Monday, 30 July 2012

The Fall of the West by Adrian Goldsworthy

"...instead of inquiring how the Roman Empire was destroyed," asked Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall, "we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long."  This recent but nicely old-fashioned history of the fall of Rome certainly bears this out: a litany of no-marks and nutters in charge; endemic civil wars and an institutionally terrible government.  Gibbon thought the sheer size of the Empire brought the whole thing down - Goldsworthy reckons the momentum was the only thing keeping it going.

It starts off looking at the 3rd century - a time of crisis, with frequent assassinations, different bands of troops proclaiming new emperors all over the shop, and constant fighting.  In the 4th century, things calm down a bit with a couple of strong emperors who know what they're doing - Diocletian sets up a tetrachy (four emperors!) which only works for as long he's the one in charge of them.  More civil war - then the rise of Constantine who turns the Empire Christian and, less famously, murders his wife by locking her in a sauna until she chokes to death.  The 5th century is when it all comes crashing down.  Attila the Hun, Vandals and assorted Goths.  The Empire carries on at Constantinople for a thousand more years after this.  But it's not the same - real Romans don't speak Greek!

Goldsworthy has a bit of a grumble about all the different theories historians have put forward about what went wrong - population decline, disease, movements of peoples outside the Empire.   All things which are very hard to discern in the historical record.  What they tend to ignore is what we what we do know about - interminable civil wars, which ran for most of these three centuries.  For Roman soldiers the big enemy was always other Roman soldiers. This was a colossal drain on resources, and would also have been devastating for Roman citizens living in the path of these warring armies.  And barbarians living on other side of the Danube or wherever couldn't fail to notice when all the legionnaires had abandoned the border to fight other legionnaires...

It's important to note that these emperors weren't fighting for a cause - Romans didn't really have any ideologies.  It wasn't even as if it was, say, a Christian emperor versus a pagan emperor.  They were fighting only for power and survival.  In previous centuries emperors had all come from the senatorial class.  To stop potential claimants, the senate was increasingly sidelined to make emperors more secure.  In fact, the opposite happened - lower class equestrians started grabbing the throne anyway and the pool of potential usurpers grew exponentially.  In the end any military officer who could sit straight on a horse had the chance to become a living god.  For a short time, anyway.

I've mentioned it in respect to this trash, but the original sin of the Roman Empire was succession.  Augustus never set up a good system for who becomes next emperor.  British history is obsessed with succession  - arguments about who's descended from whom, who's got a strong claim to the throne, who's the rightful heir.  It all might seem pretty ridiculous to us, but a very likely alternative would've been the anarchy and violence of the late Roman Empire.

Here's an interesting aside.  Like the popes, emperors grew sick of Rome.  Most of them in this period never even saw the Eternal City - they were either constantly on campaign (mostly against other Romans, of course) or holed up in Milan or, increasingly, Ravenna.  Poor old Rome - it became a shabby backwater in its own dying Empire.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Embassytown by China Mieville

This is everything science fiction should be - epic, dramatic, awe inspiring and mind blowing.  I liked China's The City and the City, but it wasn't without its flaws.  And I didn't even get all the way through The Kraken and Perdido Street Station - both were good, but too sprawling and unfocused for my tastes.  Embassytown is the real deal.

I'm not going to give too much away about the plot, because much of the enjoyment comes from the unexpected twists and mounting drama.  It's set very far in the future, and a colony of humans has been on an alien planet for generations, in a small enclave called Embassytown.  The aliens are the Arekei and are treated with the utmost respect and called Hosts.  They in return supply living biological technology from vehicles to homes and power stations.  All very weird and interesting, but it's the communication between the species which is the real focus of the book.

The Arekei cannot lie, and this throws up some fascinating ideas.  For instance, some of the humans have become living similes, so the aliens can use them as rhetorical devices.  The protagonist Avice is "the girl who was hurt in the dark, and who ate what was given to her."   This had to literally happen to her, so she could become a simile.  It doesn't make a lot of sense to humans, but the Hosts talk about her in different ways, and this search for nuance and, ultimately, lies, becomes hugely important to everyone on the planet.

This is all a bit hard to get your head around sometimes, but I found it hugely rewarding.  I saw echoes of some of the best sci-fi here: Lem and the Brothers Strugatsky in its convincing portrayal of the deeply alien;  A Fire Upon the Deep and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card in the way it looks at communication between humans and the deeply alien; Dune and Asimov's Foundation series in its epic scope, its portryal of earth-shattering changes in society, and even in the rise of ambiguous prophets and gods.

Despite all this, it's not overly long and there's always a clear dramatic focus to keep you going.  It's also intelligent and literary, and the writing and imagery are beautiful and affecting.  This is a huge recommendation from me - the best book I've read all year.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Johnson's Life of London by Boris Johnson

An odd book, but enjoyable.  The first thing I noticed was the bald faced lie on the cover.  A book on tape, read by the author.  Well, I know what Boris sounds like.  He may have read the first cd, a chapter in the middle, and a bit at the end (all with the sound of the photocopier in the background, amusingly), but the rest was written by someone defiantly not Boris, and definitely not credited.  I hope his Mayorship doesn't bring this kind slap-dash, half-baked approach to running one of the greatest cities in history.

This is - like Boris - a very self consciously old-fashioned yet modern history.  Most of it is portraits of the great men and women who've made their mark on London through the ages.  Boudicca, Chaucer, Dick Whittington, Shakespeare, Churchill and......Keith Richards?  Not that I've got a problem with an old school "great men" historical approach, and certainly not that I've got a problem with Keith Richards, but this is an affectation too far for me.

It's sometimes a bit too much like Boris setting out his political stall.  On one hand he gives a staunch defence of arch-conservative Samuel Johnson, but he also shows great affection for the radical rabble-rouser and freedom nut John Wilkes.  Mary Seacole (aka the Black Florence Nightingale) is a figure of annoyance to some on the right (and left) who see her as a PC icon, who's come to dominate the Crimean War in the classroom, but Boris gives sterling support to her rehabilitation.  The Churchill chapter lists his many faults, mistakes, prejudices but concludes that, despite all this evidence, he was fantastic.  Again, not there's anything wrong with any of this, but there's more than a touch of inclusive, touchy feely Vote for Borisism about it all.  This becomes ridiculous when he starts talking about a new airport for London and - good grief - Routemaster buses.  

The bits I liked best were a step away from politics, like the fitting tribute to the natural philosopher, architect and drawer of fleas Robert Hooke, who appears to have been the only man more eccentric and misanthropic than his rival Isaac Newton.  The highlight for me, though, was the passage on the life and paintings of J.W. Turner, someone I've previously known next to nothing about despite loving his pictures.  Turns out he was another weirdo.

So, it's kind of all over the place this book - more a collection of essays with London as its theme than a history.  Entertaining and informative though, which is always a plus.  I just wish Boris had read the whole damn thing.  Which isn't something you'd say about Ken.