Quotes: No Man’s Faculties Could Be Developed without an Extensive Acquaintance with Books

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s speculative work The Last Man starts very much like a run-of-the-mill regency-era novel with its three-book structure. You even start to wonder whether much of interest is ever going to happen.

And then a plague hits. Book three, especially, where people drop off like flies, felt rather grim even before living through a pandemic myself. (I read it a few years ago.)

Shelley The Last Man

Since the plague aspect is a little too on the nose, I’m going to skip all of that for now. Instead, below is what the protagonist thought about reading:

“I felt convinced that however it might have been in former times, in the present stage of the world, no man’s faculties could be developed, no man’s moral principle be enlarged and liberal, without an extensive acquaintance with books. To me they stood in the place of an active career, of ambition, and those palpable excitements necessary to the multitude.”


– Lionel Verney in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

Sounds astonishingly like Mr. Darcy’s line about a truly accomplished woman who must improve “her mind by extensive reading” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, doesn’t it? It must’ve been very much in the air in the early 19th century.

If you’re interested, a free e-version of The Last Man is available on Project Gutenberg.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2004 [originally published 1826], p. 124.

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Hide a Gaming Room behind a Swinging Bookcase

Lisa Natcharian at The Storyteller’s Cottage transformed a long, narrow room into two smaller ones, namely a library and a gaming room with entry through a swinging bookcase.

The house is Victorian, built circa 1891, and located in Simsbury, Connecticut. Before the covid pandemic, Natcharian and her crew organized various book-themed events: author talks, writing classes, poetry slams, summer camps, book clubs, D&D game nights, tea or cocktail parties, live murder mysteries, even escape rooms.

Lisa Natcharian Secret Castle Room

The door into the gaming den opens when you pull a candle sconce attached to the bookcase:

Lisa Natcharian Secret Castle Room Door

The new secret room is papered with stone-block-look wallpaper and equipped with various furnishings that nod towards medieval castles: a round table with ornate wood chairs, a small suit of armor in the corner, and wall textiles, for example.

I’m flabbergasted that she was able to source so much of the furnishings second hand. I mean, who has a miniature suit of armor just lying around until you decide to sell it off on Craigslist?

Lisa Natcharian Secret Castle Room Decor

The results are well worth the effort, and surely will be enjoyed by all event visitors. For more images, visit her site, or, should you prefer to watch a video about the build process instead, you can see it on YouTube.

Images by Lisa Natcharian at The Storyteller’s Cottage

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Quotes: Even Just One New Language Infects You with a Radically Different Way of Thinking

The embodiment of the Enemy in The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, the Woman in White, says of the catalytic effect of human cities:

“You eat each other’s cuisines and learn new techniques, new spice combinations, trade for new ingredients; you grow stronger. You wear each other’s fashions and learn new patterns to apply to your lives, and because of it you grow stronger. Even just one new language infects you with a radically different way of thinking! Why, in just a few thousand years you’ve gone from being unable to count to understanding the quantum universe—and you’d have made it there faster if you didn’t keep destroying each other’s cultures and having to start over from scratch.” [original emphasis]

To me, one of the most fascinating features of my native Finnish is that the negator ei (‘no’) can be conjugated in personal forms, as if it were a verb: en, et, ei, emme, ette, eivät. For example, a one-word answer “En” to a question (e.g. “Would you like some tea?”) translates as ‘[I do] No[t]’, while “Emme” means ‘[We do] No[t]’, etc. And this is just one little, tiny detail of the amazing linguistic variety that exists on Earth. There are times I wish I had studided linguistics even further.

Anyway.

