Graphic Novels and Web Comics I Put on Patrick's Reading List

Some of which he even read.

At Popehat, we  celebrate our core beliefs.  To achieve victory, one must attack.  But one cannot attack without a plan.  A plan cannot be formed without mastering fundamentals.  And nothing is more fundamental than reading.  We even think pictures occasionally enhance the experience.  As such, here's a slice of my standing list of recommendations to Patrick.  With bonus material covering Patrick's thoughts where applicable, or he can just comment in the thread like a big boy.  Waxing poetic is not my strong suit, but here goes anyway!

Planetary – Warren Ellis.  Archaeologists of the Impossible!  Planetary are an organization dedicated to charting the secret history of the twentieth century, in a world with super heroes and many other sorts of insane, fantastic things.  It's both a love letter to 5+ decades of pop culture as well as an interesting treatment of those things.  It's entire premise was based on one of those geeky exercises "if Reed Richards is the smartest person in the universe, why is Earth-616 as bad off as our own", though you'll have to read it to discover the answer (which is satisfying). Patrick started and I believe finished it and loved it.

Morning Glories – Nick Spencer.  A group of seemingly random brilliant and troubled teenagers is "invited" to attend a prestigious prep school.  There are no safe spaces at Morning Glory Academy, and I mean that literally.  You have no idea where this is going, and won't at the end of the first six issues.  Except that it's crazy and if you liked it like I did you'll be dying to know what happens next.  Though I have fallen behind (my disposable income is not unlimited, and it's not the only thing I read, I think I'm 3 or maybe 4 trades behind now), it's high up on my "things to catch up on in 2016" list.  It's a different and interesting comic and the characters are never far from my thoughts.

All Star Superman – Grant Morrison.  Widely hailed as one of the best Superman stories of all time.   If you're the sort of person that doesn't like Superman because a lot of Superman stories come off as badly written fanfic, this is a comic for you.  It's a deep and thoughtful take on a character who needs to be in deft hands but usually hasn't been.

Nextwave: Agents of Hate – Warren Ellis.  As comics matured and moved out of the silver age, a few things became inevitable.  People like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis showed us that comics might have started out as male power fantasies, they could be other things to.  Lots of other people tried to copy them.  Or tell "mature", "gritty", "dark", "complicated" stories.  Most people failed, and failed horribly.  What we got was often worse than mere power fantasy.  Nextwave is the polar opposite of these things, I am happy to report.  Nextwave is not, to quote, about Learning and Character Arcs and Morals and Hugs.  It is about things blowing up and people getting kicked.  It is about healing America by beating people up.  It's Stephen Chow meets vintage action Arnie at the drive in.  It features violence against broccoli, robots, sort of "other beings" and the six greatest two-page panels (lain out back to back) in the history of comics.  Did I mention explosions and kicking? It is especially about THINGS BLOWING UP and PEOPLE GETTING KICKED.  All of the delight you might have once felt when rising on Saturday morning to begin the ritual viewing of cartoons but later discovered was fake because it turned out all of those beloved cartoons were bad?1  It's real, and it exists in Nextwave.

Wytches – (Scott Snyder and Jock) – horror series that debuted this year.  What would you trade to the things out in the woods for immunity to cancer, or prolonged life (while looking young and fit)?  Their price is high.  The first trade is out, and proved to be an interesting twist on a this very old formula.

Atomic Robo – Brian Clevenger (writer and co-creator) and Scott Wegener (artist and co-creator). Now available as a free web comic (Volume 1 Chapter 1).   I guess I might try to describe Atomic Robo as a golden age comic done in a 21st century style.   It's not gritty or dark but it's gleefully ridiculous, often thoughtful, sometimes touching.  Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne battle evil in all it's forms throughout the decades (often with nods to the age in the process).  Features one of the greatest comic book villains ever, bar none.   If you had been 15 when finding Atomic Robo you would have immediately moved to set all of your table top gaming in it's universe (unless you were doing it in the Planetary universe instead, which is understandable).

Selling out: you can support us by purchasing any of the above through Amazon using our affiliate link over on the right.  If for some reason one of these is not available through the store let me know and we'll add it.  Or just order it on your own, that's cool too. Even better if you have a fun local place you can go through.  Tell them we said hello.


