THE SILK ROADS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE WORLD by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
(Bloomsbury, 2015, HC,  ISBN: 978-1408839973, 656pp.)
No one has leapt to offer suggestions for me to review this month. (Understandable: it’s February, and February is a grim month at the best of times.) So you’ll just have to put up with me taking a ramble through what interests me, and offering you a reaction to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
I’m calling this a reaction rather than a review, because I’ve stopped 180 pages into this 500+ giant hardcover brick in order to gather my thoughts about what I expected from The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and what it turns out it actually provides.
The Silk Roads is a universal history, or at least is trying to be one. It begins with Achaemenid Persia and continues up to the most recent American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have not read this far: by page 180 Frankopan has just about dealt with the Frankish sack of Constantinople in the early 1200s CE and moved on to Genghis Khan. That means, of course, that fewer than 200 pages have been devoted to eighteen centuries of history, leaving more than 300 pages for the more recent eight.
From a history that references Central Asia with its title — “Silk Road” is a term coined by a 19th century German traveller and geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, and popularised by the Swedish explorer (and admirer of the Third Reich) Sven Hedin in a 1938 book — one expects a certain focus on Central Asia, a book that centres the sweep of the continent from Dunhuang and the Jade Gates to China in the east to the Dardanelles in the west. A book about the enduring influence of Merv and Samarkand, Bukhara and Balkh, Khiva and Karakorum, Baghdad and Beijing: the interchange between the Hellenistic kingdoms of Central Asia and the spread of Buddhism, the effect of Central Asian sciences and traditions on the early Islamic caliphate, and some history of the Tang Chinese and the development of China, and how Central Asia spoke to East Asia and South-East Asia.
You would, perhaps, expect a book that acknowledges that between late third/early fourth century CE and the sixteenth century CE (post-Columbus and de Gama, when Europe’s serious colonial imperialism began), Europe was a backwater. Essentially, in terms of major intellectual and political developments, there’s a millennium where Europe’s at best a poor, isolated, inward-looking country cousin — with the exception of Muslim Spain.
But instead of focusing on the history of the world as it might look from the point of view of, say, Merv or the ports of the Persian Gulf, The Silk Roads recapitulates a familiar (and familiarly Eurocentric) vision of history. Frankopan spends more paragraphs on early Christianity’s church councils than the entire context and history of Zoroastrianism, and more time on the life and conquests of Alexander than all of Tang China. The medieval crusading period is mostly dealt with from the perspective of Christian individuals — far fewer Islamic rulers and their responses to the conflicts of that period are spoken of than Christian ones.
It’s just… this is not a new history, okay guys, this is the same old history and not a particularly illuminating version. I read S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From The Arab Conquest To Tamerlane last year, and I was deeply impressed by his command of Central Asian sources, his ability to draw connections, his explanatory early history of Central Asia, and the way in which, despite focusing on a limited period, he wrote a history of intellectuals and scientific development that was, because of the connections, truly global. Starr’s achievement shows up Frankopan’s shallow engagement with non-Eurocentric histories and contexts for at least the first eighteen centuries of his history.
Before I throw up my hands and expectorate invective for my conclusion, I’m going to quote a paragraph from this book that added insult to injury — or perhaps injury on top of insult on top of insult, I’m not quite sure.
This is the second paragraph of the first page of the chapter entitled “The Slave Road.”
“The Rus’ were careful with their prisoners: ‘they treat the slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade,’ noted one contemporary. Slaves were transported along the river systems — remaining chained while the rapids were negotiated. Beautiful women were particularly highly prized, sold on to merchants in Khazaria and Volga Bulgaria who would then take them further south – though not before their captors had sexual intercourse with them one last time.” (Frankopan, 2015, 117.)
And then he just — moves on, without contextualising any of this from a social history point of view, to talking about slavery as vital to Viking and Rus’ economies. No comment on what “treat[ing] the slaves well” might mean to the slaves themselves, no pointing out that transporting people in chains while negotiating rapids might not actually be treating them all that well, and no acknowledgement that having sexual intercourse with enslaved women is rape. You can say rape in a history book, Peter Frankopan! (And you can stop pretending that slaughtering the inhabitants of cities is just good business sense for conquerors, while you’re at it.) (And you can rephrase that whole paragraph to something less full of slavery apologia and rape culture assumptions, as well.)
So, basically. My reaction to these 180 pages is one part WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST READ to three parts WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU BORING ME WITH THIS BULLSHIT.
Disrecommend.
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THE NUNS OF SANT’AMBROGIO: THE TRUE STORY OF A CONVENT SCANDAL by Hubert Wolf

Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent Scandal. Vintage, 2015. Translated from the German by Ruth Martin.

