Some Thoughts on Stirling’s “Against the Tide of Years”
S.M. Stirling, Against the Tide of Years (Roc Science Fiction: New York, 1999) links to buy it on the author’s website
S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy is a Late Bronze Age alternate history which does not involve Akhenaten or the Exodus (it does involve the Trojan War). That makes it a novel for me. It even quotes some Stan Rogers lyrics! So in 2021 I re-read my copy of the second volume in Canada. After being cast back to the Late Bronze Age, the Nantucketers have been divided into a majority based on their island and a renegade faction lead by William Walker (not the filibuster). Both factions are rushing to industrialize and expand like unto a game of Civilization.
S.M. Stirling wants do to the 19th century again and do it right. To him, that means doing it without racial oppression, sexism, homophobia, or the death of too many children to hunger and infectious diseases (but with the ubiquitous beatings, stabbings, and shootings). He is skilled at creating creative and vivid cultures in the gaps in the archaeological record, particularly his Old European Moon People in Britain. Maybe this novel will lead some people to finally read Marija Gimbutas?
One thing I had not noticed is how well-constructed this novel is. Stirling uses parallelism to show his heroes and his villains parenting, building a steel foundry, and so on. Not many adventure novels admit that in a span of nine years, most hot-blooded people in the prime of their life will have children and that these children will shape their choices from then on. Nor do they show different characters engaging in the same practical tasks as a means of portraying character. He uses vivid sensory descriptions to bring his settings to life. There are allusions to many adventure novels written in the century before 1914. So this is a literate, well-constructed novel.
However, I also noticed some of the deep contradictions between the words of the characters and the message of the story. This is a story with many lovingly-described battles with black powder weapons. The up-timers carefully tell themselves how horrid this is and how they wish they were not doing it, but the reason they are doing it is because the author set up a situation that requires it, and the reason it is lovingly described is that the author and editor believes readers will enjoy it.
To have power means not to have to give in, and to force the environment or the other person to do so. Power in this narrow sense is the priority of output over intake, the ability to talk instead of listen. In a sense, it is the ability to afford not to learn.Karl W. Deutsch The Nerves of Government. Models of Political Communication and Control (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963) p. 111 (according to an unverified online source anyways)
The up-timers tell themselves that it is dangerous to underestimate the up-timers, but I can’t think of an example of the good guys doing so. The down-time baddies (!) once underestimate the bushmen and suffer because of it. The good guys tend to be effortlessly superior to the down-timers at fighting, arguing (the priesthood of Babylonia has not yet experienced its first Sophistic), political intrigue, and whatever else the story demands. Some down-timers are better at learning languages and doing farm work than the up-timers, but this does not create interesting problems for the up-timers. It just helps the up-timers solve their problems faster so they can focus on Great Works.
The main uptime characters include a doctor, the Nantucketers’ head of state, the head of the Nantucket coast guard, the head of the Nantucket marine corps, and a vacationing professor of classics. Ordinary uptime people get supporting roles, like leading a “Lewis and Clark” expedition west of Nantucket or getting shot or bombed to show that the uptimers can die too. Three uptimers marry princes or princesses (if Swindapa counts). This is not exactly “The Man who Came Early,” Poul Anderson’s story of an American cast back to the Iceland of the Sagas who find that he can’t use any of his uptime skills in his new environment while he is not worth his food as a farmhand! Not is it Eric Flint’s 1632 stories, which carefully centre ordinary West Virginians not officials and professionals. Both the Nantuckers and the breakaways industrialize the Late Bronze Age quicker than Kenyans or Vietnamese industrialized their own society. And that classics professor even pronounces that cuneiform is doomed because “you can’t print cuneiform” (p. 302/ch. 20) If you can’t print a few hundred cuneiform signs, that must be news to the Chinese who were printing books with wood blocks cheaper than Europeans could print them with movable type in the 18th century! But this is a standard European colonialist trope that indigenous peoples and cultures are doomed by impersonal forces so settlers might as well grab what they can while they can. The scene where native priests driven by archaic superstition and fear that their privileges are being undermined lead a riot that threatens a vaccination program, so the rational uptimers have to shoot a few hundred natives for their own good and herd the rest into concentration camps, is also straight out of colonialist rhetoric. (And maybe Beam Piper’s Uller Uprising).
