Friday, May 26, 2017

Mastering the West by Dexter Hoyos

Mastering the West
by Dexter Hoyos

The Punic wars have always captured my imagination, for those of you who haven't run into the term before, the Punic Wars were a trio of conflicts between the emerging Roman Republic and the state of Carthage. They were fought mostly in the western Mediterranean with the 2nd Punic war being the biggest and most hard fought. Rome was of course centered in Italy, this was for the most part before the creation of the Roman Empire as we think of it, but during the period where Rome was the hegemon (ruling state) of Italy. It's interesting to note that at this point in time Rome was not directly ruling most of the Italy but instead the peninsula was divided into subordinate colonies and allied city states. Carthage was a city in northern Africa, in modern day Tunisia. It was an older power then Rome, focused mostly on trade and commerce but ruling Libya and other parts of North Africa. The clashes ended when Rome destroyed the city of Carthage at the end of the 3rd Punic war and became the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean and in many ways set the course for Rome's rise to Empire and its position of glory, horror, and fascination in our history books. In case you're wondering my position tends to be that the Roman Empire was both great and terrible, as just about every empire tends to be. Some will lean more towards the great and others more towards the terrible but just about everyone will admit that the Roman Empire in many ways lay the foundations for the modern world as we know it. Certainly if Carthage had won those wars, we would looking at a very different world today.

The standard narrative I heard growing up (mostly from library books or from going over a trio of Ancient history books my Father had) was that the growing power of Rome and the established power of Carthage started rubbing each other raw and it was inevitable that the two would crash together in open warfare. The rivalry and dissatisfaction grew and simmered until the Romans, deciding it was best to start the war on their terms, invaded the island of Sicily to create a pro-Roman buffer state and the rest is history. Professor Dexter Hoyos suggests that the narrative might be incorrect and in fact might be people applying hindsight to history. When they're not outright fabricating propaganda. Let me talk a bit about Professor Hoyos before I get into that however. Born on the island of Barbados when it was a British possession, Professor Hoyos received his PhD from Oxford University in 1971 after completing courses at McMaster University in Ontario and BA: U of Jamaica. He then took a teaching position in the University of Sydney in 1972 where he taught until retiring in 2007. He's written a number of books about Rome and Carthage, with Mastering the West being published in 2015.

Mastering the West covers each war separately as well as the inter-war periods between them. It also provides a good amount of information on what was going on other than the battles and political maneuvering. That said Professor Hoyos doesn't really delve into the details of either the Roman system or the Carthaginian one beyond giving a general sense of how they worked. This is a shame because the first two wars were in a very real sense a test of two different military systems. On the other hand, the governments of Carthage and Rome weren't that different, both being Republican governments where power was controlled by a small elite class made up of wealthy families but with a limited amount of input by the common people that couldn't be ignored if those same elites wanted to stay in power. The book does focus more on Carthage's government system, which I was honestly happy about because just how Carthaginian society and government worked was something of a mystery for me. Finding out that they weren't all that different in government from Rome was interesting and the differences while not explored as much as I would have liked were very interesting. While the book only really covers the military system of both nations in passing really, it's enough to highlight the differences. Rome depended heavily on citizen soldiers, men drawn from the citizens of Rome and its allies. The mainstay of the Roman military was it's heavy infantry, at this time the legionaries that everyone is familiar hadn’t been developed yet. Rome was using a three line system of infantry (two sword and shield, one of spear and shield), with a screen of light infantry and some cavalry. While Carthage did have citizen soldiers of it's own, it appeared loathe to deploy them, preferring to use mercenaries when possible and depending way more heavily on their cavalry arm, supplemented by the legendary war elephants that even Hannibal would rather not do without. I do want to note this was also a time period where troops were expected to provide most if not all of their own gear. This meant that the lower classes were often locked out of the high loot generating parts of war in some ways. That said if you could afford a shield and some javelins, with some luck you could get enough loot while serving with a victorious general to jump a couple tax brackets.

While I grew up with the idea that the Punic Wars were deliberate acts of policy, Professor Hoyos suggests that the first Punic War might have been something of an accident. In the first Punic War, Rome invaded Sicily. In theory to support a city state ruled by mercenaries who rebelled against their employers who had appealed to Rome for protection and to throw Carthage out of the island. Professor Hoyos notes that if the goal was to throw Carthage out of Sicily the Romans went about in a rather odd way. Rather than fighting the Carthaginians, they focused on warring with native states and often tried to avoid fighting Carthaginian armies until several years into the war. For that matter, the armies of Carthage aren't presented as being all that eager to slug it out with the Romans here. What's frustrating about reading this however is that Professor Hoyos avoids explicitly saying that the first Punic War was the result of events getting away from everyone and declines to outline a real case for it but instead rather coyly points out things that would seem to support his case but doesn't dive in. That said after a couple years the Romans and the Carthaginians got over their shyness and did start slugging it out. The first war would remain a very limited one, with the battles only being fought in the ocean and on Sicily. Rome as you may have guessed won that war, causing Carthage to withdraw from Sicily and Sardinia and by terms of the treaty paying Rome a war indemnity.

