Sunday, July 23, 2017

Life in the incomprehensible future -- a classic scenario

It is a scene in many a time-travel novel.  Boy genius, who works in his secret lab, creates a device that will take him to the future (he's not interested in Julius Caesar or even Cleopatra).

So he goes to the near gfuture and finds that its pretty much what you'd expect, with a few inventions more or less.


There is one cultural or religious or social innovation that absolutely shocks the boy genius and his friends.  How  can people who are otherwise so much like them think/believe/do that? B.g. flees to the farther future where a certain normality has been restored.

It occurred to me a little while ago that we have -- many of us -- crossed over such a line, and would deeply  shock time travelers from the near past.

Why so?  Same-sex marriage.  We are the weird ones, no matter who we are married to and the b.g. can't get over us.                                                                                        

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Green Count by Christian Cameron

I know two excellent writers of fiction, one being Robert Charles Wilson, the traveller of time, and Christian Cameron, the historical fictioneer.  I've talked about Wilson here recently, so now it is Christian's turn.

Fear not, Christian! I have nothing bad to say about you or your most recent book, The Green Count!

I am also not going to go into great detail about the virtues of Mr. Cameron.  They are two: he combines a tremendous knowledge of the periods he writes about with believable characterizations of people who lived in those periods.  This a necessary skill for anyone who wants to re-create the people of the past; even someone who does a mediocre job is doing something remarkable.  Mr. Cameron is no mediocrity, however.  He is a master.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Jesus took the bread, broke it, and said...

...what's in this stuff, anyway?

Surely not! But out of the Vatican this week comes word that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has ruled that gluten-free bread cannot be used for the Eucharist (Holy Communion), since entirely gluten-free breads require the use of additives, which means the bread can't be considered to be "natural."

I think the members of the Congregation might want to get real jobs.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

None dare call it treason?

It seems we are beyond that now.  From Talking Points Memo:
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) on Tuesday said the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether members of President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia may turn toward “potentially treason.”
“We’re now beyond obstruction of justice, in terms of what’s being investigated,” the former vice presidential nominee said on MSNBC. “This is moving into perjury, false statements, and even into potentially treason.”
Donald Trump Jr. on Sunday admitted he met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer in June 2016 because he was told the lawyer had damaging information about Hillary Clinton that could help Trump’s campaign.
The New York Times on Monday reported that publicist Rob Goldstone, who contacted Trump Jr. about the alleged compromising information, suggested to Trump Jr. that the Russian government was behind the alleged “helpful” information.
Trump Jr. on Tuesday released the emails he and Goldstone exchanged, including a reference to a “Russian government attorney” flying from Moscow for the meeting.''

The title of this post is a reminisce of the "good old" John Birch Society days (50s and 60s) when that right wing group was throwing around accusations  very freely indeed!

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Another example of "fandom" as the new mainstream

I've remarked before in various conversations about how things that used to be of interest only to "fans" (originally science fiction fans, then fans of fantasy, comics and movies based on previous fannish products) have been for quite a while part of the mainstream.

Another example in today's Guardian (not exactly culturally radical by my standards).  Actually, two:

Somehow I still don't feel part of the mainstream...

Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Vimy myth

We travelled to an SCA event in Whitby yesterday, and returned to Windsor today.  For most of that drive we listened to CBC Radio One.  Excellent material, more excellent than usual.

The most thought-provoking program today was the Sunday Edition (closely followed by "The House," the regular parliamentary affairs show, this weekend devoted to the role of colonial parliamentarians in the negotiation of Canadian Confederation).  Sunday Edition talked about the role of the battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War in creating modern Canadian nationalism.  

Sunday Edition started out by giving the usual account of why Vimy was important:

It wasn't until April, 1917, the story goes, when Canada stormed a battlefield in the North of France and seized a hill that had been held by the German army, that the country came of age, emerging as a united, resourceful, vigorous and valourous 50-year-old nation.

The Canadians were given little chance of taking Vimy Ridge from the Germans. But the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force — all fighting together for the first time in the Great War — hurled an awesome artillery barrage at the German position and surged across the battlefield, forcing the Germans to retreat. 

After a four-day battle, nearly 36-hundred Canadian soldiers lay dead in the cold, corpse-littered muck and slime, and 7-thousand more were wounded. But they held the Ridge and helped shift the course of the war toward an Allied victory.

