda, for instance, in “Postmodernity and the Imagination of the Apocalypse,” suggests that postmdernism is implicitly an apocalyptic mindset. It does exactly what millennial ideologies do: it “sees through” consensus reality and unmasks it as a fraud; it is at war with the recent past; and it makes its adherents profoundly uneasy. Implicit in every work of deconstruction is the desire for a new synthesis. Postmodernism is a transitional frame of mind that hopes for its own supercession by a new age. That insight chimes very neatly with Joel Martin’s “Before and Beyond the Sioux Ghost Dance,” which develops the idea that millennial movements resemble “rites of passage,” but for collectivities rather than individuals.

The anthology does not neglect millennial movements in the narrow sense. There is Rosalind Hackett’s assessment of the relatively recent Maitasine uprising in northern Nigeria. The movement in question was of doubtful Islamic provenance, (its founder called Mohammed “just another Arab”), but it set the pattern for Christian-Muslim confessional strife unto this day. A real surprise for many readers will be David Cook’s “The Beginnings of Islam as an Apocalyptic Movement,” which looks back to a time when it was not clear that Islam was not just another exotic Christian sect. In any case, the piece argues that early Islam was able to expand as quickly as it did because of its ability to harmonize with the millennial expectations of the Christian communities in the regions it conquered.

A recurrent issue in the study of any millennial movement is how it reacts when events seem to cast its historical scenario in doubt, or even plainly refutes it. This issue goes to the fate of modernity, or so says John Turner in “The Deflating power of Progress,” which argues from a Nietzschean perspective that even the faith in modern science is a millennial ideology that cannot be sustained indefinitely. As Cathy Gutierrez explains in “The Millennium and Narrative Closure,” millennial movements construct history in a novelistic fashion, so that the end gives meaning to all the preceding events. The millennial models are different, however, in that they must always defer closure, or risk disconfirmation. Glen McGhee’s critical piece, “A Cultural History of Dissonance Theory,” observes that Leon Festinger’s concept of “cognitive dissonance” has held up rather well to empirical study, but not his claim that millennial groups commonly react to evidence contrary to their beliefs by proselytizing. (That piece also does an almost perfect back flip by showing how the development of dissonance theory actually resembled the evolution and dissolution of many of the millennial groups it was designed to explain.)

Albert Baumgarten’s “Four Stages in the Life of a Millennial Movement” shows how millennialist groups often survive their earlier histories as active apocalyptic movements to be come stable social institutions. They may maintain their millennialist ideas in some form, but interpret and background them in a way that makes ordinary life possible again. This is also a key point in “Roosters Crow, Owls Hoot,” the contribution by the Center for Millennial Studies cofounder, Richard Landes. Millennial ideas are often a part of the social environment; their influence depends on the success or failure of the proponents and opponents of an apocalyptic interpretation of current events. Ted Daniels actually begins this anthology with a discussion of the role of prophets and the conversion experience in sparking millennialist movements. “A Cups Catastrophe Model of Cult Conversions,” by Leslie Downing, applies a Gestalt model to the process of sudden conversion.

The end of the world disappointed many of the participants in millennial studies in the year 2000. In retrospect, that seems to have occurred not because the subject lacked value, but because of a failure to imagine the ways in which millennially motivated behavior would manifest itself in the 21st century. I would argue that the final contribution to the book, Charles Strozier’s “From Ground Zero: Thoughts on Apocalyptic Violence and the New Terrorism,” errs on the side of being too metaphorical. The War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations have more than incidental apocalyptic elements. We ignore them at our peril.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Nobody's Home by Tim Powers: Book Review

Nobody’s Home: An Anubis Gates Story
by Tim Powers
80 pages
Published by Subterranean Press (2014)
ISBN 978-1-59606-670-0

Nobody’s Home is a beautifully illustrated little chapbook that is set in the world of Tim Powers’ 1983 novel The Anubis Gates. This is a Regency England ghost tale, taking place in the wild and woolly pre-Victorian London that could barely govern itself, wilder even than the London of Jack the Ripper. At a mere eighty pages, this is a tightly crafted story, one that moves along at a steady pace without too many distractions.

Since I am a big Tim Powers’ fan, I am curious how this book would come across to someone who isn’t familiar with The Anubis Gates, or even Powers’ general secret history style of writing. In my own experience, this can go one of two ways. You are either fascinated or deeply confused by his work. I suspect that Nobody’s Home would be much the same. I have conflicting evidence for this.

I think I would describe this book as something like fanservice, because Powers has returned to the setting of one of his greatest books more than thirty years later. Not only has he returned to a setting he has previously established, he has also incorporated the mechanics of ghosts and hauntings he narrated so convincingly in Expiration Date, the second book in the Fault Lines trilogy.

In addition, Subterranean Press puts out lots of fancy editions of Tim Powers’ books, many of which, like this one, have a list price of $35 USD for an eighty page book. This is a beautiful volume, but that seems a little steep! The market would appear to be devoted fans like myself.

On the other hand, I find that many of the reviews of this book dwell upon how short it is, or that it doesn’t dwell upon the mysteries of Powers’ fictional world at sufficient length. Since most of these reviews seem to be written by fans of Powers’ work, that makes me think that this is, in fact, a decent introduction that isn’t too convoluted. I would hope that with more than thirty years of experience, Powers would be able to craft something intriguing and accessible to more casual readers, while still offering the Tim Powers’ experience to his many fans.

With that in mind, I can say that I was rather satisfied by how Powers’ blended the time-traveling world of The Anubis Gates with his later ghost stories into a harmonious whole. I found it rather fun, and I wasn’t sad that this wasn’t a novel, because the novel already existed. I suppose I’m just strange.

I would be willing to lend this short story to someone who had never read Powers, in the hope that it might be intriguing enough that they would look up his other works. I also enjoyed this book as an artifact, in how it was clearly crafted for a fan like myself. This was a fun book, and I hope that it can be enjoyed in the spirit that spurred its creation.

