Good Omens and Good Theology

With the popular success of the Amazon Originals series Good Omens, based upon the popular success of Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name, we also have popular Catholics pointing out that Neil Gaiman doesn’t exactly have a STD [Doctorate of Sacred Theology].

First, the Catholic Herald, Good Omens is a travesty of eschatology.

This one was prominent enough that Neil Gaiman himself retweeted it:

For the most part, I can’t actually disagree with the narrow claim that Good Omens isn’t an accurate representation of the Catholic faith, or any specific item you might find in the Catechism. But, on the other hand, I also have zero expectation of that, so I’m inclined to give Gaiman some slack here. He hasn’t ever represented himself as a Christian author, so it shouldn’t be surprising.

If you want catechesis, popular culture is absolutely the wrong place to look for it. I get the idea that you want to educate the vast majority of Christians who don’t know much of the intellectual content of their faith, but I do take exception to blaming Gaiman for getting it wrong, when he cannot reasonably be expected to get it right.

Especially when I find Good Omens in particular to not be that bad. Gaiman has written far worse stories, for example the short story “The Problem of Susan”, or the comic “Murder Mysteries”, with P. Craig Russell. These are objectionable enough to scandalize me, in the narrowly technical, canon law sense. I gave up reading Gaiman for years because of “The Problem of Susan”. Which genuinely makes me sad, because he is a talented author.

Let’s look at a particular claim in Kendra Tierney’s article, that angels are incorporeal. Yes, this is absolutely what the Catechism says on the subject. Especially because it was the stance of my patron, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor. However, it was a minority position among Scholastics that angels could be corporeal.

Tim Powers – writer of stories involving corporeal angels

Tim Powers – writer of stories involving corporeal angels

More to the point, let us look at examples of authors with a better claim to be Catholics who have written stories that involved angels with bodies, or at least wearing bodies, which is what I think Good Omens actually presents. One of my all-time favorite authors, Tim Powers, wrote Declare, his first overtly Catholic novel, despite being very publicly Catholic for a very long time, which features fallen Angels living on Mount Ararat, and tied in with the life of Kim Philby and the fate Soviet Union. Those angels are very corporeal, because they can be killed. By men. With guns [admittedly special guns]. Powers is the most authentically Catholic author I know, and he always writes his books in a way that reflects a deep conviction of the Catholic faith.

Tim and Jerry were friends, BTW

Tim and Jerry were friends, BTW

Next, Jerry Pournelle. Jerry was pretty public about his struggles with Catholicism, but he also wrote stories that assumed Catholicism was true. Especially his retelling of the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno. Jerry himself described the inspiration for this story as C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce meets Dante.

This story only makes sense if people in Hell/Purgatory have bodies. Which coincidentally, is one of the complaints philosophically minded Orthodox have with Catholics. This contradicts the Catechism, but it also makes for a really good story, which is genuinely supportive of the faith. I take this to illustrate that good stories might not constitute good theology.

Finally, the author that probably represents Catholicity to the greatest number of the faithful at present, J. R. R. Tolkien. Gandalf and Saruman and Sauron himself are represented as spiritual beings wearing bodies of flesh. Bodies which can be destroyed, leaving those spirits unable to act in the world, echoing Gaiman’s line in Good Omens about being inconveniently discorporated.

I don’t think any of the authors I listed would have wanted to try to disprove any element of Catholic theology with their fiction, and they all wrote stories featuring a major plot element of Good Omens. I think we can cut Neil Gaiman some slack here.

Linkfest 2017-09-09

Posting has been light of late, my home PC needs a new power supply. The replacement should be here by Tuesday.

When Correlation Is Not Causation, But Something Much More Screwy

UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman explains how easy it is to fool yourself with the way you collect your data.

Toyota’s Research Institute head says full autonomous driving is “not even close”

I'm a bit of a skeptic about how easy it really is to completely automate driving.

The Tater Tot Is American Ingenuity at Its Finest

The Tater Tot was made out of french fry waste products.

Moving the Finish Line: The Goal Gradient Hypothesis

This is a fancy term for the idea that the closeness of a goal can influence our motivation. This is the idea Uber uses to get drivers to work longer, and how video games are made more addictive to play. Something that doesn't get discussed here is risk. For example, a big difference between the cited example of getting $12,000 at the end of the year as a bonus, or $1,000 at the end of the month, is that bonuses are dependent on financial performance. In the real world, you might get more money from the monthly option, which chops up the risk of the company not making enough money into smaller bits.

A Simple Design Flaw Makes It Astoundingly Easy To Hack Siri And Alexa

I imagine it was easier not to take frequency into account when designing these apps. This seems easy to fix, in principle.

Voynich manuscript: the solution

This turned to a be a thick problem. You needed a lot of the right knowledge in the right head to solve it.

My shelf [and a half] of Jerry Pournelle books

My shelf [and a half] of Jerry Pournelle books


Jerry Pournelle, one of my all-time favorite authors, died yesterday. I followed Jerry's website and writings for 16 or 17 years. Jerry was an early adopter of the Patreon method of earning a living, as he was an early adopter of so many things. I supported him for the last eight years or so. Jerry outlasted a stroke and brain cancer, and while those slowed him down a lot, he was actively writing and blogging until the end. 

Jerry led a long and interesting life. I would have loved to read his memoirs, which he never got around to writing. Hopefully someone else will fill the gap.


LinkFest 2015-09-30

Wow, it has been a long time since I did a LinkFest, so here is one delayed 7 weeks.

48 Hours on the Dark Side of Vegas

This reminds me of the hidden desperation in Tim Power's Last Call.

Is the U.S. behind Fethullah Gulen?

Not as newsworthy as it used to be, but a very interesting take from a Turk living in the US.

