Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 22:01 on 29-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
In unrelated news, I just finished Kim Newman's Anno Dracula. It was awesome. In fact, I'd say it's the only "what if vampires were real"/pomo metafictional reference party novel you'll ever need. (Mind you, I say this before having read Brian Stableford's The Empire of Fear which deals entirely in the former, so this opinion may be revised.)

And that final chapter...holy fuck.
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at 20:19 on 29-03-2012, Axiomatic
I love KSR, but I have to admit that yes, he does have a tendency to gush about Martian geography to an unreasonable degree.

Or Antarctic geography, if he's set the story there.
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at 10:17 on 29-03-2012, valse de la lune
I read The Years of Rice and Salt about halfway through and gave up, remembering nothing about it except that it was really very incredibly ploddy and not especially good. Which is sad, because I thought the premise sounded awesome.
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at 05:48 on 29-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Has Kim Stanley Robinson's prose improved any since the Mars trilogy? Because those were very zzzz-worthy. As was Antarctica.

The Years of Rice and Salt was the book where KSR got experimental. The basic premise of the book is that the Black Death managed to drive the human race in Europe to extinction, from the Atlantic to the Urals. The book itself is the story of how the world evolved without Europe, from the years 1400 to about 2050, as a series of ten novelettes, each dealing with some significant event and place. The stories are unified by having a troupe of characters who are reincarnated again and again in the Buddhist fashion and who tend to wander through each other's lives. The ones we get to see the most of are "K", the Revolutionary, "B", the Pious Conciliator, and "I", the Scientist. They change gender and race over and over, but they stick with each other and remain true to their respective archetype. KSR also tries to ape the literatures of the particular place and period for whatever novella he's writing, which I can't really comment on since I last read YRS back in high school (and even now my knowledge of non-Western literature is rudimentary), but it did get across the idea of eras changing, from material that happily mixed the material and spiritual world and had authors telling the story as an anecdote to modern material that reads as if it came out of a creative writing seminar.

Which is kind of the big conceptual problem with the book, really.

I mean, it has a wide range, and does try to thoughtfully consider what exactly drives history and how man fits into it, but once you step back and just look at the broad sweep of events, YRS is really just a copy of our world, even in places where it really shouldn't be. Technology advances at about the same pace, the Americas end up becoming the center of a major colonization effort only a century after it did in our world (though it does end with a Iroquois nation maintaining its independence). Industrialization starts at about the same time it did in our world, and modernization mostly proceeds in the same directions. There even expys of people from European history floating around, performing the same roles in different contexts (It's been a long-standing joke of mine that the most impressive part of YRS is that KSR was able to get a major publisher to buy his Civ III fanfic.)

Also, and this is probably more a personal taste, but I was disappointed that KSR decided to have the plague chew up everyone in the Slavic heartlands. I mean, you want to write a book that talks about how the world evolves without Europe, and you decide to kill off Russia, the society that has the most neurotic relationship with Europe of any society on the planet, the society whose history is always framed in Western schools and universities as the eternal struggle over becoming "more" or "less" European? You could write an entire book just on how Russia would evolve without Europe to use/obsess over as a model. (An interesting bit of speculation about this matter popped up in Robert Silverberg's The Gate of Worlds, which has Europe is damaged enough by the plague that it spent the rest of the millenium as an Ottoman backwater. Without a European model, Russia ends up displacing the Mongols as the hegemons of Asia, and the Emperor of China is a minister of the Tsar.)

Is it worth reading? Well, I liked it in high school, but even than I did feel it dragged in places. You can probably read it as a collection of stories in a shared universe and come off none the worse for wear. Some of them are actually pretty fun, particularly "The Age of Great Progress", which features an Indian prince seizing control of Constantinople with a two-pronged attack with ironclads on the Black Sea and a flotilla of bomb-throwing hot-air balloons, and "War of the Asuras", which is set in the middle of a 60-year long world war in the middle of the 20th century between Islam and the rest of the planet along a front line that bisects Central Asia, and features the adventures of two Chinese soldiers who try to figure out if they actually died halfway through the story. (Oh, and according to the little timeline in the beginning of the book, the war starts in year 1333 of the Islamic calendar, which translates into the Christian calendar as circa. 1914, because no man can escape the First World War, dammit.)
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at 05:26 on 29-03-2012, Bjoern
Has Kim Stanley Robinson's prose improved any since the Mars trilogy? Because those were very zzzz-worthy. As was Antarctica.