My other book reviews

Other books by Tim Powers

Last Call
Expiration Date
Earthquake Weather

Forsake the Sky

Hide Me Among the Graves

The Long View 2006-12-20: Space Marines; Dissimulation; The Fall of Civilization

Space Marines, Anspach and Cole Style

Space Marines, Anspach and Cole Style

John Reilly links to Orson Scott Card’s Ornery American website in this post, which I hadn’t thought about in a very long time. When I see Card mentioned on Twitter, usually it is in combination with an adjective like “deplorable”, but in today’s context that mostly means he was insufficiently enthusiastic about gay marriage fast enough. I doubt many people mean essays like this one, which was written by a lifelong Democrat who was pretty jazzed about the War on Terror in 2006.

Which, I suppose makes sense, since the Democratic Party in practice has turned out to be as enthusiastic about projecting American power abroad as the George W. Bush administration was in 2006. Being on board with that isn’t a problem, although the timing might be awkward if anyone other than me read old stuff. Card is now beyond the pale for reasons entirely other than foreign policy.

Space Marines; Dissimulation; The Fall of Civilization

Space Marines? Very zippy. (HT to Instapundit):

The proposal, part of the Corps’s push toward greater speed and flexibility, is called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion, or Sustain. Using a suborbital transport—that is, a vehicle that flies into space to achieve high travel speeds but doesn't actually enter orbit—the Corps will be able, in effect, to instantaneously deliver Marine squads anywhere on Earth. The effort is led by Roosevelt Lafontant, a former Marine lieutenant colonel now employed by the Schafer Corporation, a military-technology consulting firm working with the Marines. Insertion from space, Lafontant explains, makes it possible for the Marines—typically the first military branch called on for emergency missions—to avoid all the usual complications that can delay or end key missions. No waiting for permission from an allied nation, no dangerous rendezvous in the desert, no slow helicopter flights over mountainous terrain. Instead, Marines could someday have an unmatched element of surprise, allowing them to do everything from reinforce Special Forces to rescue hostages thousands of miles away....

The Marines expect to fly a prototype in 15 years, most likely a two-stage system using a carrier aircraft that will launch a lander into orbit from high altitude....According to international agreement, a nation’s airspace extends 50 miles from the Earth’s surface, just short of low orbit. A spacecraft would allow the U.S. to step over other countries and insert forces where they’re needed.

As that article points out, there would probably be some sentiment for redefining sovereign air space upward if the technology really existed to deploy conventional force over the 50-mile limit. As for the suborbital-transport concept itself, the term "flying brick" comes to mind. This is not so different from proposing to shoot the infantry out of a cannon and hope they will meet a friendly reception at the point of impact.

* * *

Here's a bit of fraud that is easily disposed of:

Some Muslims in Baltimore County say lessons involving Islam being taught to seventh- and 10th-graders in public schools are inaccurate....The [school] resource sheets state the Muslim prophet's "main goal was to get people to accept Allah and to spread the faith of Islam. Muhammad justified his attacks to his followers by explaining that to weaken those who opposed the spread of God's word was a virtue, and that those who fell in battle would be rewarded in heaven. Thus, the idea of the jihad became the holy war of the Muslims against 'the unbelievers.'"

This reference [says a representative of the Baltimore chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee]inaccurately portrays Islam as a religion that embraces the use of force.

"Islamic teachings explicitly forbid coercing others to adopt the Islamic religion. Suicide is forbidden. The taking of innocent lives is forbidden. Yet the curriculum would have students believing otherwise," [the representative] said.

The concept of "forced conversion" in this context does not forbid the imposition of special taxes and civil disabilities on non-Muslims. In other words, pressure to convert is not proscribed. Quite the opposite: the jizya tax [also spelled jeziya or jizyah] on dhimmis is a feature of orthodox Muslim statecraft. The point is by no means theoretical. Hamas, for instance, is keen to impose the jizya on non-Muslims in the Palestinian territories, not least in Bethlehem.

* * *

How Our Civilization Can Fall is the title of a useful essay by Orson Scott Card. He takes his readers on a brief excursion through the twilight zone of postmodern historiography, which tried to argue, during the 1980s and '90s, that civilizations do not "fall"; they just become differently civilized. He gives that nonsense such answer as it deserves. He then goes on to consider the case of fifth-century Rome and of the Eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Minoan collapse. Neither provides a precise parallel to anything that can happen in the modern world. He does, however, find particular significance in the collapse of a society's strategic hinterland, the areas that are normally affected the least by catastrophe. Then he offers this scenario:

For a century, America has been the great cushion to absorb the shocks that might have brought down western civilization. ...As with Rome, the American military has been the wall behind which a system of safe trade has allowed an extraordinary degree of specialization and therefore mutually sustained prosperity....

Here's how it happens: America stupidly and immorally withdraws from the War on Terror, withdrawing prematurely from Iraq and leaving it in chaos. Emboldened, either Muslims unite against the West (unlikely) or collapse in a huge war between Shiites and Sunnis (already beginning). It almost doesn't matter, because in the process the oil will stop flowing.

And when the oil stops flowing, Europe and Japan and Taiwan and Singapore and South Korea all crash economically; Europe then has to face the demands of its West-hating Muslim "minority" without money and without the ruthlessness or will to survive that would allow them to counter the threat. The result is accommodation or surrender to Islam. The numbers don't lie -- it is not just possible, it is likely.

America doesn't crash right away, mind you. But we still have a major depression, because we have nowhere to sell our goods. And depending on what our desperate enemies do, it's a matter of time before we crash as well....What we don't make for ourselves anymore is ... everything else. We don't produce steel. We don't make most of our own computer equipment. We have exported our textile industry... That's when we find out just how much of our new "service" economy is smoke and mirrors, dependent entirely on the surpluses generated by the global system of trade.

And our own oil production cannot meet the demands of transportation and production at current levels...