In the period between the first and second Punic wars, I was actually surprised to learn that Rome actually ended up providing Carthage a fair bit of support. In the wake of their surprise defeat, a number of their vassal and client states in Libya and elsewhere in Africa rose up in revolt. This was called the truceless war for the rather savage and unrelenting way it was waged. Interestingly rather than support the rebels, which would make sense if the removal of Carthage as a rival and powerful state was a Roman goal, the Romans sent money, food and mercenary troops to help Carthage reimpose their control of North Africa. Here Professor Hoyos does a much better job of outright stating his case and providing a supporting argument, where he states that there was no deep well of cultural hatred or driving desire to see Carthage removed in Rome. Pointing out a number of sympathetic Carthaginian characters in Roman entertainments at the time and growing links between the two elite classes. That said there was one family in Carthage by the name of Barca that wasn't going to accept the new way of things lying down. Most of my readers may know them from the most famous member of that clan, a career general with a few famous victories to his name, a gentleman by the name of Hannibal. The rise of the Barca clan and the Second Punic War take up the bulk of this book. Hannibal's father Hamilcar would respond to the loss of Carthage's empire by turning to Spain and forging a new empire for his city in the then silver rich hills of Iberia. By the time of his death Hamilcar and his family's works had made Carthage richer and even more powerful than they had been before the First Punic War. Which made some parties in Rome nervous.

The Second Punic War, was an epic confrontation with battles raging in Spain, Italy, in the east north of Greece and in North Africa. Because of Hannibal's march Rome is forced to devote a great fraction of its armies to fighting an enemy and rebels in its own homeland. Carthage makes alliances with ambitious kings in Macedonia who are eager to push Rome out of its eastern holdings. By the end of the second War, 1 out of 3 military age males will be under arms in the Roman State. An amazing feat of organization and sheer bloody mindedness as Rome repeatedly refuses to surrender even when a number of their Italian allies switch sides and they have entire armies practically wiped out. It's here we see Rome's real advantage over Carthage, it is simply able to maintain a higher level of commitment for a longer period of time even in the face of massive losses, where the Carthaginian system didn't have that ability to absorb losses or keep going at so high a tempo. Additionally, throughout Professor Hoyos writing we see that Hannibal, while a tactical mastermind lets a great number of strategic opportunities pass him by to force Rome to terms. Strategic dithering in fact seems to inflict the entire Carthaginian officer corps, whether it's Hannibal's brother’s strange refusal to leave Spain and reinforce his brother or Carthage's main admiral’s refusal to do anything useful with his navy for the entire war. We also see the rise of Scipio Africanus (this isn't his birth name but the one awarded to him for beating Hannibal in North Africa) Scipio’s career starts poorly, being present at the age of 15 serving with his father at a massive Roman defeat. By the time he's 25 and leading the armies in Spain however, he's shown to be a tactical battlefield leader who is easily Hannibal's equal and better then him on a strategic level. By the time of their fateful confrontation in Zuma, Hannibal is written as basically standing there poleaxed as Scipio’s army simple tears his apart (I'm left wondering if maybe Hannibal wasn't suffering something like a nervous breakdown at this point?).

The book does cover the final war, the 3rd Punic War but it's practically an epilogue to the book. To be fair, at this point Carthage had been reduced to a demilitarized city state and Rome was the greatest empire in Europe. The conclusion was foregone and it seems that the Romans fought the war just to get it done and over with so they would never have to deal with Carthage again. At the end of the 3rd Punic we see the city of Carthage destroyed and left in ruins with the last remains of the Carthaginian state simply annexed and made a province of the growing Roman Empire.

