Liu Cixin’s *Three Body* Trilogy

Liu Cixin’s Three Body series is a science fiction trilogy that offers a vision of optimistic determinism. I enjoyed the first two books immensely, and thought to record some thoughts on the series as a whole, with spoilers kept to a minimum. As usual, my posts on books focus on the ideas I found most striking.

The most important thought: When I hear Peter Thiel saying that we can imagine the future with the help of science fiction, this is the kind of story I feel he means. The series emphasizes the importance of interiority and independent thinking. It presents a blueprint for how technology can advance, from building particle accelerators and fusion plants to colonizing the solar system and harvesting energy from different planets. It’s about how humans build new technologies, not how all scientific development culminates in dystopia. And like Thiel’s ideas, a layer of pessimism covers a radiantly optimistic core.

The premise. Liu Cixin’s favorite science fiction authors are Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I’m not familiar with either, instead his books remind me of Neal Stephenson’s: Full of science and philosophical engagement, with exposition of stunning ideas, all wrapped up in a tasty plot.

Three Body is primarily about first contact with aliens. The premise is mundane,
the setting is not. A science fiction trilogy that starts out during the Cultural Revolution, imagine that.

Here’s a bit more as background: During the Cultural Revolution, the daughter of a persecuted physicist gets involved with the Chinese effort to contact extraterrestrials, before the Americans and Soviets get to it first. In a moment of despair, Ye Wenjie secretly broadcasts a message to the cosmos; magnified by the sun, it invites any listening extraterrestrials to take humanity to task on its various moral failings. The message reaches the Trisolarans, who inhabit a star system four light years away from Earth. They’re so named because their planet revolves around three suns, which orbit in an unstable configuration.

Trisolarans have evolved with the three sun problem for millennia. Eventually they figure out that they cannot predict the path of the three suns, and thus they risk being swallowed someday by a stray. Trisolaran technology is significantly more advanced than human technology, and they send a fleet to Earth after receiving Ye Wenjie’s signal. Four decades later, humanity discovers her communications, and determine that the Trisolaran fleet would reach the solar system in four centuries. The rest of the books deal with humanity’s response to the Trisolaran mobilization.

I like best the descriptions of these two reviewers. From Jason Heller of NPR: “While in the virtual world of Three Body, Wang confronts philosophical conundrums that border on the psychedelic, all while remaining scientifically rigorous.” And here’s Joshua Rothman of the New Yorker: “Liu Cixin’s writing evokes the thrill of exploration and the beauty of scale.” He likes the Chinese setting too. After remarking that sci-fi is often biased towards American themes of the war for independence and the Wild West, Rothman praises another of Liu’s stories: “I doubt that any Western sci-fi writer has so thoroughly explored the theme of filial piety.”

Interiority. The three books prize interiority, to an almost sinister extent. Crucial plot points turn on deceptions, from people like Ye Wenjie and Zhang Beihai, who cultivate secrets and bear them in silence, with severe results for the rest of the world. The case is even more extreme with the Wallfacers, four people who are given extraordinary authority to develop defensive strategies that are meant to be hidden from the rest of humanity.

Incredibly, there’s a scene in the third book in which Earth’s greatest experts engage in esoteric analysis of a literary work, with debate afterwards on the work’s intended message. I myself am not a Straussian, and it makes me wonder if Liu is. Liu reminds people that “vagueness and ambiguity are at the heart of literary expression.” The work the experts analyze contains odd allusions and small inconsistencies, and Liu states that “real intelligent information must be hidden deep.” In a later scene, Liu castigates the uncritical reader: “Previous efforts at decipherment had failed largely due to people’s habitual belief that the stories involved only a single layer of metaphors to hide the real message.” Instead, the good reader must realize that truth might hide beneath multiple layers of metaphors.

People aren’t so susceptible to herd-thinking in Liu’s world. How are bubbles created? By the lack of independent thinking combined with the belief that majorities are generally right. In the Three Body world, key characters work through problems on their own. We see in scene after scene that the private ruminations of people lead them to determine the correct courses of action, without consulting public opinion first.

Liu focuses a great deal on the interior thoughts of the main characters. Everyone else is out of focus. His world is one in which countries largely cooperate with each other, letting go of most national pride to work together. At times it seems like the entire government apparatus is set up to serve our heroes. This efficient cooperation of government bureaucrats, all of whom are meritorious and think beyond themselves, is to me the most alien part of Liu’s world. Three Body could use some discussions of public choice.

A last thought about interiority: The governments of Three Body are comfortable with vesting enormous powers in people who aren’t thoroughly vetted first. This is most evident in the Wallfacer project and the Swordholder position, although it seems to affect many levels of elite selection. Placing trust in intelligent people is a lovely idea, but I feel this is soon becoming an unrealistic practice. Given all the records that people can surface, I wonder if it’s possible for anyone to escape severe vetting. I submit that in a few years, anyone who has a Twitter profile or a blog will not be able to survive Congressional confirmation, let alone be elected to high office. And I wonder to what extent the quality of government elites get worse (if at all), when we select for people who are willing to be really boring in their 20s.

Definite optimism. The books are very nearly a blueprint for how to build the future. Humanity has four centuries to deal with the arrival of the Trisolaran Fleet. In the meantime, scientists and governments work together to advance science to deal with the threat. They work on fusion, allowing humanity to obtain much cheaper sources of energy. They mine resources from asteroids and other planets. They move away from chemical-based rockets, and instead develop rockets based on radiation drives that use nuclear fusion. Their advances in software and hardware make cities are nicer places to live. They re-forestize the deserts. They colonize the rest of the solar system and they perfect creating enclosed cities on moons and planets. They develop engines powered by curvature propulsion (I do not know what this is) so that humanity can fly at the speed of light. My favorite part: They test out a version of the Orion Project—sending an object through space by exploding small hydrogen bombs behind it.

I always had the same question when I read about these technologies: Why should it take the threat of an alien invasion for humanity to develop them? I’m not advocating for curvature propulsion and fusion-based rockets. The point isn’t that Liu has identified the correct means on all the scientific questions, instead it’s about the goals. It shouldn’t take an alien threat to push us towards cheap energy and solar system exploration.

I quite identify with the themes of The Great Stagnation, and the saying that we’ve had lots of progress in the world of bits but not so much in the world of atoms. And I wonder if Liu Cixin’s imagination is a result of personally witnessing rapid economic growth and regular scientific milestones. Arthur C. Clarke was born in 1917, and Isaac Asimov was born in 1920. When they were young, they witnessed the development of the Manhattan Project and experienced postwar prosperity. 24 years after the Trinity Test, they saw the Apollo Project deliver three men to the moon.

Liu Cixin was born in 1963; liberal reforms began in 1979, and especially in the last decade, Liu has been heavily exposed to domestic scientific milestones. These include China’s space projects (Tiangong, Long March, Shenzhou), deep sea exploration (the Jiaolong submersible), better telescopes (Tianyan), and gleaming new bridges, trains, and cities. I’m not saying that other space programs have done nothing, instead that they don’t get as much domestic publicity as China’s media is able to muster. Liu has been compared to Clarke and Asimov in writing “classical” science fiction; I wonder if these authors all focused on writing about technological advances, instead of dystopian societies, because they all witnessed rapid progress. If so, let’s hope that more people in developing countries get into writing science fiction, and not leave it all to comfortable authors in rich countries.

