Historical Science in Science Fiction

Say the phrase “science fiction”. What do you see? I would bet an image of the Universe has appeared in your mind. The science of science fiction is most often associated with the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, medicine, biology. The fiction of science fiction seeks to answer the seemingly eternal question of what it means to be a human being. However, the natural sciences do not primarily exist to answer the question posed by science fiction. The science that exists to answer the question of what it means to be a human being is historical science.

Historical science is an academic discipline dedicated to the study of human activity. The aim of historical science is to answer the question of why human society is organized the way it is and what role human beings, as groups or as individuals, have played in the historical process. Historical science does this by applying theories and historical methodology to written documents produced by human beings who lived in the past. The theories applied by historians are taken from a vast array of sciences. The most interesting application of a theory to an historical process, that I have come across, is the application of the theory of relativity to the creation of a feminist movement in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Historical science thrives on investigating and interpreting civilizations that are alien to us. Although these civilizations once existed on Earth, because they existed in the past their culture, laws, language, morals and ethics can be far removed from ours. My field of expertise is urban history in Europe and North America. To be able to understand how and why cities appeared in Europe more than 2,000 years ago, I have to step outside of myself in the 21st century and wrap my head around the civilization that existed at that time. As I have stated previously on this blog, this mind exercise is equivalent to time travel. Once the temporal destination has been reached, I then have to learn how to interpret a civilization different from my own. Truly, it is as if I am stepping out of a TARDIS.

Historical science offers a way to answer the question of what it means to be a human being. For example:

Historical science asks the question why past societies differ from ours.

Historical science asks why our way of interpreting our surroundings is different from the interpretations prevalent many centuries ago.

Historical science asks the question what it is to be woman or a man. The views have differed through the centuries and are not necessarily the way we choose to categorize gender today.

Historical science asks the question what is a criminal act. The value of human life has differed throughout the ages and the compensation for loss of life is not necessarily what we today would consider sufficient.

Historical science asks the question what is knowledge. It investigates on what basis we know what we claim to know. It points out that change in knowledge is not necessarily equivalent to progress.

In my work as an historian, I am an inter-disciplinarian. If an academic discipline different from my own can help me in my historical argument, I do not hesitate to utilize the results of that discipline. This is especially helpful when researching cities the way I do. Cities as objects of study are by nature interdisciplinary. By integrating the results of several different disciplines, such as archaeology, geography, oceanography, physics, and economics, I have come to appreciate the value that the interdisciplinary method adds to an argument.

Classic science fiction takes place in space. And so it should continue to do. However, in my opinion, by adding historical science to the sciences of science fiction, there is much to be gained.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

This post can also be read at Suvudu Universe (8/1/13):

Iron Maiden and the Crimean War

British heavy metal band Iron Maiden is arguably one of the biggest and most influential bands in the world of the past four decades. Founded in London in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, the band has not only changed the musical landscape and helped define an entire genre of music, they continue to appeal to several generations of fans all over the world. Moreover, Iron Maiden is a band proud to be British and they do not hesitate to incorporate British history into their songs.

One such song is “The Trooper” from the band’s third album, Piece of Mind (1983). “The Trooper” is written by Steve Harris. When writing the lyrics, Harris took inspiration from the poem Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). A Light Brigade in the British army consisted of cavalrymen on fast horses. They were lightly armored and their weapons consisted of lances and sabres. Due to a miscommunication during the Battle of Balaclava (1854) this cavalry unit was ordered to charge a heavily defended Russian position. The charge ended in disaster. Tennyson wrote his poem in honor of the fallen men.

Iron Maiden “The Trooper” Live Rock in Rio, 2001

The Battle of Balaclava was one of many battles during a war called the Crimean War. In itself, the battle achieved very little. The Russians attempted to take the city of Balaclava, which served as a supply port on the Crimean Peninsula for British, French and Ottoman Turkish forces. They did not succeed. However, the British supply route from Balaclava to the Russian-held city of Sevastopol, also on the Crimean Peninsula and which was under siege by British forces, was cut off.

