June 11, 2003

Ranks of Bronze, by David Drake

This book is the predecessor of David Weber's The Excalibur Alternative, which I reviewed some months ago. In brief, in Roman times the galaxy is already populated by many advanced civilizations. A galactic law prohibits the used of advanced weapons on primitive populations--and the advanced races have little experience of primitive weapons and aren't particular interested in acquiring any. One trading cartel gets a bright idea: they go to Earth, and steal the best army they can find: a legion of Roman soldiers. And then they deploy them to fight battles on planet after planet. They are given advanced medical treatment, so that they don't age; after battles, any injury (up to and including death) that doesn't involve irreparable damage to the spine or brain is treatable. After a battle they are allowed to rest and carouse on board ship until everyone's healed up, and then they are put to sleep until they reach the next planet. It's a hell of a life.

It's interesting to compare this book with Weber's, and the different reactions of the ancient Romans and the medieval Britons. The Romans are, frankly, not at all equipped to know what's going on. In particular, they have no notion of planets in the modern sense, of different "earths", or of space travel. They have no idea how any of the things on board the ship work; they simply learn to take them for granted.

The Britons, on the other hand, are in some degree better educated. Their leader grasps fairly quickly that they've travelled to other planets; and they are much better at making sense of what they find. And I'm wondering, now...is this realistic?

It might be. I've read that Western science arose from the notion of certain Christians that God plays fair...that the phenomenal world will follow rules, and that those rules are understandable by the human intellect. This is not a Greek point of view; the Greeks thought that the noumenal or ideal world was the true reality, and that the phenomenal world was but a semblance. (Archimedes was, obviously, an exception.) And the Romans who followed inherited much of the Greek world view.

So...would the medieval Brits really be better equipped, by means of their world view, to cope with such an outlandish situation? Or is Weber just blowing smoke?

But getting back to Drake's book...it's got a lot of gritty, hard-hitting scenes of warfare, death, and destruction, very little humor, and not much to recommend it unless you really like military fiction. Drake's done much better. Of course, it is one of his older books...

Posted by Will Duquette at June 11, 2003 07:29 PM

Ian said:

Err, Aristotle would be a big honking exception, too. In fact, more than one historian marks the rediscovery (I never remember if it was by Aquinas or Augustine, I always confuse the two) of his works as the spark that started the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Will Duquette said:

I can't really argue the point; I'm repeating something I've read or been told on a number of occasions, and I don't really remember the details of the argument.

But with regard to Aristotle, I'm not sure I agree. Yes, Aristotle had a lot to say about the phenomenal world--but he assumed that just thinking logically about it was enough. He never actually stooped to, say, performing experiments. That's why I made an exception for Archimedes; he actually built things.

Certainly there were other ancient Greeks who built things (the Parthenon, for example), but we generally don't know who they were. After all, they were mere artisans. One wonders if they had a deeper insight into the phenomenal world than some of the philosophers we do know of.

Oh, and you were thinking of Thomas Aquinas. Augustine was the Bishop of the Roman city of Hippo in North Africa.

clew said:

But... IIRC, the Greeks the Romans kept around as teachers, they kept as teachers of literature, and maybe abstract math, such as was. Status from uselessness. The Romans obviously built very well, including machinery, which certainly depends on an expectation that the phenomenal world will follow rules. The British might have met machines, down Roman-run mines.

"in Roman times" is pretty broad.

Will Duquette said:

I should have said, the Roman soldiers in question were the legion commanded by Crassus that historically was wiped out by the Parthians. In the book, Crassus is killed, and the Parthians sell the soldiers into slavery--to the aliens. Late Republic.

The British folk in David Weber's tale were 13th century, if I remember correctly.

The Romans were great builders, certainly, but they weren't scientists.