Friday, December 9, 2016

Genghis Khan By Dr. Frank Mclynn

Genghis Khan
By Dr. Frank Mclynn

Trying to write a comprehensive biography of someone like Genghis Khan may not be the very definition of “doomed to failure” but it's likely as close a metaphor as any.  While the Great Khan's life isn't in the dimly lit ancient past from which few contemporary works survive, he grew up on the bloody steppes surrounded by people who in some cases were unaware that learning to read or write was even an option!  The Mongols and their various related peoples were in face so lacking when it came to written works that when they started their imperial enterprise... they adopted Uighur script and just paid a bunch of Uighur scribes to do the actual writing (well, until they had a bunch of conquered Chinese scribes to do it).   What this boils down to is a lot of Genghis' early life and the life of his parents is based on oral tradition, an oral tradition that is frankly going to be geared towards the glorification of the most powerful and important Mongol man to have ever existed.  Some might argue that I'm overstating things when I say important or that I am granting some type of approval.  Let me state for the record that being important doesn't make you good or righteous.  It just means that you have an undeniable impact on many lives around you and it's undeniable that Genghis Khan did.  A note for the review, Genghis is not the guy's name.  I am aware of that.  I know his real name is Temujin, but the majority of my readers are way more familiar with the title Genghis then they are with the given name.  So I will be referring to the Great Khan by his title and not his given name for this review.  

All of that said, Frank Mclynn while openly admitting to the difficulties of the project jumps into it with both feet. Dr. Mclynn is a British professional writer and you would be correct in guessing that this isn't his first time at bat.  He has been writing biographies and histories since 1981.  So, longer than most of the people I know (and a number of you reading this I would guess) have been alive, basically.  Among the biographies he's written are ones of Napoleon, Marcus Aurelius, and Carl Jung so he's had a lot of practice at this.  Dr. Mclynn is also an academic, having been educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and the University of London.  He's also been a research fellow (this is basically a position where they pay you to research things, independently or under the supervision of a Professor for a specific subject, often called a post doc) at St. Anthony's college, Oxford from 1987 to 1988.  From 1996 to 2000 he was a visiting professor in the department of literature at the University of Strathclyde.  His last academic post was at Goldsmith College of London when he served as professorial fellow from 2000 to 2002.  Afterward he retired from academic life to write full time.  This is his latest book having been released in 2015.  

Dr. Mclynn starts by focusing on Genghis' father, who was a mongol chieftain, but not a conventional one.  Instead of leading a group bound by family and clan ties, Genghis' father led a group of freebooters who were bound to him by personal loyalty, his own charisma and shares of loot given to them.  While Genghis was very young when his father was killed by his enemies, I think it's pretty clear that his father's style of leadership was deeply imprinted on him.  I'll come back to this, but the first point the book makes that isn't often bandied about is that Genghis not only defied the conventional mores of his society but was the son of a man who made a career doing so.  The book also spends time with Genghis' mother, who was the person who did the most to raise him.  Now we don't have a lot of information on this time period. Although Dr. Mclynn does draw from a source I didn't even know existed, the “secret history” of the Mongol court, written at the behest of the Mongol Khans after their conquests had brought them into the big leagues.  This is an interesting thing to find out that the Mongol elites commissioned their own written history and suggests that the sons and grandsons of the Great Khan were trying very hard to ensure their and their people's place in history.  However for the most part the secret history appeared to be the writing down of oral traditions and it very much has a political bias in making the Mongol ruling class look good, and Genghis specifically look amazing.  Dr. Mclynn will point that out repeatedly in the book and show where there are holes in the narrative and where different accounts don't match up.  Which is a point in the book's favor, as Dr. Mclynn does help the reader grasp the idea that the sources, even those written over 600 years ago often have their own agenda's and axes to grind and you need to keep that in mind and double check things when you can and yes, that includes this review series.  These reviews after all are nothing more then my opinion.  

One thing that every source does agree on is that Genghis was hard to control, even at a young age.  An example given in this book (and every other bloody word I've read about Genghis) is Ghengis’ murder of his older brother over a fish.  One thing that sets Dr. Mclynn apart from other authors is his providing context to the story.  The first thing is that Mongols did not typically fish in those days, in fact it seems that Mongols had a large number of hang ups over water.  This would be illustrated later in the laws made by the Mongols (such as never bathing in running water... this could not have helped their smell).  Next, we learn that Genghis' brother at this point had made a habit of poaching food that Genghis had caught and eating it himself.  Another tid bit is that we learn this was his eldest half brother, his father's son from another wife and a political competitor for what little inherence they could get.  With this information, the act of Genghis killing his older brother over a fish becomes less a berserk act of rage and more a calculated act to remove a competitor who had repeatedly tormented him.  A calculated murder that Genghis carried out at the age of about thirteen.  

