Vacation Reading

While on vacation, I tend to read other people’s books, rather than (or in addition to) the ones I actually brought with me. Some quick notes:

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture – Hans Rookmaker, 1970
Rookmaker examines the explicit messages and implicit worldviews conveyed by painting in different styles. He also explores connections between artists’ expressed philosophy and their work. The latter is the most successful theme in the work, although I suspect that by focusing on artists he overstates the degree to which modernist etc. ideas were minority and even “hidden” opinions before mass media. The power of his thesis is hampered by two things: first, although he recognizes the focuses created by iconography and devotional art his defense of them as a Protestant is at best half-hearted; and second, he seems to me to have little love for his own Dutch tradition, suspecting it of already transitioning towards the modernity he distrusts. As a result he does not quite appear to have a role to give to beauty.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century – Charles Haskins, 1927
Haskins’ work gives an overview of learning in the twelfth century. He details works made newly available in Europe through contact with the Byzantines, Arabs, and Moors, as well as outlining developments in education from monastery and cathedral schools and court establishments to the initial stages of the recognizeable university. Appears to be one of the earlier attempts to correct perceptions of the “backward” Middle Ages and extended “Dark Ages”.

Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought – David Fischer, 1970
Fisher theorizes that good arguments about history follow a logical structure, albeit one not (fully) captured by formal logics as developed for strictly verbal or mathematical proofs. This work attempts to discover those rules by illustrating failures of argument, organized around several themes. When it comes to stating theses, finding and analyzing data, and organizing formal arguments (as appropriate), it’s a very useful resourse. Fischer is a little hindered by his rejection of relativism while refusing to set a firm standard himself. He insists in introducing the work that he is interested in “fallacy” primarily in form and that the primary responsibility of a historian is to make his working premises clear – but later rejects several common and plausible sets of premises, mostly having to do with relating history to moral judgment, as themselves fallacious.

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard, 1885
Probably the best known of Haggard’s books, at least in part due to the number of film adaptations. Also looks to me like an inspiration for significant parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A decent thriller marred for current reading by subservience to the racial theories of the day, it seems to me that its actual literary value will be difficult to judge without significantly more cultural distance from those particular errors. It’s worth noting that Haggard clearly felt something was wrong with the scheme, but also wasn’t going to challenge it: he uses “Negro” only a few times and explicitly rejects ruder forms, prefering descriptions of individuals to stereotypes (though ironically one suspects the success of this work set a few); and includes an African love interest for an English gentleman – though ultimately kills her (not him) off complete with a monologue about how it wouldn’t work out.

Review: Dr. Zhivago

Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago is by the standards of Russian novels positively svelte, which means it still goes on for some five hundred pages.  I suspect at least in the United States the film of the same name, based on the novel, may be better known – although I have not myself seen the film and am only familiar with the score.

Set in Russia in the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Zhivago tells the story of a man who grows up with the unrest at the turn of that century, serves in the army in World War I – and then must deal with the ramifications of the ensuing civil war and Soviet state.  Pasternak is less than flattering on the subject of the Communist Party apparatus, and although he names no names that was still enough for the USSR to refuse it publication: it was instead (wikipedia informs me) smuggled out to an Italian publisher.

It does share one quirk with the other Russian novels I’ve read, which are Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s War and Peace: both characters and author will periodically digress on philosophical tangents, and not only do different characters state different views, the authors seem to feel no need to make sure at least some character agrees with them.  This is most noticeable with Tolstoy, I think, who is constantly pointing out that such-and-such a conclusion is incorrect.

Not only much shorter, Zhivago is also much faster paced than those other two books.  I think if the events and many of the characters’ decisions were as drawn out, it would be much harder to read; as it is, Pasternak keeps his readers’ interest and his characters their sympathy.  It is not, I think, one of my favorite novels but is one I am likely to read again.

Fiction, War, and the Question

It would be pretentious of me to suggest that I read fiction in pursuit of some grand academic pursuit of truth or beauty (or whatever).  The fact is, I enjoy a good adventure story, and reading fiction – especially the science fiction or fantasy stories I prefer – satisfies that desire.  In fact, I probably over-indulge – an easy failing, as I read quickly enough that a large number of pages can take not that much of my time away from other things.

