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The Dark Forest

“For the majority of people, what they love exists only in the imagination. The object of their love is not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination. The person in reality is just a template for their dream lover. Eventually, they find out the differences between their dream lover and the template. If they can get used to those differences, then they can be together. If not, they split up.”

Make time for civilization, for civilization won’t make time.

The sequel to the Hugo-winning novel The Three-Body Problem picks up where the first book left off, with the world in a crisis era. A fleet from Tri-Solaris, a technologically advanced civilization cultivating the earth for colonization, is on its way…and will arrive in a little over four hundred years. How will the human race respond to this crisis when the enemy is capable of reading and hearing everything, has put a cap on the advance of science, and no nation yet has so much as a single space ship?

The central plot of The Dark Forest is humanity’s preparation for the all-but inevitable doomsday battle.

Humanity gambles its fate on reckless plan. If the Tri-Solarians know everything said or written, then the only hope for survival is to appoint saviors empowered to come up with plans in the security of their minds. The UN appoints four men Wallfacers, named after the practice of meditation, and empowers them to appropriate resources to defend the human race––with bureaucratic oversight, of course.

Three Wallfacers are obvious choices: Frederick Tyler, a former US Defense Secretary, Manuel Rey Diaz, the president of Venezuela who defeated a US invasion, and Bill Hines, a renowned diplomat and pathbreaking neurosurgeon. For each of these the Earth-Trisolaris Organization appoints someone a “Wallbreaker,” designed to foil their efforts. But the fourth Wallspeakers is a curiosity, a failed Chinese professor named Luo Ji whose main contribution to the world outside a string of disastrously fleeting sexual liaisons is to have been an early adopter (and earlier abandoner) of “Cosmic Sociology” in a conversation with the astro-physicist Ye Wenjie.

Nobody quite understands why the UN appointed Luo Ji (least of all Luo Ji, who tries to reject the appointment), but the Tri-Solarans see him as a threat and determine to kill him before the plan he doesn’t know he is concocting foils their invasion.

Everyone else prepares, pioneering innovations to space travel and hibernation so that people can see their plans to fruition. In the years that pass, humanity survives “The Great Rift” that threatened to destroy humanity prematurely, and makes great strides in military technology, but overconfidence breeds complacency and the greatest threats are the ones they don’t know about.

The Dark Forest is not a character-driven novel in the traditional sense. As such, Cixin Liu’s characters in this series feel somewhat impersonal, though this may also stem from cultural differences. Here, at least the story engine is the tension between individual agency, the solipsistic desire for personal pleasure, and the bureaucratic structures that mitigate both––for good and for ill. The individual is the only hope for society, but the overriding impulse for most people is to take their own pleasure. Luo Ji is one protagonist, the unlikely hero and a vehicle for exploring the best and worst of human nature, his principal antagonist is humanity, which, in turn is also a protagonist faced by a combination of Tri-Solaris and itself.

Like its predecessor, The Dark Forest blends styles to explore broad philosophical questions. This installment, however, is best described as a blend of two science fiction types: the doomsday confrontation of an Orson Scott Card and the broad, galaxy-spanning scope of an Isaac Asimov or Olaf Stapledon. The combination resulted in long periods of philosophical meditation punctuated by moments of frenetic action.

I struggled a bit with remembering the characters who carried over from the first book, but that is a function of my being a native English speaker, but this was my only complication in a novel that I burned through.

Non-linear in chronology and epic in scope and fusing Chinese worldview with a philosophy that is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about human nature, I loved The Dark Forest and am looking forward to see how the series concludes.

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I recently also finished reading Sourdough, a comic novel about a young woman who discovers bread and love, and so abandons her lucrative, soul-sucking job in tech, and will be writing about it in the next couple of days. I just started American Prometheus, a Pulitizer prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that I picked up on a recent trip to New Mexico.

My 2018 – Resolutions

Every year as part of this series I make a set of resolutions or goals. In the past these resolutions appeared at the end of another post, but this year I decided to separate this list into its own entry, divided, as always into two categories. This is the final installment in my end-of-2018 series.