The three books. I did not enjoy all three books equally. The first, Three Body Problem, is excellent. The second, The Dark Forest, is very good. The third, Death’s End, is too dismal for words. If you pick up the series, I suggest stopping by the end of the second book, which like the first is full of vibrant ideas. The trilogy could have wrapped up on a smart and philosophical note; instead, the ending felt hollow and Hollywood.

The second book is still good, but for me it never reached the quality of the first. The Dark Forest is a perfectly fine science fiction book, and it presents a compelling answer to the Fermi Paradox. My complaint with it is that it loses the distinctly Chinese flavor of the first book. The Three Body Problem is philosophical and historical. In one scene, Ye Wenjie visits her mother, whose denunciation of her father led to his death by beating; in another scene, she confronts the three students who actually led the beating. The first book doesn’t even have all that much science fiction in it, while the rest have all that you want and more. The science is great, but I liked better the parts that engage historically.

Every Chinese person I’ve talked to claims to have liked the first book better; every non-Chinese says the second is better. I miss the excellent footnotes Ken Liu prepared for the first book; there were fewer opportunities for them in the next two.

Another part of the first book I really liked: Liu explicitly discusses the ideas of von Neumann, Newton, Aristotle, Mozi, Copernicus, and more. There were fewer of these historical/philosophical discussions in the others.

Anti-intellectualism. Da Shi, the street-smart cop, is regularly proved right in his derision of intellectuals. Wang Miao first states that: “You know know that a person’s ability to discern the truth is directly proportional to his knowledge.” But later on he admits: “Many of the best scientists can be fooled by pseudoscience, and sometimes devote their lives to it. But pseudoscience is afraid of one particular type of people: stage magicians. In fact, many pseudoscientific hoaxes were exposed by stage magicians. Compared to the bookworms of the scientific world, your experience as a cop makes you far more likely to perceive such a large-scale conspiracy.”

It’s true that intellectuals deliver the scientific advances. But the intellectuals are responsible for causing all of humanity’s problems in the first place.

At one point, the world’s experts doubt that the character Yun Tianming could possibly craft a scientifically-rigorous literary work, because “after all, he only had an undergraduate degree.” I couldn’t help but feel that Liu Cixin, a software engineer at a power plant who didn’t study beyond undergrad, felt some bitter satisfaction at writing these words.

One last note on this topic: Throughout the trilogy, and especially in the first book, people discuss the merits of theory versus experimentation. Both sides had good arguments, and I didn’t follow which came out ahead. On the one hand, humanity kept lamenting a technological block that Trisolaris placed on Earth, stopping humanity from advancing on fundamental theory. On the other hand, many of the great advancements were driven by experiment-oriented people. If I re-read the books, this will be a theme I’ll focus more on.

Ye Wenjie recalled her father saying, “I’m not opposed to your idea. But we are, after all, the department of theoretical physics. Why do you want to avoid theory?”

Yang replied, “I want to devote myself to the times, to make some real-world contributions.”

Her father said, “Theory is the foundation of application. Isn’t discovering fundamental laws the biggest contribution to our time?”

Yang hesitated and finally revealed his real concern: “It’s easy to make ideological mistakes in theory.”

Her father had nothing to say to that.

The writing. A few of my friends have complained that the book’s writing isn’t very good. Ken Liu, translator of the first and third books, offers this thought: “The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.”

Some of the rhythms do feel odd. But I was able to perfectly picture some of these sentences in Chinese, and I want to assure my friends that the conciseness works better in the original language. For example, when describing a bath, I don’t regret that Liu wrote: “She felt her body turn as soft as noodles.” It adds a different flavor to the books.

Politically incorrect. Some parts of the books felt quite politically incorrect, I’ll discuss just two. First, Robin Hanson picks up on the strain of misogyny that’s especially evident in the third book. I was surprised at how often Liu described the human world as too “feminized,” and how men from only previous eras could be described as “tough.” At one point, a frustrated commander cries out: “Don’t you know that there are no more men on Earth?”

Hanson suggests that Liu is able to get away with this because he’s Chinese. I want to add another point. Liu portrays the other alien civilizations, which are all more advanced than Earth, as totalitarian societies. His implicit suggestion is that they’ve traded in personal freedoms for technological advancement and cosmic survival. Trisolarans live in a totalitarian caste system; another, still more advanced aliens lack even the ability to keep their own thoughts private. I haven’t seen anyone else call Liu out on this point.

***

I’ll return to the idea that this is the kind of science fiction that I think Peter Thiel wants people to read. A big theme is that it takes work build the future, that it’s possible, and that government has a role to play.

To conclude, here’s a scene I enjoyed from the first book, which beautifully describes the three body problem. In interviews, Liu has suggested that he’s able to turn visualize concepts into formulas, presumably this describes how he sees it himself.

I created a sphere in this infinite space for myself: not too big, though possessing mass. My mental state didn’t improve, however. The sphere floated in the middle of “emptiness”—in infinite space, anywhere could be the middle. The universe had nothing that could act on it, and it could act on nothing. It hung there, never moving, never changing, like a perfect interpretation for death.

I created a second sphere whose mass was equal to the first one’s. Both had perfectly reflective surfaces. They reflected each other’s images, displaying the only existence in the universe other than itself. But the situation didn’t improve much. If the spheres had no initial movement—that is, if I didn’t push them at first—they would be quickly pulled together by their own gravitational attraction. Then the two spheres would stay together and hang there without moving, a symbol for death. If they did have initial movement and didn’t collide, then they would revolve around each other under the influence of gravity. No matter what the initial conditions, the revolutions would eventually stabilize and become unchanging: the dance of death.

I then introduced a third sphere, and to my astonishment, the situation changed completely. Like I said, any geometric figure turns into numbers in the depths of my mind. The sphereless, one-sphere, and two-sphere universes all showed up as a single equation or a few equations, like a few lonesome leaves in late fall. But this third sphere gave “emptiness” life. The three spheres, given initial movements, went through complex, seemingly never-repeating movements. The descriptive equations rained down in a thunderstorm without end.

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“Melancholy,” by Laszlo Foldenyi

Laszlo Foldenyi, a Hungarian professor of art, has written a literary history of melancholy. It’s not a self-help book for the melancholic; it’s not a social science book on their tendencies and accomplishments; it’s not a psychological plumbing of a few famous people whom it afflicts. Instead, Melancholy presents depictions of the condition in mythical, novelistic, ecclesiastical, and historical terms.

The book’s main question is one from Aristotle: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?” There’s a startling, beautiful claim on every page. The ideas are too provocative and many to excerpt, but still I’ll share a few of the themes below, along with some of my commentary.

What is melancholy? If one has to define it bluntly, one might call it deep thinking plus sadness. (The project of the book is to define the term without bluntness.) It’s not mere depression; Foldenyi quotes a writer who regrets that particular term, “a noun with a bland tonality and lacking in any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline.” (253) There’s a much greater weltschmerz implied by the condition, and Foldenyi showcases the special despairs that grip those whom he call melancholics.

While reading the book, I kept wanting to look up the paintings Foldenyi describes; or to put it down and pick up something by Thomas Mann; at one point I tried to find a good biography of Goethe. Throughout are some gorgeous descriptions of sadness, recklessness, solitude, and suffering.

