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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, December 30, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Sleepy Hollow

At the turn of the 18th-19th century police constable Ichobod Crane (played by Johnny Depp as only Depp can do) is making a nuisance of himself in New York. To get him from underfoot he is sent to the small hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of gruesome murders where a number of citizens have had their heads cut off and stolen by a mysterious horseman. As soon as he arrives he is plunged into the middle of a strange and complex conspiracy apparently involving all of the town’s notable citizens. When Crane is informed of the origins of the fabled horseman deemed responsible for the crimes he scoffs at the fears of supposedly educated men. Crane holds reason and logic paramount and will have no truck with the supernatural. Until that is he sees the horseman for himself, sees that he is impervious to bullets and sees, above all else, that he rides without a head. What he must decide is what the horseman’s mission is and who exactly called him back from Hell. Who, amongst the cast of possible suspects has the will, the power and the motive to kill so many and in such a gruesome way.

This was, I think, probably the best of the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaborations. Depp was as he often is – ever so slightly off centre and possibly mad – and Burton created a slightly off centre world for him to act mad in. The overall look of the film is superb with its brooding darkness and menace reflected in the use of a very subdued colour palette. The only bright colours seen in most of the movie are splashes of vivid red blood either from the horseman’s axe or sword or from Crane’s surgical instruments. The leading townsfolk are suitably shabby and played largely by the crème of British character actors. The love interest is suitably lovely (played by Christina Ricci) and the evil protagonist (without giving too much away) is suitably evil. The horseman himself – both with and without his head – is quite superb too (‘with head’ played by the ever interesting Christopher Walken). The fight scenes are very well choreographed and the death scenes both cartoonish (and unreal) and yet bloody at the same time. In fact the whole feel of the movie – apart from the last 5-10 minutes – has a deep feeling of unreality about it apparently reflecting the tone of the original work by Washington Irving (I’ll confirm that once I’ve read it).

It is, I think, highly entertaining even after multiple viewings. Whilst not exactly being child friendly (my DVD has a 15 certificate) it’s not too gory or too scary for most people to enjoy the thrills. As I say the violence has a cartoon quality about it enhanced by the overuse of bright blood and there’s nothing else to raise much of an eyebrow. I did find the acceptance of magic or witchcraft and the intolerance of the churches reaction – or one churchman’s reaction at least – very interesting and wonder if that was from Irving or from Burton but that’s another thing I can find out from the original text. Recommended as one of the best of Depp’s somewhat haphazard output.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

That's no Christmas decoration.......... 

Thinking About: A Resolution of Significance

Many people think that I read a lot. I suppose that in comparative terms I do, especially as (apparently) the average Brit reads three books a year. I think this is a horrifying statistic. If I was restricted to reading only three books in 2014 I’d have no idea how to choose them – how on earth would I decide which books to read and which to reject. I suppose that it would concentrate the mind somewhat. The three I picked would all have to be something truly special, there would have to be something truly exceptional, something significant about each one. Most of what I read is, to be brutally honest, fluff. OK, it’s often entertaining fluff but it’s still essentially fluff – ephemeral and ultimately forgettable. But it is pretty much why I read what I read: entertainment. After all, if I’m not being entertained what’s the point? But is mere entertainment enough? No, I don’t think that it is.

Now, I don’t make resolutions. Mostly I feel that they’re a complete waste of time. Most resolutions, like giving up smoking, cutting down on fat, going to the gym and such like normally last a few months before old and bad habits reassert themselves. Resolutions, like so much else these days, are throw away and in effect just another fad to be played with and then dumped when no longer convenient. So, I don’t do resolutions. However, I have been thinking about my reading habits again. Having the alternative batches of 10 themed books has added some structure to my reading which is good. Added to this is my long standing interest in History and this has been focused on British and European history so my time and energy isn’t diluted trying to have a working knowledge of the whole planet. That is also good but more is needed.

I do read a fair bit but I do not consider myself to be well read. There are many books, often regarded as classics, that all I know about them is the title and author. Others I have a fair idea about the contents but have never read. Others, far too many others, I have simply never heard of. Indeed there are authors, apparently held in high esteem that I have never heard of. Although it’s not exactly unforgivable to be in this position it is at least somewhat embarrassing to someone who spends most of his life surrounded by books. So the plan, rather than the resolution, is this: as well as continuing to read a significant number of books I will endeavour to increase the number of significant books that I read. Of course the nub of this whole thing is what exactly constitutes a ‘significant’ book. Partially they’ll be what are widely regarded as classics. I’ve already increased my reading of such books and this will be increasing further. As to the rest, well that will be a work in progress as they say. I’m seeking advice from various places at the moment and will continue to seek advice along the way. Suffice it to say that in future the fluff content should be decreasing and the significant content should be increasing to compensate.