Obviously for the Enemy us petty humans had better stay petty and not learn anything new ever. She’s not wrong, though: we’ve come a long way, and human ingenuity can be astounding. Unfortunately, so can the human cruelty. If only we could stop the needless hate and reach for more amazing heights…

Jemisin, N.K. The City We Became. New York: Orbit, 2020, p. 342.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Murderbot Mayhem Music: Fan Playlist for Network Effect

For the pure joy of having our sea container finally arrive with our moving goods, I’ve been re-reading all of Martha Wells’ Murderbot books in the past few weeks. That reminded me of a playlist Meghan Ball made to accompany the Murderbot novel Network Effect. I gave it a listen, and found it conveyed a very different idea of Murderbot than my impression.

So, I made my own playlist. It starts with a concert version of Darude’s “Sandstorm”, which I thought appropriate due to the reference of Murderbot visiting the Preservation planet for a cultural festival with concerts and operas in the beginning of the book.

  • Darude: “Sandstorm”, performed by Synthony and the Auckland Symphony Orchestra
  • Armin van Buuren: “Blah Blah Blah”
  • Paul Ruskay featuring Kokia: “Strike Suit Zero Main Theme”
  • Linkin Park: “Numb”
  • Darude’s “Sandstorm” and Rammstein’s “Du Hast” mashup by Monsterovich
  • Clint Mansell: “Lux Aeterna” (soundtrack from Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky)

The “Blah Blah Blah” and “Numb” lyrics remind me of the doubts some humans (especially Thiago in this story) have about Murderbot, and Murderbot’s attitude towards those kinds of humans. The mashup of “Sandstorm” and “Du Hast” nicely marries action-paced music with the weirdness that comes with Murderbot finally finding targetControlSystem and the thread of targetContact contamination and the crystalline growth / alien hivemind taking over Murderbot. Ending the list with a piano piece brings some calm again.

Below are videos for your listening convenience.

Darude’s Sandstorm performed by Synthony and the Auckland Symphony Orchestra by Auckland Symphony Orchestra on YouTube

Armin van Buuren – Blah Blah Blah (Official Lyric Video) by Armin van Buuren on YouTube

Strike Suit Zero Main Theme via Paul Ruskay – Topic on YouTube

Linkin Park – Numb [Lyrics on screen] HD via LinkinParkLyrics100 on YouTube

Durude [sic] Haststorm (Du hast remix) by Monsterovich’s Music on YouTube

Requiem for a Dream – Lux Aeterna (Piano Version) by Patrik Pietschmann on YouTube

What would you add or subtract? Do you have your own playlist?

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Quotes: Time Belonged to a Higher Realm

There’s a lot (a lot!) I liked about Karen Lord’s scifi novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. This snippet, for instance, puts words to a childhood wonder I remember from elementary school when learning math:

Karen Lord The Best of All Possible Worlds

“Standard Time was invented by Sadiri pilots. Most Sadiri procedures and quantification followed straight lines and linear progressions, created for the convenience of the ten-fingered. But Time… Time belonged to a higher realm. It could not be carried in human hands, not while it constantly carried human minds. It was all circles, wheels within wheels, a Standard year of three hundred sixty Standard days coiled up in twelve months, which in turn were composed of the small whirlings of twelve hours day and twelve hours night, tiny spinning minutes and seconds, ever-cycling breaths and blinks and beats.

“To be described as having a pilot’s mind was both curse and compliment; it could mean being unable to tell the difference between prophecy, memory, and mere déjà vu.”

– Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

I just couldn’t fathom why the decimal system is different from time measurements, and remember that for a time trying to reconcile them was very confusing. But time—heh, heh—helped with that, of course, along with more advanced classes, in addition to a certain amount of shrugging and just getting on with life.

It’s intriguing when a book serendipitously reminds you of thoughts you thought were long buried, isn’t it?

Lord, Karen. The Best of All Possible Worlds. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013, p. 40.

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Quotes: Infohistory Is a Mess

Elizabeth Bear’s scifi novel Machine has a succinct sum-up of just some of the problems concerning information retrieval:

“Wait,” I said. “How can information decay?”