Who are the melancholics?

Foldenyi writes with far too much delight on the grandeur of melancholy. Here is an early claim, coming at the end of the first chapter:

Melancholics are prominent precisely because they are too full of life; because of them, existence overflows itself. That explains their unappeasable sense of absence: since they have left the world of moderation, overflowing is inconceivable without being emptied. The universe is damaged in their person; hence, melancholics’ sense of being among the elect, but also their self-hatred to the point of self-annihilation. That makes them strong and outstanding, but also exceedingly frail. Their strength is infinite, because they have gained knowledge of the end, but they are also unhappy, since having experienced the ephemeral nature of humans, they have lost their trust in existence.” (48)

They clashed with everything… and that was why they were regarded as abnormal, because others generally satisfied common expectations. They regarded themselves, however, as the most normal of all.” (102)

Melancholia is resignation: “Melancholics can never be accused of being revolutionary.” (306)

The example of melancholics shows that they turn away from the world, and all the fixed achievements of civilization become questionable for them, while their indisputable capacities for learning and astuteness make them solitary and withdrawn.” (49)

Melancholics live in the same world as other people, yet they do not see the same world. They build themselves a new world into which they alone can enter…

They are Saturn’s children, and for that reason stupid, stuck in the mud, and dull-witted—that, at least, is how the world in general thinks of them, since melancholics are incapable of seeing the simplest of facts ‘normally,’ in conformity with public opinion. But being Saturn’s children, they are also clever, outstanding, magnificent, and wise—the same world asserts those things, too, for after all a melancholic can discover shades and perspectives of existence that remain invisible to an ordinary person.” (107)

Who is melancholic?

As with autism, melancholia in the famous is fun to diagnose at literary distance. Foldenyi shares his thoughts on a few artists whom he is certain are melancholic, like Dürer and Michelangelo.

Foldenyi asserts that all great art is sad art. “The greater the technical perfection of art, the more prominent the sadness… A creative artist feels perpetual dissatisfaction—however great the work that is brought into being, there is a feeling that he was unable fully to cast it into the form that he conceived in himself—and the viewers, if they lose themselves in the work, find themselves face-to-face with infinite sorrow (as in Don Quixote, for instance) or is the endpoint toward which everything heads (the movingly resigned final scene of War and Peace is like that).

Attributing melancholia to great artists feels like a dangerous game. Do we really know how they felt? Was the bon vivant and bachelor David Hume a melancholic? How about Stendhal, who loved life, but wrote works of stunning interiority? Let me throw out a few names offhand: Proust, Wittgenstein, Melville, Gauguin, Schoenberg… are they all melancholics?

Foldenyi singles out Caspar David Friedrich for particular treatment as a melancholic. Here he is on Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea: “The large painting depicts the tiny figure of a monk standing with is back to the viewer, in front of a vast sea and under an overcast sky. The solitary figure is the melancholic genius himself, born at the time of Romanticism. Friedrich, who according to reports from friends was characterized by the deepest melancholia and painted the most melancholy pictures of all time, had an infallible sense of all the touchstones of modern melancholia: metaphysical solitude, a compulsion for self-justification, suffering in self-enjoyment, a death wish merging into a fear of death, and a condition bordering on that of a genius.” (201)

Music and melancholy

Even more so than painting, Foldenyi asserts that sorrow is at the very foundation of music. “Is there really such a thing as cheerful music?” Schubert asks.

But when the world did not offer the melancholic the possibility of establishing a home, and he was surrounded ever more threateningly by objects, the role of music grew, and—lacking in all objective references as it does—it became the most melancholic of all the genres of art.” (166)

In a footnote, Foldenyi names a few pieces that programmatically deploy melancholia. These include CPE Bach’s Trio Sonata in C minor for two violins, and the Finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 18.

I thought to suggest two more pieces. Anyone can write in a minor key, but some pieces draw out sadness with special weight: Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, final movement, recording by Claudio Abbado with the Wiener Philharmoniker; and Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps, fifth movement, by Tashi.

(For an antidote, perhaps you’ll want to listen to Dance no. 3, by Philip Glass, which is ecstatically joyful.)

Sorrow does not spare even the king

Melancholia was not always treated the same throughout the ages. Foldenyi shares how the condition was treated in different ages, and then quotes from Pascal’s Pensées: “The melancholic is not fleeing the world but trying to find himself a quiet nook within it; he does not make immoderate demands; he is not enraged and raving, as in antiquity; he is not mentally ill, as in the Middle Ages; he is not desperately calling anything to account, as in the Renaissance; but he is above all, depressed: quiet, withdrawn into himself, feeble, and inert. According to Pascal, the aim of the French court at the time was to stifle the sadness and melancholia that was breaking out on all sides:

Put it to the test; leave a king entirely alone quite at leisure, with nothing to satisfy his senses, no care to occupy the mind, with complete leisure to think about himself, and you will see that a king without diversion is a very wretched man. Therefore such a thing is carefully avoided, and the persons of kings are invariably attended by a great number of people concerned to see that diversion comes after affairs of state, watching over their leisure hours to provide pleasures and sport so that there should never be an empty moment. In other words they are surrounded by people who are incredibly careful to see that the king should never be alone and able to think about himself, because they know that, king though he is, he will be miserable if he does think about it.” (173)

Melancholia and genius

This discussion of genius feels to me very… German: “A genius constantly, at every moment, endangers himself and keeps falling, spiraling down to ever-greater depths. He is not threatened by an external enemy, which is why he is unable even to defend himself. And what to an outsider appears to be creativity is in fact an internal rumination. True genius destroys itself—it is obliged to league with death.” (146)

Melancholy and death

Death is present on nearly every page of the book.

An openness to death distinguished them from others, the nonmelancholics; that was what made them chose, solitary, and at the same time, the unhappiest of souls.” (105)

Renaissance melancholia was an all-consuming flame… the subsequent time period has been characterized by a desperate effort to transform this flame into ashes, to make sadness fit for polite society—to tame melancholia.” (150)

Melancholy is reckless: Many of the Romantics did literally destroy themselves; they were so unconcerned about themselves that, sooner or later, earthly destruction was bound to ensue…Without batting an eye, they accepted that they could count only on themselves, and therefore they seemed reckless—assuming that one perceives recklessness not just in a physical sense (for example, leaping across a crevasse) but also in an intellectual sense (for example, thinking fully through a hitherto-inconceivable thought for the first time)… With a nonchalant wave of the hand, Kleist burned his manuscripts, among them two plays and a two-volume novel; after burning one of his works, Byron wrote that it caused him as much pleasure to burn it as to print it.” (222)

Melancholy and boredom

Melancholy paralyzes: “Boredom, hand in hand with sadness and inertia, puts up with everything; bored people allow the world the direct their footsteps. What really bores people is being condemned to inaction. Their personalities urge them to make the best of their rights and realize everything inherent in their individuality, but they have to endure being clapped in irons… for the person who is bored; it is not purely a matter of time passing but, as time passes, of recognizing the innumerable opportunities that are not being put to use…. The more extremely one is bored, the more stultifying one’s ego becomes to oneself.” (176)

The second-to-last chapter is called Illness. Foldenyi grandly asserts that scientists and doctors have disliked melancholy because it is beyond the scope of science. It can’t be understood as mere illness, of the body or of the spirit. But what if it can?

