Neil Gaiman. Descendant of Monty Python and Stephen King

Writer Neil Gaiman always seems to be in the headlines. If it isn’t because he invited Jonathan Ross to host the Hugo Awards, it’s because he might be adapting Sandman into a movie or because he has grown a beard. In other words, Gaiman is enormously popular. And rightly so. He is a very talented writer. But as we all know, it takes more than just talent to become a success.

Why, then, are people so fascinated with Neil Gaiman?
I believe it is because his writing fits in with two other things people can’t get enough of — Monty Python and Stephen King.

The British comedy group Monty Python made its debut in 1969 with the first episode of the BBC comedy TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Circus stayed on the air until 1974, after which the group went on to film classic movies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life Of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Not long ago, the group announced a number of reunions shows. All of them sold out in minutes.

The impact of Monty Python on comedy and popular culture can’t be overstated. The absurd sense of humor and the mix of low-brow and high-brow have even coined a new word, “Pythonesque.”

What Gaiman shares with Python is the juxtaposition of the absurd and the mundane as if the pairing is perfectly normal. For example, where Python in The Holy Grail let the Knights of the Round Table charge the filming location of a historical documentary, in the short story Chivalry, Gaiman has one of the Knights knock on the door of a lonely widow who happened to buy the Holy Grail in the Oxfam shop down the block. This type of story telling can also be found in Gaiman’s novels, for example in Anansi Boys, where it is perfectly normal that the trickster and spider god would have two kids.

Anansi Boys brings us to what Gaiman shares with Stephen King. Arguably the most popular horror writer of all time, King tells many of his stories from the point of view of a child, even when that child has become an adult. King uses this point of view most notably in the novella Stand By Me and the novels It and The Shining, as well as most recently in the latter’s sequel, Doctor Sleep. Apart from Anansi Boys, Gaiman uses the point of view of the child, as well as the child as an adult, for example, in Coraline, The Absolute Death and, most recently, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

One more thing that Gaiman shares with King, and which makes them into the compelling storytellers they are, is that they know when to end a story. Both Gaiman and King draw you in with a narrative that ends the moment just before all hell breaks loose. Instead of reading the story’s conclusion, you stare at the last sentence while in your head images of the end play out followed by a rumble and crash as the world you just immersed yourself in mercilessly comes tumbling down. This writing strategy is deployed by Gaiman in the short story The Price, about a cat that protects a family from evil. King uses this strategy in one of his novels written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, Thinner. Never before has a slice of pie been as frightening.

There are writings by Gaiman where these influences come together, most notably in Good Omens, although that could have something to do with the fact that he had a co-writer in Terry Pratchett. In Good Omens an angel and a demon live undercover among humans as owners of an antique shop which is open on appointment only.

I believe that Neil Gaiman is as popular as he is because he is a talented writer who merges the absurd with the mundane, innocence with loss of innocence, while having complete control over his own storytelling.

And because he looks like a rock star.

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

World War Z and the Definition of War

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Zombies are all the rave and no one knows the zombie apocalypse better than Max Brooks, lecturer on zombie apocalypse survival skills and author of the best-selling books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. An Oral History of the Zombie War.

World War Z is a compelling read, inspired by the journalism of Studs Terkel. But there is something that bothers me with this book and that is how the story brings the zombie apocalypse to an end. The brave, new post-apocalyptic existence is difficult to believe in because the solution to end the war is not plausible.

As an historian I study what it is that makes us human. One of the things that separates human beings from other living creatures is that we wage war against one another. In other words, a big part of an historian’s job is to study warfare.

World War Z chronicles the world war against a zombie infestation through survivor testimonials. We follow the spread of the global epidemic from its outbreak until its fragile containment through stories told by all kinds of people, from the teenager who watched her parents’ reaction to the outbreak to the government representative who was given the task of finding a solution to an insoluble situation.

To understand the problem we must first look at what war actually is. On the surface level “war” is two entities fighting each other with lethal means by using specialized groups. In other words, war is soldiers, guns and ammo.

PEO_Fires_Inaugural_Light_Machine_Gun_Shot
Source: http://www.pica.army.mil/PicatinnyPublic/news/images/highlights/2011/Maddux_gunrange.jpg

But for there to be soldiers, guns and ammo, there needs to be a society whose sole purpose is to support the ongoing war. That is to say, a society’s entire economic and political structure needs to be geared towards war. Industrial production, food distribution, financial investments and recruitment of the work force need to be adjusted to provide a steady supply of soldiers, guns and ammo until the conflict ends. This is why we talk of a society being in a “state of war”.

