Friday, November 01, 2013

Bourgeois Book Club

The Milkweed Triptych (Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, Necessary Evil) by Ian Tregillis

I thought it impossible that I'd never written about in the annals of Bourgeois Book Club. But, when I began to write about the climactic final entry of the series, I found to my utter shock that I had in fact not written about the two preceding volumes at all. This oversight must be immediately rectified. And perhaps it is for the best, since its recent completion allows for broader perspective, and also allows you, dear readers, to gain immediate gratification instead of having to wait between volumes.

The Milkweed Triptych is an alternate history of spies, magic, and mad science in World War II and the Cold War. Imagine that Hitler, the Holocaust, the Eastern Front, the firebombing of Dresden, the Blitz, all of the horror and death and destruction of World War II... was the lesser of two evils? That in order to save the world, it had to be condemned to one of its lowest and most dangerous eras? That condemning millions to suffering and death in order is required to save the human race from extinction at the hands of malevolent, omnipotent beings? Spy thriller, science fiction, Lovecraftian fantasy, supervillains and magicians, apocalypse and time travel, The Milkweed Triptych has it all.

The trilogy crackles with excitement, but overflows with pathos and human emotion. The heroes, an unlikely pair of British secret agents, and probably one of the best, and most diabolical, villainesses I've ever encountered, make it a thrilling, but still intelligent, read. I simply cannot recommend it enough.

A History of Ancient Egypt by John Romer

A History of Ancient Egypt is a history of hardnosed materialism. Romer's contention is that what we have are the debris of prehistory, and thus any "history" can only say what the objects tell us. All else is projection, often of the assumptions of 19th-century anthropological and imperialist ideology.

Using nothing but the artifacts of the Nile inhabitants themselves, Romer emphasizes the dynamism and contingency of prehistoric Egypt in contrast to the staid and conservative culture of later pharaonic history. Civilization did not emerge fully-formed, but was the natural consequence of developments centuries in the making. Kingship, the state, organized warfare etc. were all new innovations then; thus, we cannot necessarily project back onto them the ideologies and assumptions of empires and politics of later periods. Not splendid isolation, but intense contact and influence. Instead of grand wars of unification between Upper and Lower Egypt, for example, Romer sees simple cultural agglomeration. Instead of grand isolation, Romer sees an early Egypt very much plugged into the cultural ferment of the greater Fertile Crescent.

Though its committed materialism is a bracing contrast to more conventional treatments of early Egyptian history, A History of Ancient Egypt is Far inferior as a literary work to Toby Wilkinson's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Indeed, it has no real narrative force at all, and reads more like a report than anything. Romer is interested much more in specificity than in overview. He concentrates on specific archaeological sites and finds. To be fair, however, they are involved in different programs. Wilkinson's is a broader, more conservative, historiographical overview, while Romer is much more focused and a bit iconoclastic.

I'd recommend A History of Ancient Egypt for the committed amateur Egyptologist, if only as a bracing tonic to more familiar historical treatments, but not really for anyone interested in a good read.

The Daedalus Incident by Michael A. Martinez

Perhaps it says something about my reading tastes, or perhaps it says something about the inherent fluidity of genre, but you may have noticed over the years of Bourgeois Book Club, that a lot of the reviewed books don't fit neatly into just one genre category. One need not even look farther than the top of this very post to see an example of this. But nothing I've ever read before combines the strange and unexpected melange of genres that characterizes The Daedalus Incident.

Swashbuckling a la Patrick O'Brien. Lovecraftian horror. Burroughsian pulp adventure. Alternate history. Alchemy. Science fiction thriller. In one universe, a Royal Navy officer must struggle to discover how and why a supposedly dead Mars has suddenly come alive geologically. In another universe, a Royal Navy space ship, complete with masts, sails, and cannons, must race from the seedy ports of Mercury to the alien worlds of Saturn and the deadly sands of Mars on the trail of murderous alchemists. Conspiracy draws the universes together in a collision of science, alchemy, and ancient history that could shake the fate of both universes.

Martinez masterfully integrates all these strange elements into an entertaining yarn, while integrating what could have been two totally different stories together. It's a worthy accomplishment, and one I very much enjoyed.

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