Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

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Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

Wishful Drinking – Carrie- Fisher

Like real life is this other thing, and we’re always trying to determine what’s going on in this distant, inaccessible, incomprehensible place.

“What are they like in real life?”

“That happened in real life? Really?”

Stuff like that.

When I was working in Boston in 2008-2009 my then-boss went to a Carrie Fisher stand-up show, Wishful Drinking, giving it positively rave reviews. I missed my chance to see the show in Boston, but it has been hovering near the top of my list of books I’ve wanted to read ever since. A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a copy in my local library and so it became the first book in my month(+) of reading books written by women.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t a post where I write up reflections on a book with a personal anecdote, saving those comments for a final, reflective section, but if there is any book to invert this structure for, it is this one.

Wishful Drinking is memoir version of that stage show. These origins were particularly evident sometimes as it had a particular rhythm that felt spoken. It could be repetitious, with repeated phrases and punctuation designed to evoke the experience of watching someone perform. Mostly this worked; many of the pictures shown during the show are in the text, but it was also a constant reminder that this material would be even more spellbinding in the hands of a skilled performer.

But this is all prelude, without actually talking about what the book is. Wishful Drinking is a memoir that is candid about mental illness, fame, drug use, and the intersection of the three. Fisher doesn’t focus on a particular episode in her life, but ranges widely over her life and is by turns funny and heartbreaking. She is up-front about her problems, in terms of her personality and her mistakes, and, in the process, making light of the the discontinuities of her life. For instance, she talks at length about how her parents were famous and yet her family was decidedly backward in culture and her experience with becoming a sex-symbol at a young age.

Fisher has a relentless focus on her own experiences and issues without offering wider commentary in a way that might be construed as narcissistic. And yet I don’t think it is. Wishful Drinking is a slim and engaging read and Fisher holds her audience’s attention for as long as she wants it, whatever the medium. But neither is this memoir just entertaining fluff. The focus on mental issues is a poignant look into otherwise invisible problems that are only slowly becoming appreciated.

Along the way, Fisher delivers observation after observation about the intersection of class and fame, illness and profession. The one that leads this post stuck out because it is one that seems particularly important to the modern world where people’s professional lives are looking increasingly unlike they have in the past. College? Athletics? Graduate School? Academia? Writing? Each of these things are bandied about as processes from which one must eventually give up and join the real world. As though that isn’t what those people are doing.

Wishful Drinking lived up to my lofty expectations and I’ve added her more recent memoir about her experiences filming Star Wars to my list.

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Continuing with my plan to read more books by women, I finished reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter and have now begun reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin.

More political wisdom from Ancient Greece

In a speech alleging to defend his educational program, Isocrates offers the following political advice, to his errant pupil, Timotheus, in the form of a fictional dialogue. Timotheus’ tragic flaw, Isocrates suggests, was his trust that the people of Athens would recognize the services he performed, while others went about flattering them.

I (and others) frequently advise that for those who wish to engage in public life and want to be looked upon favorably it is necessary for them to do the things that are of the greatest good and to speak the truest and most just words, but neither can that person neglect consideration as to how everything they say may demonstrate their graciousness and philanthropy, since those who esteem these things little are considered by their fellow citizens burdensome and overbearing.

You see the nature of the masses, how disposed they are to sweet words, and better love those who indulge them than those who do well by them and (prefer) those who cheat them with joy and amiability than those who succor them with honor and solemnity. You have given these words no regard, but believe that if you attend to matters affairs abroad, then the people at home will look upon you favorably.

This is not so, and the opposite often comes to pass. If you please those people, they will not judge you by the truth of the matter, whatever you do, but will support you, overlooking mistakes and praising the things you do to the high heavens. For good will disposes all men this way.

