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Historically, medieval fairs (and thus the re-birth of intensive urban commerce in Europe) took place during religious feasts, and under the protection not only of ecclesiastic authorities, but also, and explicitly, of relics and saints, who were considered to own the lands and assets donated to each religious organization. What if this was literally true, and — in a purely Christian version of The Black Monday Murders — the invisible hand of the market was in fact a miraculous one? (instead of transubstantiation, the miracle being utility-maximizing market clearing)

In an alternate universe like this, a legal person would not only be a theological travesty (I have to side with Harold Bloom on Americans (really, Republicans) being not so much lousy Christians as belonging to a completely different religion), but also a commercial dead end. So saints, as effectively immortal and financially efficient entities, would end up owning most of the economy. Establishing a new saint would be like setting up a start-up (or getting a taxi medallion, with the Church very tightly regulating this). In a world where relics have even more of a financial impact than they did — in the real world, a "good" relic, by attracting pilgrims and donations, could save a struggling congregation, or even make it rich — the concept of "furta sacra", or sacred theft, becomes doubly meaningful. You'd notice your city's main relic was stolen because the next day the damned (pun intended) market would crash.

The financial/metaphysical Renaissance conundrum about usury would take a whole different look. Charging high interest rates would, in fact, lead you to bankruptcy, so you either go through the Jews (whose economy seems to obey different rules, in a very theologically problematic way), or figure out workarounds by trial and error (what they actually did, through wonderful and very Wall Street-like contortions with bills of exchange and other financial esoterica).

Throws a whole different light on the Protestant Reformation, by the way. Slightly facetiously (in an already very facetious post), it's something like the contemporary cryptocurrency libertarian thing... Saints and so on are paper money/government oppression, in a truly free market you interact directly with Him/It, etc. (Makes you wonder what the schism with the Orthodox Church was really about, and makes the way the European economy ended up being dominant after the massive theft from Constantinople of pretty much every relic in 1204 more of a cause-and-effect sort of thing.)

Making the later US economic dominance depend on some sort of unholy pact within a different religious framework would be the logical continuation. Note that the Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution (slash onerous taxes, like how Apple and Google are, theologically and legally speaking, Irish companies), and that, as a matter of historical fact, they did sign an honest-to-goodness contract with God, promising rigorous, saintly behavior in exchange for prosperity. Early Puritan America was a drab, brutal theocracy where God's favor was measured by how well you and your community were doing, financially speaking.

Er... Crap.

It's kind of frustrating when you start rambling about a nicely horrifying take on alternate history, and it turns out it's pretty much what they were actually doing.


Books! (Arcana imperii Edition)

Normal (Warren Ellis, 2017/#69): A novella sold independently, or a Kindle single if you'd like. The dialog doesn't escape the usual Ellis-isms, and neither does the premise, but when said premise is weird mystery in a psychiatric asylum for (sometimes temporarily) burned-out futurists, that's probably a plus. Recommended, although don't expect it to be SF or futuristic; it's very much Weird Present.

The Final Deduction (Rex Stout , 2017/#70): A reread. Satisfactory.

Passenger to Frankfurt (Agatha Christie, 2017/#71): The weirdest Agatha Christie book I've ever read, and not in a good way. The short version of the plot: spoilersCollapse ). By the way, the books' cover mentioned Poirot, which was a filthy lie, but by the time I realized how much of a multi-lane, miles-long traffic apocalypse the thing was, I just had to keep reading to see how bad it could and did get.

The Under Dog and Other Stories (Agatha Christie, 2017/#72): A classic collection of Poirot short(ish) stories.

The Big Four (Agatha Christie, 2017/#73): A hybrid of the previous two books. It's Poirot versus an international cabal of four evil geniuses dedicated and actually awfully close to actual world domination; Number Three is an evil scientific genius, Number Four is a murderous genius actor, Number Two is the world's richest man, and Number One is Fu Manchu with the serial numbers perfunctorily filed off. Along the way, Christie makes fun of Conan Doyle, reiterates the idea of an evil cabal using drugs to turn youth into violent protesters, and has pretty much everybody insult poor Captain Hastings.

~The Best Science Fiction of the Year Vol. 2 (Ed. Neil Clarke, unfinished): I stopped halfway; it's not that they aren't well-written, but the repetitive background beats of bone-deep tired, awkwardly dystopian despair with the occasional sort-of-poetical semi-redemption has gotten on my nerves (and, yes, I realize how ironic is for me to complain about that). Used to like this kind of story, will probably go back to liking it again at some point, but right now it's too *realistic* a mood, and these stories were just leaving on my mouth the same awful aftertaste news, even nominally good news, does these days (not, of course, discounting the effect of unrelated personal going-ons).

Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700(Miles Pattenden, 2017/#74): An interesting study on the impact of the process by which Popes came to power on the nature and development of Church history, particularly the Papal States. The Church had (and at least de iure still has) a very unique political system: it's a theocratic absolutism where the ruler has an unique relationship with the divine, but it's also an elective position where the Pope is chosen from a relatively large number of candidates — by and large the same people voting — that came from a very varied set of backgrounds. This led to a number of interesting effects: Despite how horrid actual Conclaves were, they fact that they existed was the only real power they had, which means they wanted to exercise it as carefully, effectively, and often as possible. Also, the voting process was never even as remotely isolated as they were supposed to be, and yet they all had to pretend their choice of Pope had been inspired by the Holy Spirit, lest the figure of the Pope, and by extension, their own, lack legitimacy. But the Pope's authority, although personal, was highly perishable — there was a lot of political, pragmatic, and doctrinal back and forth over time to handle the problem of who, if anybody, was in charge of what, if anything, during Sede Vacante; Rome, never a safe city, became particularly violent during those interregnums for much of this period. And because it was quite impossible for Popes (who came often and increasingly from powerful Italian, and specially Roman, families) to keep the post in the family, which meant they had to grab as much money as they could as fast as they could, yet making as few enemies as possible, before they died, because the next Pope was very likely to come from a rival faction, and the only concern limiting his actions against yours would be fear of setting a precedent for the next one. Needless to say, this didn't lead to much fiscal responsibility. (Relatedly, there's an interesting analysis about how the Papal States had quite sophisticated financial and bureaucratic systems for the age — venality, for all of its bad reputation, was an almost universal feature of secular states, not dissimilar to annuities or perpetual bonds backed by specific sources of revenue — but one that wasn't driven by exploding military costs, as was the case for large contemporary states, but rather as the slow development of a sort of para-Papal government structure capable of partially isolating elites and processes from the frequently changing boss.)


I just read To Serve Man in a scanned pdf of the magazine it was originally published in, which gave me all the old school feels. The Galaxy archive is great comfort food reading (as long as you give yourself permission to skip all the admittedly very bad stuff it's in there as well).

I'm very tempted to pick up again my much-loved complete set of Holmes The Strand Magazine facsimiles; it's been a long while since I've done a Full Sherlock Holmes Reread, after all.


Everybody's so focused on how important it was when the Vulcans made first contact with Earth during the 21st century, but is anybody grateful to the Klingons for tutoring the Sumerians?

Actual Sumerian sky map:

To be honest, I'm growing fond of the aesthetic.
I've been calling today Amerexit Day every time the subject came up with one of my US-based coworkers.

That's pretty much it.


Aristeia: An aristeia or aristia (/ærᵻˈstiː.ə/; Ancient Greek: ἀριστεία, IPA: [aristěːaː], "excellence") is a scene in the dramatic conventions of epic poetry as in the Iliad, where a hero in battle has his finest moments (aristos = "best").

Also known in contemporary epic (e.g. set piece battles in comic crossovers) as Crowning Moment of Awesome. The relationship seems to go deeper than this, though: the way large comic battles are depicted — the roll calls, the individual combat, the tides and turns — seems, with the obvious changes from an oral to a visual medium, very similar. I think it goes deeper than the straightforward observation that hero is a common term in both, and that metas = (demi)gods; it seems to be a common narrative trait (I'm not familiar with, e.g., Hindu epics, but if I had to bet I'd say that it owes more to the intersection between human cognitive limitations and the synchronous complexity of battles than to an specific cultural tradition).

Anyway, nice to know DC and Marvel do live up to very old traditions (although not even Homer dared have the Greeks do a new siege of troy every year).


Today, in Things That Please Me:

There's a decades-old tradition in Norway of reading crime/detective novels during Easter. It even has the awesome name of påskekrim.

Granted, it's mostly a commercial gimmick. But most near-contemporary traditions are.


Thinking aloud

Has anybody already shot the documentary or wrote the book about how Gog and Magog are actually a reference to the bad hombres south of the Rio Grande, and Trump is a new Alexander/the katechon building a gate to hold them back until everything is quite ready for the big showdown? Or is the prophesy crowd not in the mood for anything that means the End of Days not being around the corner?

By the way, I'm currently reading Heyday, an astounding book about the 1850s with really fascinating characters (Laurence Oliphant: you couldn't make him up if you tried to), almost-events (the British-American War that didn't happen for the slightest of margins, how Russia might not have gotten to the Pacific shore if not for an ignored general that took advantage of the Crimen war to basically walk his way into a huge territory), weird links (how the Victorians fell in love with beards), and structural features I hadn't quite been aware of (the importance of slavery in the US to the economic boom/modernization of the 1850s, the very familiar patterns of speculation during the unprecedented internal migrations in the US, the Caucasus as the Russian Vietnam — making me understand better both the Chechen rebellion and the Russian reaction to it —), etc.


But, from the Wikipedia entry of one highly eminent Dutch-Austrian physician and all-around smartypants Gerard van Swieten:

Especially important is his part in the fight against superstition during the enlightenment, particularly in the case of the vampires, reported from villages in Serbia in the years between 1718 and 1732.