We will go back to the rails. Only we won't have the money to rebuild and refurbish the railroad system -- it will only be able to limp along.

It will look, even inside the United States, amazingly like the shrinkage that happened at the time of the fall of Rome.

Then, and only then, will America look -- and be -- vulnerable to any kind of intervention from the south. Economies that are still somewhat primitive will recover faster than economies that are absolutely dependent on specialization.

It takes two generations for the dark ages to reach America. But they will come, if we allow this nightmare to begin. Because once you reach the tipping point, there's no turning back, as the Emperor Justinian discovered.

This is too economistic, I think, and the economic model misstates the case. It conflates depression with famine. A depression is a phenomenon of chaotic systems, essentially an information crisis. Recovery is difficult, because the control mechanisms have been corrupted. At any rate, that was the experience of the United States in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s. In a genuine famine (as distinguished from one created as state policy) the price system is likely to convey information just fine, and the message that it conveys is "You are all going to die unless you do something clever right now." As a rule, people respond to this information with alacrity.

Let me put it this way: no civilization ever fell from lack of stuff.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-18: Class of the Year; Past the Apogee; The Latin Mass

This post by John J. Reilly was written about six months before the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was published, giving universal permission to celebrate the Mass in the Latin Rite according to the pre-Vatican II rubrics. I have a pending review of the book A Bitter Trial, containing letters between Evelyn Waugh and other famous Catholics about the liturgical changes that came from Vatican II. It will be interesting to reflect on how things have changed in the last twelve years.

Class of the Year; Past the Apogee; The Latin Mass

I have won the Time Man of the Year award for the second time in my life, according to this report:

NEW YORK (AP) - Congratulations! You are the Time magazine "Person of the Year."...The annual honor for 2006 went to each and every one of us, as Time cited the shift from institutions to individuals - citizens of the new digital democracy, as the magazine put it. The winners this year were anyone using or creating content on the World Wide Web. ...It was not the first time the magazine went away from naming an actual person for its "Person of the Year." In 1966, the 25-and-under generation was cited; in 1975, American women were named; and in 1982, the computer was chosen.

The awarding of honors to classes of people was one of Ayn Rand's nightmares. On the other hand, I am also reminded of the time Norway awarded itself the Nobel Peace Prize in a show hosted by John Cleese. The show was entitled Norway, Land of Giants.
It was a joke. I think.

* * *

But speaking of nightmares, consider Past the Apogee: America Under Pressure, which Charles Krauthammer delivered at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's annual dinner last month:

When I wrote the article “The Unipolar Moment” (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1990/91), it achieved some renown because, remarkably, I was the only one saying at the time, that in fact, with the end of the Cold War, the United States would end up as the unipolar power, the dominant, hegemonic power in the world. There would be none even close to us in ranking. The old bipolar world would yield not to a multipolar world but to one with only one great influence, and that would be us. ...

Sept. 11 ushered in the second era of this unipolar era, which I would call the era of assertion, where the power that had been latent in America shows itself. I would date this era from 9/11 to the March 14, 2005, a date probably unfamiliar to you and not particularly renowned in our history today, but a date that I think will be remembered by historians as the apogee of American power, the peak of the arc of the unipolar era. ...

The Bush Doctrine held that besides attacking the immediate enemy who had perpetrated 9/11, it would have to engage in a larger enterprise of changing the underlying conditions which had given birth to this idea of Islamic radicalism, and to change the conditions that had allowed it to recruit and breed, particularly in the Arab world.

Let me interject that the Iraq War should be viewed as continuous with the Serbian War of a few years earlier: both were expressions of the original concept behind the United Nations, an organization grown too crooked to act even as a mask for serious efforts to carry out its original purpose.

After that, of course, was the swift initial victory in Iraq, in which the capital fell within three weeks. After that was a ripple effect in the region. Libya, seeing what we had done in Iraq, gave up its nuclear capacity; then the remarkable revolution in Lebanon in which Syria was essentially expelled. And that demarks the date that I spoke of. March 14 is the name of the movement in Lebanon of those who rose up against the Syrians and essentially created a new democracy—fragile, as we will see. You have all of these events happening at once: you have the glimmerings of democracy in the elections in Egypt, some changes even in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and of course what we had in January 2005 was the famous first election in Iraq, which had an electric effect on the region. That winter-spring of 2005, I think, is the apogee of this assertion of unipolarity and American power.

For a variety of reasons, however, the initial impulse dissipated:

Since this [is] an evening honoring Benjamin Franklin, I want to recall to you one of his most famous statements. When leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what they had accomplished. His response was “A republic, if you can keep it.” What we have done in Iraq is given them a republic, but they appear unable to keep it.

This judgement could yet prove premature. Be that as it may, though, I am extremely skeptical of this assessment:

What is becoming clear is that the overall international strategic situation in which we had unchallenged hegemony for the first decade and half the unipolar moment is now over. We are seeing on the horizon the rise of something that is always expected in any unipolar era, which is an alliance of others who oppose us. ...What I think we are beginning to see now is Iran positioning itself at the center of a regional alliance against us, again with the—Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Sadr—looking to overawe the entire region with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would make it the regional superpower. And Iran is receiving tacit backing for its regional and anti-American ambitions from two great powers: Russia and China. That, I think, is the structure of the adversary that we will be looking at for the decades to come.

Russia is supporting Iran, of course, but for commercial rather than strategic reasons. As for China, the remarkable thing is how little influence it attempts to exercise in the Middle East. The United States has, arguably, lost the Kantian Mandate of Heaven that perfect communion with the UN once afforded. We must wonder, though, whether the United States or the mandate has been discredited.

We have all been reading too much into the results of the recent congressional elections. They cannot signify the snapping of imperial over-stretch among an exhausted electorate, for the excellent reason that the electorate has been asked to sacrifice nothing. We also know for a fact that the country does not regard the loss of American lives in Iraq as intolerable: the military has been having no trouble meeting recruiting or reenlistment goals. George Bush was reelected in 2004 because he promised not to be Lyndon Johnson, a promise he broke. As for the behavior of the Republican Congress, the less said the better.

