Category Archives: history

James Bond vs the obsolescence of libraries

bondmusic

Recently I heard a librarian talk about fears that libraries would become obsolete.

As you might expect, that got me thinking about James Bond.

Specifically, Bond movie THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. It’s considered to be one of the weaker Bond films, but I like it, and I do like the music, especially from the scene when Bond uses a jetski to chase an assassin down the Thames. When I bought the soundtrack, all the metadata for the tracks was set as “Music From The MGM Motion Picture The World Is Not Enough”. So when I want to listen to it, I don’t scroll through my music library looking for “James Bond” or “The World Is Not Enough”, I have to scroll until I find “Music From The MGM Motion Picture.”

Which is really odd, because the phrase “motion picture” is kind of an archaism, isn’t it? Like calling a car a horseless carriage or referring to the radio as wireless telegraphy. A movie made in 2016 is still technically a motion picture, but it has very little in common in the way that the original “moving pictures” were made.

That’s true of my books as well. According to the data I have, most people who have read the FROSTBORN series did so on Kindles, Kindle Fires, iPads, and various Android tablets. Ten years ago none of that stuff existed, and twenty-five years ago, the act of reading on a tablet would not have been recognizable as actually reading something. Nonetheless, it is still the same thing. Vastly different, but still essentially the same activity.

So I doubt libraries are going to become obsolete. They’re going to change dramatically, in much the same way that a movie like THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is vastly different than a “moving picture” from the 1920s, in much the same way that reading the FROSTBORN series now is different than the way you would have read it if I had written it in the 1980s. The library of the future will be different, but it won’t go away.

If you like libraries, you should read my FROSTBORN books because the characters talk about books.

-JM

true prophecy

According to ancient Greek myth, when the god Apollo failed to seduce Cassandra of Troy, he cursed her with the gift of true prophecy, but with a caveat. Every prophecy she spoke was true, but no one would believe her.
 
If Cassandra of Troy lived today, I suspect she would work in an IT department:
 
“Back up your files or you’ll lose them! Don’t click on that ad or you’ll get a virus! Don’t put your social security number into that email form!”
 
And, of course, no one would believe her. 🙂
-JM

THE MIDDLE AGES by Morris Bishop

I’ve mentioned before that THE MIDDLE AGES by Morris Bishop is one of my favorite nonfiction books. It is not so much a linear history as it is an overview, with each chapter focusing upon a different part of medieval society – the nobles, the church, the peasants, the townsmen, and so forth. The book has some splendid passages. Like this one about the pride of the nobility:

“When all games ended, the knight brooded on his sins and made his peace with God. He built and endowed a chapel, and paid to have masses said forever for the rescue of his soul. For a fee, he could be buried in a monk’s robe…These nobles were the humble. Mostly, however, the great did not lose their pride in death. We see in a thousand churches their effigies clad in their best armor, sword at side, with their wives beside them and their dogs at their feet, ready to rise, equipped to demand their due at Judgment Day.” 

Or this part about the medieval church:

“If one concentrates on the church’s shortcomings, which are after all more striking and diverting than its quiet labors, one sees it as smug and somnolent, content with its daily routine, unadventurous. Nevertheless, the church continued to inspire its adepts with conscientious zeal. Many poor parsons, unregarded and unrecorded, did more than their duty to their parishes; many served knowledge and wisdom in school and scriptorium; many were vouchsafed moments of mystic illumination; many, by holy living and holy dying, preserved a model of Christian character – humble, chaste, obedient, charitable, filled with consciousness of God and abounding in love.” 

Or the dangers of medieval food safety:

“Danger lurked in made-up meats. A thirteenth-century Paris preacher tells of a customer who informed his butcher that he should have his sausages cheaper since he had been a faithful client for seven years. The butcher replied: ‘Seven years! And you’re still alive!'” 

Or this part about teachers in the medieval university:

“He then invited his examiners to a banquet, a custom that has regrettably lapsed…It is reported of one stingy initiate that ‘the people invited to his banquet were so poorly fed that they did not even desire to drink.’ But see the consequence: “He opened his course with novices and hired listeners.'”

At the time of this writing, THE MIDDLE AGES is only $2.99 USD on Kindle, and is very highly recommended.

-JM

Happy Sextilis

Speaking of ancient Roman history, I wonder how many people know that the month of August was named for Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor?

Of course, August was originally named Sextilis, because it used to be the 6th month of the Roman year before Julius Caesar reformed the calendar while he was dictator.

Just as well it was renamed. Saying that school starts in Sextilis just sounds weird.

-JM

FROSTBORN and Roman history

Working on THE SOLDIER’S TALE, the short story set in the world of the FROSTBORN I’ll give away for free to newsletter subscribers when FROSTBORN: THE WORLD GATE comes out in September. Since all the humans of Andomhaim are descended from the Romans of Britannia on Old Earth, the main character in THE SOLDIER’S TALE quotes a guy named Vegetius repeatedly.

It’s always fun when I can work a little real-world history in FROSTBORN.

If you’ve never heard of Vegetius, a good thumbnail summary is at this link.

