Dune sequel books contain really complex themes and ideas

I’m surprised by how well the story has held up, considering that it was written in the 70s.

I need to reread the part about the transformation in the desert, because I’m not sure how or if that really fit into the story’s world. It felt more like magic than science or evolution.

The author describes patterns of human activity that repeat over eons. He approaches the idea that people need to stay connected to the immediacy of life and human nature. Somehow, the story strikes me as being anti-technology and a call for people to be spiritual but not religious. There are also constant criticisms of the role of religion in creating excuses for, and a need for, violence.

The end of the story gave me some ideas about Shai-Hulud. Unless I really misread things, the goal of the Dune story is to describe replacing the big worm or driving force below the desert, which makes me wonder if this is a repeating cycle that has happened before.

Herbert draws heavily on various religions in the creation of his universe, so a circular conception of time and the embodiment of “divinity” in an actual character whose existence becomes the literal and spiritual foundation for galactic civilization would be right up his alley. It would also make for a really epic story.

The scale and complexity of the ideas the author is tackling grows in each new Dune book. Some people may not like it or understand a lot of it. I know I didn’t when I tried to read these books at 13, but they are thought-provoking and fascinating to me now, 27 years later and being much more well-read. There are obvious, like really obvious, references to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but also hints of Hinduism and Buddhism as well.

For someone like me that has been interested in religions for their entire life, this series is exceptional.

A book about a guy catching a fish

“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

I never thought I’d be this interested in a book that is all about a guy on his boat catching a fish. Of course, there are themes about the importance of community, tradition, dedication, and the reality that hard work sometimes ends in failure, but it’s really just a book about some guy getting into his boat and trying to reel in a fish for almost 100 pages.

And it was amazing.

I’ve read almost 800 books, not counting comics and manga and portions of books that I read for college, and after a while it seems like almost all books are basically the same story, just in different settings and with differently named characters, so it’s nice to read something a bit different for a change. I’m finding that I want to read classic literature more now when I want a novel because the books that have lasted tend to be books that focus on human nature and the human condition and I appreciate that the books are offering something deeper and more meaningful to me than just entertainment.

“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Dune (2021) Anime Posters

“Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”

Frank Herbert, Dune

I’m looking forward to the new movie version. I read the book when I was a teenager and again this year. It was and still is excellent, even knowing the real world cultural inspiration and background for the idea of the Fremen.

I was a little conflicted when I heard that they were going to remove the term “jihad” from the movie, but after reading the book again and thinking about it, I think it was the right move. The word has too many connotations and baggage now that didn’t exist when the story was written. Using it would give the movie meaning that wasn’t intended in the original story.

Should be required reading: “Cynical Theories”

“It is bad psychology to tell people who do not believe that they are racist—who may even actively despise racism—that there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from being racist—and then ask them to help you. It is even less helpful to tell them that even their own good intentions are proof of their latent racism. Worst of all is to set up double-binds, like telling them that if they notice race it is because they are racist, but if they don’t notice race it’s because their privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race, which is racist.”

Helen Pluckrose, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody

This is the best book I’ve read that tackles the issues related to postmodernism and social justice activist politics, and it clearly expresses a lot of ideas that I’ve had myself but didn’t take the time to really research or fully articulate.

This should be required reading to graduate college. When I was in college, a lot of the courses I took relied heavily on postmodernism, identity politics, and social justice ideology, but I didn’t realize it because I didn’t have a name for it. Also, it was taught as fact and reality rather than just as a theory, or as the authors would say, as Theory, and it was part of everything from classes on sociology to government to history. At some point, I realized that things weren’t quite right, but you have to go along with what the professor is advocating if you want to be assured of getting a passing grade.

Harry Potter and the Model Weasley Family

The Weasley Family at breakfast

I’m really late to the party, the first book in the series having been published in 1997 when I was still in high school, but I’ve been borrowing the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series from the New York Public Library and I’m really enjoying them. I think I would have loved them as a kid but I was going through a phase where I was really into church dogma and the Harry Potter series was said to be evil and demonic because it supposedly encouraged children to engage in witchcraft.

Putting aside the question of whether witchcraft is real or not, I can see how the Harry Potter series was threatening to organized religion. It provides an alternative fantasy world that presents a set of moral values in a compelling way and, even when it doesn’t conflict with the church’s vision of morality, it competes for attention. I’d guess Harry Potter is probably winning that contest too, given the success of the books and movies and the ever dwindling levels of church attendance.