* * *

If we must over-interpret an election, this may be a good place to start:

Ultra-conservatives close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have failed to sweep twin Iranian elections with embattled moderate forces recording a respectable performance, initial results have showed. ...Centrist cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani appeared to have sprung a surprise by reaping by far the most votes and beating a hardline rival in the election for the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme leader.

The chief reason to discount models in which Iran becomes the linchpin of an anti-American coalition is that the Iranians don't really have the inclination or, one suspects, the capacity for the political cohesion that would be necessary for such a role.

* * *

As for events in Iraq itself, I am not overly comforted by this report:

Civil war or not, Iraq has an economy, and -- mother of all surprises -- it's doing remarkably well. Real estate is booming. Construction, retail and wholesale trade sectors are healthy, too, according to a report by Global Insight in London. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports 34,000 registered companies in Iraq, up from 8,000 three years ago. Sales of secondhand cars, televisions and mobile phones have all risen sharply. Estimates vary, but one from Global Insight puts GDP growth at 17 percent last year and projects 13 percent for 2006. The World Bank has it lower: at 4 percent this year. But, given all the attention paid to deteriorating security, the startling fact is that Iraq is growing at all.

This development is as morbid as what is happening in Venezuela: in both cases, a transitory pure-consumption economy is masking the disintegration of productive activity. The real news here is that oil production in Iraq is recovering, which is some evidence that the government there really can do things that engage its enthusiasm.

* * *

At First Things, meanwhile, Fr. Neuhaus has commented on the Affair of the Blue Mosque, the incident during Benedict XVI's recent visit to Istanbul in which the pontiff prayed, or perhaps simply engaged in a moment of reflection, at a noted place of Muslim worship. Fr. Neuhaus comments chiefly by quoting John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter on the matter. Allen, of course, noted it would be absurd to read syncretism or relativism into anything done by Joseph Ratzinger. Fr. Neuhaus then goes on to say:

But a gloss is really not necessary.

To that I can only reply, "Yes it is." What the pope did was understandable; it may even have been unavoidable. However, it would be a grave mistake to think that it was costless.

* * *

In happier Benedictine news, we see from the latest rumors that the general permission to celebrate the Tridentine Latin Mass may be just days away. Reporters in the New York area who would like to see what an established Tridentine revival can look like might visit Holy Rosary parish here in downtown Jersey City. After the Sunday Mass in Latin, which usually ends around 11:15 AM, there is coffee and munchies in the basement. I am not really the guy to talk to, but you can contact me or the parish to set up interviews with some people who are.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-13: Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016  Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016

Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

I note that Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi did win election to the upper house in Iran in 2006, but that his party did not gain a majority in the legislature. The Wikipedia article is broadly consistent with Dr. Timothy Furnish’s description that John J. Reilly quotes here, but as this is pretty far outside my knowledge base, I don’t have much to add besides that.

I do like John’s use of Bayes’ Theorem in explaining millenarian decision making. In light of new information, what was previously crazy might not actually be crazy at all, if the new information is true.

John links here to a Youtube video of Julius Evola, and the years were not kind to the man. He actually looks a bit like Grandpa Munster in the film footage, whereas in his youth he was a rather dapper Dark Lord.

Finally, despite John’s caustic comment on the perennial Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I think Niall Gooch has the best defense of the movie’s merits.

Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch

As if the US Congressional elections were not exciting enough, an impending vote in Iran could be even more important, if we are to believe Patrick Poole:

A showdown over the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran is underway as the December 15th election of the Assembly of Experts, the top political body, rapidly approaches. The election of the Assembly of Experts has been a particularly contentious issue in Iran, as the traditionalist hardliners have already invalidated many candidates representing both the moderating party led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the burgeoning extremist party led by President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.

The burden of that piece is that a victory by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi would be unfortunate, because he is a millenarian of the first water in an eschatological tradition that views the eschaton as something one should help to bring about, not just to wait for. I cannot evaluate that assessment, since this is one of those areas I know only through secondary sources. However, Timothy R. Furnish of Mahdiwatch has a Ph.D in Islamic millenarianism, and he has this to say:

I think that his taking the helm there would virtually ensure eventual war with Israel and/or the U.S., for two reasons: Mesbah-Yazdi's geopolitical views – which include approval of first-use of nuclear weapons – make him perhaps the ultimate Shi`ite jihadist; and his eschatological fervor, which brings to mind previous historical examples of bloody Mahdist movements, such as Ibn Tumart of 12th century Morocco and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan.

For my part, I would say that only very rarely does millenarianism in power take the form of a man with a plan who makes a nuisance of himself while trying to carry out a step-by-step agenda that leads to the eschaton. Rather, it encourages risk-taking by denigrating the importance of the present state of things, which is seen as merely transitional. It's really an instance of Bayes' Rule: a policy that might seem too risky in ordinary time appears less hazardous because of the added information about a possible future provided by the millenarian model.

* * *

Niall Ferguson seems to have become interested in Alternative History because the First World War, whose economic history was his original concern as a scholar, cries out for such an analysis. That's because it was obviously a war of choice, at least of choice about how and when the war broke out. That is also true of the Iraq War, which has also occasioned a great deal of AH speculation, either about the war itself, or about alternative-historical parallels. David Warren here favors us with an example of the latter:

I was rewriting history, while walking along some cold lakeshore the other day. My thought was: if Churchill had only come to power in 1937, Chamberlain would have been installed to replace him in 1940.

Had Churchill been in power, and refused to sign Munich, he would have been blamed for the outbreak of war.

I can just hear the prattle in an English pub, circa 1950. "He pushed Hitler to it! Had it not been for Churchill, Hitler would have been satisfied with the Sudetenland, and England would never have had to surrender. Everything was Churchill's fault!"