What if melancholy is a matter of, say, low testosterone? It’s at least casually documented that people with low testosterone feel little motivation with some distress.

Maybe it’s not hormonal. Even if it’s not depression, I wonder how much of this poetic trait can be explained by consultation with the DSM-5. Perhaps being melancholic is a function of having schizoid personality disorder; then combined with some form of autism, it creates great artists.

***

But I won’t insist. Reducing melancholy to some psychological or personality disorder renders the subject sterile. Instead, it’s far too romantic to wonder about the trait that has taken hold of Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Byron. And this literary, philosophical take is the correct way to approach the subject.

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“The English and Their History,” by Robert Tombs

I picked up Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History after I read David Frum’s review. (MR also had nice things to say.) Professor Tombs is a historian at Cambridge who’s spent most of his career writing about France. The book consists of 900 pages of British history, focusing especially on the English people; it’s dense and comprehensive, covering every issue of historical importance, and usually quite briefly.

The book is tremendously satisfying to read. I enjoyed it at every moment, and wished that it would go on further as I approached the end. Here are some impressions, with a focus on things I’ve learned:

1. To my regret, I’ve never taken formal coursework in European history. Although I’ve lived briefly on the continent, I don’t have much solid knowledge of what was important in various epochs. This book corrects at least a bit of my ignorance around the history of Britain.

For example: I never really knew who the Normans were or when the Conquest took place. As it turns out, the Norman Conquest was an 11th century invasion of England by a French nobleman, William II of Normandy. He raised a fleet and an army to depose the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson. After William secured England under his rule, major parts of state and society tilted towards French sensibilities. His status as the new English king combined with his possessions in France were major factors for centuries of warfare between the two countries.

The list of these illuminations goes on and on. Who were the Jacobites? Who fought whom in the English Civil War? How did the British get everywhere? Who are the eight Henrys and which of them were significant? Who ruled the Admiralty? Knowing a bit more about these questions is a nice confidence to have.

2. The English and Their History isn’t just a textbook. It gets beyond the dry recitation of facts by presenting various contrarianisms.

Frum’s review discusses three: 1. The English were enthusiastic participants in the slave trade, but reformers also took the moral lead in abolishing it throughout the empire. (A fact I found impressive: “The Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron from 1808 to 1870, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to try to intercept slavers off West Africa.”) 2. English workers lived relatively well, usually better than their counterparts on the continent; the Dickensian depictions of squalor were the exceptions, not the rule. 3. The post-WWII obsessions with decline was quite a cultural exaggeration; the English misremember the past for being greater than than it was, and they understate how well off they had become.

And here are a few more quick ones I thought to present:

  • Contra Keynes, Tombs makes the case that Germany could have paid war reparations after all. For Germany, reparations were a greater political problem than an economic one.
  • In general, Britain’s island status made it easier, not harder to be invaded. For a long time, it was impossible for the state to defend every part of the coast; a fleet can sail up a bit further to a less guarded spot if it intended to invade. Before Britain could protect most parts of the island, it could only pray that poor sea conditions turn away foes. William the Conqueror and William of Orange were lucky; Philip II and Napoleon were not.
  • As often as not, Britain was a reluctant imperialist. Expansion was usually driven by local problems. Tombs lists a few reasons: “to control settlers; to restrain them from attacking natives; to defend them from reprisals when they did; to secure frontiers by pushing outwards, thus replacing existing problems with new ones; to fight wars against neighboring entities seen as a threat,” etc.

3. British foreign policy appears to have been consistent over the course of centuries: When a European country became too powerful, Britain financed its rivals. If Britain had to go to war, it used its overwhelming sea power to raid and blockade, rather than deploy its usually lackluster standing army to meet a threat head-on.

That strategy was well-implemented by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was the paymaster of the coalition that set Dutch, Prussian, Austrian, Russian, and troops from other countries against the French. (To finance these efforts, it relied on an income tax, trade with its colonies, and selling bonds abroad.) Its troops did fight and win, but it was really the fleet that put the most pressure on Napoleon and made a mockery of his Continental System.

Of WWII, here’s Tombs: “This was the last great imperial struggle, the fourth great war in which Britain was victorious by being able to mobilize global resources against a European hegemon.”

4. The formidable sea power resulted from centuries of investments in the Royal Navy:

“Trafalgar was in reality a one-sided battle, as was now invariably the case when the totally dominant Royal Navy got to grips with its enemies, inferior in training, morale, and physical health.”

“From 1793 to 1815, (the Royal Navy) lost only one line-of-battle ship to enemy action, but captured or destroyed 139… (the navy) was the most important and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society, and left few aspects of national life unaffected.”

“Blockades of French ports were progressively tightened as the navy learned how to spend long periods on station without its crews quickly falling sick—Admiral Collingwood, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, had not set foot on shore for eight years before he died on board in 1810… British sailors spent far more time at sea, giving the Royal Navy the advantage of tough and well-trained crews. They were led by a meritocratic and experienced officer corps… Food and drink were good and plentiful—about 5000 calories a day, including a pound of bread, a pound of meat, and a gallon of beer.”

Certain warships cost as much as the annual budgets of small states.

5. The book is comprehensive and readable. It covered all the things you ought to know about in sufficient depth, and the writing is always bright and clear.

Of course, being comprehensive entails the usual complaint: You wish that certain topics were covered in greater detail. The War of the Roses, for example, is discussed in a mere seven pages. As a casual Game of Thrones fan, I’d have cared to read much more.

6. In roughly the first half of the book, nearly all discussions focused on political and royal issues. Who was the reigning monarch? What was his/her relationship to Parliament? Which war did his death and succession cause?

And then in the latter half, the focus shifts almost entirely. After Victoria, the monarch is rarely brought up. Instead of offering an evaluation of the king or queen, Tombs doesn’t write about many at all. I’d have liked some acknowledgment of that. Did the sovereign start to matter less as Parliament took on more power? Was there too little materialistic and economic development to be written about? Did domestic issues and foreign policy become more important as England stabilized? Was it a matter of record keeping, in which economic developments were hard to track, but court machinations well-recorded?

The earlier focus on royal personalities made certain paragraphs bewildering. At some point there were too many Edwards, Henrys, and later on Georges, for me to keep track of. I gave up on certain sentences because I didn’t want to browse back to see which Charles/Edward/Henry was being referred to after all.

7. And here’s a slightly different form of the complaint above: Though there are many great discussions of culture, there’s still too much focus on kings and wars.

I wish that there were more discussions on economically interesting things. Enough on the personalities of queens and prime ministers. How did people adapt to the steam engine and the railroad? How did elites deal with the rise of German and American industry? How complementary were the colonies to the home economy? What was the social and economic impact of all of its scientific innovations?

8. Monarchy was in general not a stabilizing force for the country. Tombs mentioned that about the only succession to go well in a 100-year time span was that of Henry VII to Henry VIII. (The latter managed to provoke massive instability all on his own, without the assistance of succession problems.) Before George I, nearly every succession led to some lengthy war.