Why Trump Supporters Think He'll Win

Still very newsworthy.

Could Trump Be the 'Man's Man' America Wants?

After the popularity of the above article, David Frum wrote another on the same subject. Part of the appeal of Trump is that he hasn't got even a hint of the Ned Flanders vibe that turns many people away from other Republican candidates.

Surprises of the Faraday Cage

It turns out a famous explanation of the phenomenon may not be correct. Which hasn't stopped the engineers who design them.

Internaut day: The world's first public website went online 25 years ago today

Also out of date. I fondly remember the early days of the internet. Everything was more innocent then. No, really.

No Matter Who Wins The Presidency, The ‘Deep State’ Will Run Things

I'm not sure I believe this, but I think the argument is interesting.

America's birth rate is now a national emergency

PEG says there is no good reason the US, an empty country that grows lots of food and exports oil, should have a birth rate below replacement. I am inclined to agree with him.

Terry v. Ohio. Happy 50th Anniverary, Detective McFadden!

I enjoyed learning the history of the 'frisk'. 

The Tesla Effect: How the cutting edge company became the most powerful engine in Bay Area manufacturing

People forget how much of the money any company pulls in as revenue goes to its suppliers, which go to its suppliers, and so on. 

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists

In my opinion, the current trend of crank amateur physicists is entirely the fault of the direction that physics as a whole has taken. Lots of great progress has been made by applying mathematical theories in elegant ways, but the data that support those theories comes from a messy reality that is often obscured in the tales told about science [usually by science journalists and popularizers]. This is the story of a physicist who tried to bring a little reality to the amateurs.

Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink

The author seems like she lives in world that I've heard about, but never experienced. Getting sloshed sounds like an entirely human response to living that kind of life, but the bigger question is why would you want to? A good companion piece to the Jezebel article about binge drinking and how it contributes to women's dissatisfaction with their sex lives. There is a common thread here, and it isn't alcohol.


Psychologists have been trying to devoodoofy psychology for a long time.

What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About

Trigger warnings are grossly overused, but this is a sympathetic look at the environment in an actual elite school. I still think Neal Stephenson got this all right thirty years ago.

In Defense of Prince Hans

I said the same thing the first time I watched Frozen.

Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious

A breath of fresh air after all the nastiness from the atheist community before and during the canonization of Mother Theresa.


A brilliant series of Tweets from Ross Douthat on why Trumpism matters, no matter how much you hate Trump.

And of course, the essay that occasioned that Tweetstorm.

LinkFest 2016-01-10

Jane Jacobs on Cities

Jerry Pournelle recommended reading Jane Jacobs, so I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It was an absolutely fascinating book. In retrospect, I'm not surprised that Jerry recommended it. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a masterwork from the era of the Kennedy Enlightenment. It represents the best that post-WWII American liberalism had to offer, which was in fact pretty good. However, it also represented a certain amount of hubris, and an over-quantification of things that cannot necessarily be quantified. Jacobs saw something true and good about American cities, and then her disciples tried to enshrine that insight in zoning laws and the results were not uniformly pretty.

The increased risk of death at out of hospital birth isn’t small after all

This was a pretty interesting study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The headline for this study is: out-of-hospital birth more risky than in-hospital. That was intriguing, and after reading the study the best I can say is: maybe. The study used a nice data set from Oregon that allowed the authors to tease out a distinction between births that actually happened out of the hospital, compared with births that were intended to out of the hospital but ended up in the hospital. If you only look at births that happened outside hospitals, the overall risk of perinatal death [stillbirths plus deaths during or shortly after childbirth] is the same as in the hospital. However, if you include women who transfer sometime during labor from outside the hospital to inside, the risk goes up to something like double. This is a tricky study, because the patient populations are way different in these two cases. For one, only something like 4% of all births in Oregon aren't in the hospital, which is among the highest rate in the nation. Also, out-of-hospital births are among women older, whiter, and richer than average. Those things matter. I think the most important sentence in the study is this one from the results section: 

In post hoc analyses that assessed the risk of a composite neonatal outcome (fetal death, infant death, a 5-minute Apgar score of less than 4, or neonatal seizures) and the risk of cesarean delivery in subgroups defined according to parity, maternal age, maternal education, and maternal risk profile, we found a significant interaction of maternal age with the planned birth setting for the neonatal composite outcome (P=0.02 for interaction) and of parity and maternal education with planned birth location for the outcome of cesarean section (P<0.001 for interaction for both). 

There is a lot to parse here, but when I was trained in statistics, finding an interaction means you don't report on the main effect at all. What do I mean by this? I'll show you a picture from the article to illustrate:

Two of the risk factors really stand out from the rest. Maternal age [meaning 35+] and high-risk [meaning gestational diabetes and/or eclampsia]. Either of those things in isolation increases risk for childbirth. Both together are pretty bad news. I think the real story here is that women over 35 with high-risk pregnancies [diabetes, eclampsia] shouldn't deliver outside of a hospital, but I would have said that without reading this study. To really answer the question, the authors should have compared the risk in the same higher risk population from their in-hospital dataset. Unfortunately, they didn't. I know why the results got spun the way they did. In an era of social media, that is the best way to get attention. I read about this on Twitter [on my phone, no less]. Unfortunately, that carries some risk too.

Germany on the Brink

The New Year's Eve mass sexual assault/riot in Cologne looks really, really bad for Angela Merkel. 

Hillary's Emailgate goes Nuclear

John Schindler, current historian, former NSA, wonders about the real source of Sid Blumenthal's email to Hillary Clinton. 