Today, everything is Bush's fault.

Actually, Germany's strategic position was much worse in September 1938 than a year later, when the war in Europe actually began. Russia was still unfriendly, there would have been time to send Poland serious support, and an invasion of Czechoslovakia would not self-evidently have been an easy matter. A war begun in 1938 would have been confused and tentative, but it might have been the better solution. One suspects the same will turn out to have been true of the Iraq War. Would 2008 really have been a better year if a nuclear-armed and millenarian Iran were then demanding that Saddam Hussein's government come clean about its WMD programs?

* * *

But if Bush is not to blame, then how about this fellow? Yes, unless I am mistaken, that is no less a person than Julius Evola (compare his picture here) speaking about the metaphysical significance of Dada. Here he is speaking in French with Italian subtitles. I'm working on it.

* * *

You think America is forgetting the meaning of Christmas, do you? Well, according to Jeff Jacoby, matters are much worse across the Atlantic:

FROM THE land that produced "A Christmas Carol" and Handel's "Messiah," more evidence that Christianity is fading in Western Europe: Nearly 99 percent of Christmas cards sold in Great Britain contain no religious message or imagery...But some Britons, not all of them devout, are resisting the tide. Writing in the Telegraph, editor-at-large Jeff Randall -- who describes himself as "somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer" -- announces that any Christmas card he receives that doesn't at least mention the word "Christmas" goes straight into the trash. "

May I suggest that "A Christmas Carol" was the top of the slippery slope of which the "Seasons Greetings" card is the bottom? "A Christmas Carol" is a sentimental ghost story, excellent of its kind, but in no way intended to reinforce the religious significance of Christmas: rather the opposite, I suspect. In this it resembles Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a nightmarish tale of existential dread.

And what have I done for Christmas art? I did this poster.


Anybody have a problem with that?

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Fst and Selection

Fst by number of migrants

Fst by number of migrants

Greg Cochran had an instructive Twitter exchange on Fst and adaption, which he expanded into a blog post at West Hunter.

Genetic similarity is usually described using the statistic Fst, fixation index. The fixation index is a useful number, but it doesn’t mean what a lot of people seem to think it means.

There are a variety of ways to calculate genetic similarity. Let’s look at the definition Greg gives:

Fixation index, via Greg Cochran

Fixation index, via Greg Cochran

N sub e m stands for number of migrants, with the sub e probably reminding you that it is a representation of people who not only moved into a new location, but successfully had kids, along with some simplifying assumptions. Since this is about gene flow, the mechanism is reproduction. If we take this formula, we can see what Fst looks like by number of migrants:

A plot of Fst values

A plot of Fst values

So when Greg says that the number of migrants per generation needed to keep populations genetically similar is 1, he is describing where the knee of that plot is. You get real big changes in Fst to the left of that point, but the plot is basically flat as the numbers of migrants go up.

I think I can see why people get confused. One migrant per generation seems trivially small. And it is! But what does this degree of genetic similarity really mean? Wikipedia has a chart taken from the International HapMap project:

Fst across the world

Fst across the world

An average number of migrants per generations equal to one gets you approximately the genetic distance between white Mormons in Utah plus some Italians (CEU) and the Yoruba people (YRI).

Yoruba dancers  Ayo Adewunmi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Yoruba dancers

Ayo Adewunmi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

In this context, we can see that similar is far from identical. Other than obvious differences in appearance, sub-Saharan Africans like the Yoruba often differ from Europeans in things like malaria resistance or salt retention, so there are real differences in addition to real similarities. In theory, Fst goes from zero to one, but in practice we see numbers of 0.16 or less.

Much of the argument on Twitter was whether you could get any real genetic differences by selection with an average number of migrants per generation around 1. It certainly seems possible to me! Fst is a pretty high level model, and in general is calculated looking at lots of different loci. For selection to occur, you only need the frequency of one gene to change [for simple adaptions], which could readily happen without affecting Fst estimates at all. Based on this, Fst isn’t real useful in determining whether selection occurred. You would be better off looking for selection directly.

Cobra book review

by Timothy Zahn
236 pages
Published by Baen (2015)

When I read the cover blurb for this book, I expected something like the Blackcollar series: military sci-fi about super soldiers, cyborgs in this case instead of pharmaceutically enhanced ninjas. That impression is completely wrong. While there are some battle scenes in this book, that isn’t really the focus. This isn’t really military sci-fi at all, but rather speculative fiction about politics using super soldiers as a thought experiment.

This is the second book I’ve read recently that looks at the problem of how a society would change if people appeared within it who were faster, stronger, and generally more dangerous than the norm. The first, Heroes Fall, was in the superhero genre. The reaction of that society to superhumans in their midst is mostly adulation, with a few generally ignored naysayers. The corruption of society is subtle and slow, underneath the public fanfare.

For the Dominion of Man, the seventy-world setting of Cobra, their cyborg super soldiers were created [perhaps in a bit of a panic] to help win a war, without much thought for what would come afterward. Men with unusual strength, automated reflexes, and lasers built into their fingertips are not universally loved once demobilized, especially when accidents and misunderstandings that escalate into things far worse start to occur.

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he  is  a drifter

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he is a drifter

I was reminded of David Morell’s First Blood, a novel that really captured the struggles of Vietnam veterans to find a place back home, or the ending of The Hurt Locker, when Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James stands bewildered by the endless varieties of breakfast cereal in a supermarket. Men who did everything their government and society asked of them come home to find that they no longer have a home to return to.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the search for an acceptable political solution to the problems the Cobras pose to their society. Officially, the Cobras are war heroes. In the public eye, they are mostly objects of fear and loathing. Unofficially, the Central Committee that runs the Dominion considers them a threat; bored and frustrated former soldiers that have more in common with each other than their fellow citizens can become agents of revolution.

