1493 – Charles Mann

I have a mixed relationship with reading non-fiction, and particularly with reading history books. On the one hand, I enjoy it and there are lots of interesting stories that I want to read about; on the other hand, it is work-adjacent and I have a little voice nagging me that if I have time to read this history, why don’t I have time to read the latest scholarship. This and other issues explain why 1493, a book recommended to me by a friend who teaches high school history, sat on my to-read shelf for so many months. But here in 2018 I am trying to read more non-fiction and I decided that it was work-adjacent enough that I finally picked it up.

Mann’s thesis in 1493 is fairly simple: although it is fashionable to forget, condemn, or otherwise disregard European explorers such as Christopher Columbus (Colón, as Mann calls him), they collectively initiated a process that resulted in the development of the “homogenocene”—a sub-epoch of the holocene that unified the global ecosystem. In other words, we are living in a world that is linked to an unprecedented degree. What makes 1493 worth reading is the evidence he marshals to support this thesis.

1493 starts and ends in Mann’s garden, contemplating the fruits, vegetables, and tubers that found their way from all over the world into this patch of ground. Between weeding his tomatoes, Mann treks all over the world, looking at in turn tobacco, malaria, silk and silver, rice, potatoes, rubber, human trafficking, and all of the other organisms that went along with these goods back and forth across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Woven in are elements of environmental determinism and the ways people have tried to change their fates, how the global Columbian Exchange resulted in millions of people dying from illness, but saved millions more by introducing crops like the potato that can thrive in otherwise marginal land.

Mann is an engaging writer and while he is more comfortable entertaining speculation where there is at best circumstantial evidence than I like, he builds his argument by bringing academic research to life. This strength comes to light, for instance, when Mann talks immigration to the Americas. There is discussion of the slave trade, but he also discusses the rise and fall of Maroon (fugitive slave and native) communities and the influx of Asian populations in Central and South America. Mann embraces the complexity, explaining in lucid terms the push-pull factors that lay behind the population movements, how the demographic changes led to changes in the economic structures and goods, and, above all, how the cultures constructed their social hierarchies. Memory and its opposite, which are central to cultural memory, serve as a recurrent through-line as the tomato and sweet potato became embedded in cultural self-fashioning and many of the people who introduced these crops were, for better or worse, forgotten.

This is not a deep dive, but that is the tradeoff for its truly global scope. In the end, I appreciated 1493 and can envision using some chapters for a World History course. Mann’s basic thesis about the Columbian Exchange is shown beyond question, and it is hard not to be caught up in Mann’s sense of wonder at the immense changes. There are moments when that enthusiasm seems to walk the line with admiration for the human agents of the changes, irrespective of their outcomes. Of course the irony here is that despite Mann’s stated aim of restoring Columbus to this global narrative, these men were in the long run forgotten by the world they played an incidental role in helping to create.

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I am currently reading Omer El Akkad’s debut novel American War, which is a story set during the bleak future of the second American Civil War.

Fantasy Literature: depression and globalism.

The whole point of speculative fiction is that it provides an opportunity to mull over ideas, concerns, concepts, and issues, while, hopefully, telling a compelling story along the way–whether that compulsion is light, grave, suspenseful, or terrifying. As Brandon Sanderson’s character Hoid says in The Way of Kings: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

There are dozens of ways in which these stories can be parsed and mulled over, in the same way that any literary criticism can function, but there are two I’ve been thinking about recently: depression and globalism.

Depression
Heroes in epic fantasy are depressed, sometimes. Usually when they are bummed because something did not go their way, but there is no time for wallowing when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. There are things to be done, and a hero is a man or woman of action. If the wallowing goes on too long, a character of greater gravitas, usually someone older but reliant on their wisdom or empathy with the hero to save the world because the hero is fated or “more powerful,” comes along to slap the hero out of whatever funk they are in. Else, something happens to snap the hero out of their funk and get back to doing whatever it is that needs doing. That is just the proper way for things to happen. As Sam and Frodo march headlong toward Mount Doom, they despair of pulling through, but they are not depressed. The trope is that the characters despair and then soldier on against the odds.

There is something told to depressed people as a truism: nobody wants to hear about or spend time with someone who is a sullen downer. People like to be happy and energetic and someone suffering with depression sucks the air out of the room. This idea is used to great effect when a loved one has died and the characters mope about to demonstrate their sadness, and then they die or someone snaps them out of it. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the standard trope.

The second trope is that the powers beyond mortal reckoning that the characters dabble in break the mind of the characters. Most of the time these people are incapable of going on and must either be cared for, die, or become non-entities. Remember, the hero must be an active agent.