I wonder how much of the church’s problems these days comes from an insistence on biblical literalism? It’s been a while since I studied the Bible, either academically or religiously, but I do recall that many of the stories have parallels in other nearby cultures. For example, the story of Moses and the flood is essentially the same story as the Epic of Gilgamesh with modifications to fit the local culture. That alone should tell us that stories in the Bible were meant to be educational rather than literal history. It makes more sense to tell someone that they should be looking at a story in the Bible for moral guidance than to tell them to take it as literal word from God history and expect that story’s relevance to endure over any length of time.

And maybe that’s why Harry Potter does so well. We know it’s not word from God and we don’t face the choice of having to either swallow it whole or throw it out. We can instead appreciate it and think about it and try to apply it to our lives if it makes sense in relation to what we understand to be good and bad.

All of these thoughts congealed in my head as I started to realize how the Weasleys were being presented in the books. They may not have fancy clothes and they may not always get along but they value what’s important in life: their kids, each other, friendship, and (in Molly and Arthur’s case) their kids’ education. In addition, even though they’re struggling they essentially adopt Harry into the family, so there’s a lot of love and charity being displayed there. They share even when there’s not much to give. They’re loyal. They do things together. It’s sort of a model for the proper behavior of a family, especially when it comes in such stark contrast to how Harry is treated by his aunt and uncle. The fact that both Harry and Hermione later marry into the Weasley family reinforces the idea that they represent an ideal family.

I’m only partway through the fourth book and I wasn’t really thinking about the story too deeply until now, but there’s really more in these books than shallow entertainment. I’m not really surprised. I don’t think they would have done so well if they didn’t have something substantive to offer readers.

Is Mint Mobile worth it? Yes!

A banner image showing the Mint Mobile Fox mascot holding a smartphone.

Contents:


The good old days…

I think I got my first mobile phone in 2001 or 2002 when I was 20-21 years old. It was a flip phone from Verizon that I bought in Hinesville, Georgia when I was stationed at Fort Stewart. It looked something like this:

Motorola Cingulare flip-style mobile phone

In fact, it may have been that model phone. It’s been 18-19 years, so I really can’t remember exactly. I also don’t remember what the thing was costing me every month, though I remember it being significant.

Fast forward almost 20 years and cell phone bills are out of control. For me and my wife to have the Verizon Go Unlimited plan together, we were paying about $180 per month. Imagine that! For just two lines. That’s more than our electric bill most months out of the year.

We wound up on Verizon for two main reasons:

  1. Our previous provider, Virgin Mobile, announced that it was going to stop supporting Android devices and switch to being an iPhone only service. (They later backtracked, but after I already left the service.)
  2. We wanted to upgrade to new phones because big jumps had been made in camera quality, which is an important feature for both of us. Also, we both needed more storage space.

And so, we found ourselves in a Best Buy signing onto a bundle that included Verizon service.

That was two years ago.

Getting smart about billing

When our phones were paid off we started thinking about how to save money on our phone bill. We’ve been getting into minimalism, essentialism, and other -isms that promote focus, stability, and de-cluttering, Marie Kondo style. And while Verizon’s service quality was excellent, that bill was definitely not sparking joy.

Check out Marie Kondo’s Netflix special, “Tidying Up“, or her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

But, what service should we replace Verizon with? We were used to unlimited talk, text, and data. I knew that MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) worked pretty well from previous experience. MVNOs are basically prepaid services that run on the networks of major providers but under different names. So, I decided to start there and see what was available.

I went slogging through a bunch of different websites looking at different lists of the best value plans available. Most of those lists really suck, to be honest. It’s like they just looked at everything that’s available and then cut and paste some marketing material onto their sites so they could have a list of items and get clicks/pageviews for that sweet ad revenue. Apparently posts that are just lists of things do pretty well in terms of catching people’s attention.

I’m not going to bombard you with a list of services or make you check multiple pages to see content. Instead, I’ll just briefly go over what I personally looked at, what I went with (which was obviously Mint), and why.

Options

Google Fi

My first instinct was to go with Google Fi. I have a Google Pixel 2 XL. It’s a great phone. It takes great photos and has plenty of storage. It runs the latest version of Android and gets updates directly from Google. So, I figured why not get service from Google as well? Short answer is that they charge too much and offer extras that don’t really apply to the average consumer.

Google Fi seems to be more targeted to people who are going to travel internationally frequently. Plus, it was about the same price as post-paid plans so I wouldn’t really save anything. Some of the more interesting extras that Google Fi offers, like automatically connecting to trusted high speed WiFi networks, are things that my phone does already because it’s a Pixel.

So, hard pass.