"Bald, Fat & Crazy" — A Book About Perseverance

Today I write in praise of a new book called "Bald, Fat & Crazy." No, it's not a memoir, but thank you for asking.

Nearly a decade ago my friend Stephanie Hosford found herself unexpectedly pregnant, diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer, and just months from a long-planned international adoption, all at the same time. The book, freshly released and justifiably well-reviewed, is the story of how she handled it. It's funny and inspiring, and useful in reminding us that whatever faces us, someone else is facing something even scarier. Check it out.

Clark's Favorite Books Part 1: Science Fiction

Patrick has been bugging me recently for my top 10 books list. I'm an anarchist, and I don't kowtow to The Man, maaan, so I refuse to generate a top ten list. On the other hand, I can't resist telling people what cool shit they should be reading, so here's my I'm-not-even-sure-how-large list of books that I really like. Is it my "top" list? I dunno. I'm not the viewpoint character in High Fidelity; I don't spend that much time rank ordering stuff. Make of this list (these lists) what you will.

Lucifer's Hammer – this is, IMO, the single best post apocalyptic / survival book ever written. It's got it all: astronomy, physics, chemistry, economics, individual survival skills, sociology. One mark of a good book is whether you remember scenes from it years later. LH has dozens. It's a little bit dated by now (US / USSR Cold War, post-Vietnam US Army with racial integration problems, etc.), but it's still a great yarn.

The Mote in God's Eye – Niven and Pournelle are off to an early lead. TMiGE is the single best First Contact story ever written, and it deals with aliens that are truly weird, in some ways, and truly familiar in others. It warrants the term "space opera" for working at a grand scale: grand scales of space, time, imaginary physics, and stakes to human life.

Snowcrash – Neal Stephenson has written better books (Cryptonomicon, Anathem), but he's never written a more-Neal-Stephenson-per-page book than Snowcrash. It distilled, parodied, and reified the cyberpunk genre. As with Lucifer's Hammer, it was so good that it basically took all of the air out of the genre. After this, what's left to do? Does it have Big Ideas(tm)? And how. Dropping Big Idea bombs always runs the risk of looking silly, but with out risk there is no art. Shows its age a bit, but still excellent.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Heinlein distilled mid 20th century science fiction. Everything either good or bad in it, he did better or worse than others. Likable characters? And how. Embarrassing authorial excess? Yep. TMiaHM shows him at his best: fast paced, emotionally moving, exciting, full of ideas, and very little of the embarrassing or weird Heinlein. It's a seminal libertarian / anarcho capitalist science fiction novel and created the mold for a half dozen other similar novels that came later. The ending still leaves me a bit melancholy even thirty years after I first read it.

Anathem – Stephenson pulls forward and ties for first place. (I'm reminded of the beginning of the movie Rounders: science fiction isn't a game of luck; it's a game of skill. Do you think that Stephenson and Niven and Pournelle keep writing great novels because they're lucky?). Anathem has it all: deep history, parallel worlds, medieval monasteries, formal logic, quantum uncertainty, cross-polar chase scenes, orbital mechanics, starships. A lot of people say that they thought that Anathem was too wordy or too weird. I feel bad for them – they've admitted something very embarrassing about themselves in public.

A Fire Upon the Deep / A Deepness in the Sky – A lot of my favorite authors write very little…or, rather, they release very few books. Mrs. Clark has a theory that authors accumulate good ideas for stories at a certain fixed rate, and their first books drain the tank half dry. According to her elaboration of this theory, most authors have two or three good books in them. I disagree with this hard-line version, but I think that there's some truth in the idea. Specifically, I think that most authors can write a good novel only once every few years (or, rather, most authors can't write a good novel at all, and those that can write one at all can write one at most every few years). Anyway, Vernor Vinge, computer science professor, does the smart thing: he writes at exactly the rate that he can generate good stories. Sadly, this means he doesn't write might. The two novels referenced here contain a lot: space exploration, vast galactic civilizations, weird physics, thoughts on anarchy, trade, and fascism.