καί τοι πολλάκις καὶ παρ᾽ ἐμοῦ τοιούτους λόγους ἤκουσεν, ὡς χρὴ τοὺς πολιτευομένους καὶ βουλομένους ἀρέσκειν προαιρεῖσθαι μὲν τῶν τε πράξεων τὰς ὡφελιμωτάτας καὶ βελτίστας καὶ τῶν λόγων τοὺς ἀληθεστάτους καὶ δικαιοτάτους, οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κάκεῖνο παρατηρεῖν καὶ σκοπεῖν, ὄπως ἀπιχαρίτως καὶ φιλανθρώπως ἄπαντα φανήσονται καὶ λέγοντες καὶ πράττοντες, ὡς οἱ το´των ὀλιγωροῦντες ἐπαχθέστεροι καὶ βαρύτεροι δοκοῦσιν εἶναι τοῖς συμπολιτευομένοις.

ὁρᾷς δὲ τὴν φύσιν τὴν τῶν πολλῶν ὡς διάκειται πρὸς τὰς ἡδονὰς, καὶ διότι μᾶλλον φιλοῦσι τοὺς πρὸς χάριν ὁμιλοῦντας ἤ τοὺς εὖ ποιοῦντας, καὶ τοὺς μετὰ φαιδρότητος καὶ φιλανθρωπίας φενακίζοντας ἤ τοὺς μετ᾽ ὄγκου καὶ σεμνότητος ὠφελοῦντας. ὦν οὐδέν σοι μεμέληκεν ἀλλ᾽ ἤν
ἐπιεικῶς τῶν ἔξω πραγμάτων ἐπιμεληθῇς, οἴει σοι καὶ τοὺς ἐνθάδε πολιτευομένους.

τὸ δ᾽ οὐχ οὕτως ἀλλὰ τοὐναντίον φιλεῖ συμβαίνειν. ἢν γὰρ τούτοις ἀρέσκῃς, ἅπαν ὅ τι ἂν πράξῃς οὐ πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν κρινοῦσιν ἀλλὰ πρὸς τὸ σοὶ συμφέρον ὑπολήψονται, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἁμαρτανόμενα παρόψονται, τὸ δὲ κατορθωθὲν οὐρανόμηκες ποιήσουσιν, ἡ γὰρ εὔνοια πάντας οὕτω διατίθησιν.

(Isocrates, Antidosis 132-4)

Timotheus was put on trial, found guilty, and given a staggering fine. Isocrates is a difficult writer and not always the most charitable to the virtues of democracy, often considering true democracy not that differently from how the founding fathers did—that is, fickle and dangerous—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong.

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa

What if the revolution became a business opportunity for a few rogues?

The Way to Paradise is a double portrait of outcasts, both of whom believe that their purpose is to help humanity transcend its limitations. First, Flora Tristán, the illegitimate child of a French mother and Peruvian father who grew up in poverty, excluded from her father’s inheritance. As an adult, Flora entered into a brutal and unwelcome marriage, bore children, fled to become a writer, publishing a memoir Peregrinations of a Pariah and a manifesto The Workers Union. Now, in the early 1840s, she is traveling around southern France in a vain effort to organize the working class. The second arc takes place some 50 years later on south pacific islands for which her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin, has abandoned his wife and children in pursuit of people untouched by western civilization. This pursuit, combined with eccentric tendencies, increasingly debilitating syphilis, and only erratic income from his paintings leaves him on the margins of the colonial outpost. Paul is convinced that Western society is strangling humanity, which can only be liberated through artistic expression that recaptures paradise.

Despite certain similarities such as skepticism of religion and their obvious blood-relation, the protagonists could not be more different. Flora has revulsion toward sex, a consequence of her disastrous marriage marked by physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and dedicates herself to a cause: uniting workers for the betterment of the oppressed of society—men and women both. This crusade gets her labeled a potential subversive, though, and Flora is stymied by the police and the church, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with her estranged husband.