The up-timer breakaways land in Agamemnon’s Achaea, and after a few years Agamemnon suffers a series of accidents and needed to be placed under the protection of his new friends. Agamemnon of Mycenae is not exactly a wise and even-tempered king. But would he and his advisors really be so naive? Some of the up-timers throw around the term “oriental despotism” with their tongues not in their cheeks, but lets look at the succession in one family of kings between the Aegean and the Indus.
- Tiglath-Pilser III: took the throne after a revolt against king Aššur-nerari. Not a son of the previous king. Dies peacefully?
- Shalmaneser V: takes throne as father wishes. Loses the throne after five years to his brother and is never heard of again.
- Sargon II: siezes the throne from his brother. Crushes Assyrian resistance. Probably killed in battle and his body is lost.
- Sennacherib: takes throne as father wishes. Probably murdered by a son who had been rejected as successor.
- Esarhaddon: kills his father’s murderers and takes the throne. Kills all kinds of people in reprisal, reign full of sickness and suspicion. Dies peacefully?
- Assurbanipal: takes the throne as his father wishes. Fights a terrible war with his brother Šamaš-šum-ukin. End of reign is shadowy and his chosen heir may have become impatient.
Two or three of these six kings were overthrown by palace intrigue, and three had to fight to become king. Walker has one big advantage of knowing gambits which have not been invented yet, like a chess player in 2020 knows openings which were not yet taught in 1920. And Agamemnon is not a wise king. But are we really supposed to believe that someone who can survive as High King of the Achaeans in an environment like this would be so blind? In this story, a single Great Leader can pull a whole society kicking and screaming into the light. Everyone else either gets with the program or makes one act of futile resistance. I think this is the wrongest thing about this book’s depiction of ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Mesopotamia was less like Stalin’s USSR than like Central Africa or indigenous Turtle Island in the 18th and 19th century, with local leaders struggling to make different communities acknowledge their authority.
This is a thoughtful, literate adventure novel, but in doing the 19th century again it reproduces some attitudes of the British and settler upper class. It rejects ideas from the novels of H. Rider Haggard, Leo Tolstoy, Jaroslav Hašek, L. Sprague de Camp, and Poul Anderson which are much more skeptical that imperialists can shape their subjects like clay, that outsiders can outwit natives, and that great men cause great events. This book speaks against misogyny and homophobia, but for the colonialist ideas that great leaders from superior cultures can effortlessly dominate inferior cultures. For all its care with the archaeology and military science, this book does not test all its assumptions.
There are links to buy Against the Tide of Years on the author’s website.
Further Reading: Marc van die Mieroop, The Mesopotamian City (1997)
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(written in early 2021, scheduled 26 September 2021)
I love this genre of story but I really hate the whole “but obviously agriculture and settled lifestyles are the best most obvious thing” thing. Reading “Against the Grain” by James C. Scott really rammed home how badly I want to do something different.
And Eric Flint’s contributions to the genre are not so scholarly, and have American exceptionalism, but at least they centre ordinary people and talk about problems other than building cool toys and shooting people.
Early farmers were runty, undernourished and disease-ridden compared to hunter-gatherers, on the whole. Stature drops by a predictable set of inches when agriculture replaces foraging and hunting. Disease mortality at all ages (but particularly for children) shoots up too.
Violence doesn’t increase, because it’s high in all pre-State level societies, but it doesn’t get any less prevalent per-capita either. (cf. Otzi the Iceman.)
But farmers out-compete hunter-gatherers, and they do so consistently.
They shoved them out of their turf and assimilated and/or exterminated them. This is not an accident — you can tell that because it happens so often and so globally over so many thousands of years. It’s still going on, in sort of a last-corner mop-up.
Agriculture allows a superior set of power-concentration mechanisms; and that’s what matters in terms of outcomes, not how happy people are.
Brian Aldiss coined the term “Cosy Catastrophe” to describe the apocalyptic writings of John Wyndham and the like. A huge societal collapse occurs and at the unfortunate lose of a billions of people, the survivors get to be in charge of a new fresh start. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CozyVoiceForCatastrophes
Very much a exercise in escape from the complexities of modern life, rather than a serious (serious?) look into what would actually happen.
Not all books in the genre are as guilty as the “cosy catastrophes”, but the vast majority do emphasize a sort of heroic view of reality.