These succession issues made me think of Scott Alexander’s Neoreactionary FAQ. Strong monarchs may produce stable kingdoms, but their succession usually provoked political upheaval. The weeks after a monarch’s death were terribly fraught for all factions. There were always questions about the best claim; or people would be upset that the wrong religion now controls the throne; or foreign actors decide to take advantage of chaos to launch military action. I don’t much read neoreactionaries, and I hope that they acknowledge the fact that succession issues were the source for some of the worst wars.

9. To wrap up, here’s a gentle plea from Tombs to remember Britain’s contributions in WWII: “Had (Britain) made peace with Germany in 1940, Nazi dominance of Europe for the foreseeable future would have been unchallengeable, and American isolationism confirmed… Germany would have held the global initiative, with free access to oil, food, and raw materials. The subsequent defeat of an isolated USSR, simultaneously assailed by Japan, would have been inevitable, accompanied by a planned genocidal depopulation of much of eastern Europe.”

“In a nutshell: the defeat of Japan was overwhelmingly American; the evisceration of the German army was mainly due to the Russians; but the strategic defeat of Germany as a whole and that of Italy were primarily due to Britain.”

***

I’ll reiterate that I really like this book: It’s a comprehensive, readable account of the political and cultural history of a major power.

Another history quite excites me at the moment: Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. I flipped it open in a bookstore, to land on a section describing the varieties of monarchies in Southeast Asia. How can one resist?

Now a question: Every country deserves to have its history written up like this, but right now I’m most interested in finding two; what’s the equivalent for France and Germany? In other words, which German/French history substitutes for a textbook, but is more gracefully written and viewpoint-driven? I’ve asked a few people, none of whom have offered pointers. I’ll appreciate any suggestions: danwyd@gmail.com.

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“Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” from John Brooks’ Business Adventures

A friend recommended that I pick up Business Adventures by John Brooks. It’s a book made recently popular by Bill Gates, who borrowed his copy from his friend Warren Buffett.

Business Adventures is made up of 12 chapters, each of which was separately published as articles in the New Yorker. It covers topics like insider trading, stockholder meetings, an early Wall Street bailout, and more. The very first chapter I read was “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” which profiles the company that was so important to the city of Rochester, where I went to college. (The story mentions the university quite a few times.) The company was initially named Haloid, and it struggled to develop a product before it found major success.

Brooks’ storytelling is superb. Here are a few things from the chapter that resonated with me. And at the end of the post, I’ll share a few of my favorite sentences.

1. In 1964, the company spent a year’s advertising budget to underwrite a series of ads supporting the United Nations. The UN is well established now, so it’s easy to ignore, or not know at all, that its growth was a matter of major controversy. Xerox’s CEO justified the expenditure in high-minded terms: “World cooperation is our business, because without it there might be no world and no business.”

The company ran into a storm of opposition. Thousands of letters poured in to denounce Xerox. They didn’t all come from members of the John Birch Society, although most did: some purportedly came from the presidents of major companies, who threatened to remove all Xerox machines from their offices unless the ad series was canceled. The company declined to give in.

It does not seem self-evident that the responsibility for promoting world cooperation should fall so heavily on a company selling photocopiers. How often do major companies take stands on positions of genuine public controversy? And how often do they maintain these public positions when their customers expressly threaten to cancel business? It feels remarkably brave.

2. Here’s bravery of a more obvious sort: The company invested a great deal in R&D for the product, at a time when it wasn’t clear that a breakthrough was possible. No one else had figured out how to build a cheap, efficient xerography machine that could print on untreated paper. Developing the machine eventually became a do-or-die affair for the company. Several early employees really stuck their necks out, including forgoing a salary and mortgaging their houses to help with the research effort. They were duly rewarded, but they may well have all been ruined.

3. I’ve never quite realized how important Xerox was to the city and to the University of Rochester. It’s fun to read the profile of the company and recognize so many names I’ve seen around campus. Joseph C. Wilson was variously the chairman, chief executive, and president of the company; his name is on the main boulevard of the university and one of the three major dining halls. The school has named its science library after Chester Carlson, who developed one of the processes critical to xerography. I haven’t seen the names of Sol Linowitz (a chief deputy) and John Dessauer (a chief researcher) around, but I’m sure that their names adorn professorships or different parts of campus.

Someone once told me that the University of Rochester had a massive endowment in the ’60s, second only to Harvard’s. Now it all makes sense.  Before Xerox had its breakthrough, the university bought a huge number of shares out of concern for helping out a struggling local employer. When the company took off, the university’s position did as well. Alas it wasn’t so successful at managing the money. Rochester’s endowment is now around $2 billion, while Harvard’s is around $32 billion.

Xerox was important to the city, not just to the university. I remember reading a 1971 book that describes the city this way: “Rochester prides itself on being one of America’s cultural crown jewels; it has its libraries, school system, university, museums, and its well-known symphony.” That was the heyday of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb. But it wasn’t able to keep growing or maintain momentum; the city’s population has been in decline for the last few decades, stabilizing only in the last few years. Instead of being able to tout these multinational industrial giants, the city’s largest employers have become the University of Rochester (because of the hospital system) and Wegmans (a grocery chain).

4. I’d always thought it a little funny that Xerox’s name so resembled Kodak’s. It turns out that it was intentional of the upstart to copy Kodak’s near-palindrome. The decision to change the name to Xerox from Haloid ran into virulent opposition from the firm’s marketing consultants, who declared the name unpronounceable and to sound too much like “zero.”

The chapter is my favorite so far in the book. Others I’ve read don’t come close to being as interesting, though perhaps I say that only because it has personal resonance. At some points Brooks is a brilliant writer, but at other times I’m put off by his self-consciousness. Anyway, here are three of my favorite sentences, all from the Xerox chapter.

In a society that sociologists are forever characterizing as a “mass,” the notion of making one-of-a-kind things into many-of-a-kind things showed signs of becoming a real compulsion.

I sent a couple of afternoons with one 914 and its operator, and observed what seemed to be the closest relationship between a woman and a piece of office equipment that I have ever seen. A girl who uses a typewriter or a switchboard has no interest in the equipment, because it holds no mystery, while one who operates a computer is bored with it, because it is incomprehensible. But a 914 has distinct animal traits…

Xerox salesmen are forever trying to think of new uses for the company’s copiers, but they found again and again that the public is well ahead of them.

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Sonderweg

I had intended to read Peter Watson’s The German Genius before I left for Germany. Instead I got to it only now, after I’ve returned. Here anyway are some thoughts.

The book is an intellectual history of Germany. Watson largely ignores political intrigue, bringing out instead the ideas of philosophers, musicians, scientists, historians, and industrialists. It’s to make a simple point: There’s a lot more to the country than the 12 years between 1933 and 1945. He regrets that the Third Reich so dominates popular imagination of Germany, and this 850-page book is his corrective.

To prove the point he makes to overwhelm with the sheer number of important German thinkers. It’s not just Kant and Goethe and Beethoven and Hegel and Freud and Wagner and Schiller and Nietzsche and Einstein and Marx and on and on. Take a look at these chapter titles: Physics Becomes King: Helmholtz, Clausius, Boltzmann, Reimann; Sensibility and Sensuality in Vienna; Munich/Schwabing: Germany’s “Montmartre”; Masters of Metal: Krupp, Diesel, Rathenau.