-JM

flashbacks vs history

A confession: I do not care for flashback scenes, and try to avoid using them whenever possible.

I think part of that is because I thought I was going to go into academic history a long time ago. That didn’t work out, but the appreciation remained with me. Very often, the past is simply unknowable, and finding out what happened takes a great deal of work, and even then what we learn is subject to interpretation.

(The classic example of historical interpretation: the American Civil War has been called at various times the War For Southern Independence, the War Between The States, the War Of The Rebellion, the Confederate War, the War Of Northern Aggression, and the Second American Revolution. Likely we settled on “Civil War” because it is a.) factually accurate, and b.) neutral in its interpretation.)

A flashback seems like a lazy way to circumvent that, and a writer can get a lot of narrative drama out of efforts to discover what really happened.

Example: a couple weeks ago I went on a local history tour of a cemetery attached to one of the oldest churches in the upper Midwest, with some of the graves dating back to the 1840s. (British readers, who can easily find graves and churches dating back to the medieval epoch, will probably laugh at that.) What’s striking about local history is how much of it is simply lost forever. Like, there were a number of gravestones for people who had been born in Germany and died in Wisconsin. What drove them to migrate? Unless the reason happened to be recorded in a newspaper, an immigration document, or a church register, we don’t know and can only speculate.

To discover the truth would take a great deal of research in local history, documents, and genealogy. In other words, it would take a lot of work. It would be nice if we could just touch the tombstone and have a magical flashback about the person’s life, but it doesn’t work that way. If we want to know the truth about the past, we have to do the work.

That’s why I think flashbacks often (but not always) make for lazy writing, since there’s a great deal of dramatic potential in letting the characters work out the truth for themselves. That’s also why when in FROSTBORN and GHOST EXILE when Ridmark or Caina hear about something that happened in ancient history, they hear multiple conflicting accounts, and even the accounts that agree differ from each other slightly.

It’s much more fun that way. 🙂

-JM

the vast gulfs of time

I’ve been reading an anthology of science fiction stories from the early 1980s. Good stories, all, but they all assume that the Soviet Union would be around well into the 21st century, which perhaps is a testament to the predictive accuracy of science fiction.

Then it occurred to me that I keep thinking of the fall of the Soviet Union of having happened recently, but it has already been twenty-four years. There are likely many people who have visited this page to whom the Soviet Union and the Cold War were not living memory, but increasingly dusty history.

Which is something to bear in mind if you are writing a series with an immortal or a long-lived character, like a wizard or a vampire or something. The immortal might find himself talking about something he remembers vividly, like seeing King Richard fall at Bosworth or watching the Imperial Guard charge for the final time at Waterloo, only to realize that to most of listeners he is reciting obscure facts about the distant past.

Of course, you notice how immortals in fiction always claim to have been there for the significant events of history? Like, maybe they just lie about it to make themselves sound cool. An immortal could say he was there when Caesar was assassinated, but “there” could actually mean he was in a tavern several miles away, badly hungover and arguing about his bill.

-JM

memento mori

I don’t follow professional sports too closely, but I wound up watching this documentary on Netflix about millionaire athletes who go bankrupt, and it was pretty interesting.

The ancient Romans used to have this ritual called a triumph, where a victorious general would essentially get a parade through Rome, riding in a chariot followed by prisoners from his wars and tokens of his victory. But in the chariot also rode a slave who whispered into the general’s ear “remember that you are mortal and you shall die.”

Perhaps the NFL should do something similar. 🙂

-JM

Caesar: Portrait Of A Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Recently, I had to take some time off, and that meant I had time for some reading. One of the books I read was Caesar: Portrait Of A Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy. It was quite a good summary of both Caesar’s life and the state of Roman politics at the end of the Republic. When modern people think of a “republic”, they think of something like the US, but the Roman Republic was essentially an oligarchy that allowed its members to compete among themselves for power. When the system started to break down, allowing oligarchs to seize too much power, the Republic began producing men like Sulla, Marius, and Cinna, and finally Caesar, the first man to seize supreme power in Rome. His successor Augustus essentially codified the dictatorship, and kept the Republic on as window-dressing for his power.

Definitely recommended for anyone interested in Roman history.

-JM

the bones of the king

The bones of King Richard III have apparently been located in England. 

I’m not an expert on the Wars of the Roses by any means (keeping track of the family lines of medieval English nobility requires specialized vocabulary and elaborate flowcharts), but it’s always been an interest of mine. So for Richard’s bones to have been found is quite a historical coup.

Richard, of course, is most famous for murdering his nephews and seizing the crown of England. He probably murdered his nephews, but is not quite the villain painted in Shakespeare’s play. And villain or not, he had a brave end. When the Battle of Bosworth went against him, Richard led a final charge into his foes in hopes of cutting down Henry Tudor (one account has him almost reaching the future Henry VII), shouting “Treason! Treason! Treason!” until he was at last overwhelmed and killed.

According to the scientists examining the bones, Richard was wounded ten times before he was killed. The man might have been a scoundrel and a murderer, but he was no coward.

-JM