It's the providing of context for Genghis' actions and showing the culture that Genghis was operating in that allows Dr. Mclynn to paint a full picture of Genghis Khan: a man who emerged from the margins of his culture and through the use of charisma, political horse trading (sometimes literally), and loyalty bonds as much as through the use of military power and cold blooded ruthlessness, to unite his culture.  It's clear that Genghis was driven by ambition, greed and rage but there is also a man who is concerned about his people and wanting to elevate them from a pack of barbarians on the edge of the civilized world to the rulers of all who live.  I don't suggest that Genghis was soft hearted or nice; his method of elevating his people did involve the killing, enslavement, and maiming of millions of others to the point of near genocide in some nations after all.  What's also interesting is that instead of a thoughtless barbarian who was lucky (this was the characterization of Genghis in some parts of my childhood) we actually see a thoughtful man who carefully and prudently plans his wars. Genghis paid close attention to logistics (a number of would be conquerors could have stood to learn that lesson) and to casualties.  After uniting the Mongols for example, he spent years gathering information about Jin China, the empire that ruled the northern half of that nation, and embarked on a number of lesser campaigns to secure his flanks and rear before committing to that titanic struggle.  Dr. Mclynn takes us through these campaigns and the logic behind them and shows us the long build up and information gathering that took place before any major efforts.  So it becomes clear that Genghis while woefully uneducated was not a man who disdained education or careful thinking before action.  This honestly helps explains a great deal of his success, as there are dozens if not hundreds of would be steppe conquers who came before and after Genghis and did not achieve a tenth of what he did. This book really does carry the idea that Genghis was something different even compared to other nomadic warlords.

We also take a good long look at Genghis' sons and at Genghis' favorite generals.  Another aspect that's overlooked is the fact that Genghis may have assembled the best team of cavalry generals in history.  Some of these guys I think even merit their own books, such as Jebe or Subutai.  The story of Jebe alone is like something out of a fantasy novel.  Jebe was a warrior in a rival tribe during Genghis' war to unite the steppes, in fact Jebe was one of the guys who came the closest to killing Genghis by shooting him in the neck with an arrow.  When Genghis recovered and won the war, he asked who had shot him, and showing the kind of bravery that thrills storytellers, Jebe stepped forward and admitted to it.  Genghis took the guy into his household and later made him a general. Jebe would make history by leading one of the longest and most massive cavalry raids in history; leading a force all the way around the Caspian Sea and into the Kievan Rus.  Subutai ran away from home at the age of 14 to join Genghis' army.  A commoner, he was able to rise to the rank of general.  During his service he would command over 20 campaigns, conquer over 32 different nations and fight and win 65 battles.  For those of you without a military background, that's pretty much like being the Michael Phelps of warfare.  Among those campaigns were the Mongol attacks into Poland and Hungary, events which traumatized those nations for over a century.

The book is thick at over 500 pages and full of information.  If there is one flaw here however, it would be Dr. Mclynn's need to insert French phrases every 20 pages or so.  Which frankly smacks of showing off and slows everything down when you need to either plug things into Google translate to figure out what the author is trying to tell you or abandon figuring out the meaning of the sentence entirely.  Some might argue that I shouldn't hold this as a flaw but I'm going to be blunt.  Dr. Mclynn in his own foreword calls the book a popular history.  If you're going to write for us plebeian masses, you should stick to the language we actually speak.  I've met enough average Englishmen to know that they're not all fluent in French so this really feels like Dr. Mclynn is trying to show off how educated he is, which is a redundant effort when he has written books like this.  This also seems to be recurring flaw in some sections of academia unfortunately, which in my view has the effect of limiting the spread of knowledge and information which is frankly sad as it should be their goal to do the exact opposite.  But that's not the point of this work.  

Genghis Khan is a great historical work that gives anyone interested in reading not an understanding of the accomplishments of Genghis Khan but of the people who made those accomplishments possible and the environment in which they took place.  If you're interested in Asia or Central Asia, if you're interested in Genghis Khan, or if you want to take a look at one of the most successful campaigns of conquest in history go ahead and pick up this book.  Genghis Khan by Dr. Frank Mclynn gets an -A because I really only have one major complaint with it.  

On that note, it is time to go on our yearly vacation, I and hopefully my editor will be back January 13th.  Until then, be safe, have fun and enjoy the eggnog!  See you in 2017!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Martian By Andy Weir

The Martian
By Andy Weir

The Martian was a story rejected by several literary agents (meaning it never even got to the publishers), so Mr. Weir decided to post it as a serial on his web site back in 2011.  It grew popular enough that a number of people requested he post the entire thing up as a novel on Kindle.  Mr. Weir did so, charging people the grand total of 99 cents.  The Martian exploded onto the Kindle Bestseller list, selling 35,000 copies in 3 months.  This finally got the attention of publishing companies, the hardcopy publishing rights were bought by Crown (a subsidiary of Random Publishing House, the world's biggest publishing company) for about $100,000 in 2013.  By 2014 The Martian had hit the New York best seller list.  In 2015, the film directed by Ridley Scott premiered, but we're just going to focus on the novel.  This makes The Martian one of these stories that can only happen in the internet age as in 1987 this story would have ended with its’ rejection by those agents (I wonder how many of them are having second thoughts?).  While the internet has brought us a lot of rather awful things, it's also brought us some really awesome stuff like this and you know... Let people thousands of miles away from each other talk directly to each other and get to know each other but let's not focus on minor things.

Andy Weir himself is kind of a nerd's nerd.  Born in 1972, he is the only child of accelerator physicist father and electrical engineer mother, who grew up reading Asimov and Clarke.  He started working as a computer programer at the age of 15 and ended up working on Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (on the unlikely chance he reads this, thanks for that Mr. Weir, I liked that game).  He began writing in his 20s, creating webcomics and short stories.  His most famous short story 'The Egg' has been translated into 30 different languages and been turned into a short film (not bad for a story with two speaking parts).  It's a very interesting story that can make you think, but I'm not going to go into it other than to encourage you to track it down and read it.  The Martian is his first full length published novel (his first novel “Theft of Pride” was never published but can be downloaded from his website) and was incredibly researched with Weir doing research into orbital mechanics, planetary conditions, and of course... Botany.  He is currently reported to be working on a second hard science story set on the moon from his home in California.  

But let's focus on the story in front of us.  The Martian focuses on Mark Watney, Mark is an astronaut and a scientist and in the year 2035 had the honor of being one of very few people to set foot on Mars; which is awesome.  Mark however is going to be setting a few other firsts whether he likes it or not.  Like first man to be injured on Mars or perhaps more important to the story, first guy to be ever left behind on a NASA mission.  See, while on their mission to Mars, a bit of storm kicked up and threatened to wreck their ride home.  So they were ordered to get themselves in the rocket and get off Mars.  On their way to the ship however, Watney got hit and got hit bad.  So bad, that even his space suit thought he was dead.  To be fair, he likely would have died if not a combination of Mars atmosphere and his suit not letting him bleed out.  So instead of dying, he was just knocked out in the middle of a dust storm, which lead to him being left behind.  On Mars, Mark seems to be the kind of guy who finds a 100 dollar bill on the sidewalk and gets hit by a car while picking it up honestly.  While we don't actually see the scene until a ways into the book, it is stolen by Commander Melissa Lewis.  Commander Lewis goes all out to find Mark and is only defeated by a combination of zero visibility and the fact that her ride off Mars is about to be pushed over by high winds.  Nor does she risk the crew, sending them onto the ship, when the first search fails and continuing to search solo to the very last minute.  

While the book is incredibly focused on Mark Watney and his struggle not to be killed by Mars, it doesn't neglect other characters.  The crew of the Ares III, while not given nearly as much time as Watney are given enough time for us to see them as people.  Additionally they are given their own roles and decisions that make them heroic characters in their own right.  Whether it be plotting the first mutiny in space (there are so many firsts in this book), or creating bombs to use as braking mechanisms.  The lengths they go to and the efforts they put forth to rescue Mark are pretty amazing and would make them worthy of being the center of their own novel.  I feel the most for Commander Lewis out of this group, because I'll be frank, after losing Watney and her follow up actions to rescue him... she's never going to be allowed to command space mission ever again.  That's not mentioned in the book but NASA is a government agency and well, that's how they work.  Watney is utterly fearless in his defense of her (because she made the right call) but odds are she's stuck planetside.  There's also a decent amount of attention paid to the NASA ground team, as they frantically work on ways to keep Watney alive and to bring him home.  There's a lot of attention to detail and the non-Watney parts of the books show that this was a team effort involving thousands of people at times across a number of nations, including the People's Republic of China (usually a rival of the United States) coming together in a common effort to save a man's life.  