The Star Fraction / The Stone Canal / The Cassini Division / The Sky Road – There are only three important things in life: what is the point of existence and what is The Good? what is worth having or doing?, when those things are scarce, how should they be divided up? Or, in shorter form: religion, politics, and money. You know – the three things that we're not supposed to talk about with people. In the mid 1980s the Scottish Big Three exploded on the American science fiction scene: Ian Banks (RIP), Ken Macleod, and Charlie Stross. Stross flamed out after a few good books (see Mrs. Clark's rule of thumb about most authors having only a few good books). Banks is operatic, utopian, and excellent. Macleod, though…Macleod is something between the sleeper of the group and the tortoise that wins the race. He's not as operatic as Banks – one novel (Newton's Wake) aside, there are no vast mega-structures, few vast spaceships, not much wit in each paragraph…but he does consistently talk about the big three topics: what is the good? what are things worth? who should divide them up? He's not a perfect writer – far too many of his novels have a denouement that boils down to several Scottish (just like him!) reformed Trotskyists (just like him!) discussing politics in a pub (just like him!), but he's good. The four books listed here aren't a series per se – more like riffing on the same subject via different paths (see also: Goldberg Variations, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three California's Trilogy, George Bush and Barrack Obama, etc. They're all worth reading.

Directive 51 – To my mind, the two most underrated science fiction authors of the last 10 or 20 years are Walter Jon Williams and John Barnes. Both have technical mastery of fiction writing, good characterization, amazing plots, complexity, and a dozen other skills down cold. They're not the only authors who are this good – there are a half dozen or so now writing who perform at this level. The amazing thing, though, is that these guys are all but invisible. Their works should be classics, and yet they're outsold by Jim Butcher, John Scalzi, and Stephenie Meyer. So, short version: pick up absolutely anything by either of these two guys (aside from Barne's Jak Jinnaka series, which was sort sort of experiment that didn't work for me). Anyway, on to Directive 51. This is the first book in a trilogy that traces the breakdown of our current world into a post apocalyptic nightmare. In our hyper-connected early 21st century society memes grow and spread like flashmobs, and soon a semiotics researcher named Arnie Yang (John Barne's not-really-a-Mary-Sue-but-sorta-based-on-himself) starts to see dangerous resonances. Deep Greens are talking about crashing the system and returning to nature. Billionaires are talking about crashing the system and returning to monarchy. Techies are talking about crashing the system with nanotech. What the heck is going on? The book is a multi-viewpoint-architected novel like a big technothriller (c.f. The Hunt for Red October, etc.) that investigates this question from a variety of viewpoints. Unfortunately, almost as soon as the authorities detect that something is wrong, the disaster is upon them: nanotech starts destroying modern technology, and the good guys are always two steps behind…or three. One of the hardest things in fiction is creating a true sense of dread and foreboding: most of the time we're watching a TV show or reading a book, we know that everything is going to turn out all right in the end. Luke will blow up the Deathstar. Doctor House will cure the patient. Professor Bernardo de la Plaz will free the Loonies from Earth's fascist grip. Barnes isn't like that. Good people die, and at every step of the way you fear that the good guys could lose entirely…and the scenes stick. More than a decade after reading Kaleidoscope Century I remember the protagonist throwing gold coins into the air to precipitate a riot and years after reading Directive 51 I remember a scene of captives being fast-marched past terrified viewpoint characters who are hiding in a crumbling suburb. After all this time these bits still send chills down my spine. Anyway, read Directive 51…and look out for a group review I've got queued up entitled "Three Post Apocalypses, Left, Right, and Center" that covers John Varley's Slow Apocalypse (left), S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire (right) and Barnes' Directive 51 (center). I've got some thoughts on in vino post apocalypse veritas.

update: added 23 December 2013:

Tales of the Dying Earth – There's a genre that I don't read or watch, "comedy of manners", which – Wikipedia tells me – satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters. As far as I can tell examples of it mostly occur in mid-century British novels and TV, and a few American books making fun of NYC socialites. Neither is something that I'm particularly interested in, but I've been provided entre to the genre by Jack Vance, who writes utterly hilarious science fantasy that says a lot more about human foibles than it does about what the world will look like 30,000 years from now. In Vance's Dying Earth series the swollen red sun is so tired and ancient that it may go out at any time, and all of the characters in his books (a) realize this, and (b) react to it either with beyond-cinematic arrogance, beyond-Roissy rakishness, or beyong Quentin Crisp flamboyant good cheer. If you picture the characters Thundar the Barbarian as voiced by Jeeves and Wooster you'd not be too far off course (fictional exempli gratia "let me slip out of this wet pit of eternal despond and into a dry martini!"). A decade or more after reading it I still occassionally pause in the middle of the day and laugh thinking about Cugel as an incompetent worminger, or his insoucience in eating from the expensive buffet at the company town associated with a dragon scale mine. Fun, light reading, but really really rewarding.