None of this will happen overnight of course. For one thing there’s an eight book backlog between a book being finished and it being reviewed here – that’s about five weeks’ worth. Added to that I’m going to start with what I have to hand rather than using it as another excuse to buy myself a whole new set of books. It’ll take a while to turn this oil tanker but turn it will. This is a project for years rather than for months – one more reason why it’s not a resolution – but if the determination is there I should be much better read in ten years’ time. I imagine that it will be quite an interesting journey. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Another Bloody Century – Future Warfare by Colin S Gray (FP: 2005)

There appears to be a growing current of thought that the global levels of violence, especially violence organised into warfare, has been steadily decreasing. Others are convinced that wars between nation states are a thing of the past and that all future warfare will be asymmetric – between states and non-state actors such as terrorist groups or internal would-be revolutionaries. Not so, says the author of this detailed argument to the contrary. The 21st Century will, he maintains, be no different from the 20th, the 19th or all previous centuries that have seen war piled on top of war. Organised conflict, he argues, is part of what makes us human. We argue and we fight. It’s basically what we do. I certainly can’t fault his argument there. I doubt very much if war is going to fade away anytime soon and find it difficult to credit the idea with any kind of rationality.

Of course, as the author points out before demolishing the idea, there has been no war in Western Europe since 1945 and no realistic prospect of any serious conflict between EU members in the long term future but, just as the US is not the world neither is the EU. For the present at least Europe is a post-conflict culture until that is they are threatened in such a way that only a military response will do. With history as we know it to be that is far from an unrealistic possibility. That, of course, is the authors point. War is cultural in many ways: the way we fight, the way we win and the way we treat both the victors and the vanquished. Culture changes and the cultural aspects of war are no different from other aspects in this sense but the underlying essence of war, the author maintains, never changes, never has and never will. War is, to not put too fine a point on it, war – end of story. The melody might change, never instruments might be added but the sound and the fury remain the same. Resurrect Alexander the Great and put him in charge of a modern army and he would quickly adapt from swords and chariots to guns and tanks. The fundamentals are the same. Even with the addition of air-power, nuclear weapons and cyber warfare things are substantially unchanged. The object of war is the imposition of will upon the enemy by the application of force – killing people and breaking stuff.

At least that’s how the argument goes and despite the fact that the author does labour his point somewhat it’s a good argument. With the rise of China and India and the relative decline of the US it’s pretty much a given that someone somewhere will attack their neighbour thinking that advantage can be taken. There are obvious flashpoints – the South China Sea most recently and still on the radar today, North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, Israel/US and Iran and so on plus the historical inevitability of something nasty coming out of the blue as it has a well-known tendency of doing. That’s the thing though (and yet another area where I strongly agree with the author), our best guide to future conflicts are past conflicts. These show us where the likely blow-ups will be and how those conflicts will be fought. History can’t tell us everything though because things just aren’t that deterministic. But knowing the world’s history is the best guide we have. The future is predictable up to a point but it can never really be known with certainty. That’s the rub with any kind of crystal gazing. There is much we know about the future but there are also significant aspects we can never know.

Despite the author repeating himself rather more than I thought necessary I did think this speculative journey was very good indeed. I did take his point that new technology doesn’t really provide true game changers but I was rather surprised by the practically total omission of the mention of robotics or AI in future warfare. I couldn’t help wonder if that was an oversight or done deliberately to underline the point that nothing foreseeable is likely to change the underlying nature of war. One other thing which irritated me a bit but at the same time got me thinking. The author is obviously a great fan of Carl Von Clausewitz who authored the seminal military work On War. This, the present author believes, is pretty much the last and unassailable word on the subject of war. It seems that this is a book I must read……. Another Bloody Century is a definite must read for anyone interested in the planets future and especially the future of global conflict. It also has a truly excellent bibliography!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Vampyrrhic Rites by Simon Clark (FP: 2003)

Desperate to leave the small Yorkshire town of Leppington 18 year old Dylan Adams is stopped in his tracks after boyhood friend Luke Spencer goes missing. Days later he begins to get strange phone calls, apparently from his friend, asking him to meet in out of the way places late at night. Meanwhile a small group of friends start getting the uncanny feeling that an evil they had fought and apparently defeated three years previously is back and wanting blood – lots of blood. As the sense of dread slowly increases a series of increasingly bizarre and violent incidents appear centred on the lake known as Lazarus Deep, a place full of local legend and one generally shunned by the local population. Until that is a group of local extreme divers try to see just how deep the lake really is and discover exactly what happened to the ruins reputed to exist at the bottom of its jet-black depths. When their lead diver is attacked and seemingly drained of a great deal of blood before making it back to the surface the three friends David, Bernice and Electra finally know what they’re dealing with – Vampires. But this time the vampires have a new leader and he has no intention of going quietly into that dark night. He has much bigger plans and lots of friends to help him….

This was definitely an interesting change from the previous vampire novels I’ve been reading lately. The idea of vampires living at the bottom of a lake (I’m not giving that much away to be fair) is an interesting one, especially as they don’t need to breathe. Actually the vampires in this book are suitably otherworldly and honestly creepy. OK, the reason they’re vampires didn’t make a whole lot of sense but I let that go – mostly. The author did produce an interesting, and mostly reasonably logical, variation on the vampire myth which, with so much history to date is quite something in itself. His characterisation was strong and the whole thing had a decided dreamlike quality about it that I found somewhat difficult to get into but, once inside, found it equally difficult to shake. I did find it a bit slow overall and in consequence it did take me about twice as long to finish it as expected although it is a fairly chunky 504 pages so is not exactly an afternoons read – at least not for me! I think this is the second book in a series which might explain why I had some difficulty getting into it. To be honest, despite enjoying this (though ‘enjoying’ might be the wrong word) I’m not going to spend any great effort finding the other books. I’m not exactly selling this very well am I? I did find it an interesting read and I was intrigued at just exactly where the story was going. I generally liked the characters and found a few of them quite disturbing (and these where the ones still alive!) which impressed me. I did think that the ending was a bit silly, well, actually very silly which did deflate the whole book a bit. Oh, and it annoyed me (as it does on some TV shows) that the survivors, after all they had seen and done, just got on with their lives as if nothing untoward had happened. That never rings true to me. But anyway, an interesting and often creepy read. Recommended for Vampire fans and for those who want a fairly challenging read.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cheer up! It's the Winter Solstice. LONGER days ahead!


Jan. 11, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission have discovered the three smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our sun. The planets orbit a single star, called KOI-961, and are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars.

All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth, but orbit close to their star. That makes them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist. Of the more than 700 planets confirmed to orbit other stars -- called exoplanets -- only a handful are known to be rocky. "Astronomers are just beginning to confirm thousands of planet candidates uncovered by Kepler so far," said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Finding one as small as Mars is amazing, and hints that there may be a bounty of rocky planets all around us."

Kepler searches for planets by continuously monitoring more than 150,000 stars, looking for telltale dips in their brightness caused by crossing, or transiting, planets. At least three transits are required to verify a signal as a planet. Follow-up observations from ground-based telescopes also are needed to confirm the discoveries. The latest discovery comes from a team led by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The team used data publicly released by the Kepler mission, along with follow-up observations from the Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, and the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Their measurements dramatically revised the sizes of the planets from what originally was estimated.

The three planets are very close to their star, taking less than two days to orbit around it. The KOI-961 star is a red dwarf with a diameter one-sixth that of our sun, making it just 70 percent bigger than Jupiter. "This is the tiniest solar system found so far," said John Johnson, the principal investigator of the research from NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It's actually more similar to Jupiter and its moons in scale than any other planetary system. The discovery is further proof of the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy."

Red dwarfs are the most common kind of star in our Milky Way galaxy. The discovery of three rocky planets around one red dwarf suggests that the galaxy could be teeming with similar rocky planets. "These types of systems could be ubiquitous in the universe," said Phil Muirhead, lead author of the new study from Caltech. "This is a really exciting time for planet hunters." The discovery follows a string of recent milestones for the Kepler mission. In December 2011, scientists announced the mission's first confirmed planet in the habitable zone of a sun-like star: a planet 2.4 times the size of Earth called Kepler-22b. Later in the month, the team announced the discovery of the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f.

For the latest discovery, the team obtained the sizes of the three planets called KOI-961.01, KOI-961.02 and KOI-961.03 with the help of a well-studied twin star to KOI-961, or Barnard's Star. By better understanding the KOI-961 star, they then could determine how big the planets must be to have caused the observed dips in starlight. In addition to the Kepler observations and ground-based telescope measurements, the team used modeling techniques to confirm the planet discoveries. Prior to these confirmed planets, only six other planets had been confirmed using the Kepler public data.

[Finding small rocky planets – even ones as seemingly inhospitable as these three – is key to finding life out there. After all the only place we know life exists for certain is a small rocky planet called Earth. If we do eventually find life that resembles anything we already have experience with it will be on worlds such as this. Hopefully, in the foreseeable future, we’ll eventually get to the point where we can scan the atmospheres of these planets looking for the tell-tale signatures of life. Maybe, if they’re close enough, and some of them are surprisingly close, we’ll be able to send high speed probes to check them out in detail. All decades away of course even if we have the will to do so.]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shit! A bear in the woods......!
Just Finished Reading: The Conquistadors – A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Restall and Flipe Fernandez-Armesto (FP: 2012)

From the late 15th century and for over a hundred years afterwards a group of largely Spanish adventurers invaded, mapped and removed untold wealth from Central South America. These where the fabled Conquistadors spoken of in admiring terms at the time and with either pride or horrified disgust ever since. The myths surrounding them, and many myths there are, where largely created by the men themselves, not only in an attempt at self-aggrandisement (though there was certainly enough of that to go around) but in an attempt to impress their royal sponsors back home who had it within their power to grant titles, land grants and payment for services rendered. Big stories and dramatic adventures sold books, made reputations and by extension made people rich and powerful.

The reality was of course somewhat more grubby and down to earth. Most of the Conquistadors where uneducated, unsophisticated and uninterested in anything as prosaic as glory. They wanted, more than anything else, to amass a suitably large fortune and then retire to a farm back in Europe. Few managed this and most died on the voyage out, due to disease on arrival or in the constant warfare they engaged in in South America against local tribes and each other. A few, a very few, achieved fame and a smaller number achieved both fame and fortune but these where very much the exception – so much so that the generally known individuals could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Amongst the lessor known, rather surprisingly, where a few Conquistadora’s – female Conquistadors who managed to hide their gender (not easy in that environment I should think) until uncovered and sent back to Spain as almost other-worldly celebrities. The very existence of such creatures surprised me a great deal. I wonder how many other women throughout history had done this sort of thing. How many women fought in early wars or explored the furthest reaches of the world disguised as men? I’m sure that there’s a PhD or at least a book buried somewhere in that question.    

The authors certainly weave a good tale as they unravel the truth hidden in the myths and self-publication of the age of conquest. The tale they put forward is frankly fascinating and it’s no surprise that this event or series of events continues to attract the imagination of authors and film makers and continues to hold the interest of the reading and watching public. Definitely recommended.

Monday, December 16, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Shrek 2

It’s not often that I prefer a sequel to the original film. About the only example that immediately jumps to mind is Aliens which was, actually, a very different film than its predecessor. Not so with Shrek 2 which has many things in common with its original. Inevitably this means that much of the originality that made Shrek so much fun was no longer there to make the movie interesting. Fortunately the writers and CGI experts had all upped their collective games to produce a movie that was, in many ways, superior to the original outing.

For one thing the power of the CGI creations had moved on in leaps and bounds in the 3 years between movies. As always with these things I am awe struck at just how much better they can get between movies – consider Toy Story and Toy Story 2 for instance. At every level the CGI knocks spots of the original from facial expressions, water effects, fire and general fluidity of motion. It’s just amazing to look at before anything else is taken into account. The storyline, as you can imagine, is rather thin. Shrek and Fiona, now married, are summoned back to the palace, in Far Far Away (looking suspiciously like Hollywood), for a blessing by Fiona’s parents who are aghast that she is a full-time ogre and he is, well, an ogre. Apparently the plan was for the evil Prince Charming to woo the Princess and thereby force his way into the royal dynasty with the help/manipulation of the present King. Behind everything is the money grubbing and forever scheming Fairy Godmother. Of course, being Shrek, all of the usual conventions are turned on their heads to elicit the humour but such subversion can only go so far before it become the new norm – and therefore not funny anymore. Generally the team tread on just about the right side of this line (but should’ve really stopped at the second movie!).

But new movies need new characters to spice things up a bit and here we have the adventurer and would-be assassin Puss in Boots voiced by Antonio Banderas. Puss was considered so successful that he got his own movie – a mistake I thought – but equipped himself well enough to prove some very funny and very cat-like moments. He even managed a pretty good end song with Donkey to sign things off, indeed the music throughout the film was even better than the first which was an impressive feat in itself.

As with the first film, and yet again taking it to the next level, Shrek 2 was chocked full of pop-cultural references and repeated digs at conventions both in movie making and in the wider cultural world. Watching the film 5 times would still reward you with spotting a brief glimpse of a recognisable figure, logo or item twisted to exist in the Shrek universe. I particularly liked when a bunch of citizens ran across the street from a just about to be destroyed Starbucks into an identical Starbucks a few hundred feet away. I’ve probably seen this film 6-7 times now and although it’s lost quite a bit of its original punch it’s still enjoyable enough and still managed to make me laugh out loud a few times over the weekend. Fun, rather than amazing, but fun nevertheless.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

“Because there is no surer sign that a country has gone sour than the appearance of Kalashnikov’s in the public’s grip, they can also function as an informal social indicator, providing another sort of graduated scale. Anywhere large numbers of young men in civilian clothes or mismatched uniforms are carrying Kalashnikov’s is a very good place not to go; when Kalashnikov's turn up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave”.

C J Chivers – The Gun: The Story of the AK-47.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thinking About: Christmas

I am, to be honest, rather ambivalent about Christmas. For one thing it obviously has no religious significance to me. I don’t ‘celebrate’ Christmas in that or any other sense. I am also, again being honest, not a hugely social person so haven’t made plans to visit family and friends over the festive period. My regular Christmas visits to my family ‘up North’ are somewhat more obligatory than looked forward too but we’ve never been a particularly close family even at the best of times. As my readers will know my usual festive trips home have been replaced by a more sedate affair earlier in the year to avoid the worst of the weather so things have become even less Christmas-like than before.

Over the past few years our group of friends have eased off the present buying that has become such a big part of the ‘reason for the season’. It was getting a little silly at times even with financial limits imposed for sanity and overdraft sake. I do treat myself to a few little things but nothing that I bother to wrap and then unwrap on Christmas morning. Christmas is, primarily at least, for children and for lovers. As I have, and am unlikely to have, neither that takes away another of the great pillars of Christmas. Fortunately I am not one of the people I see or hear on a regular basis agonising about what certain people in their lives want (and expect) for Christmas, if they can get hold of one in time and just how they are going to afford to pay for it. It is kind of a pity though because, generally speaking, I give good gifts – mostly because I listen to what people say around me and if I hear someone I like/love exclaim “Oh, that’s nice” I circle round and buy it for later. Of course they’ve normally forgotten about their exclamation of delight months later and re impressed that I know them so well.

There are a few things that I do like about Christmas however. There’s a lot more snack around and people tend to bring in large tubs of chocolate to work for their colleagues. I’m certainly never short of treats this time of year! I also like crisp winter days where we get clear blue skies, maybe a slight breeze and that feeling it’s going to get really cold – but not just yet. Then, of course, there’s snow. I like snow. I love to see the after effects of a snowfall and I love to walk in new virgin snow. I love the feel of it, the look of it, and the sound of it crunching under your boots. Dressed for the conditions, remembering that there’s no such thing as bad weather just inappropriate clothing, being out in snow is, in my opinion at least, wonderful. I also, despite my previous comment about being basically anti-social, enjoy the many Christmas parties and meals that are arranged throughout the festive few weeks. Getting together with work friends, outside of a working environment, is often fun and sometimes surprising. With good company, reasonably good food and some alcohol inside them people can open up to an extent that they wouldn’t normally in a more formal setting. Then, of course there’s always the rare opportunity presented by mistletoe and the unguarded ‘what the hell, it’s Christmas’ moment……

But being the person I am, the thing I look forward to most over Christmas is the opportunity to spend time on my own. It’s not often I get the chance to shut my front door and not step outside or see another person for a week or maybe even two (or more). I find the whole thing very relaxing. I don’t have to make conversation, listen to other people, solve problems or basically do anything over and above what I want to do – or not to do. I can just be me 24/7 for days on end. Bliss. I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long year and I deserve a long break. Just 3 more days at work and then 19 days off. Now I just have to ensure that I have enough in the house to keep me going that long.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

All you really need to know about the British class system........
Just Finished Reading: Magic – A Very Short Introduction by Owen Davies (FP: 2012)

The belief in, and the practice of, magic is probably as old as mankind. The idea that we can influence or even control events in the real world for our own benefit or to the detriment of our enemies plays powerfully on the mind. What if, through speaking the right words, performing the right acts and obtaining the right artefacts in the right way could secure your heart’s desire or force a rival off course at the crucial moment? Wouldn’t you jump at the idea?

Of course, over the past 10,000 years, quite a few people have done just that – either themselves or through the many professionals touting for business in the magical marketplace. But we shouldn’t, as the author reminds us, think of these things as being activities taking place in the far past undertaken by our ignorant ancestors. Magical thinking and magical practice is alive and well in the 21st century. When was the last time you checked your Horoscope, crossed your fingers, avoided walking under a ladder, said ‘hello’ to a single magpie, avoided stepping on cracks, or just wished for something really hard? Magic, all of it! Millions of people every day act or think (at least subconsciously) that doing such things affects their real lives. Knowing that much of their existence is out of their hands they try to gain back a little of the control they know they do not have – and who could blame them?

At its fundamental level that’s what magic is all about – control. So it’s hardly surprising that it exists, has existed for a very long time, and will continue to exist long into the future regardless of any technological or scientific advances (which most people don’t understand anyway!). The author, as you might expect, spends a great deal of time looking at the belief aspects of magic, where it came from as well as early attempts from Anthropologists to understand it. What is equally fascinating, at least to me, is the way that modern technology and the understanding (or more likely misunderstanding) of modern physics has failed to push magic beyond the pale and into the dustbin of cultural history. Magical thinking and practice has adapted itself to the modern world rather than vanished from it. That fact alone deserves more investigation. Fascinating and recommended.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Monday, December 09, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Aztecs – A Very Short Introduction by David Carrasco (FP: 2012)

The Aztec civilisation has become, since its discovery and destruction over the late 15th and 16th centuries, larger than life, a sort of a myth within a myth. It is seen as a society drenched in the blood of its enemies brought down like a house of cards by a handful of European invaders. Of course as with all myths, especially about such momentous events, things are never anywhere near as simple as first presented. Here, in this interesting short booklet (120 pages) the author tries to set at least some of the record straight without falling into the trap of being completely revisionist. He accepts that human sacrifice was an important and integral part of Aztec culture (although some historians have actually denied this) but that it did not play such a large part that the streets ran with blood as some of the original commentators contended. By and large, although different in many ways, the Aztec civilisation stunned the first Europeans with its scale and grandeur the likes of which few of the explorers had even seen before. Continuing archaeological discoveries underline the point that in many ways Aztec civilisation was very advanced indeed.

Such advancement did not, however, prevent the collapse of the Aztec way of life within a few generations of first contact with Europeans – mostly but not exclusively – from Spain. Again the military prowess of the European men at arms has been exaggerated with good effect. The majority of those engaged in the decades of military campaigning in that region where native armies allied to the Spanish and fighting, in effect, their own people for their own reasons. Without this assistance the European expansion into the continent would have been slow and patchy if it had succeeded at all. Likewise the diseases that the Europeans brought with them have had an exaggerated impact on the collapse of the Aztec world. Europeans had no defence against the many tropical diseases they met for the first time and died in droves just like their American counterparts. But things are covered in a great deal more detail in an upcoming VSI review so I’ll stop here.

This volume is dedicated to discussing the Aztecs from their own point of view and not that of the European invader – no matter how successful. The Aztecs certainly saw themselves as a high civilisation with a superior culture and a right to rule over their vast empire. In the context of Mesoamerican history they were very successful indeed and no doubt would have continued to flourish, expand and change had not they been contacted at the time and in the way they were. What might have happened if Columbus had failed in his mission and never returned from America is an interesting question. Might the Aztecs be a global super-power or would European archaeologies be digging through the remnants of a failed empire lost before it was even discovered? You also can’t but wonder what might happen if we humans are contacted at some point by a ‘European equivalent’ alien civilisation. Would we cope and adapt or collapse into a historical heap of rubble argued over in the halls of alien academia?

Saturday, December 07, 2013