Mastering the West is very informative, especially if you have questions about Carthage but also if we're going to be honest, its written in a very dry style and is at points frustrating to read. There are points where Professor Hoyos seems about to make a case against the traditional understanding of the war, only to shy away from any real argument over it. Instead preferring to airily wave everything away by pronouncing our sources are terrible so nothing can be really known for sure. Now I'll admit he ain't really wrong on this, as the Romans would spend a lot of time clouding the history with stories meant to make themselves look better, while pro-Carthage writers would cloud things the other way. Still trying to parse this stuff is kind of part of his job and I would think if you were going to spend the time and effort to write a book like this you would try to stake out things a little more clearly, or at the very least explain why you think things happened the way you think they did. I'll admit I may be asking too much but between a writing style that’s bare bones and awfully dry about some of the most epic things in history and the refusal to make a real case on some assertions I was left frustrated. I'll freely admit I am not qualified to argue with Professor Hoyos on the events of ancient history and I'm not going to. I am fully qualified to say that this book could have been written a lot better though and I am going to do that. That said I did enjoy examining Hannibal's campaign in greater detail and learning in depth about Scipio. If you think you can put up with dry writing and you're willing to deal with a writer who doesn't like making definitive statements on his arguments then this book will work for you a lot better then me. I'm going to have to give Mastering the West by Dexter Hoyos a C+ however.

Next week... Screw it we're going to Grand Central Arena. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, May 19, 2017

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P Beaulieu

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai
by Bradley P Beaulieu

Born in Kenosha Wisconsin in 1968, Mr Beaulieu first started writing in college. However, in his own words “life happened”. He returned to writing with the dawn of the 21st century, starting with short stories; his first titled“A Trade of Shades” appearing in the now defunct bimonthly Alien Skin Magazine (which was actually an E-zine but details). In 2006 his story “In the Eyes of the Empress Cat” was voted a notable story in the Million Writers Award, since then his stories have appeared on number of top 10 lists. Today we'll be reviewing a more recent book of his published in 2015, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.

Mr. Beaulieu takes us to a world dominated by a desert, known as The Great Shangazi Desert. It is ringed in by great mountain range but it dominates the center of a continent and with the mountains presents a dividing barrier between four cultures. If these cultures want to trade with each other in any real volume, they must cross the desert. The desert has it own peoples, divided into great tribes that guard their control of the sands with blades and sharp vigilance. In the center of this desert a city grew from an oasis, a city that came to dominate the trade ways and whose people turned away from the traditions of the tribes. This was upsetting the tribes who lived in the desert, plus as the city grew and became rich, it encouraged more outsiders to travel into the desert. Worst of all, people began to abandon the tribes and their nomadic lifestyle for the wealth and ease of the city. So the tribes gathered in their numbers and decided to destroy the city and be done with it. The rulers of the city found out about this and realizing there was no way they could defeat the tribes in open combat, turned to the gods of the desert and pleaded for help. The gods answered: they took human sacrifices and turned them into the Asirim, twisted, powerful undying creatures who wrecked awful carnage upon the attacking tribes. The rulers of that city became the Twelve Kings, immortal demigods with powers beyond human understanding and complete command of the Asirim. In addition to the Asirim, they have their human soldiers the Silver Spears who also serve as the city's police force and the Blade Maidens. an elite force of fighters and bodyguards.  They are made of the mortal daughters, grand and great-granddaughters of the Kings themselves, trained to the heights of human ability, armed with magical blades and more. Every six weeks on the night of Beht Zha'ir, led by the one of the Kings, the Asirim prowl the city gathering more sacrifices to pay the gods bloody wage. There are those who say it's an honor to be chosen but most hide behind locked doors and pray that the honor fall to someone else. For generations the Kings have ruled this city Sharakhai, the City of Amber, completely and secure in their invincibility. For their rule has been sanctioned by the gods, upheld by the willing sacrifice of their own citizens who were turned into monsters on the holy night of Beht Ihman... Or so the histories all say.

The rule of the Kings is not uncontested however. Within the city and without men and women gather together in a group known as the Moonless Host and they wage a campaign to overthrow and kill the Kings of Sharakhai. That said, it's questionable at best if the Moonless Host is any better then the Kings they fight. Often engaging in outright terrorism that kills more of the common people than any of the elites of the city or in banditry against people who are simply traveling the desert. Their leader a man of the tribes named Macide is a man with the blood of women and children on his hands and frankly won’t be happy until he's pulled down the city and forced it's people to scatter to the four winds. The reaction of the Kings to these attacks is to resort to brutality and collective punishment, often against the very people of the city they claim to rule and protect. This leaves the people of the city caught between a rock and hard place and doing whatever they have to do to survive.