I first heard of this book via Lady Business, where it was spoken of in very complimentary terms. I can confirm that it is extremely solid history writing, clear and thorough and immensely readable: the kind of history where you keep reading in order to find out just what happened next.

Wolf deals with a particular convent scandal, one that took place in the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome and was investigated as a result of a complaint made by the German Catholic Princess Katarina von Hohenzollern to the Holy Office for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office of the Inquisition). Katarina had entered the convent as a postulant and then a novice (after two marriages and a previous unsuccessful attempt to become a nun in a different convent) and came to believe that she was being poisoned by the sisters of Sant’Ambrogio, as a result of her opposition to certain practices she believed were entirely improper.

Wolf draws on several archival sources, including the Inquisition’s own files and the testimony of the witnesses and defendants in the case, to illuminate the life of the Hohenzollern princess, the convent, the other nuns, Church politics, and the case itself. False saints, poisonings, political manoeuvring in the Jesuit order, the curia, and the papacy, Solicitatio by priests in confession, sexual assault of novices, female sodomy: this is history mixed with true crime, and Wolf lays it all out in fascinating detail.

Including a good deal of detail on how the Inquisition actually investigated the charges laid before it, which is fascinating in its own right.

THE SNIPER’S KISS by Justine Saracen

Justine Saracen, The Sniper’s Kiss. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

A romance novel involving women who love women set during WWII. A Russian-speaking American clerk in the Lend-Lease programme and a Russian soldier, later a sniper, encounter each other first during international meetings about the Lend-Lease programme. Later, the American clerk gets into trouble investigating corruption on the Russian end of the Lend-Lease problem and ends up at the front, where she disguises herself as a dead Russian sniper and partners with the live Russian sniper. Saracen has done her research: the WWII setting feels believable. The characters are reasonably well-rounded, the relationships make sense in context, and the writing is better than tolerable. As F/F romances go, it’s definitely in the top 10%, particularly for historical ones.

(I always feel sad judging F/F on these particular merits. But in any given month where I look at six or eight F/F books from Netgalley and at best only half of them are even readable, they are certainly the merits.)

Crusader Kings II: Queen of Oman

I recently started a new game of CRUSADER KINGS II, and since I’ve been enjoying Django Wexler’s write-up of his, I thought I’d do my own.

But unlike Django, I’m a cheating cheater who cheats.

Meet Karima Jamalid, a Levantine Karaite Shaykhah in the lower Arabian peninsula. There are no Levantine Karaites in the Arabian peninsula, you say! I say, I CHEATED.

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Thanks to the Ruler Designer Unlocked mod, Karima is a Strong Genius, Brawny and Shrewd, a Sayyid, poet gardener scholar mystic and so on, the healthiest woman on earth and so fertile that she only has to look at a man to fall pregnant.

Case in point: Shaykhah Karima of Dhofar produced a daughter almost exactly nine months after her first marriage:

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I also cheated my way into 50000 troops and a few thousand bits of gold. Just to get Karima started.

Karima is a vassal of the Azd Umanid Emirate, so her first cunning plan is to start a faction to weaken her liege’s power.

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Our second daughter is a genius. That’s useful!

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A bout of Slow Fever shortly after her second daughter’s birth results in Karima’s court physician cutting out her eye. It works! Cure! Now she’s one-eyed and badass… and still very fertile.

Several years pass. Karima forges a claim on Jask, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, and adds it to her desmesne. She has many children by many different fathers – some of whom she even married.

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Karima eventually declares independence, and after her former liege dies, claims another county, this time on the very tip of the Arabian peninsula.

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She gives Jask to her eldest daughter’s husband, and institutes elective monarchy, nominating her genius daughter Nastaran as her heir. A claim on Berbera and two quick Holy Wars later, Emira Karima is sitting pretty on a pretty piece of real estate.

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It’s stressful being a ruler. Next step, conquer the Arwadids and swear fealty to Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, to stop him gobbling us up…

Mourning Our Icons

I don’t know why the death of Carrie Fisher has hit me so hard. Maybe it’s that in the last two years, she seemed so much larger than life: unruly, unabashed, and unapologetic, an icon I was looking forward to see puncture the hypocrisies of Hollywood and how the world treats women for the next twenty years.