The approach is sometimes frustrating. Watson typically serves up a brief bio and an explication of a thinker’s main ideas. Most people receive a few paragraphs before they’re dismissed. So just when you think: “Hmm, tell me more,” Watson has already moved on to the next person. I found his treatment of quite a few people to be unsatisfactory. He skips over the fascinating details of Albert Hirschman’s work during the war, noting only that Hirschman was assistant to Varian Fry; on the intellectual side, he brings out Hirschman’s scholarship on development economics, but says nothing of his work on political science. What interesting details has he rushed over in the lives of other people? If you pick up this book, just be aware that he’s trying to be encyclopedic, and that breadth here is the point.

Watson is British, but some of his sentences feel very… German. Take this: “Gödel imagined (or rather, worked out mathematically) that if the universe were rotating, as he calculated it was (this was now called a “Gödel universe”), then space-time could become so greatly warped or curved by the distribution of matter that were a spaceship to travel through it at a certain minimum speed (which he calculated), time travel would be possible.” Then he moves on.

Consider another excerpt. This gives a better sense of what Watson is trying to do: “The pithiest way to show how German refugees affected American life is to give a list of those whose intellectual contribution was such as to render their names, if not household words, then at least eminent among their peers: Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Rudolf Arnheim, Erich Auerbach, Paul Baran, Hans Bethe, Bruno Bettelheim, Arnold Brecht, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Breuer, Hermann Broch, Charlotte and Karl Bühler, Rudolf Carnap, Lewis Coser, Karl Deutsch, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Döblin, Peter Drucker, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Hanns Eisler, Erik Erikson, Otto Fenichel, Ernst Fraenkel, Erich Fromm, Hans Gerth, Felix Gilbert, Kurt Gödel, Gottfried von Haberler, Eduard Heimann, Ernst Herzfled, Julius Hirsch, Albert Hirschman, Hajo Holborn, Max Horkeimer, Karen Horney, Werner Jaeger, Marie Jahoda, George Katona, Walter Kaufmann, Otto Kirchheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Erich Korngold, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Krenek, Ernst Kris, Paul Oskar Kristeller, Fritz Lang, Paul Lazarsfeld, Kurt Lewin, Peter Lorre, Leo Lowenthal, Ernst Lubitsch, Heinrich Mann, Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Mayr, Ludwig von Mises…” That’s not even all of “M,” and yes it goes to “Z.”

Now I don’t want to give the impression that this book is merely a bio mashup of important Germans. Watson takes all this material to argue that there is something of a German character after all. He brings up the term Sonderweg, which means “special path,” a German equivalent of “American Exceptionalism.” As I understand it, Sonderweg usually refers to Germany’s particular political development, but Watson relates it instead to the profundity of German culture.

So here’s what makes German thinkers German. Watson shows that Germans have always prized inwardness, or Innerlichkeit. It manifests for example as Kant’s ideas on the inwardly-looking structures of the mind; consider also the symphony, which is (usually) wordless and beyond words. Watson shows the historical roots of the concept of Bildung, which refers to self-cultivation and the desire to “enlarge” ourselves and those around us. Both are German tendencies which have been explicitly named and praised as virtues over many centuries.

Watson also cites other features that help explain the idea of a German character. He shows that German development has been affected by a relatively large educated middle class. And he brings out historical arguments that Germans are apathetic towards politics and tend towards a nationalist cultural pessimism. (He also shows how modern Germans no longer hold these ideas.) Finally, he considers whether the Nazi regime was a necessary development given these tendencies; read the book, I won’t try to discuss that idea here.

Last thing on Watson’s arguments before I present a few scattered thoughts. In the conclusion he writes: “Kant, Humboldt, Marx, Clausius, Mendel, Nietzsche, Planck, Freud, Einstein, Weber, Hitler—for good or ill, can any other national boast a collection of eleven (or even more) individuals who compare with these figures in regard to the enduring influence they have had on modern ways of thought?” Maybe, right? Britain is a candidate. Hume preceded Kant, Smith preceded Marx, Newton preceded Clausius, Planck, and Einstein, Darwin preceded Mendel, Locke and Mill preceded Nietzsche. It’s not just a question of chronology; the British thinkers came up with the fundamental ideas that the German thinkers built on.

Here are a few more short thoughts:

  • Three data points that support the idea for a large educated middle class: In the early 19th century, Germany had 300 universities to Britain’s 4. In 1900, it had 4221 newspapers to France’s 3000 and Russia’s 125. And before 1933, Germany had more Nobel Prizes than American and British scientists put together.
  • Reading ideas from certain German thinkers made me think of China. In both cultures there’s an emphasis on reading and education, and perhaps a philosophical cultivation among the upper class. But there’s also less happy stuff. Racial identities featured prominently in both cultures; people are or have been a bit too eager to believe that their race makes them especially inventive or philosophical. Prominent writers from both countries have offered arguments that their people are particularly allergic to liberal values, and that authoritarianism best suits their country. These ideas are now so out of the mainstream in Germany, but it’s disturbing how easily you can come across them in China now.
  • Watson wants us to think beyond Nazis, but I thought that the book’s strongest section was the part about the damage that Nazis caused. It’s the section that engages most actively with history, presenting how the political situation thoroughly profaned the intellectual culture. (One example: A few prominent scientists, including some who won the Nobel Prize, were actively encouraged to leave the country.) My favorite chapter was the one on German refugees in America. It discusses how they mostly failed to assimilate to American culture and how many returned to Europe (with most settling in Switzerland) when they got the chance.
  • Here’s a paragraph I found intriguing: “Dewey’s first point was that history has shown that to think in abstract terms is dangerous. It elevates ideas beyond the situations in which they were born and charges them with we know not what menace for the future. He observed the British philosophy, from Francis Bacon to John Stuart Mill, had been cultivated by men of affairs rather than professors, as had happened in Germany (Kant, Fichte, Hegel)… In particular, he thought that Germany—and its well-trained bureaucracy—had ‘ready-made channels through which philosophic ideas may flow on their way to practical affairs,’ and that Germany differed from the United States and Britain in that this channel was the universities rather than the newspapers.”

Watson collected a few dozen short quotes about Germany and German culture at the beginning of the book. Here are my favorites:

German problems are rarely German problems alone. – Ralf Dahrendorf

The word “genius” in German has a special overtone, even a tinge of the demonic, a mysterious power and energy; a genius—whether artist or scientist—is considered to have a special vulnerability, a precariousness, a life of constant risk and often close to troubled turmoil. – Fritz Stern

The Germans dive deeper—but they come up muddier. – Wickham Steed

The Allies won [the Second World War] because our German scientists were better than their German scientists. – Sir Ian Jacobs, military secretary to Winston Churchill

Schneehügel mit Raben

(Above, Caspar David Friedrich’s Schneehügel mit Raben, Snow Hill with Ravens. Watson remarks that Friedrich rarely depicts direct sunlight, and instead paints scenes of dusk, dawn, or fog… via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Technological predictions: 1903 – 1970

Popular Mechanics has been making predictions of technological innovations since it first started publishing in 1903. Greg Benford, a science fiction author, has collated some of them in a short book called The Wonderful Future that Never Was. They’re predictions on the future of cities, of transportation, of home life, and more, presented in short blurbs set with hand-drawn futurist art.

