Tag Archives: history

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

All those stories about cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws? Most of them occurred here, in the American Southwest. The people behind them have become legends, glamorized by Hollywood, stretched and exaggerated until they are hardly recognizable. Good guys never do no wrong and the bad guys are truly evil. Life is never so black and white and Mary Doria Russell tries to put some human perspective on one of the most famous events of the old West, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Once the smoke had settled, three men had been killed. The Earp brothers, and their friend Doc Holliday, at most suffered relatively superficial wounds. However, the controversy over who drew first, whether the dead men had even been armed, and the bad blood between the Earps and the so-called Cow Boys that boiled over led to the shooting of two of the Earps, one who died, and a vendetta ride by Wyatt Earp that cemented his place in American history.

Epitaph is a novelization of the history of the gunfight. It begins in a seemingly unlikely place, with the childhood of Josie Marcus, who became Wyatt Earp’s wife and outlived them all. If there is a common thread that pulls the narrative together, it is Josie’s, but Russell does an excellent job of juggling a huge cast of characters and, more importantly, providing them with a voice. Even the most despicable of the so-called villains has his time on the page. Events are given view through the eyes of characters not directly involved in the gunfight, such as the wives of the various Earp brothers. Russell doesn’t lay blame for the gunfight at the foot of any one character. Rather, she tries to provide context for the events as they unfold and maybe some rationale for those events.

Being a novelization, Russell certainly takes liberties. There are quiet moments where she fills in the blanks. There are events where we don’t know enough to be certain what really happened — Russell adds her own details. And there are contradictory accounts, for example, how Josie originally left her family and found herself in Tombstone, Arizona. Russell chooses one of those stories, the one told by Josie herself, and uses it as if it were canon. One of the Earp brothers, Warren, never makes an appearance. I’m not enough of a historian to really judge the historical accuracy of the events as Russell conveys them. However, it seems she has a solid skeleton based on history and her details add the flesh that lead to a great story.

Maybe I learned something from this book about the history of the American Southwest. Certainly, names and places that dot our collective consciousness are given meaning: Doc Holliday, Albuquerque, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp. And new details arise that pique my interest, such as the fact that Earp spent some time in Idaho, in Eagle City. Other characters emerge as important players in the drama of Tombstone, including the other Earp brothers and John Behan, a would-be political mover and shaker whose life is very much intertwined with those of Wyatt and Josie.

Even though Russell may have taken liberties with some of the details, the story moves along and keeps you engaged. I’m keen to read more about the men and women of the American Southwest and that is as great a testament to a book like Epitaph as I can make.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

My grandpa only ever gave me one piece of advice (well, besides “keep your eyes on the damn road!”). He said, “They can take your land, they can take your property, they can even take your family, but,” pointing to his head, “they can’t take what is in here. They can’t take what you know. So, learn as much as you can.”

Well, what if they sort of could? Or at least, take away your ability to think for yourself?

That is sort of the premise of Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The Mechanical is set in a world where, sometime after Europeans stumbled across the Americas, the Dutch find a way to make sentient machines, through some alchemical process discovered by famous Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (what?!? You’ve never heard of him? He discovered a moon of Saturn, invented the pendulum clock, and was a major authority on optics). This gives the Dutch a leg up in the world, and allows them to conquer pretty much all of Europe. Seemingly only the French remain to resist, and they must do this from a small enclave in exile on the North American continent. This is the backdrop for an amazing story of court intrigue, international politics, and a different approach to the discussion of slavery.

This is, because, we quickly come to learn that the machines the Dutch build their empire on not only think, but have some sort of free will, a free will that is subdued by whatever process creates them. Whenever they try to do anything that is not in direct fulfillment of their masters’ wishes, they experience extreme pain, a pain that grows until it is completely intolerable and the machine is forced to act to subdue the pain. “The head faded as he [one of the machines] abandoned his own wishes in favor of his masters’ whims.” Thus, the machines are slaves, forced to subvert their own will to that of their human masters’. Tregillis does a great job of describing the torment the machines feel whenever they try to do something on their own.

With this backdrop, Tregillis discusses free will, slavery, and equality, in a way that advances the plot of his story. One of the main characters, Jax, is one of these machines. But, there are several human characters that represent various views of the treatment of these machines. Not all humans are blind to the suffering of these machines, but even some that are against the Dutch would rather use the machines for their own purposes. “The prosperity achieved through slavery had a way of blinding men’s hearts to the evil of their own hands.”