Revelation Space /
Chasm City /
Redemption Ark /
Absolution Gap /
The Prefect – Wikipedia calls Alastair Reynolds a writer of "dark hard science fiction". I think that's a perfect term. The "Revelation Space" universe he crafts is cold, unforgiving, and vaguely menacing. Not just vaguely menacing in a "Cold Equations" / "there's nothing between my skin and the deadly vacuum but this thin suit" manner, but in a "there are deep and impersonal forces that are none-the-less malevolent and either actively want you dead, or at least won't care a bit if you die" sense. Couple that with rigorous physics, tight plots, and a very intricate back story and a deeply thought out universe, and the books are a mix of wonder at how much mankind might achieve over the next 500 years despite no magic get-out-of-jail-free cards like FTL, and a sense of dread about just how cold and scary the universe is. Picture Iain Banks without the cheerful tone and with more hard physics, and you get something a lot like Alastair Reynolds.

If you liked these reviews, keep your eyes peeled for future installments:

  • Clark's Favorite Books Part 2: Fantasy
  • Clark's Favorite Books Part 3: Politics
  • Clark's Favorite Books Part 4: Miscellaneous


We have added an Amazon "store" link  to our front page, very attractively designed, I must say. This does not mean we'll be selling Popehat t-shirts, mitres, panties, or the like, though that day may come. What it allows us to do is provide recommendations on products, so far limited to books and sporting goods, to readers who may be interested in such things and who would like to support our site.

The books added so far are an eclectic lot, reflecting reading material discussed (and endorsed) on our front page, on Twitter, or our Facebook page through the years. And did I mention sporting goods?

We do receive a portion of the price of any sales generated through the site, but the buyer pays nothing extra. All funds received go to defraying out-of-pocket costs for running the site. Any funds received in excess of our out-of-pocket costs will be donated to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or to some similarly worthy charity.

As always, we thank our readers for their generous support.

And did I mention sporting goods? If only 100,000 of you will buy sporting goods through our store, we can all retire from our day jobs, to fulfill our proper purpose of providing entertainment for you, our valued readers.

Or at least insulting you, as (and if) you deserve.

Should We Boycott Art Because of the Politics of the Artists?

Ender's Golden Tablets

The progress-o-sphere is all a-twitter this week reminding all and sundry that science fiction author Orson Scott Card, a practicing Mormon, believes in – wait for it – Mormonism.

Among the dozens of doctrines this implies is the idea that while Card, deeply involved in stage and drama for all of his adult life, has gay friends, he does not endorse gay marriage.

Therefore, goes the argument, we right thinking people who do endorse gay marriage (including, presumably, the version of Obama who ran for office in 2012, but not the version that ran for office in 2008, were he to time travel a handful of months into his future and join us here), should boycott the movie.

Some versions of the argument are more nuanced, and specify that it's not that we shouldn't watch a movie that has absolutely nothing to say, good or bad, about gays, but that we shouldn't pay to watch such a movie, because some fraction of the funds would end up in OSC's pocket.

I'm not a huge OSC fan myself – I read one or two of the Ender books and found them OK, read one or two of his Tales of Alvin Maker books and found them OK, and read a collection of his short stories which I thought were quite good. I don't think I've bought a book by him in over 15 years.

Which is to say, I post not in defense of OSC the man.

Nor do I post in defense of his anti-gay marriage stance (as an voluntaryist / anarchist, I'm against the state recognizing any marriage, because I'm in favor of the state – if it exists at all – defending the country from invasion and nothing else).

Release the Communist!

I lean culturally conservative, yet many (if not most) of my favorite authors are from the left, if not the far left. I regularly read – and even buy – fiction from self-declared Marxists (the most recent was
Kraken by China Mieville (a member of the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Workers Party) a week or so ago.

By buying Kraken (and then mentioning it here) did I culturally endorse Mieville and his views?