In general, when societies collapse (or weren’t all that safe in the first place) villages are formed on hard to get to, remote locations and people hide.
I think “cozy catastrophe” is a good term, because nothing too bad happens to the main characters (I suspect that Walker will suffer a fitting doom in volume 3, probably involving the inoffensive Nantucketer he kidnapped). Minor characters can get shot, vivisected, etc. but the main characters skate through all the danger. Its a weird contrast between gritty tone and scholarly worldbuilding and confidence that the main characters are at the centre of the story and nothing too bad will happen to them.
Walker lost an eye in book 1 but I think that is the most serious harm a major character suffers.
Sean: my grandfather was gassed at Passchendaele in 1917. He was a lieutenant. Douglas Haig was not in physical danger during the battle. Senior leaders generally survive battles; this was less true in ancient times and with much smaller armies, but still a good rule of thumb.
The armies and fleets in “Against the Tide of Years” are pretty small though. Colonels and brigadier generals and naval captains and junior admirals get shot and bombed all the time, especially with 19th century technology where no bearable armour will stop smallarms fire and if you can see what is happening and give orders, you are in smallarms range. Someone writing for Pen & Sword listed ?78? British general officers killed in action during the Great War.
I’m familiar with that “78 generals” figure, but it requires context. The British army went from a tiny colonial gendarmerie in 1914 to a force of millions in only a couple of years, and it took a long time for the military culture to catch up.
In particular, the regular army officers all got promoted very, very fast, often to command of formations larger than any that existed in the pre-war army.
They went from leading relatively small formations, often in isolated colonial contexts, to -managing- large armies.
This involved giving up on the role of tactical decision-making and most of the inspirational functions, delegating this far down the chain of command, and occupying themselves with planning, logistics and operational decisions.
With the communications technology of the day that meant being a “chateaux general’, staying back where the most information could be collected, analyzed and orders sent back up; the process was slow, cumbersome and error-prone, and very frustrating to officers accustomed to surveying a battlefield and giving immediate orders. It also resulted in an overly rigid command style that had difficulty adapting to a fluid situation in time, but that was more or less inevitable. The Germans did better, but they were used to handling large formations.
In other words, a lot of those 78 generals were caught by enemy fire in places where they had no business being and where they couldn’t do their actual jobs, joggling their subordinates’ elbows.
At Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon were relatively close together and could see each other occasionally, but when an artillery officer suggested to Wellington that he fire on Napoleon’s command position, Wellington was indignant in his refusal. “Generals have better things to do than shoot at each other.”
And Wellington was not a sentimental man at all.
18th and 19th century aristocrats did not go in for execution – although plenty of senior leaders met their deaths in the field. In ancient and early medieval times, defeated leaders could expect to be executed: thrown off a rock (Rome), mercilessly hunted down (by the Huns, Turks or Mongols) or just given the chop on the battlefield. Priam is cut down, Hector’s son thrown from the walls, Alexander’s successors whittle themselves down from 20-odd to 3 over 20 years. Clovis disposes of all his rivals (and most of his relatives). In the Wars of the Roses the cry was ‘spare the commons, kill the lords’. When politics is more personal than institutional, the top is the most dangerous place.
I hear that in volume 3, the uptimers at Troy are spared when the city falls so they can be used as bargaining chips, which is a thing which can happen, but bullets and rockets don’t know who they are aimed at. Napoleon was in little physical danger at Waterloo, but a lot of colonels and generals and staff officers on both sides got shot.
The number of uptimer main characters who are in the middle of these battles is few, so you could argue they just got lucky, but when the author’s choices all point in the same direction, I think its fair to talk about what those tropes say about the way of the world. If Commodore Alston and Walker got their butts kicked the first time they got into a fight with someone who had fought with edged weapons before, or the uptimers got out-negotiated by some experienced downtimers, but uptimer medicine is a marvel and nobody can stand against uptimer armies, that would be a different story.
The thing about “The Man Who Came Early” is that the man who came early was -alone-.
And his knowledge and skill-set are mostly inapplicable -in that context-.
Martin Padway’s knowledge in LEST DARKNESS FALL is much more applicable; he’s an archaeologist, for starters, and he’s intimately familiar with the political history of the period and with all sorts of intermediate technologies. Even so he requires a lot of luck.