It is true, though, that the mode of fiction – the story, known to be unreal – allows authors, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately, to pose questions in a form which might not otherwise be possible.  Much of science fiction is also what is called “speculative fiction”: attempts to answer – or sometimes just ask – the question, “What if?” by providing an imagined context in which the answer becomes obvious (given the premises of the story) or the question becomes pressing (given the conditions set out in the narrative).  Other times, there is no particular point or question to a story in that speculative sense, but characters are free to offer remarks which have bearing not only on their imagined situations but (intentionally or not – and sometimes it is hard to tell) on real life difficulties.

I am going to, in this post, offer two examples from recent reading which reflect on the place of women in war.  The United States armed forces have, for several years, been moving towards integrating women in combat with men: attitudes towards this vary tremendously, both on ideological grounds (most obviously, conservative Christians vs. radical egalitarians) and on judgments of practicality (relative average strength differences: significant or not? – sexual tension: unavoidable or not? a cause for how much discipline? a cause to abandon the integration? – and so forth).  A significant portion of “modern” science fiction (which I am taking to mean written since the 1980s, or in other words, most of what I read) tends to assume the egalitarian viewpoint will triumph eventually – and the attitude is older than that, if not as widespread or settled.  The Lensman series – one of the first major science fiction series, published in the 1950s – includes women as “equal” protagonists – “equal” being in quotation marks because the work seems incurably dated, even by today’s standards.  Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) makes a sort of concession by calling women better pilots, but the grunts are men and the issue is mostly ignored.  Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) is an interesting case, in which the importance of men and women is presented as equal, but traditional-type social structures are assumed to have endured, for the most part.  This is of course a very incomplete picture, but will serve to demonstrate some of the history in the genre.

More recent writers – Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game  and his other works (now, ironically, under fire by egalitarians for some of his other Mormon beliefs), David Weber (of Honor Harrington fame, though it also shows in the rest of his work), Elizabeth Moon (Girdish, Familias Regnant, and Vatta storyworlds, among others), and others – pretty much have accepted that integrated militaries will be the order of the future, by analogy to the success of sexual integration in normal business.  (While complaints do still persist on this basis in real life – not to mention differences of opinion – the current hit show Mad Men should have reminded the public how much has changed even in fifty years.  Also, interestingly, the named authors and most of the others I have read assume – whether unthinkingly or for narrative purposes – that the argument will continue as well.)

All of this is prelude to the material I wish to quote.  From Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Vor Game, I offer a brief excerpt.  Miles, our hero, has messed up, and is brought in for a dressing down by his commanding officer:

Metzov was still expanding, self-stimulated. ‘In a real combat situation, a soldier’s equipment is vital.  It can be the difference between victory and defeat.  A man who loses his equipment loses his effectiveness as a soldier.  A man disarmed in a technological war might as well be a woman, useless!  And you disarmed yourself!’

Miles wondered sourly if the general would then agree that a woman armed in a technological war might as well be a man… no, probably not.  Not a Barrayaran of his generation.

And the story moves on, thought unanswered, dismissed, ignored – and hanging there, making the thoughtful reader wonder.

Bujold, at least in the Vorkosigan series just quoted, is clearly and deliberately telling an adventure story, not attempting commentary.  On the other hand, John Birmingham’s time-travel series which begins with the novel Weapons of Choice is equally clearly a serious attempt to comment on various social issues, within the framework of an action novel.  The premise: a 2020s American-led, combined arms task force is, by a freak accident, transported (and scattered) into World War II.  Chaos ensues.  As the various commanders try to explain 21st-century social expectations to FDR and company, Birmingham has Einstein (yes, that Einstein) say:

‘You seem to come from a militarized society, Admiral; the ease with which your men and women in uniform mix togehter.  The way you don’t appear to heed the race or creed of your comrades.  Some might see that as enlightened, and I suppose it is.  But you could also see it as the defensive response of a society that has been fighting for so long it has shed itself of all trappings save those needed to wage war.  You can see the same thing happening here and now, to a lesser extent.’

Now, Birmingham’s task force is coming from a future war which is implied to be a sort of second outbreak of mass terrorism, and his Admiral answers that these things were happening even in peace – but again, the thoughtful reader starts wondering: from World War II – which brought us Rosie the Riveter – to the Korean War, Vietnam War, defense-conscious ’80s, Gulf War I, Balkan interventions, Gulf War II – how long has the United States been honestly at peace for the last seventy years?  How did that affect us – even if not in the ways this fictional Einstein suggests?

I am not going to attempt to answer the questions raised, by either selection, at this time; the point was to demonstrate the unique place of fiction in discussion of important questions.