One of these people is our main character, Cedamihn Ahyanesh'ala a woman of many parts and roles. An orphan whose mother was executed for crimes against the Kings, her father unknown. She is a pit fighter who fights behind a mask and the moniker of the White Wolf and runs of licit packages for the ruler of the fight pits. She was also trained from toddlerhood by her mother in how to use a sword and on the night of her mother's death looking up her hanging body swore an impossible oath. That she would hunt down and kill every immortal King of Sharakhai. While she has the skills and she has the talent... She has no idea how to fulfill her oaths and as a orphan who spent most of her time in the streets of the city running wild, she doesn't really have the connections to get at the Kings either. Nor does she really have the tools to pull it off. Even worse she is utterly ignorant of her mother's heritage or just who her father was. For that matter she has no idea what her mother's plan was or what she was trying to accomplish on the night of her death and the people who could tell her have decided not to for her protection. That's a fairly realistic thing, but I have to admit it annoys the piss out of me in real life and fiction. Ignorance is almost never protection and what you do not know, can and will hurt you. Often a lot worse than what you do know about. There are two men whose goals overlap with Cedamihn or Ceda as she prefers.

The first is Emre, another street rat who ran the streets with Ceda. He's been with her since childhood and in a lot of way he and Ceda are more like brother and sister than anything else. He's a charming fellow but doesn't have more to offer than that. Emre is aware of this however and dislikes that about himself and throughout the book we watch him struggle with it and try to rise above himself. Emre is also carrying a lot of anger and loss as members of his family were taken from him and he was forced to confront how corrupt and uncaring the Kings are about the struggles and pain of the common folk. Just what he's gonna do about that corruption and the suffering that it inflicts on him and his loved ones is a question he'll have to take most of the book to work out. Our other character however knows exactly what he's gonna do about his problems if people would just stop getting in his damn way.

Ramahd isn't from Sharakhai, a noble from the nation of Qaimir which lies to the south of the desert. Like Ceda and Emre, Ramahd is on a revenge mission but he's not aiming at the Kings. Two years ago, Ramahd visited Sharakhai on the orders of his king, he did his job and packed up to go home. Only for Macide and the Moonless Host to attack his caravan and rounded up the survivors, forcing the men to kill themselves to buy the lives of the women and children. Each man did so, but one women attacked the Moonless Host rather than allow her husband's death. That woman was Ramahd's wife and to pile tragedy onto loss, Ramahd's only child would die of thirst before they could find their way out of the desert. Because Macide also took all their supplies and told them best of luck. This wasn't just a vile and brutal act... It was also a fairly stupid one. Ramahd's wife was the daughter of the King of Qaimir and he ain't taking it lying down. Not only is Ramahd seeking far and wide for Macide to murder him, but he has access to royal resources to do so and a sister in law who has delved deep and hard into the darkest of magics to pull this off. Whether Ramahd, Ceda, and Emre can all make common cause to achieve their goals or whether they'll all turn on each other and do their enemies work for them is something you'll have to read the book to find out. But let's talk a bit more about the setting.

While of a lot of talented writers (a good number of them reviewed in this review series) have worked hard to push the boundaries and conventions of the genre. Medieval Not-Europe still remains the default setting for fantasy in most people's mind. Although Feudal Not-Japan is often a close second. Mr. Beaulieu avoids both and instead goes into a mystical desert setting that shares some vague similarities with Arabian culture (in that there's some methods of dress that are borrowed but not much more) but for the most parts manages to stand on it's own two feet. It's an interesting setting, full of forbidden magic and dark pacts and fueled by the politics of wealth, power, corruption, oppression and the resentment and rage that those things breed. Each of our characters here would have likely lived lives that were of no danger to the people above them except for the fact that those same people couldn't refrain from indulging their baser instincts. While the story itself is tightly contained in Sharakhai and its immediate surroundings, Mr. Beaulieu is also able to drop information and hints of much wider world beyond the desert sands while keeping us focused on what is going on right here in the story.

That said, the story at times moves in fits and starts and takes a while to get to the point. Part of that is that a good number of the chapters are flashbacks to Ceda's childhood. These flashbacks are thankfully fully marked and noted just where and when they occurred so you're never left guessing just where in the story you are. That said a number of those chapters are somewhat self indulgent and at over 500 pages you are dealing with a story that is in no hurry to get to where it's going. There's also a number of character conflicts that I felt were somewhat unnecessary, in that they could have been avoided if the characters in question had simply talked to each other and explained just what the hell they thought they were doing. Ceda's and Emre's character arcs specifically are full of moments like this. Some of this is Ceda doing this to herself as she not only has to be smartest person in the room but has to do everything her way to the point that I want to shake her until her teeth rattle (I'll admit this would be a bad idea, Ceda would likely rip my arms off for trying).  That does effect my enjoyment of the book. That said it was a good read and I enjoyed it. I'm giving Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P Beaulieu a C+ for it's interesting setting and good, if somewhat pigheaded characters.   