Verizon Visible

Verizon Visible looks like a really good service. It’s $40 bucks a month for unlimited everything. They used to have a data speed cap, but that was removed for a promotional period and would have applied to the life of our account with the service. We were already using Verizon’s service and figured it would be a piece of cake to switch over, but we hit a roadblock.

Verizon Visible claims my Google Pixel 2 XL is not compatible with their service. The phone that I’m using on Verizon is not compatible with Verizon? More like, Verizon Visible wants to push me to buy a new phone through them and give them more money that I shouldn’t have to.

So, no thank you.

Mint Mobile

I considered stuff like to Boost Mobile and Metro, but I just didn’t like the plans. They didn’t seem to be offering much for the price. That was when I stumbled onto Mint Mobile.

I’m going to be honest. Mint Mobile sounded pretty flaky and weird when I first looked at the website. I think what really threw me off was the idea of paying for multiple months in advance because that locked you in right away to something that might suck. The buy-in for the first 3 months is heavily discounted, but what finally sold me on giving it a shot is that the company is owned by Ryan Reynolds.

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

Maybe that sounds kind of stupid, but I figured that even if the service sucked for 3 months, it would be kind of neat to use a phone service owned by Deadpool for a while.

Mint Mobile Costs & Performance

Costs

So, I spent $120 + (normal) regulatory fees for two lines for three months of service with unlimited talk, text, and 8 GB of 4G LTE data per month running on T-Mobile’s network. We received the SIM cards for Mint about 3 business days after ordering them. The shipping was free.

Yup! Basically $20 a month for talk, text, and 8 GB of data that isn’t speed capped. After the 8 GB you get slammed down to 2G but can use another 92 GB of data if you can suffer through 2G page loads. I’m not sure you could actually use 92 GB of 2G data in a month, actually, unless you were doing something nuts.

The price-point on the plan both delighted and terrified me. On the one hand, it’s a great price for what I was getting. On the other hand, what if the service was absolutely terrible because of the price I was paying?

Mint is able to keep their plans that cheap because they have themselves set up as a wholesaler. They sell multiple months of service at a time so they get a discount from T-Mobile and they pass those savings on to the consumer. They’re basically the Costco or Sam’s Club of MVNOs.

Passing on savings and helping consumers give a big middle finger to the major phone carriers is part of their marketing platform, though it’s a bit ironic since Mint runs on T-Mobile. The savings is real, though, and I’m enjoying it.

After the promotional period for the first three months, it’s $105 per line for another three months, or you can pay for a year up front and keep the promotional per month price. On my current plan it would wind up being $263.78 for a year of service, including regulatory fees and taxes. There’s also a $15 per month plan with 3 GB of data and a $25 per month plan with 12 GB of data.

Performance

I was a little concerned about the data cap, but I tweaked a few apps to not auto-play videos, stopped watching Netflix without the WiFi on at the gym, switched photo backups to WiFi-only, and started downloading my Spotify playlists while on WiFi. It only took a few minutes to run through updating app settings and I’m able to use the phone’s built in Settings menu to monitor each app’s data usage to see if I needed to make any additional changes.

Now, with 11 days left on my current 30-day cycle, I’ve only used 1.44 GB of data. That’s with regular use, including Google Maps, Waze Navigation, Transit, some Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Outlook, Memrise, and web browsing for news. I think the majority of my data usage before, which often hit 14+GB a month, was streaming Spotify with high-quality audio. So, the 8 GB 4G LTE data cap is really not a problem.

Caveat: I’m an Optimum Online customer and can automatically connect to Optimum Online hotspots around the Bronx. I also made use of LinkNYC free public WiFi and library/museum/business/transit free WiFi when available. Basically, I was more conscious about using free WiFi resources where before I didn’t give it any thought.

In terms of actual performance, I can see the difference between Mint and Verizon, but it’s not as severe as I expected. The calls are choppier in Midtown Manhattan, especially if we try to use Telegram data calling. If I try to play video over mobile, the quality isn’t as good and sometimes it buffers. At $20 per month, I feel like this is a fair trade-off. Almost everyone has some issues in Midtown and this is more of a T-Mobile coverage problem than a Mint problem.

The more serious issue I’ve noticed relates to data connectivity. If my phone has been connected to a WiFi network, mobile data often doesn’t automatically kick on when I lose the WiFi signal. I have to put my phone in Airplane Mode for a few seconds to force the data connection to activate.

I’ve seen this complaint repeated in a few forums and my wife’s phone has the same problem, so I know it’s not unique to my experience. On my wife’s iPhone, using the Airplane Mode trick sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes she has to power-cycle the device, which is time consuming and disruptive.

Other than that, the service works as well as I would expect from any mobile service.