The turning point of the zombie war in North America comes when the government decides to change its war tactic. Backed up against the wall of the Pacific Ocean, what remains of the United States of America decides to strike back by supplying unlimited guns and ammo to those of the remaining population who are willing to fight. Piece by piece the lower 48 are reconquered from the zombies and the United States then goes on to offer other countries help in their fight against the plague.

The problem with this end to the war is that the zombies have turned North America into a wasteland. In other words, there are few soldiers and there is no industry, no agriculture and no financial sector to secure the production of guns and ammo.

Brooks admits this to be the case but goes ahead with the solution anyway, drawing a parallel to World War II. According to one of the testimonials, during the zombie apocalypse, the United States were in the position of the Axis Powers (Japan, Germany, and Italy) whose resources were limited in comparison to the Allies (mainly the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Soviet Union), here represented by the zombies. However, this parallel is not sustainable since the Axis Powers did have resources to maintain an offensive war strategy as long as the United States and the Soviet Union stayed out of the conflict. The Axis Powers ran into trouble after 1941 when new strength and new resources (combined with Italy defecting to the Allies) were added to the already ongoing conflict. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Allies took over or destroyed Japanese and German industrial facilities, some of which were located in areas taken by force and staffed with slave labor.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/PERSONALITIES
The leaders of the Allies — Winston Churchill (UK), Franklin Roosevelt (USA), Joseph Stalin (USSR) – at Yalta, Crimea, 1945.
Source: DefenseImagery.mil (US Department of Defense)

In World War Z, it would be as if the North American reconquest began at the point in time when the Red Army was knocking on the door to Berlin and the United States were about to launch their final offensive against Japan. By that time the days of the Axis Powers were numbered and everybody with their heads screwed on right knew it.

It is obvious that Brooks has a passion for history and I’m glad that he has chosen this way of expressing it because World War Z is a good book. But still, as a writer of fiction you can’t skip over certain facts. In this case that the state of war engages a society’s entire structure and that soldiers, guns and ammo are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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

Note:
Images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

The 20th Anniversary of the Democratic Constitution of Belarus

During the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, one European former Soviet republic has kept a low profile. I am talking about Belarus. Belarus borders on Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and is a dictatorship run by Aljaksandr Lukashenka. But twenty years ago, Belarus was headed in the direction of democracy and on March 15, 1994 adopted a constitution to fulfill that goal. What happened?

Belarus is approximately one third of the size of Ukraine and has a population of 9,441,000 (2013), 1.9 million of which live in the capital Minsk. Belarusians constitute the largest ethnic group, followed by Russians. Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belarus. The Belarusian language is the official language but Russian is used on all levels of society.

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The location of Belarus is marked in red.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Throughout history Belarus has been a region located in between the cultural and economic regions of the Baltic and the Slavs. From the middle of the ninth century, the area that was to become Belarus was part of the state of the Kievan Rus, originating in present-day Ukraine. Kievan Rus collapsed when the Mongols invaded and during the thirteenth century, Belarus constituted the western-most part of the Mongolian realm. Meanwhile, Lithuania on the Baltic increased in political power and during the course of the fourteenth century, Belarus instead became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1386 entered into a political union with Poland. This political union lasted until the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) when the Polish-Lithuanian area was divided in accordance with Russian interests.

Due to Polish-Lithuanian governance, Belarus became integrated into the Polish-Catholic cultural sphere while distancing itself from the Slavic-Orthodox. This development is confirmed by the fact that during the Middle Ages, Belarusian towns and cities adhered to the so-called Magdeburg Law. The City of Magdeburg, today located in east Germany, was an important trading place at the intersection of the Germanic and Slavic regions. Towns and cities of lesser importance and stature adopted the city laws of major cities to be able to participate in European trade and exchange. Magdeburg was a city whose law was adopted by several other cities. Lübeck, on the German Baltic coast, was another such city. The fact that Belarusian cities adopted the Magdeburg Law indicates their affiliation with the European continent rather than the landmasses ruled by Kiev and Moscow.

Following the partition of Poland, Belarus became part of the Russian Empire and continued as such until the Empire’s collapse during the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1918–1920). During this period, Belarus, together with Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, declared independence. Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, once again after being divided, this time in accordance to the borders between Russia and Poland as constituted by Poland’s First Partition in 1772. The new borders of Belarus was determined by the Treaty of Riga, signed by Russia and Poland in 1921. Of these new-born independent states, Finland was the only one not to become part of the Soviet Union.

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Current flag of Belarus.
Source: Zscout370

800px-Flag_of_Belarus_(1991-1995).svg
Flag of Belarus, 1918–1921, 1991–1995.

The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. The reason why the Soviet Union collapsed was because the Soviet Republic of Belarus, together with Ukraine and Russia, agreed to create a Commonwealth of Independent States instead of the Soviet Union. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were soon joined by other Soviet Republics and the CIS began functioning on December 21, 1991, with its administrative center located in Minsk.