The thing about the Nantucket displacement (or Eric’s 1632 one) is that -thousands- of people in a -community- are sent back in time. The meetings and confrontations that follow are not between one exiled individual, they’re between civilizations.
They still need luck, but not nearly as much.
Because not all civilizations are created equal at basics like creating and manipulating power; that’s obvious from any study of history.
Eg., Cortez landed on the Mexican mainland in 1519 with about 500 men and a dozen horses.
Three years later, he had destroyed Tenochtitlán, a city bigger and more visually impressive than any in Spain, and was master of an imperial realm bigger, more populous and richer than Spain.
Nor was this a one-off. Pizarro did the same to the Incas (after advice from Cortes), and the same thing happened over and over again, with variations, over the next 400 years or so. As the saying goes, once can be happenstance, twice can be coincidence, but the third time it’s enemy action and there’s a pattern unfolding.
It wasn’t due to Cortes’ brilliance either — he -was- brilliant, but doubtless many of his opponents were too.
His advantage was that he was doing the equivalent of traveling back in time.
Mesoamerica was in the early Bronze Age, say around 2500 BCE or a bit earlier compared to the Old World.
In the thousands of years subsequent to 2500 BCE, the Old World’s technology improved; but so did their “software”, their command of the cultural technologies of war and administration and politics. When Spain and the Ottoman Empire slugged it out in the Mediterranean in that period they were roughly equal opponents, both in their weapons technology and their software.
This was not the case when Spaniards fought the New World empires.
If you study it in detail, it’s obvious that despite having to operate through interpreters, by the time he got to what would become Mexico City (through his efforts), he actually understood how the Mexica hegemony worked better than they did.
He didn’t mow them down with Maxim guns; he mobilized a more powerful coalition against them because he out-politicked them with the people already living there.
I can’t speak to Cortez’ invasion of Mexico because I have not studied it. But my understanding is that there is one school of thought among specialists that some of the neighbours of the Mexica conned the people from the sea into getting rid of the Aztecs for them, and then lost the power struggle afterwards. Apparently there are a lot of legal records from 16th and 17th century Peru where people list the very important things they or their families had done for Pizarro. The memoirs and letters to court portray events very differently than these sources, but its not hard to see why Spaniards writing for other Spaniards remember Spaniards doing all the cool things. Its no different than Russians and Americans placing different emphasis when they write about the wars of 1938-1948.
Up in Canada, recent work often argues that indigenous people nudged and coaxed the Hudson’s Bay Co and the North-West Company into ‘exploring’ a new area to out-flank the current middlemen and give the relatives of the nudgers and coaxers direct access to European goods. Again, this comes out when you use sources other than ones written for investors in London or Montreal.
If they “conned” the people from the sea into getting rid of the Aztecs “for them”, why/how did the people from the sea end up with unchallengeable political authority and the lion’s share of the loot only a few years later?
That looks powerfully like they may have -thought- they were conning, but were in fact being conned themselves. They did a lot of the heavy lifting, Cortez and Co. walked away with the prize.
Note that Mexico is now about 2/3 Iberian genetically and far more so culturally.
If you read the narratives of the first years of both Cortez and Pizarro and associates, they thought they were doing something like many conquerors had done before – displace a native elite and take over. They set about learning Nahuatl or Qechua, sought native legitimacy by marrying Aztec and Inca princesses and so on. Then the demographic collapse came as the diseases hit, and 60-90% of the population died over a few decades. They had to re-think. Absent that, they would have been like the Brits in India, or the Mongols in China, or the many Muslim Indian dynasties, or Alexander’s Greeks in Iran – a small group, absorbing native ways even as they introduced a lot of new stuff – religions, technologies, manners.
I hope to get a chance to research the Aztecs and the conquest in the next few years. Nicholas Ostler has some fun chapters about why the Spanish often spread native languages, not Spanish, in the New World and how that changed after independence.
I liked the way Stirling emphasized translators and intermarriage, but I would like to have seen more situations where their knowledge of local cultures and languages gets the uptimers out of trouble which their very educated modern brains got them in to. If the 2010s taught me anything, its that education and smarts don’t stop someone from being a fool. William Dalrymple has described just how much work, starting how young, integrating into Indian culture and high society it took to become a John Company agent around 1800.
I have written elsewhere about how characters like Cortez lie and creatively remember so you have to be very careful about their version of events. “This memoir is very self-serving” is a cliche like “this cartel is especially brutal.”