The Long View: From Dawn to Decadence

Jacques Barzun's masterwork is an intellectual roadmap to the Western mind, although its structure is not systematic. Rather, Barzun simply writes about the people and things he found interesting. Since he had a very broad and capacious mind, this amounts to just about everything of importance, but from sometimes unusual points of view. Barzun is famous for saying that Western Civilization has entered a period of decadence, but he used this as a technical term. He meant that the great burst of energy that started the Renaissance has dissipated, and now our civilization wants the same things we have wanted for the past 500 years, but are no longer willing to do the things that are necessary to achieve those things. Decadence means willing the ends but not the means, and in and of itself is not a moral judgment. Barzun's own thesis has now become one of the intellectual superstitions he worked to demolish.

Barzun's massive intellectual history is one of the great syntheses to appear in English the late twentieth century, this despite the fact that Barzun was born in France. A similar work of lesser scope is Paul Johnson's Modern Times. Earlier examples include Willem Van Loon's The Story of Mankind and Fletcher Pratt's Battles that Changed History. These are the works that you should read if you want to understand the grand sweep of history in the West over the last 500 years.

Another similar work that I cannot recommend is  Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This book was recommended to me by my high school American history teacher. I started to read the book, and near the beginning, Zinn claimed that during the Revolutionary War, the rate of illegitimate childbirth was similar to what you saw after the failure of The War on Poverty in the 1960s. This seemed deeply wrong to me, but I didn't know the reason why until fifteen years later. Until the Civil War freed them, the children of slaves were counted as illegitimate, no matter what the actual status or intentions of their parents were. Every single birth to a black slave woman could be considered a bastard in law. Thus, Zinn's statement was accurate, in a legally defensible way, and also completely misleading. At the time, I was suspicious, but I had no proper basis for criticism. It just seemed wrong somehow. Zinn's book has long been popular, but other historians seem not to have respected his work. Now that I know the truth, I find that I am far more sympathetic to those who claim they have been wronged, without the ability to articulate the wrong. History is not written by the winners, it is written by the articulate.

In total honesty, I tried to pick up From Dawn to Decadence once, and failed, but I intend to attempt this book again. There have been eight years since my last attempt, so I think I may be more prepared this time. I suspect this book is worth the effort because both John and Jerry Pournelle have recommended it. In general, I have found their recommendations trustworthy.

From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
(1500 to the Present)
by Jacques Barzun
HarperCollins, 2000
877 Pages, US$36.00
ISBN 0-06-017586-9

"From Dawn to Decadence" is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to "The Education of Henry Adams," the great intellectual autobiography that seemed to sum up the last fin-de-siecle. The comparison does no injustice to either work, but it would be entirely apt only if Henry Adams had lived to be 500. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a remarkably large slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. Nonetheless, in some ways "From Dawn to Decadence" reads less like a history than it does like a personal memoir, with people and topics selected chiefly because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about "From Dawn to Decadence" is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.
Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James, the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing or a dozen other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he co-authored with Henry Graff, "The Modern Researcher," sticks in my mind after 25 years as a philosophy of historiography disguised as a reference guide.) In "From Dawn to Decadence," he manages to touch on just about all his life-long interests, and without turning the book into a mere anthology.
The format is loosely chronological, with the great era of the post-medieval, "modern" West divided into several lesser ages. The whole text is broken up into digestible chunks of commentary and biography. We get assessments, sometimes quite idiosyncratic ones, of almost all the great names of the modern era, but many of the biographies are of persons the author deems worthy-but-obscure. Some of these subjects really are virtually forgotten, such as the ingenious 18th-century polymath, Dr. Georg Lichtenberg. Others are just a bit neglected, such as the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Barzun manages to praise this physician and essayist while barely mentioning the senior Holmes's jurist son.) A particularly entertaining feature of the book is the brief, apt quotations set into the margins. Had it not been for "From Dawn to Decadence," I would never have known that Thursday was bear-baiting day at the court of Elizabeth I.
The format of "From Dawn to Decadence" does have its drawbacks, notably the minimal amount of political and military narrative. In fact, the author routinely makes unexplained allusions to people and events that may no longer be common knowledge. (Do undergraduates today know what Stanley said to Livingston? I'm afraid to ask.) And then there are the fact-checking lapses inevitable in a work of this scope. These will allow readers to entertain themselves by looking for mistakes. More than one reviewer has noted that modern calculus does not use Newton's notation, as Barzun says, but that of Leibniz. However, this review may be the only place you will read that those long-range shells the Germans fired at Paris (and Barzun) during the First World War did not come from Big Berthas, but from Krupp's Pariskanone.
Parlor games aside, the author corrects errors that are far more important than the ones he makes. He points out, for instance, that, no, M. Jourdain did not speak prose, and that Moliere knew this as well as anyone. He reminds us that it is anachronistic to suppose that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition believed the Copernican model threatened man's place in the universe. With a note of exasperation, he observes that Rousseau's works can not be made to say that Rousseau was a revolutionary who wished mankind to return to a state of nature. Intellectual superstitions of this sort are probably immortal, but it is a good idea to try to correct them at least once every 500 years.
While a book as genial as this one can hardly be accused of promoting anything as crudely Germanic as a theory of history, nonetheless it does outline a general shape for the last half-millennium. According to Barzun, the West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had become exhausted by the end of the 20th century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda, but an expandable list of desires. Particular forms of them can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era. The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that EMANCIPATION is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the woman's suffrage movement. Another example is PRIMITIVISM, the perennial impulse to return to the original text, to the early constitution, to the uncluttered state of the beginning. Other trends of the modern era have been informed by the desires for ABSTRACTION, REDUCTIVISM and SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. Ideas like these can hardly be said to have been the motor of Western history, but looking for their various incarnations over the centuries does make it much easier to view the era as a whole.
Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a "decadent" society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study "Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet," but Barzun may persuade readers that "decadence" is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term "decadent" may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger, admittedly unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre-Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.
Decadence may end in the explosion of a revolution. Barzun narrows the meaning of this over-worked term, by defining it as the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea. Revolutions are great simplifiers that pave over the labyrinths and open up possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years previous. There have been four of these revolutions during the modern era, each more or less defining an age. There was the religious revolution of the Reformation, which first stated themes that would recur through the rest of the era. There was the monarch's revolution of the 17th century, in which the aristocracy was tamed and large, centralized states began to appear. The monarchs, of course, got their comeuppance in the liberal revolution at the end of the 18th century. Most recently, every throne, power and dominion was shaken by the social revolution at the beginning of the 20th.
Barzun seems to believe that the twentieth century was so traumatized by the First World War that it was never able to fully exploit the positive possibilities in what he calls the "Cubist Decade" that preceded the war's outbreak. Rather, the Age of Modernism (not to be confused with the modern era) largely confined itself to analysis and destruction. Thanks to the First World War, the more distant past became unusable: the sense of living in a completely new age left the past nothing to say. No restraints remained on the expression of the desires that had characterized the whole modern era. The result was that, by century's end, the chief remaining impulses in Western culture had developed to a theoretical maximum. So ends an age.
This conclusion would be depressing, if it were not so obviously where we came in. Barzun notes that, at the end of the fifteen century, some people held that the sixth millennium of the world was about to end, and history along with it. As is often the case with this kind of sentiment, the people who shared it were on to something, if the end of history is taken to mean the end of history as they knew it. Barzun ends the book on a note of hopeful speculation. He looks back from a more distant time on our immediate future, which he supposes will be an age when history will wholly disappear even from the minds of the educated. Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, Barzun hopes, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what a joy it is to be alive.
Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly
This review originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of First Things.

