August 21st, 2017

cass, can you not

Books! (The Past is a Foreign Country but You Sometimes Can Get a Visa Edition)

Edge of Infinity (Ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2017/#61): A good collection of contemporary SF stories; they all take place in the Solar System but outside Earth, and most, although not all of them, are at least somewhat related to exploration and colonization efforts.

The Economy of Renaissance Florence (Richard A. Goldthwaite, 2017/#62): Riveting. Renaissance Florence was weirdly modern from some points of view — widespread accounting skills (even artisans kept double-entry books) meant something not unlike a decentralized P2P lending market, as well as an intuitive understanding of money as different from tangible monies — although its preeminence in historiography might be partly due to the relatively huge amount of surviving documents compared to other cities, as well as the fascinating figure of the Medicis. From a diachronic angle, the shifts in their economy (from locally sourced textiles to a purely import/export based industry, the shift in routes from and to the Levant and Northern Europe, their gradual fall of competitiveness in international banking against the Genose, etc) opens a good window into the general evolution of Europe's economy, punctuated by the humanly horrifying but in the middle term economically invigorating small issue of the Black Death. The way everybody almost openly used bills of exchange and other loopholes to get around the Church's prohibition of usury is kind of funny, but indicates that even a precapitalist (if not psychologically so) society can still be deeply Christian in many ways. Highly recommended.

Bridging Infinity (Ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2017/#63): Up to the usual standard of Strahan collections: contemporary, mostly good to quite good, mostly but not exclusively from the usual suspects.

The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659: The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries' Wars (Geoffrey Parker, 2017/#64): A good zoom-in complement to the author's The Grand Strategy of Philip II. It makes the argument — with as much quantitative evidence as it's feasible to provide for that scenario and era — that the Spanish were, obviously within the technical and organizational limits of Early Modern Europe, quite efficient at raising money, moving it around, and using it to fight wars (and in fact made a couple of significant advances in that area that nowadays are taken for granted, for example providing soldiers with medical services, food, lodging, and other forms of payment in kind). Their chronic shortages of money (the Eighty Years' War goes a long way to explain what "the borrower from Hell" was using all that money for), practically systematized mutinies (to the soldiers' credit, often began after, and not triggered by, military actions), and eventual defeat have more to do with a combination of technological changes (the trace italienne architecture making the shell-and-storm style of siege unfeasible, with encircle-and-starve the only feasible yet slow and expensive alternative) and, fundamentally, strategic overreach made unavoidable by Philip II's (and IV's, although not III's) religious commitments. Even Hapsburg Spain would have had to drop some of their goals of forcing the Netherlands to be Catholic, putting a Catholic in the French throne, driving back Protestants in Germany, keeping the Turks in check, not squeezing Catalonia dry, invading England, dominating the Indies trade, and keeping Portugal under control (and I'm probably forgetting a long-term war or two). A Hapsburg Netherlands, even if not Catholic, would've been an enormous asset to the Empire, made the defense of the Italian coast very feasible, give the Spanish a built-in financial network, and made the Indies trade even more profitable (not to mention giving them a ready-made navy to help protect the Spanish treasure fleet from the English). But that wouldn't have been Philip II; for good and for ill, very few rulers in history had been so thoroughly trained since birth for his role, both political and religious, and even fewer took his duties so seriously.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B (Ed. Ben Bova, 2017/#65): Eleven classic SF novellas. Most of them rereads, not all good by contemporary standards, but always well deserving of the epithet of classic.

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (David Armitage, 2017/#66): Traces the history of the (highly contested) concept of civil war, touching on the Greeks but beginning with the Romans, who, Armitage argues, were the first to have civil wars in the sense that we understand the term, as they were the first to have both the kind of impersonal civil arena and the highly organized war as quintessentially structuring, State-driven, and by definition foreigner-targeting activity that makes the concept both applicable and oxymoronic; for Romans the experience of a civil war was a conceptually traumatic one, not because they were unused to violence, even internal violence with political ends, but because *war* was something else. A civil war, in Armitage's reading, was something of a conceptual revolution. The book traces what you might call the constant war about what a civil war is, isn't, and might mean, with special emphasis on the case of the the United States (after all, it wasn't irrelevant whether the Confederation was a separate (set of) state(s) repeating what the thirteen colonies had originally done, or if they were an integral part of the US in rebellion, both in politico-philosophical and diplomatic, and hence economic and military, terms), and contemporary practice (roughly speaking, nations cannot legally interfere with other nation's handling of internal rebellions, but once it's a civil war, both sides have claims to legitimacy, so then it's whatever works for you... an interesting angle I hadn't considered). I'm not entirely sure how much I believe the uniqueness of the Roman concept (the author, IIRC, mentions his lack of familiarity with, say, the Chinese tradition, where the concept of a contested Mandate of Heaven means you could have a related if fundamentally different idea of what a civil war can be), but it's an interesting book.

Prisoner's Base (Rex Stout, 2017/#67): A good Nero Wolfe story. I love how even when you see the solution of the case coming from far away, that doesn't diminish one bit the pleasure of reading the book.

Time Quarry (Clifford D. Simak, 2017/#68): Not the best Superpowered Prophet novel out there, nor the best Android Rebellion novel, nor the best Thinly Veiled Space Metaphor of the British Empire novel, nor the best Time Travel Shenannigans novel, nor the best Eganesque Platonic Realism novel, but the sheer accumulation of different tropes (I might be forgetting some) is on itself interesting. Not unenjoyable, if you make the necessary allowances for gender politics etc.