Her outspokenness about mental illness, her gifts as a writer and a public figure, and her utter willingness to give the world the finger – when it deserved it or just because she felt like it – were an inspiration.

And she gave us Leia Organa. She made that role what it is: Senator, Princess, Rebel, General. Her red pen is on the script of The Empire Strikes Back.

I don’t think I can express what it meant to me, to see Carrie Fisher as General Leia. Oh, I came to Star Wars through the novels, and later met Leia staring down her torturers on the screen: the woman who sees her entire world die and still doesn’t break. Who carries the men around her when they falter and digs deep and finds the strength to keep going.

General. Forty years on, brother vanished, son a traitor to everything she worked for, lover running from responsibility, and still the backbone of a movement. Still fighting: choosing again and again to stand for what she believes in, in a galaxy where doing that has already cost her everything. And yet still able to be generous, still choosing to welcome Rey, to hold out hope and an open hand.

General Leia is not all that Carrie Fisher was – she might be the least part of a complex comic genius. But the woman Carrie Fisher and the character Leia Organa are each in their own way inspirational figures, and the character is what she is because of the woman behind her.

To Carrie Fisher: drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

May her memory endure forever.

THEODORA: ACTRESS, EMPRESS, SAINT by David Potter

David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford University Press, 2015.

An excellently readable biography of sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, who began her life as the daughter of an actress and the bear-master of one of Byzantium’s factions, became an actress herself, bore a daughter out of wedlock to a wealthy man, left (or was abandoned) by him, somehow met Justinian, nephew of the then-emperor Justin, and married him – in order to do this, the law barring actresses from marrying respectable men had to be changed.

She and Justinian had no children, but she was one of the pillars of his reign, though they tended to be on opposite sides of the major theological-political question of their day (regarding the outcome of the council of Chalcedon and whether Jesus Christ had one (divine) nature or two (human and divine)). During the crisis of the Nike riots, she is reported as convincing Justinian to stay and fight rather than fleeing, saying “Power is a splendid shroud.”She predeceased him by more than a decade, but he never remarried.

Potter’s biography is lucidly clear and eminently readable. He does great work in tying the (complex) sources together into a plausible narrative of Theodora’s life and her personality. But I think more context for her later life (during the rest of Justinian’s reign before her death) would have been very useful: as it stands, the biography feels very much weighted towards her rise, rather than her reign.

THE HELLENISTIC FAR EAST: ARCHAEOLOGY, LANGUAGE, AND IDENTITY IN GREEK CENTRAL ASIA by Rachel Mairs

Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia. University of California Press, 2016 (first published 2014).

This slender volume is specifically concerned to discuss the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms in the region that today is eastern Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. Mairs focuses on the archaeological remains, uncovered by excavation and by survey; the challenges posed by the evidence and the state of publication of the evidence; the difficulties posed by unprovenanced items (as a result of looting) and the interpretative challenges of investigating “ethnicity” and “identity” in a region whose inhabitants are very lightly represented in the surviving literature (Chinese and Greek) and that from the point of view of outsiders; and in a region where very little epigraphic evidence has come to light that may illuminate the self-understandings of the inhabitants of ancient Bactria in the three hundred years after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Because of its prominence in the evidence, Mairs looks in detail at the city of Ai Khanoum, the Hellenistic urban foundation that has a Greek inscription which claims to be copied from Delphi, and posits a Bactrian architectural koine to explain some of its more unusual (as a Greek city) features. Mairs also looks at the relationship between settled and nomadic people in the region, and examines the explanations given for the fall of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms.

While brief, this book is really interesting, particularly from the point of view of identity in the “Hellenistic” world.

LOST ENLIGHTENMENT: CENTRAL ASIA’S GOLDEN AGE FROM THE ARAB CONQUEST TO TAMERLANE by S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton University Press, 2015 (first published 2013).

Lost Enlightenment is an ambitious and very readable intellectual history of Central Asia between the late 600s and the late 1200s CE. The first three chapters of this solid tome (over 500 pages, excluding end matter) set out to provide context: context for Starr’s endeavour, and context for Central Asia, which had a long and vibrant history even before the Arab invasions.

Further chapters centre on specific courts or specific figures, with significant space given to al-Khwarazmi, al-Razi, ibn Sina, al-Biruni, al-Farabi, Ferdowsi, and al-Ghazali, all figures who in their own way shaped the intellectual and cultural life not only of Central Asia, but of the entire Arab-speaking world and eventually Western Europe.