One presumes that of the $20 or so I spent on the book perhaps $2 ended up in Mieville's pocket, and if he donates 10% of his after tax income to political charities, perhaps 10 cents of my money ended up helping socialists print up broadsheets full of propaganda and lies to convince British voters to further infringe the rights of their countrymen.

Am I aiding and abetting evil?

On the one hand, the argument that I should never give a penny to any creator who might then donate a fraction of that penny to authoritarian political groups that seek to squash individual liberty seems airtight. I wouldn't voluntarily write a check to the KKK or Hezbollah or the US Federal Government for even ten cents.

And yet, on the other hand, should I deprive myself of art that might entertain or even enlighten? And then, on the gripping hand, is that not a weak aesthete's argument for enjoying himself in the moment, while ignoring his own contribution to the enslavement of others? Northern abolitionists refused to wear slave state cotton cloth, because the purchase supported a terrible institution.

Or, perhaps, on the one-beyond-the-gripping-hand, we should all be willing to consume art even when a minor fraction of the purchase price ends up in evil hands as an explicit endorsement of a Popperian Open Society.

On the fifth hand, maybe we should actively strive to consume art from those with whom we disagree, so that we are open to new ideas, avoid epistemological closure, and – if the art both has a memetic payload is convincing in its moral and message – perhaps allow ourselves to change and converge on ideas that are foreign to us now but are more correct.

Conclusion Closing Thoughts

I have no firm answers, but I have half baked thoughts and intuitions.

I dislike the idea of Index Librorum Prohibitorum, whether it is run by a Church, a State, or a decentralized Github-of-received-opinion.

I like the idea of actively challenging my preconceptions and tentatively held opinions with new viewpoints.

I dislike the snark, moral posturing, and self-satisfaction that is so deeply entwined with telling other people who is inside the circle of civilization (me, you, him) and who is outside (Orson Scott Card, practicing members of religion X and Y).

I like the inclusiveness that is implied and exercised by demonstrating our own commitments to reading and viewing widely.

I have no good response to the "this puts a nickel in the pocket of bad-group-X" other than, perhaps, donating a quarter to good-group-Y.

I may or may not see Ender's Game in the theater, because it looks like typical Joseph-Campbell-journey-of-the-young-hero-as-he-gathers-$150-million-of-special-effects fare.

Rebuttals? Agreements? Other?

Squeeze Hard to Get the Maximum Amount

I'm reading The Golden Bough.

Ancient supersitious people believed that farmers could increase their wealth from the coming year's corn crop by seizing a stranger and squeezing his blood onto the ground.

Modern scientific people understand that farmers can better increase their wealth from the coming year's corn crop by seizing 300 million strangers and squeezing their wallets.

I do enjoy learning about humanity's moral progress.

Clark's Science Fiction Review Policy

@Dan Hill comments about some novels he's too shy to link to:

I've written a couple of post apocalyptic novels, probably too obscure for mention in this hallowed place…

I love post apocalyptic novels.

@G. Filotto writes in the comments:

Can I send you autographed copies of my two SF books? A review would be amazing since I am a solo guy writing without funding and a 13 hour a day job. And I think you would enjoy the politics and sociology. You can get an idea by googling "Overlords of Mars" . And if interested at all, just PM me an address and I'll send you copies. Thanks.

I think that one of the most exciting trends in the last few years is the disintermediation of the big publishing oligarchy and the rise of self publishing. I follow with fascination several blogs by established and new authors who are grappling with this new world. I think it is an unalloyed advance in human freedom.

That said, I also think that Big Paper served an actual function: it took the bell curve of the slush pile, chopped off the left 95%, and ensured that the vast majority of what actually hit Barnes & Noble shelves was at least competent. There were many false negatives: books that were good enough to read, but did not get published. But there were even more true negatives: the vast majority of submitted manuscripts that were not published were not published for a reason.

Today that barrier is no longer in place. Which is wonderful. The snobby elite New York money is no longer stopping the consumer from buying the dinosaur erotica it demands.

Which brings me around to my point: the Clark science fiction review policy, such as it is.

Note that the following list sounds pretty dickish (and the graphic above is consistent with the tone). I may not actually be that dickish in practice, but this is the social contract we're agreeing to. I set the bar low for my own responsibilities so that I can meet or exceed my promises.