While we are treated to brief interludes within the halls of power on the planet Asgard, we mostly see this play out through the eyes of Jonny Moreau, a bright young man who volunteered to go off to war, and found that he was changed forever by the experience. We follow Moreau from young adulthood, when he volunteers for service, into middle age, when he brokers a deal to preserve hard won freedoms and privileges for his fellow Cobras at immense personal cost. I gather there are a number of sequels that follow from this book, as Zahn explores the further implications of Jonny Moreau’s actions at the end of this book.

Since this is hard sci-fi, many of the problems the Cobras face, both in battle and life, stem from the physical consequences of their modifications. During the bootcamp section of the book, the Cobra trainees spend time learning how to pick up unusually heavy things without tearing their ligaments or giving themselves subdermal hematomas. Their bones have been strengthened, and their strength and speed supplemented by servo motors, but the rest of their bodies remain much as they always were.

First and foremost, they are men, and they want the same things as anyone else: a job, a family, a home. Unfortunately, most other people don’t want them around. In a memorable incident in his home town after Jonny comes marching home, a couple of young punks hassle him in a local entertainment center, and then swerve their car towards him when they seem him walking on the street later. Jonny’s programmed combat reflexes take over [literally, COBRA means computerized body reflex armament], he shoots out the tires of the kids’ car and they both die in the resulting crash.

The reason this all happens is that the computer implanted in the brain cannot be removed with causing brain damage, and the finger lasers cannot be removed without amputation, and that was a price the Central Committee was unwilling to pay [or unwilling to be seen to be willing to pay]. Although, I did wonder why they didn’t do something about the power source, which was implanted in the chest, and thus much easier to get to. Much of the other equipment Jonny carried into war was successfully removed, but none of it other than the strengthened bones would work without power. I do remember reading about how much heavier their bodies got, so maybe it was seen as too much of a burden to leave them with limbs too heavy to lift. Perhaps this could have been explored a bit more.

The Central Committee itself is interesting, insofar as it really is an Inner Party. The Central Committee almost functions as a character, one analogous to Lathe in the Blackcollar novels or Thrawn in Heir to the Empire, powerful and far-seeing, capable of predicting its opponents and laying traps. It is also quite good at governing, since the Dominion of Man seems quite peaceful and prosperous. Except, in this case, everything that happens is because the Central Committee made a mistake in even allowing the Cobras to be created. Over the many years depicted in the novel, we see the Central Committee continue to dominate, but also to make critical mistakes at times. I enjoyed how Zahn took a central idea in his style and inverted it, making the the clever and powerful Central Committee the antagonist.

I also liked the broad sweep of the novel, covering several decades in the life of Jonny Moreau. Since the kind of things Zahn wants to explore in this novel take a long time to work themselves out, nothing shorter than a generation would have been adequate. Looking through the blurbs for the many sequels, we will continue to follow the Moreau family as the implications of Jonny’s solution work themselves out over the generations to follow. Overall, this was an interesting novel, and I’m curious to see where Zahn decided to take the society he created in the conclusion of this book.

My other book reviews

Thrawn: Alliances

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review


Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

The Long View 2006-12-07: Iraq Study Group; Vladimir the Poisoner; Space Colonization

Alexander Litvinenko dying of polonium poisoning

Alexander Litvinenko dying of polonium poisoning

The Patrick Buchanan article John links to here looks a little batshit [OK, more than a little] in retrospect, given that Vladimir Putin has whacked a number of political enemies inside and outside of Russia in the years since.

Iraq Study Group; Vladimir the Poisoner; Space Colonization

If you insist on reading the whole thing (and I have not yet done so) the report of the Iraq Study Group is here. However, Richard Fernandez has offered what seems to be a balanced assessment at Pajamas Media and at The Belmont Club. He says the report gives a useful description of the situation in Iraq and Iraq's role in the region. The report makes no fewer than 79 recommendations, but he says they come down to these:

* creating a forum at which Iraqís neighbors will be invited to exert their influence in the internal affairs of Iraq;

* linking the legitimization of Iranís nuclear program to any help it can provide to stabilize Iraq; and

* linking Iraq to a comprehensive solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

As the Pajamas Media piece puts it even more briefly:

The intractable is combined with the insoluble.

Is this stupidity or subtlety? As other commentators have noted, the ISG Report is precisely the opposite of a plan for American disengagement from the Middle East, much less from Iraq. The report seems to exclude the possibility of a military withdrawal. Since its explicit recommendations are unworkable and mutually exclusive, they cannot actually be used to embarrass the Bush Administration. The effect, and perhaps the purpose, of the report is nothing more than to give the Administration a few more months to reconstruct the political situation in Iraq.

Readers of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy will be reminded of the semantic analysis that the Mayor of Terminus ordered done on the statements of the imperial ambassador at the time of the Foundation's first crisis. The ambassador spoke lucidly for a week, the analysis concluded, but did not say a damn thing.

* * *

Oh, that Pat, I thought last week when I saw that Patrick Buchanan was asking whether President Vladimir Putin was the real victim in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, whose last words, almost, were an indictment of Putin. Buchanan wants to know: Is Putin Being Set Up?

Why would the Russian president, at the peak of his popularity, with his regime awash in oil revenue and himself playing a strong hand in world politics, risk a breach with every Western nation by ordering the public murder of a man who was more of a nuisance than a threat to his regime?

Litvinenko, after all, made his sensational charges against the Kremlin that the KGB blew up the Moscow apartment buildings, not Chechen terrorists, as a casus belli for a war on Chechnya and that he had refused a KGB order to assassinate oligarch Boris Berezovsky in the late 1990s. Of late, Litvinenko has been regarded as a less and less credible figure, with his charges of KGB involvement in 9-11 and complicity in the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad that ignited the Muslim firestorm....

Scotland Yard has yet to declare this a murder case and is looking into the possibility of a "martyrdom operation" suicide dressed up like murder in which Litvinenko may have colluded. The Putin-dominated Russian press is pushing this line, as well as the idea of an oligarchs' plot to discredit Putin and destroy Russia's relations with the West.

