The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Heroic Warfare and Mass Warfare

There are many ways to fight a battle, even in worlds without modern weapons and techniques. Two terms that are useful for thinking about pre-modern battles are heroic warfare and mass warfare.

Heroic warfare is centered on a small number of leaders. These leaders are usually the most experienced and best equipped fighters their side of the fight can muster. They rely on their reputation as great warriors, so they need to stand out and be seen by everyone on both sides. In heroic warfare, battle begins not with both sides rushing into the fight but with the leaders stepping forward to identify themselves, boast about their victories, taunt leaders on the other side, and generally try to intimidate the enemy while boosting their own troops’ morale.

Mass warfare relies upon large numbers of soldiers who are all similarly equipped and who fight as a group. Commanders often stand out so that their own troops can identify them and follow their lead on the field, but they fight as part of the group and success does not depend on their individual reputation.

Historically, heroic warfare tended to be practiced in small-scale, culturally homogeneous societies. As societies grow larger and more complex, they tend to shift away from heroic warfare to mass warfare. There are practical reasons for this. The advantage of fighting in heroic style is that it greatly limits the number of casualties. The point of all the showing off and boasting at the beginning of the battle is try to convince the other side that they can’t win and so they’d be better off coming to terms and avoiding the fight altogether. For that to work, though, both sides have to have enough confidence in one another that they can make an agreement and expect the other side to honor it. That kind of confidence usually depends on having a shared set of cultural norms and values. It is much harder to manage across a wide cultural divide.

At the same time, heroic warfare is not all for show. The message that a heroic leader is trying to send is: “If we actually do start fighting, we’re going to beat you.” For that message to be credible, the leader has to be able to back it up, and even the best leader is no good without followers. Heroic warfare depends not just on the leader standing in front but on the soldiers standing behind them ready to fight if the other side doesn’t back down. Heroic warfare works when the number of troops on both sides is small enough that one well-equipped, skilled leader’s participation in battle might actually make a difference. In larger societies that can put thousands of soldiers on the field, the talents of individual leaders are much less relevant to the outcome of a fight.

Thoughts for writers

We like heroes. As storytellers, we tend to focus on the stories of individuals, even in settings where the actions of groups matter more to the outcome. There is nothing new about this. Ancient myths and medieval romances are full of heroic warriors, even though they were told by people who lived in times of mass warfare. The ethos of heroic warfare is undeniably appealing, but if it is going to make sense in our stories we have to think about how to make it work in settings where it doesn’t naturally fit.

There is a place for heroic warriors in settings of mass warfare. Where most of the real fighting is done by mass armies, there are still times when a powerful leader can make a difference—when events that play out on a small scale matter to the larger battle and when threat and intimidation are called for. These are the moments we need to craft as writers.

In other words, even when most of the fighting is done by these guys

you can still find a place for someone like this.

Images: Battle of Issus via Wikimedia (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples; 1st c. BCE; mosaic). Stormtroopers via Giphy. Darth Vader via Giphy.

History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Speculative Stories Online: Finnish Weird

Finnish Weird is a recent project to publish new Finnish speculative fiction in English. Published yearly by the Helsinki Science Fiction Society and edited by Toni Jerrman, the issues are available online for free to read or download as either epub or pdf.

Finnish Weird 3 Issue Covers

Each volume contains feature articles well as short stories by big-name authors such as Anne Leinonen, Leena Likitalo, Johanna Sinisalo, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Maria Turtschaninoff, and others. At this writing, the fourth issue (2017) has just been released.

fw4_logo

Author Johanna Sinisalo introduces the project and the style suomikumma (“Finnish weird”) in the inaugural 2014 issue:

“After barely a couple of hundred years of written literary tradition and decades of gatekeepers who have shunned works including elements of fantasy as cheap escapism, Finnish writers now create fiction that is a phenomenal mixture of sf, fantasy, horror, surrealism, magic realism – you name it. It’s highly original, fresh and surprising, sometimes it celebrates elements of our rich folklore and mythos, sometimes it soars sky-high in sf worlds, sometimes the stories are almost realistic, but have that little weirdness or twist that makes them something other than mimetic writing.