Soon after independence work on drafting a constitution began. While working on the new constitution, the legislators looked towards the legal foundations of sovereign states such as the United States, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, while constructing a legal system based on the principle of the Russian Federation. The constitution was adopted on March 15, 1994.

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Constitution of Belarus. Title written in Belarusian, followed by Russian.
Source: Zscout370

The constitution created the office of President as the new nation’s leader. In July 1994, Aljaksandr Lukashenko was elected to the post and has ruled the country ever since, amending the democratic constitution through two non-transparent and highly criticized referendums in 1996 and 2004, respectively.

Today, Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe. The country has no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization and its domestic economy is in shambles. Its prisons hold political prisoners and the government has executed several of its imprisoned dissidents.

To stay in power Aljaksandr Lukashenko needs both Ukraine and Russia. Lukashenko needs Ukraine because that country is one of Belarus’ main trading partners. Therefore, Lukashenko needs to stay on friendly terms with whomever is in power in Kiev.  Lukashenko needs Russia because Russia is one of his few supporters. But Russia’s support of the Lukashenko regime is based on strategic interests. If Russia loses interest in Belarus as an ally, Lukashenko’s days are numbered.

And that is why no voice on the Ukrainian crisis is heard from Minsk.

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

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Vitryssland
Nationalencyklopedin Litauen: den ryska tiden
Nationalencyklopedin Magdeburg
Britannica.com Belarus
Britannica.com Commonwealth of Independent States
Wikipedia Constitution of Belarus
Belarusbloggen Varför tiger Lukasjenka om Krim?

Note:
There is no standard set for transcribing Belarusian names in English.
Images of Belarusian flags and constitution downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

When the Russians Beat the Swedes in Ukraine

A news broadcast on Russian TV has claimed that Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was recruited by the CIA in the 1970s and that Sweden now, together with Poland and Lithuania, seek to take revenge on Russia for losing the Battle of Poltava in 1709. This statement is an example of what I have discussed on this blog before, namely that history is political. No other science or academic discipline is used for political purposes the way history is used.

So what is the Battle of Poltava?

Poltava is a city in central Ukraine with a population of 303,600 people. In 1709, Poltava was the scene of a military battle between the Russian forces of Czar Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) and the Swedish forces of King Karl XII (r. 1697–1718). The battle was part of the Great Nordic War (1700–1721) which was fought over supremacy in the Baltic and eastern Europe.

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Map of Ukraine with the city of Poltava marked in red.
Source: Skluesner

During the 17th century, Sweden was the dominating force in the Baltic, controlling most of the coastline from the Gulf of Bothnia to Germany. Russia had no port to the west other than Archangelsk in the Arctic. The capital was in landlocked Moscow.

During the reign of Peter the Great, Russia gained ground in the region. One important aspect of the increased Russian influence is the foundation of the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. St. Petersburg was founded at the location of a Swedish fortress, Nyen, which Peter the Great had conquered. The purpose of St. Petersburg was to become Russia’s new capital and to secure Russian access to the Baltic.

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The Swedish Empire in the Baltic after 1658. The location where St. Petersburg was later founded in the Gulf of Finland is controlled by Sweden.
Source: Fenn-O-maniC

The Battle of Poltava is arguably Sweden’s most crushing military defeat. The Swedish army consisted of 29,000 men while the Russian army consisted of 45,000 men. For the Swedes, the Battle of Poltava ended in carnage with 8,000 men killed and 3,000 men taken as prisoners of war. The victory enabled the Russians to march to the Baltic and take control of what remained of the Swedish territories there. When Karl XII died in battle at Fredrikshald in Norway in 1718, all Swedish possessions in the Baltic were lost and Russia dominated the region. This domination would continue until the declaration of independence of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia in 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992.

400px-Karl_XII_Kungsträdgården_December_2012_01    Peter_der-Grosse_1838
Statue of Karl XII pointing east, by     Peter the Great. Portrait by Paul Delaroche.
artist Johan Peter Molin,                   Source: Anathema
Stockholm, Sweden.
Source: AvildV

The current crisis in Crimea demonstrates the importance of knowing history. The relationship between Russia and Ukraine on the one hand, and Russia and the Baltic with Sweden on the other, go back several centuries and is both complicated and complex. It is a near impossible task to explain the historical process within the confines of a news broadcast, a newspaper article or a blog post for that matter.

The first casualty in a conflict is the truth.
The prime instrument in a propaganda campaign is history.

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

Sources:
SVT Russian News Broadcast Accuses Carl Bildt
Nationalencyklopedien Poltava
Nationalencyklopedien Stora nordiska kriget

Note:
The maps of Ukraine and the Swedish Empire as well as the portraits of Karl XII and Peter the Great were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.