Review: The Transformation of the World

Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century is an overview of the developments worldwide, mainly in the realm of the state.  It shares certain characteristics of the Holy Roman Empire in that – by analogy with the famous dictum – it is neither quite global, nor exactly a history, and least of all does Osterhammel confine himself to the nineteenth century as strictly defined.

Osterhammel deals with events around the entire world, and puts serious effort into placing the causes of various movements (whether literal movements such as immigration, or intellectual developments) specifically in their native context, rather than strictly viewing them as reactions or contrasts to European thought.  However, this effort is strictly limited to developments within what might today be called “power centers”: Japan, China, India, and Asian Russia receive careful treatment, but other societies – whether in central Africa, the Indonesian archipelago, or the Balkans – are dealt with in much less detail, being referenced mainly as “peripheries” of major players.

A little more detail about those areas is found when he deals with conflicts; however, this is mainly limited to a section of the book in which he writes at length about the various changes in the extent and nature of political territories and authority over the period he refers to as the nineteenth century.  Much of his approach is guided by his thoughts on how the period should be divided up; he is in favor – for the most part – of considering the “nineteenth century” as a longer period, roughly from 1760 to 1914 or even 1937, with ramifications down to today: the ideas productively brought forth in the revolutions of the late eighteenth century are common worldwide today but, as he puts it, “not fully worked out” in, for example, China.

As partly revealed by this major question of framing the book in time, Osterhammel has a good deal to say about political power structures, much of it useful.  Two examples would be his contention that the United States, roughly by the Louisiana Purchase but certainly in dealing with various Native American tribes, took on early much of the same imperial agenda as the European powers; and his comparison of “warlordism” in South America and the disintegrating Chinese empire of the early twentieth century.  Either one of these is a subject which would deserve a book of its own; however, neither is actually explored in detail.  The ideas are suggestive but any attempt at proof or explanation is somewhat lacking.

Overall, in fact, detail is lacking: the book seems to be written mainly for those who already have at least a general idea of world history in the nineteenth century, and are looking for a way to bring it all together.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Osterhammel doesn’t really manage that: his determination not to force a “Western” narrative on events seems at war with his interest in political change and his obvious conviction that the modern liberal administrative state is in fact progress over any previous institution of governance (with perhaps some small caveats, for example the societal restrictions imposed by the modern concepts of citizen versus “alien”).

The result is a somewhat disjointed structure – at no point does Osterhammel really indulge in any kind of “narrative” – filled with much valuable information, analysis, and conjecture.  However, it does have glaring weaknesses: his evaluation of religious life in the nineteenth century seems incomplete at best, and any discussion of other culture – literature, music, even the “exhibitions” that characterized the era – is completely lacking.  The writing is good on the whole; I did not figure out if the English version were original or a translation, and if so by whom.  Each individual section – calling them “chapters” would be unhelpful – holds up fairly well on its own apart from the lack of detail.  However, considered as a whole is it somewhat weaker.  The book would be most useful for a historian with a detailed knowledge of his own smaller field looking for additional political reference points either for comparison or framework: to call the book a general history of the nineteenth century would be inaccurate.

Review: The Emperor’s Blades

I decided this year I would attempt to write something about every new book I read or film I watched.  It actually began as a resolution to write about every book or film, but then I realized I do way too much re-reading for that to be practical given my level of non-committment to this blog: a month and a half in and, along with the (serious! historical!) tome I’m currently working through, the rereads already are up to four: Nine Princes in Amber, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, That Hideous Strength, and Lord of Light.  I may have read a couple others as well; I don’t exactly keep count.

Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, as you might guess from the title, fits more with the light reading of that list.  It’s not only a new book to me but simply a new book, published last year.  Its setting is a fairly generic fantasy empire – wizards, ascetics, warriors, kings, the works –  which the protagonists must, naturally, rescue from its latest calamity, while perhaps learning something about the secrets of their noble (or otherwise) ancestors.  It’s also generic in that it’s intended as the beginning of a series, so resolutions to the main conflicts are rather lacking.  It might even be fair to say that more problems are raised than solved.

In tone, it’s similar to a lot of modern fantasy in that the world is assumed to be not such a nice place, and clear morality is apparently lacking, but the “good” people still mostly behave the way modern Westerner thinks they should – that is to say, doing no harm (unless you’re a soldier, in which case, whatever), and concern for the greatest good (of the people), and not much concern really for strictures of family or societal morality.