My 2018: best* posts; by the numbers; listicle; using words.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit it).
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something I did intermittently in 2018, but intend to do more regularly in 2019.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day off each weekend, as defined by no work email, no grading, and no academic writing.
  • Take ten minutes every afternoon for quiet meditation and reflection.
  • Although I submitted my book proposal, I need to re-up the goal to sell my first book because as the year comes to a close that goal is yet incomplete.
  • Complete two article manuscripts for submission to journals. My goal of three last year was excessive, particularly while working on the book proposal.
  • Write two abstracts to submit to conferences.
  • Book reviews are not high on the list of priorities, but I would like to find one book to review in 2019. I did not do one in 2018.
  • I cleared my reading goal of 52 books for 2018, and will re-up at the same level
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • I read 12 non-fiction books in 2018, but will re-up this year’s goal of 10 books
    • In lieu of languages this year, I am setting a goal of reading fiction from at least ten different countries. This should be doable, since I have books from more than five on my to-read shelf right now.
    • I want to read at least five books by African Americans (either fiction or non-fiction, suggestions welcome)

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Finally, to conclude this series a message for my readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2019, including a revised list of my favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will end up a reflection of my year and what I have the energy to write about. Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me.

In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

My 2018 – using words

This is the penultimate post of my year-in-review series, an essay trying to make sense of my year that was. It follows a collection of my best* posts, a list of statistics, and a listicle. A post containing 2019 resolutions concludes the series tomorrow.

Past entries in this series: 2017, 2016, 2015.

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On the precipice of 2019 I am in a good place. By definition this should mean that I had a good 2018, and, compared to many, that is true. I had some measure of professional success; I published two articles, submitted a book proposal to an academic press (along with five revised chapters), taught five classes, and scored multiple interviews in the cutthroat arena of the academic job market. In a bonus victory, each of the academic successes brought me closer to articulating my larger research agenda. 2018 passed me as a blur of activity with steady, but not stable employment and whirlwind travel, but I was not burdened by toxic relationships or flattened by the trauma of loss.

Just writing these words twisted my stomach into knots.

Reading over the past versions of this essay, I realize that I have written something to this effect each of the past three years. In this sense, 2018 was more of the same, except that the highs were higher and the lows lower.

This year marked the first time in my adult life where I suffered health complications worse than the flu that were not sports injuries. All of them were related to anxiety. Last spring I experienced the first round, which included GERD and at one point breaking out in hives. The digestive issues meant that I had to give up first chocolate and then coffee. By the end of the fall semester a new wave of symptoms developed that, thankfully, have largely disappeared after I gave myself several days entirely off over the holiday.

I have coped with anxiety in various forms for quite a few years now, but an overlapping series of issues have caused the symptoms to grow progressively worse.

One is the brutal academic job market, where there are dozens or hundreds of qualified candidates for every open position and the number of positions overall in decline because of cuts to education funding. For me this meant working on short-term contracts to teach individual courses without the security of knowing whether I would teach again the following term and, simultaneously, feeling pressure to research and publish without compensation in the hope that someday it will be part of my job.

Teaching history at the college level is something I deeply believe in. There are other career paths out there and graduate study in history should do a better job of creating pathways for students to get those jobs, but when I look at myself in the mirror it is hard to give up on this dream that I have now spent almost a decade pursuing.

Another issue is the gremlin who has long sat on my shoulder telling me that I should be working harder. When I was young I could ignore him, perhaps too well, but in the crucible of academia he has grown strong indeed.

I gave in to that gremlin more often than not in 2018, sacrificing my weekends, my evenings, and much of the time that would have been spent just being outdoors, much to my detriment. By the end of the year, my partner started saying that even my hobbies started to look like work.

Self-care taken to its extreme becomes hedonism, but self-care itself is necessary. My much belated revelation at the end of 2018 is that things like self-care that I admire and encourage in others are also things that I need to allow myself.

But, like I stated at the outset, 2018 was a successful year by many metrics. I remain in a healthy relationship with an amazing woman and read a lot of breathtaking books. I was a little bit ambitious in my writing goals, which always ends up going slower than intended. Teaching new courses (four of the five I taught for the first time) consumes more time than I estimate, and most of my writing time was given over to “old” work, between editing chapters to submit with my book proposal and rounds of edits and proofs. Still, I am pleased with how my courses went for the most part and am pleased with the work that I put out into the world in 2018. I also saw progress in the long-term process of self-improvement, which provided hope even in bad moments.

As much as my year was defined by struggles with anxiety, I want to take time to reflect on those things that were good.

My universal resolutions every year revolve around mindfulness and happiness. Anecdotally and superficially, at least, I smiled more and laughed more easily in 2018 than I did in past years, but also with the impression that this was grim laughter going out into unrelenting darkness.

My 2018 – listicle

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year that was. On Wednesday I posted the zero post in this series, my Best* posts of 2018 list and yesterday I posted the first entry, my annual By the Numbers. Today’s post is a listicle that serves as a vehicle for thinking about things I liked or did in the past year.