Paul, by contrast, is the estranged husband, leaving his wife and children in Copenhagen and abandoning his once-promising career as a stock-trader for artistic inspiration first in Brittany and then Tahiti. Sex, Paul believes, is central to his artistic process, and so he takes up a succession of (mostly young) lovers from the native women who he also believes will bring him closer to culture unconstrained by centuries of “civilization.” His values, moreover, remain the same as syphilis ravages his body, making him increasingly repulsive to behold (let alone touch). As Paul’s health declines, he continues to produce surreal and spectacular paintings and sculptures that capture the sights and sounds of the south pacific, slowly becoming received as critical masterpieces back in France.

The Way to Paradise is a challenging book with deceptively simple structure. The novel unfolds alternating chapters between these two stories, but is also richly textured because the alternating stories a) parallel the events in the other timeline as the two protagonists wend their way toward the grave, and b) consist simultaneously of the contemporary events and character memories sparked by those events. Both characters, moreover, are given arcs that are difficult to read. Flora consciously makes quixotic choices, and her pain, both chronic and inflicted, comes through in spades. Paul is also in pain from his advancing and advanced case of syphilis, but it is harder to be sympathetic when this is (largely) self-inflicted and he repeatedly abuses his treatments. The difficulty of his story, then is in watching his distressing sexual politics, in one graphic rape scene in particular, but also more generally in his obsession with personal gratification that is at such stark odds with the legacy of his grandmother.

I struggled with The Way to Paradise at times, finding Flora’s story on the drab side and being troubled by the treatment of Paul with respect to both the search for pristine civilization and his disturbing relationship to sex. Part of my problem, I think, is that I was reading too much of the author in Paul’s appetite, which led to me to presume that this artistic vision was being presented as accurate. I was hasty in this, and the juxtaposition of the two plots goes a long way toward undercutting Paul’s artistic vision, even while the sporadic reports we hear from his agent back in Paris demonstrate its success. Watching Paul spread his STD across the South Pacific remains difficult to read and feeds his monstrosity, but nonetheless is central to balancing the two portraits. Whatever is one’s obsession, paradise is unobtainable.

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I recently finish my first installment in my August of reading books by women, Carrie Fisher’s short, funny memoir Wishful Drinking and am now reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter.

A midyear addendum to my reading goals

I’ve developed a routine of setting goals in roughly three categories: quality of life, writing, and reading. At the same time, I returned to meticulously tracking the non-academic reading I do, including raw numbers of books and pages, genres, languages, and author demographics. In general terms, I do pretty well in terms of cultural diversity in my reading, but the practice of recording demographics have revealed exactly how AWFUL I am at reading books by women.

This is not on purpose; to be cliche: some of my favorite authors are women! I am sure that my tendency to track down foreign literature that is translated into English doesn’t help these numbers, but it is a fact that most of what I read is by men. So I’ve made it a particular goal to read more books by women.

Turns out, setting goals and rigorously tracking your progress works! Since first setting to fix this situation, I’ve increased from 2 (6%) to 4 (7.5%) to 8 (13.5%) to 9 (26.5%) so far this year. I am tracking to hit my target for this year and then some, seeing as I am just one book off, but the current pace also has me reflecting on how pathetically low I set this goal even if it represents an improvement over last year. With this in mind, here are my revised goals:

First, I want to start measuring these reading targets in terms of percentage of overall books read, you know, in case my pace slows for whatever reason. For this year, the new minimum bar is 25%, but I would like to raise the percentage to 30-33% or more.

This will mean increasing my already-raised pace, but I think it is doable because, second, every book I start in August will written by a woman. (I may extend this through September, too, if, as I expect, my reading time gets slashed because of coming of the academic school year.)

There are a number of reasons for me to do this, including that it helps cover a clear weakness in my reading habits, but it isn’t an onerous task by any stretch. I am very much looking forward to this to-be-read pile, which includes:

  1. Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher
  2. Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb
  3. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
  4. Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan
  5. Always Coming Home – Ursula K. le Guin
  6. Birds of America – Lorrie Moore
  7. The Vegetarian – Han Kang

But first I have to finish Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George RR Martin

If George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the dominant representation of the medieval world in popular culture, then the Dunk and Egg chronicles, of which this collection of stories is a part, are his version of the Canterbury Tales.