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The Long View: The Last Crusade

This is not a review of the third Indiana Jones movie of the same name, but rather of a recent history of the Spanish Civil War by Warren Carroll of Christendom College. Carroll is a partisan of the Carlists, one of the factions that made up the Nationalist side In that war. Carroll does his best to paint the Carlists in the best possible light, but that war was just too awful to be edifying.

The Carlists are among the great losers of modernity. Not only did they never even come close to restoring their preferred successor to the Spanish throne, but they found themselves a junior partner in the rightist coalition that won the Spanish Civil War, without much influence during or after the conflict. The Carlists still exist as a party in Spanish politics, but without much success.

In his now alternative history, the CoDominium, Jerry Pournelle used interstellar migration as a safety valve that allowed the malcontents and the dispossessed to escape their failures on Earth. The Carlists were among these, and in the short story, His Truth Goes Marching On, Pournelle revisits the Spanish Civil War as future history. Written in 1975, but set in 2077, this story exhibits the curious stasis of the twentieth century. In some ways, nothing of importance really changed in the twentieth century. The same ideological conflicts were fought out again and again, without an enduring resolution. Thus when the Bureau of Relocation starts dumping the Earth's poor and unwanted on the Carlists to buy more time for Earth to avoid revolution, the same right/left traditional/progressive conflict is setup that happened in Spain in the 1930s. It seemed plausible in 1975, and it still seems plausible in 2015. We are still reading from the same script, after all this time.

