Why we fight

the crimean war by orlando figesI like to read fiction and non-fiction parallel to one another. Right now on the fiction front I’m tackling William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive. My current non-fiction book of choice, on the other hand, is The Crimean War: A History Orlando Figes. I like non-fiction because it tends to make me think. Contrary to what you may have learned in school all history is written from a particular point of view, and emphasizes a particular narrative. The best history is quite thought-provoking. In fact it makes you question things happening in the present.

With that in mind, a quote:

As the great historian of the Crimean War Alexander Kinglake wrote (and his words could be applied to any war): “The labour of putting into writing the grounds for a momentous course of action is a wholesome discipline for statesmen; and it would be well for mankind if, at a time when the question were really in suspense, the friends of a policy leading towards war were obliged to come out of the mist of oral intercourse and private notes, and to put their view into a firm piece of writing.”

If such a document had been recorded by those responsible for the Crimean War, it would have disclosed that their real aim was to reduce the size and power of Russia for the benefit of ‘Europe’ and the Western powers in particular, but this could not be said in the Queen’s message, which spoke instead in the vaguest terms of defending Turkey, without any selfish interests, ‘for the cause of right against injustice.’

Nothing plays better with the mob than a selfless war waged with righteous fury. Convenient, too, that it’s members of the mob who end up dying of dysentery in the trenches, rather than members of the political class.

Mona Lisa Overdrive and the secret protagonist

mona lisa overdrive coverI am just starting to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third book in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (the first two entries are Neuromancer and Count Zero). I didn’t write much about Count Zero. In fact the only time I mentioned it on this blog was right at the start to highlight a particularly compelling bit of prose. The reason I didn’t write much is that I just didn’t have much to say. The reason I didn’t have much to say is that unlike NeuromancerCount Zero struck me as an intermediate step in a larger work.

Neuromancer stands better on its own because its human characters, Case and Molly, are and remain the stars of the show throughout. In Count Zero it’s readily apparent that the AIs are the protagonists, even though we only see them through human characters’ eyes.

Consider that despite some isolated violence and explosions, the real climax of the story comes when Marly comes face-to-disembodied consciousness with the remnants of Neuromancer/Wintermute from the first novel. “I came to be here,” the AI opines,

Once I was not. Once, for a brilliant time, time without duration, I was everywhere as well…But the bright time broke. The mirror was flawed. Now I am only one…But I have my song, and you have heard it. I sing with these things that float around me, fragments of the family that funded my birth. There are others, but they will not speak to me. Vain, the scattered fragments of myself, like children. Like men. They send me new things, but I prefer the old things. Perhaps I do their bidding. They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods…

That’s it, folks. The whole show. Count Zero isn’t about hackers or mercenaries or ravenous corporate greed (though all these things are used to great effect throughout). Neuromancer wasn’t about those things, either. Really the Sprawl Trilogy is about the evolution of new life forms. Gibson simply chooses to tell it in fractured form – from a limited, flawed, thoroughly human perspective.

The structure reminds me a bit of this article by Geoff Keighly at Gamespot, regarding the narrative structure of the video game Metal Gear Solid 2:

By early 1999 Kojima had come up with most of the game’s plot. Players would start off onboard the tanker ship Discovery in the New York harbor. While everyone assumed that Snake would remain the main playable character in the game beyond the tanker, Kojima had an idea: Why not make Snake a part of the game but let the player see him from the perspective of someone completely new?

“When I was thinking about this game and the characters, I thought of the Sherlock Holmes series,” he says. “Those books are written in the first person, but the narrator isn’t Sherlock Holmes; it’s Watson.” Kojima says that this model inspired him to think of making the narrator in Metal Gear Solid 2 someone other than the main character. Before long, he had come up with a new character–a handsome and sensitive character who at first blush looks like the polar opposite of the gruff and antagonistic Solid Snake. “I really thought I would be able to better tell the story of Snake from the third person with this new character as our narrator for the majority of the game.” But Kojima is adamant that MGS2 is still a game about Snake. “Make no mistake about it,” he states. “Solid Snake is still the main character in Metal Gear Solid 2 even though he is not the main narrator this time around.