But the meat and potatoes (heh) of the book is Watney's struggle to avoid becoming the first man to die on another planet.  Mars cuts this man no breaks, seriously this book could have been titled Mark Watney vs Mars.  Unlike more fantasy oriented stories where a man is lost on Mars (or perhaps Barsoom), the Martian environment grants him no favors.  Forget worrying about food or water, there's no air to breath except what he can make for himself.  Of course he actually does have to worry about food and water on top of that.  That said he does have some luck; given the hurried nature of the withdrawal, all of NASA's stuff got left behind!  So that means he has a fully stocked habitat made of canvas, with an oxygenator and water generation system.  He also has all the rations that the team would have eaten during the mission!  Which he will have eaten his way through in several hundred days.  Luckily for Watney, he's a botanist, and since NASA believes having only one job and not being cross-trained within an inch of your life and sanity is a sin worthy of the lowest circle of hell, he's also been trained in engineering.  I like how there is an actual freak out where Watney screams and howls that he's fucked and doomed and so on and so forth.  It makes him human.  I also like that after a good night's sleep and a decent breakfast, he puts his big boy pants on and commits to fighting for every resource, every advantage and every second of life he can.  Watney's will to survive and to do whatever it takes to live is his biggest and best advantage in this battle, because it doesn't matter what learning you have, or what tools you have at your disposal if you don't have the will to put it use.  Watney displays that will in spades, but does so in a believable fashion.  Engaging in black humor, moments of despair and worry but above all refusing to give up until he's actually dead.  That's admirable.  

This book also shows a conflict that I haven't really covered that often in this review series.  That of man vs nature, most of the books I've reviewed have been man vs man (or man vs magic thingy but details).  Honestly I usually prefer that kind of struggle.  There's a certain depth that can only be acquired when two different intelligent beings are locked in a struggle in my opinion.  That said, there are definitely things that can be done with man vs nature here that you cannot do with other struggles and it's a good idea to step back and appreciate just how dangerous “nature” can be.  That can be a foreign idea to us in the first world sometimes.  At least until a tornado hits, or an earthquake happens... or a firestorm engulfs an entire town.  A reminder of just how frail we are against the universe is sometimes necessary, as is the showing of how far we’ve come in mastering our surroundings and how far we can go in mastering environments that nature never intended for us to experience.  Mr. Weir using Mark Watney as a demonstration of these two ideas shows a great talent for communicating and showcasing both at once, which I find impressive. It's very easy for a story to stray over the line into navel gazing, maudlin moaning over the frailty of human life or stumble over into a boastful squeal of triumph of the will over nature itself.  Instead Mr. Weir treads the line very well, letting us feel awe and fear at the sheer danger that the alien land of Mars represents, while displaying the determination and strength that allow Watney to survive against all odds in that environment.

The biggest weakness of the book is the format in my opinion.  It's mostly done in a series of first person journal entries from Watney's point of view but doesn't let us really get to know the main character except what he chooses to write.  We know he's a credit to the space program, very intelligent and determined and from Chicago but... not much more.   I suppose that's a benefit in some ways.  I don't know anything about Watney's political views, or his thoughts on religion, I'm not even sure what his hobbies are... I just know that he really hates disco and is the best damn botanist on Mars.  Which helps make room for the readers to project onto him and make him over a bit in the reader's image.  This isn't always a bad thing but I do find myself biased against it (blame Stephenie Meyer, who in my opinion abused the technique).  I do hope in the future that Mr. Weir opts to go a little deeper on his character work.  There's not much in the way of action here either, that said the book isn't what I would call boring by a long shot, but I am also left wondering how Mr. Weir would handle writing a more traditional action scene.  Ah well, maybe next book.

The Martian is, despite my caviling, a great read.  If you have even a vague interest in science or in the space program, hell if you enjoy stories like Robinson Crusoe, this book will have something for you.  I'm giving The Martian by Andy Wier a -A.  Go read it and watch the movie.  You'll have fun.

Our yearly hiatus approaches!  But first!  We will ride forth from the Steppes and crush the thrones of the world beneath our feet!  We will shake the pillars of heaven and reorder the earth!  We will go forth with Genghis Khan!

This review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen