by Doctor Science
I’m back from my week in beautiful Undisclosed Location, where internet access was a slow and unreliable thing. And where there was no TV and no newspapers, except the one with restaurant phone numbers. Besides sleeping, eating, walking, swimming, more eating, beer, shopping, live music, berry-picking, and yet more eating (note absence of *cooking*, an essential ingredient in making it a vacation), I talked to people face-to-face, and I read books. Lots of books. Five non-fiction and two fiction, and now I'm going to tell you about them.
In order of finishing:
The Thirty Year's War: Europe's Tragedy, by Peter H. Wilson. I read the first third (the set-up for the War) and the last third (consequences of the Peace of Westphalia and of the War itself), but only skipped around in the middle "battles and more battles" third. It’s a good introduction to a crucial period in European history about which I knew shockingly little: my Modern European History AP course in 1973 barely covered it, and Sprog the Elder’s course in 200?? wasn’t much better.
Pros: learned a huge amount, of course. I had never understood how truly the Holy Roman Emperor was *elected*, not just entitled quasi-genetically. So I’d never appreciated how much machinating various Hapsburg brothers and cousins would do, to get into a position to be elected. I’ve tended to think of European rulership to be inherited by quasi-genetic rules (primogeniture, especially), in contrast to Islamic rulershiip which traditionally involves a selection process among qualified candidates. The current Saudi succession system, for instance, seems to me to have strong similarities to the H.R. Imperial electoral system.
Cons: Wilson’s prose is rather stolid and not up to the enormous scope of the narrative. He’s reluctant to use commas, and apparently morally opposed to colons, semi-colons, and dashes, so his sentences read to me as droning, without enough vocal (?) modulation.
Also, he keeps referring to the HRE’s "constitution", but never defines it, so I really don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s British, though, so perhaps he thinks of all constitutions as uncodified, unwritten things we all just know. Very disorienting for an American.
American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama by Rachel L. Swarns. I’d like to do a fuller review of this at some point, because the material is so revealing about America.
Pros: Gives a great sense of the rhythms of ordinary African-American lives from the 1850s to the end of WWII: before, during, and after the Great Migration.
Two related things I learned, both of which surprised me: how totally Mrs. Obama’s black ancestors refused to talk about their lives in slavery and to pass down the knowledge of what it was like, and how surprised and upset some of her white relatives are to face the reality of slavery. Did they never read Faulkner? Did they never internalize what he had to say?
I talked about the book with my parents, and we all decided to do a family Internet book club reading of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Be warned: you’ll be playing too!
Cons: Not as well-organized or structured as it should be -- it was often hard to keep track of particular people. It really suffered from a lack of maps, and because the family tree in the endpapers doesn’t including birth/death locations for Mrs Obama’s family members.
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Pratchettian ideas and tropes, though not his prose, translated into science fiction by Baxter. Fascinating world-building, but problematic.
Pros: good characters who are more interested in doing their jobs (in the world and in the plot) than romance. The world-building is *epic*, up there with Ringworld and Last and First Men: suppose you could get to an alternate Earth where humans did not exist, just by flipping a switch? And from there to another, and another?
Cons: the authors are both English, and could have used a more thorough Ameri-picking, not just for turns of phrase but for culture, e.g. how religion works in American life.
More seriously, their world-building and their approach to the world is highly Anglo/American-centric and shows a kind of post-imperialist naivete. If you're writing a story about humans in the broad sweep of history and evolution, you shouldn't overlook that most people in the world today are Asian, and that human culture started in Africa. To expect to see big important patterns by looking at North America, especially the Pacific Northwest, strikes me as bizarre: if there's any action in an alternate universe, it's going to be first visible in Africa, the Middle East (=first region out of Africa), or the Indian subcontinent (next important region, also includes consistently dense populations).
Their naivete comes out when they depict humans starting to spread through the unihabited alternate Earths. I think perhaps American writers (at least nowadays) would be more aware of how violent frontier or hunter-gatherer cultures can be, and how bringing new cultures and ecologies into contact can lead to devastating invasions of alien plants, animals, and diseases. I don't want to say too much that's spoilery for the book, but I really scratch my head at a number of the choices Pratchett and Baxter made.
Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik, the next book in the pile, is the latest in the "Temeraire" series. Disclaimer: I've known Naomi for years, since well before she went pro, so it's
very difficult probably impossible for me to be objective about her books.
This one makes an interesting compare/contrast with The Long Earth, because it's about how our heroes Laurence (human) and Temeraire (dragon) come to a South America where the encounter between the Old World and the New was shaped by Europeans having germs, but not the equivalent of guns and steel. Novik is aware, as Pratchett and Baxter apparently are not, that human beings have a lot of seriously different cultures; she does a fascinating AU version of the Inca Empire, incorporating a lot of new archaeology I happen to have recently read about in The Incas: New Perspectives by Gordon F. McEwan.
Novik continues to wrestle with one of the overarching themes of her series: slavery. In this volume, she has the sort-of-slavery of the European dragons, the way the Inca dragons seem to own their humans, and something close to the historical slavery of Africans in Brazil. She doesn’t lecture or make a clear non-fictional argument, she tries to shape the narrative around the problems and follow where they lead. When fiction writers do this it always reminds me of people trying to straighten out an anaconda: you can’t just make it go where you want, you have to work with it, wrestle it.
I don’t know why, but I get a stronger sense of *wrestling* from Crucible of Gold than I do from The Long Earth, much more of a feeling that the book has its own ideas that the author is struggling to pin down. And I like that feeling. 
Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes. An important book I'd like to write about in detail in a standalone post. I'll note that Hayes is using "Twilight" in the sense of "Apocalypse".
Hayes adduces the Iron Law of Meritocracy: "eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility." He doesn't refer to Goodhart's Law or Campbell's Law, but he should -- I think he's talking about a variant of the same basic process. Basically, the more quantitative and "objective" our measure of merit, the more likely that the meritocracy will be made up of those who game the system. Hayes also has great insights into the psychology of "fractal inequality", where people all the way up the social scale keep feeling insecure compared to those even higher above them.
Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes by Simon Lamb. My mother picked this up in a coals-to-Newcastle trip to the library book sale, and I figured it would be a good match for my recent reading about the Inca. And it is!
Pros: gives a really good picture of what doing science is actually *like*, both the thinking parts and the grubby parts. Lots of stuff I didn't know from the last few decades about mountain-building, especially how they can be treated as extremely stiff fluids. It's commonplace to study how mountains cause climate, but Lamb has a fascinating theory about climate causing mountains. He suggests that the great height of the Andes (compared to other subduction zone mountains) is because there's a lot of friction between the subducting Nazca Plate and the South American Plate where the continent is. What causes the friction is a lack of lubricating sediment on the ocean floor, and what causes *that* is the fact that the western shore of South America is extremely dry, so sediment isn't being washed off the continent and into the Peru-Chile Trench. So the dry climate causes high mountains, not just vice versa.
Cons: like most of the science books I've seen recently, needs more illustrations. For instance, it's very frustrating that he rhapsodizes about Peach and Horne on Northwest Scotland but includes no image of their map.
The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic & Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port & Most Original Town by Mark Kurlansky. I borrowed this from the man next to me on the train and sped-read it. It's OK, a little repetitive if you've read Cod already.
It make me wonder how much the stubborn attachment of fishermen to their occupation, even though the fisheries are collapsing under them one by one, is due to Stockholm Syndrome. Fishing is the most dangerous job in the US -- far more dangerous than firefighting or policing, and the pay is *much* worse. But at least if you say it's "in your blood" then you don't have to face up to the fact that you're risking your life to destroy your own future.
 I have no idea if this makes sense: please tell me.
 In the process of writing up this post, checking facts and going off on tangents (as I do), I came across a paper about Salmon, Science, and Reciprocity on the Northwest Coast, by D. Bruce Johnsen. I found it because I was looking for a good cite about the fact, well-known to anthropologists at least, that Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest practiced slavery. Not precisely Edenic or Rousseauvian.
Johnsen argues that
the NWC tribes built salmon abundance over millennia of purposeful salmon husbandry. Far from being subsistence hunter–gatherers, they are better characterized as salmon ranchers.