The writing is solid, sometimes even good.  Staveley avoids the trap a lot of empire-spanning works have fallen into (imitating not so much Tolkien’s original as Tolkien’s imitators, and I’m mostly, with regard to recent authors, blaming Jordan and Martin here) of trying to see every character’s point of view.  We have – at least right now – only the three protagonists, and their motivations are clearly pictured.  So far at least, the characters are not very deep and seem to encourage the reader to fall back on stereotypes, but that could change in further volumes.  There is one caveat: although Staveley does a decent job sketching a single protagonist’s character, motivations, and interests, his writing noticeably falls off when the protagonists interact and he tries to account for both perspectives at once.

This may be at least because plot-wise Stavelely seems determined to come up with a convoluted one, if only because it’s not entirely clear what the plot is or who’s really behind it.  Despite various revelations, on my reading at least their remains the question whether the “truths” revealed to the characters are in fact true.  My best guess is that certain of the details of the series’ plot he doesn’t even have worked out himself yet., or may have changed his mind even while writing this volume.
Overall I’d give the volume a C+ or B-: it was a fun read and I finished wanting to read the sequel but I don’t feel any need to re-read the book any time soon.  Whether it tilts higher or lower in the end probably depends on the tone and quality of said sequels, which may not be entirely fair but I say it’s Staveley’s fault for writing a series.

Review: Jupiter Ascending

Easily the worst thing about Jupiter Ascending – the Wachowski’s latest bid at relevance – is the ending, which wraps up approximately none of the plot’s loose ends and is probably supposed to be a sequel hook.  On the one hand, I don’t trust these guys with sequels.  On the other hand, a sequel might have a more unified vision and be a better movie.  You know, potentially.  But actually, other than the ending, despite its development – originally planned as a Summer blockbuster for last year, then delayed by production problems, unwillingness to compete with Marvel, and a rumored recut – it actually pretty much works.  It even manages to distract you from the problems with the ending plot-wise with some shiny special effects at the ending of the film time-wise.  The effects are probably the film’s strongest point.  The effects, and one particular gadget which approximately 99.56% of all audience members now want.

As released, the reason it works is that it’s really hard to completely mess up a “save the girl” storyline.  Sure, the storyverse is implausible on its face, and a lot of the questions raised by the plot go unanswered.  It’s not a great movie, and probably not even quite a good one.  But it’s pretty, and it’s fun, and maybe I have low standards for films but I liked it.

One thing I haven’t figured out how to do yet is to discuss movies in any detail without spoiling things.  So this is the part where I warn you to stop reading if you actually care about not knowing things when you see a film yourself.  Savvy?

Other than the ending – and probably related to it – is the fact that Jupiter Ascending is evidently at least two and possibly three films sort of smushed into one.  There are three distinct threads to the plot, any two of which might have worked in the same film, but with all three in it causes some dissonance.  First, there’s the straightforward “rescue the princess” story, with a Cinderella twist and a bit of spunk from the lady as well.  Second, there’s a touch of a “naive heroine learns to navigate the upper class insanity” idea; finally, there’s a bit of going on about the evils of capitalism.

I suspect from what I know about it that the film was originally supposed to major in those latter two, and the rescue-and-love story got pasted on afterwards by somebody who thought the movie as originally conceived (and apparently shot) wouldn’t fly.  Unfortunately, mostly all that’s left of the second idea is a bureaucracy montage which is actually very funny but doesn’t quite fit the tone of the rest of the film.  Of the economic screed, there’s virtually nothing left but faint erased pencil-marks: the fact that the villains are galactic evil businessmen, and the occasional lines from our heros that, I assume, couldn’t be cut or reshot to fit the now-dominant adventure story.  Honestly, one of the reasons I think Jupiter Ascending is an okay-to-decent movie is that it made me want to see the movie I think it was supposed to be.

Which brings me back to the ending, and why I’m virtually certain a sequel will be attempted, and now for the honest to goodness run-away-now spoilers.  It turns out our heroine’s an heir to a vast galatic-scale fortune.  But the ending shows her trying to get back to her old life without a really good reason.  Okay, the reason’s pretty clear: she used to kind of hate her life and her family was pretty terrible, but now she appreciates it and the family’s learned to value her because she disappeared.  But, uh, the responsibility ball kind of got dropped in a pretty big way and then ignored completely.  So with no explanation why that’s possible, it’s a pretty big problem.  And the logical solution of that problem is for someone to come along in the next movie and go, “Hey girl, look, we know you love your family, and yeah your boyfriend’s cute even if he’s not really an aristocrat, but you have problems, you know that, right?”

On the other hand, like I said, they did a pretty good job of distracting you from that with the shiny scene at the very end.  I want a pair of those boots.