Next week, we return to non-fiction and we look at a show down in the ancient world that affects us to this day. Join us for Mastering the West!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Elephant Don By Dr. Caitlin O'Connell

The Elephant Don
By Dr. Caitlin O'Connell

We return to zoology with another book about the most magnificent of living land mammals: the Elephant. I'll admit that part of this stems from my own interest in the animals. One of my earliest memories as a child was being at the zoo in Milwaukee, seeing my first elephant and being utterly convinced there could be nothing grander than one of these gray giants. I have been through a lot and seen a lot more in the decades since and I still think I may have had it right that day. Moving on, this is Dr. O'Connell's second book to appear in our series. For those who haven't read my review on her book “The Elephant's Secret Sense,” the good Doctor is a world renowned expert on elephants, an instructor at the Stanford University Medical School, consultant, founder of the non-profit Utopia Scientific (a science and education organization) and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. In short she is a very accomplished woman.

Elephant Don is one of her more recent books, published in 2015 and it challenges an orthodox belief about elephants. It has long been commonly believed that male elephants lived solitary lives, while elephant society was made up of the females and their calves. Female Elephant groups live in extended families often led by the oldest member who would decide where the herd went for food, water, and shelter on the rare events that an elephant might need shelter. While Male Elephant patrolled alone unless in Musth, which is a state where the production of testosterone rockets up, the elephant in question experiences physical changes and feels compelled to start looking for a female elephant ready to mate. In the meantime his aggression goes up and it's bad news for any other Male Elephant he encounters. This can be a bit of a quest; remember that elephant pregnancies last nearly two years. A nursing elephant won't mate, so elephants typically mate once every four or five years. Imagine waiting that long for your partner to feel in the mood!

In this book however, Dr. O'Connell documents a Male Elephant society that she calls the Boys Club. Within this Boy's Club we see coalitions, alliances. and friendships form change and adapt to changing situations. This strongly suggests that the old beliefs about the lives of Male Elephants may be very mistaken and need to be revisited, as she not only documented fairly intense interactions between Male Elephants of various ages but also clear evidence of a hierarchy and even leadership exercised by one male elephant specifically. The Boy's Club is observed by Dr. O'Connell at a watering hole, this is honestly the only practical way to do this as Elephants can a lot harder to track than you would think and can move fairly vast distances. That said, just about everything that lives on the land has to drink eventually and elephants more than most. So by tracking what elephants arrive at the water hole together, how they interact, along with things like who gets to drink the good water and who has to go over and drink the muddy water at the wrong end of the water hole, Dr. O'Connell is able to build a bit of a social map of the relations between the elephants and the changes that occur. This gets a little frustrating at times because she cannot track or follow the elephants into the bush, so we're often left wondering why these changes happened. This also touches on some of the problems with studying elephants, which is why less is known about them in the wild or their native capabilities then we would like sometimes. To risk pointing out the blindingly obvious, elephants are incredibly hard to contain and supply. Also there's the issue of how do you test a multi-ton animal's intelligence anyways? It's a bit too expensive to make them run a maze like we do smaller animals; but I'm wandering off point. Let me talk about the star character's that show up in this book, starting with the main character (if this book can be said to have one) Greg.

Greg is the Elephant that gives the book it's title. The regal and magnanimous Don of the water hole, who controls the Boy's Club. Greg is actually an interesting character here in that he doesn't rule completely through strength. Instead throughout the book, we find that Greg is actually fairly indulgent of the younger males (these would be ones who have most recently split off/been thrown out by their families, I'll talk about this more in a bit) often letting the youngest members come drink with him at the spots where the water is clearest and coldest. Additionally he often steps in to prevent bullying by older and larger males, which almost suggest that Greg is enforcing a code of conduct of sorts (I'd like to note that Dr. O'Connell doesn't suggest that, because being a good scientist she's not going to suggest something like that without a raft of evidence to back it up. I'm not a PhD though, I'm a book reviewer and not as constrained). Greg isn't a wimp however and demonstrates that he can back up his authority with the most basic foundation of power there is: the art of ass kicking.