Getting back into the swing of things, here are the past lists: 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Three international news stories I’m following going into 2019

  • The ongoing war in Yemen
  • The changing responses to the refugee crisis in Europe
  • The fallout from US involvement and disengagement with the rest of the world

Seven favorite novels that I read

Five Nonfiction Books I particularly loved

Two Books about Teaching I particularly liked

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2019 [two repeats from 2018]

  • Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

Four movies I saw in theaters that were totally worth the price of admission

  • The Death of Stalin
  • Black Panther
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor
  • Annihilation

Four TV Shows I have been watching

  • The Good Place
  • The Wire
  • The Great British Baking Show
  • Forged in Fire

Two music groups I listened to for the first time

  • Josh Ritter
  • Mipso

Publications Notice 2018

This year saw some of my work go out into the world beyond the ecosystem of this blog, in the form of two peer-reviewed articles and one book review. In reverse order, they were:

“‘Who Cares About the Greeks Living in Asia?’: Ionia and Attic Orators in the Fourth Century,” CJ 114 (2018), 163–90.

In this article I used the extant speeches of the Attic Orators as a window into Athenian public discourse about Ionia. Where a superficial distance between Athens and Ionia appeared at the start of the fourth century, these speeches, I argue, contain evidence a complex and ongoing relationship between the two even as their composers directed the attention of their audiences elsewhere.

“Oracular Politics: Propaganda and Myth in the Refoundation of Didyma,” AHB 32 (2018), 44–60.

This article challenges the widely-held position that the presence of Alexander the Great caused the restoration of the oracle at Didyma, which had lain in ruin for almost a century and a half since the end of the Persian Wars. I reinterpreted the ancient evidence for this spurious association, arguing that crediting Alexander served the political needs of the Milesians and of Seleucid royal family.

“Nudell on: P. Briant, The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire,” trans. N. Elliot (Harvard University Press: 2017).”

In January my review of Pierre Briant’s book about the reception of Alexander in Early Modern Europe, published in English as The First European appeared in CJ-online. The short version is that the book is excellent (Briant is one of my favorite ancient historians working), but I took issue with the title chosen for the English-language edition.


Each of these is a piece of scholarship, meaning that while I tried my best to keep the writing clean and readable, a certain amount of background context is assumed on the part of the reader. That said, I am happy to share copies with any interested readers, scholars, or students. If the numbers of off-prints are limited, priority goes to students and academics. Send an email to inquire about receiving a copy.

My 2018 – by the numbers

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, that started with a list of best* posts of the year. Today is a list of numbers, data that somehow defines my year. Previous installments: 2017, 2016, 2015.

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2018, including how much average temperatures rose, stock market tickers, voters suppressed, emails leaked, dollars spent on political advertising, number of people who died in California wildfires, body count from Yemen, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvoth, or trivialities like cups of coffee, diapers, or speeding tickets. Here are some numbers about my year.

  • 5 classes taught
    • 4 courses taught for the first time
    • 1 course repeated from a prior iteration
    • 114 students enrolled in my classes
    • 2 courses scheduled for 2019 (so far)
    • 4 letters of recommendation written
    • 1 committee served on
  • 20 jobs applied for
    • 2 interviews
    • 2 interviews set for 2019
  • 151.43 hours spent writing or editing academic work (YtD)
  • 1 book proposal submitted to a press
  • 2 articles published
  • 1 book review published
  • 2 academic papers presented
    • 1 abstracts accepted for a conference in 2019
  • 52 books read (YtD; not counting academic reading)
  • 16,889 pages
    • 9 original languages
    • 17 by women
    • 13 nonfiction
  • 63 blog posts published (YtD)
    • 37 book reviews
    • 11 posts about teaching
    • 5 posts about politics
    • 1652 visitors
    • 2371 site views
  • 20 states visited
  • 1 Canadian provinces visited
  • 3 ultimate frisbee leagues participated in
  • 2 Sourdough starters kept active
  • 1255 Tweets sent (YtD)
    • 104.58 Average Tweets per month
    • 340.1K Twitter impressions, per Twitter analytics

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEAN-inc, a private analytics organization. A NUDEAN spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is unknown.

Best* Posts of 2018

It is time again for my annual series of reflections. First up, I want to highlight some of my favorite posts to this point in the year. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting. This year these fall into three categories.

See also Best* of 2017 and 2016.

Posts about teaching, education, and higher education, topics I spent more time writing about this year than I have in the past.

Personal posts that also reflect somewhat on society at large, including a letter I wrote to my representatives.