Map showing the location of the Black Sea and some of the large or prominent ports around it. Source: User:Norman Einstein
Note: the Crimean Peninsula is the large peninsula in the northern part of the Black Sea where Sevastopol is located.

In our twentieth-century centric view of history, we focus most of our attention on the larger military conflicts of that century, World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939-1945). However, these two conflicts were not the first to involve several different countries and to play out in different parts of the world. Arguably, the first world war could  have taken place already in the eighteenth century, when Britain and France with their allies fought each other in Europe, North America and the Caribbean. European historians call this war the Seven Years War (1756-1763) while in North America it is known as the French and Indian War (1754–1763). During the first decades of the nineteenth century were the Napoleonic Wars. The Napoleonic Wars is a collective name for a series of wars during the period 1792 to 1815. These conflicts, too, involved parts of the world where France, Britain and their allies had political and military interests. In the 1850s, the Crimean War broke out between Russia and Britain, France, the Ottoman Turks and Sardinia. The Crimean War has been given its name due to the fact that most of the military action took place on the Crimean Peninsula in present-day Ukraine. The war was caused by the power struggle between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Turks in the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Probably due to the fact that the cause of conflict was unresolved at the end of the war, today the Crimean War is one of the least known major military conflicts, but we still live with some of its consequences. Here are five of those.

The first consequence of the Crimean War is how we consume news from war zones. The Crimean War was the first military conflict to use the telegraph and photography to spread information. In other words, one could say that on the battle fields of the Crimean Peninsula the profession of the war correspondent was born.

The second consequence of the Crimean War is the use of railways in war logistics. Later on, railways played an integral part in both World War I and World War II. For example, in implementing the Final Solution, today more known as The Holocaust, the Nazis relied heavily on the use of railways to move Jews between ghettos and labor camps.

The third consequence of the Crimean War is military hospital hygiene. During the conflict approximately 250,000 soldiers died on both sides. Most of these casualties did not occur in battle but in the hospitals and camps where soldiers succumbed to various hygiene related deceases. Due to the hard work of nurse Florence Nightingale the number of deaths caused by poor hygiene decreased significantly during the course of the Crimean War and set the standards for military conflicts to come.

Florence Nightingale brings us to the fourth consequence of the Crimean War, which also constitutes the birth of yet another professional group: the war-time nurse. During World War I, working as a nurse in military hospitals became an important aspect of women’s war effort. In time, it proved to be one of the important stepping stones towards women’s liberation later in the twentieth century.

And finally, the fifth consequence of the Crimean War that we live with today: the demilitarization of the Åland Islands. The Åland Islands is a small group of islands located in the Baltic between Stockholm (Sweden) and Turku (Finland). The Åland Islands came under Russian rule in 1809 when Sweden lost the grand-duchy of Finland to Russia as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Contrary to what had been agreed, Russia built a garrison on the Åland Islands, known as the Bomarsund garrison. During the Crimean War, the Bomarsund garrison was destroyed by British and French forces. In the peace treaty signed in 1856 it was decided that the Åland Islands would become a demilitarized zone, which they are to this day. When driving east on the Åland Islands toward the island of Vårdö the road passes through the still remaining ruins of the garrison.

Bomarsund, Åland Source: MrFinland

Lord Tennyson is considered to be one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian Era. When comparing the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade with the lyrics of “The Trooper” not much of Tennyson’s mode of expression remains. However, had Tennyson been a heavy metal bass guitarist in Great Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the outcome would have been similar to Harris’ mode of expression.

The first stanza of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade reads as follows:
Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns! he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

The first verses of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” reads as follows:
You’ll take my life but I’ll take yours too
You’ll fire your musket but I’ll run you through
So when you’re waiting for the next attack
You’d better stand, there’s no turning back

The bugle sounds the charge begins
But on this battlefield no one wins
The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
As I plunge on into certain death

Credit should be given to Steve Harris for historical accuracy. While Tennyson in his poem only refers to the Russian cannons, Harris’ lyrics are more detailed, specifically naming the musket, which was the standard issue fire arm of the Russian forces during the conflict.

