2020/08/04

Space Out of Colour



A bit of microfiction in the style of Things by Peter Watts.

Massive spoilers below the cut for Colour out of Space (2019) by Richard Stanley.

2020/08/02

Sci-Fi: Alien Categorization Codes for Space Opera

Most space opera or soft-sci-fi settings use broad categories of life. "Class M planets" and "Carbon-based lifeforms" are two typical examples.

They are useful shorthands for explaining why everyone looks like a human in a rubber suit and why every planet vaguely resembles California or a quarry in England, but they're not particularly interesting. "Carbon-based" is so vague that it's practically a non-sequitur; it tells you almost nothing about how the creature operates and what environment it requires. Extremophile bacteria, tube worms, spiders, and mushrooms are all carbon-based lifeforms.

I wrote about set-dressing aliens in this post.
   

Assumptions

  • Infections and cross-contamination are not significant issues. E.g. this fungus from Planet A won't happily colonize human skin, this creature from Planet B doesn't casually emit compounds that are toxic to humans, etc.
  • There is enough overlap that categorization like this is useful. If everyone has to wear miniature spaceships to visit each other, it's not space opera.
  • Species are abundant and have reasons to interact. This guide isn't useful in a setting without thousands of potential intelligent species. Some sort of galactic community is required.
  • Interspecies communication is possible (i.e. it's possible for two species to communicate using the same language.) Sure, one of them might use radio and the other might use gestures, but it's possible to build a grammatical base that means something to multiple species.

Categories are listed from most to least crucial. If you're an alien scooping up a creature or sorting out accommodation and compatibility, you'd work from the top down. They're sort of like taxonomic ranks.
 

Phase

The phase (or phases) a creature requires to live. Not the phases it can safely inhabit (e.g. swim in), but the phases that are required for life.
  • Gas Phase
  • Liquid Phase
  • Solid Phase
  • Plasma Phase (?)
  • Vacuum
Humans are G-, amphibians are GL-, fish are L-. Solid Phase creatures are difficult to imagine, but maybe some sort of distributed high-pressure network of tendrils or self-propagating migratory crystal patterns (like rock-prions). Plasma-phase creatures presumably live in the heliosphere of stars, the upper atmosphere of planets, or other equally odd locations. 
 

Primary Energy Exchange Element

The stuff a creature needs to live on a minute-by-minute basis. For setting purposes, the atmosphere the creature breathes.

It might be more useful to phrase this in electron donor/acceptor sets (e.g. humans would be hydrocarbon+O2 / CO2+H2O, hydrogen bacteria would be H2+O2 / H2O, etc.) but the list would be enormous and unwieldy for soft sci-fi or space opera games. You should still check out the list of real chemolithotropes. Life is weird.

Energy requirements (light, electricity, neutrons, etc) are best categorized with Optimal Radiation (below).

  • O2
  • CO2
  • H2O
  • H2
  • CH4
Humans, dolphins, and fish are -O2-. Plants are -CO2-. Creatures on Titan might be -CH4-.
lifeslittlemysteries.com (defunct)

Pressure-Temperature

In setting, this is probably expressed as a single operator or symbol (some sort of compressed ideal gas law thing)

Temperature is given as a 3-point range: minimum, optimal, and maximum. The value is calibrated around environmental temperature. Clothing is assumed; external heating or cooling sources (fire) are not. For humans, a range of -20/20/40 oC is close enough to accurate.

Pressure is also given as a 3-point range: minimum, optimal, and maximum. For humans, a range of 0.3/1/1.3 will do.

(Pressure is tricky; humans can breathe in a 100% oxygen atmosphere, but atmospheric oxygen is around 20%. At 100% O2, humans can survive around 1 atm of pressure, but at 20%, we can survive up to 2.5 atm of pressure. And, of course, temperature ranges vary with humidity...)
 

Gravity

Again, given as a minimum, optimal, and maximum range. Humans can operate in freefall, and the maximum feasible gravity seems to be 3-4g, so 0/1/3g.
 

I'd expect most creatures that can survive falling or rolling for any length of time to be able to survive in 0g environments. Pitcher plants couldn't.
 

Optimal Radiation

The assumption is that the creature requires this level of radiation, but should be shielded from all other forms. Deriving a numerical value here starts to cross the line between "back-of-the-napkin RPG math" and "actual physics". I couldn't make it interesting.

Humans need Photons of energy X to energy Y, with a radiant energy density of Z. So -P#-
High-altitude gas giant creatures might need Neutrons of energy A to B with a radiant energy density of C. So -N#-
Creatures which have no specific radiation needs (e.g. prefer darkness) are denoted with an X.


It's interesting to note that the sun's output is not evenly distributed across all wavelengths. Without some sort of intensity curve, the "default" light in a room will never be a typical sunlight white.

Ivan Khomenko

Scale

Even if creatures have all the above characteristics in common, building structures that can accommodate a variety of scales is useful. For space opera purposes, size bands based on orders of magnitude (0.1m, 1m, 10m, etc.) are probably acceptable. Or maybe there's some sort of convenient clumping principle at work, and intelligent life tends to occur in narrow bands around "about shrew sized", "about person-sized", "about whale sized", etc.
  

Cognitive Speed

How quickly the creature can communicate a fixed packet of information to another creature, or perform a standard quantity-rearrangement or pattern matching test. Computers have a value thousands of times higher than a human. This is another order-of-magnitude range; 0.1c, 1c, 10c, where c is an arbitrary anthropocentric value.

For a space opera setting, it's probably easiest to assume everyone sharing an environment has a comparable cognitive speed, but it might be interesting for some creatures to operate in very different ways.
 

Social Organization

A series of codes for typical groups.
  • Individual Asocial (-IA-)
  • Individual Social (-IS-)
  • Collective of size # to # (-C#-#-)
  • Hive of size # to # (-H#-#-)
  • #-sized Indivisible Unit (-#U-)
Basically, "how many can we put in this tank before they start fighting or die of loneliness?"
 

Symmetry

A strange code, but I suspect creatures with similar symmetry plans tend to have broadly compatible views of time, design choices, etc.
  • Radial #
  • Bilateral
  • BiRadial #
  • Icosahedral
  • Asymetric

Dominic Qwek

Examples

I've had to eyeball a few values. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever put a whale into freefall.
  • Humans are G - O2 - -20/20/40oC - 0.3/1/1.3atm - 0/1/3g - P# - 1m - 1c - IS - B
  • Blue Whales are L - O2 - 4/12/20oC - 1.5/3/10atm - 0/1/1.5g - P# - 10m - 1c - IS - B
  • Ants are G - O2 - 10/30/40oC - 0.2/1/3atm - 0/1/3g - P# - 0.01m - 1c(?) - H100-2000 - B
  • Titan Spiders are G - CH4 -  -190/-180/-120oC - 0.7/1.5/4atm - 0/0.1/0.6g - X - 1m - 10c - IS - R8
  • Hydrogen Rays are G - H2 - -80/200/500oC - 0/0.01/0.1atm - 0/2/6g - N# - 100m - 0.1c - IA - B
 

Conclusions


In a setting like this, I'd expect compatible species to form parallel galactic civilizations. The oxygen-breathing approximately 1g people might have their own wars, only vaguely aware of the politics of the methane-breathing 0.1g ice-worlders. Intermediate or interpreter species are probably valuable. Collaborative space stations probably feature a wing for the most common or influential types, plus a neutral zero-g zero-atmosphere area.

This guide also helps colony building. A survey team can scan a world, generate the correct codes, and then figure out what species might be interested in visiting. Jupiter could be a tropical vacation paradise. Humans can't use it, but could trade access or ownership rights. It's much easier than terraforming. Instead of fixing Venus, sell it to someone who likes it as-is, or just needs to make a few tweaks.

Humans have an incredibly tiny livable range on every axis. We're used to taking oxygen, pressure, and temperature for granted because that's how space opera works. Push any value outside the habitable range and everything falls apart.

Mass and special requirements are a real pain. If dolphins built the Saturn 5 and wanted to land on the moon. Assuming they ate the same amount of food, consumed the same amount of oxygen, and took up the same space as the 3 human astronauts, they'd still need to haul an extra 36,000lbs of water into space, effectively doubling or tripling the payload. And because of the tyranny of the rocket equation, that means a much bigger rocket. Still plausible, but inconvenient. Then again, vacuum-adapted creatures probably laugh at humans hauling all that neutral gas around.