I’m sure you know about it, but thought I’d plug “The History of the Americans” podcast (https://thehistoryoftheamericans.com/). Very enjoyable, and while it tries ever so hard to keep it’s focus on North America, it’s impossible not to take side trips into what’s happening in central and south. “A Land So Strange” by Andres Resendez and “The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580” by Samuel Bawlf are two books (and rabbit holes) that the podcast turned me onto. Very enjoyable books and very informative (they are non-fiction).
Sounds like a fun podcast! There are also translations of some of the early travel accounts on Project Gutenberg (and in physical libraries). I think the Hakluyt Society printed a group of them before WW I. I’d like to read
the new book on Alexander Gardner.
Thanks for the plug! Fans of counterfactuals might like the Columbus Day episode a few months back…
On the other hand, there is the story of the University of Toronto professors who had graduate degrees in chemistry, things like the Foxfire books and CSA pamphlets on how any farmer could support the war effort, and plenty of time and money and gave up after a decade or so having failed to make saltpeter from manure. The peasants who did that did not have any of those advantages, but they had someone to show them how. Theory is only so much value, experiential knowledge and knowledge of a specific environment are important too. And Walker’s political experience is what- US Coast Guard politics in the ’90s? Agamemnon would have been dead long ago if he could not come out on top in political struggles. And “don’t let the charismatic new man raise a private army” was probably best practice in the 6th century BCE, even if the difference between theory and practice is that in theory they are the same. Agamemmnon just shrugs, and he is not the sharpest spear on the wall, but he should have people to do his thinking for him (and Walker can’t bribe them all).
Edit: there is also “the Inuit versus the Victorian British in a contest of Arctic survival.” The British could do many amazing things, but the cultural traits which let them do those things put them in very serious trouble at the high latitudes.
Actually, all Agamemnon really needed was to be born into the right family to succeed to the throne; keeping it was mostly a matter of not being a complete idiot in terms of playing factions. It wasn’t a meritocratic institution, or very competitive.
If there’s a sense of dynastic legitimacy, which there almost certainly was, you can get away with that most of the time. Plenty of kings have stayed securely on their thrones despite being palpable dimwits who everyone around them -knew- were palpable dimwits.
Remember also that you’re talking about a society that comes to a very sharp point and isn’t very big to begin with in terms of overall population; no more than a couple of hundred thousand for the whole of Mycenaean Greece.
The total number of individuals concerned with court politics is small.
Finally, rational thought and analysis is not an instinctive human attribute; it’s learned behavior.
When Cortez landed in Mexico, Montezuma spent a fair amount of time worrying that he was the Feathered Serpent returned. This is one of those instances where it’s very risky to project and assume “they can’t really have believed that”. Yup, they did.
Eg., Agamemnon probably thinks that the fact he’s descended from the Gods is a big deal. Everyone around him probably thinks that too. Walker doesn’t — though he’s fully aware that the people there -do- think that way.
Agamemnon thinks that Walker is raising a new army -for him-, as his agent, who cannot possibly aspire to the supreme office because he doesn’t have the right bloodline.
Walker is perfectly prepared to play along with this — when Agamemnon suddenly wakes up to the fact that he’s a puppet, he panics and flees, which is how he ends up dead rather before Walker intended.
We don’t have great sources from Mycenaean politics, although politics in the Iliad and Odyssey are decentralized and the Linear B texts and the Hittite letters seem to imply several loosely affiliated centres. So I can’t speak to them in detail (ask a specialist in the Bronze Age Aegean). A novelist certainly has freedom to fill in the gaps in a way that makes for a good story.
But in the review, I showed that if an ancient Near Eastern king was not good at politics, he got murdered, conquered, or put away and someone else took the throne. Mesopotamians were flexible about who that person could be: we often know very little about men who founded a dynasty in Mesopotamia (Nabopolassar calls himself “the son of a nobody” although he may have been governor of Uruk under Assurbanipal). Back in 1992, Brad Delong showed that from Harald Godwinson to Billy of Orange, about half of successions to the English throne were not “the son and heir of the old king takes the throne in peace” (DOI 10.3386/w4274). And most takes on Agamemnon have him an old king. About the only monarchies with nice tidy bloodless genealogies which I know are ceremonial ones (like in Japan) and monarchies whose history is just a genealogy spread by their successors (like the Spartans). We should take those genealogies with a grain of salt!