  • I will review as often as I care to. This probably won't be very often.
  • I will review what I want to review. Most of it will be big publisher books, but I am open to reviewing self-published / "indie" novels.
  • You can email a .mobi file to clark at THE SAME DOMAIN NAME AS THIS BLOG dot com. Repeat: .mobi only. PDFs, Microsoft whatever files, and anything else that does not load easily into my small-screen Kindle in a single mouse drag and display nicely thereafter will be deleted unread and without a response. I apologize for that harshness, but you certainly aren't going to be bitten by it, because you're more professional than that, so it's not really a problem, right?
  • If you email me a file do not expect email acknowledgement (I check the email account once per month – if that), do not expect a review, and do not expect a review on any particular schedule.
  • I do not grade on a curve.

Let me unpack that last one, because it's really important.

I've read lots of self-published stuff. Most of it is terrible. I've read e-books written by friends-of-friends that have hundreds of five star reviews…and I've found them unreadable.

I've been told that writing a novel is hard. I respect that. I've watched friends and FOAFs labor over draft after draft. I've watched them fly to distant cities to take workshops. I've seen them spend weeks at Clarion. I've seen them print up business cards and self-promote like nobody's business.

It's exhausting work, and I have nothing but respect for someone who puts "write a novel" on their bucket list, and then actually accomplishes it.

However, Clark reviews are not your therapist, your support group, or your best friend. All novels will be measured on a scale calibrated to books published by actual publishers (Mieville / Banks: A. Scalzi: B-. That 'Fifty Shades' lady: F). Weak plots, absurd premises, bad dialogue – it will all be called out. Your bravery and hard work will count for little, because I intend to do book reviews, not "brave and plucky author" reviews.

I promise, though, fairness. This has two parts:

1) I will not grade down – or up – on ideology. Well-done lesbian environmental thriller? Yeah, actually, I really liked "Slow River" despite the fact that my political sympathies and cultural norms lie in the opposite direction. Right-wing/libertarian by-the-numbers military fiction that's got nothing new to say, despite the fact that my political and cultural norms lie in that direction? I will trash it.

2) I will attempt to base criticism in fact: I will not say that your plot is bad if your plot is good, even if you once spilled your beer on me and insulted my mom's memory at her funeral.

Finally, I am an actual human being. Any review is inherently subjective and de gustibus non est disputandum, so I may criticize a book as being provably chocolate, and I may hate it because I prefer French vanilla. That will upset chocolate partisans.

If, after all of that, you want me to maybe take a look at your post apocalyptic and/or science fiction novel, you know where to send it.

History Must Be Curved

I'm about to quote almost 700 words from a blog post, which normally would be considered long…but it's from an almost book-length series of posts, so as a proportion of the whole, it's actually quite short.

HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds. (Vansina 1985)

In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries. Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle. Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself. History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend. In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum). Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni). But by 1098, Roland had become a “paladin” and the central character, the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland). Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20). This suggests that 17th century history has for the bulk of the population already become myth. Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.” And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view.

Conclusion: Our ancestors were not fools.

In three centuries, the long complex story of how the mobile Earth replaced the stationary Earth dipped below the horizon from History into Legend. Like all good legends, the story of heliocentrism and the culture-hero Galileo is simple and general and geared toward supporting the Rightness of the Modern worldview. But history is always detailed and particular.

The reasons for the stationary Earth were rooted in empirical experience and successful modeling. The dual motion of the Earth is not sensibly evident and was difficult to establish on empirical grounds. Heliocentrism triumphed first of all because Neoplatonic number mysticism had become au courant during the Renaissance, and Platonists equated mathematical elegance with physical evidence.

Resistance to heliocentrism was rooted in the science of the day and religion entered the picture mainly because the Church Fathers had interpreted Scripture in the light of that science. They weren’t about to change until there was solid evidence that the science (and hence the interpretation) was wrong; not in the middle of no honkin' Reformation they weren’t. Thomas Huxley said after investigating the affair that “the Church had the better case.” But Pierre Duhem put it differently. The Copernicans were “right for the wrong reasons.” The Ptolemaics were “wrong for the right reasons.”

Science doesn’t follow a mythic positivist ideal but the plural scientific methods described by Feyerabend: a mixture of empiricism, flights of fancy, intuition, aesthetics, doggedness, and jealousy. Scientific theories are underdetermined. Any finite set of facts can support multiple theories, and for a long time the available facts were equally explained by geostationary or geomobile models.