I have, alas, reached the point when I suspect any defense of the Russian government to be evidence of creeping Eurasianism. But what, then, to make of today's report, Radioactive spy's coffin barred from mosque:

The final tragedy for poisoned Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko unravelled today as his family were denied the Muslim funeral he had wished for...

Mr Litvinenko, 43, who was poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210, converted to Islam shortly before his death in a London hospital exactly two weeks ago.

Was the late Litvinenko a would-be jihadi who had found a way to subvert the enemies of Muslim Chechnya that would be far more effective than a mere explosion? Then this report puts him in an even worse light:

The FBI has been dragged into the investigation of Alexander Litvinenko's death after details emerged that he had planned to make tens of thousands of pounds blackmailing senior Russian spies and business figures. The Observer has obtained remarkable testimony from a Russian academic, Julia Svetlichnaja, who met Litvinenko earlier this year and received more than 100 emails from him. In a series of interviews, she reveals that the former Russian secret agent had documents from the FSB, the Russian agency formerly known as the KGB. He had asked Svetlichnaja, who is based in London, to enter into a business deal with him and 'make money'.

Profiteering and aggressive suicide are not mutually exclusive, though it seems odd to do one while doing the other. But does any of this fit with murder-suicide?

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dmitry Kovtun, a contact of dead Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, is in critical condition in hospital from radiation poisoning, Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying on Thursday.

I am sorry that all these people are dead or sick, and I don't want to blacken anyone's reputation on the basis of mere speculation, but Russia continues to be one of those countries where Occam's Razor does not cut very deep.

* * *

There is news about pleasanter places. As I am sure most of us know, NASA is promising to return to the Moon, this time to establish a permanent base at the south pole, about 2020. NASA has also followed up from a report last year with good (though not incontrovertible) evidence of flowing water on Mars today.

Well, it's nice work if you can get it, but I have been looking at artists' conceptions of lunar colonies for so long that now I wonder why the artists' conceptions are so threadbare. If there is a law against designing a building on the Moon that people might want to live in?


There are good reasons for putting a base at the Moon's southern pole, but I am not comforted by the comparison with the Antarctic bases. Politics and environmentalism prevented serious human settlement of Antarctica; the bases would simply be abandoned if a few countries made trivial changes to their funding of scientific research. Has anyone ever been born in Antarctica? (Well, yes: a few.)

As for Mars, should settlement occur, it will occur not with the sense of beginning the human extraterrestrial story, but ending it. Short of some great breakthrough in physics, it's not clear that the human race could reach any planets outside the Solar System, and none of the other planets within it are suitable for terraforming (assuming that Mars is suitable). Even so, the architecture being considered would be no better than on the Moon. I don't think that modern architecture will be transferrable between planets, however. Martian settlements, should there be such a thing, will not be modern societies

That picture is from the Gobi Desert, by the way, but it looks more Martian than an artist's conception. [BE I can’t find the picture John used to have here, but I’m sure you can find images of the Gobi that match the description given.]

* * *

And what do we mean by genuinely after-modern? The change would be not so much a matter of high theory (the theories would become heirlooms) as of folkways. Perhaps we see this kind of thing happening when David Clarke looks back at some religious interpretations of UFO phenomena:

So why did the demonic theory of UFOs become such a popular explanation from the late 1960s and early 1970s on? And how many ufologists and, indeed, members of the public, give credence to this idea today?

It is, of course, absurd to believe that UFOs are either modern extraterrestrial vehicles or after-modern demons. They are Sidhe.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-04: Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

John J. Reilly poo-poohs criticizing the high cousin marriage rate in the Middle East, but it really is bad…..

Genetics wasn’t really one of his interests, but I thought it was more widely known that cousin marriage makes your kids dumber and sicker than they would be otherwise.

Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

Does that Other Spengler have the Middle East in a nutshell?

What formerly were civil wars (or prospective civil wars) in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine have become three fronts in a Sunni-Shi'ite war, in which the local contestants are mere proxies. This is obvious in Lebanon, and becoming so in Palestine ...[The new configuration for the region could be something like] the great German civil war, namely the 30 Years' War of 1618-48. The Catholic and Protestant Germans, with roughly equal strength, battered each other through two generations because France sneakily shifted resources to whichever side seemed likely to fold. I have contended for years that the United States ultimately will adopt the perpetual-warfare doctrine that so well served Cardinal Richelieu and made France the master of Europe for a century ...Iran, I warned on September 13, 2005, is running short of oil and soldiers...Its oil exports could fall to zero within only 10 years, according to new studies reviewed in the December 11 Business Week. Iran's circumstances appear far more pressing than I believed a year ago,

We tried very much the policy Spengler suggests, in the long war between Iraq and Iran. One side eventually won.

* * *

Chaos has other advocates. To loose mere anarchy upon the world, in fact, is one of the options that Paul Starobin explores in his National Journal piece, Beyond Hegemony:

As the science writer James Gleick reminds in "Chaos," his 1987 best-seller, "chaos and instability" are "not the same at all." The essence of a chaotic system is not an absence of balance but an inherent unpredictability. Thus, weather patterns and the stock market have a chaotic quality -- but they are not lacking in self-adjusting orderly principles. So it might be in a footloose world without any hegemon.

In this regard, Thomas L. Friedman -- a New York Times columnist, an inveterate optimist, and the advancer of the idea that, as the title of his best-selling book puts it, "The World Is Flat" -- offered an intriguing idea at a recent forum in Washington sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The world of the last half-century has been tracing an arc, Friedman said. The Cold War was the bipolar world, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union keeping things in check, and this stage, he continued, was followed by the unipolar world of American dominance -- which, in turn, is already starting to give way to a decentralized one in which the key force is not any one state or set of states but the technologically empowered individual.