After the last of the wars against the Turks in 1718, some parts of the land, such as Northern Serbia and a part of Bosnia, went to Austria. The parts were settled with refugees with the special status of duty-free farmers. However, they had to take care of the agricultural development and secure the frontiers so reports about vampires reached, for the first time, German-speaking areas.

In 1755 Gerard van Swieten was sent by Empress Maria Theresa to Moravia to investigate the situation relating to vampires. He viewed the vampire myth as a "barbarism of ignorance" and his aim was to eradicate it.

His report, Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster (or Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts), offered an entirely natural explanation for the belief in vampires. He explained the unusual states in the grades, with possible causes such as the processes of fermentation and lack of oxygen being reasons for preventing decomposition. Characteristic for his opinion is this quotation from the preface to his essay of 1768 "that all the fuss doesn't come from anything else than a vain fear, a superstitious credulity, a dark and eventful imagination, simplicity and ignorance among the people." The report made Maria Theresa issue a decree that banned all traditional defenses to vampires being put to the stakes, beheaded and burned.

A cover-up after a vampire eradication campaign, or did the vampires paid/threatened/turned him to write that report and begin their "nah, we're all fictional, what are you, medieval?" campaign? We offer ludicrous and uniformly unrealistic options, you choose between them.

PS: I'm still partial to my idea of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Shelley, and Polidori being an interpersonal-drama-prone crack team of monster hunters. Frankenstein? Leaked mission report hastily relabeled as an unheard-of kind of fiction. The Vampyre? Polidori's exasperated parody of self-proclaimed team leader, absolute diva queen, and, yes, vampire, Lord Byron (before you ask, the way he slept his way through Europe, his chances of being bitten by a female vampire were higher than pretty much anybody else's in the continent). And after the things he saw and did, I don't think anybody should blame Shelley for drinking more laudanum than tea, or for dropping so many hints in his poetry.

The fact that Claire Clairmont is an obviously assumed name only allows me to wildly and irresponsibly speculate about her actual role in the team. A possibility: succubus who had the bad luck of hitting on a vampire (Byron) hence getting herself unprecedentedly pregnant and more than a bit cross, although her expertise became of course useful to the team. Provided they could keep her from going into Byron's room at night and strangling him with his own bedclothes (documented bit: Byron would claim in his letters that she was always trying to seduce him; his teammates could never tell if this was gallows humor or narcissistic self-delusion). From her Wikipedia page, by the way: Clairmont would later say that her relationship with Byron had given her only a few minutes of pleasure, but a lifetime of trouble. I think kids nowadays describe this as a savage and probably factually accurate burn.

All in all, I won't say everybody was happy when Byron was killed during an attempt to use the war in Greece to mask a commando hit on some very old and very above this post's security rating group, but I don't think anybody in what would later be renamed MI9 was particularly devastated. The man had a nice turn of phrase, was handy with a weapon, provided a very nicely public cover to their very non-public activities, and was probably too conceited to understand the concept of his own mortality, let alone feel fear, but what a pain in the ass.


Books! (Slyly Borgesian Edition)

The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Robert Bartlett, 2016/#35): Quite a fascinating book. It's easy to imagine the Middle Ages as an static period of time in European history, even when you do your best to keep in mind that it wasn't, quite, but Bartlett shows it at positively bristling with activity: towns are founded (for profit reasons, using standarized legal patterns, as if they were Starbucks), territories settled, frontiers expanded, all looking for land and workers to grow and tax. Yes, scientifically they are almost stalled (and in some social senses they regress; the book shows how racism in its modern form is a mid-to-late Middle Ages development), but it was a period of very active, polyfacetic, enthusiastic development that exported an entire military-economic-social package of techniques and culture from the North of France to pretty much the rest of modern Europe (I hadn't realized, or thought about, the similitudes; there are castles in France and England and Spain, and I had sort of assumed some kind of convergent evolution, when it fact it was very much not). I enjoyed it very much.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Thomas Ligotti), 2016/#36): Ligotti considers consciousness as uncanny, the fountain of horror, and the intrinsic value of existence at least indefensible and more appropriately a monstrous self-delusion. Perhaps not a book one should read while depressed, although it might actually be salutary; it's hard to tell, and an experiment would amount to misconduct in cultural competence.

London Under (Peter Ackroyd, 2016/#37): A collection of sometime interesting data, rather than a comprehensive whole. I don't find him as poetic as he thinks he is, but YMMV.

The Mother Hunt (Rex Stout, 2016/#38): A good Nero Wolfe story.

A Most Dangerous Book (Christopher B. Krebs, 2016/#39): A book on Tacitus' Germania, mostly from the point of view of its effects on later politics and society; it's a good thread to trace the disturbingly long and consistent intellectual and cultural development that was one of the factors leading to Nazi Germany.

Unruly Places (Alastair Bonnett, 2016/#40): A collection of notes on, unsurprisingly, weird places (renamed cities, precisely located islands that turned out not to exist, etc). I didn't enjoy the writing style or the author's musings, but the book doesn't lack interesting tidbits of information.



cass, can you not

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