“They used to call it bit rot. Servers get taken down, data falls through the cracks and doesn’t get backed up. Physical substrates are destroyed or damaged, or degrade over time—especially the primitive ones. A holographic diamond is very durable but can’t be changed once it’s written to, and magnetic media only lasted a decan or so under ideal conditions.

“And even if the data is preserved somewhere, that somewhere might not be networked. If it’s networked, it might not be indexed. Even if it’s indexed, it might be half the galaxy away and take two or three ans for the file request to get there, be fulfilled, turn around, and come back. And then you might find out that you needed different files entirely.” He huffed with great satisfaction. “Infohistory is a mess.”

– from a discussion between Dr. Brookllyn Jens and the medical librarian AI Mercy in Machine by Elizabeth Bear [original emphasis]

Despite this being from a fictional work, it rings very true. My librarian heart was delighted to read an account that acknowledges not just the physical difficulties of dealing with old media—whatever shape that media might take, from cuneiform to CDs—but also the search-related problems. Metadata, or in case of libraries, the information about the items in the collection, doesn’t feature in stories very often. Also, it is why good reasearch librarians and archivists are worth their weight in gold.

Bear, Elizabeth. Machine. London: Saga Press, 2020, p. 203.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Curious Case of Wikipedia, My Book, and Odoacer’s Mother

I recently had the odd experience of discovering that my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World is cited as a source on Wikipedia, and then realizing that it is cited as a source for something the book does not actually say.

The reference is on the page about Odoacer, a “barbarian” king who ruled portions of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century CE. Here’s the sentence in which I am cited, at least as it appeared in early September, 2020:

Historian Erik Jensen, avows that Odoacer was born to a Gothic mother and that his father, Edeco, was a Hun.

 

This sentence cites page 16 of Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, but here is what page 16 actually says:

Classical ideas about identity […] allowed for fluidity and ambiguity, on both the individual and societal level. The last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, is an individual example. Though Superbus was identified as Roman, his father Tarquinius Priscus was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus, was a Greek: in three generations of the same family we find three different ethnic identities. At the other end of Roman history we find Orestes, a provincial Roman who joined Attila’s Huns and later made himself de facto western Roman emperor. He was succeeded by his son Romulus Augustus, the famed “last Roman emperor,” who was soon dethroned by Odoacer, a Goth whose father Edeco had been a Hun.

 

Do you notice what’s missing? I said nothing at all about Odoacer’s mother.

We know virtually nothing about Odoacer’s mother. Some ancient sources describe her as coming from the Sciri, one of the numerous Germanic-speaking groups who emerged on the eastern Roman frontier in the third and fourth centuries, but, like all too many women in history, she is almost entirely unrecorded in the sources.

Whoever added this sentence to the Wikipedia article made an assumption not supported by my text. It’s an understandable assumption, of course, in a modern context. Modern definitions of ethnicity tend to rely heavily on ancestry and descent. If we know that someone today identifies as, say, Irish, and their father is Lebanese, it’s a fair bet that their mother is Irish, because their Irishness has to come from somewhere. Similarly, if Odoacer was a Goth and his father was a Hun, it may seem natural to assume that he must have gotten his Gothicness from his mother.

But these kinds of assumptions don’t work in the ancient world. While ancestry was an element of ethnic identity in the ancient Mediterranean, it had much less weight than we give it today. And that, in fact, is the entire point of passage cited: we simply cannot assume that one ancient person’s ethnic identity necessarily tells us anything about how their ancestors or their descendants identified themselves.

Now, to be fair, in talking about Odoacer as a Goth and Edeco as a Hun, I was simplifying a far more complicated and tenuous set of scholarly arguments. This is how these figures are identified in some ancient sources, but there are arguments not just about how we should describe Odoacer and Edeco but even about whether we have correctly identified these individuals and their relationship to one another. These questions are particularly vexed both because the surviving primary sources for late Roman history in the West are so fragmentary and because the various groups that emerged on the late Roman frontiers were often loosely defined alliances rather than rigidly established ethnic tribes. Goth and Hun, in particular, were names that were readily adopted by people of many different backgrounds and cannot be assumed to tell us anything about the ancestry of any given individual.