Iron Maiden “The Trooper” Piece of Mind (1983) Lyrics and music: Steve Harris
Alfred, Lord Tennyson Charge of the Light Brigade (1855) http://poetry.eserver.org/light-brigade.html
http://www.britannica.com Charge of the Light Brigade
http://www.britannica.com Battle of Balaclava
http://www.britannica.com Crimean War
http://www.ne.se Bomarsunds fästning
http://www.ne.se Krimkriget

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return

The live performance of “The Trooper” is linked to YouTube http://www.youtube.com
The map of the Black Sea and the photograph of Bomarsund have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Update: From Bruce Lee to John Cho

When writing, especially fiction, the subconscious has a tendency to play tricks on you. You have an idea that you wish to convey and you have created a setting that will help you in this endeavor. But once the story begins to take shape it is as if you are channeling a part of you that somehow functions independently from you. That is how I ended up with a love story where the male protagonist is Korean.

What is surprising to me in this development is that I have no connection whatsoever to anything Korean. After wracking my brain, trying to figure out how my male protagonist could come to life in this way, I have begun to suspect that it could come from three Korean-American actors whose work I appreciate, namely Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun and John Cho.

Daniel Dae Kim at 2008 Emmy Awards.
Source: Greg Hernandez, Flickr

I know Daniel Dae Kim (b.1968) mostly from his work on the TV-show Lost (2004-2010) where he played the Korean businessman Jin Kwon, who is married to Sun Kwon, played by Yunjin Kim. Throughout the seasons of Lost, Kim portrayed Jin Kwon in a great display of his skills as an actor. Unfortunately Kim has not been granted this opportunity to the same extent on the show where he currently can be seen, Hawaii 5-0, which in many ways is a show inferior to Lost. What Lost and Hawaii 5-0 do have in common is that in both shows Kim is a member of an ensemble cast led by Matthew Fox and Alex O’Loughlin, respectively.

Steven Yeun at the Detroit Fanfare 2011
Source: Tony Shek

Steven Yeun (b. 1983) portrays one of my favorite characters in the on-going TV-series The Walking Dead, Glenn Rhee. Just as with Kim’s portrayal of Jin Kwon, Glenn’s story arch is a formidable one, where his relationship to Maggie Greene, played by Lauren Cohan, gives added depths to the character. Unfortunately, we don’t know that much about Glenn’s background. In Lost, the characters’ lives before the plane crash are shown through flashbacks. This narrative strategy is not implemented in The Walking Dead. After three action-packed seasons we still watch the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of the show’s lead character, Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln.

John Cho at TV Guide panel, San Diego Comic-Con 2009
Source: Melody J Sandoval, Flickr

John Cho (b. 1972) is probably best known for his work as Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. I first became familiar with his work through the cult classic Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Unlike the characters portrayed by Kim and Yeun, Cho’s character Harold Lee does not experience a dramatic story arc. That privilege is given to Kal Penn’s character Kumar, although most of this development takes place in the second movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008). What sets Harold Lee apart from Jin Kwon and Gleen Rhee, is that Harold is in fact a romantic leading man. Harold has a crush on Maria (played by Paula Garcés), who lives in the same building as him and Kumar, and in the end Harold actually gets the girl.

Bruce Lee wall painting, Tbilisi, Georgia
Source: Giga Paitchadze, Flickr

In the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000) it is stated that after Bruce Lee (1940–1973) there has not been an Asian actor cast as a romantic leading man in a major motion picture. The same year as the documentary came out, one such film did hit the screens, namely Romeo Must Die starring Jet Li and Aaliyah (1979–2001). Therefore, the statement about Bruce Lee can be modified, but only slightly. Since Bruce Lee, there have been two Asian actors cast in romantic leading roles: Jet Li and John Cho. However, neither of these movies are what you can call mainstream. Romeo Must Die is a martial art movie where certain fight scenes are still branded into my brain, although I haven’t seen the film again since it came out. Harold and Kumar are more in the line of Cheech and Chong and Pineapple Express than anything else.