I am exaggerating here a bit and, much as in the comparison of even a richly textured world like this one and our history, the fictional measures up too flat, but the premise is the same. Each installment is a short story in the adventures of Dunk and Egg—that is, famed knight Duncan the Tall and Prince Aegon of House Targaryen—of the sort as might have been written in the White Book of the Kingsguard. The three stories in this installment are The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword, and The Mystery Knight: the first records the fateful tournament that led to their pairing, and the two subsequent stories occur with Aegon as Dunk’s squire, even though he himself is just removed from that stage of his life and has barely more training than his now-charge had access to in his palace life. (His deep secret that threatens to reveal itself is that Dunk was never actually knighted, but escapes because there is no one who can refute his word, which, ironically, he can defend on his honor as a knight. Dunk believes in chivalry in a way few of his peers do, but knightly honor is a collective fiction that they all subscribe to, at least in public.)

These are small stories that are set almost a century before the events in the A Song of Ice and Fire and largely eschew familiar locations. While the official plot explanation for this is that Dunk wants to help make Egg better than his brothers by giving him experiences outside his privileged upbringing, it serves to build the mythology and thereby lend depth to the world. It is possible one could read these books without the other baggage, but, generally speaking, the stories fall into a sub-genre of heroic origin stories, those where the ending is known, but the path is not. The Hedge Knight particularly hews to this model where the tension is built by establishing that it takes place before the hero was fully formed and thus even knowing the ending it is clear that he is wildly over-matched from the outset.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms more than adequately whet my whistle for tales from Westeros—an unfolding saga that I’ve been reading since I was fourteen or fifteen. I am very much more on the “take all the time you need, George,” than this one.

I don’t like it as much as the main series, but mostly because, like other “legends” books for other settings, I find myself lacking the same attachment to the characters that hooked me in the first place. There is still a lot to appreciate—world building, action, morals—and one of the funniest moments for me was in how the best tourney knight was a man of inconsequential name who, at least in that context, was superior to the famous lords. He’d never be in the debate among the “great knights”, though, perhaps because of his birth, perhaps because he wouldn’t hold up on the battlefield (something not discussed), but more likely because he was just as apt to take a fall in whatever round promised him the best return in terms of gambling odds and prize money. His “honor” wasn’t part of the equation so much as making money. This, of course, scandalizes our honest Dunk, but further serves to raise questions and provide commentary about the reputation of martial prowess, both in the world of Ice and Fire and in the fantasy genre more broadly.

In short: the stories in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms are a pleasant and worthwhile installment in the growing Ice and Fire canon and if the next book out from this setting is a volume dedicated to the Targaryen years, I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with these two since they, by and large, are moral paragons in a world where those are so hard to find. (Really, their stories will be in the second volume of that history, but, as I said before, I can wait.)

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I am currently reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise, a torturous story about art and exploitation, civilization and noble savages and I can’t yet tell if it is profoundly disturbing, utterly brilliant, or both.

The fate of oratory

There was much hand-wringing over Donald Trump and the fate of oratory during the 2016 campaign, leading to the ever-present and ever-painful game “which ancient person does modern politician X best resemble?” There were a lot of Roman names being tossed about, but the debate usually wandered its way over into the Athenian Assembly. This makes sense. The Assembly was the stage for some of the greatest speech writers of all time and Athens a place where the study of rhetoric began. The orators who took that floor, men like Demosthenes, Aeschines and Hyperides, have been canonized for their skill, and we have only second-hand reports about the speeches of their predecessors such as Pericles and Alcibiades who dominated the Athenian body politic for decades, for better and for worse.

Modern commentators tend not to put Trump on such a pedestal, instead often making the comparison with Cleon, the up-jumped son of a leather tanner who Thucydides calls the bloodiest man in Athens. Cleon is mocked by Thucydides and others, including the comic poet Aristophanes, for his vulgarity, his brutality, and his authoritarian leanings. Cleon:Trump starts to sound like an apt parallel, but I hasten to add that it comes with several caveats: a) we know about Cleon almost exclusively from hostile sources; b) the built in assumption for the comparison is that Cleon was dramatically inferior to Pericles; and c) even for the orators whose speeches survive we don’t know what was said in the Assembly, how it was presented, or what people said in response.

