Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds. Interesting set-up: a world divided into zones in which only various levels of technology function. So there's Horsetown, Circuit City, Neon Heights and so on. This provides an excuse for Reynolds to belated jump on the steampunk bandwagon: there are a couple of nice airship battles.
However, the plot is a bit unfocused without much pace the protagonist is a bit bland, and none of the multiple antagonists seems terribly menacing. The ending is a bit disappointing too, as with "Pushing Ice" he seems more concerned with setting things up for a possible sequel than resolving anything.
Overall, a decent enough read, but not brilliant.
What I'm Watching
Saw Tyson on DVD. Documentary biography where the ex-boxer mostly talks directly to camera, intercut with old footage of fights and interviews. There's a gimmick where several monologues are done in split-screen so he talks over himself: thankfully it's not overused.
Tyson has a degree of insight and isn't totally self-aggrandizing. He partly attributes his aggression to being bullied as a child. However it seems to me pretty common for bullies to see themselves as victims. Generally grown-ups who still whine about being bullied as children seem to be pretty malevolent adults.
Pretty interesting to watch, even if you're not into boxing.
I fly pigeons... These pigeons live with each other for ten or fifteen years right. But when I throw feed down, they kill each other to get it. And it's the same way with fighters. We love and respect each other, but we need... we're like mercenaries, we need that money .What I'm Watching 2
Also saw Back to the Future Part 3 on DVD. Fairly entertaining, much like Part 2 since they were both filmed as part of a single shoot.
Was hoping one thing that I didn't get about Part 2 would be explained but I still don't get it. Why were there two Martys in the Eighties Retro bar, who change places during the fight? Is that a plot hole or did I just miss the explanation?
What I'm Reading 2
Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor by Frank McLynn. McLynn is a former professor who now mostly writes popular histories: he's apparently quite well-regarded. This is his first book of ancient history, he's mostly concentrated on more modern eras.
The book has several virtues. The first is that it's very thoroughly researched and annotated: the notes are as worth reading as the book itself. He seems to have gone through all the primary and many of the secondary sources in some detail, in philosophy as well as history, and he carefully explains how he drew his conclusions. He doesn't stick too narrowly to Marcus Aurelius, but puts him in the context of the preceding and succeeding emperors.
The book is also well-written: it's fascinating and an entertaining read. Frank McLynn certainly has no fear of expressing strong opinions. Despite the detail, the book's definitely a page-turner.
However, the book did seem to me marred by two serious flaws.
I recently read a book by Pier Hadot, one of the foremost specialists on Marcus Aurelius. Hadot stresses the point that the "Meditations" is a hypomnemata, a book intended for personal self-improvement. For instance, if you feel a tendency towards arrogance, you might copy or write a passage explaining your cosmic insignificance. If tempted by lust, you might write out a passage about how bizarre the human body is biologically. It's tempting but wrong for a modern reader to pick up the Meditations and read it as if it's literally expressing what you're feeling right now, like a mood diary or a Facebook Status or a Tweet.
While McLynn cites Hadot and reluctantly accepts that certain parts of the Meditations are not original. In general though, he rejects Hadot saying he is "obliged to reject the ecstatic praise usually accorded" to his contribution. Sure enough he chiefly treats the Meditations as a personal, literal, and original document of Marcus' transient emotions and thoughts. This means he can write a more interesting book since he thinks he knows what's on his mind. It also means he can elevate Marcus Aurelius to a truly original philosopher. That's far from universally accepted: most ancient philosophy is lost, parts of the meditations are virtual copypasta, so some think Marcus Aurelius was just an average stoic follower regurgitating a standard line.
The second flaw is that the book is written with a general misanthropy, in which almost every individual and group is chastised. Hadrian was "vengeful, brooding and vindictive", "a very dark character" with "psychopathic tendencies" and a "maddening know-all" to boot, Galen was "a tiresome show-off and know-all, hugely self-loving and self-regarding". Tutor and correspondent Fronto was "fatuous and pedantic", "a fusspot and hypochondriac" and a "philistine". The Roman proletariat were "drones in the hive", "as much part of a dependency culture as those who live on welfare in Western societies today" though the wealthier classes are depicted as greedy and self-indulgent too. McLynn particularly dislikes stoic philosophy and devotes a whole appendix to rounding up the usual criticisms. He fondly mentions H.L. Mencken and the satirist Lucian a few times, and seems to see himself as a similar creature. However, they mostly mocked the present: mocking the distant past doesn't seem quite as laudable: it's likely to make us feel self-satisfied by comparison.
I'm not sure whether this is McLynn's usual schtick or if he just despises this era. But it obscures the judgement a bit: much of the time he criticizes Marcus Aurelius as a failure, but casually drops in that he still thinks he was the best and greatest Roman emperor of all.
Returning to McLynn's portrayal of Marcus Aurelius, I don't think it really hangs together. It's not just that the Meditations don't support his ideas in the way he thinks: it doesn't seem psychologically that plausible.
McLynn follows others as seeing Marcus Aurelius as a depressive who wrote the Meditations as a cry of existential despair while on military campaign and thus even more miserable than usual. But in my experience, depressives are at their worst in times of enforced idleness, when the mind is free to turn in on itself. McLynn documents how on campaign, Marcus Aurelius brilliantly executed feats of logistics and politics. He cunningly pursued a complex divide-and-conquer policy: setting tribe against tribe, or faction against faction within each tribe.
This seems to me the kind of situation when a depressive is at his emotional best, not worst. it's when confronted with a series of urgent, objectively important, challenging tasks within his capability; that a depressive finds it easiest to forget his problems. McLynn's portrait doesn't really seem psychologically realistic.
If anything, it might have been the opposite. Feeling himself carried away by his military success, far greater than that of his peaceful two predecessors, the stern warnings against vanity and of the futility of fame in the Meditations may have been a careful stoic exercise in restraining his joy and vanity at his success.
Overall though, a flawed but interesting book. While you need to take his portrayal of the mind of Marcus Aurelius with a great deal of salt, it's a very good account of his actual deeds and his context.
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