We are actually introduced to Greg when the 3rd ranked Male Kevin goes into Musth, picks a fight with him and... Well... Kevin gets the testosterone beaten right out of him in a larger than life confrontation right there at the watering hole. We actually get to know Kevin quite a bit; he's a bully and if he was a human I would call him a braggart. He also acts as Greg's disciplinarian in a lot of ways, smacking down lower ranked males who step out of line. This also makes him unpopular with other elephants as he has problems socializing when Greg isn't there. On the flip side, his opposite number Mike, is Greg's number two elephant and Mike is a truly soft touch who prefers to avoid physical confrontation a bit too much. Even in Musth, Mike avoids violence with a dedication that would make Rev. King Jr. proud. These three are adult males in their prime and contrasting them we have a number of younger elephants in their teenage years (literally honestly as elephants tend not to hit their prime until their 20s) like the super confident and social Congo Connor, who shows up in the middle of the book and seems to be able to just charm his way into the society out of nowhere. There's also Keith, a younger elephant who while not as charming as Congo Connor is very favored by Greg and drives Kevin nuts in a lot of ways. The mystery of Keith caused Dr. O'Connell to start checking the DNA of the elephants involved via their dung.  Yes that's right your dung has elements of your DNA in it and tests have been invented to determine just whose scat belongs to who. Interestingly enough while most of the full grown males weren't related, Keith was a 1st order relative to Greg (making him likely a son, or at least a nephew as I understand it, editor? )[Editor’s note: A first order relative is one who shares 50% of an individual’s genes.  So in this case, a son, full sibling, or parent.  In this case, given the age difference, most likely a son], others were found to be 2nd and 3rd order relatives[Editors note: These would be those sharing 25% or 12.5%, so half-siblings, cousins, nephews, and grandchildren at 2nd order, 2nd cousins etc at 3rd.  Hi!  I am an out-of-work biology Ph.D. Ask me how!]. Which means that Greg may be mentoring a number of cousins, sons, brothers and nephews... Which I think is a good place to discuss a bit of what is known about the Male Elephant's life cycle [Editors note: If this is the case, I would be fascinated to find out how they detect kinship, or they don’t, whether it is just a geographic bias.  Big dominant males tend to father the offspring in a region and as a result the young males they wind up supervising just so happen to be their relatives.  Interesting research question for aspiring mammal behaviorists.  I am an insect behaviorist myself and my training is ill-suited.].

Male elephants as you may guess spend their childhoods living in the female controlled extended families that are the best known and studied parts of elephant life. They are raised by their mother's, older sisters, aunts and grandmothers. However as they get older and stronger, they grow in confidence and start pushing their boundaries and the authority of their elders. This leads to confrontations that can get rather violent until the teenage rebel either has enough and leaves or is tossed out. At this point the teens tend to go wandering until they find a territory they like and settle down. Now when I was growing up, it was often written that while male teen elephants will sometimes travel in a group, once they find a territory they turn solidarity until they grow old and die. Clearly this isn't the case, Dr. O'Connell herself cites a number of events that call this into question even without her own work. There was a case of a group of teenage elephants moving into a national park after the management was forced to enact a cull in their home range (this is sometimes necessary because of the sad fact that there's only so many elephants a patch of ground can support and elephants can no longer range freely over the continent like they once did. To prevent mass starvation, it's sometimes necessary to reduce the population). Rather than kill the selected elephants, they moved them to a park that had recently lost just about all it's adult males. The teens turned extremely aggressive and started killing rhinos, investigations have found that teen elephants experience a massive testosterone boost if there are no elder males in the area, higher than even Musth. To put it simply, the boys lacked any older authority figures and their bodies pumping them full of aggression enhancing hormones went berserk. These rhinos were also endangered so a this sparked a bit of panic, until someone brought in a male elephant in his prime, who swiftly brought the young hot heads under control. Additionally, the testosterone production in the teenage rogues plummeted This isn't an isolated incident either, as comparable events have been found in other parks in Africa. As someone with Anthropology training, it's interesting to note that you see something like this in human society. In societies that suffer a massive lost of adult men, you will often see teenage boys pushing the boundaries harder and faster than usual. This isn't to suggest women are less capable of exercising authority mind you, just that there are times when teenage boys are best served with an authority figure their own gender.[Editors Note: This is a thing common to just about any animal with a social hierarchy.  Maybe not to the extent that it exists in elephants, and yes, humans count.  When aggression determines one’s place in the pecking order and high-ranking spots are left open, young males clamour to fill them, often violently.  However, young males also don’t know what they are doing, particularly in the more intelligent species that rely more on learning than fixed action patterns to regulate their behavior. You end up with relatively unchecked aggression. Put someone back in to assert dominance over them, and they start behaving.  It is actually pretty interesting when this happens in baboons.  The females tend to take over the social hierarchy and coalition together to keep the bullying alpha males out.]