It's best to pack your own food (or food additives). Gene-tweaked humans can probably get by with a small pack of pills and requests for water and glucose, but it's not exactly high cuisine.

Each species needs to have its own experts. The life science technology of one species, no matter how advanced, might do absolutely nothing for the next species. First aid and emergency triage (e.g. basic medieval medicine) is probably cross-trainable, but everyone should carry their own first aid kit, ideally with instructions. Aliens can sell us a better microscope or fab up a few thousand litres of morphine, but they're probably baffled by white blood cells and drug interactions.

2020/07/30

OSR: Magical Industrial Revolution - UK/EU Copies

Good news! Print copies of the acclaimed Magical Industrial Revolution are now available with cheaper UK/EU shipping. Check out the SoulMuppet store!

Thanks to the power of bulk ordering, the price has been reduced from £50 to £40. Some minor typos were also fixed. Normally, people seem to fund reprints via a second Kickstarter or preorders. I didn't bother. Please don't make me regret turning several tens of dollars into a stack of dead trees... during the middle of a global pandemic...

And stay tuned for US/NA distribution news.

2020/07/27

An Elegy for Schlock Mercenary

Schlock Mercenary, a sci-fi space opera webcomic that's been running for 20 years, just ended.

I started reading Schlock Mercenary in 2001... I think. It's stuck in the same drawer of the mental file cabinet as 9/11, MIR deorbiting, and shitty internet. I think. It could have been 2002 or 2003.
(It's been around long enough for this statement (in the comments) to fly with absolute sincerity, for example.) Anything you read daily more than a decade is going to have some effect.

Schlock Mercenary stuck to the classic serialized newspaper comic strip format: a rectangular 3-4 panel strip Monday through Saturday and a square 9-12 panel strip every Sunday. Every strip needs to end with a joke. Every Sunday strip, in fine Calvin and Hobbes tradition, often needs two jokes, one for the first row and one for the whole strip.

This is an INSANE format to use to tell a story. It beats rhyming. It beats iambic pentameter. If you told Shakespeare that every 3rd line needed to be a pun, no matter what, he'd have thrown a rock at you because that's not how stories work.

To be fair, not all of the jokes are funny. Most of them earn a basic newspaper "heh" of approval, at best. But it's still an absolutely ludicrous accomplishment as a comedian, let alone as an artist, a promoter, and a publisher. 365 days x 20 years = 7,300 gags at a bare minimum.

I respect the work. I respect the craft - in my book, Schlock Mercenary is a perfect example of almost pure craft without too much art - and I respect the ability to plot, time, and deploy a story for two decades without missing a single update.
2002-03-07
While other people might idolize Schlock Mercenary as a webcomic, a work of sci-fi, or an internet barometer, to me it will always be an iconic Work. A Work on the value of Work, on the almost transcendental value of creating something from nothing day after day, week after week, with incremental improvements, with no excused or delays or gaps. Ever.

Like most icons, it sits above us weak and fleshy mortals, but it is something to aspire to.
 

Wait, Isn't This An RPG Blog?

Let's be honest, most of you struggle to keep a bi-weekly game going. Schlock Mercenary managed daily updates for two decades. There are probably some lessons worth learning.
   

Space Opera

Space Opera is, first and foremost, opera. That means people do things for plot reasons. Science just needs to pass the plausible scenery test. Coincidences happen. People make really bad choices. Things happen offscreen. The general plot can be reduced to a few broad sketches, such as "the heroes meet the old hermit" "the heroes are chased (comic relief)" " the heroes escape with the princess", without any quibbling about muzzle velocity, elevators, or logistics. It's opera.
 

The Rule of Arc Continuity

Always stay one villain ahead of your readers, or your players.

E.g. The PCs are investigating the Cult of Gral, who trade in smuggled diamonds. Midway through the conflict, when they've got some leverage but aren't yet ready to strike, they get a few tantalizing hints that the Cult of Gral is merely a front for / allied with  / afraid of the Oberon League. By the time the PCs resolve the Cult of Gral, they just starting to learn about the Oberon League, and by the time they have some leverage but aren't yet ready to strike, they get a few tantalizing hints that the Oberon League is merely...

And so on. There is always a bigger fish. Gods have their own problems, and fleas have other fleas to bite 'em.

The Darkest Magic


Schlock Mercenary frequently toed the line between "gratuitous and horrific violence" and "CNN special on webcomics corrupting the youth". As long as violence largely occurred offscreen, even if described onscreen, it was fine. That was part of the charm. That ever-present streak of dark humour inherent in mercenary work, or possibly sci-fi in general. Hard vacuum is a harsh mistress.

On the other hand, the first 2 books primarily use this technique for sex and/or poop jokes, so it's not exactly high art.

On the other other hand, the best kind of horror is the implication of impending doom, and there's plenty of that in Schlock Mercenary. Very little of it is cutting-edge sci-fi, but if you're not up to speed on cutting-edge sci-fi some bits will probably give you the willies. Suddenly realizing the implications of their actions - whether it's unlocking a prison instead of a tomb, stealing the wrong thing, or trusting the wrong person - is a state of affairs all good GMs live to inspire in their players.
 


The Idiot Ball

Schlock Mercenary is a space opera, and in opera, someone needs to hold the idiot ball. It's mandatory.

But amazingly, for the most part, nobody holds the ball longer than plausibly necessary. People make bad decisions for all the right reasons: limited information, panic, trauma, limited resources, hardwired programming, secret orders, or occasionally entirely plausible stupidity. People try to make good choices and, quite often, succeed.

And when people do realize they've been holding the idiot ball, they tend to try to throw the ball to someone else as quickly as possible. This is the true purpose of a villain's monologue; not to give the players time to plan, but to give them time to realize how flawed their original plan was, and what they can do about it.
 

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

The tetraport, the revolutionary galaxy-changing new method of faster-than-light travel, is introduced in the first handful of strips.

Twenty years later, it is not only relevant but pivotal. Ditto for the characters, no matter how many convolutions and clonings have occured since. The plots arc, but they always, in the end, arced. What was lobbed up came down, with the usual rounding to account for boring dead-end plot threads, one-off gags, and extremely subtle retcons.
  
The mercenaries need a cheap ship, so they buy one of H-bay. It turns out to have a hypergenius AI, Petey. July 27, 2001, Petey invents missiles that use the new tetraport system, more-or-less in the background, and the foreground-level characters go "oh shit, this is rather ominous". And indeed, it is ominous, all the way to 2020. Petey has worrying delusions of grandeur; ditto.

That's a fucking arc. It's like a Bach fugue in comic form. One concept elaborated on, with variations, in endlessly surprising ways.  
 

Visual Consistency

Speaking of once concept, tech in the Schlock-verse has a uniform visual language. Ships in Star Trek tend to look sleek, have nacelles and shields and lasers and operate in a level plane. Ships in Star Wars tend to look lived in, a bit like aircraft, and a bit like geometric shapes. Etc.

Tech that communicates, manipulates, or projects stuff in the Schlock-verse has yellow balls on sticks. Antimatter reactors (annie plants) are big blue spheres embedded in stuff. That's a visual language. If someone holds up a grey box with a yellow ball on a stick and presses the big red button on it, you know it's a detonator or a remote control. If a ship appears with giant blue balls (a joke I'm sure the strip made at some point, which should give you a calibration point for its humour), you know it's got serious reactors. Or more ominously, if it doesn't have annie-plants, you know something is up.

Visual consistency is hard in RPGs. Images exist in your players' heads. Art in RPG books is usually just for the GM, and relies on that GM noticing cues and relaying them consistently.

There are also a few brilliant comic-only visual gags, like characters prying themselves into frame or overwriting each others speech bubbles, or the jokes that start in one comic and end in the next.

2000-11-13
2001-11-08

"It's Got 'Schlock' In The Title, What Did You Expect?"

There's no dancing around it. The internet of 2000, and the nerd-o-sphere in general, was a very strange place. They say the past is a different country, and back then, it was mostly people who looked like they were built from the same video game character generator. Set the sliders one way, Gary Gygax. Set them the other way, Spider Robinson. That's the extent of the available options.

So there's a strong streak of Dilbert-style gender essentialism in Schlock Mercenary. It's a thousand years in the future, AI exist, and  but... women in a mercenary company? Who aren't interested in shopping? Etc.