So I’ll accept the blame for simplifying an issue that should not have been simplified and writing a sentence that suggested more certainty than the sources will really sustain. I will try to take this as a lesson for the future to be more careful about the dangers of choosing brevity over clarity. I hope this can also be a cautionary tale for us all: check that your sources actually say what you think they say.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The Strange Poetry of an Index

One of the tricks of the trade in academia is: when you pick up a new book, look at the index first. Seeing what terms appear there and which ones have large numbers of references tells you a lot about what the book is about.

I’ve been working on the index to my latest book, a collection of primary sources on the Greco-Persian Wars. Most of the entries are proper names for people, places, and institutions, and their specificity tells you pretty clearly the topic of the book. If you take those out, though, the terms that are left have a strange kind of poetry about them. You could let your imagination wander and dream up some very different books that had these terms in their indices. For your enjoyment:

animals, archers

beer, bees, bread, brick, bridges, bulls

canals, cannibalism, carnelian, cattle, cavalry, chariots, childbirth, clothing, colonies, crown, cuneiform

democracy, diplomacy, disease, dreams

earth and water, earthquakes, esparto, exiles

forgery, fowl, frankincense, frontiers

gifts, goats, gold, grain, guest-friendship

hair, helots, heralds, heroes, hoplites, horses, hostages

incense, ivory

labor, language, lapis lazuli, laws, linen, lions

medicine, mercenaries, merchants, moon, mules, multiculturalism, mummification

oil, ointment, oligarchy, oracles

palaces, papyrus, phalanx, pomegranates, poultry, propaganda

racing, rain, religion, roads

sacrifice, satraps, satrapies, sheep, shields, ships, shipwrecks, sieges, silver, storms, stone

temples, tolerance, tombs, trade, translation, tribute, triremes, turquoise, tyrants

walls, water, wind, wine, wood

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

When Your Favorite Creator Has a Bad Take

It happens sometimes, especially in today’s social media world: the creator of something you love, be it a book, movie, tv show, comic book, or some other work of art, has a bad take. We’re not talking about your garden-variety difference of opinion. (Despite what the Internet would have you believe, people who like pineapple on their pizza and people who don’t can, in fact, live in peace together.) We’re talking about a serious bad take, one that denies the fundamental humanity of a whole group of people or supports acts of violence in the real world. What do you do then?

The first steps are obvious enough. You can speak out against them, whether online or off. You can affirm your support for the people they targeted, whether publicly to the world at large or privately to the people you care about.

You can watch how the creator responds, whether they learn and grow from the experience or double down on their bad ideas. A lot of us have had to learn to challenge the bad ideas we absorbed from the culture around us, and most of us didn’t do it in public with an audience of millions. It’s fair to say that if someone has reached an age where they are producing art for a mass audience, they should really have gotten past basic prejudices and misjudgments, but if somehow they haven’t, it’s better that they do it now than not at all. Whether you find their actions convincing or sufficient is up to you. You don’t owe anyone your forgiveness, no matter what they may say or do. You’re also not wrong if you choose to give it. You are the only one who gets to decide what is enough for you.

If someone’s bad ideas are egregious enough to merit it, you can stop giving them money. Don’t buy their latest book or a ticket to their new movie. This may get complicated if their work is tangled up with the work of other people whose good work you still want to support, but loss of revenue is one of the biggest pressures you can put on a company or organization to drop a problematic actor or cut ties with a writer who has spewed hate. You can stop giving them attention, too. Unfollow or even block them on social media. Don’t give clicks to articles or posts about them or their latest work.

