What I Read In August

UntitledEdward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (vol 2) (Folio Society Edition) I bought a handsome 8-volume set of Gibbon’s classic history cheaply on eBay. Attentive readers will note that I reviewed volume 1 last month, so I invite you to consult that quarter for the generalities. This volume gets stuck in to the fourth century and covers the reigns from Diocletian (ruled 284-305) to Julian (361-363). The focus, inevitably, is on Constantine (306-337), the first Emperor to espouse Christianity. The text breaks from narrative history (basically, just one damned thing after another) to analyse the early Church, and its tenacity given three centuries of persecution. However, persecution was leavened by long periods of tolerance, partly because the Romans really didn’t know what to make of this new-fangled creed. Roman religion was cheerfully polytheistic, and religious adherence was more a civic duty rather than a profound revelatory experience. Christianity, on the other hand, took the strict monotheism and hatred of idolatry of its  Mosaic antecedent, and added to that a promise of transcendent afterlife, the attainment of which demanded abstention from just about everything that made life worth living. The Roman view of Christianity was mostly one of  bemused bafflement. It was the refusal to make customary sacrifices to the Roman Gods — and the habit of Christians to meet together in secret to discuss who-knew-what — that led to the persecution. I admit that historiography has moved on since Gibbon’s time, but his more nuanced arguments about Christianity seemed fresh and new to someone who was taught that Diocletian persecuted Christians (BAD); Constantine espoused Christianity (GOOD), and Julian turned away from Christianity (BAD). Diocletian persecuted Christians — eventually, and after much provocation. Constantine embraced Christianity — eventually, and after much prevarication. But Diocletian’s long rule (for a Roman Emperor) instituted sweeping changes in government necessary for the management of a huge and sprawling Empire already in advanced decay, and which almost collapsed completely in the third century. To do this he divided the Empire in two — he ruled in the East, his capital at Nicomedia, not far from ancient Troy, while a co-Emperor was based at Milan, closer to the troublesome provinces of Illyria and the Danubian frontier. Rome itself was increasingly marginalised as a den of antiquity. But each emperor had an under-Emperor, making four, the so-called Tetrarchy. And, with frequent usurpations, as many as six. Constantine belied his nascent Christianity by murdering almost all his relatives. He made his new capital in the sleepy town of Byzantium, once a Greek colony, and built on Diocletian’s reforms by creating a vast bureaucracy that was too often prey to corruption and intrigue. The young Julian, exiled to the Academy of Athens, picked up his learning from ancient Greek tradition, so it was no surprise that when he emerged from seclusion to assume the Purple he had no interest in Christianity. He was also a capable general, countering massive invasions of Gaul by sundry barbarians, and tried to  thin out the top-heavy bureaucracy instituted by Diocletian. His military efforts, as Diocletian’s in the sphere of government, delayed the eventual collapse of the Western Empire. As Gibbon writes, what is remarkable is not that the Roman Empire collapsed, but that it stayed together for as long as it did, and is in part thanks to the work of Diocletian and Julian that it persisted. The standard view of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was that he had a vision of the Cross just before his victory against co-emperor Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Gibbon assumes that everyone will know this story, which is why Betty Radice’s introductory notes were essential reading. Gibbon caused much consternation in his time for his sympathy towards polytheism and his often scathing denunciations of the foibles of the early church. To this modern reader innocent of the tides of historical thought, his relatively even-handed view made a refreshing change.
UntitledAlastair Reynolds: Century Rain By now you’ll both have gathered that I am rather fond of the SF of Alastair Reynolds, having reviewed a book set in his ‘Revelation Space’ Universe in June, and the final instalment of his Revenger trilogy last month. Century Rain is a stand-alone novel and perhaps all the better for it. When I started to read it, though, imagining I had never read it before, I had that peculiar sensation of deja lu – yes, I had read it before, but had forgotten all about it. I attribute this to my failing brain, however, because it’s a cracker. Verity Auger is 22nd-Century archaeologist gingerly picking over the remains of Paris in an Earth made uninhabitable by a nanotechnological holocaust. After an accident in which she is responsible for the death of a student, she is steamrollered into a mission to journey down a wormhole to the Paris of 1959 to recover papers by a secret agent, Susan White. But this is not the Paris of our 1959. In this version of Earth, the Second World War never happened, and the Paris of the 1950s has the technology of the 1930s. In this alt.hist. Paris, Susan White has been murdered, and her worried landlord and patron commissions washed-up jazz musician and private dick Wendell Floyd to investigate. So, apart from the  whizzy futuristic space adventure one expects from Reynolds, there is a significant noir element, almost to a degree of self-parody. An American in Paris, who is a jazz musician turned PD. With a name like Wendell Floyd. Who has a burly associate called Custine, and a vampish black-clad German chanteuse ex-girlfriend called Greta, who at any moment you expect to ask What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have. Naturally, romantic sparks fly between hot-headed Auger and world-weary Floyd, but you know it’ll never work. Near the end, you can just about hear Casablanca:

  ‘I want you to remember me. Whenever you walk these streets … know that I’ll also be walking them. It may not be the same Paris, but –‘

‘It’s still Paris.’

‘And we’ll always have it,’ Auger said.

The thing is, the noir styling suits what elsewhere in Reynolds’ fiction can grate — that is, the habit of the characters to talk to one another in pithy, sarcastic asides. Here is suits the text down to the ground. And all this in a package so sharp it might cut itself and with a plot twistier than a nest of vipers learning how to crochet. I loved it.

UntitledPaul Morland Tomorrow’s People While writing a recent book and musing on the possible extinction of humanity, I became interested in demography, and in so doing came across this book, which promises a look over the edge at the near future of humanity. Although packed with facts, it fails, ultimately, to deliver. It would be fair to say that Morland stands on the centre-right of politics, and has very little sympathy for doom-mongers that preach imminent catastrophe, whether from climate change or overpopulation. And with good reason — Marxist policies on feeding populations have always led to disaster (‘Marxism Today: Famine Tomorrow’); and, in any case, doomsayers make political capital from preaching bad news. As Morland shows, the world’s human population is ageing, and is set to top out and begin a decline perhaps towards the end of the present century. In many countries it is below the natural replacement rate. In recent centuries the world has undergone at least one,  and in many cases two, so-called demographic transitions. In the first, life expectancy at birth is increased but fertility remains high, so the population balloons. This is essentially what happened in Britain in the Industrial Revolution and led Thomas Malthus to predict widespread starvation. Paul Ehrlich was still doing this in 1968 in his book The Population Bomb when world population growth was at its peak (more on that later). But then came the second demographic transition, when people moved to cities and had fewer children. This is what is happening now in most countries. In some the population is contracting at a remarkable rate, and whole swathes of countryside have been abandoned in countries as varied and widespread as Bulgaria, Russia and Japan. City dwellers have less environmental impact than people in the country. And there’s another side benefit – older populations tend to be less warlike. On the whole, there are fewer conflicts in the world than there used to be. The big exception is sub-Saharan Africa. Africa — and especially West Africa — is in the throes of the first but not the second demographic transition. As Morland shows, the population of Africa is booming even as it is shrinking elsewhere. Tomorrow’s people are likely to be more African than Chinese or Indian. After noting that the population of Africa will be four billion in 2100, I was waiting in vain for the other shoe to drop. A burgeoning population is a young population, and bellicose. The increasing drought in the Sahel adds to the endemic corruption and poor governance that are ever exploited by revolution and war. The ravages of Islamist militancy in countries such as Mali make few headlines. The multi-nation war that rages, on and off, in the Congo Basin, even fewer. Europe is already feeling the pressure of northward migration as conflict and climate make life in parts of Africa increasingly intolerable. Eventually, Africa will settle down, and the population will start to decline. Most migration in Africa stays within that continent, and the movement is generally towards mega-cities such as Lagos, after which the second demographic transition will take place. But the road before that might be rocky. Morland really should have said so.

UntitledPaul Ehrlich: The Population Bomb This is a small book that took a long time to read. The reason is that it was so noisome. Not the actual content (though that had its moments) but the book itself. I bought my copy secondhand for more than twice the cost of my eight-volume, slipcased edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and by the greasy feel — and the smell — it seems to have spent most of the time since it was printed (in 1970, but the book was first published in 1968) in the home of a chain smoker who lived in a damp cellar warmed sporadically by a paraffin lamp. So I could only stand reading a few pages at a time after which I had to wash my hands to get rid of the residue. Now, to the content. The Population Bomb is one of those polemics that I expect are more admired than read. It was written at a time when the rate of population growth was at its peak (more than 2 per cent annually). The spur seems to have been the author’s visit to India:

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming … People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.

The rest of the book is a plea to control human population by any humane means necessary. Some of the book’s messages — especially about pollution and the environment — were no doubt visionary for the time.  Some of the things he says, though, seem calculated to make enemies. At one point he seems to castigate American biomedical science for focusing on treatments to prolong lives rather than prevent new ones, what Ehrlich calls ‘death control’ as opposed to ‘birth control’:

The establishment of American biology consists primarily of death-controllers: those interested in intervening in population processes only by lowering death rates.

Although he does nod to the possibility of improved crops supporting larger populations (the ‘Green Revolution’ was in its infancy), he completely fails to understand anything other than the problem of a bulk increase in population. That, for example, populations can change; they can age; that people can decide to have fewer children; that people can be socially mobile. Even in India.  Despite a brave advocacy of abortion — the book was published five years before Roe v. Wade — he completely fails to discuss the revolution in female emancipation which over the past few decades has improved the lot of humanity without any of the occasionally draconian top-down suggestions proposed to control population. The world today has almost three times as many people as it did when Ehrlich wrote this book. And they are, on the whole, better fed, better educated and healthier than they were then. I am glad I read this book, if only as a historical document. Now I must go and wash my hands again.

Screenshot 2022-08-15 at 22.23.55Dan Simmons: Lovedeath Astute readers will note that the work of Dan Simmons appears frequently in these annals. Simmons exists at the literary end of the horror/SF spectrum, so much so that some of his work (such as Phases of Gravity) features neither SF nor horror. At his best, he fictionalises some real event and adds a very slight SF/horror twist. Perhaps the best known is The Terror, based on what might have happened to the Franklin expedition to search for the Northwest Passage after its disappearance (a novel recently adapted for televisual emission). My favourite is Drood, an account of the last days of Charles Dickens as recounted in a fictionalised account by Dickens’ very real but unreliable and laudanum-addled friend Wilkie Collins. Lovedeath, although literary in places, features a mite of SF and lashings of horror. It is a collection of five novellas, each in its own style, on the general theme of Love and Death (hence the overall title). The first is the memoir of a risk-averse insurance loss-adjuster; the second a squirm-inducing horror story set in Bangkok. Another, Flashback, is the mite of SF in the collection (Simmons expanded the theme at greater length in a novel of the same name). A fourth is a kind of myth quest set among the Lakota Sioux. Simmons saves the best until last with The Great Lover, a message-in-a-bottle type tale featuring the edited transcript of  a ‘lost’ diary written by fictional war poet James Edward Rooke during his time on the Somme in 1916. Scenes of gut-churning carnage are interspersed with Rooke’s highly charged vision of ‘The Lady’, who Rooke takes to be a metaphor for death. Or is she? I should add that this collection is not for the squeamish. The sex scenes are frequent and explicit, the violence even more so, but all saved, just about, by the quality of the writing. It is indeed rather strong meat, and perhaps should have been called Sex, Violence and Violent Sex.

Screenshot 2022-08-19 at 08.37.07Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson: Empty Planet This is the third book on the future of the human population I have read this month, and I have to say it was every bit as disappointing as the other two: Paul Morland’s Tomorrow’s People and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Morland failed to deliver on the promise of his title, and Ehrlich was just plain wrong (perhaps not his fault). Bricker and Ibbitson are closer to Morland in that they predict wholesale population decline in the coming decades, as the Total Fertility Rate, or TFR – the average number of children any woman will have in her lifetime — dips below replacement rate (about 2.1) just about everywhere. The cause (which the authors tell us to a wearisome degree) is urbanisation, which goes hand in hand with increased education and female emancipation, which lead to conscious decisions to have fewer children. The authors suggest that the UN might have ulterior motives in suggesting that the global population will top out at just over 11.2 billion, claiming they know better, and that the total might be less, even as low as nine billion. They get their knowledge from talking to the occasional academic and their own focus groups of young people from all over the world, from Brussels to Nairobi, Delhi to Sao Paulo. Someone should have told them that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’. The book degenerates by slow degrees into a soggy mire of politically correct self-congratulation in which the authors praise Canada  as a beacon of multiculturalism (the authors are Canadian), but they don’t put their heads above the parapet and tell us very much about what the world will look like in the next century or two. Ehrlich went overboard on environmental degradation and the threat it poses to humanity. Morland barely touches on it, and neither do Bricker and Ibbitson. When will the planet be as empty as the title promises? In the end we are left in the dark. I have yet to read a decent book on the future of the human population. Perhaps I shall have to write it myself. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Roman Empire…

UntitledEdward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (vol. 3) (Folio Society edition). Now well into the Fourth Century, this volume deals with the pushback of paganism against Christianity under Julian ‘The Apostate’, to its final defeat under Theodosius the Great (379-395). The interval covered is quite short — less than forty years — but Gibbon treats with it at length, partly because he finds much to admire in the character of Julian. Although Julian reigned for just sixteen months (between 361 and 363), his life was full of incident and unusually well documented. Despite his fondness for the traditional rites of Rome, Julian was an excellent general, who kept the invading Franks and Alemanni at bay on the Rhine frontier. He overreached himself, however, in a disastrous campaign against the Persians during which he lost his life. Gibbon treats the travails of the early church with his usual amused detachment, especially the lingering controversy on the relationship between Christ and God. The Athanasians, who followed the ruling of the Council of Nicaea in 325 at which Constantine was present, held that Christ and God were of the same substance, but different (homoousion). The heretical Arians, on the other hand, held just as forcefully that Christ and God were of different substances, but the same (homoiousion). Like us, Gibbon marvels at how people were prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of a single diphthong: as Gibbon says himself, ‘I cannot forbear reminding the reader that the difference is almost invisible to the nicest theological eye’. And that’s before we even start discussing the Holy Ghost. No wonder Julian found comfort in the arms of Jupiter and Apollo. Julian’s death led to a revival of Christianity, and Theodosius finally outlawed many of the practices of paganism, such as the sacrifice of live animals. Gibbon, being a Protestant of his times, says that the Church became corrupted by the worship of saints and relics — idolatry by the backdoor:

The religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman Empire: but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals.

The main political event was the Battle of Hadrianople in 378, in which the Romans were utterly crushed by a force of Goths — it didn’t even need to go to penalties. The Emperor Valens died in the encounter. Although the Roman Empire wasn’t instantly dissolved as a result, the psychological effect was greater than the body count. Gibbon, however, cautions us against the outpourings of those who said that the ravages of the Goths left the country bare not only of people and crops but of birds, beasts and even fish:

Could it even be supposed that a large tract of country had been left without cultivation and without inhabitants, the consequences might not have been so fatal to the inferior productions of animated nature. The useful and feeble animals, which are nourished by the hand of man, might suffer and perish if they were deprived of his protection; but the beasts of the forest, his enemies or his victims, would multiply in the free and undisturbed possession of their solitary domain. The various tribes that people the air or the waters are still less connected with the fate of the human species; and it is highly probable that the fish of the Danube would have felt more terror and distress from the approach of a voracious pike than from the hostile inroad of a Gothic army.

Everything, then, in proportion — Gibbon’s salutary warning resonates with modern arguments which say (for example) that the interest we must assuredly have in extinction of species, or climate change, is not best served by emotively worded warnings of calamity, emergency or imminent disaster. Once again, Gibbon’s attitude seems so contemporary, that I was brought up short by how little this enlightened eighteenth-century writer knew of the natural world outside Europe. His discussion of the Huns suggests that his knowledge of  eastern Asia was sketchy; his ignorance of anything to do with sub-Saharan Africa, profound. This is shown in his illustration of a supposedly African ape, taken from Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, of an orang-utan (the spread pictured above), which is a native not of Africa, but of south-east Asia. Gibbon’s confusion is perhaps not surprising. Although orangs were known in the 17th century, chimpanzees only became known to European science in the 1770s – when Gibbon was writing his treatise. Gorillas were first formally described in the 19th century. As for the lineaments of Roman history, the bare bones of it, if not necessarily the interpretation, have presumably remained much the same since Gibbon’s time, and I’d contend that few have ever written about it with such style.

Screenshot 2022-08-24 at 09.02.03Miriam Margolyes: This Much Is True Miriam Margolyes is one of our best-known and most versatile character actors who might be said to have (as one character in Jurassic Park describes another) ‘a deplorable excess of personality’. Her overwhelming presence, which reminds me of some of my more formidable and ferocious mishpocha, crushes anything in its path. So much so that reading this memoir is rather like watching a road accident as it happens: transfixed in horrified fascination at the unfolding carnage, you can do nothing to stop it. I do hope for her sake that she had the text suitably picked over by her lawyers, as she says some very salty things about people who are still alive, and, possibly, litigious. It’s also scatological and even pornographic to a degree that I cannot help feel is somewhat affected. So if you allow younger readers, bewitched by the author’s association with the ‘Harry Potter’ universe (she played one of the teachers at Hogwarts in two of the films), to read this (and why shouldn’t you?) be prepared to answer some very awkward questions.

UntitledMary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  There is a tradition of novels being cast as a collection of letters or journal entries, from 64 Charing Cross Road, via Les Liaisons Dangereuses to, well, Dracula. Mix in a story in which the main character dominates while not actually being present (Rebecca) and you’d have something altogether meatier than this entertaining if fairly predictable romance. It’s  about an author seeking inspiration who finds herself on Guernsey just after World War II, following in the footsteps of the absent character who created the titular society on a whim to get out of being questioned by the Nazi occupiers of the island. In my humble opinion, descriptions of Nazi atrocities in such flowery fare do no honour to the victims of such horrors. I have to say that this is not my usual reading — I was persuaded to read it by Offspring2, and after seeing a recent Magic Lantern adaptation. I am sorry to say that I’ve been rather spoiled by Gibbon. After The Decline and Fall Etcetera Etcetera everything else feels bland.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
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3 Responses to What I Read In August

  1. Brian Clegg says:

    Thanks for the suggestion of an Alastair Reynolds I’ve never read – added to the wish list!

  2. Alastair Ross says:

    Did you happen to notice that one of Gibbon’s “causes ” was the zeal of the Jews .

    Here is a fine example of Colonialism at its worst .

    The innately civilised Romans allowed racially alien denizens of their Empire to settle and propagate Judaic tribal beliefs among the slave class.

    Sounds familiar . Read Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Two Hundred Years Together’ , please.

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