Incremental change is tricky to track but around 2008, a few glimmerings of deeper thought appeared. By 2013, things had definitely started to change. The boob jokes tapered off. Some actually interesting questions about identity and memory started to creep into the comic.

Howard Tayler started writing Schlock Mercenary when he was 32. If you can do small-number math, that means he's now 52. That's a fairly good spread for an old dog learning some new tricks. One of my favorite internet humans, Sean "Day[9]" Plott, who's been streaming video games - a new-enough concept - for the better part of 11 years - said that we're in a weird stage of internet culture where we get to see people make mistakes but not learn from those mistakes. Maybe Schlock Mercenary was ahead of the curve. In a way, Schlock Mercenary is like watching the internet on fast forward. You get to see all the mistakes and growth at once, plotted in a digestible format.


About the Author 

In 20 years, I don't think I ever engaged with Schlock Mercenary on a meta-level. The author, Howard Tayler, is mostly an unknown to me, outside of standard comments and announcements.

His Wikipedia page doesn't have the ubiquitous "Controversy" section and a few cursory google searches didn't bring up anything shocking, so either he's done a good job covering his tracks or he hasn't done anything too heinous. Who can say?

What Is It About the American Midwest?

There's something eerily "Utah-Wyoming-Nebraska-Iowa-Wisconsin" about both
Schlock Mercenary and Dungeons and Dragons. Someone should write a paper on it. Astronauts come from Ohio. What is it about the midwest? The vast crushing gulfs of space? The sense of exploration and discovery? Sheer boredom?
 

An RPG, You Say?

Apparently there's a Planet Mercenary RPG. The PDF is $25. From a quick scan of available reviews, it doesn't seem to do anything superbly well, but it does seem to function.

It's probably not the system I'd use though, just out of my innate need to tinker and rebuild, and to tell a different story instead of sticking to some stifling "canon". After binging the entire archive, the compulsion to build - or steal - a better one is strong.
 

Final Notes

If you've got time to spare, give Schlock Mercenary a read. Either start from the beginning or hit the random button, read until you hit context you require, then skip backwards until you find that context.


2020/07/19

Book Notes: A Thousand Miles up the Nile vs. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

This post started as a collection of quotes comparing two interesting travelogues. It rapidly grew out of control.

One of the joys of the internet age is huge abundance of searchable texts. It's like magic! An entire library where looking up a quotation or tracking down a reference takes a few seconds. One of the downsides is the ability to sprawl. This post took nearly two months to write and, at the end of it, I am not at all convinced it was worth it.

Disclaimers
I am not a trained literary critic. I have read the two books reviewed in this post. I have not, as far as I know, read anything else by the authors, even when it would be useful. Any research is extremely superficial. I have the soul of a washing machine designer. You have been warned.


A Thousand Miles up the Nile

Full Text
 

Introduction

In 1872, at the age of 41, Amelia B. Edwards spent the summer exploring the Dolomites with her "friend and companion", Lucy Renshaw. Polite society, and Renshaw's "maid and courtier" disapproved of the journey, so they were simply left behind. They had a great time.

In 1873, after a disappointingly rainy journey through France, Edwards traveled to Egypt and travelled up the Nile. The journey was not unknown; tourists and explorers had trod the ground before, but it was still relatively perilous. They traveled from November to April, spending time with profligacy a modern tourist can only envy.

Edwards would later become, against fierce opposition, a leading Egyptologist. A Thousand Miles up the Nile, which she both wrote and illustrated, cemented her reputation.
 

Notes on the Text

The book clips along at a ferocious pace. Edwards does not waste words or inflate unimportant events. She looks outwards, not inwards, and back in time, not forward. A Thousand Miles up the Nile is both easy and pleasant to read.
For it is no easy task to realize, however imperfectly, the duration of six or seven thousand years ; and the Great Pyramid, which is supposed to have been some four thousand two hundred and odd years old at the time of the birth of Christ, is now in its seventh millennary. Standing there close against the base of it ; touching it ; measuring her own height against one of its lowest blocks ; looking up all the stages of that vast, receding, rugged wall, which leads upward like an Alpine buttress and seems almost to touch the sky, the Writer suddenly became aware that these remote dates had never presented themselves to her mind until this moment as anything but abstract numerals. Now, for the first time, they resolved themselves into something concrete, definite, real. They were no longer figures, but years with their changes of season, their high and low Niles, their seed-times and harvests. The consciousness of that moment will never, perhaps, quite wear away. It was as if one had been snatched up for an instant to some vast height overlooking the plains of Time, and had seen the centuries mapped out beneath one's feet. 
[...] 
The dais is covered with prayer-rugs, and contains the holy niche and the pulpit of the preacher. We observed that those who came up here came only to pray. Having prayed, they either went away or turned aside into one of the other recesses to rest. There was a charming fountain in the court, with a dome-roof as light and fragile-looking as a big bubble, at which each worshipper performed his ablutions on coming in.
Even her flights of picturesque fancy are interrupted by unpoetic statements. In the middle of a colourful parade of characters, a note on pipe prices. Not "four thousand years" but "four thousand two hundred and odd years". It's charming, like she's pulling herself back from falling head over heels into romantic rhapsody. Everything is factual, not because Edwards is writing a guidebook or a history, but because she seems to like facts. Tables of measurements, estimated dates, and explanatory footnotes lurk at the end of each chapter.
Coffee and tobacco are, indeed, the only luxuries in which the Egyptian peasant indulges ; and our poor fellows were never more grateful than when we distributed among them a few pounds of cheap native tobacco. This abominable mixture sells in the bazaars at sixpence the pound, the plant from which it is gathered being raised from inferior seed in a soil chemically unsuitable, because wholly devoid of potash.

[...]
So stately was the approach made by Rameses the Great to the temple founded about a hundred and fifty years before his time by Amenhotep III. He also built the courtyard upon which this pylon opened, joining it to the older part of the building in such wise that the original first court became now the second court, while next in order came the portico, the hall of assembly, and the sanctuary. By and by, when the long line of Rameses had passed away, other and later kings put their hands to the work. The names of Shabaka (Sabaco), of Ptolemy Philopater, and of Alexander the Younger, appear among the later inscriptions ; while those of Amenhotep IV (Khu-en-Aten), Horemheb, and Seti, the father of Rameses the Great, are found in the earlier parts of the building. It was in this way that an Egyptian temple grew from age to age, owing a colonnade to this king and a pylon to that, till it came in time to represent the styles of many periods. Hence, too, that frequent irregularity of plan, which, unless it could be ascribed to the caprices of successive builders, would form so unaccountable a feature in Egyptian architecture. In the present instance, the pylon and courtyard of Rameses II are set at an angle of five degrees to the courtyard and sanctuary of Amenhotep III. This has evidently been done to bring the Temple of Luxor into a line with the Temple of Karnak, in order that the two might be connected by means of that stupendous avenue of sphinxes, the scattered remains of which yet strew the course of the ancient roadway.
As I have already said, these half-buried pylons, this solitary obelisk, those giant heads rising in ghastly resurrection before the gates of the Temple, were magnificent still. But it was as the magnificence of a splendid prologue to a poem of which only garbled fragments remain. Beyond that entrance lay a smoky, filthy, intricate labyrinth of lanes and passages. Mud hovels, mud pigeon-towers, mud yards, and a mud mosque, clustered like wasps' nests in and about the ruins. Architraves sculptured with royal titles supported the roofs of squalid cabins. Stately capitals peeped out from the midst of sheds in which buffaloes, camels, donkeys, dogs, and human beings were seen herding together in unsavoury fellowship. Cocks crew, hens cackled, pigeons cooed, turkeys gobbled, children swarmed, women were baking and gossiping, and all the sordid routine of Arab life was going on, amid winding alleys that masked the colonnades and defaced the inscriptions of the Pharaohs. To trace the plan of this part of the building was then impossible.
[...]

Then as we drew nearer, coming by and by to a raised causeway which apparently connected the mounds with some point down by the river, the details of the Temple gradually emerged into distinctness. We could now see the curve and under-shadow of the cornice ; and a small object in front of the façade which looked at first sight like a monolithic altar, resolved itself into a massive gateway of the kind known as a single pylon. Nearer still, among some low outlying mounds, we came upon fragments of sculptured capitals and mutilated statues half-buried in rank grass – upon a series of stagnant nitre-tanks and deserted workshops – upon the telegraph poles and wires which here come striding along the edge of the desert and vanish southward with messages for Nubia and the Soudan.