Starr accompanies this history of ideas and thinkers with a reasonably comprehensive discussion of political events affecting the region across this timeframe. His narrative occasionally tangles itself in confusion, as it does not always take either a strictly chronological or a strictly thematic approach. Lost Enlightenment‘s achievements are also lessened by Starr’s continually insistence on using comparanda from Western Europe: he assumes the reader is familiar with examples from Western Europe but not from Central Asia or the Arab world, whereas some of us (even Western Europeans!) are much more familiar with, say, Maimonides than John Locke.

For all its faults, however, Lost Enlightenment is a fascinating work and an excellent introduction to a region and a set of thinkers frequently neglected in Anglophone history writing. I don’t think there’s complete English translations of the works of any of the writers named above, with the exception of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh – and where there are English translations, many of them date from a century or more ago. Perhaps Starr’s efforts to bring this intellectual heritage to wider appreciation will spur some press to bring to an Anglophone audience more of the primary sources on which his history depends.

THE DEVIL AND COMMODITY FETISHISM IN SOUTH AMERICA by Michael T. Taussig

Michael T. Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Originally published in 1980, I first heard of this book as a recommendation from Max Gladstone. It is an anthropological study – one might call it a Marxist anthropological synthesis – of certain cultural and social practices present in some areas of 1960s and 1970s South America. It focuses in particular on a practice of the “devil bargain” among male agricultural workers, and on practices involving a figure known as the “Tio,” or “uncle,” a devil-like figure, which are carried out by Bolivian tin-miners. Taussig strives to argue from historical cultural context, and makes a strong case for the continuity (and adaptation under new pressures) of historic cultural forms.

This is a complex book, with a strong theoretical focus drawing on Marx, which is not an area in which I’m competent to say much. But it is fascinating read, if at times a difficult one to follow.

BATTLING THE GODS: ATHEISM IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, by Tim Whitmarsh

Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. Faber & Faber, London, 2016.

This is an intellectual history of atheism in Greek and Roman antiquity. It begins with the Archaic period in Greece, where traces of anti-theism (the idea that gods can be fought, or denied) can be seen in the Hesiodic Catologue of Women, among other places. From these mythological beginnings, Whitmarsh constructs a lineage of thinkers who disbelieved in the godly powers of the gods, and who theorised explanations for the workings of the natural world that relied on the principles of cause and effect.

The best parts of this book, by me, are the discussions of early “god-battlers” in the mythology, and the discussion of the various philosophical schools and their adherents. Whitmarsh made me want to read Sextus Empiricus – or at least feel mildly inclined towards doing so – which, since Sextus Empiricus’s books rejoice in titles like Against the Mathematicians, is a hell of an achievement. The weakest part is post-Constantine, which is not really treated in any depth: there might not be any space left for public atheism, but the book could have used a chapter on how the texts in which the outlines of classical atheism remain were preserved.

On the whole, it’s an extremely readable book, lucidly argued, and occasionally funny. Whitmarsh does sometimes like to pull out unusual words like perdurance, but that only adds to the experience. Battling the Gods is entertaining history. Which is the best kind.

Links of interest

Pulling some things out of the open tabs…


Marissa Lingen, On-ramps to various weird freeways:

So there was a Fourth Street panel where Max Gladstone wanted to talk about on-ramps to the weird: what accessibility we provide readers to works with a sense of alienation and dislocation, how we allow them to navigate works of science fiction and fantasy either without feeling uncomfortable or despite that discomfort, and what tools we can get from other genres in their on ramps–genres like magic realism and surrealism.

The Head of Donn Bó, The Tatooine Cycle. Star Wars as medieval Irish epic.

What was the reason for the Tragic Death of Cenn Obi and the Destruction of Da Thféider’s Hostel?

CBC News on the deciphering of the Antikythera mechanism:

After more than a decade’s efforts using cutting-edge scanning equipment, an international team of scientists has now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text — a quarter of the original — in the innards of the 2,100-year-old remains.

They say it was a kind of philosopher’s guide to the galaxy, and perhaps the world’s oldest mechanical computer.

“Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static,” said team member Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of ancient science at New York University.

The Independent, Scientists recreate Greek skies to accurately date 2,500-year-old Sappho poem.

Vulture, The Korean Gothic Lesbian Revenge Thriller That’s Captivated Cannes.

AGENTS OF EMPIRE by Noel Malcolm

Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.

