Civilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress, David Olusoga
There’s a lot going on in this book: it sweeps past swathes of history, touching on some of the important questions and critiques of colonialism and empire, dwelling on how they were represented by artists and how art of different cultures met and mingled. It doesn’t linger, speeding past the Benin Bronzes and cramming in the Eiffel Tower as well, and I found it a little vague and unfocused. It was unclear what the argument was meant to be until the afterword, where he mentions the idea that all human art comes from “the same imagination”.
Hmm. A little insipid, really; that’s my final conclusion on this. It’s nice to have a quick guide to some of the art and its context, but it really is the most glancing look at most of it. It’s nice to have a degree of breadth, but then I wouldn’t say it has that much by way of breadth — it’s all so lightly touched on. There are some artworks I didn’t know about, and interesting facts, like the portraits painted by Lindauer of Maori people (and the fact that they would choose to be painted in a combination of Western and traditional clothing, to show they knew how to move in both worlds).
I feel like there are several books here and this is just a not very focused amalgamation of all of them. It didn’t work for me, though perhaps people who saw the series they accompany will get more out of it.
This was a pretty entertaining read about the Voyager missions, with the usual kind of autobiographical detail (extra odd Bell was more a fan of the project than a part of it, though he worked on things that were tangentially related at times) and some biographical detail. Lots of fanboying about Carl Sagan, which is sweet, but not always to the point. It’s a good overview of what the Voyager program did, and there were lots of little titbits I didn’t know.
I think the favourite part for me was discussing the Golden Record, though; I think I’ll have to look up the book he mentioned which goes into it in detail. I love the idea of the Golden Record (I did write a story about it a while ago, after all!), and I especially love the fact that we filled it with “our hopes, not our fears”. It makes it very clear that few people on the project thought there was much chance of it being found, but it was considered so important anyway: a moment for humanity to reflect on itself, and send out something of ourselves into the universe… the good parts, at least.
In terms of the engineering of the Voyager crafts, there’s relatively little, and though the math and physics of figuring out how to send them on their way is mentioned, it’s not explained. It’s more of a cultural history with explanations of what the Voyagers found than a science book, though there are interesting factoids about the various planets and moons of the Solar System which we wouldn’t have known (until later) without Voyager. Likewise, it discusses some of the problems that the Voyagers had — like the seizing of the camera platform — but not nearly all.
Entertaining, and probably as deep as some folks want to go!
Having recently read Joanna Arman’s The Warrior Queen, I was a bit worried about plunging into another medieval period biography — that one was so disappointing in prose style, baseless assertions and general slenderness. The King in the North was rather more satisfying; Adams writes well, and though I’m not always a fan of history books that spend too much time prosing about the landscape, his set-pieces on that subject do capture something useful about the locations he writes about.
This isn’t an area of expertise for me, but I’m reassured by the footnotes and endnotes that he is making reference to real findings drawn from a range of sources. When something is his imagination or opinion, that’s clear in the text, which is also important. Generally, I think this is likely to be a pretty solid pop-history source on Oswald of Northumbria, and his life and times.
Like most of these biographies of medieval personages, there’s a lot of preamble with setting up the context and then analysing the aftermath: as ever, very little of it focuses on Oswald’s life and his deeds while alive. Still, I found all of it interesting and relevant. I’ll happily read more of Adams’ work.
I read some fairly wide-ranging and eclectic subject matter, and I know a lot of it would bore other people to tears. The Aztecs, however, should be pretty darn interesting in principle: while our sources are fragmentary, there’s still a lot we can know, and there’s so much to be fascinated by in their legends, stories about themselves, and social structure.
Just… not in this book. There are other books in this series that manage to be wonderful, so it’s not the academic-ish introduction or the general goals of the book that constrain it. Something about Townsend’s prose is just stultifyingly dull. I made it halfway through and realised that not only had I failed to absorb most of the information so far, I hadn’t once turned to my wife and said, “Hey, did you know that…”
Well, that’s the kiss of death for me and non-fiction. Somehow it didn’t manage to give me any new information in a way that made it feel interesting. Bye, book! I’m sure you are indeed the “best introduction” to the field (as the back proclaims), for people who either don’t mind being bored or are so fascinated by the field that they can’t look away.