Egypt is the land of nitre. It is found wherever a crude-brick mound is disturbed or an antique stone structure demolished. The Nile mud is strongly impregnated with it ; and in Nubia we used to find it lying in thick talc-like flakes upon the surface of rocks far above the present level of the inundation. These tanks at Denderah had been sunk, we were told, when the great Temple was excavated by Abbas Pasha more than twenty years ago. The nitre then found was utilised out of hand ; washed and crystallised in the tanks ; and converted into gunpowder in the adjacent workshops. The telegraph wires are more recent intruders, and the work of the Khedive ; but one longed to put them out of sight, to pull down the gunpowder sheds, and to fill up the tanks with débris. For what had the arts of modern warfare or the wonders of modern science to do with Hathor, the Lady of Beauty and the Western Shades, the Nurse of Horus, the Egyptian Aphrodite, to whom yonder mountain of wrought stone and all these wastes were sacred?
Edwards might wish the telegraph poles would vanish, but rarely, if ever, fetishizes poverty or unduly laments progress, except when it might disturb or destroy an ancient monument. She is an antiquarian and and Egyptologist. Everything that brought her to Egypt happened thousands of years ago. While she perceives echoes of the ancient word in the Egypt she visited, I don't believe she demanded the world stand still for her, or remain a perfect painting. She sometimes laments, fairly or unfairly, that the current inhabitants of ancient cities do not know or understand their heritage, and fought for the rest of her life to protect the sites from time, tourists, and foreign looters.

Edwards seems to be delighted, or at least amused, by what she sees. She recognizes that her view is tinted by picture-book pastoralism, shrugs wryly, and carries on.
But the Egyptian, Arab, and Turkish merchants, whether mingling in the general tide or sitting on their counters, are the most picturesque personages in all this busy scene. They wear ample turbans, for the most part white ; long vests of striped Syrian silk reaching to the feet ; and an outer robe of braided cloth or cashmere. The vest is confined round the waist by a rich sash ; and the outer robe, or gibbeh, is generally of some beautiful degraded color, such as maize, mulberry, olive, peach, sea-green, salmon-pink, sienna-brown, and the like. That these stately beings should vulgarly buy and sell, instead of reposing all their lives on luxurious divans and being waited upon by beautiful Circassians, seems altogether contrary to the eternal fitness of things. Here, for instance, is a Grand Vizier in a gorgeous white and amber satin vest, who condescends to retail pipe-bowls, – dull red clay pipe-bowls of all sizes and prices. He sells nothing else, and has not only a pile of them on the counter, but a binful at the back of his shop. They are made at Siout in Upper Egypt, and may be bought at the Algerine shops in London almost as cheaply as in Cairo. Another majestic Pasha deals in brass and copper vessels, drinking-cups, basins, ewers, trays, incense-burners, chafing-dishes, and the like ; some of which are exquisitely engraved with Arabesque patterns or sentences from the poets. A third sells silk from the looms of Lebanon, and gold and silver tissues from Damascus. Others, again, sell old arms, old porcelain, old embroideries, second-hand prayer-carpets, and quaint little stools and cabinets of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Here, too, the tobacco-merchant sits behind a huge cake of Latakia as big as his own body ; and the sponge-merchant smokes his long chibouk in a bower of sponges.
She knows what she is seeing and describing is picturesque and doesn't particularly care. She is not here to scrutinize, categorize, and judge. She makes no attempt to get inside the heads or weigh the souls of the people she meets; she just treats them, more or less, as people living their lives. She is here to look at some ruins, make some notes, and have a good time, in a living world that does not belong to her.
It is all so picturesque, indeed, so biblical, so poetical, that one is almost in danger of forgetting that the places are something more than beautiful backgrounds, and that the people are not merely appropriate figures placed there for the delight of sketchers, but are made of living flesh and blood, and moved by hopes, and fears, and sorrows, like our own.
But she is still an English traveler in 1874, and a scientifically literate one when "science" included some very odious theories.
Among the Shellalee, or Cataract villagers, one comes suddenly into the midst of a people that have apparently nothing in common with the population of Egypt. They belong to a lower ethnological type, and they speak a language derived from purely African sources. Contrasting with our Arab sailors the sulky-looking, half-naked, muscular savages who thronged about the Philæ during her passage up the Cataract, one could not but perceive that they are to this day as distinct and inferior a people as when their Egyptian conquerors, massing together in one contemptuous epithet all nations south of the frontier, were wont to speak of them as "the vile race of Kush."
As an ardent early feminist, Edwards comments on the condition of women in Egypt throughout her travels, but she is a reviewer, not a reformer.
The amount of "bazaar" that takes place whenever we enter one of these villages, is quite alarming. The dogs first give notice of our approach ; and presently we are surrounded by all the women and girls of the place, offering live pigeons, eggs, vegetable marrows, necklaces, nose-rings and silver bracelets for sale. The boys pester us to buy wretched half-dead chameleons. The men stand aloof, and leave the bargaining to the women. And the women not only know how to bargain, but how to assess the relative value of every coin that passes current on the Nile. Rupees, roubles, reyals, dollars and shillings are as intelligible to them as paras or piastres. Sovereigns are not too heavy nor napoleons too light for them. The times are changed since Belzoni's Nubian, after staring contemptuously at the first piece of money he had ever seen, asked "Who would give anything for that small piece of metal?"

[...]

We had little opportunity of observing domestic life in Egypt. L. visited some of the vice-regal hareems at Cairo, and brought away on each occasion the same impression of dreariness. A little embroidery, a few musical toys of Geneva manufacture, a daily drive on the Shubra road, pipes, cigarettes, sweetmeats, jewellery, and gossip, fill up the aimless days of most Egyptian ladies of rank. There are, however, some who take an active interest in politics ; and in Cairo and Alexandria the opera-boxes of the Khedive and the great Pashas are nightly occupied by ladies. But it is not by the daily life of the wives of princes and nobles, but by the life of the lesser gentry and upper middle-class, that a domestic system should be judged. These ladies of Ayserat had no London-built brougham, no Shubra road, no opera. They were absolutely without mental resources ; and they were even without the means of taking air and exercise. One could see that time hung heavy on their hands, and that they took but a feeble interest in the things around them. The hareem stairs were dirty ; the rooms were untidy ; the general aspect of the place was slatternly and neglected. As for the inmates, though all good-nature and gentleness, their faces bore the expression of people who are habitually bored. [...] It seemed to us that the wives of the Fellahîn were in truth the happiest women in Egypt. They work hard and are bitterly poor ; but they have the free use of their limbs, and they at least know the fresh air, the sunshine, and the open fields.
Perhaps crucially for a travelogue, A Thousand Miles up the Nile is funny. Edwards is capable of laughing at herself, at her absurdly privileged position as a traveler, and at her misfortunes, and that makes her story instantly relatable. West lets a hint of cosmic irony or sorrow creep into every humorous situation; Edwards has a good jolly uncomplicated laugh at things. Edwards writes like a happy person; West, as we will see in the second part of this review, writes like an unhappy one.
The camel has its virtues – so much at least must be admitted ; but they do not lie upon the surface. My Buffon tells me, for instance, that he carries a fresh-water cistern in his stomach ; which is meritorious. But the cistern ameliorates neither his gait nor his temper – which are abominable. Irreproachable as a beast of burden, he is open to many objections as a steed. It is unpleasant, in the first place, to ride an animal that not only objects to being ridden, but cherishes a strong personal antipathy to his rider. Such, however, is his amiable peculiarity. You know that he hates you, from the moment you first walk round him, wondering where and how to begin the ascent of his hump. He does not in fact, hesitate to tell you so in the roundest terms. He swears freely while you are taking your seat ; snarls if you but move in the saddle ; and stares you angrily in the face, if you attempt to turn his head in any direction save that which he himself prefers. Should you persevere, he tries to bite your feet. If biting your feet does not answer, he lies down.
Now the lying-down and getting-up of a camel are performances designed for the express purpose of inflicting grievous bodily harm upon his rider. Thrown twice forward and twice backward, punched in his "wind" and damaged in his spine, the luckless novice receives four distinct shocks, each more violent and unexpected than the last. For this "execrable hunchback" is fearfully and wonderfully made. He has a superfluous joint somewhere in his legs, and uses it to revenge himself upon mankind.
His paces, however, are more complicated than his joints and more trying than his temper. He has four:– a short walk, like the rolling of a small boat in a chopping sea ; a long walk which dislocates every bone in your body ; a trot that reduces you to imbecility ; and a gallop that is sudden death. One tries in vain to imagine a crime for which the peine forte et dure of sixteen hours on camel-back would not be a full and sufficient expiation. It is a punishment to which one would not willingly be the means of condemning any human being – not even a reviewer.
A Thousand Miles Up The Nile does not have a traditional concluding chapter. It begins as it ends, at Cairo. There is no summing up, no indulgent introspection, no moral lessons. The revised introduction to the second edition is mostly facts and updates.