If there are any other major motion pictures, or TV-shows for that matter, starring an Asian leading man in a romantic role, I would be interested to know. To my, admittedly limited, knowledge, there are only those I have discussed above.

http://www.imdb.com Daniel Dae Kim
http://www.imdb.com Steven Yeun
http://www.imdb.com John Cho
Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (Directed by: John Little, 2000) http://www.danieldaekim.com

Images of Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun, John Cho and Bruce Lee have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

After publishing this blog post, the following blog has come to my notice: http://asianvibe.blogspot.se/2013/04/why-hollywood-wont-cast-asian-actors-to.html
Thank you, Sara Ellis Nilsson, for the tip. The views of the blog are not mine but they point towards the argument made in this post.
Furthermore, I would like to clarify that when I talk about “major motion pictures” I am referring to mainstream films produced for an American audience.

The Literary Anthony Bourdain, Master Chef and Traveler

There are more TV chefs than we can count.  There are also more cooking shows than we can count. You find these chefs and shows all over the entertainment spectrum – from “very entertaining” to “why-is-this-on-TV”. Some chefs and shows actually teach you something. Some chefs and shows actually give you ideas. Most of the time, however, neither of these instances occur. Not so with Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain being interviewed in the WNYC Radio Studio, June 21, 2006
Source: WNYC New York Public Radio

Anthony Bourdain has hosted a series of interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining shows. My personal favorites are No Reservations for the Travel Channel and Parts Unknown for CNN. The premise for these shows is the same: Bourdain travels the world looking for local foods to try out. This sounds like any other regular chef-on-TV-with-a-travel-account but when put in the hands of Bourdain the result is very different indeed. The places he visits are places where most people just would not go, for example the Congo, Libya, or Iraqi Kurdistan, or places most people are not aware of, such as the Missouri Ozarcs.

The goal of his travels might be food oriented, but the reason for his travels sometimes are not. In the case of his visits to Tangier and the Congo (Parts Unknown) and to the Ozarcs (No Reservations), the destinations has just as much to do with food as it has to do with literature. It is his personal relationship to the creative work of William S Burroughs, Joseph Conrad and Daniel Woodrell that makes him book the trip.

It is the literary spin that sets Bourdain apart. By incorporating his love of literature, and seeking out authors he admires, Bourdain demonstrates what we all know but rarely consider, that to live life is to live art. Food, books, and travels are part of the life experience and it is life experience that makes art. By taking part in life, we also take part in the creation of art. This is true for everyone, not just writers, actors, painters and what-have-you. This is what Anthony Bourdain shows us.

Or perhaps I enjoy the work of Bourdain as much as I do because he reminds me of another man whose work I have followed for many years: Jeremy Clarkson of BBC’s Top Gear. He, too, travels the world, not to find food to try out, but to find a road to drive down.

Jeremy Clarkson on the set of Top Gear, May 17, 2006
Source: Ed Perchick, flickr

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.

Photos of Anthony Bourdain and Jeremy Clarkson have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Al Gore and the World’s Oldest Corporation

Earlier this year, Al Gore published The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013), his latest book on what the future holds for planet Earth. In it, Gore outlines what he believes are the processes that will determine the future course of human existence. It is an interesting, as well as dystopian, read.

The reason for this post, however, is not for me to comment on Gore’s views on climate change or global development. As an historian who was written a dissertation and a number of research articles on Scandinavian medieval and early-modern history, one statement made by Gore gives me reason to discuss, from a Swedish perspective, the historical development of what dominates the world today. I am talking about the historical development of corporations.

In The Future, Gore states:
“The longest running corporation was created in Sweden in 1347, though the legal form did not become common until the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands and the United Kingdom allowed a proliferation of corporate charters, especially for the exploitation of trade to and from their new overseas colonies.”
(p. 105–106)

From an historical point of view there are three points in this passage that need to be discussed.