The Last Crusade
by Warren H. Carroll
Christendom Press, 1996
$7.95, 232 Pages
ISBN: 0-931888-67-0
"There are no neutral books on the history of the Spanish Civil War," Warren Carroll tells us in his Introduction to this brief treatment of the subject. His book is, as he promises, certainly no exception. Carroll is the founder and former president of Christendom College of Front Royal, Virginia, one of the more successful of the small liberal arts institutions founded in the past quarter century to promote Great Books and conservative Catholicism. He is the author of numerous works on twentieth century politics and church history, including the only modern account of the Monophysite controversy in my experience to exhibit real partisan heat. Perhaps predictably, whatever sympathy he has for the Republic is easily restrained.
Nevertheless, it would be too simple to describe this book as pro-Nationalist. The insurgents in the Spanish Civil War, like the supporters of the government they were fighting, comprised several major factions, from genuine fascists to traditionalist monarchists. Carroll is partisan for a division of the latter called the Carlists, who were chiefly based in the province of Navarra in northern Spain. The losers in another, far less devastating civil war sixty years before, the Carlists combined support for an improbable pretender to the Spanish throne (vacant in any case since the founding of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931) with what appears to have been a Catholic integralist approach to social theory.
At a popular level, opposition to the Republic was in large part a reaction to the regime's anti-religious policies. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, outrage over the Republican government's indifference to the freelance church-burning and priest-shooting by radical socialist factions that broke out after the murky election results of 1936). This was the sort of sentiment which the Carlists were well-placed to organize. However, though the movement contributed elements of the Nationalist program both during and after the war, they were never in any position to dictate policy, much to Carroll's chagrin.
The book is most concerned with the first six months, from the raggedly-executed coup by the Nationalist generals in July of 1936 to the successful defense of Madrid in November and December by Republican forces. While the latter was, of course, a notable defeat for the Nationalists, Carroll's book does not read that way. The narrative is built around the siege of the Nationalist garrison in the Alcazar citadel of Toledo and its relief by Franco's forces, apparently just in the nick of time. The diversion of those forces to Toledo is sometimes credited with losing the Nationalists the battle of Madrid. The advantage to telling the story from the garrison's point of view is that few participants in war make such sympathetic subjects as people under siege. In any case, the rescue of the garrison did a great deal for Nationalist morale.
Partisan historical accounts like this are often valuable. Carroll evinces a quite literal take-no-prisoners attitude, which may do more to illustrate the spirit of both sides to the conflict than an extended discussion of its merits would have. Besides, partisans know things you would not otherwise hear about. It was news to me, for instance, that Franco was flown from the Canary Islands to take charge of the insurgent army in Spanish Morocco by an English plane and pilot, arranged through the good offices of English Catholics. I was also surprised to learn that the Vatican did not recognize the Nationalist government until August of 1937, despite the fact the Republicans murdered 12% of the total number of Spanish clergy. The delay was due to the fact the Church had not been suppressed in the Basque provinces of the Republic, and the Vatican was leaving its options open until the Nationalists conquered them.
It is remarkable to read an account of societal collapse in the 1930s that does not mention the economic depression. More specifically, it is remarkable to read an account of the Spanish Civil War that does not mention Guernica. Still, the book is not pure propaganda, since it does cite facts contrary to its thesis. Carroll characterizes the war as, literally, a crusade, and takes every opportunity to recall the 700-year long Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. Nevertheless, he does not conceal the fact the army that Franco led to the relief of the crusaders at Alcazar was largely a Moorish force. Well, Carroll observes, these were pious Muslims.
Carroll's theological approach to the war actually makes it difficult for him to critique the Republican side coherently. The whole of it appears to him as a uniform blackness of apostasy and malice, every part of which merits condemnation equally. While it is true that the Republic seems, on the whole, to have been a pretty creepy polity, still distinctions should be made. The most ferocious and least defensible elements on the Republican side (to the extent they were on anybody's side) were the anarchists. They were chiefly responsible for the wave of murder and arson that moved the Right to revolt in the first place, and they maintained a reign of terror in the areas they controlled until their suppression by other elements on the Left. The same fate befell the Marxist but non-Stalinist POUM party, whose persecution by the Communist Party in communion with Moscow seems to have simply emulated the purges going on in the Soviet Union at the same time. There were moderate socialists, though their organizations were so infiltrated by the Comintern agents and sympathizers that their independence was in fact nominal. (The Socialist and Communist youth groups, for example, merged three months before the war broke out.) Supporters of parliamentary democracy were present, but futile and anachronistic.
The Republican government itself, if by that you mean the premier and the cabinet, was a nominal affair throughout the war, whose actual conduct was in the hands of individual ministers and political factions. While it is reasonably clear that the Communist Party controlled the conduct of the war after the International Brigades played such a signal role in the defense of Madrid in late 1936, the argument is still made that the regime as a whole was not Communist in character until at least that point. If that is the case, then it was a government not under effective communist control that shipped most of Spain's considerable gold reserves to the Soviet Union in October of that year, never to be seen again. Maybe they were just stupid.
Despite Carroll's best efforts, there is nothing edifying about the Spanish Civil War, either with regard to its conduct or its outcome. Franco's government continued shooting people until 1959 for their support of the Republic. Of course, there would have been nothing edifying about it had the other side won, either. Whatever you can say about the Spanish Left, they were certainly no less relentless and vindictive than their Rightist opponents. Furthermore, a leftist regime in Spain might have given the Germans all the incentive they needed to invade the country when they were through with France. The British would have lost Gibraltar, which might have lost them the Mediterranean, which would probably have lost the Allies the war. The actual Crusades so beloved by Carroll did not lack for atrocity and cruelty, but they still had many positive aspects. Regarding the Spanish catastrophe of 1936 to 1939, however, all you can say is that the less bad side won.
This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-12-21: The Two Towers

I find it refreshing to look back to 2002 and remember Peter Jackson's accomplishment in the Two Towers. That movie was just about right, long, but the source material was long and beloved. The temptation of Boromir is masterfully done, and Helm's Deep was even better than I imagined it. Unfortunately, this massive success at turning at 1,000 page book into three long movies has meant that Jackson has moved on to turning a 300 page book into three long movies. Like George Lucas, Tom Clancy, and George R. R. Martin, Jackson has gotten big enough to have it exactly the way he wants it, which isn't necessarily good for his art.

If you want to see how it can be done differently, look at the career of Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle has had multiple New York Times best-sellers, but he still takes seriously the advice he got from Robert Heinlein on his first best-seller: be your own harshest editor. This usually means cutting and cutting and cutting. To be fair, Clancy [100 million] and Martin [60 million] have sold approximately an order of magnitude more books than Pournelle [10 million]. On the other hand, Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, sold 50 million copies, and his books aren't doorstops.