No, it hasn't. It's a brick of a novel written in Robinson's typical prose, including deviations into explaining why a natural feature looks gorgeous by painstakingly describing its molecular make-up. I've really tried to finish that one, because I like the idea, but it's far too much work and far too little fun to be worth it.

(By the way, I thought that Red Mars actually was a really good book, but after that his novels became ever longer and ever more boring. Finishing Blue Mars was a chore and the great ideas there - e.g. how to colonize Mercury - I could have read on Wikipedia and would have been better off for it.)
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at 03:26 on 29-03-2012, Michal
But wait! I have more to say:

It is icky, though I guess there'd be a risk that giving Native Americans magical mystical powers could go icky in another direction.

I'd say the "other species" route is more icky on the ickiness scale. The magical Native American stereotype in colonial literature was tied to the whole dying Indian thing by making them "closer to the primal" & increasing their otherness. Whereas, say, having practical magic and thriving cultures/civilizations able to effectively challenge European incursions would be a great deal different. I could still see so many ways to screw that up, however.

One of the (many, many) problems I had with Seventh Son was that, while magic presumably exists, settlement on the eastern coast hasn't been stymied in any way whatsoever. I would assume that healing magic would've helped with smallpox? But apparently not.
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at 00:28 on 29-03-2012, Michal
Now ask me about The Years of Rice and Salt!

Has Kim Stanley Robinson's prose improved any since the Mars trilogy? Because those were very zzzz-worthy. As was Antarctica.

I found Guns, Germs & Steel extremely reductive and was generally annoyed by how much it ignored. I also really don't like geographic determinism, for something like Alasdair's reasons.

I also firmly believe that indigenous Americans would have done fine in terms of resistance against the initial wave of Europeans if it wasn't for disease (Think about how long it took before Europeans were able to carve up Africa). Cortes was driven out from the Aztec capital, after all, and Pizarro would not have been able to do much against a united Inca Empire (his success came from exploiting a civil war...which was caused by the previous emperor dying of smallpox). We're also fairly certain the the Native Americans drove out the Vikings from their initial Vinland settlement, though the technological gap was a bit narrower then, and the actual reasons for the settlement's abandonment are unclear.
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at 23:06 on 28-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
@Sunny: Ironically, magical pharmacology would probably be the best way to go. Most of the Americas didn't have many of the type of environments that favors rapid disease evolution and hardy immune systems (i.e. large groups of settled people living in close contact with one another and with animals), and in a lot of areas the population density was so low that if a community was hit by a terrible disease, they would just die out completely and the disease would be unable to be transmitted. There's also the problem that getting a variant of smallpox or influenza from 500 AD would probably not be much help, given how fast bacteria and viruses evolve.

@Arthur: I'd buy that premise. Not quite sure what you could do with gunpowder if you didn't have a good understanding of metalworking, though. I'm thinking rockets. Lots and lots of rockets.

Also, this discussion if reminding me of a short story Paul Melko wrote called "The Teosinte War" which involved a academic trying to figure out how to put the Americas and Europe on an equal footing by 1500 by generating actual parallel Earths and teleporting in seed stocks, horses, what have you. It was a "man must not play god" fable, so everything ended in tears, with the final Earth being an initial success, only for tragedy to strike when the disease banks of both sides are exchanged and drive the entire species to the brink of extinction. There was also a cute pocket Earth whose Americas were initially developing in a promising direction, only for the Jin Dynasty to get interested. By around 1400, all of the Americas ended up as a tributary of China, and there was a long-term project to convert most of South America into farmland by slash-and-burning the entire Amazon rainforest. Even for the society that built the Great Wall, that's pretty damn impressive.
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at 23:06 on 28-03-2012, Arthur B
That could work. They hold off the Europeans long enough to recover from all the plagues, now with better immunity, so even of the Europeans start trying to invent heir own firearms (and it might take a while to work out all the kinks), they'll still be fighting on more equal terms.