As you might guess I really enjoyed reading the Elephant Don, now that said there may be parts that some people will find a bit dry. As Dr. O'Connell will explain various experiments and processes in some detail but this is cut with stories of life out in the African bush and the interactions of the elephants themselves. As well as the interactions of Hyenas, Lions, and a host of other animals. Irrespective of that, if you're interested in animal behavior, especially the behavior of social animals and willing to learn a few new terms,  this is a great book. I'm giving the Elephant Don by Dr. Caitlin O'Connell an A. This is the good stuff guys. Next week we're gonna head back to fiction for a bit before jumping into some history books, as we review Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. Keep reading.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.  

Friday, May 5, 2017

Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard By Lawrence M Schoden, Ph.D.

Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard
By Lawrence M Schoden, Ph.D.

Dr. Schoden was born on July 27 1957, in Chicago Illinois, the youngest of 4 children. His family moved to Southern California when he was 18 months old and he grew up in Clover City. He graduated from California State University Northridge with a BA in Psycholinguistics and would move on to get his MA and PhD in Psychology from Kansas State. He would spend 10 years as an assistant professor in a number of colleges before moving to the private sector. He started writing in the 2000s, with a number of stories set in a common sci-fi universe, featuring creatures named buffalito. He's also one of the leading experts on the Klingon language and an advocate for the created language. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife Valerie. Today we are going to review his novel Barsk, published in 2015 by Tor books.

Barsk takes place over 60 thousand years in the future. Humanity is extinct and not even a memory but it's legacy lives on in the dozens of uplifted mammalian species that now spread across the galaxy. The species live in a semi-united polity called the Alliance which is ruled by a Senate. I say semi-united because the planets have a lot of control over their own affairs and there's a lot of prejudice and bigotry running through the Alliance as its members collectively look down their snouts at each other. There is one thing that unites the members of the Alliance: the fact that they hate Fants. Fants are uplifted Elephants and they've been consigned to a galactic ghetto, a single planet that doesn't even have continents, instead having islands spread across it's watery surface. That planet is named Barsk, however the Fants have ended up with something of a last laugh. Barsk is a treasure trove of plants with vast medical and recreational possibilities. The Fants have become experts in identifying these plants and turning them into finished products for the Alliance. In exchange? All they ask for is fair trade and to be left alone. No other species is to set foot on Barsk. This is a deal called the Compact that has held firm and been profitable for both sides for generations.

The most important of these drugs is Koph, which allows certain people to summon forth the dead. This is explained by the idea that your memories aren't just relations between your synapses stored physically in your brain, but are also made up of quantum particles that are called nefshons. This also takes advantage of the fact that your cells are constantly changing, that the atoms that make up “you” are different ones from the atoms that made up “you” last month or even last week. Those atoms were part of different things before they became a part of you and they'll go on to be part of different things after you die. As Carl Sagan said, you are made of star dust. Those nefshon's don't disappear when you die, they disperse out into the universe and if enough of the right ones are brought back together into the right pattern, your memories emerge and with them your personality and thoughts. It is magic covered with the words Quantum and Atoms but as far as I can tell most of us regard Quantum Science as a form of magic anyways. I'll admit for my own part Quantum Science might as well be magic for all that I am capable of explaining it or really grasping it. That said, I'm not criticizing the story for this, the magic of nefshons is internally consistent and makes sense within the story, which is all I'm really going to ask for. There's a lot of pretty-much-magic in science fiction (often starting with the FTL drive) so there's no point in being snobbish about it. Although I do think it's interesting to trace what type of science we turn into our magic. In my own life time, I can remember when it was nanotechnology (or nano machines son! If you prefer) that was the primary magic word of choice and before that Atomic or Radiation did well in a pinch. Additionally there's fair bit of using bio-technology or genetic engineering as well but I digress.

Those who can use the drug to call up the dead are called Speakers (mainly because necromancer would been to on point?). The first Speaker was a Fant herself, in fact she forged the Compact with the Alliance and taught them how to use Koph and in doing so bound every Speaker of every species into following 3 little rules. That Never shall a Speaker summon a Speaker. That Never shall a Speaker summon the living. That never shall a Speaker summon herself (or himself). Beyond that, Speakers do have some limitation. They have to have a pretty good idea of the person they're summoning (you can't just pull up a random dead person), the easiest way to do this is to summon people you knew before they died. You can also gain information from written sources that can allow you to recognize the nefshons and summon a public figure (the best is first hand sources such as letters or diaries, well researched biographies will work but general history books don't seem to have enough information). So basically you couldn't use my copy of The Millennium to summon a figure from the dark ages, but you could likely use Theodore Rex to bring forth Theodore Roosevelt (I am not responsible for any damage that Teddy Roosevelt does to any Speaker who summons him however, take that as a warning).

