Last year was a busy year on the personal front (due to a growing family) so I didn't have as much time to write reviews of things I read compared to previous years. Still, I wanted to have some highlights and notes to reference in future posts; the collection below (which also covers a few shows) might also catch my readers' interest to check out some of these works.
Each book or show has a separate section below. This overall post is lengthy, but most of the sections are fairly succinct and can stand alone. Although there are some overlapping commonalities between many of them, such as including settings in Central Asia or dealing with empires in flux.
Dawn of Eurasia
Dawn of Eurasia by Bruno Maçães was published in 2018 but if anything is even more timely now. He travelled overland from the Caucasus Mountains to the Sea of Japan and combined that with his experience in politics (he was a government minister in Portugal whose responsibilities involved acting as a liaison with the EU) and knowledge of literature to paint a picture of the strategic outlook of Eurasia. His thesis is that it will be increasingly difficult to treat Europe and Asia as separate continents (the line between them has always been blurry, of course) as infrastructure and political/economic links between them increase; what happens in the region connecting the most heavily-populated parts of Europe and Asia will impact the whole world. While reading it, I frequently thought of Monsoon by Robert Kaplan which I reviewed around a year ago: it covers the strategic outlook of the regions along the southern coast of Asia, while Dawn of Eurasia looks to the centre of the continent.
Since I read this book in the first half of 2021, here are some of the developments in the region that amply demonstrate its importance for global stability:
- Withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan (although Russia and China appear to be making an effort to stay engaged there)
- Chaos in Kazakhstan, with Russian paratroopers brought in to restore order
- Tension along the eastern border of Ukraine
- Natural gas shortages in Europe
Reading Bruno Maçães' book helped give me a broader context for events like these. Aside from a continuous gradient from Brussels to Beijing in place of a clear division between the continents, he is also expecting a much more multi-polar world in the near future: instead of an international order where Washington largely calls the shots, we may see competing zones of influence—especially in Eurasia. I also really appreciated the cultural context the book provided by referencing some literature from the region.
Here are some excerpts from Dawn of Eurasia that I found thought-provoking:
In just a decade or two, at least three of the five largest economies in the world will be in Asia: China, Japan and India. The only uncertain point about this metric is which country will occupy the fifth position. Will it be Germany, Indonesia, Russia or Brazil? My own guess, if we are talking about the global economy in twenty years, is that it will be Indonesia. It takes a remarkable lack of imagination to think that the world will be more or less the same when Asian economic power becomes so visibly dominant.
The image of conflict is no longer that of battling warriors but of species competing for the same ecosystem, struggling forces which are at the same time part of a single system. And the weapons, just as in the case of competing species, tend to be insidious: false signalling, mimicry, deception
Within twenty years, our old habits of referring to Europe and Asia as separate entities will have been replaced by the new but inescapable reality of Eurasia as a single political and economic space. What I cannot predict – because it is still open to political decision and action – is what this Eurasian supercontinent will look like. Will the unifying wind blow from the east or the west?
There can be no land segment of the Belt and Road without Xinjiang, but at the same time it is difficult to see how China will be able to solve the contradiction between the desire to facilitate trade and movement while closing borders and subjecting everyone to permanent surveillance
This excerpt points out that infrastructure connecting China to places to the west by land has to go through the province of Xinjiang, which the book points out borders 7 or 8 countries. But it is also a place where China is using heavy-handed measures to maintain control, which isn't so conducive to trade. I was also reflecting while reading Dawn of Eurasia that the whole Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路) seems to have an "if you build it, they will come" mindset. The ports discussed in Monsoon don't really seem to be taking off though. While the Chinese government seems quite successful at developing infrastructure, when it comes to institutional environments that promote trade and innovation they have less of a track record (consider how Hong Kong is losing a lot of what made it special, for example).
'The problem with the European Union is that it seems to assume that there is a neutral framework of rules, whereas the real issue is which rules will prevail, an issue that no rule can decide.’
This quote is one that Maçães shares to give a Russian perspective on the EU. The way he describes it is that the EU tries to make rules (on trade etc.) that function like an automaton. They see this as an objective approach, stemming from a belief in convergence (that as countries develop they will end up adopting the same governance structures and institutions); a common Russian perspective, in contrast, puts a lot more weight on who gets the power to make the rules.
The rise of Chinese power goes together with growing Russian ambitions and the halting movements towards political union in Europe. To this complex system one must then add the inevitable arrival of India as a great power later in this century, adding a fourth key player in the south, without forgetting the role of Japan and the growing ability of Iran to project its power outwards. What happens at one end of the supercontinent now has a direct impact on the other end. For example, soon after the outset of the Ukraine crisis, one Chinese general noted that Ukraine was buying China ten extra years to prepare for its global confrontation with the United States.
China, Russia, and the EU get the most attention in Dawn of Eurasia, but it doesn't neglect other players. Aside from the ones mentioned in this excerpt, it has a good discussion of Turkey's strategic compass: will they identify most with the Turkic world (East), the Islamic world (South), continue pursuing EU membership (West), or realize they have a lot of interests (e.g. oil & gas pipelines heading west from the Caspian) in common with their traditional rival Russia (North)?
‘Neither European nor Asian’ is an idea perfectly suited for the current Russian predicament. Afraid of being encroached upon from both sides, the Russian leadership has attempted to turn its most visible vulnerability into its greatest strength: ‘The only option that remains is the formation of a bridge between two great zones of integration.’
One of the strengths of Dawn of Eurasia is its coverage of Russia. Bruno Maçães is conversant in Russian literature (I might want to read a novel he mentioned, Day of the Oprichnik, at some point) and political thought. Russia is the most natively Eurasian country, spanning the continents not only geographically, but in terms of its roots, its influences, and its outlook. They are pulled in opposite directions exemplified by the historical influence of the Mongols (to which they can be considered as much of a successor state as anyone), and the westward-looking legacy of Peter the Great.
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford (I've also read Indian Givers by him) covers the history of the Mongolian empire, with a focus on the women who had a role in its leadership at various times. It conveys a lot about the Mongol culture and history in general, in addition to its main topic of the queens and princesses.
In the first generation after Genghis Khan, his daughters' marriages sealed some important alliances, but their involvement and contribution to expanding and running the empire extended beyond that. In Mongolian society, women were the ones to own the ger/yurt and the cart used to transport it, while the men had ownership of the livestock. Genghis Khan extended this division of responsibility to the roles in government he envisioned for his daughters and sons-in-law, as Weatherford relates from an account of the wedding of one of Genghis Khan's daughters:
In this way, he sought to replicate the spiritual tradition of supernatural harmony through Father Sky and Mother Earth. Henceforth, the husband would go to war, and the wife would be left in charge of running the home and, by extension, almost every aspect of civilian life. The system made perfect sense in the Mongol cultural tradition. Soon after making the nuptial speech to Altani and Boroghul, Genghis Khan sent the husband away on a military mission.
For this reason, the sons-in-law (guregen) had short life expectancies, although their clans gained a lot of prestige from the union. Over a century later, Tamerlane used Guregen as a title to emphasize his link by marriage to the Borjigin clan of Genghis Khan.
Some of the notable historical figures that Weatherford spends some time on in his book include Alaqai (one of the daughters of Genghis Khan), Khutulun (a great-great-granddaughter), and Manduhai (a queen of the Mongols by marriage, almost 300 years after the birth of the empire).
Alaqai led by example in importing reading and writing to the Mongol Empire, seeing its importance for administration. Their empire was very diverse at this time—the book notes the presence of religious structures associated with at least three religions in the ruins of Olon Sume—but copying a system of government instead of rolling their own would lead to a loss of identity:
Governmental systems, administrative practices, and law, however, could not be picked apart and recombined so readily [as imported goods in the marketplace]. Muslim law derived from the Koran, which could only be read in Arabic and depended on a calendar based on the flight of Muhammad; thus for the Mongols to adopt the Muslim system of administration required accepting a whole different language and religion. Similarly, Chinese administration could not be separated from the Chinese written language and calendar. Governments were far more complexly integrated than markets.
Manduhai probably gets the most attention in the book. Before her time, the Mongolian empire was in decline. The Yuan dynasty had forgotten a lot of their nomadic skills for living on the steppe by the time they returned to Mongolia as refugees following their loss of control over China in 1368.
She became a queen in 1464. After her first husband died, she betrothed herself to another heir of Genghis Khan (it was normal in Mongol culture for the new khan to inherit wives from the previous one) and reigned as his regent until he came of age.
In contrast to the expansive territorial acquisition favored by prior generations of steppe conquerors, Manduhai pursued a strategy of geographic precision. Better to control the right spot than be responsible for conquering, organizing, and running a massive empire of reluctant subjects. ... Rather than trying to conquer and occupy the extensive links of the Silk Route or the vast expanse of China, she sought to conquer just the strategic spot from which to control them.