[…]

“I’m not trying to say that we Finns reinvented the wheel – new weird – and are trying to claim it as our own, not at all. What I am saying is that Scandinavian countries did not invent crime stories either, but in the wake of the international success of detective and crime fiction from Sweden, Norway, etc., ‘Nordic Noir’ has become a label for a certain quality of story. In my opinion, the label ‘Finnish Weird’ is also a brand – a brand that promises a roller-coaster ride of highly original prose from very diverse writers with truly personal styles. We are weird and very proud of it.”

Images via Finnish Weird

The Long and Pointless War

One of the common tropes in stories about war is that war is pointless and goes on far too long. This trope goes back at least as far as the Trojan War cycle in Greek mythology but a particularly strong version of it became prominent in twentieth-century American science fiction with works like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War. These works portrayed wars that have gone on for as long as anyone can remember and which show no signs of ever ending. The original causes for the war are long forgotten and both sides just continue to fight for no reason other than to avenge the ravages of previous battles. In more optimistic stories, all it takes to stop the carnage is for an outsider to point out to the combatants how meaningless their war is. In more pessimistic versions, the war just keeps going as the populations on both sides are blinded by warmongering propaganda and either unable or unwilling to ask what they’re fighting for in the first place. While stories of this kind may have a lot to say about what it feels like to be at war, however, they don’t match with what history shows us about the real causes of war.

Almost every society large enough to organize a substantial number of fighters, from ancient hunter-gatherer tribes to modern nations, has engaged in war. Some societies go to war readily, other reluctantly, and the immediate causes of individual conflicts vary, but certain patterns recur throughout history. Most wars ultimately come down to the need to control the resources that are essential to survival and prevent outsiders from threatening those resources. Most crucially, this means food, but other kinds of resources, such as access to trade routes, metals, and labor also contribute. People go to war because they are afraid of starving to death, not because they hate their neighbors.

The threat to survival may not always be immediate. Some wars are fought not for a direct tangible gain but to preserve reputation or prevent hostile forces from acquiring a competitive advantage. The danger that people fear when they go to war is also sometimes illusory or misjudged. Just because wars happen for a reason doesn’t mean that we all will (or should) agree that those reasons are good ones. Still, when you look behind the rhetoric and propaganda of a nation at war, you will almost always find a real fear about fundamental survival.

Ideologies, religions, political ideals, and other kinds of identities do play a role in shaping conflicts. They help to draw the lines between “us” and “them” and to justify why, in a time of crisis, “we” should live and “they” should die. Differences of identity alone, however, are not enough to cause wars. The history of the world is full of people of different faiths, ethnicities, and political persuasions living together in peace—not always harmony, but at least peace. War is the rare exception. To put it another way: war is a practical problem, not a moral problem.

Wars that arise from pragmatic fears will tend to last as long as those fears remain, or until the cost of continuing to fight outweighs the cost of accepting a settlement. History offers us plenty of examples of long wars. There were conflicts that lasted decades of more or less continual hostilities such as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta or the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe. There were also conflicts that recurred between the same forces on more or less the same terms over generations or centuries, such as between the Roman and Parthian Empires or China and the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. From the point of view of ordinary soldiers and civilians living through them, any of these wars may well have seemed interminable and pointless, but behind all of them were real and practical fears of the threat that rival powers posed to control of essential resources. They continued for so long because these fears remained unresolved, not because of ingrained hostility. When they ended, it was because circumstances had changed—one power decisively defeated another, all powers were too exhausted to continue, or an outside force changed the dynamics of the conflict—not because people suddenly came to their senses and stopped hating one another.

Thoughts for writers

I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t write stories about long and pointless wars. This trope exists for a reason and it has an important place in our literature. It’s no surprise that the trope became popular among writers who lived through the Cold War and, in the United States, the war in Vietnam. Both of those conflicts seemed especially pointless to many, soldiers and civilians alike. Almost any war can seem meaningless from the point of view of the common soldier following orders and just trying to stay alive. Stories of this kind express something important about the dehumanizing effects of war and the common yearning for peace.