All this is in aid of the latest recrudescence of Declinism, the thesis advanced in the late 1980s by Paul Kennedy to the effect the US would soon be joined by peer powers: Japan and Europe certainly, and perhaps more. Pretty much none of the forecasts that Kennedy made have been borne out by latter events, though the piece allows Kennedy some self-congratulatory quotes. In fact, in the list of prospective peer powers we are given, India is the only one without imploding demographics or a Potemkin financial system or both. Even with regard to Iraq, we should note that none of the supposed poles of a future multipolar world seem much interested in actually planting themselves in the region. The return of Declinism is really just part of a campaign by transnational institutions, and particularly the UN, to use the political embarrassment of the Bush Administration to reestablish their credibility. However, it is only after taking us through speculation about China World and Plurality World that the author takes us to the World World scenario:

It may be that the E.U. model -- more than the talkathon United Nations one -- could serve as the blueprint of a future World Government. Today the euro, tomorrow the universo -- with an image of Kant on the bill? (If you think the restaurant fare is good in Brussels now, wait until it becomes the capital of the planet.) But if the E.U. precedent holds, it could take not only the end of American hegemony but also some kind of global catastrophe -- akin to World War II but on an even larger scale -- to establish a World Government with the power to enforce its own "world security" policy.

The piece actually makes a reference to the way a world government is formed in the Left Behind books, but tactfully omits reference to the Rapture.

* * *

Here is a review of John Derbyshire's review of Mark Steyn's America Alone. (My own review, in length comparable to Derbyshire's, is here.) Derbyshire tells us:

A literary and stylistic gem like America Alone might be utterly wrong-headed; but one would be much more reluctant to think so than one would in the case of a dull, clumsily-written book on the same subject....

For someone so impressed by the book, Derbyshire seems oddly uninterested in Steyn's central argument about the unsustainability of below-replacement birthrates:

Birthrates are dropping everywhere, even in Muslim countries, even in non-Israeli Palestine. This is just a feature of our postindustrial age, and it’s unlikely there is anything we can do about it, or should want to...The earth’s surface is finite, after all...

Does Derbyshire dismiss the concept of social reform? We get a clue to that later. For now, let's see what he says when he's trying to be helpful:

[T]he reader who has traversed those 200 pages has been having different thoughts from the ones Steyn tries to guide him to. For example: Is that original list of options—submit to, destroy, or reform Islam—really exhaustive? How about we just fence it off...

I put the book down at last, though, wondering if it is pessimistic enough. For all his splendid conservative credentials, Mark Steyn has tendencies towards root-causes liberalism. [Quoting Steyn] "John Derbyshire began promoting the slogan 'Rubble doesn't Cause Trouble.' Cute, and I wish him well with the T-shirt sales. But in arguing for a 'realist' foreign policy of long-range bombing as necessary, he overlooks the very obvious point that rubble causes quite a lot of trouble..." Ah, but Mark, there is rubble, and there is rubble. ...I am, in fact, willing to confess myself a collateral-damage armchair warrior, who would be happy to see us trade in our inventory of smart laser-guided precision munitions for lots and lots and lots of old-style iron bombs

Well, maybe not very helpful. In any case, we eventually discover that his embrace of popular sociobiology probably has disabled his ability to think about social issues:

And there are, of course, as must always be pointed out nowadays, the Great Unmentionables...Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race. (Repeat 100 times.) It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite...Good, solid scientific studies are beginning to appear that altogether refute the “culture” paradigm. We are not a uniform species...What of those Muslim Middle-Eastern family trees? The ones labeled “Arab Shia,” “Iranian Shia,” “Mesopotamian Sunni,” “Saudi” (that’s the one with a 55 percent cousin-marriage rate), and so on? Can they, with a little help and encouragement, make harmonious, consensual modern societies out of themselves?

I am perfectly willing to believe that the reaction of early 20th-century cultural anthropologists to Social Darwinism occasioned quite a lot of bogus research. However, Social Darwinism was pretty bogus, too; it's still bogus if you recast it in genetic and neurobiological terminology. Just glance above at Spengler's allusion to the Thirty Years' War, when the Germans blew each other up at least as efficiently as the Sunni and Shia of today. Maybe the German genes have changed. More likely, the same genes have more than one mode of expression.

* * *

If you must recast conservatism in Darwinian terms, then start with this item at Right Reason:

[L]arry Arnhart, recently responded on his blog to [RR's] review of his book, Darwinian Conservatism. [RR's] review, which was published under the title, "Natural Law Without a Lawgiver," just appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of The Review of Politics (68.4, pp. 680-82). You can find a pdf of it on [RR's] website....

I'm a great fan of paleontology, and also of popular genetics, but the problem with Darwinism as a pure method is that it explains imaginary animals as readily as real ones. The same, I am afraid, goes for sociobiological accounts of human societies.

* * *

Some political systems are obviously doomed, of course, not least among them Hugo Chavez's patronage socialism:

The boom [in Venezuela] is evident in an economy that has put financial speculation and conspicuous consumption ahead of domestic manufacturing. For instance, foreign automobile companies Ford and General Motors will sell 300,000 cars in the country this year. Economists describe Venezuela as a “harbor economy” because of its lust for imported goods...

Some Chávez economic policies draw inspiration from formulas used with mixed results by countries in the developing and industrialized worlds the 1960s and 1970s. These include price controls for food and gasoline, strict limits on buying and selling foreign currency and caps on everything from lending rates at banks to hourly fees at parking lots....Despite boasting of some of South America’s most fertile land in an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, Venezuela still imports more than half its food, largely from the United States and Colombia. An overvalued currency, meanwhile, has been disastrous for Venezuelan industry with the number of manufacturing companies falling to about 8,000 today from 17,000 in 1998, according to Mr. Guerra, the former economist at the central bank.

Castro promised his people blood, sweat, and tears: he stayed in power by meeting the low expectations he had created. Chavez promises ice cream and lollipops, which he can deliver, until the next collapse in oil prices.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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