I think Edwards learned a great deal about ancient Egypt during her journey, but if she learned anything about herself or about humanity, she either slid her insights into the text between visits to buried temples and adventures on the river or didn't think her readers would be interested in reading about them.
 

The Author's Personal Life

According to Wikipedia, "Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (7 June 1831 – 15 April 1892), also known as Amelia B. Edwards, was an English novelist, journalist, traveller and Egyptologist."

She traveled up the Nile with
Lucy Renshawe, referred to, in various biographical articles, as a "friend", "woman companion", "friend" again, "a wealthier single woman" (PDF link), or simply not mentioned at all.


If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels, then Lucy Renshawe travelled everywhere Amelia Edward did... but also had to live with Amelia Edwards, which cannot have been easy at times.


The first breadcrumb on the casual research trail came from a 2018 article in the Morning Star, which, as far as I can tell, lifted its material wholesale from this 2016 Historic England article, mangling details in the process. Shame on you, anonymous Morning Star author.



Original
Her friend, author and critic John Addington Symonds, told sexologist Havelock Ellis that Amelia Edwards ‘made no secret to me of her Lesbian tendencies’, and had formed a ménage with an ‘English lady’ and her clergyman husband. ‘Miss Edwards told me that one day the husband married her to his wife at the altar of his church – having full knowledge of the state of affairs.’ These were probably Mr and Mrs Byrne, whose departure from the area was ‘like a death-blow’ to Edwards. (The 1871 census shows John and Ellen Byrne living at 7 Cambridge Park, Bristol.)

The Morning Star's Rewrite

As well as writing ghost stories and travel books, Amelia seems to have made no secret of her unconventional sexual orientation. Some modern biographers have tried to hide this aspect of her life but Edwards never did.

Her friend, the author and critic John Addington Symonds, told Henry Havelock Ellis that she made no secret of her lesbian lifestyle.

Havelock Ellis was in 1897 co-author of the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality and he also published works on a variety of sexual orientations and inclinations.

She told both Symonds and Ellis she had formed a menage a trois with an English woman and her clergyman husband. Symonds said she told him that one day the husband had married Edwards to his wife at the altar of his church.

This unconventional bisexual couple were almost certainly John Rice Byrne and Ellen Byrne who the 1871 census shows as living at 7 Cambridge Park, Bristol. He was a clergyman and school inspector. When they moved away from Bristol, Edwards told Symonds it was like a death blow.
Newspapers and websites aren't under any obligation to cite their sources, so I have no idea where this information came from, or what references I can follow. It's possible it was lifted from the 2006 biography "More Usefully Employed. Amelia B. Edwards: Writer, Traveller and Campaigner for Ancient Egypt". I'd like to confirm the citations and clear up a few strange inconsistencies in online biographies, but interlibrary loans are suspended due to COVID and I can't justify buying the book just to satisfy idle curiosity.
Her friend Kate Bradbury (quoted by Margaret Drower in Petrie, page 199) once observed to Petrie that Amelia Edwards "did not love many people for all her seeming geniality." She went on to tell him that he was one of perhaps three people she was very fond of, but that Edward's had stated she "might just as well be fond of a young obelisk." This sad observation tells us as much about Edwards as it does of the brilliant and arrestingly handsome Petrie.
-PDF
Wikipedia doesn't mention any of this, but it does note that Edwards was buried next to  "her life partner of 30 years, Ellen Drew Braysher." The cited BBC article honouring her doesn't offer any details. Biographical information on Braysher is hard to find, but curiously, Matilda Betham-Edwards dedicated an 1884 book of poetry to Ellen Drew Braysher.
To Ellen Drew Braysher
As some fond traveller should bring a bride,
Late gained, sole loved, from some sweet southern land,
And half with humbleness and half with pride,
Through homely scenes of youth her footsteps guide,
So dear, I crave your grace and take your hand,
And pray you wander through the Past with me,
Less able every step to understand
How aught of beauty or delight could be
Reflected in the life that knew not thee!

Once again, according to Wikipedia, Betham-Edwards is "
often cited in anthologies of lesbian poetry, but there is no strong evidence that she had lesbian tendencies."

There's a trend to say "I don't get why Wikipedia isn't allowed as a reliable source." Well this is why!


One final note. By a truly staggering coincidence (or a hitherto-undocumented comical abundance of Victorian lesbian couples
in their 40s), the pair ran into Marianne Brockelhurst and her "lady companion" Mary Booth.

Close behind the Philæ lies the 'Bagstones,' – a neat little dahabeeyah in the occupation of two English ladies who chanced to cross with us in the 'Simla' from Brindisi, and of whom we have seen so much ever since that we regard them by this time as quite old friends in a strange land. I will call them the M. B.'s
The past is a very strange country.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Full Text

Introduction

In 1937, at the age of 45, Rebecca West returned to Yugoslavia with her husband. It was the equivalent of visiting Pompeii in September 79 AD. It is difficult to imagine a more ominous time and place. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is stitched together from three separate trips, with copious edits and invented speeches.

Notes On The Text

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, ostensibly a travelogue, spits in the eye of genre restrictions. It is at least a dozen books at once. Rebecca West was, in spirit if not in fact, one of the Algonquin Round Table set. She turned phrases like a chairmaker turns legs.
When we were driving out of the town I said, ‘I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else. They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.’ ‘I do not think you can convince mankind,’ said my husband, ‘that there is not a certain magnificence about a great empire in being.’ ‘Of course there is,’ I admitted, ‘but the hideousness outweighs the beauty. You are not, I hope, going to tell me that they impose law on lawless people. Empires live by the violation of law.’
Did they really talk like this? Of course not; this is one of the shorter speeches in the book, and in real life, someone always trips over a rope or says "hrm" and wanders off. Terribly clever people saying terribly clever things never seems to work out. Events pass them by.
Side note: As a blogger, this is moderately concerning.
West assumes she knows what people are thinking, and why they are doing what they are doing. Empathy becomes truth. 
Here in Mostar the really adventurous part of our journey began. Something that had been present in every breath we drew in Dalmatia and Croatia was absent when we woke the next morning, and dressed and breakfasted with our eyes on the market square beneath our windows. It might be identified as conformity in custom as well as creed. The people we were watching adhered with intensity to certain faiths. They were Moslem, they were Catholic, they were Orthodox. About marriage, about birth, about death, they practised immutable rites, determined by these faiths and the older faiths that lie behind them. But in all other ways they were highly individualistic. Their goings and comings, their eating and drinking, were timed by no communal programme, their choice of destiny might be made on grounds so private as to mean nothing to any other human being. Such an attitude showed itself in the crowds below us in a free motion that is the very antithesis in spirit to what we see when we watch people walking to their work over London Bridge in the morning. It showed too in their faces, which always spoke of thought that was never fully shared, of scepticism and satire and lyricism that felt no deed to have been yet finally judged.
[...]

We were joined by the Danish seller of agricultural machinery, who regarded us with a benevolence that was galling. We had the impression that he had just received information that we were completely harmless and unimportant, and that in any case even if we had some grain of significance we were leaving, so it did not matter.

And it is beautiful, but is it true?

Does it need to be true? Is she writing about Mostar or about herself? Throughout the book, West expressly tells us very little about herself; her husband is not even named. Yet you'd have to have a stone head not to realize the narrative is deeply introspective. If she's writing about herself, if the ponderous bulk of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an internal spiritual journey using real places and people as metaphors, then is the result worth it?

Is it an act of supreme egotism or supreme humility to reimagine the history of a nation as the history of your own life?
 
West is a supremely confident critic of art, embroidery, light, distance, plants, weather, and livestock. And for all I know her judgements might be perfectly correct. Her lifelong record of extreme praise or concentrated acid suggests it might not be so.
 

Things Yet To Come

There are only two kinds of literary prediction.
1. Vague prediction. E.g. "One day Egypt will fall."
2. Specific after-the-fact prediction. E.g. "The king will choke on a fish bone and his junior ministers will fight to replace him."

If this book was written in 1937 and left untouched until publication in 1941, as West seems to occasionally imply, it would be a remarkable work of prediction and break all cynical patterns. If, on the other hand, it was broadly sketched in 1937 but ammended in 1941 before publication, the predictions and insights of the author become retrospective judgements, but a retrospective judgement of 1941, while bombs fall on London and the world hangs in the balance, is not the same as a retrospective judgment of 1956.

The first chapter, treated as a sort of allegorical vignette, is superb.

This tunnel represents no real frontier. They were still in Austria, and they had left Germany early that morning. Yet when we came out on the other side all the four Germans began to talk quickly and freely, as if they no longer feared something. [...] They all began to tell each other how badly they had needed this holiday they were taking, and what pension terms they were going to pay, and by what date they had to be back in Germany, and to discuss where they were allowed to go as tourists and how much money they would have been allowed if they had gone to other countries and in what form they would have had to take it. The regulations which bound them were obviously of an inconvenient intricacy, for they frequently disputed as to the details; and indeed they frequently uttered expressions of despair at the way they were hemmed in and harried.

It appeared that he owned an apartment house in Berlin, and had for six months been struggling with a wholly unforeseen and inexplicable demand for extra taxes on it. He did not allege that the tax was unjust. He seemed to think that the demand was legal enough, but that the relevant law was so complicated, and was so capriciously interpreted by the Nazi courts, that he had been unable to foresee how much he would be asked for, and was still quite at a loss to calculate what might be exacted in the future. He had also had a great deal of trouble dealing with some undesirable tenants, whose conduct had caused frequent complaints from other tenants, but who were members of the Nazi Party. He left it ambiguous whether he had tried to evict the undesirable tenants and had been foiled by the Nazis, or if he had been too frightened even to try to get redress.

At that the manufacturer and his wife sighed, and said that they could understand. The man spoke with a great deal of reticence and obviously did not want to give away exactly what his business was, lest he get into difficulties; but he said with great resentment that the Nazis had put a director into his company who knew nothing and was simply a Party man in line for a job. He added, however, that what he really minded was the unforeseeable taxes. He laughed at the absurdity of it all, for he was a brave and jolly man; but the mere fact that he stopped giving us details of his worries, when he was obviously extremely expansive by temperament, showed that his spirit was deeply troubled.

[...]

They were all of them falling to pieces under the emotional and intellectual strain laid on them by their Government, poor Laocoöns strangled by red tape. It was obvious that by getting the population into this state the Nazis had guaranteed the continuance of their system; for none of these people could have given any effective support to any rival party that wanted to seize power, and indeed their affairs, which were thoroughly typical, were in such an inextricable state of confusion that no sane party would now wish to take over the government, since it would certainly see nothing but failure ahead. Their misery seemed to have abolished every possible future for them.

[...]
Sighing deeply, he said, evidently referring to something about which he had not spoken, ‘The worst of life under the Nazis is that the private citizen hasn’t any liberty, but the officials haven’t any authority either.’ It was curious that such a sharply critical phrase should have been coined by one whose attitude was so purely passive; for he had spoken of all the forces that had tormented him as if they could not have been opposed, any more than thunder or lightning.

 
A National Poem 

Because she is writing an epic, she ascribes national, international, or cosmic importance to the most trivial events. Every hotel, boat, and restaurant is stretched to its very limits. The result is sometimes tedious, but when it works, it really works. The most enjoyable bits of the book, to me, are the extended historical rhapsodies.

Because this is my blog, and your monitor isn't running out of ink, here's one of my favorite sections in full.

Belgrade was at once bombarded. An army of three hundred and fifty thousand men fought a rearguard action, without big guns to answer their enemy’s artillery, with so few arms that some regiments had but one rifle to two men. They gave up Belgrade, their only town, their earnest that they were Byzantium reborn materially as well as spiritually, and pressed back, bitter and amazed. But Belgrade did not fall. It was left to be defended by a single division commanded by a colonel, who blew up the iron bridge across the Danube so that it blocked the river against Austrian traffic, and dressed the customs officials and such townsfolk as remained in extemporized uniforms so that Austrian spies reported a large garrison; and by a miracle it remained intact when the Serbian Army turned on its tracks, and, to the world’s amazement, sprang at the Austrians’ throats and drove them out of the country in less than a month. They even invaded Austrian territory and set foot in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb parts of Hungary, and the Frushka Gora itself.

But the Austrian Empire had numbers. It had at this moment little else; it had so little virtue or wisdom or even common sense that again and again the student must marvel that this was the same state as eighteenth-century Austria. But what it had it used, and it sent back its armies in September. This time they enjoyed a certain disgraceful advantage. During the first invasion they had laid waste the country, pillaging the crops, burning the houses, murdering the civil population: at least three hundred and six women are known to have been executed, as well as many people over eighty and children under five. So the Serbian Army had this time to retreat over a devastated countryside which could give it no food and offered it much discouragement, not diminished by the floods of civilian refugees, some Serbian, some from the Slav parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all hungry and footsore and with tales to tell of the enemy’s malign brutality. There might have been panic had it not been for the spirit of the Karageorgevitches and the higher command. King Peter hobbled up to some troops that were wavering under artillery fire to which their army had no answer, and said to them, after the manner of a Homeric general, ‘Heroes, you have taken two oaths: one to me, your king, and one to your country. From the first I release you, from the second no man can release you. But if you decide to return to your homes, and if we should be victorious, you shall not be made to suffer.’

They did not go. To lead them General Mishitch, the grave and reluctant regicide whom King Peter had refused to dismiss, now appointed fourteen hundred young students as non-commissioned officers. Of these boys, who before the war had been studying at Belgrade, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, and Paris, one hundred and forty survived the war. Arms came suddenly to this army, sent from England. These men who were so spent that they no longer lived by their experience but by what is known to our common human stock, these boys who had no experience at all and therefore were also thrown back on that same primitive knowledge, alike they forgot the usual prudent opinion that dying is disagreeable, and valued death and life and honour as if they were heroes who had died a thousand years before or gods who were under no necessity to die. They flung themselves again on the Austrians. By the end of December they had retaken Belgrade. They took down the Hungarian flag that had floated above the palace and laid it on the steps of the Cathedral when King Peter went with his generals to the mass of thanksgiving for victory. They had to thank the Lord for a real suspension of natural law; for when the Austrians had withdrawn over the frontiers there remained behind rather more Austrian prisoners of war than there were Serbian soldiers.

It is not known what King Peter thought of the future. In his old age he had become more of a Serb, and the Genevan mark was not so strong as it had been. He was now wholly a warrior king, a Nemanya reborn. But it is said that the Crown Prince Alexander, the pale and pedantic graduate of St Petersburg Military Academy, knew that the victory was no more than a breathing-space, and that there must follow another assault, which would mean defeat. This certainly must have become a growing horror when it was manifest that the country had received a wound deeper than any that could be inflicted by military action. Some of the Austrian troops had come from parts of Galicia where typhus was endemic, and they had brought the germs with them. Where food was scarce, water was polluted, and vast districts were littered with dead men and animals far beyond the power of scavenging, the fever spread. The hospital system, particularly in the recovered Turkish provinces, was utterly unable to cope with this inundation of disease, and indeed it killed a third of all Serbian doctors. There came out several foreign sanitary units, of which Dr Elsie Inglis’s Scottish Women’s Hospital left an imperishably glorious name. Alexander, himself sickening of an internal malady, spent his days travelling up and down the country organizing a medical service.

[...]
In September the invasion began. By October the Serbian Army, which now numbered a quarter of a million men, was faced with three hundred thousand Austro-German troops, under the great strategist Mackensen, and as many Bulgarians. It was now necessary for the country to die. The soldiers retreated slowly, fighting a rearguard action, leaving the civil population, that is to say their parents, wives, and children, in the night of an oppression that they knew to be frightful. Monks came out of the monasteries and followed the soldiers, carrying on bullock-carts, and on their shoulders where the roads were too bad, the coffined bodies of the medieval Serbian kings, the sacred Nemanyas, which must not be defiled. So was carried King Peter, whose rheumatic limbs were wholly paralysed by the cold of autumn; and so too, before the retreat was long on its way, was Prince Alexander. The internal pain that had vexed him all year grew so fierce that he could no longer ride his horse. Doctors took him into a cottage and he was operated on for appendicitis. Then he was packed in bandages wound close as a shroud, and put on a stretcher and carried in the procession of the troops. It is like some fantastic detail in a Byzantine fresco, improbable, nearly impossible, yet a valid symbol of a truth, that a country which was about to die should bear with it on its journey to death, its kings, living and dead, all prostrate, immobile.