It’s not our job as fiction writers to try to perfectly replicate history. We have the freedom to be unrealistic, but we should know when we’re doing it. If you want to have noisy explosions in space because they make your story more exciting, go ahead and have them. If you want to write a story about vampires in Victorian London, don’t let the fact that vampires aren’t real stop you. Likewise, if you have a story to tell about war, tell it the way you want to tell it. Just be aware that actual wars begin and end because of practical need and fears, not because people just can’t get along.

Image: Modern soldiers visit the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq, photograph by George Gieske via Wikimedia

Post edited for clarity.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Herodotus on Resisting Tyranny

170220dancerThe ancient Greek historian Herodotus was deeply concerned with the question of how democratic societies can defend themselves from tyranny. In the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, cities all across Greece saw outbreaks of tyranny: wealthy aristocrats seized power by force and ruled without regard to law or tradition. A few of these regimes lasted for a few generations, but most were overthrown in a matter of years. In the fifth century, Greece faced the larger threat of conquest by the Persian empire, whose Great King the Greeks perceived as kind of tyrant writ large.

Herodotus wrote about this history in his account of the wars between Greece and Persia. He told the stories of how the Athenians ousted their tyrants and how the Greeks organized to repel the Persian invasions. Some of his lessons in resisting tyranny, however, come in less obvious ways. Consider, for example, the story of Hippocleides (Herodotus, Histories 6.129).

The tale is set in the Greek city of Sicyon, generations before the Greco-Persian wars. A rich man named Cleisthenes had made himself tyrant and was looking to marry off his daughter, Agariste, to some rich young man from another city who could be a useful ally. Young men of fortune from all around Greece came to Sicyon to compete for Agariste’s hand. Cleisthenes hosted them for a year in his house, testing them on their credentials and talents. After a year, an Athenian, Hippocleides, son of Teisandrus, emerged as the favorite and preparations were made for a wedding. The story picks up on the day of the wedding:

After dinner, the suitors held a competition in music and speaking before the assembled audience. As the drinking began, Hippocleides, holding the attention of the room, called for some pleasant music, and having gotten the flute player to play, began to dance. And while I suppose Hippocleides pleased himself with his dancing, Cleisthenes looked on the whole thing with distaste. After a while, Hippocleides called for a table to be brought in. Getting onto the table he first danced some Laconian figures on it, next some Attic ones, but for his third act he planted his head on the table and waved his legs in the air.

Now Cleisthenes, at the first and second performances, was horrified at the thought that he might still end up tied by marriage to such a shameless dancer, but he kept silent; yet when he saw the man’s legs waving about he could no longer contain himself and declared: “Son of Teisandrus, you have danced yourself out of a marriage!”

The young man replied: “Hippocleides doesn’t care.”

– Herodotus, Histories 6.129

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[Signalboosting] Wanted: Speculative Stories by Women, Esp. of Color, LGBTQ, and Immigrants

Last week, editor and writer Jaym Gates posted a call for stories for a potential anthology:

“Okay, so should I do an anthology of NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED, what female authors would be interested in contributing? What awesome female authors (especially POC and LGBTQ, ESPECIALLY immigrant and trans authors) should I be reaching out to?

“And why only female authors?

“Because this is a project about the struggles that women face from the moment their gender is announced, and the courage and tenacity that helps them rise above that deep and unending opposition.

“It is a book about the experience of women, told in their voices. It is not a book about how others imagine it to be, but one deeply and personally influenced by their own fights and victories.

“And sure, I’ll do an anthology as a stretch goal, titled I’M WITH HER. Men are welcome to submit to that one. But men are over-represented in the SF and political world as it is, and I want more women to be heard.

“Yes, it’s fucking political. This project will be incredibly political. Intentionally. It will have middle fingers everywhere, between the lines and sometimes in them. I’m not going to be shy about this being a female-oriented project. I am also going to ensure that it is not cis-centered, that anyone who identifies as female is welcome. At least 2/3 of the authors will need to be women of color, immigrants, or queer. That’s going to be really tricky.