Taken into the modern world, labelling Trump Cleon was part and parcel with lamenting the deplorable state of modern oratory, particularly during the last presidential election cycle. Like many, I was appalled by much of what was said and none of the speeches is going to go down as an example for the ages, let alone coin a term the way that Demosthenes’ Philippics (speeches against Philip) did. And yet, oratory, in the words of Sam Seaborn, should raise your heart rate, oratory should knock the doors off the place. By all accounts, Trump did this whatever you think of the actual message. The election demonstrated some of the worst features of demagoguery, and there were plenty of opinion pieces that dealt with that topic and other legacies of classical antiquity.

Along with perpetual side-eye and exclamations of disbelief (he said WHAT??) and the the explosive growth of fact-checking services, one of the developments in the past year or so has been a cottage industry dedicated to combing through speeches and social media to find a person saying the exact opposite of whatever it is they just said. Trump was obviously the main target of this practice, but it has also extended to other politicians and his political appointees, including, most recently, Anthony Scaramucci’s tweets. In turn, this has led some to scrub their social media profiles to eliminate contradictory, embarrassing, or politically disadvantageous comments, which brings me back to Ancient Greece.

The public speeches are one part of the presentation for Donald Trump (or anyone else), the social media persona is a second. Leaving aside that people are allowed to change their mind, it is absolutely reasonable to plumb both categories and hold politicians to account for inconsistencies and other problematic statements. At the same time, when reading the speeches of the Attic orators, the lack of internal consistency from speech to speech is striking. These are historical records in the modern sense, but rather works of persuasion that provide some insight into their contemporary times. One might still be tempted to denounce the speaker, berating him with a series of facts, and that may well have happened, but the speeches also serve as a microcosm of a broader ancient Greek relationship with truth, past of present.

This was particularly true in terms of foreign policy in ancient Greece. Launching a rhetorical assault on another city, praising the same city as a reliable ally, and inventing a mythological genealogy that links the two are not mutually exclusive depending on what context is needed for a given speech. The sheer amount of data that exists in the modern world dwarfs that of the ancient, making these blurred lines much clearer and allowing one to trace the lineage of a given statement, but the relationship to facts bears remarkable similarity.

Rhetoric, anyway, is alive and well.

The Old Child and Other Stories – Jenny Erpenbeck

Note: the following are somewhat abbreviated thoughts on this book since I finished reading it almost a week ago, but only just now gotten a chance to jot down notes.

I was introduced to Jenny Erpenbeck through Stefan Zweig when an ancient historian lamented the latter’s renewed popularity—the former, he noted deals with comparable themes in the contemporary climate. The Old Child and other Stories is the second of her books, I’ve read. On the strength of The End of Days, which is on the short list of my favorite reads of this year, it is a little surprising that I was let down by this collection, but, then, the bar was set very high.

The titular story (novella by length) takes up the bulk of the book and was the strongest in the volume. The unnamed old child is entered into a boarding school, looking different from her peers. She is fourteen, but lumpy and boxy, looking old, and is ushered into communal life. After abortive attempts to fit in with her peers and the teachers, the old child adopts silence as a survival strategy, without memory of her past, stoic and unchanging while her peers grow up.

Ultimately, though, trying to reproduce the ambivalence, anonymity, and uncertainty that run through the pages to such great effect in this short summation does it a disservice. The Old Child can be read as a political parable about East Germany, and it introduces many of the themes that came to greater fruition in The End of Days. The writing in the other stories followed this same pattern: powerful, direct, vague, but the only story that I found memorable was Siberia, a short tale about a woman who returned from deportation in Siberia to find it occupied by a mistress.