First, the statement that a corporation was founded in Sweden in 1347. When I first read this I was genuinely confused. If a corporation had been founded in Sweden in 1347, I would have known about it since the king of Sweden at the time, Magnus Eriksson, is a person whose reign I am very familiar with. What on Earth was Gore talking about? I went to the notes section of The Future and discovered a reference to an article published in TIME Magazine in 1963. The article in question discusses the copper mine at Falun, Sweden (Falu koppargruva). To find out about Magnus Eriksson’s part in the foundation of the mine, which during its peak-production years was responsible for two-thirds of the world’s copper extraction and is the reason why most buildings in the Swedish countryside are painted red, I then consulted the online database of medieval documents published by the Swedish National Archives. The result of that consultation showed that in 1347, Magnus Eriksson issued an official letter stating the terms for the labor organization among miners in the area. This letter is not a corporation charter. It is a ratification of local mining activity that can be traced as far back as the 11th century. Moreover, this is far from the first time the mine is mentioned in Swedish medieval documents.

Overall, during the Middle Ages it is not possible to speak of the type of corporation here implied by Gore. In the city states of Northern Italy there were financial organizations that displayed traits that would later appear in corporations of capitalist societies, but in Sweden at the time, the economics of society were not sophisticated enough to reach even to that level. Moreover, the information that is available regarding the economic system of medieval Sweden is too scarce for us to be able to say anything valid regarding financial organizations and enterprises. Even the existence of guilds, seemingly the most medieval of all organizations, is being debated.

The second point that made me react when I read Gore’s statement was the phrase that this kind of corporation, of which Falun Copper Mine supposedly was one, did not become common until the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. What Gore is referring to here are in fact companies, which were common-place during the economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, called mercantilism. Gore is correct in stating that the geopolitical entities today referred to as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom issued charters for companies in order to exploit colonies all over the world. For example, the first English colonies in North America were founded and run by a chartered companies.

However, these realms were not the only ones to issue colonial charters. In Sweden, the royal government issued several charters to various companies. The New Sweden Company (chartered in 1637) founded a short-lived colony on the Delaware River. The Africa Company (chartered in 1649) engaged in slave trade in present-day Ghana. The East India Company (chartered in 1731) traded with China and the West India Company (chartered in 1786) ran plantations on Saint-Barthélemy. However, Falun Copper Mine did not become a chartered company. Instead, the mine answered to a government department dedicated solely to mining, called Bergskollegium, which existed between 1637 and 1857.

The third point that needs to be discussed is the source of Gore’s information. Gore refers to an article with the title “Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, published in TIME Magazine on March 15, 1963. The article states exactly what Gore says, namely that Falun Copper Mine is the oldest corporation in the world and that this corporation was set up in 1347. However, the article states that the corporation in question was a “corporation of master miners”. In other words, a guild, which, as I pointed out above, regarding their existence in medieval Sweden, are being debated.

The greatest problem with the article in TIME Magazine is that it is hopelessly outdated. It was written exactly 50 years ago. At the time of publication, the information contained within the article was correct: Falun Copper Mine was one of the largest and most profitable mines in the world and had been so for centuries. Despite this, in 1992 Falun Copper Mine was decommissioned due to depletion of the ore. In 2001, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the site is a museum with guided tours.

Nationell Arkivdatabas Svenskt Diplomatariums Huvudkartotek: http://www.nad.riksarkivet.se/SDHK
Bishop Peter of Västerås, June 16, 1288, SDHK-nr:1406
King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden, Norway, and Scania, February 17, 1347, SDHK-nr:5394
http://www.ne.se Falu gruva
http://www.ne.se Bergskollegium
“Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, TIME Magazine, March 15, 1963
Al Gore, The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013)
Thomas Lindkvist & Maria Sjöberg, Det svenska samhället 800–1720 (Stockholm, 2013)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return