The Two Towers
I saw the second Tolkien movie this afternoon. Feeling is just beginning to return to the lower part of my body. Here are a few impressions:
The movie begins very abruptly, so much so that it took a while before I came out of the stupor induced by the half hour of coming attractions. The Two Towers makes just one concession to recapping the story, by having Frodo dream about Gandalf's fall into the crevasse in Moria. Unfortunately, one of the coming attractions was for a film that is apparently yet another remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I was briefly bewildered. I expected Frodo to say: “It was terrible, Sam. I saw Gandalf fall into a summer movie.”
The scriptwriters for all three Lord of the Rings films had an impossible task. Their principal audience consists of people who have already thought about the plot too much. Like me, they can recite dialogue from the books from memory. The screenplay therefore dare not depart arbitrarily from the books. On the other hand, the writers really do have to nip and tuck the story to make the films short enough to watch. And let's face it: key parts of the books are as chatty and actionless as a play by George Bernard Shaw.
Some of their compromises are better than others. For instance, Gandalf says, “The courtesy of your hall has lessened of late, Theoden King,” as soon as he enters the Golden Hall. That's a good line, but no one has yet had an opportunity to be rude to him. It no longer fits into the scene, which has become an exorcism. On the other hand, the writers spared us the trial of Smeagol before Faramir. Instead, they created an entirely new episode involving Faramir and Frodo, one that provides real suspense. It also gives the film a far edgier conclusion than the book has, despite the lack of a cliffhanger ending. (There is a total lack of giant spiders in this movie.) The film version of The Two Towers persuades us that Frodo is desperate, not just because of the external dangers he faces, but because he knows that he himself is unreliable. To the extent The Lord of the Rings is the memoir of a very junior officer of the First World War, that is what the story is all about.
The special effects are so good that you don't notice them. This film's battle sequences are wonders on two counts: they are visually interesting for reasons in addition to gore, and they make it possible to tell what is going on. As for other animations, there are super elephants that are as persuasive as any of the behemoths from Jurassic Park. I found the ents particularly interesting, because they are the only Tolkien creatures I could never visualize. Even the makers of The Two Towers could not make them biologically plausible. Nonetheless, they function excellently as characters, which is all you can expect.
And then there is Smeagol. As other reviews have noted, it's hard to call him “Gollum” after seeing this film. He is more animated in every sense of the word than any of the human actors. The film makers hit on precisely the right way to show which side of his dual personality is on top at any given time.
There are elements of the films which will no doubt endear them to Tolkien buffs for all time to come, but which may grate on the unconverted. Gimli the Dwarf is the designated comic relief, for instance, and it's a heavy burden to bear. Despite all the work that went into the sets for Edoras and Helms Deep, the computer-generated architecture remains the most believable. Also, although that New Zealand landscape remains spectacular even after six hours of film, it's starting to look, well, generic. Except for one green patch in the Shire, all Middle Earth seems to be covered with scrub grass and surrounded by alps.
None of this is a criticism, however. We can have every confidence that the War of the Ring will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion in 2003.
* * *
Here is my review of The Fellowship of the Ring. Here is my review of The Return of the King.

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His Share of Glory Book Review

His Share of Glory:
The Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth
NESFA Press 1997
$27.00; 670 pages
ISBN 0-915368-60-9

I picked up this volume because I had read the [almost] titular short story "That Share of Glory" in Jerry Pournelle's Imperial Stars: The Stars at War. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked just about every story contained within. I suppose I shouldn't be. Jerry Pournelle remains among my all time favorite writers, and I trust his judgment about other interesting authors.

This book comes in at 670 pages, and it only represents the scfi short fiction of Kornbluth. Not his novels, and not short fiction in any other genre. That is an impressive corpus of writing for a man who only lived to be 34. As Tom Lehrer almost said, by the time Kornbluth was my age he was dead.

Some of Kornbluth's short stories are famous. "That Share of Glory", "The Little Black Bag", and "The Marching Morons" are his best, and best known works. Another in this collection that I especially liked was "Gomez", the tale of an unlikely nuclear physicist who finds and then loses great power. The stories I didn't like as much, I still liked a lot. I even liked the stories the in back, set in a smaller font, that came with a warning that they were early works written quickly to fill space in pulp magazines. You have to be damn good to write stories that way that anyone wants to read 75 years later, and Kornbluth was.

While most of these stories are scifi, there were a couple that reminded me a bit of Lovecraft and Howard: uncanny and disturbing. Judging by their frequency, this wasn't his specialty, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. His speciality seemed to be journalism. Stories like "The Silly Season" and "Make Mine Mars" show marks of Kornbluth's time as a wire-service reporter in Chicago. This is important, since I'm always interested in what makes a given author's work "hard" scifi.

While Kornbluth wrote some space opera featuring technology nigh unto magic, most of the works in this volume focused on reasonable extrapolations from Kornbluth's encyclopedic knowledge. I mean that literally, since Kornbluth acquired his facts by reading an encyclopedia front to back. However, it isn't really the technology that makes this hard scifi. Kornbluth displayed a keen insight into human motivations, combined with a reporter's cynicism for the tawdriness of ordinary life. Sometimes scifi can be rightly castigated for incomplete or wooden characterization. This is not true of Kornbluth; he understood the human condition, and wrote about it with the authority of a jaded confessor.

Kornbluth was taken from us too soon; he might have been a yet more remarkable author had he lived longer. What might have been is a fit subject for another story. In the meanwhile, you just need to read Kornbluth. This is what the golden age of science fiction is all about.

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The Long View 2002-06-02: The Menace in South Asia

NagasakiEven now that the Cold War is long past, most Westerners feel horror and shame at the thought of nuclear war. This is understandable, but the possibility of mutual assured destruction, and the intensive cultural revulsion that possibility engenders in us, are the products of a particular time, place, and set of assumptions.

It took a great deal of time and effort to demonize all things nuclear. Immediately after the Second World War, there intense optimism about harnessing atomic power for the good of mankind. For example, there was Operation Plowshare, which sought a way to turn the crude destructive power of the atom bomb to more mundane purposes, much the same way TNT and other explosives became a tool of the construction and mining industries. The attitudes of 1950s America toward the power of the atom seem blithe to us now, but this is the direct result of a campaign to convince us of the utter horror and unwinnability of a nuclear war.

There was a losing side of that campaign, for which I feel some sympathy. While they lost the war of public opinion, they definitely won the actual Cold War. After the 9/11 attacks, Paul Krugman suggested creating an office of evil to help the government imagine horrible things so we would not be surprised so badly next time. This role was filled for a long time by men like Edward Teller and Herman Kahn, who were perfectly happy to think the unthinkable in order to better prepare for it. A later entry in the field was the Strategy of Technology by Possony, Pournelle, and Kane. They argued that a decisive advantage in war could be gained by the targeted pursuit of specific technologies, particularly in the Cold War, which was already a technological contest.

Arguably, this was in fact the strategy that impoverished the Soviet Union to a degree where the dissent of client states like East Germany and Poland could fatally destabilize it. However, at present, the men who brought this about are likely to be remembered for nuclear brinkmanship and warmongering rather than successfully preventing the Cold War from turning into a hot one, and achieving victory as well.