In the Legend, the conflict was between Science and Religion. But in the History, the conflict was between two groups of scientists, with churchmen lined up on all sides. Copernicanism was supported by humanist literati and opposed by Aristotelian physicists; so it was a mixed bag all around. Science does not take place in a bubble. International and domestic politics and individual personalities roil the pot as well. The mystery is not why Galileo failed to triumph – he didn’t have good evidence, made enemies of his friends, and stepped into a political minefield. The real mystery is why Kepler, who actually had the correct solution, constantly flew under the radar. A deviant Lutheran working in a Catholic monarchy, he pushed Copernicanism as strongly as Galileo; but no one hassled him over it. Too bad he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.

This is from the conclusion of Michael Flynn's masterful nine part essay on "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown".

I can not recommend it highly enough.

  1. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown
  2. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Down for the Count
  3. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Great Galileo-Scheiner Flame War of 1611-13
  4. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Down 'n Dirty Mud Wrassle
  5. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Here's Mud in Yer Eye
  6. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Comet Chameleon
  7. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Time and Tides Wait Not
  8. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Trial and Error
  9. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: From Plausible to Proven

If you find the idea in the first quoted paragraph above ("Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions 'abraded into anecdotes.'") somewhere between tantalizing and fascinating, then you could do worse than to check out his Spiral Arm series of novels:

  1. January Dancer
  2. Up Jim River
  3. On the Razor's Edge
  4. In the Lion's Mouth

I loved the books.

Wikipedia has this to say about them:


This is a far future science fiction novel set in a universe populated with only humans and "pre-human" artifacts. It is told as a narrative presented with variations on English, Chinese, Indian, and Celtic words. The literary style has been described as extremely difficult to read due to the inclusion of non-English terms and historical accounts that are not common knowledge to most SF readers[1][2]. The characters in the story belong to 2 major factions of humanity: The United League of the Periphery, and the Confederacy of Central Worlds. The Confederacy is the remnant of Earth and its original colonies while the League is composed of the planets far out on the spiral arm of the galaxy. These 2 factions are in a galactic "cold war" and both have secretive pseudo-military agencies that feature prominently in the book. The story centers around the Confederacy and League agents seeking the answer to a mystery of the disappearance of ships in the rift between the spiral arm and the central worlds. The story's title comes from a "pre-human" artifact called the Dancer which is discovered early in the book. It exerts a subtle but very profound effect on various characters throughout the story. It is eventually revealed to be part of an ancient race of silicon based lifeforms called "The Folk of Sand and Iron" that have played a very significant but almost unknown role in human history. The story has 2 sequels and a third planned[3]. The January Dancer was a finalist for the 2009 Prometheus Award.

ObDisclosure about this review:

  1. I've never met Michael Flynn, and have no personal or economic stake in his success.
  2. I do, however, have a memetic stake. He thinks Deep Thoughts that I agree with. I wouldn't mind him getting funded so that he can keep writing.
  3. The links to his books above use the Amazon Popehat affiliate code. Read about how that money gets spent here.
  4. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may end up writing reviews of science fiction novels that I find worthy of note. Whether or not people like this one, I'm pretty likely to write one of my big-honkin' pieces on the topic of left/right/centrist post-apocalyptic novels.

UPDATE: Thanks for dropping by, Hacker News readers. If you liked this you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed. Popehat is a group blog. Ken is the most prolific blogger and covers civil rights law. I'm the second most prolific blogger (this week, at least) and talk about science, politics, and – upcoming – intended to dive deep into Urbit and will soon start writing reviews of science fiction novels. The other co-bloggers are also fascinating nerds and write about stuff that the typical news.yc reader would enjoy. Stick around!

A Footehold on Research

 "As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search." ~ Shelby Foote2

Bring Me The Red Pages

This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

One of the cable channels is showing the whole run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in order, and so we're dipping in from time to time. I'm glad to report that it holds up quite well, as sitcoms go. At a certain juncture in tonight's episode, Murray ripped the breast pocket off Ted Baxter's jacket, and I turned to my wife and said, "Watch. Later he pulls off all three." Sho nuff, it came to pass as I had said.

Now, normally I wouldn't spoil in that way, but Continue reading…