“But nevertheless, we persist in making more women’s voices heard.”

Visit the Facebook post for how to contact.

Makes me wish I were a fiction writer. Alas, more room for others. 🙂

Tips Needed: Years-Long Story Arcs on Screen?

Recently I’ve been thinking of Babylon 5 quite a bit from the storytelling point of view. When it first aired (1994-1998 in the U.S.), it was unique in my experience (which was, at the time, still quite limited) for a few things.

The Catholic Geeks babylon52

Firstly, I loved B5 for its complex, detailed, and consistent world. I hadn’t seen that level of commitment to worldbuilding on tv before. Also, the plot moved on several levels, from individual concerns to multi-species war, and involved political struggles, religious prophesies, racial tensions, social pressures, and personal rivalries of many kinds. At times it was heavy-handed, for instance in its discussion of authoritarianism vs. free will (“Who are you?” “What do you want?”), but not consistently across every plotline, if memory serves. (Note to self: It’s clearly time for a rewatch!)

What really sets B5 apart from other attempts, however, is that it’s carrying essentially one huge story arc over years of tv programming, not just one season’s worth. The creator, J. Michael Straczynski, conceived of the whole plotline before the series was written for tv. Apparently, it was specifically supposed to be a “novel for television,” with the core plot points figured out beforehand. (That’s my biggest beef with the current Doctor Who, for example: the writers are struggling to fold in new storylines into the existing canon—even very recently created canon—and it shows.)

Game of Thrones and The Expanse feel very similar to B5, being tv adaptations of stories already in existence, and I’ve really enjoyed those aspects of both. Before them, though, I can’t really remember seeing that many quality series that incorporate truly extended story arcs. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot all tried, even though none of them really implement as overarching a story as B5 does.

I’ve been wanting to see (and not just read) long plots lately, so I’d really appreciate your input. I still haven’t looked into Straczynski’s new series sense8—does anyone know whether it has a similar structure? Or can you recommend any other genre shows with long-term payoff?

Image via The Catholic Geeks

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

 

Quotes: [People Are] Not Isolated or Sensationalized Exceptions

“[…] I wanted to write about people who were seen as freaks, who had been broken out of the Acceptable Mainstream Mold, because […] those are the more interesting characters to show. But I didn’t want to punish them for it.

“And I didn’t want that punishment to be seen as what was valuable about them. […]

“But it wasn’t until the Devil’s West books that I faced head-on what had been simmering […]. I wanted to show those characters as part of the society that created them, not isolated or sensationalized exceptions. More, I wanted to show them as active parts of that society.”

– Author Laura Anne Gilman

Author Laura Anne Gilman talking about how anger (at sensationalizing attitudes and at one novel in particular) has directed her creative work; specifically, to show charcters outside the accepted American norm not as outsiders but insiders.

Gilman, Laura Anne. “The One Book That Piqued My Creative Fury”. Tor.com.

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

Being a Spartan

170123spartiateSpartans are renowned as some of the greatest warriors of the ancient Mediterranean world, and with good reason. Sparta had a 3-century streak undefeated on the battlefield (minus the battle of Thermopylae, where they lost only to encirclement by Persia’s overwhelming numbers). They won many of their wars without even a fight because when their opponents saw a wall of Spartan shields coming towards them, they just gave up and ran.

How did they do it? What’s so special about the Spartans?

The exceptional experience of being a Spartan began at birth when a state official judged the newborn baby’s physical health. Only healthy babies were allowed to be raised. Those that were sickly, weak, or had visible birth defects were exposed in the wilderness to die. (Only the children of the kings were exempt from this rule.) At the age of seven, all male Spartans were taken from their parents and put into a state-run education called the agōgē. The agōgē experience was brutal. The boys were trained in hoplite combat while living on meager rations. They slept outside, all year long, with only one cloak. Violence between boys of different age groups was encouraged as a way of toughening them up.

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