I don't remember exactly where this ended up being in her case, but some areas that the Mongols asserted control over at various times included the Gansu Corridor, where Silk Road traffic was funnelled between the relatively impassable terrain of the Tibetan Plateau and Gobi Desert, and the Ordos Loop, an area (around present-day Ordos City) enclosed on three sides by the Yellow River swinging north and making its closest approach to Mongolia.
I had read the first novel in Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy over a decade ago, but didn't continue to the other books at that time. However, there was a scene from it that had stuck in my memory where someone from the Foundation visits a planet (Anacreon) and is shocked that they have reverted from nuclear energy to burning coal, seeing that as a clear marker of decline in technological capacity. This felt like a timely notion (as seen in various recent news stories, although movement in the opposite direction also exists), so I decided to pick up where I had left off and read books 2 and 3 in the original Foundation trilogy.
The Foundation novels are more like sets of novellas; the same characters are not followed all the way through each book, but only for a section. This makes the character development relatively minimal, and even the plot sometimes feels more like an outline—the grand narrative arc of the series comes from stringing the developments in each novella together. The style certainly fits the themes of the series (which relate to the grand sweep of history) but I don't find it makes for especially exciting reading. The greatest strength of the Foundation trilogy is probably its world-building and the philosophical questions it raises. Much of that comes from the first novel, so that's the one I'm most likely to recommend or re-read in the future.
As an example of those strengths, here is an excerpt from chapter 6 of the first book. This is psychohistorian Hari Seldon defending himself against charges of treason for undermining the Galactic Empire (I've only included his remarks, not the lawyer's questions):
... Even if the Empire were admitted to be a bad thing (an admission I do not make), the state of anarchy which would follow its fall would be worse. It is that state of anarchy which my project is pledged to fight. The fall of empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity--a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.
The appearance of strength is all about you. [The Empire] would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had. The storm-blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking.
The Empire will vanish and all its good with it. Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish. Interstellar wars will be endless; interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy. --And so matters will remain.
(He goes on to introduce his plan to shorten the post-Imperial dark ages by preserving knowledge. Crucially, this needs to be done not in a lifeless archive but in a community--the Foundation--since technological know-how is too vast for any one person to master and too fragmentary to be useful unless it's embedded in a social fabric).
One other aspect that caught my attention while reading the latter novels in the original trilogy was some of the anachronistic details: their spaceships have pneumatic message tubes and most of the men have a smoking habit (but are mildly scandalized when a woman does).
The Rise of Phoenixes
My wife and I watched a Chinese show on Netflix last year called The Rise of Phoenixes. It's a Chinese historical drama (in a fictional dynasty, but the technology level seems roughly Ming-era) with tonnes of palace intrigue and the occasional ambush or battle. The plot is driven by five or six princes who are contending to be the designated crown prince and succeed their aging father as emperor; a young lady from a family with a lot of secrets also gets swept up in their ambition and conflict. It's a 70 episode marathon that kept us speculating on what would happen next up to the last episode. We watched it in Mandarin (subs ≫ dubs) and by the end of it had even absorbed a few phrases through sheer repetition (e.g. Bìxià (陛下) = your majesty) and gleaned some cultural insights.
I've discussed Dune the book before:
In the far-future universe of Dune, humanity responded to a robot uprising by getting rid of all computers. This left a need for advanced calculations (managing governmental and business databases, navigating through space, geneaology/genetics, etc.) to be done by specially-trained people, aided by a drug known as Spice that gives almost supernatural perception of branching or nested possibilities. Spice is only available on the planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune. At the start of the book, the emperor assigns a new noble house to take over its management—but such a prize won't change hands so easily.
Basically, with mankind forbidden from making "a machine in the likeness of a human mind", they made some human minds more machine-like with the consumption of prodigious amounts of Spice.
2021 brought Dune the movie. In contrast to the book, it didn't focus nearly as much on how irreplaceable Spice is for galactic transportation; nor was the parallel theme on how tight of a constraint water scarcity places on life on Arrakis given much attention (although there was an effective scene with someone watering palm trees). However, I'd guess both of these themes will feature more prominently in Part 2 now that some of the other world-building has been established.
The movie definitely succeeded in making the planet with its hostile environment feel like a palpable force instead of a mere setting. This article discusses the set design. There were a lot of little details I liked—as in Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villenueve has filmed an intricate world where you get the sense a lot has happened, while direct exposition is kept relatively light. The way shields were colour-coded differently for a block and a successful hit was demonstrated in a training session; this made later combat scenes easier to follow. The palace on Arrakis had bas-relief panels in several rooms that made me wish I could pause and zoom in (I think they may have been of different stages in the sandworms' life-cycle). And the ornithopters looked really cool. In my opinion, it should be a strong contender for some academy awards in cinematography and production design (and perhaps other categories too).
Lupin is a short (10 episodes so far, although apparently it was renewed for a third season) French mystery show that we watched on Netflix. It reminded me in several ways of BBC's Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman: it adapts a popular series of stories from the 19th or early 20th century into a modern setting, complete with the use of some of the latest technology; the protagonist is very clever and the acting is good. There are enough differences to make it creative and unique, though. For one, the Lupin books exist in the show and the main character is inspired by them (and finds allies through a shared interest in the books), rather than being Lupin. And unlike Sherlock Holmes, Lupin (or Assane Diop, played by Omar Sy, in the present-day setting of the show) is a «gentleman burglar» instead of working on the same side as the police. His motivating goal is to clear his late father's name of a crime he was unjustly accused of. At the same time, he's trying not to lose having a relationship with his own teenage son. In parallel with his schemes as an adult, the show features frequent flashbacks to Diop's days as a schoolboy, where he developed the skills and relationships that he draws on as the plot unfolds.
A novel by Michel Houellebecq
A long-standing personal goal of mine has been to read a novel in French. Last year I accomplished that, with Michel Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte (there is an English translation under the title of Whatever). He's one of the most prominent contemporary French novelists. It was written back in the 1990s, but I didn't realize that at first (because I hadn't bothered to check the copyright page), but some little details as I was reading made me go back and check. These included the currency being Francs rather than Euros along with some aspects of the technology in use, which comes up frequently since the main character works in IT. In spite of being written over 2 decades ago, the way it addresses atomization and alienation in the digital age makes it seem like the author either anticipated some trends or such trends were underway earlier in France. For example, a discussion about the possibility to eventually "établir un système de transactions généralisées recouvrant l'ensemble des activités sociales" seems to anticipate social networking sites (or perhaps even China's social credit system).
The book is divided into three parts, which I would summarize (trying to avoid too many spoilers) as follows:
- The banality of modern urban life, as experienced by the narrator (who is never named). He works an office job and then goes home alone to an empty apartment. His job involves delivering software training to the Ministry of Agriculture. Not much actually happens in this section, but there are entertaining satirical descriptions of the rituals/rhythms of office life and the characters that are found there.
- Travelling around France with a coworker named Tisserand. Their bitterness about being romanceless feeds off each other in very unhealthy ways.
- Living with depression.
Here are some passages that stood out to me. The first is complaining that modern life gives people a lot more freedom/options, but less human connection:
Si les relations humaines deviennent progressivement impossibles, c'est bien entendu en raison de cette multiplication des degrés de liberté dont Jean-Yves Fréhaut se faisait le prophète enthousiaste. Lui-même n'avait connu, j'en ai la certitude, aucune liaison; son état de liberté était extrême. J'en parle sans acrimonie. C'était, je l'ai dit, un homme heureux; ceci dit, je ne lui envie pas ce bonheur.
The next passage puts some of the blame on his own profession, expressing that more information is the last thing the world needs:
Je n'aime pas ce monde. Décidément, je ne l'aime pas. La société dans laquelle je vis me dégoûte; la publicité m'écoeure; l'informatique me fait vomir. Tout mon travail d'informaticien consiste à multiplier les références, les recoupements, les critères de décision rationelle. ça n'a aucun sens. Pour parler francement, c'est même plutôt négatif; un encombrement inutile pour les neurones. Ce monde a besoin de tout, sauf d'informations supplémentaires.
This passage is one that includes the title (emphasis added) and expresses that liberal attitudes toward sexuality produce winners and losers the same way free markets do in the economic sphere:
dans nos sociétés, le sexe représente bel et bien un second système de différenciation au moins aussi impitoyable. Les effets de ces deux systèmes sont d'ailleurs strictement équivalents. Tout comme le libéralisme économique sans frein, et pour des raisons analogues, le libéralisme sexuel produit des phénomènes de paupérization absolue. ... Certains font l'amour avec des dizaines de femmes; d'autres avec aucune. ... De meme, le libéralisme sexuel, c'est l'extension du domaine de la lutte, son extension à tous les âges de la vie et à toutes les classes de la société.