These predictions were made in magazine issues published up to 1970. It’s fun not just to see what they were and which came true. Studying them is informative for anyone curious to see how science enthusiasts talked about the future. The confident tone is as much a pleasure to read as any of the bold predictions. These types of matter-of-fact declarations are common: “scientists assure us that startling breakthroughs are only a decade away…” or “these remarkable advances are expected to come to the home in a short matter of time.”

I’ll share a some of these predictions, followed by a few general observations in the next section.

Predictions

My favorite entry is a 1951 prediction of personal helicopters, accompanied with an illustration of a man pushing one into a garage: “This simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe is big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn. it has no carburetor to ice up, no ignition system to fall apart or misfire: instead, quiet, efficient ramjets keep the rotors moving, burning any kind of fuel from dime-a-gallon stove oil or kerosene up to aviation gasoline.” It’s not so much that I want a helicopter. Instead I love that the promise of ease is made with such earnestness.

There are lots of entries here on efforts to prolong life, for example with radiation, heavy water, and artificial organs. Scientists then talked of treating old age as a disease with a cure.

Self-driving cars, sort of, predicted in 1965: “Out on the highway, a new era is about to embark: the automated trip. GM’s proposed ‘Autoline’ is a complete speed and directional control system for vehicles, using remote-control electronic signals. Its main components are the inevitable computer, a control cable beneath the automated highway lane, and sensing devices and servo-mechanisms in automobiles that can actuate their controls. When perfected, Autoline will let drivers ‘phase’ into an automated expressway lane with their cars completely in command of the auto-line controls. Cars can thus speed along, virtually bumper to bumper, at 50 mph.”

Here’s a quote from a 1950 entry: “It’s the idea of one of America’s most practical scientist-executives, Dr. Irving Langmuir. ‘There is no fundamental reason,’ says Doctor Langmuir, ‘why we could not travel at the speed of 2000 to 5000 miles an hour in a vacuum tube. The Pacific coast might be only an hour away from the Atlantic.’” Isn’t that the Hyperloop?

Frozen meals (1947) were one of many attempts to industrialize food, but it’s about the only one to be broadly commercialized. In 1926, scientists talked of making food from coal and extracting fats from petroleum. Chemists made a serious effort in 1940 to make grass digestible, so that it can be powdered and sprinkled on bread for the vitamins. Cellulose in the form of sawdust flour was predicted in 1962 to gain wide usage, for example as cookie dough.

Reading these food predictions made me blanch. They are far too grim, even for a Soylent enthusiast such as myself. See this, from the scientist who wanted to derive butter from petroleum: “Prof. Norris declared that food supply will never become an acute problem, so long as we have chemists.” I went to look up the process of making Soylent after reading that.

An IBM computer was used to translate Russian in 1954. It could process six basic rules of grammar, had a vocabulary of 250 words, and operated by punchcards. Here are some other computer-related predictions that we’re familiar with: video calling (predicted in 1940), virtual doctor diagnosis (1957), mapless driving (1967), and “downloadable” digital reading (1938). The last item involved radio delivery of newspapers every morning to a machine at home. From that entry: “Only perfection of certain technical details stand in its way, according to radio experts.”

This isn’t exactly a technological prediction, but it’s the one I’m most glad to not be realized. 1950: “In the year 2000, any marked departure from what your fellow citizens wear and eat and how they amuse themselves will arouse comment. If old Mrs. Underwood, who was born in 1920, insists on sleeping under an old-fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air so that it is light as a thistle-down, she must expect people to talk about her ‘queerness.’ It is astonishing how easily the great majority of us fall into step with our neighbors.” No, what’s astonishing is how smug someone can sound when they want to enforce social conformity, on the preferences of blankets no less.

I spent a long time looking at an illustration of a “city of the future.” It’s long, so I’ve put it at the bottom of the post.

Now some general observations:

At this point I should disclaim that this is a picture book, filled with whimsy and not systematic rigor. Still, a few thoughts.

  1. How many of these predictions came true? I think it’s possible to summarize these in a fairly simple way: “Most predictions made before 1950 were realized; most made afterwards were not, with the exception of anything involving communications.” It’s not just that the engineering was difficult: scientists overestimated the enthusiasm for certain products (see: petroleum fat, sawdust cookies) and many ideas probably wouldn’t survive scrutiny of today’s regulators. On the other hand, people didn’t see cellphones, the internet, or software as we know it coming. The most ambitious communications technology portrayed here is the “television phone,” an expensive, awkward precursor to Skype.
  1. Now a question: What would the world look like if just one more field resembled communications, which succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most futurists? Communications technologies are significant in themselves, but they also impact many other areas. What if another technology improved so much that it could have discernibly broad and deep effects on other fields? There are many to wonder about, pick your favorite: medicine, rocketry, transportation, and so on.
  1. Improvements in energy could have even broader effects than communications. A lot of the failed predictions would stand a chance of working out if energy were super cheap, as a lot of people in the ‘50s thought would be the case when the country fully adopted nuclear energy. So to what extent is the failure of these predictions really a failure of the nuclear dream, in which we’d get clean energy that’s too cheap to meter? “Nuclear is eating the world” brings up entirely the wrong kind of image, but still we can wonder. On the other hand if Noah Smith is to be believed, maybe the hope isn’t dead, and lies in solar instead.
  1. A related point to #2: “High-tech” now refers almost exclusively to communications technologies, and the “tech industry” has become shorthand for software businesses centered around Silicon Valley. Isn’t that linguistic evolution a concession that the other fields have stagnated? Peter Thiel has made this point, and he tells us that “technology” in the ‘30s was understood as many things, including airplanes, the movie industry, secondary oil recovery, plastics, chemicals, and more. “Tech” today doesn’t have that broad connotation, and I wonder if that implicitly puts limits on our imagination.
  1. Let’s say you want to make these big predictions come true. How do you go about it, and I mean this in a general way? Are you supposed to pursue a PhD in the sciences? Which company do you aspire to join? And what do you do if you’re non-technical but want to work anyway on developing the technological future? It doesn’t seem like there are any obvious answers, and I wonder if that’s part of the problem. I’ll confess that I’m pretty removed from the world of science and engineering, but from a distance, it seems that being an academic scientist is no guarantee that you’ll get to work on world-changing projects. Are there modern equivalents of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC? Or are they just more fragmented, out of the public eye but not hard to find if you’re an insider?

Thanks to Michael Gibson (@william_blake) for recommending the book. I like how it ends: “The enormous challenge demands new approaches, fueled by visions of futures that are utopian, even if we don’t get quite all the way there. The magazines of the twentieth century show us how to dream, with constraints. Our great problems all involve new technologies. But no one can achieve anything that he or she does not first imagine.”

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Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading

I’ve recently been reading René Girard. As an exercise I decided to try my hand at something he does so well: applying the ideas of mimetic theory to works of literature. Here’s a Girardian reading of the books and the show that have become popular.

Girard’s ideas are tricky to summarize, especially in a way that attempts to convince. Instead I’ll leave all concessions to the reader, with encouragement to check out Girard on Wikipedia or to read this introduction from Imitatio.

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of mimetic issues in A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m interested instead in pointing to broad themes. Please do let me know where I’m off in my grasp of either Girard or the ASOIAF storyline. (With respect to the latter, I’ll disclaim that I’ve kept up with the show but have not read the last book.) Now let me present the idea that mimetic desire is a significant part of Martin’s world.