What is perhaps even less well appreciated is how different the world is now from the peak of the Cold War. The US and Russia still have a lot of nuclear weapons, but the real worry these days is that some unpleasant little excuse for a country like North Korea or Pakistan will start something nuclear. It would be bad if they did, but to see MAD as the result is a failure of the imagination, or perhaps a success of propaganda. Look at the picture that heads this post, and imagine for yourself, "this is one of only two cities ever destroyed by nuclear weapons." And then try to believe your lying eyes.

The Menace in South Asia


There are three important points about the current confrontation between India and Pakistan. The first two are commonplaces. The third has not been addressed by policy makers, at least in public.

First, it is not likely that the fighting between the two countries will go beyond border skirmishes. This is not a situation like 1914 in Europe, when strategic plans had to be carried out like clockwork if they were to be carried out at all. Furthermore, the situations of the parties are not symmetrical. While Pakistan is perhaps most to blame because of its acquiescence in the use of its territory by militants, India would be the actual aggressor in a war. That country's friends and well wishers have let the Indian government know that a war would delay India's accession to the ranks of the great powers.

Second, even if a serious invasion of Pakistan does occur, it is unlikely that the conflict will go nuclear. On the nuclear level, Pakistan would have to be the aggressor. It is hard to see what Pakistan could gain from that step. The use of tactical nuclear weapons to halt an Indian invasion could cause the Indians to escalate their goals from border security to the destruction of the Pakistani state. In any case, India will always be in a position to declare victory and withdraw. There is no necessary ladder of escalation.

Third, if there is a war and it does go nuclear, India is going to win decisively. Its traditional enemy will be dismembered and the fragments disarmed. The civilian casualties India would suffer, even in the worst-case scenarios, would be proportionately less than those suffered by Great Britain in the Blitz. The moral that the world would draw from a South Asian nuclear war is that nuclear wars are fightable and winnable.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union occasioned the creation, not just of new weapons systems, but of new disciplines in logic and political science. Those disciplines applied only in a historically unique situation of overwhelming firepower and comparably high levels of technical competence. Nuclear weapons began, however, as an incremental augmentation to the tactics of area bombing. A substantial amount of time passed before the Cold War competitors had the nuclear devices and the delivery systems that could threaten the existence of each other's societies. India and Pakistan are far from crossing that threshold.

Several countries around the world aspire to just the situation in South Asia, where the use of nuclear weapons is a rational option. An Indian victory would have obvious policy implications for Iran, Taiwan, the Koreas and even Japan.

Just yesterday, President George Bush made a speech at West Point in which he declared that deterrence is not enough. He is right, but few people have remarked on the scope of the police project he is proposing. Let us take a deep breath as we prepare to jump in.

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Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen Book Review

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen
by H. Beam Piper
Ace Books, 1965
192 Pages; US$0.40

I picked up this volume because it was mentioned in Armageddon: There Will be War volume VIII. Pournelle cited Piper as a great influence on his own work, especially his Janissaries series, and included in volume VIII was a sequel to Piper's trandimensional adventure story written by John F. Carr and Roland Green. That story was pretty good, so I picked up the original to see what it was all about.

I'm glad that I did. Piper told a great story, full of humor and action, but it is clear that he knew a great deal of history and science as well. Calvin Morrison is a Pennsylvania State Trooper who finds himself accidentally transported into an adjacent timeline by an industrial accident of a more advanced civilization, in the same place but another when. He immediately finds himself embroiled in a war between princes, and makes himself useful due to his interest in chemistry, military tactics, and industrial organization. He fights. He loves. He wins.

For a nerd like myself, this is a fun kind of counterfactual speculation: how could you shape the world differently if you knew all the secrets of modern science in a pre-modern world? There are a lot of ways to do this kind of story. Twain decided to go with a rather cynical satire. This is straight-forward adventure with a heavy dose of history and engineering. In addition to Jerry Pournelle, S. M. Stirling is a modern example of this same kind of story, which is immensely fun, and I also find very educational.

For example, I wondered once what kind of civilization you could rebuild following a technological disaster like the Carrington Event. Nearly all of our advanced technology could be destroyed by a sufficiently powerful solar storm. It turns out that Stirling's novels of the Change have asked almost exactly that question. I wish I had read Stirling sooner, I would have found some answers I was looking for.

This is hard scifi at its best. You take an insight about how the world really works, and you follow the implications in some interesting and otherworldly setting. In this case, it happens to be the Fourth Level, Aryan-Transpacific sector, Styrphon's House sub-sector. Since Piper lived and died at the height of American civilization, the gifts he brings are the first-fruits of industrialization, plus a boundless confidence in the methods of sociology and anthropology, unleavened by any fears of ecological or cultural collapse. If you want to try the latter, Stirling has explored that space pretty well.

While you can clearly see the influence of Piper on later authors, there are interesting differences as well. Religion plays a very different role on Tran than it does in the Stryphon's House sub-sector. Each author has their own take on what really makes the world work, and I've enjoyed them all so far.

I was saddened to learn that Piper took his life shortly after he wrote this book. It is a cracking good yarn, and I would have liked to enjoy more stories of Lord Kalvan. John Carr and Roland Green wrote several more books following on this one, one of which is the short story that brought me here in the first place. I'll pick up the sequels, with the expectation of a homage, true to the spirit of the original.

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Mr. Windsor

In a strange bit of convergence between The Mote in God's Eye, and The King's Speech, we have this tidbit from the collected works of Robert Heinlein.