And of course, the Nantucketers draw on a pool of about 10,000 people, a few dozen of whom have senior military or administrative experience. Those 10,000 is not so different from the number of high-status Achaeans.
So cultural technology progresses just as physical technology does. You -could- use techniques developed to print Chinese to print cuneiform; but it would be pointless.
Alphabetic scripts are simply -better- that ideographic ones.
In a whole galaxy of ways; the most important of which is that they’re enormously easier to learn to use.
The Chinese script is a Bronze Age survival; it’s a lineal descendant of the one written on the Shang Dynasty oracle bones from the period that the ISLAND books are set in. It works, but it doesn’t work as well as an alphabet. We were fortunate that the alphabetic scripts invented in the Levant in the late Bronze Age superseded the previous ones; but that wasn’t an accident. In the ISLAND timeline, it just happens faster.
In one of the ISLAND books the Nantucketer who ends up in Egypt that you can actually write Ancient Egyptian using 24 phonetic symbols in the hieroglyphic writing system.
They didn’t do that; possibly because it didn’t occur to anyone, more probably because it would have been a terrible threat to the interests of the scribal class; sort of a trade-union thing.
The claim in the book, though, was “you can’t print cuneiform” (its a claim by a character, but one whose judgement readers are supposed to respect- and we are supposed to believe that the leaders of the uptimers don’t underestimate the locals). And a glance at China shows why that is wrong (I don’t know if someone had been rude enough in the 1990s to gather all those European travellers from the 17th and 18th century marvelling about how cheap books are in China). Cuneiform does have one advantage over the abjads for Akkadian, because Akkadian has a lot of open syllables and the vowel carries meaning (iprus “he/she made”, aprus “I made”). Writing ˀprs does not let you tell those apart. Eventually the abjads won out: nobody created a new cuneiform script after 500 BCE. But cuneiform can be used in simple ways and complicated ways, and often it was used in ways which are more complicated than necessary. The estoeric meanings and the puns between different readings of a group of signs seem to have been important to many tablet scribes, just like many people today carefully learn Classical Chinese or Arabic or Classical Greek to read sacred texts in the original when it would be much easier to just grab a translation. So which writing system is better depends on what you value, and if Chinese characters can survive a few thousand years, there is no reason why cuneiform could not last a few hundred after the event.
There is also a trend for signs to merge in scripts descended from Aramaic. Often, even specialists can only tell you which two or three letters a sign might mean. Those scripts are not my speciality, but the way those scripts developed did not seem to be governed by communicating as clearly and quickly as possible.
The context of the remark was: “you can’t print cuneiform” with “in the way you an an alphabetic script, using moveable type of the sort we’re accustomed to” assumed. Sorry if that was unclear.
Note also that in this context, cuneiform is competing with a -mature- alphabetic script, accompanied by a printing technology that they -can- use and which gives immense, immediate benefits, but which is conceptually far beyond anything they’ve got. There are several systems for adopting the Latin alphabet to writing Semitic languages available to the Nantucketers.
And it’s part of a package which the Babylonian leaders mostly acknowledge that they need and need desperately. Cannon and rifles have a massive “demonstration effect”.
This package, and the Nantucket alliance, saves the dynasty from Assyrian conquest almost immediately; and they know from their own sources that Walker is producing the same sort of gear in Greece, which they will have to deal with eventually whether they like it or not.
And in the interim, it’s solving all sorts of problems for them, from silting up of canals (a major source of regime legitimacy) to exerting greater power for the central government by giving them a monopoly of firearms, to increasing their revenues and so forth.
No doubt conservative types will object to all this; but in the context, it’s reasonable that they will simply be shoved aside by the authorities (Kashtiliash and everyone connected with/dependent on the central monarchy) because they feel they don’t really have much choice except to ride the whirlwind and make what they can of it.
Antiquarians may ‘value’ the authenticity of original texts; the monarch wants guns and more money and security against possible rivals and more territory and so forth. In the longer term, he wants Babylonia to be a major player in the “new world order” and sees the “New Wisdom” as a means to snaffling off a large empire.
This gives him and his supporters powerful incentives.
