What I read in 2020

1/15 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time

Children of Time got a lot of attention a few years ago, but I didn't get around to reading it until just now. It's worth reading. I wouldn't exactly call it space opera, but it is science fiction on the grand scale: starships, uplift, AIs, the rise and fall of civilizations, a span of thousands of years. Most of the characters are spiders.

A lot of far-future stories are implicitly post-apocalyptic, but that's usually in the background and in the distant past. Here the needless destruction is much more foregrounded, and we keep seeing echoes and smaller scale versions of the initial catastrophe. Some of the characters notice too. A question that keeps recurring: is it possible for humanity to do better?

1/11 Jacqueline Winspear, Messenger of Truth

The fourth Maisie Dobbs novel. The title comes from the epigraph, from Paul Nash (1889–1946). The man whose death Maisie is hired to investigate was, like Nash, a well known war artist who served on the Western Front with the Artists Rifles.

This book takes place in 1930. Nick Bassington-Hope and all of the other major characters are fictional, but Sir Oswald Mosley (boo, hiss) makes an appearance. Some of the people in the book see him for what he is.

1/7 John Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses: Peace and Conflict in 15th Century England

I read this book because we're going to see the Henry VI trilogy this summer and I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Wars of the Roses. I doubt if the author wrote this book for ignorant Americans like me, but I found it an excellent introduction. The bulk of the book is a straightforward narrative history from 1422, the beginning of Henry VI's reign, to 1485, the death of Richard III. I learned a lot from it, including basic things like the role of Warwick “Kingmaker,” or that the Wars of the Roses had nothing to do with the fact that Henry VI came to the throne as a child (they started long after that), or the fact that Edward IV reigned peacefully for 12 years and died of natural causes and that the violence only restarted after Richard III's power grab.

Straightforward narrative history, but with a point of view: the Wars of the Roses weren't a bloodbath, and didn't (despite what one would think from Shakespeare) represent any deep divisions or structural problems or legacies from Henry IV's time. The author argues, convincingly, that the problems don't go back any farther than the 1440s and that all of the wars can be traced to the personal failings of three flawed individuals: Henry VI, the Earl of Warwick, and Richard III. The author argues that, as best as one can interpret the fragmentary evidence, England between 1422 and 1485 was largely peaceful. Towns weren't fortified. There were rebellions and battles, yes, but they were fought in the field by small forces and they ended quickly; unlike the wars of continental Europe at the time, this wasn't the grim business of siege and starvation and battering cities into submission and devastating whole provinces.

The first three chapters are more general, and deal with the always important question: what do we know, and how do we know it? We have very little reliable information about any of the important battles: we have chronicles written long after the fact, very occasionally we have pay records, we have local oral tradition of dubious reliability. We don't have good information about how many soldiers fought in any of the battles: some of the chronicles have numbers, but they're obviously very wrong. There was a lot of writing and printing in the 15th century but a lot of it was ephemera, the vast majority of which has not survived. So a big part of the first three chapters is background: what would be a plausible size for a 15th century army (answer: small), what would the logistics of provisioning look like, how would an army have been raised and paid, how would a battle have been fought given the military technology of the time.

1/4 Iain M. Banks, Matter

The first time I read this it was one of my least favorite Culture books, but I liked it better rereading it. Also reminds me that I ought to reread Don Quixote, since one of the characters seems pretty clearly inspired by Sancho Panza.

Matt Austern