Since that time, Canadian politicians have seized on the Vimy victory, as a symbol of Canada's coming-of-age, o f its independence from Britain, as the smithy in which Canadian nationhood was forged.
The segment was an interview with Ian MacKay, one of the authors of "The Vimy Trap."  According to MacKay, there was no surge of Canadian nationalism connected with Vimy.  As late as the 1930s, the overwhelming evaluation of the war, especially among those who fought it, was that the Great War was a futile catastrophe and that peace was a necessity.  Two people who felt strongly that way were two future prime ministers, John Diefenbaker (Conservative) and Lester Pearson (Liberal and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize).  They like many others made no connection between  the Great War and the growth of Canadian nationalism and sovereignty.  Canada's military history is not universally lauded as an encouragement to nationalism.  In both world wars, for instance, French Canadians were extremely skeptical of the need to support the British Empire, for obvious reasons (note the Seven Years War otherwise known as "the Conquest" and Canadian participation in the South African (Boer) War.)

I find it very unfortunate that both of our most recent prime ministers (one Conservative, one Liberal) have gone out of their way to talk up the Canadian war record for its supposed nation-building role.  I was not raised Canadian so the First World War holds no magic for me.  Indeed, when I have taught the war --not as part of Canadian, U.S. or European history but always as part of world history-- I've had to  hold myself  back from denouncing it as one giant war crime.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Lest we forget

Another in my series of "the best of" my blog. The Toronto Morality Play Among other things, proof that all our present problems can't be blamed on one politician or one party.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Progress on the Chronicle of the Good Duke

Followers of my work know that I have been translating the 15th-century chivalric bibliography The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis of Bourbon for a good while now. (Gulp! since 2010!) I just finished my third run-through of the Chronicle this very morning. The next full run-through should be the concluding one!

Image: The French court of Charles VI in the time of Duke Louis!

Rape in Game of Thrones and ISIS -- realistic medievalism?

Jeff Sypec examines in his blog the idea that rape in Game of Thrones is a positive element in George R.R. Martin's fictional version of the Middle Ages -- more realistic because more brutal. At the same time some ISIS supporters claim Islamic authenticity for their mistreatment of non-ISIS women and girls. Is there any truth to this?
Jeff, who is quite an intelligent guy, looks at this question from a number of different angles. For instance:
Even though [Amy S.]Kaufman [author of "Muscular Medievalism" in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism,] isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?
“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”
It might be worth reminding both Jeff and Amy that the idea of the Middle Ages was invented specifically to serve as a background for recent progress. A very large number (if not all) the depictions of the Middle Ages will always be negative in many respects.
I am pleased by the excellence of Jeff's blog post. He's a survivor of what us (habitual classifiers) will probably call the Golden Age of Blogging. (There is no Golden Age of Twitter, sorry.) Nice to have such a meaty discussion.
Image: Jeff's from Maryland, and the state flag is a welcome reminder of an earlier age of medievalism.  Jousting is, or has been, the state sport.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Fashion "Virtual Experience" by Google

This article at describes a Google project which gives access to a large number of sites relevant to "3000 years of fashion history." It's called "We wear culture."

Any chance I know anyone who might be interested?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Interested in mass graves? Put Lützen on your list

Lützen was one of the most important battles of the Thirty Years War -- the Swedish King and Protestant champion Gustavus Adolphus was killed there. In 2006 the bodies of 47 other soldiers were found there. Smithsonian Magazine has a write-up, as does Yahoo.

Thanks to Explorator.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Surreality in a CBC newscast

Early this morning I was listening to the news on CBC Radio One. The news mentioned two things that a few years ago I would have found to be beyond belief. Not that they were actually new or unheard of: just that I could remember a time when neither of them would have seemed at all likely.
The two items: the musical "Hamilton" (yes, I know, rather old news, and only mentioned in passing today)
a Canadian-led military mission to Latvia.
"Strange days have found us..."

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca

Every once in a while, publishers send me a book that you my readers might be interested in seeing discussed in my blog. I try to oblige and because what they send is pretty interesting. Around Christmas time, St. Martin's Press sent me Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, a true life story of crime and poverty and the struggle for social reform, in fact all sorts of things. I misplaced the book and so I'm only getting around to reviewing it now – apologies.
Brad Ricca studies and teaches literature, and has a particular interest in superhero comic books. My guess is that Batman is one of his favourites, because gritty is the word you do want to use when discussing Mrs. Sherlock Holmes some, whose real name was Mrs. Grace Humiston. A female lawyer in early 20th century New York, she would have had lots to say to the Caped Crusader. She could've pointed out who the villains were and what might be done about them.
Humiston as a pioneering female lawyer in New York had personal experience of women's contributions being dismissed or undervalued from her own career. Not for her in a normal position in the normal law firm. She made herself available instead to the hopeless cases, men and women both who were so poor and socially isolated that they just got crunched up in the wheels of the legal profession and the courts. Humiston used her own resources and wits, and the help of a few collaborators, to do a better job for these people than establish authority ever would. This led her to be eventually labelled "Mrs. Sherlock Holmes" by a newspaper, but it also attracted criticism. Humiston had no patience with people who shirk their duty and her criticism of the New York Police Department alienated many ofthe cops.
The most famous case was the disappearance of Ruth Kruger, an 18-year-old girl. The police wanted to close the case unsolved, as just another "wayward girl" meeting her inevitable fate. But Humiston was pretty sure this was not the case. In fact Ruth was "just another" case of a different sort, Humiston was sure, a case of sexual predators kidnapping and enslaving girls who had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where the police saw crowds of wayward girls, Humiston saw a network that in an organized fashion swept girls into an underworld that most people wanted to forget about. Humiston went from trying to address individual cases of injustice to aligning herself with the widespread reform movement of the time. One of the causes dear to that reform movement was of course the abolition of "white slavery." Humiston's efforts to find Ruth and rescue other girls in trouble led her to become an internationally known figure, both praised and criticized for her tireless pursuit of Ruth's case and others.
Ruth was eventually found – not in some brothel, but in a hole in the ground underneath the neighbourhood bicycle shop. Ruth had not been taken in by the white slavery network – which certainly did exist – but by a man who knew her personally.
One of the best parts of this book is the way the Ricca's prose reflects the newspaper and the official records of the time. This book will be really appreciated by people who want to immerse themselves in the era of World War I and the dangerous and disorderly cities of the time.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Run another 4th dimension dream

Once upon a time, time travel science fiction was very much a minority taste. One reason for this is that time travel was only justifiable by arm-waving future science. Maybe also by the fact that the Newtonian universe formed the intellectual background for just about everyone, and so the simplest paradoxes ("I'm my own grandpa") had a lot of force.

In the last few years I have been reading more and more recent science fiction and it seems to me that the reading public is much more comfortable with the complex structure of the universe reflected in quantum theory, and is more ready to enjoy the potential for time travel. I mean, the potential for manipulating time revealed by quantum physics. We may not know how to do it, but we know that the universe familiar to physicists has room for all sorts of things that we generally don't see in our little corner of it. Perhaps time travel. Certainly room for quite weird variations on "I'm my own grandpa."

I have read two time-travel novels by prominent sf writers. Robert Charles Wilson's Last Year has a complex theory of time at the core of it. Time travel is being exploited for commercial purposes. A billionaire capitalist has created a link between the 21st century (their home time) and the 1870s. He builds a City of Futurity in an otherwise empty piece of prairie. The 21st century inhabitants can use the city as a jumping-off point to visit the past; the people of President Grant's time are given limited access to 21st century artifacts and knowledge. In theory, both sides benefit. In theory.

Wilson's main interest seems to be the ethical dimension of a world where time travel is a practical matter. He has written a number of alternate reality books, based on real scientific possibility. The books that result from his sincere interest in what we may find to be true are quite disquieting.

Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine is a simpler story in which a 21st century physics grad student creates a time machine that turns out to be impossible to duplicate and which can only operated by him. As the main character follows an inflexible track through time, his challenge is to find a tolerable and culturally safe place to settle down. This book, too, is informed by an intelligent amateur knowledge of science. It, too, is disquieting.

Maybe the most disquieting thing about this stuff is that further scientific discoveries are likely to be stranger than even the best sf writers can come up with!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Time and a word

And the word is "Yes."

I've talked about the divine nature of music here. How about evidence of time travel?

In 1971 the British band Yes put out "The Yes Album" one of the best they ever did (and they've got more than a double handful of truly excellent albums). In the song Yours is No Disgrace was the mysterious phrase "Send an instant comment to me..." What they meant by it, I don't know, but just by living a half-century, more or less, the phrase has become not at all remarkable.

One of my favorite late-Yes songs (1997) is "Open Your Eyes," which has the all-too-relevant lines:

We cast the world, we set the stage

For what could be the darkest age

By itself, evidence of nothing. But it does go one to describe:

Short exchanges

From perfect strangers

We'll never know

Evidence of nothing except maybe an uncanny resonance in the imaginations of the band members.