Nothing in this collection changed my mind about Erpenbeck. Her prose is beautiful and even when the plot of a story was forgettable, the experience of reading it was not. The book, did, however, prompt me to think about how I read the written word in different formats. In particular, my ambivalence toward short stories is hardly a new experience and I do not think it coincidental that I thought the longest story in the collection was the most successful. I like how the extra space gave Erpenbeck the opportunity to develop themes in The Old Child, but I also suspect that this is a personal preference rather than a neutral evaluation.

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I have also finished George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and am now reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise. As a general reading note, I have been doing very well in my goal to read more books by women in 2017, so I am adding midyear reading goal: every non-academic book I start in August is going to be written by a woman and since I have been building a collection of books I am particularly excited to read, including Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, this reading goal may be extended into September.

Embassytown – China Miéville

Counterrevolution through language pedagogy and bureaucracy.

Reading a new book can be like learning a new language: disorienting, confusing, and a little bit exhilarating. There is a bar to entry, but once indoctrinated there is immense reward.

This metaphor is more literal for some books than others.

Embassytown is a small outpost on the planet Arieka, isolated from the other Bremen worlds and on the edge of the known universe. It is a bubble of environment safe for human habitation surrounded by and utterly dependent on the native civilization, which provides them with food and advanced biological technology (biorigging), including that machines that provide the city with breathable atmosphere.

The human population of Embassytown is constrained by these features of their environment and their culture shaped by it, but even more so by the unique way they communicate with the Ariekei. The indigenous race of Arieka is peculiar by human standards, but enormous emphasis lies on three features: the giftwing (a limb that functions as an arm), wings (ears), and their double mouths. The Ariekei only perceive language with two parts: simultaneous speech from two mouths (one ‘cut’, one ‘turn’), and the thought behind that speech. Thus Language is a direct correlative of thought; lies are impossible in Language, figures of speech need to be embodied by something true, and Language created by non-sentient things such as computers are ignored. In response to these Linguistic impediments, the humans of Embassytown have developed an Ambassador class of dual-entities, usually artificially produced twins, whose sympathetic links are carefully cultivated to approximate a single individual, the one speaking the Cut, the other the Turn. Social engineering of this sort is necessary for the survival of Embassytown, but it has the downside of creating an artificial hierarchy in the community that not everyone accepts.

Enter the narrator and sometime protagonist of Embassytown: Avice Benner Cho, an Immerser (crew on interplanetary vessels) raised in Embassytown and now returned with the husband of her fourth marriage (an a-sexual partnership), a linguistic researcher. Avice has few ambitions upon returning, but becomes bound up in events in part because of her sexual liaisons with respected Ambassadors. There is a crisis brewing in Embassytown between the Ambassadors and the Bremen representative, but things become more tense when they are forced to accept the first Ambassador not born in Embassytown…and even more so when it turns out that the new Ambassador, EzRa, is not made of two closely-related individuals. When EzRa speaks in Language the Ariekei experience a narcotic-esque high that causes physical addiction. Like with narcotics, the addict develops a tolerance and requires ever more stimulation until it becomes fatal. Addiction threatens Ariekei society, but Embassytown has a symbiotic relationship with the Ariekei, so the changes to the hosts and EzRa’s fickle personality poses an even greater danger to its existence.

Embassytown is a brilliantly crafted exploration of linguistics, linguistic change, and cataclysmic fissures that erupt in a society when something this fundamental changes. At the same time, the book is a slow-unfolding political drama between humans that unfolds through the point of view of someone who is simultaneously a total outsider and at the center of the developments. It is, in so many words, fiendish in its complexity and brilliant in its achievement. Yet, as much as I appreciated Embassytown and as much as it made me think about language and societies, I didn’t love the plot or feel a particularly deep connection to many of the characters. While still reading Embassytown I suspected that I would conclude that its fundamental flaw was that the story took a backseat to the linguistic and anthropological thought-experiment and thus that priority diminished my enjoyment. Miéville does not fall into the trap, so both character and plot are carefully intertwined with the linguistic evaluations, but Embassytown nevertheless did not grab me the way many of my favorite books do, for reasons both native to the book and particular to me. At the same time, it sold me on reading more of Miéville’s work.