Plus once they suss out the connection between those plagues breaking out and the arrival of European ships the Aztecs are going to be researching long-range cannon to sink any of those damn plague ships before they make landfall...
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at 22:57 on 28-03-2012, Sunnyskywalker
That could work. They hold off the Europeans long enough to recover from all the plagues, now with better immunity, so even of the Europeans start trying to invent heir own firearms (and it might take a while to work out all the kinks), they'll still be fighting on more equal terms.

On the magic front, I recently read Kate Elliott's Cold Magic and Cold Fire, which have some similar features to this book but took them in a different direction. There are both cold mages and fire mages; Europe is dominated by cold mages (being, um, cold, especially since the ice age is lasting a lot longer there than in our world), and they find when they get to the alt-Caribbean that cold magic is weaker as you get further away from the poles and the American fire mages can kick their asses. The reliance on cold magic has also acted as an alternate technology in Europe, plus the cold mages are opposed to fire-based technologies because they threaten the mage houses' dominance, so guns are still new-fangled in the 19th century, iirc illegal, and anyway they fail if a cold mage looks at them funny. So technologically, they're on a more equal footing. Also, the Taino at least have also figured out how to use fire magic to kill the teeny little creatures which cause disease (handy when those pesky Europeans bring a zombie plague over with them), which further evens the playing field. This world also introduces a second sentient species indigenous to the Americas (who are dinosaurs! with feathers! and law firms!), but they aren't the factor which keeps the Europeans at bey (they're just there to be Way Cool, I think). The human fire mages do that. So, magic makes the difference, without making it a special mystical woo thing only for people In Touch With The Earth or however else you want to phrase the usual excuse.
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at 22:24 on 28-03-2012, Arthur B
It is icky, though I guess there'd be a risk that giving Native Americans magical mystical powers could go icky in another direction.

Hmm. ISTR that South America has an abundant source of the chemicals you need to make gunpowder. Proposal for alt history: South American cultures discover gunpowder fairly early on, Genghis Khan dies earlier than he did in our history, limiting the extent of the Mongol conquests to such an extent that the Mongol invasion of Europe - which went a long way to drawing Europeans' attention to gunpowder as a weapon of war - didn't happen.

End result: Spanish arrive and are blown out of the water by the Aztecs, who have superior dakka.
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at 22:15 on 28-03-2012, Sunnyskywalker
I certainly wouldn't want to try to domesticate a moose...

Slower (and different) does seem to be the key (as opposed to "impossible") since, as you point out, they did get some fairly complex civilizations going in the Americas. The conquistadors were impressed by Tenochtitlan, eg. (No sewage flooding the streets, imagine!) Plus, adapting crops north/south is harder, but they did get corn all the way up to New England - it just takes a while.

But introducing a magical/alien species and slapping a name from the sagas on them just seems out of left field. Why not have a few fishing boats from Europe blow waaaay off course, bringing smallpox and influenza with them (say the boat has the last two sick survivors of the original crew, whatever), about a thousand years early, giving more time to build up resistances to at least a couple of the big diseases? Or if you're going to bring magic into it, why can't the human inhabitants of the Americas have the awesome magic? It's like the author is saying the indigenous inhabitants just weren't going to be able to protect themselves any better, not even with magic pharmacology awakening special powers, like it's some kind of preordained doom totally separate from circumstances. (Seriously, there is no way to imagine a magic pharmacology which could provide some protection against new diseases? Or at least invent a European-specific bioweapon to even the odds? Nothing?) No, they need magic saviors. That... sounds kind of icky.
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at 21:39 on 28-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Wait, alternate history? I should say something about this!

Even though I haven't read any of Jared Diamond's work, I do have a bit of an irrational prejudice against him. No good reason for it, other than the fact that my interpretations of history tend to the anthropocentric and the metaphysical while he's solidly empirical and ecologically focused. Still, his approach is useful when dealing with periods where there are no relevant records available.