(Lest you be wondering, the things I excitedly tell my wife don’t have to be that interesting to the wider world — the facts can be fairly trivial.)
Arman’s book promises a lot, offering the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. It comes up rather short, and in part this isn’t the book’s fault: the information on everyone of this era is rather scanty, and women tend to be represented even less than your average big man of the time, even if they turned out to be rulers later in life. Books about these women have to lean heavily on interpreting what the locations of charters and charitable establishments mean, and it doesn’t always make for the most riveting reading.
Nonetheless, most of the book is almost entirely speculative. Æthelflæd may have been taught this, Æthelflæd may have gone here with her father, perhaps Æthelflæd did this… Much of the book is framed by what the women in Æthelflæd’s life were doing (her father, her brother, her husband), right up the point where suddenly she becomes the real protagonist and starts leading men and establishing forts. But I didn’t want a book on Alfred, Æthelstan, Æthelred, etc, etc, etc.
Worse, the book drifts off into pure daydream at times. Mentioning the clasp of a book found in Stafford, the author speculates that it might have belonged to Æthelflæd. There’s no archaeological context given — Arman doesn’t even mention a date given for the clasp! — and it seems that Arman invented this spurious connection out of her own head, just to add spice; I can’t find such an assertion elsewhere. She does have a bibliography, but no detailed footnotes to allow her claims to be followed up, so I’ll give this claim the credence it’s due: none. Now I have to wonder what else Arman has imagined and invented — the coins she mentions, perhaps? The firm dating of forts and towns? To be fair, Arman does make it clear the link is speculative, an ‘I’d like to imagine’, but nonetheless… I have questions.
Finally, the book is atrociously edited. It’s common for entire words to be missing from sentences, sometimes making them nonsensical, and sometimes no doubt just altering the sense of them.
It is a shoddy job, and I cannot recommend it as a source of information, though there are some titbits that you can call entertaining fiction.
Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini
As a history of race science and an examination of what people have believed about race from a scientific(ish) perspective, Superior is a good book. It gives a good account of where some of the current beliefs come from, and the ups and downs of race science in the wider science community. She’s sharp on the fact that there are journals, people and most especially funds, like the Pioneer Fund, that are deliberately advancing a racist agenda, and they need to be scrutinised.
It doesn’t really engage directly with the science itself, though, which is where it falls down a bit for me: Saini’s opinion on the material is clear, but I feel that I’m being told I should rubbish the data without actually being shown the data. She presents the work of scientists like Cavalli-Sforza as being inherently racist — in this book, it’s racist to track gene frequencies in populations and how they change over time, because… because it just is, darn it! I don’t think we can hide from facts just because they can be used as ammunition by our opponents, and it’s simply a fact that the human race is not homogenous. You’ll find some genes at a high frequency in some populations, and a very low frequency in others. That’s just inevitable unless the human race has always been geographically contiguous, and breeding has been entirely random across the whole geography, with no local clumps of people who are related to one another.
Now, does that actually mean anything? For my money, no. It can tell us things about history and about the pressures on survival/reproduction in past populations, but it doesn’t predict anything much about people now. As Saini does point out, it’s entirely possible that there is more variation between me and another random white British person than between me and someone from Pakistan (as long as you don’t pick someone I’m actually closely related to). Populations of modern humans haven’t ever been isolated long enough to speciate, as proven by the fact that all populations on Earth can readily reproduce. We’re just not that different, though some populations have developed adaptations to local conditions (like pale skin, lactose tolerance in adulthood, and sickle cell anaemia).
But isn’t it better to argue that from data, look right at what the race scientists are saying and refute their claims, than pretend there are no differences between populations at all? I’m pretty confident their data is rubbish, from my own knowledge and experience, but I haven’t been given any of their data by this book. I’ve been told they’re bad and wrong people, I’ve been told what their motives are, but in most cases here I have no real idea of how they’re trying to prove their points or what they’re arguing, except that they’re wrong. Yes, you’ve told me! But why are they wrong? What proof have they presented?