I will reserve further comment for after I finish Mona Lisa Overdrive. But I’m definitely reading the novel with all this in mind.

In Russia, novel read you

Day of the Oprichnik cover

Day of the Oprichnik

Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik is Ivan the Terrible meets A Clockwork Orange. It’s a day in the life of a secret policeman in a futuristic Russia. The Tsardom of Russia is back in full force. Andrei Danilovich Komiaga drives a red Mercedes adorned with a severed dog’s head (servants pick a new one each day). His ringtone features the sounds a man being tortured to death. His workday consists mostly of extortion and murder, with the occasional odd gang rape for good measure. And when he’s not burning, raping and pillaging Komiaga spends most of his free time on drugs.

This novel has its roots in Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina. From Wikipedia:

The oprichnina consisted of a separate territory within the borders of Russia, mostly in the territory of the former Novgorod Republic in the north. This region included many of the financial centers of the state, including the salt region of Staraia Russa and prominent merchant towns. Ivan held exclusive power over the oprichnina territory. The Boyar Council ruled the zemshchina (‘land’), the second division of the state. Until 1568, the oprichnina relied upon many administrative institutions under zemshchina jurisdiction. Only when conflict between the zemshchina and oprichnina reached its peak did Ivan create independent institutions within the oprichnina.

As for methods:

The first wave of persecutions targeted primarily the princely clans of Russia, notably the influential families of Suzdal’. Ivan executed, exiled, or tortured prominent members of the boyar clans on questionable accusations of conspiracy. 1566 saw the oprichnina extended to eight central districts. Of the 12,000 nobles there, 570 became oprichniks, the rest were expelled. They had to make their way to the zemschina in mid winter, peasants who helped them were executed.

Sorokin’s Russia has also turned inward. The king (His Majesty, Komiaga exclaims breathlessly)  is obsessed with orthodox religion. He’s outlawed cursing. Blasphemy is punishable by death (And thank God, Komiaga would add). In fact there are two forms of religion in Day of the Oprichnik: traditional Russian Orthodox religion and a religion of absolute loyalty to the state.

The novel clearly links Ivan the Terrible’s Russia to contemporary, Putin-led Russia. It’s a vicious satire of crony capitalism, religious fanaticism and obscene nationalism. Day of the Oprichnik is not a particularly pleasant read . It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Fortunately it’s quick and punchy. Sorokin hardly wastes a word.

Worth a look if you’ve got a strong stomach.

The most elegant description of a hedge fund ever written

The most elegant description of a hedge fund ever written appears in The Fear Index, by Robert Harris:

” You see that girl over there, the one in that group with the short dark hair that keeps looking at you? Let’s say I’m convinced she’s wearing black knickers – she looks like a black-knickers kind of a gal to me – and I’m so sure that’s what she’s wearing, so positive of that one sartorial fact, I want to bet a million dollars on it. The trouble is, if I’m wrong, I’m wiped out. So I also bet she’d wearing knickers that aren’t black, but are any one of a whole basket of colours – let’s say I put nine hundred and fifty thousand dollars on that possibility: that’s the rest of the market; that’s the hedge. This is a crude example, okay, in every sense, but hear me out. Now if I’m right, I make fifty K, but even if I’m wrong I’m only going to lose fifty K, because I’m hedged. And because ninety-five percent of my million dollars is not in use – I’m never going to be called on to show it: the only risk is the spread – I can make similar best with other people. Or I can bet on something else entirely. And the beauty of it is I don’t have to be right all the time – if I can just get the colour of her underwear right fifty-five percent of the time I’m going to wind up very rich. She really is looking at you, you know.”