As for his theory, I could buy it, but I always felt the major factors the America were "slow" to develop was the fact that, well, they were settled later than the rest of Eurasia by fewer people, and thanks to the warming after the Ice Age and human predation, there weren't as many species around that lent themselves to widespread domestication as existed in Europe, Asia, and Africa (which is another kick in the pants for agriculture, since if humans need crops, animals need more crops). There weren't even horses in the Americas until the Europeans imported them over, and in the Old World horses are the backbone of every major preindustrial civilization. I not saying development would never have occurred; humanity is way too tenacious to not exploit any possible resource to the limit. But it would have taken longer, because the Americas would be starting long after the Old World did, and would have to make do with fewer initial resources. Development along familiar lines certainly was occurring; there were mound-building cultures clustered along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and the Great Lakes that came and went in waves but were getting pretty centralized around the 1000-1500 AD period. And there were sophisticated societies in Peru and Mesoamerica, the latter of which was just starting to shift into the Bronze Age when colonization began. Still, if you wanted an Americas that could compete with Europe on equal technological terms, you would probably have to wait until the year 8000 or so.

As for Ms. Lyne's book, my snap judgement is that is feels a bit like premise overload (imagining an entire alternate species that uses "magic" that dwells in eastern North America is kind of a long way from the initial question of how indigenous populations could have met the colonization on an equal footing), and that in terms of sensitivity, replacing entire populations with aliens tailor-made to the requirements of the story may be the equivalent of vaulting over a pit of punji sticks, only to land on a claymore.

Now ask me about The Years of Rice and Salt!
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at 14:34 on 28-03-2012, Guy
Ah. According to the cached version: "Notice: The game is getting slammed! Please excuse the hiccups as I work to expand capacity... definitely wasn't expecting such a response by day 2, but am thrilled! :)"
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at 13:32 on 28-03-2012, Guy
Well, damn.
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at 13:23 on 28-03-2012, Rami
Link works for me...
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at 13:19 on 28-03-2012, Guy
Broken link? Or just me?
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at 11:15 on 28-03-2012, Wardog
I am currently enjoying Drawception far too much....
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at 10:26 on 28-03-2012, Guy
Diamond's theory is a bit smarter than that. I've read "G, G, & S" and liked it, and "Collapse", which I liked even more, although it's slow going. He has another one ("The Third Chimpanzee"?) which I haven't read.

Anyway, essentially, Diamond is trying to answer the question, why did people indigenous to the Eurasian continent militarily overwhelm people from the Americas in the C15th rather than vice versa? Why didn't boats from America arrive in Portugal loaded with Seminoles armed with guns & horses rather than the other way around? He's aiming for an explanation based on geographical and botanical principles rather than a "narrative of history" where events are caused by individual decisions - ie, it's not Columbus or Henry the Navigator, who are only proximate causes, it's the context they came from.

He covers all kinds of stuff in the book, some of which is disputed by other scholars, but the thing about N-S vs E-W axes is that in C15th Europe agriculture was much, much more productive than in the C15th Americas. And the short answer as to why is "wheat vs maize & potatoes". I found the stuff about the history of wheat extremely interesting; harvesting grasses with disproportionately large "seeds" didn't happen overnight.

Anyway, I don't have anything to say about SF&F inspired by his work, but I think it's an interesting book.
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at 08:35 on 28-03-2012, Arthur B
Jared's theory, as Lyle explains it, seems to hinge on the idea that Native American cultures didn't really vary along an east-west axis... so the chaps living in, say, Florida had a culture more or less the same as the occupants of pre-Colombian California. The fuck?

(It also implies that food is the only significant trade good, which is a whole other variety of WTF.)
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at 03:22 on 28-03-2012, Michal
This is why I think Jared Diamond can get stuffed. Because he's inspiring these kinds of alternate history novels.
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at 22:13 on 27-03-2012, Melissa G.
TIME I NEED TIME.


Dammit, Kyra, you need to cater to MY schedule here! I need reviews! I don't care what kind "life" and "responsibilities" you have!
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at 21:11 on 27-03-2012, Wardog
I really liked the books - although I might have partially misread / interpreted strangely some elements of them. And I thought the movie was ... okay. I keep meaning to write a review but TIME I NEED TIME.
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at 20:28 on 27-03-2012, Ibmiller
Well, I saw it. But I'm not sure if peeps elsewhere have...

I liked it better than the book (but that means little, since I didn't really like the book at all).
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