While I was reading this novel, I came across (possibly in another review I checked out, I can't remember exactly where I saw it) a quote from Francis Fukuyama that seems to fit some of its themes. (Note that «lutte» in the title of Houellebecq's book can be translated "struggle", and the 1990s when it was written was a time when external struggle looked like it might be in the past with the ending of the Cold War):
Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.
Looking around the internet at other reviews (like this one) of Houellebecq's novels, I get the impression that the one I read (which was his first published) contains a lot of the themes that he returns to over and over (perhaps drawing from personal experience), such as alienation, the collateral damage of modern relationship norms, depression, etc. If I read another one—I'd certainly like to read another novel in French at some point, but might pick a cheerier one—Serotonine (dealing with declining rural communities) sounds the most interesting.
Dictionary of the Khazars
The Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel by Milorad Pavic is a novel with a very experimental structure. It is written in the form of three dictionaries (from Christian, Islamic, and Jewish perspectives) with entries about the Khazar people, their religious conversion, and biographies of scholars who'd studied them. The story had less to do with the historical Khazars (I think it's fair to say that it is more about the Balkans) than I was hoping from the title, and was, frankly, quite weird, with many elements having a Kabbalah-flavoured mysticism.
In my opinion, it was far more interesting and memorable for the structure than the plot and characters. The main thread of the plot takes place largely in the Balkans and Constantinople centuries after the era of the Khazars and involves scholars researching the "Khazar polemic" (which seems to partly draw on the conversion of Vladimir the Great as well as fragments known about the Khazars) in the 17th and 20th centuries. These researchers end up linked together through dreams and the Dictionary they are trying to compile or recover.
While the experimental aspects of the structure are interesting, I found it was trying to do too much. There were three fairly unique aspects to this novel: having male and female editions that differ slightly—but not making a material difference to the outcome as far as I can tell; parallel dictionaries recounting the same event from different perspectives; and characters being connected across space or time via dreams. Any one of them would have been experimental enough and probably could have been developed more on its own instead of trying to fit them all into a single book. The connections between different characters I feel has been done better in other books I've read such as The Years of Rice and Salt and This is How You Lose the Time War. However, structuring it as not only a single dictionary, but multiple ones from different perspectives was truly unique.
Because of the structure, you don't have to read it straight through cover-to-cover. My recommendation for anyone who wants to check this book out would be one of two approaches, depending on the facets that interest you more (and to minimize the feeling that the author is trying to pack in too many experimental aspects):
- Read the entries that are found in all 3 dictionaries (e.g. Khazars; Ateh, the Khazar princess; the Khazar polemic; Kaghan, the Khazar ruler; and maybe another one or two that I'm forgetting), followed by Appendix 1. This will explore the parallel perspectives on the same people or events.
- Read the entries for the 17th century researchers and then the ones for the 20th century researchers: Cohen, Masudi, Avram, then Suk, Muwaia, and Schultz, followed by Appendix 2. This will explore the way they are connected through dreams and the Dictionary itself.
Track 2 (i.e. the scholars and the way their lives are woven together across time and space) is the main thread of the plot, but as noted the plot isn't the most interesting thing about this book. In either track, flip to cross-referenced entries iff they seem necessary to understand the context of something you're reading.
To give a sense of the flavour of this novel, here are a couple of excerpts from the entry on Yusuf Masudi. The first concerns his efforts as a "dream hunter", trying to track down dreams across multiple people:
A dream, of course, is shorter than the reality of the one being dreamed, but the dream is always incomparably deeper than any reality, so there is always some dross left over, a "surplus of material" that cannot completely fit into the reality of the person being dreamed, but, rather, spills into and attaches onto the reality of a third person, who consequently experiences considerable difficulties and changes. As a rule, this third individual is in a more complicated situation than the first two; his free will is twice as restricted by the unconscious as that of the other two, because the surplus of energy and material that passes from one dream to the other alternately flows into the spiritual life of the third person
The second relates to his efforts to collect manuscripts related to the Khazar question and assemble a dictionary; it makes him wonder about different perspectives on the same historical events:
These foreigners' arguments, Masudi observed and then wrote down, did not appear to be as forceful and exhaustive as Farabi Ibn Kora's. Was that because Ibn Kora's arguments really were more persuasive and comprehensive than theirs, or were theirs stonger than his in Hebrew and Christian books about the Khazars, assuming such exist? Perhaps they ignore us as we ignore them? Perhaps the only way to compile a Khazar encyclopedia or dictionary on the Khazar question would be to assemble all three stories about the three dream hunters and thus obtain one truth?