Just this evening I finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a story that is part of the same world of his Kingkiller Chronicles, but a non-traditional story featuring Auri, one of the side characters. Auri is introduced in the series as someone who, to be blunt, cracked while studying at the university and is therefore accounted one of the strange curiosities who inhabit the area. Those who are not locked away for their one safety know deep secrets about the world, but aren’t fit to live among humans. Auri is one such. The story is beautiful and haunting, but there was one situation that leapt out to me and, likely, to anybody who (as Pat put it in his author’s note) is a little bit broken. It is a scene where this beautiful, delicate, considerate, kind, and wise creature experiences the world turned upside down. Nothing is right and nothing can be right, regardless of how hard she may wish it was.

Auri is lonely and happy most of the time in the story and a singular panic attack does not sound like a typical experience with depression, but the frame of the story rang true. Being a depressed–as distinct from a despairing or weary–character need not be presented as simply sulking or moping until being set straight. When the world becomes wrong, it isn’t just sadness that arrives, but a panic, and there is an exhaustion in spending energy keeping the world right. Depression and functionality are not mutually exclusive, depression just makes it harder.

[In retrospect, I link depression and anxiety issues here. I grapple with both and find them two sides of the same coin.]

Globalism
One of the features of epic fantasy that has always attracted me is the world-building or universe creation…something which literature of a more limited, local variety simply doesn’t have to grapple with–particularly in historical settings where the interconnected baggage has been already established. A lot of the time, these issues never feature into the stories being told because the events do not have global cache. Series such as George RR Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have more fleshed out places beyond the immediate setting and have added in global connections accordingly, if incompletely. Jordan’s world, in particular, lets most of the connections between continents or parts of continents fall to outsider-intermediaries and allows that most of these places have fallen into obscure legends. The connections are there, but they are particularly scant. In contrast, Martin’s setting consists of fractured micro-regions, large swathes of which have been reduced to ruin, that it is possible to traverse between if properly supplied or if willing to stop off at nodes in order to change ships.

Other authors have used other approaches. CS Lewis’ Narnia has an edge that leads to God’s kingdom (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), marked as it is by a sea of white lilies. That book bears striking resemblance to the Odyssey, among other things, as well. In contrast, Pratchett’s irreverent Discworld is a disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which stand on the back of a giant turtle. I haven’t really read enough of either or done so recently enough to comment on the internal workings of these worlds, but both take place in a set, confined space. Something along these same lines can also be said about the immediate kingdom that is the setting for Sanderson’s Mistborn, where there may be more out there, but one is led to believe that the kingdom is the extent of the world.

Of course, the setting that set me down this line of thought was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The reason for this is that there is both the setting of The Lord of the Rings, with its distinctive shape for anyone familiar with fantasy maps, and also for The Silmarillion, which weaves in folklore and historical elements to tell the story of the world from its creation through the Third Age and the start of the Fourth. Along the way, the realm of the gods (and elves) is severed from the realm of mankind when the parallel Atlantis falls. Tolkien also hints at places found on no maps, including the lands in the south with exotic-looking humans. To that same effect, human beings enter into his story when they stumble out of uncivilized land somewhere off the map. The world is bigger than what is revealed and what is fleshed out in his stories. I find it ironic that Tolkien is credited with launching the use of such rich world-building in fantasy when so much of his world is literally terra incognita.

Though developments like the internet have heralded a new sort of globalization since Tolkien wrote, it is foolish to say that he wrote in an age before global considerations–he was born in South Africa, after all, and came of age in England during the waning days of the British Empire. Perhaps, though, more leisure time and more opportunity for long-distance interactive communication has resulted in books being picked over in ways never before imaginable.

Worlds have names. Rothfuss’ world is known as “Temerant,” though there is a line between naming a world and having the characters themselves know the name of the world (particularly when one of the key ideas in the series is the power of names). Authors have also done wonders when it comes to subverting tropes, such as in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon where the setting is middle eastern, with an old, out of shape hero. I love all of these books and, at some level, the world building has to remain incomplete because the world itself is a sandbox in which to tell stories. However, tropes remain. The worlds contain ruins of long-dead, glorious civilizations and, often, there is either too much of a monoculture or a variety of cultures whose practices and societies are so radically different that it is as though they were created in a vacuum and then placed side by side.

I like textured worlds that feel deep and lived-in and I like stories that provide issues to think about–something that good fantasy is adept at precisely because the constraints of the real world are lifted. But I believe it is misleading to say that a global, interconnected world is solely a product of the modern age–when I teach students about the ancient world I try to show that every culture is part of a larger system. What has changed about globalism, to my mind, is that as production and consumption are more intimately and immediately linked–i.e. as the world has shrunk–people have become more concerned about their place in the system. Issues that have really always existed concerning immigration, jobs, allocation of resources and capital, etc., have become more immediately present in public discourse, rather than the shipping of gold to India being a complaint that only a few Romans were aware of or concerned about. Creating a premodern world should not be an excuse to avoid these questions, particularly when the world itself becomes foregrounded in the course of a series. Epic fantasy grapples with issues, but nostalgic elements of epic fantasy are often used to avoid thinking about issues of globalization rather than wrapping them into the world in provocative ways.