Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Celestial Matters (Book)

This is a book recommendation, as opposed to a review. I haven't read this book for a number of years, but I cannot forget it, either. That puts it in some pretty select company.

To appreciate it, let's first accept that Aristotelian Physics and Ptolomeic Astronomy accurately describe the universe. So does Chinese Alchemy and Yin-Yang Theory. Within the constraints set by these "scientific theories," the story is a detailed account of the first attempt to enter the Empyrean Circle of the Heavens to capture sunfire. The stimulus of this "big science" project was, naturally, war. The West (under Spartan and Athenian leadership) wanted a superweapon to destroy the cities of the East and bring an end to a millenium-long war with a Chinese Empire, though not the one our world has known. In a way, then, this is a hard science fiction novel, but the science is not what we learn in school.

The book also counts as alternative history. The war between East and West began with Alexander the Great reaching the borders of China and being thrust back. (You are correct. This never happened in our world). The war never ended because it is a clash of civilizations, neither understanding the other. The hero-worshipping, individualistic West could not comprehend the collectivist, bureaucratic East any more than its Aristotelian Physics could accommodate Chinese Alchemy.

There are spies and betrayal complicating the search for the superweapon. There are comments on the ultimate causes of war. There is a very 1960's musing on endless war against an implacable superpower enemy with an incomprehensible ideology. There is a clear analogy to the nuclear standoff in the Cold War. There is also a 1960's-style optimism in the end about individuals forcing nations to change their homicidal (and suicidal) policies.

Richard Garfinkle published Celestial Matters in 1996, which was probably close to the time I read it. The book is unique, and worth a read. If you don't believe me, then check the comments on Amazon.


  1. Hello Gareth. An interesting recommendation, especially for me at this time because the book I am currently reading, Debt: The First 5000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber is transforming my understanding of Greece (the middle east), India and China during the Axial age, the age of warfare and currency. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to you, as I know how inquisitive your mind is. As a small tease, he points out that the economic ideas of Adam Smith were stolen from a Moslem 12th century economist (and prophet?) by the name of Ghazali, which includes his pin factory story, the invisible glove; that the Moslems had a 'free market' far more so than anything we've since then, and that currency only becomes a dominant force in an economy when its use can be enforced with violence.

    Secondly, an equally fascinating book, but from a completely different perspective is The Stone Monkey by Bruce Holbrook. Holbrook argues that China had / has a real science, but that it approached being scientific differently than the wests' arbitrary definition. In particular I remember his discussion about light as particularly illuminating!

  2. Hello, Guy

    Interesting, the posts you decide to reply to. Meticulously-researched and original observations on politics and security, not really, but book recommendations, yes! :-)

    I don't know that I have much time for reading right now, but "The Stone Monkey," in particular, sounds interesting. On the face of it, it sounds like "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" or something by Joseph Needham. I once read a book, inspired by Needham, called "China: Land of Discovery" by Robert Temple ( Interesting. I hadn't learned any of this in school. In particular, I was awed that the Southern Song Dynasty was THIS CLOSE to an Industrial Revolution and even more that it held off the Mongols from 1235-1279. Who else could say the same?

    As my next post, I'm going to put up a little bit from my notes comparing traditional Asian medicine to traditional (pre-modern) Western medicine. I put a fair bit of research into that at one point, so I have 80 pages of notes and diagrams.When the Beowulf translation is done, that may be my next book.

    1. LoL! Yes, well, it also depends on the books recommended, of course. And I do appreciate 'meticulously-researched and original observations...' But I refrain from commenting unless I feel adequate to the task. I have always been hesitant about expressing my opinion about things unless I feel comfortable that I have enough understanding to understand the limits of my understanding, but enough to appreciate the quality of the commentary. In your defence articles, I have read nothing about the subject. And I openly acknowledge that my bias about such things is such that when clearly irrational decisions are being made, than rationality is not being consulted or deferred to. (Sorry for the tautology, but this 'logic' is often overlooked! LoL.) Thus, in this case, something irrational is at work within the minds and psyches of those making the decision. And because of that it is very unlikely that a rational argument will change anything. A decision has been made, in short, based in either delusional ideology, narcissistic self-interest, or the activation of a psychological complex or an archetypal energy.

      In the case of Harper and his government, I have such antipathy towards his anti-social policies that I am tempted to see all these elements active in his choices and actions, but narcissism being the dominant ones. But enough of that! Back to the book.

      I did not find The Stone Monkey to be anything like The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which is a book I was unable to read. I haven't tried it in 30+ years, so maybe it is time to give it a different try. But then I found The Tao of Physics to be largely unreadable too, despite its panegyrics. (But, oddly enough, I was mesmerized by his interview book, Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with Remarkable People.