As a history, then, I’m all on board — it’s valuable to see how race science developed, and the motives of the people using it — but don’t file it with the pop science books, because it doesn’t go there. I feel no better qualified to refute the claims of race science than I was before I read it. It makes a moral argument, but (with a couple of exceptions) not a scientific one. I’m still rating it quite highly, because I think it’s a valuable read, and it’s not the book’s fault it’s been marketed as science, but if you actually want to get your teeth into the science, you’ll need to start with the references and go look at the actual sources.
I’m just going to confess something here: I didn’t finish this. It seemed to be exactly what it purports to be from the title: a short (yep) history (yep) of Europe (yep). It doesn’t try to be particularly exciting about it, and I found that I felt like I was just being hurtled through the canonical key points of European history. Sure, that’s mostly what I expected, but a better prose stylist would have made it more interesting, and an insightful historian could have found some illustrative moments that aren’t in the standard playbook.
As it is, I felt like I was cramming on history for a test, and I ended up letting it go back to the library. More than that, I got the impression that Jenkins is fairly anti-EU, and other reviews confirm that. Given that I still believe in the European Union, me and this book weren’t destined to have a fruitful relationship.
Magic and Religion in Ancient Egypt, Rosalie David
If you’re looking for a comprehensive but readable survey of the beliefs of Ancient Egyptians over time, this should definitely do the trick. It’s an overview, not an in-depth dive into all the ins and outs, so if this is actually your area of study, you’ll obviously be wanting to go somewhere else — but I wouldn’t say this is really aimed at the casual reader, either. You need to have an interest in the topic, at the very least, or the level of detail would be too much.
I wouldn’t say the book is brilliant, and its style is definitely not “unputdownable”, but the topic was interesting enough to carry it for me. And I enjoyed David’s approach, which took things in chronological order and looked at the way religion changed with politics (and/or the way politics changed with religion).
King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham
Much as I’m tempted to leave my review at that, I’ll be a little more rigorous. Higham’s book methodically examines every claimant for the original model for King Arthur, from Lucius Artorius Castus to the myths about the Narts, mostly focusing on the theories about a specifically historical Arthur. He examines each claim thoroughly, discussing its merits… and where each and every one falls down. The vaunted similarities between myths are barely similarities, the alleged likelihood of transmission to Britain is shaky, and so on and so forth. History isn’t my beat, but wherever Higham touched on the fiction that built the Arthurian mythology, he’s correct (as far as my knowledge and memory goes; it has been some years for me, admittedly).
It helps, of course, that his arguments come out strongly in favour of the common-sense conclusion that Arthur is a legend, as many legends are, with many sources and very little agreement between those sources about the kind of man/king he allegedly was. He’s also using some good common sense when he points out that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean any crazy theory could possibly be true. And he doesn’t just state why this is so: he goes through it, explaining why one translation should be favoured over another or how likely an interpretation is.
For my money, this is an excellent analysis of the ideas about a historical Arthur and in many ways of the claims for various fictional sources as well. Ultimately, if you long for Arthur to be real, this book won’t satisfy. If (like me) you’ve long understood that Arthur works best as an ideal, a chimera, a changeling who can be all things to all people, then you’ll be well satisfied that there seems to be no evidence that will pull the Welsh Arthur from my clutches or the Roman auxilliary from Sarmatia from anybody else’s.
This is really out of date; practically a period piece in itself, full to the brim of fanboying over Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans. It does raise some interesting points about Arthur Evans’ work, at the very least, suggesting that some of his restorations — like the use of concrete — were entirely necessary. I’ve read a lot of later work implying that his restorations were rather unsupported by the evidence, but the explanations here for at least some of them seem sound.
It was kind of an interesting experience to read about those two archaeologists in a positive and approving light. And kind of funny, too, that I was recommended this as a book about the Minoans and really it was rather more about Mycenaeans, of the two, and overwhelmingly more about fanboying Schliemann and Evans.
In search of a more informative book actually about the Minoans…