This is all rather handy for our main character Jorl ben Tral who is a historian, a Speaker and a bearer of an honorific also cooked up by the first Speaker.  He has a tattoo made from glowing ink that is called an aleph. The aleph let's Jorl operate beyond the laws of his very tradition bound society and his ability as a Speaker is rather handy in gathering information for his work as a historian. So all things considered you would think he has it made. Except he has a number of problems. First off, his gift was triggered in the aftermath of his best friend's Arlo's suicide. I should note that this suicide is touched upon repeatedly and plays a heavy part in the plot. Jorl isn't dealing with the self inflicted death of his friend well and has repeatedly summoned his shade to try and figure out why he did such a thing, only Arlo isn't telling. Add on to this that Jorl is trying to help Arlo's widow Tolta take care of the young son Arlo left behind named Pizlo. This is complicated by the fact that no one else will admit Pizlo exists. Pizlo was born before Arlo and Tolta were properly married and has a number of birth defects, such as albinism and an inability to feel pain. Fant tradition is that such children are to be abandoned to die. Arlo and Tolta defied the convention but the rest of Fant society stubbornly holds to their traditions and shuns a six year old. A six year old that may be a genius and is rapidly developing abilities and powers that may become dangerous in the future but even that has to be put on a shelf because there's yet more problems on the horizon.

The Alliance has grown tired of depending on the Fant for koph. It's not enough that they've bottled up all members of the species onto a single planet. It's not enough that the Fant produce enough koph to keep all the Speakers of the Alliance supplied. At least not for some Senators of the Alliance who feel that it's okay to break the Compact, if it means that Alliance gets to control of the supply of koph from now on. Of course they have no idea what koph is made of or the correct process for making it so they have to resort to underhanded means to get it. On top of this, the recently departed (which is literal in Fant society as the elderly take themselves off to a hidden island to die out of sight) aren't responding to being summoned. Remember how I mentioned the first Speaker was a Fant? Well she could also foresee the future and left behind some prophecy foretelling such a situation. That prophecy is also telling Jorl that this is his mess to clean up. To do it, he'll have to confront both the living and dead and break not only his society’s  rules but a number of rules that apply to the entire Alliance. I suppose it's lucky that first Speaker set up the aleph system in the first place giving Jorl tacit permission to break those rules (hey... wait a minute... Bloody precogs!).

I got mixed feelings about this book, the Alliance is in many ways corrupt and frankly frightening. It has the ability to declare it's citizens resources and strip them of their rights and those people have no recourse. On top of that there seems to be no oversight on the Senate and no check to their power. This is definitely one setup that could do with an independent executive or judicial branch to reign this crap in. This makes them very handy bad guys but we're also set up to view just about every non-Fant character in a fairly unsympathetic light so we're not provided a very balanced view of this group. I do like how Fant society is portrayed, it's not a group of angels but clearly a group of beings who have in their isolation allowed their society to become rigid and overly bound by their traditions. Traditions aren't necessarily bad things mind you, but they do need to be questioned and updated to prevent them from becoming stale and a drag on the society they're suppose to serve. That said I think using the Hebrew naming system for the group of educated people forced to live in a ghetto by the bigotry of greater society was bit... Unsubtle, to the point that I was wondering if Dr. Schoden was afraid I would miss the metaphor here. Additionally, I felt the villains of the piece weren't really well done, for example the Yak Senator who serves as Jorl's main adversary has his negative qualities clearly displayed and then we're forced to sit through several rounds of him pretending to be a kind old grandpa. I'm also somewhat lost as to his motivations as I find myself asking why he's so determined to seize complete control of the koph, he can't personally use it and it won't give him any advantages nor will it really improve the situation of the Alliance as the Fant are already providing koph in as much quantity and speed as can be done. Also given Jorl's treatment of several non-Fant characters, a number of his protestations of how awful the other characters ring a big hollow. So I have a number of frustrations with this book. Still this was rather interesting book that explored it's ideas fairly well and I also liked that sheer amount of depth to Fant culture and could recognize the influence that elephant behavior had on it. I also liked that the uplifted mammals were not humans in furry suits but completely different creatures with different responses to their drives and such. That said, I myself really only able to give Barsk By Lawrence M Schoden a C+. I like the book but the inability of the characters to really engage me left me kinda spinning my wheels.

You know... Maybe I need to go back to nonfiction for awhile. Next week... We talk about some real elephants.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen