Friday, August 26, 2011

... not much to say, really...

it's about thursday lunchtime as i write this and i know it'll say friday on the date stamp above this but that's because i'm usually where it would be friday right now. so there you go. i've only missed a couple of days.

so what have i been doing? well, actually, i've been doing bugger all. reading, mostly. i finished reading one day by david nicholls and i'm currently reading virtual history: alternatives and counterfactuals, which is edited by niall ferguson, a very earnest scotsman who also wrote such titles as empire and the ascent of money (which was made into a great television series, also available on dvd).

one day was great. i finished it off in a couple of days, although if i'd sat down in the morning i could have finished it in one day (hahaha). it made me laugh and it made me cry. some things were surprising and some things felt a bit inevitable, less because they were part of how a story should go and more because that's so often how life goes...

virtual history, on the other hand, is a rather demanding book. ferguson's introduction is a mammoth ninety pages, almost double the average length of the "counterfactuals" presented. in it he explains the lack of seriously investigated "what-if" scenarios presented by the history-researching community and how a few differently-thinking academics are poking these various messes with sticks.

it's already inspiriing me to read more history. i remember reading the penguin history of the u.s.a. and that was heavy going but i'm sure i've read other history stuff since. haven't i? oh well...

the thing is that most "historical alternatives" tend to be the bases of sf novels rather than seriously considered reflections. fatherland by robert harris was a bit like gorky park, i thought, set in a post wwii germany where hitler had actually won the war and the time of the story was on the twentieth (?) anniversary of said victory. most of the alternative history came from the details, although one side effect of hitler's success was the election of joe kennedy as president of the u.s.a.

one really interesting one i like wasd called romanitas by sophie macdougall (i think). it was a drama/thriller set in britain 2000 years after julius caesar... but where rome never fell. some early emperor had chosen to professionalise the army (instead of allowing them to pillage for their pay) and that in turn had enabled greater military loyalty to the imperial throne, more effective suppression of anti-roman activists, longer peace - which also led to exploration of africa and north america, contact with the far east and india, settlement of australia! there was a long history played out.

i think my favourite would be kim stanley robinson's book, the years of rice and salt. using the conceit of recurring characters being reincarnated and meeting up time and again in the bardo in between lives, he explores the development of a modern world where the black death had completely wiped out western europe; where tamburlaine's armies were halted by the fear that whatever had wiped out europe was also waiting for the mongol horde; where maghribi islam resettles western europe through al-andalus (spain); where a chinese fleet intent on attacking japan misses by that much and ends up discovering california and south america instead; where gunpowder and the industrial revolution emerge from a newly expansionist india.

the counterfactuals in virtual history aren't quite so colourful but they're not meant to be. what if charles i had managed to avoid the civil war in britain? what if britain had stood aside in the first world war? what if germany had defeated the soviet union? what if jfk had lived? what if gorbachev had not?

they are more painstakingly teased out, with greater reference to the "what-if" discussions of the day. charles defeating scotland in 1639 wasn't actually a pipe dream, it was a reasonable and pursuable possibility. what if the colonies had received representation with their taxation? with more reference to primary sources, diaries and letters of people considering the alternatives before them at the time the events were occurring, the writers of these "counterfactuals" show how things might have gone and maybe give us now some encouragement and inspiration with regards to how things might now go from here.

so yes, i've mostly been reading. and i did my washing this morning too.


At August 28, 2011 8:10 pm , Blogger LT said...

Gosh Adam, looks like we'll have more than one shelf talker ready for the shelf when you get back. Is it hot enough for an icecream - if so, have one for me! Take care. LT


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