Malcolm, a historian who specialises in the history of the Balkans, has reconstructed the achievements (in the service of at least five crowns, counting the Papacy and Venice) of three generations of an Albanian family in the 1500s. From Venice to the borders of Poland, and the Vatican to Istanbul, the Brutis and their relatives the Brunis were at the heart of political, social, and military events across the Mediterranean.

It’s a really good book. I recommend it.

News, views, disillusions

I have finished my third week at a RealJob. The paycheque is nice, but I woke up this morning sick as a dog. Ah, well. It could be worse.

There’s a lot of news to catch up on. In my case, the most exciting piece is that, along with Mahvesh Murad, I’ll be editing Speculative Fiction 2016:

Call for Submissions: What You Need to Know

The Speculative Fiction series is a not-for-profit publication. All net proceeds will be going to charity.
The anthology seeks non-fiction reviews and essays (“works”) specific to some aspect of Speculative Fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything and anything that falls under the broad genre umbrella), including but not limited to: books, movies, tv shows, games, comics, conventions, genre trends, and so on. No short stories or original fiction, please.
The works MUST have been originally published online during the calendar year 2016.
Any pieces chosen for the publication will be paid a flat fee of $10 per work (in lieu of payment, contributors may choose to donate their fee to charity in their name).
Nominations are accepted for works published by anyone online. (This includes bloggers, friends, bloggers who are friends, authors who blog, bloggers who are authors, alien life forms, cats, etc…)
People may submit their own work or someone else’s.
People may submit as many works as they like. (There is NO limit on submissions!)
Submitted works ideally should be between 800 and 1500 words (but that’s not mandatory, we may consider longer and shorter pieces).
While submitted works can be from anywhere in the world, although we do need an English translation for consideration.
Submissions are open through December 31 2016.

Submit your nominations here. Deadline is 31 December 2016.


There are some links hanging out in my tabs:

The Church’s Lingering Shadows On Sex Work In Ireland.

Jane Austen to Cassandra.

Lesbians of 1916 are the Rising’s “hidden history.”

Carrie Fisher interviews Daisy Ridley.

Wonder Woman, Amazons, armour and history: the best thing on Tumblr.

Poem: “Questions to Ask Yourself Before Giving Up.”

Database of Public Monuments in Roman Greece. Lovely searchable database.

More books arrive

Six of these, half a dozen of the other...

Six of these, half a dozen of the other…

Here we have courtesy of Tor: Michael Swanwick, CHASING THE PHOENIX, David Weber, HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER, Jaime Lee Moyer, AGAINST A BRIGHTENING SKY, and Catherynne M. Valente’s RADIANCE. Courtesy of DAW, we have Jacey Bedford’s WINTERWOOD. And courtesy of Oxford University Press, Nicholas Walton’s GENOA LA SUPERBA: THE RISE AND FALL OF A MERCHANT PIRATE SUPERPOWER.

Review copies arrived

Terrible photography AND unimpressed cat, aren't you lucky?

Terrible photography AND unimpressed cat, aren’t you lucky?

Courtesy of Oxford University Press, that’s Ulf Schmidt’s SECRET SCIENCE: A CENTURY OF POISON WARFARE AND HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION. Courtesy of Talos Books, that’s Loren Rhoads’ KILL BY NUMBERS (I want to read this trilogy, I do, I NEED MORE TIME). And courtesy of Orbit Books, we have Ann Leckie’s amazing ANCILLARY MERCY.

Links of interest

At The Book Smugglers, Kate Elliott on COURT OF FIVES: Inspirations and Influences.

At Tor.com, Caitlyn Paxson on Five Canadian Books to Look for in Fall 2015.

Two from Archaeology Magazine:

New Kingdom Mummies Re-Examined

and

Underwater Mesolithic Monolith Discovered in the Sicilian Channel.

At Tor.com, again, Natalie Zutter on COURT OF FIVES and the Importance of Making Race Explicit in YA Fantasy.

At io9, Remains of “Warrior Princess” Found Buried Alongside Dagger and Sword.

At the Wellcome Library Blog, Monica H. Green on Speaking Of Trotula.

Two reviews from NPR:

Genevieve Valentine on A WOMAN IN ARABIA by Gertrude Bell,

and

Carmen Machado on PRODIGIES by Angélica Gorodischer.

And on BBC Radio 4, Late Night Women’s Hour: Reclaiming The Nerdverse, with Zen Cho, Naomi Alderman, Helen Lewis, Lucy Saxon, and Linda Woodhead.