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I finished reading a short story collection by Jenny Erpenbeck and George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and have started Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

Civilization and its antecedants

Before I ever considered the possibility that I could become a historian, I played games. This is a normal progression for a young person, and being someone who already loved history, I naturally gravitated to historically themed games, including fighting games like Dynasty Warriors (Three Kingdoms era China) and the Age of Empires series. I still enjoy both of those sets of games, but in more recent ages, I have particularly come to like civilization building games like Europa Universalis and, of course the Civilization series. Earlier this week I was looking through online forums and other resources to satisfy my curiosity about how the series portrays Greece—the topic of a future post, in all likelihood—and stumbled across an online emulator of the original Civ game. Naturally, I gave it go.

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The title sequence starts in space, panning into the galaxy. Starting a new game picks up where the title leaves off, this time centering on the earth, which the player watches evolve. Over the top is narration:

In the beginning, the Earth was without form, and void.

But the Sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed.

The seas parted and great continents were formed. The continents shifted, mountains arose. Earthquakes spawned massive tidal waves. Volcanoes erupted and spewed forth fiery lava and charged the atmosphere with strange gases.

Into this swirling maelstrom of Fire and Air and Water the first stirrings of Life appeared: tiny organisms, cells, and amoeba, clinging to tiny sheltered habitats.

But the seeds of Life grew, and strengthened, and spread, and diversified, and prospered, and soon every continent and climate teemed with Life.

And with Life came instinct, and specialization, natural selection, Reptiles, Dinosaurs, and Mammals and finally there evolved a species known as Man and there appeared the first faint glimmers of Intelligence.

The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village, and the tribe. Now it required but one more ingredient: a great Leader to unite the quarreling tribes to harness the power of the land to build a legacy that would stand the test of time:

a CIVILIZATION!

Most of the conversations I’ve had about Civilization style games have revolved around their vision of history. In short, technology trees promote history as linear, progressive, teleological, despite also serving as a way for the designers to balance game-play. While acknowledging that game balance is a) difficult to attain, and b) critical to a game’s success, this presentation of history is open to criticism. Again, this is a topic for another time. Here I am taken by this opening conceit of Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

The sequence actually begins before the earth is formed. The game asserts that there is potential—seemingly for its exploitation by humans, the “intelligent” race. There is a slight concession to the improbabilities of evolution, but accepts humans as fait accompli. After all, this is a game about CIVILIZATION.

It is in the home stretch of the opening sequence that the assertions become more interesting. Society, it tells us, is not a civilization. The former involves people living together for survival, but the latter is something constructed in historical memory out of bricks of literature, written history, and monuments. (Civilization generally forces players to spend time creating technologies for farming and hunting, but never mind that.) This is yet another way that the games prioritize settled societies over nomadic ones, to go along with, for example, barbarians that spawn in territory that doesn’t belong to civilizations.

But then the kicker: none of this, not unity, not the legacy of civilization, not progress, is possible without the guiding hand of a great person (man, usually). Once again, this may be dismissed as a quirk of design in that the leader functionally has no role in game-play. And yet, Civilization sets an individual as the paragon who makes slight modifications of the rules and sets the character of the civilization. Famously, the original settings had passivity and aggression on a loop, so when Gandhi, who had the lowest starting level, became more peaceful he would become hyper-aggressive and India would start slinging nuclear warheads at all available targets. It is compelling game design, to put famous individuals as national characters, despite its manipulation of history just as much as does the equation of nations and “civilizations.” To pick up the Gandhi example again, he is a figure from the creation modern India, while the vast majority of “Indians” would no doubt be horrified to learn that their national character is pacifistic on account of him.

Civilization is a game. I am sure that some people are introduced to history through it and its ilk, but this does not necessarily mean that it need be scrutinized and held to task for historical accuracy. But it is also true that the series takes a rhetorical position with respect to the nature of civilization and the historical processes that create it, in this case before the game has even begun.