Just one post directly connected to scholarship, talking about the reception of Ancient Greece

The Writer’s Diet

Over on Twitter I signed up to participate in a Teaching and Writing project where members sign up to read and tweet about books using #PhDSkills. I completed my first book, Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, with a lengthy thread. Here I want to jot down some thoughts, most of which is reflected in the linked thread.

Sword pitches The Writer’s Diet as a fitness routine for writing, meant to inspire long-term change through straight-forward advice and exercises. She divides the book into five chapters that tackle five common flaws in (academic) writing: “zombie nouns” (nouns made from adjectives or verbs), “be” verbs, excessive preposition use, excessive adjectives and adverbs, and using “it,” “this,” “there,” and “that” indiscriminately without attention to referents or precision. Each chapter comes with a series of exercises to draw the reader’s attention to these mistakes, to expand his or her vocabulary, and to otherwise improve writing. Similarly, each chapter comes with both positive and negative examples, making it clear that while these are pitched as rules there are exceptions when an author breaks the rules with a specific effect in mind. Shakespeare comes up a lot in these examples.

Reading The Writer’s Diet gave me flashbacks to high school English, but also improved my writing. The advice is not complicated, but it is hard to execute. It works here, though, because you read the book because you want to improve your writing and reading the book forces you to write more mindfully. Certainly as I tweeted about the book I noticed that I paid more attention to my syntax and word choice than usual.

The accompanying test is a useful diagnostic tool that I had some fun with over the past week. I ran a portion of my own writing through the test each day, including two articles published in 2018, my book proposal, a conference paper, and the chapter I’m revising right now. The test is a blunt instrument and every day I found some words that the algorithm swept up that I would have forgiven for one reason or another, but on the whole it provides a snapshot of the words you are using in a given piece of writing.

The elephant in the room about The Writer’s Diet is the overarching metaphor. Sword has fun with her writing and like in Air & Light & Time & Space, she creates an overarching metaphor for the book. In the other book it was a house. Here it is fitness and the body. The fitness part of the metaphor is fine, as is the diet, but when it comes to the test in particular there is a sense of body-shaming your writing. The best writing is lean, the second best is fit and trim, then needs toning, flabby, and heart-attack. Fits the theme, yes. Unnecessary, also probably yes.

The Writer’s Diet is a short, cheap, and effective writing guide, but my lingering sense upon completion is that there are others, including her Stylish Academic Writing, which I have not yet read, that provide as much or more without this glaring flaw.

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The Writer’s Diet is the first book I tweeted about for this Teaching and Writing Group, but is not the last. I signed up for at least one more book, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, in mid-January.

I must admit that I have only intermittently been following along with the hashtag, but the founders of the group Naomi Rendina and Gregg Wiker have done yeoman’s work putting the thing together. The main cause of my inattention (other than Twitter and being busy) is that a number of the books have been about dissertation writing—an experience behind me and not to the point where I am advising anyone on the process.

Broken Harbor

In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.

I remember this country back when I was growing up…Sometime since then, we start turning feral. Wild got into the air and its spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train…Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.

The final step into feral is murder.


It could be the setup for a riddle. There are four bodies in a well-maintained (but for the holes in the wall) house with in a cheaply-built and never-completed residential subdivision. The dead children in their beds have the look of angelic peace, while the husband and wife lie next to each other in a pool of blood, both covered in cuts from an absent knife. The doors show no sign of forced entry. How did they die?

Enter the Dublin Murder Squad. Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy’s reputation for competence comes at a cost: he catches the toughest cases and the most trainees. Right now he has both. With the rookie Richie Curran in tow, Kennedy begins an investigation that takes him to the scene of the crime in Broken Harbor, a town outside Dublin now called Brianstown that holds deeply-buried secrets for the Kennedy family.

The case at first seems open-and-shut; dad did it. Despite his brash reputation, Scorcher plays the odds and this is what the odds say, particularly in the wake of an economic collapse. But the clues don’t quite add up. They can’t find the knife; not all of the wounds could have been self-inflicted; neighbors say the Spains recently started acting strangely, but friends say they were the perfect family; the computer’s history and hard drive have been wiped; searchers find a roost where it seems a voyeur watched the family. Detectives Kennedy and Curran start unraveling the mystery of what causes a perfect, loving family to snap.

Their inquiry receives a big break when Jenny Spain, but her answers only lead to more questions.