I don’t know of any practical obstacles to printing cuneiform with a Gutenberg-style press, if someone is willing to pay for the type (and many early European typefaces included a lot of ligatures and abbreviations- just as many characters as a few hundred cuneiform signs). Formal cuneiform is literally written in justified lines! But as Herodotus and Sprague de Camp taught me, man is the rationalizing animal. And when people have enough power, they don’t have any incentive to resist this natural tendency because they have people to thrust a pillow in the way every time they walk chin-first into a brick wall where their rationalizations say there is open air.
A version of this book where many of the characters get visibly more detached from reality and prejudiced, in the way most British colonists and officials stopped bothering to do the work of learning the languages and the cultures as the 19th century went on, could have been fun.
Ummm… 19th century British colonial officials were -more- likely to know local languages than their predecessors; formal examinations in them became steadily more common as the Victorian period wore on, for example in qualifying for the Indian Civil Service. The late Victorian period was also the apogee of the colonial civil servant as anthropologist; the Indian archives are stuffed with recondite studies by district officers on things like local land-tenure structures, family and inheritance patterns and so forth.
They did become more socially distant from locals in their leisure hours; this was a reaction against the culture of vicious corruption that had been prevalent in earlier periods, as when Clive and his friends plundered Bengal down to the sandal-buckles and he returned to England “astonished at his own moderation”.
The accounts of the British in India which I have read (Wm. Dalrymple was the most recent and may have coloured my impressions) generally see a rapid decline in British understanding of and respect for, South Asians over the first half of the 19th century. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous plan for education in India from 1835 and the mistakes which triggered the rising of 1857 are often mentioned. They could be wrong but since I’m not a specialist I rely on them! My overall experience that power makes people stupid and unobservant is so overwhelming that if its not your experience, I don’t think its worth discussing in a comment thread.
Where I grew up, two indices of the decline of understanding as settler power grew are the decline of Chinook Jargon and the decision not to bother negotiating treaties with the local nations after 1854.
Another example: the Linear B syllabic/ideographic script (87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic ones) that the Mycenaeans are using when Walker shows up is a particularly vivid example of using lousy software.
Not only is it inherently ambiguous — meanings are heavily dependent on context, with multiple alternative meanings for the same symbol — it’s inherently unsuited to writing a highly inflected language like early Greek. Probably because it was originally designed for a non-Indo-European language.
Eg., the closest you can get to writing the word for “man/human being”, which in Mycenaean was or was close to “anthropos”, as in later versions of Greek, is something that comes out more or less as “a-to-ro-po-se”.
But meaning in Mycenaean Greek, as in all early Indo-European languages, is heavily dependent on inflectional endings, which makes it difficult to show cases when writing in Linear B. So you have to -infer- whether it’s in the nominative or genitive cases from the context. Incidentally his is probably why the script (and literacy) didn’t survive the late Bronze Age collapse in Greece, though it may have done so in Cyprus for a while; it was used for limited purposes by a very small group of specialists, who didn’t survive the fall of the palace-centered states of the period(*).
When Walker takes over Mycenae, he basically does it at the start by offering the local elites what they badly want: superior power-concentration mechanisms.
Better weapons, methods that let them accumulate wealth faster, ways to triumph over their local (or internal) enemies. And, of course, not being idiots the locally powerful can see that if -they- don’t take advantage of this, their rivals may do so, and break their bones. They grab eagerly at what he has to offer. That makes him the indispensable man, and gives him baraka, mana. He builds from there.
He also suckers them, because he’s not only smart but familiar with a lot more history and all the moves and methods involved. He knows what others did, how it turned out, what the risks are, what often worked and what often didn’t.
Experience is a wonderful thing, and he’d got millennia of it that they don’t have access to. Of course, this also makes him overconfident, when dealing with the likes of the man whose name survived as Odysseus, as comes out in the third book.
Note that Walker doesn’t try to eliminate the Greek religion; he just introduces things (like written scriptures and elaborate temples with full-time specialists) that were going to happen anyway, because they did things better or filled in vacant niches. And these things let him -use- it for political purposes; it’s already being used, but he knows how to do that better.
He’s also outside their value system, which lets him consider things that they wouldn’t, or wouldn’t often — because he doesn’t believe in divine favor or sacred blood, for example.
This dynamic brings to mind many of the anecdotes in “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America” by David J. Silverman.