What about the works you already have? Do you have to clear their books off your shelves or throw away the DVDs? You can, of course, if you feel it’s right for you. If your enjoyment of those pieces of art would forever be tainted by their creator’s asinine or prejudiced comments, then there is no need for you to keep them. Like forgiveness, it’s a personal decision you can only make for yourself.

But what if you want to keep them? What if there are still things you love about those works, despite their creator’s attack of foot-in-mouth disease? How do you continue to enjoy them?

I spend a fair amount of my time reading books that were written by people who were absolutely wrong about a lot of important things ranging from the intellectual capacity of women to the morality of slavery. Much of this I read simply for my work, not for pleasure, but there are ancient texts I enjoy, some I have read over and over again for sheer delight, like the masterfully-told stories of Herodotus, the heroic deeds of the Homeric epics, Sappho’s longing love poetry, Martial’s wickedly funny epigrams, and others. Even without having a social media feed from any of these authors, I am confident that most of them believed in things we would find abhorrent today. How can I continue to enjoy their work?

The art is not the artist. This is the principle known in literary criticism as “the death of the author” (which is less dire than it sounds). What we create exists outside of ourselves. Once an author publishes a novel or a director releases a movie, their creative work is done. It is up to the audience to decide how they will receive and understand the work. Our experiences of art are not dictated wholly by the creator’s intentions but are a complicated interplay of our own thoughts and emotions with the artist’s ideas. Those experiences are personal and unique, and they do not depend on the moral qualities or opinions of the artist.

When I go back to the Iliad, I know that I am reading the product of a culture whose values were sharply different from my own on gender roles, the morality of war, the acceptability of slavery, and many other fundamental questions. It is impossible to read the epic without facing all of those differences. Many of them are so deeply woven into the story that it simply would not be possible to tell the story without them. The Iliad is the story of male warriors fighting over the possession of a beautiful woman; without any of these elements, it would cease to be the Iliad. And yet there are things to enjoy in the epic, without excusing or ignoring the cultural assumptions it is grounded in. Some of the most powerful passages in the work are those in which the humanity of individual characters comes through despite the cultural baggage around them. Helen has moments in the Iliad where we see her fear, her grief, her frustration and anger about the war being fought for her, and we glimpse her as a whole person, just as complex as any of the warrior-heroes around her. The final image of Achilles and Priam weeping together over their lost loved ones is a moving expression of the power of human compassion to overcome hatred. There is beauty and value in these things, and I can enjoy them while still being aware of the context around them.

If there is a book you love but whose author recently revealed themselves as a bigoted ass, it’s all right for you to still love the book and treasure the memories of how it made you feel when you first read it. Your experience of that book belongs to you, not to the author. Once their words and ideas entered your imagination, they became part of you, as much as any other experience in your past. You don’t have to excuse the author for their bad take, but neither does their bad take have to tarnish your enjoyment of their book.

It’s also okay if you decide that you can’t pick up that book again. You are the only person who knows what is right for you.

Here there be opinions!

Quotes: Reading Books for Free Didn’t Kill the Publishing Business

By this writing, after the government relaxed some of the covid-19 restrictions / recommendations, some of my native country Finland’s libraries have already opened, and others are preparing to open.

My Finland Kirjasto in Helsinki

“I love a library. The idea of reading books for free didn’t kill the publishing business; on the contrary, it created nations of literate and passionate readers. Shared interests and the impulse to create.”

– David Byrne, musician and author

Judging by my family, friends, and social media bubble, the openings are very welcome, even though at this stage you can’t really spend time in a library yet (they’re only open for picking up materials, not for lounging or programming). Visiting the library is also at the top of my list of things to do after the Stay at Home Advisory is no more!

Stories are such a huge part of our lives, and we like to talk about them regardless of the shape they’re in. What remains to be seen is how moving increasingly towards digital media will affect physical libraries.

Quote attributed to David Byrne at The Guardian, July 17, 2015; found via American Libraries November / December 2015, p. 28.

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.