The retreating army made its last stand on the field of Kossovo, where a short time before, in a different dream of the Creator, it had known victory: where the Tsar Lazarevitch had proved that defeat can last five hundred years. Above them circled enemy aeroplanes, evil’s newest instrument. After a last rearguard action to shake off the Bulgarians, they turned to the wall of Montenegrin and Albanian mountains that rises between Kossovo and the Adriatic. [...] When they came to the foot of the mountains the weeping gunners destroyed their guns with hand grenades and burning petrol. The motor-drivers drove their cars and lorries up to a corner where the road became a horse-trail on the edge of the precipice, jumped out, and sent them spinning into space. Then all set out on foot to cross the five-thousand-foot peaks that lay between them and the sea. Some took other routes, but on any of the roads their fate was the same. They trudged in mud and snow over the mountain passes, the December wind piercing their ragged uniforms. Many fell dead, some died of hunger. They were passing through one of the poorest parts of Europe, and the inhabitants had little to sell them, and in any case were instructed to withhold what they had by the King of Montenegro, who, though he was Serbia’s ally and King Peter’s father-in-law, had come to a treacherous understanding with Austria. The Serbians ate the raw flesh of the animals which fell dead by the track, they ate their boots. Some died of dysentery. Some were shot by Albanian snipers. Of the quarter of a million Serbian soldiers, one hundred thousand met such deaths. Of thirty-six thousand boys nearing military age who had joined the retreat to escape the Austrians, over twenty thousand perished on this road. Of fifty thousand Austrian and German prisoners, who had had to follow the Serbians because their own military authorities had refused to exchange them, the greater part never came down from the mountains.
T. B. Macaulay said, of his own poem, " 'Horatius at the Bridge' is too long a poem for children to memorize. But I never saw a boy who did not want some stanzas of it.:" There's a bit of that in West's work. You want to memorize it. Who gives a damn if it's "true".

West admired Proust, and it shows, but Proust's work is almost too easy to read (in translation; I'm sure my comically slow attempts to struggle through the original French do the work no favours.) In Search of Lost Time feels like falling through cotton wool. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon feels closer to the Arabian Nights; tales within tales within tales. Cicily Fairfield, who is Rebecca West, tells the story of Constantine telling the story of an old man from his village telling the story of a saint who, one half-expects, will start telling the story of Rebecca West.
 
 

Ethnonationalist Divisions

Yes.

Look, I've rewritten and deleted this section four times, and I cannot secrete the brain chemicals for a fifth attempt. In one chapter, West condemns a policy. In the next, with a different group, she supports it, with no apparent realization of the contradiction. It is impossible to read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon outside the shadow of the '90s. It's like looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope.

West divides people into categories, assigns qualities (often inconsistently), and sticks with them, with the detachment of the botanist and the sensitivity of a poet. She picks favorites and makes bold predictions. Buckets of Blood with a capital B. As far as any coherent pattern can be discerned in her claims, history took a different path. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is like the Bible; For any given quotation there is an equal and opposite counterquotation. No wonder Penguin got Christopher Hitchens to write their introduction! It's a book that's as complicated as real life; no one can hold all the pieces in their mind at once.

West, in fine romantic tradition, often imagines an all inclusive Hobbesian struggle of group against group, capital-letter against capital-letter. At the same time, with that classic internal duality, she seems to recognize that humanity is mostly made up of muddlers and bunglers who one day find, with a mixture of surprise and resignation, barbed wire in the garden and a machine gun in the loft.

 


The Author's Personal Life

Amelia Edwards has limited and sometimes inaccurate biographical material online, possibly because she lead a private life, possibly because her early biographers sanitized her life. Rebecca West has the opposite problem. This review in the Globe and Mail is a decent negative-to-neutral survey of her life.

Bullet points are the only solution. My "research" is very limited. I've skimmed a few biographies and articles, but I wouldn't use this as an authoritative list, and if there are some staggering inaccuracies I wouldn't be at all surprised.
  • 1912: Age 20: Wrote a critical review of H.G Wells which attracted his interest. Wells was 46 and married. The affair lasted 10 years.
  • 1922 (?): Age 30(?): Lord Beaverbrook.
  • 1923 (?): Age 31(?): "a lanky banker from California named Steven Martin". Died, apparently.
  • 1924: Age 32. Had an apparently brief affair with John Gunther. Gunther was 23.
  • 1930: Age 37. Married Henry Maxwell Andrews. According to some sources, Andrews suffered an undetected stroke two years into their relationship, leading to eccentric and impulsive behavior. On the other hand, eccentric and impulsive behavior was not uncommon among West's set. On the other other hand, Time magazine in 1947 said "her devoted husband" had "a cool, scholarly, finely whetted mind", which almost certainly means he was a gibbering lunatic.
  • 1934: Age 41. Brief affair with surgeon Thomas Kilner, age 34, who she describes in her letters (which I have not read) as “that horrible cheating sadistic little creature.”
  • 1946. Age 54. Brief affair with Francis Biddle, leading American judge at the Nuremberg trials, age 60.
And, apparently, at some point in the '20s, a brief affair with Charlie Chaplin (whose marriages and affairs are at least as notorious as Wells'). And some entirely pointless flirtation with Noël Coward.

None of these liaisons lead to any lasting happiness.

West is full of contradictions. She loathed T.S. Eliot as a pseudo-intellectual fraud and a "poseur",  "detesting his phony erudition". (The God That Failed, Rollyson). Yet, late in her life, in an interview with the New York Times, she goes off on a tangent about quarks that feels as phony and hollow as anything Eliot wrote). (She is studying quantum mechanics for a new book).
''Your early journalism,'' I posit, ''which a new generation will now read in 'Young Rebecca,' is militantly feminist. How do you view women's lot today?''
''If you want to be a woman in the fullest sense, and have a husband and a family, or a lover and a family, the problem is slightly different now. Husbands and wives become united against the material difficulties of life, I think. And the extraordinary thing is that the great enemy of feminism is that it's traditional that men don't like housework. And so few women do.''
''Is there a solution?'' ''Well, the physicists talk about quarks. ... If we could have an army of invisible quarks ... we could just watch and the sink would suddenly become clean. Wouldn't that be wonderful?''
Her strict dualism is evident in her attitude towards homosexuality in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Men are men and do manly things; women are women and do womanly things. All is right and proper. Homosexuals are either effeminate men or masculine women, and therefore abominable. They are doomed to spread unhappiness. It seems quaint now, and considering West's friendship with Noël Coward and Frankie Howerd, it probably became quaint to her as well. West was never particularly good at sticking to any given position, but she never seems to have adopted the middle ground on any issue. Lords and peasants, God and the devil, the past and the future, West and East.

As a critic, West has the advantage of firing superbly crafted shots in all directions. It's inevitable she'll skewer an author you dislike, so you forgive her when she wounds an author you admire. Nothing is merely passable; it is either ambrosia or muck. It's a technique not unknown to modern ad-revenue-driven online reviewers.
Incautious would be the man, but still more the woman, who incurred the fine wrath of Rebecca West. Her ability to appraise historical and global figures as if she had recently been personally oppressed or insulted by them was a great assistance in driving her narrative forward." 
-Introduction to the Penguin edition.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is extremely long. If you want to skip chapters (as is your right), I suggest reading Chapter 1: Journey, Chapter 2. Croatia (Two Castles), Chapter 4 (Split I-III), and Chapter 7. Serbia (Belgrade VII), Chapter 10. Montenegro, and then the (very critical) introduction to the Penguin version.
 

For scale.

Bonus Book: Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics

Full Text

In a few places, and to a limited degree, Rebecca West's examination of the Balkans reminded me of of a section of Edith Sitwell's book English Eccentrics (available online here, my notes here). The Reverend's microscopic and timid view that assigned cosmic importance to perfectly ordinary and commonplace events feels like an unintentional parody of some of West's more lyric passages.

The Reverend Henry Blaine, Minister of the Gospel at Tring in Hertfordshire, for instance, found his journey to Ramsgate was not only full of the most perilous incidents, but also that it served him as a model on which to build a Tract, in which he compared the dangers of the voyage to the perils of the Soul in her Earthly Journal, etc. The Reverend Mr Blaine must have been an enchanting acquaintance, if we may judge by the Tract in question, though I imagine the enchantment would be realized only when it was past. When present, it may have been a little too continual.
The tract which I have culled from, Mr John Ashton’s Eighteenth-Century Waifs, contains fifty-four pages, and begins thus:

‘In hopes of recovering that invaluable blessing, health, on Friday, 10 August, 1787, I embarked on board the ship Friends bound for Ramsgate, in Kent. I had heard there was such a place; and many had raised my expectations by their reports of the efficacy of sea-bathing; and others encouraged my hopes by repeating their own experiences of benefit received. By these means I was induced to determine on this little voyage. It reminded me of the never-to-be-forgotten season, when, urged by some motives, and impelled by a power unseen, but not unfelt, I entered on board that stately vessel which the Lord’s prophet saw in a storm. Isaiah liv, II.’

This is a sample of the tract. He then goes on to say: ‘While we waited for the time of sailing [for different purposes, I suppose], many came to board, and appeared, to me at least, as if they intended to embark with us; but they left not the harbour, but, urged by other occasions and inducements they took leave of their friends and departed; while we, who were bound for a distant place, kept steady to our purpose, turned our backs upon home and waited patiently for the gentle breeze and driving tide to convey us to the desired port.

[...] 
‘When we drew towards the conflux of the river Thames, there were two objects that attracted our notice; the one, the King’s guardship, placed there for the purpose of good economy; the other a large painted vessel, which floated on the surface of the water, and is called a buoy. While we were passing the King’s ship, I heard the report of a cannon, and saw the flash of the charge at some distance; and, on inquiring the reason of such a circumstance, was informed it was customary for every ship which passed, by way of obedience, to lower her topsail; but the firing of the gun made them hasten to show their obedience, for fear of a more unfavourable salute; for, though a flash of powder might give us some alarm, the discharge of a ball might make us feel the effects of disobedience. . . . Hitherto the generality of our company appeared to carry jollity and mirth in their countenance; but now we began to see the blushing rose die in the sickly cheek, and several of our passengers began to feel the sickening effects of the rolling sea; they withdrew from their mirth, and in pleasure crept into a corner, and silently mourned their lost pleasures in solitude. . . . Thrice happy the souls who are by Divine grace made sick of unsatisfying objects, and seek and find permanent bliss in the friendship of Immanuel.

[...]

‘When we had safely landed our passengers at Margate, we weighed anchor at eleven o’clock at night, in order to sail round the North Foreland for Ramsgate. The North Foreland is a point of land which stretches out some way into the sea, and is the extreme part of our country on the right hand, when we sail down the river Thames; and sailing round the point into the British Channel is esteemed by sailors rather dangerous. However, there was danger enough to awaken the apprehensions of a freshwater sailor. Yet here with some degree of confidence in Him who exercises His power over the sea and dry land, I laid me down and slept in quietness, while the rattling waves drove against the sides of our vessel, and the rustling winds shook our sails and made our yielding masts to speak. I was led to reflect that now there was but a feeble plank between me and the bottomless deep, yet, by a reliance on the divine goodness, my fears were hushed, and a divine calm prevailed within. “Thou will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee. . . .” Isaiah xxvi, 3.

‘On Saturday morning, I awoke and heard a peaceful sound from shore, which informed me it was two o’clock; and, inquiring where we were, I found we were safe anchored within the commodious harbour of Ramsgate. Being so early an hour, we again composed ourselves to sleep, and lay till five o’clock; then leaving our sleeping apartment, and mounting the peaceful deck—not like the frighted sailor, who leaves the horrid hulk to view a thousand deaths from winds, and waves, and rocks, without a friendly shore in view, but to see one of the finest retreats from all these dangers, which Providence has provided for the safety of those who are exposed to the violence and rage of angry elements. The commodious Pier of Ramsgate seems admirably calculated to shelter and protect vessels which are threatened with destruction from winds and waves. This beautiful piece of architecture is built in the form of a Crescent, or half-moon, the points of which join to the land. The whole of this building of utility appeared to bear a clear resemblance to the glorious Mediator in his offices, who is appointed for a refuge from the storm. . .

‘By six in the morning we went on shore, and joyfully met our friends, who were brought down the day before; but in their passage were overtaken by a violent storm of thunder and lightning, whilst our voyage was smooth and prosperous; but, in the morning, we all met in peace and safety. Thus we sat down to a friendly breakfast, and cheerfully talked over the adventures of the little voyage. Something like this, I think, may take place in the state of blessedness. . . . While we were thus employed, we consulted how to dispose of ourselves while we continued at Ramsgate; we naturally agreed to form ourselves into a little family, and though we could not all lodge, yet we wished to board together in the same house. This is a pleasing instance of bonne camaraderie engendered, in a short time, among agreeable companions.
Or perhaps there's something universal in all travel, from the length of the Nile to the whole of the Balkans to a jaunt down the Thames.


Concluding Notes

We have West, who is extensively biographied, by official chroniclers, her fiction, her son, and swarms of admiring or venemous critics. She frequently felt like a martyr to her principles, and, it seems, didn't mind letting people know how she felt. In a world dominated by men, she fought hard and visibly for a prominent place. She loved unconventionally, knowing what she wanted in men, and it made her miserable.

And then we have Edwards, who is lightly biographied (and with older biographies apparently eager to "sanitize" her personal life). She did not seek martyrdom; she wanted to live. In a world dominated by men, she did not visibly - at least in this book - brawl, but took her place with unshakable confidence, as if by sovereignty of nature. She loved unconventionally and, as far as I can tell, it made her happy.
You get the feeling that you'd like West to write about you, positively or not. How would you be sketched or caricatured? What essential elements would she draw out? Or you feel like writing about your journeys and your friends the way West wrote about her friends, amplifying every coffee shop and polishing every witty remark.

But I'd much rather travel with Edwards. It would be exhausting, and some choice words would be exchanged on the subject of yet another pre-dawn donkey ride to some damn obelisk or another, but she'd deal with adversity cheerfully and always have an educational anecdote ready to fill an awkward silence. With West, I feel like I'd quote the Principia Discordia at her, then fling myself out of a moving train and spread my brains over the countryside while she responded with some devastatingly accurate counterpoint.

Is it better to be viewed as an object to be admired or a subject to by psycoanalyzed? To be distantly sketched or vividly skewered?

Is it better to conceal your opinions and let time and softening memories keep you ever on the right side, or write them down every bold prediction and temporary certainty? It's very easy to laugh at people who make predictions - fun too - but if you had to write down your views on any given subject, no matter how trivial, how would they turn out in a few years or decades? How many wild inconsistencies would future critics find? And if people started to take you seriously, how seriously would you take yourself?

And what the hell was the point of all this anyway?
 

Final Notes

In the myth, the Prophet Elijah (in the form of a grey falcon) offered Prince Lazar a choice between a humiliating defeat that would nevertheless ensure his personal salvation, and victory and temporal peace. He chose defeat and paradise. "All was holy, all was honorable. / And the goodness of God was fulfilled." And West detested him for it.

In game design, accepted wisdom says the worst possible rating is 6/10. It's far more useful to get a 1/10 or a 10/10. A 6, a "meh, it's OK, but nothing special" is significantly worse than rabid loathing or toe-curling delight. A strong reaction ties people to your game; a decent, better-than-middle-of-the-road rating ensures your work will be forgotten.

In the internet rationalism crowd, the successors of the Fabian society and the Algonquin Round Table as far as I can tell, all the leading lights seem to lead deeply unhappy lives. People who claim profound insights into the clashes of nations and the arc of human existence live in squalid apartments strewn with the wreckage of failed relationships and dead-end careers. The conclusion is obvious; the more you analyze your life and your desires, the less happy you become. There's some sort of bell curve. Analyze a bit, then hit the brakes, lest you think yourself into a tragedy.
 

I might read A Thousand Miles up the Nile again, but I doubt it, unless I have a specific reference to look up or a quote I'd like to use.

I will almost certainly reread, and reread, and reread, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Which one chose defeat and paradise? Which one chose victory?