And speaking of Naval princes—Lieut. Windsor (later George VI) was a turret officer in a British battlewagon that paid a call to San Diego. This was prohibition and a bunch of the younger limey officers lit out for Agua Caliente. Lieut. Windsor knew damn well that he should not go—a royal prince crossing into Mexico without letting the Mexican government know it—Jerry, you will understand the protocol matters involved even better than I do. But he went . . . and when he returned, his skipper required him to deliver up his sword and slapped him in hack for the rest of the cruise. Publicly, too—no attempt to save face. Duke and prince and second in line to the throne—no matter. To that 4-striper he was Mr. Windsor, a division officer who had goofed and must pay for it.

Falkenberg's Legion (The Prince) Book Review

The Mercenary, by Jerry Pournelle (1977) Pocket Books, New York
West of Honor, by Jerry Pournelle (1978 Pocket Books, New York
Prince of Mercenaries, by Jerry Pournelle (1989) Pocket Books, New York
Go Tell the Spartans, by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling (1991) Pocket Books, New York
Prince of Sparta, by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling (1993) Pocket Books, New York
The Prince [Omnibus Edition] by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling (2002) Baen Books, New York.

This book review refers to the series of books centering upon John Christian Falkenberg in the CoDominium universe. These stories have been printed several times, starting with short stories featured in magazines, and ending with the omnibus edition The Prince. For simplicity, if you want to read the whole thing, just get The Prince. I found the 5 separate volumes listed above in a used bookstore, but other combinations are possible, since The Mercenary and West of Honor are also collected in Falkenberg's Legion (1990). There are some related stories that are found in other collections, such as "He Fell Into a Dark Hole" in Black Holes. However, the tales collected in The Prince form a coherent whole.

I have never wanted to be anyone more than I want to be Colonel John Christian Falkenberg. Falkenberg serves as my archetype of a leader; he exerts a magnetic attraction upon me, despite not being real. For clarity, I entitled this review with his name, but the truth is John Christian does not even appear in the last two volumes, although his presence is felt everywhere. Even when absent, he can influence events and the minds of men. A discourse on leadership could be created from this work. However, that is not the task here. Let us discuss the story.

When Pournelle and Niven created the CoDominium, a post-Cold War alliance between the US and the USSR, it was science fiction. Now, it is alternative history. It is interesting to see what has come true and what has not been realized in history. Technology has fallen far behind the timetable Pournelle set, but social order has proven stronger. There is nothing quite so frightening as the Welfare Islands of the United States, vast Le Corbusier constructions full of the indolent and angry, kept complacent only by the public provision of mind-numbing substances. Other authors have predicted similar urban decay [David Feintuch for example], but Pournelle's dystopia is disturbing for its plausibility. I have actually met the forefathers of the Citizens who inhabit the Welfare Islands, and I do not find them congenial company.

By the mid-twenty first century, American politics on Earth are riven by the conflicts between the prole Citizens and the Taxpayer class who support them, but Earth itself is tettering on the brink of war due to resurgent nationalism. The CoDominium wields great power, but the political will to sustain this unnatural alliance is waning. Adding to the discontent is a general ban on scientific research. The CoDominium had at first simply sought to prevent weapons research to preserve the status quo, but it quickly became apparent that just about any science has potential military applications, so they just ended up banning everything. Physicists are licensed and tracked, as potential enemies of the state.

John Christian Falkenberg III is born into interesting times in 2043, in Rome. The ancient city is outside of the jurisdiction of either of the superpowers, so Falkenberg has no other option than to seek the stars, that that there is much opportunity left on Earth. The US is now a caste society, and the USSR has become much like China today but without the economic growth, theoretically Communist but really a mercantilist military state. At least 40 worlds have been settled by the use of the Alderson drive [invented before 2010!], but the CoDominium uses these worlds as pressure relief valve by shipping out political dissidents and criminals as involuntary colonists.

The CoDominium Navy is tasked with keeping the peace both on Earth and her colonies,  but as the alliance fades away so does its budget. John Christian Falkenberg steps into this gap, not entirely voluntarily himself. Falkenberg is an officer in the CoDo Marines, a service that traces back to the French Foreign Legion. The Navy is an interesting amalgam of American and Russian customs, but the Marines maintain the traditions of the Légion étrangère.

Falkenberg is tasked with preserving public order in the colonies, in the hope that civilization may survive the coming conflagration on Earth. The political landscape of Earth is based in part upon the work of C. Northcote Parkinson [this is detailed in A Step Further Out], who sought to update Aristotle's Politics with the data of twenty-five intervening centuries. The title of the omnibus work is taken from Machiavelli; this is an extended discourse upon politics in novel form. About the same time I was reading these, the Magistra was reading a biography of Henry VIII. Without even being told of the collected work's title, she commented that the plot "sounded Machiavellian." Indeed. 

One could also learn a great deal from this work about small unit tactics and guerrilla warfare. As I noted before, hard scifi is not necessarily about technology. Due to the CoDominium's technology restrictions, and the poor economic development of the colonies, battlefield tactics resemble WWII or Korea, except with much smaller forces. Falkenberg's Legion is on the order of 5,000 men, and it is usually a decisive unit in theater, if not the only one. As the state contracts from its Great Lifetime peak, smaller concentrations of force can effectively disrupt the social order, but it also takes smaller forces to rout the brigands.

Pournelle's great contributions to scifi are his wealth of historical knowledge and his psychological acumen. Both are on display here. There is an especially poignant chapter of Prince of Mercenaries [originally a short story] based upon the Spanish Civil War. However, what interests me the most is Falkenberg's character. Despite the Late Republic setting of The Prince, Falkenberg exhibits the virtues of Cinncinatus. He really wants nothing more than to be able to retire to his farm, which is precisely why he can be entrusted with great power: he doesn't want it.

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