Thus, along the way, Tregillis, while telling an immensely satisfying story, does get into some pretty deep thoughts about the nature of free will itself. Do the machines have free will? Maybe they don’t, by some definition, but then, maybe humans don’t either. For the machines, “Free Will was a vacuum, a negative space. It was the absence of coercion, the absence of compulsion, the absence of agony.” But, what does that mean for humans? “How did they order their daily existence without somebody to tell them what to do? Or was that the purpose of God?” Or are humans “Some squishy biological machine whose structure imbues it with a complex functioning and a delusional belief in its capability to determine its own course, but which all along follows a path predetermined by its own nature or maker?”

It is always nice to find a book that both provides a very interesting plot as well as thought-provoking material. The discussions about free will flow naturally through the course of the book, they are not force fed or heavy handed. Rather, they are integral to the relationship between the machines and the humans. They drive the plot forward. Tregillis does a great job of pulling these themes forward but in service of his story. I think my ony quibble is that, at the end of the story, some of the actions of some of the characters seem less than reasonable. One can chalk this up to the trauma some of them have endured up to that point, but it still seemed a little forced, like Tregillis needed a way to get to a certain point in the plot and this was the best he could come up with.

However, in spite of this, I am greatly looking forward to reading the next books in the series.

Two Random Tours Through History

I recently finished two books that took different and interesting approaches of presenting history.  The first, Pop Goes the Weasel by Albert Jack, uses nursery rhymes as a guide through British history.  Actually, the intention is to delve into the origins of the very common nursery rhymes we all learn and subsequently teach our children.  But, given that so many of them are rooted in historical fact, it ends up being quite the whirlwind tour of history.

For example, Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used in the English Civil War in the mid 1600s.  It was used to great effect to keep the Parliamentarians at bay, until the tower it was housed in was destroyed, sending Humpty to the ground, where it was useless.  Or Baa Baa, Black Sheep being about a tax on wool, where, as is typical, the working class got stiffed in favor of the business owner and the church.  Or the Three Blind Mice being three bishops upon whom Queen Mary I took revenge when she ascended to the throne for their role in persecuting Catholicism during Edward VI’s reign.

The book is written such that the story behind each rhyme is independent of the others. As such, some of the style does get a little tedious, as Jack introduces each one in a way to try to pique the reader’s interest that becomes repetitive.  But, as a reference, it is a great way to organize things as you can easily go back and reread about any given rhyme with ease.  Not all of the origins of these rhymes are overly convincing, as Jack himself points out as he explores alternative theories about each one.  My only real issue, however, is that there are no references or citations that document where the theories came from.

Not being a British history buff, I still enjoyed learning about all of these dark episodes in British history (as it does seem most of these seemingly innocent rhymes have their origins in the dark recesses of regicide or other equally murderous plots.  It does make me wonder how differently the book could have read if the rhymes were used specifically as tools to guide us through British history.

Which brings me to the second book, American Connections by James Burke. I first encountered Burke during my first year as a Vandal.  If you’ve never been exposed to his unique approach to history, Burke draws connections between people and things to highlight the links between them, the interconnectedness of the people, events, and inventions that drive history.  In American Connections, he uses the Founding Fathers — all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — to make connections through history to our own times.  As an example, take Thomas Jefferson –> Cesare Beccaria –> Jean-Baptiste Joseph Delambre –> James Macie –> David Brewster –> Dr. John Bostock –> Dr. John Elliotson –> Dr. James Esdaile –> Karl von Reichenback –> Gustav Fechner –> Ernst Mach –> Wilhelm Ostwald –> William Ramsay –> Harold Edgerton –> Jacques Cousteau –> side-scan sonar –> USNS Littlehales –> National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration –> Littlehales renamed Thomas Jefferson (if you are interested in what all of these people have in connection, you’ll have to read the book).

Burke does an admirable job of taking us from 1776 to our modern times through these connections.  Along the way, he makes some interesting observations about society at the time and the progress of, for example, scientific knowledge (people like Mach and Ostwald were very important for several branches of science).  As he goes through the chains of people connecting one another, he has an odd fascination with their sexual behaviors.  Besides making it clear which were homosexual (possibly to highlight the role that homosexuals have had in history?), he also touches on people who had very let’s say active sex lives, with many loves.  I wonder if this is because he thought it would spice up the story (which it certainly does, at it seems everyone was engaging in three- or foursomes or were nymphomaniacs) or if it was simply easier to connect people with others through these “hubs”, these people who knew (in more ways than one) so many others.  I suspect it is a bit of both.

Near the end of each chapter (focused on a different signer), it felt like Burke copped out a bit by connecting to some big corporation or some big organization and finding someone who worked for that group as his final link.  It just felt like he stalled a bit, not finding anything more direct.  It also felt like something that he could always do to make that final link, it was just a question of how long he wanted to go until he got there.  However, it is a minor quibble.

Overall, his approach is a very entertaining one through American and British history.  Not that I would retain much, as names and places are thrown about with abandon, but the overall richness stays with you.