External mediation by Targaryens

The books begin in the reign of King Robert Baratheon. Robert’s royal ascent is a recent one. It came about only recently after he led a rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty, which until then had ruled the realm for hundreds of years.

Why did the Targaryen reign last so long? We can begin by noting that the family was literally a race distinct from the rest of Westeros. The Targaryens were a slightly magical people who came from a different continent, bringing with them their own language, religions, and customs. They helpfully had control of dragons, which they used to destroy unfriendly kingdoms. Thus began their rule.

Were the Targaryens were able to keep the peace for long because they were so different from the people they ruled? In Girardian terms, the desire by great houses (Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, etc.) to seek the throne has been externally mediated. The other kingdoms weren’t sucked in to mimetic rivalry because the Targaryens were on a different plane. There was not a sustained, general rebellion against them before Robert’s. The same is not true for the great houses in various kingdoms. House Reyne, for example, attempted to depose House Lannister, and every great house has had trouble keeping smaller houses in line. No one dared challenge the Targaryens, but smaller houses would gamble on rebellion to control a region.

The Targaryen power declined over the course of a century. They gave up their religion, lost their ability to play with fire, and couldn’t keep breeding dragons. Robert rebelled when the Targaryens lost not just most of their might, but also most of their distinctiveness. It wasn’t just a question of power. It had been decades since the Targaryens had dragons, and it’s not clear how without them they could have warded off the invasion of another ambitious house. After people realized that they weren’t so special, the Targaryens were conquered by Robert.

And how long did Robert keep the peace? A meager two decades. When lords realized that Westeros could be ruled by a non-Targaryen, their envy stirred. The Iron Throne switched from being a source of external mediation into a source for internal mediation. That may be the most fundamental reason for why war broke out in multiple places as soon as Robert became weak.

The collective murder of Jon Snow

Jon Snow is at once an extreme insider and an extreme outsider. He is at once a Stark and not a Stark. He’s the commander of the Night’s Watch but out of sync with his subordinates. He’s one of the few people who joined the Watch without lordly compulsion. He’s the perfect victim, a nonviolent person in a culture ruled by violence; it was he who wanted to save wildlings instead of letting them be killed by White Walkers. In one sense he’s barely a fit member of the Watch, and in another sense he’s an extreme one.

The show sets Jon up as a Jesus figure. I want to fixate not on the question of his resurrection, but instead on the facts of his murder. Since I haven’t read the last book, I’ll rely on the interpretation presented by the show.

The situation is precarious. Winter has come, a mutiny tore the Watch apart not long ago, and wildlings have been moving south en masse, some mingling with members of the Watch. Jon’s position as commander is hardly secure; he was elected recently and with a slim margin. And what is one of his first acts? To go on an expedition to save wildlings, the traditional foes of the Watch, and bring them south of the Wall.

Mimetic contagion spreads through the Watch. Brothers are starting to show visible hatred towards Jon, without presenting arguments against his actions or suggesting alternatives. A mimetic snowballing rolls through the group. Eventually a consensus emerges that Jon must die. It’s not clear if the conspirators plan anything beyond this move, since the act is mostly a way to express their rage. They determine that Jon is the cause of the crisis and also the agent for its resolution.

Jon’s murder is a collective one. It takes many stabs from many people to kill him. Everyone gets a go, and no one can be pinpointed as the murderer. In the books, the attack is led by Bowen Marsh, a fellow steward, the same class that Jon belonged to. In the show, the final stroke is left for Olly, again a fellow steward.

See the parallels to the Girardian Christ? Jon died in part because he refused to engage with the mimetic cycle. The proximate justification for his murder is that he saved wildlings rather than ordered their destruction. It’s very much a turn-the-other-cheek renunciation of violence. And it was an effective invitation for the community to rally against him.

Shakespearean, not Marxist conflict

Here’s a more general point. 

There are dragons and zombies in the stories, but the stories are not primarily about dragons and zombies. That’s partly why the books and the show have earned critical acclaim. They’re mostly about people fighting each other, with rich depictions of ambition, betrayal, corruption, etc. amongst humans. Dragons and zombies are still peripheral to the story, and instead we’re served tales of intrigue between various houses. 

Knowledge that these monsters are out there hardly seems to disturb the various lords. Instead they view them as distractions to their main enemies: hostile houses.

And so we get a fundamentally Shakespearean, and that is to say, Girardian, model of conflict instead of a Marxist one. People are obsessed with fighting others like themselves. Wars aren’t fought to defeat collective, existential threats. Instead they’re fought to avenge honor, or sometimes for political or territorial gains. It’s Montagues vs. Capulets, not the huddled masses vs. capitalists.

Winter as mimetic crisis

At the time of the first book, magic had largely disappeared for at least a few decades. Lords came to rely on a supposedly rational order of maesters, a sage class with a scientific bent. The re-emergence of magic might be taken as a sign of mimetic crisis.

Consider a specific magical event: the Long Night. It was a winter that lasted for “a generation,” descending on the continent 8000 years ago. Ice zombies called White Walkers emerged from the north, raising wights to fight the living. Finally a hero drove these monsters back, and people built up a wall to seal them off. This was an event far in the past, one barely believed by the few who’ve heard of it. 

Let’s read this as a mimetic crisis. The cold, the snow, and the darkness are brought about by mimetic tensions; the conditions resemble a plague, in which animals die and crops don’t grow. The emergence of monsters may be a metaphor for the violence brought about by mimetic contagion. What does it take to defeat these monsters? A human sacrifice of an apparently random person. Azor Ahai first attempted to stop by the crisis by sacrificing a lion. When that didn’t work, he sacrificed his wife. The reasons she had to die are never particularized. Yet she is the person chosen to resolve the crisis, and her sacrifice is divinized because it allows the hero to forge a magical sword. He duly drives the monsters back.

Let’s look at winters more generally. One of the most interesting features of Martin’s world is that seasons arrive at uneven intervals. They’re apparently not tethered to any natural events. Perhaps that’s because they’re responsive to social events? I submit it’s not a coincidence that a new winter began and magic started to re-emerge at the end of Robert’s reign. The winter, the attacks by White Walkers, and the birth of dragons may all be a sign of the precipitating mimetic crisis, in which brothers turned upon brothers and the country broke out in a war of all against all.

Other instances of mimetic desire

There are many examples of Girardian ideas at play. I’ll only gesture at them here but leave them untouched.

Can we consider the varieties of orders that swear off mimetic desires (e.g. the Night’s Watch, maesters, the faith) to be especially successful organizations? Do the unharmonious relationships between brothers (e.g. Victarion/Euron, Renly/Stannis) outnumber the unharmonious ones, and is Jaime/Tyrion’s the exception that proves the rule? Can we find passages explicitly demonstrating how the Iron Throne mediates desire? How does the Ramsay/Roose relationship resemble the Jon/Ned relationship? And what’s with the many surrogate fathers of Arya?

Final thought

I haven’t digged up a direct connection between George R. R. Martin and René Girard. Martin isn’t exactly Proust or Cervantes, but I see him as modeling Girardian ideas. Does anyone else think that his world fundamentally revolves around mimetic desire?

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