Broken Harbor is narrated in first person from Mike Kennedy’s point of view. This device gives insight into his personality—that he likes to keep control, that he follows the rules, that he is competent in a way that rubs coworkers the wrong way—and provides grounds for plot twists when there are developments in the case he cannot control. Moreover, it lends weight to the blending of the two plot arcs playing out simultaneously, the case and the events of his youth in Broken Harbor that intrude upon the the narrative when his younger sister Dina, a young woman with a mental illness, makes demands on his time.

Not a lot happens in Broken Harbor, and yet it is a meaty book, its brevity of plot more than compensated for by the psychological depth of characterization. Kennedy in particular chews scenery as he works the case, interrogates witnesses, and reflects on his limits in the case. At the same time, the more that the layers are pulled back from the picture perfect family of the Spains, the more superficial that image becomes. They become a family stuck in the past and flailing against the impossibility of a future during the economic collapse of 2007.

I love a good detective story, and Broken Harbor transcends the limits of that particular genre. French revels in the little details, such as making it abundantly clear that there are legitimately beefs people have with Scorcher even while the reader is embedded in his point of view and therefore predisposed to side with him. I didn’t get the same sense of place that I often go to mystery novels for, but French more than compensates with a gripping psychological drama that, if anything, is too unrelenting for all of the parties involved.

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Next up, I picked up Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven on the strength of a Max Temkin’s recommendation on a recent podcast. It is a delicately interwoven tale about the fallout from a cataclysmic pandemic that hasn’t grabbed me the way I hoped.

There are no secret histories

I loved my Penguin Classics paperback of Procopius’ Secret History as an undergraduate. I still have the book in a box in my office, though I haven’t had cause to take it out recently. Procopius of Caesarea lived in the age of Justinian (r. 527–565 CE), earning a living as secretary and historian for the emperor’s talented general Belisarius. He wrote numerous official histories that detailed Belisarius’ campaigns as part of Justinian’s wars of reconquest, but is better known for the other thing he wrote. That other thing is the Secret History.

In the Secret History, Procopius goes full Alex Jones of the sixth century CE. He accuses the emperor of being a devil stalking the halls of the palace and bringing a devastating plague to the world. These pages reveal a special hatred for women. He accuses Belisarius’ wife of cuckolding her husband with their adopted son, and dedicates long passages to the behavior of Empress Theodora, describing her (alleged) sexual appetites in lurid, pornographic detail. But for all that Procopius reveals about social controversies of his age, the Secret History reads more like a bitter screed than a careful history debunking the official version of events. And for good reason. Published now as the Secret History it was known in the Byzantine Suda as the Anecdota (Ἀνἐκδοτα) or “Unpublished” works.

Procopius is a special case, but I have been thinking about this book recently in conjunction with the genre of popular history book touting to reveal the history your teachers never taught you in school. Between the extremes of conspiracy theory, there is a spectrum of media united in the claim to reveal the truth about the past. Done well, this manifests as, for instance, the 99 Percent Invisible podcast that explores aspects of things that aren’t secret, but also aren’t immediately evident. Frequently, though, they are marketed more explosively as secret histories or under a title promising to reveal arcana guarded by the implacable sentry that is the history textbook.

I love history because it is big and weird—so big, in fact, that the science-oriented Randall Munroe  sarcastically proposed axing all odd or even years.  I say something to this effect to my students at the outset of nearly every course. The rhetorical move made by media marketing itself as “what professors didn’t tell you” is that teaching history requires selection. People who teach US history, as I did last semester, lament the impossibility of covering 150 years or so with any degree of depth, and the problem grows exponentially when the geographical and chronological scope swells to, say, everything in World History before 1500––or even before 1969 as in a course I took in college. Leaving aside the issue of sources, expertise, and political pressures to censor out most scandal, finite class time necessarily leads to superficial and spotty coverage. 

Most history exists beyond the walls of the classroom. Books patiently sit on dusty shelves waiting for a curious mind to challenge the tyranny of the textbook.

(I also believe that history as a discipline undercuts its own authority by introducing students to the field through big, broad courses rather than narrower, idiosyncratic courses. Inverting this structure would start students off with classes that deal with material on a human level, with the specificity of storytelling and enough engagement to arm students with tools before concluding with surveys that tie together the specific material with discussion of broad themes after students were invested enough to appreciate the big picture. In other words, history is taught backward even if reversing course is nigh on impossible.)

Spotty coverage does not a secret history make. I stress in my courses that history is a process, both in doing history and in how it unfolds. Touting something a secret history is at best a marketing gimmick and at worst something more sinister, both of which devalue the process.

There are no secret histories, only history not yet written. Individual documents may be restricted and authorities may push a particular narrative, and in this sense HISTORY is incomplete—and will always be.