Summary

In short, there’s no reason to overpay for mobile service unless you really want to or you just have money to burn. We decided to stop and switched to an MVNO and we were able to do that without compromising our quality of life in any serious way by switching to Mint Mobile.

In the process, we saved $440 in the first 3 months of service. After the promotional period, we’ll still save $110 per month compared to what we were paying Verizon. If we do the one-year up-front renewal we’ll save about $1624 compared to what we would have paid Verizon.

It feels like we’re paying a fair price for the service we’re getting instead of feeling ripped off every month.

Performance-wise, the issue where the phone occasionally doesn’t start using mobile data after leaving a WiFi network is aggravating, but not a deal-breaker. Not for me, anyway. The issue seems to be a lot more annoying with an iPhone, so keep that in mind.

Long-story short: unless something changes drastically, when my three month promo period is up, I’m going to buy a year of Mint Mobile service up-front. I’m going to play with data usage to see what I can get away with comfortably without hitting my cap and maybe I’ll move to the 12 GB plan so I can stream more spur-of-the-moment music, but I’m pretty satisfied with Mint Mobile so far.

A word of caution

Before you commit to changing carriers (buy a SIM or remove your SIM from your phone) do yourself a favor and do these three things first:

  1. check to make sure that your phone is unlocked by calling your current carrier.
  2. make sure your phone is compatible by using the tool on the Mint Mobile website.
  3. make sure your phone hasn’t been IMEI blacklisted. You can find that out easily and for free by using the IMEI checker on T-Mobile’s website. If it has an issue it’ll let you know that your phone is blocked. I’ll write more about that in a follow-up post.

If you see that your phone is “blocked” or “blacklisted” using an IMEI checker, do not remove the SIM card from your phone until the issue is resolved. If you do, when you put any SIM card back into the phone (including the one you just took out), the service associated with the SIM card will check the IMEI blacklist and if your phone is on it, it will prevent your phone from activating and you won’t be able to use it again on any carrier.

The Nutella Cafe – Nope

A latte and a crepe with banana slices and whipped cream.

Yesterday night, my wife and walked past the Nutella Cafe on 13th Street at University Place in Manhattan on our way to New York Health and Racquet Club. My wife commented that the line had finally died down, though the place was still busy inside. My first thought was that it was the middle of the week, but thinking about it, this place has had a line out the door and around the corner of the block since it opened early last month.

We went to check it out right away too. Without realizing it, we got in the line to get inside the restaurant after it had already been closed to new customers. When the guy watching the door noticed, he let us in anyway. Maybe he didn’t want to disappoint potential new customers, or he was trying to maximize the cafe’s earnings that night. I don’t know. I’m not even sure if he just worked the door or he owned the place.

The ordering process was pretty straightforward, though the selection seemed pretty limited. Most of the things on the menu weren’t all that exciting and looked like the sort of stuff that would be pulled out of a freezer and reheated in a microwave oven. The crepes are basically carrying the menu, and that’s what we ordered.

Was it worth it? Not really. Not for the prices they’re charging. You get a crepe with some Nutella. You want fruit? Extra. You want whipped cream? Extra. I’d be ok with the “extra” if it was a reasonable price, but if I remember right, the crepe pictured above wound up being about $10 and there wasn’t even that much banana in it. Maybe just a quarter of an average sized banana, and that doesn’t really make sense. I can two bananas for what they charged to add it as a topping.

The latte was good, but I could get a better crepe at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, NJ. Probably in Manhattan, too. And in any of the boroughs. And for less money. With Nutella, and with more fruit.

So how do you get away with selling decent coffee and so-so desserts at inflated prices? You make it fashionable by throwing a name on it and hyping it up. The higher price itself is part of the plan. You make it fashionable to go there. Showing up at the Nutella Cafe becomes less about the quality of what you’re consuming and more about the image you’re projecting. Like Starbucks, where you pay $6 for coffee that tastes like burnt asshole so you can show everyone you have a Starbucks holiday cup when you get to the office. As much as I shit on Dunkin’ Donuts, at least they don’t pretend that they’re selling a premium product.

Nothing about the Nutella Cafe really thrilled me and I wouldn’t go back. For a better cafe atmosphere, The Bean is nearby on Broadway and 12th. For better desserts, Veniero’s is over on 11th and 1st, and it’s really worth the walk.

A dessert I picked up from Veniero’s and brought home. The cheesecake (Italian/Sicilian/NY Style) is amazing too.

Thoughts on “The View From Flyover Country”

When I picked up The View From Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior, I thought the book was going present a conservative or at least rural perspective on life and politics in the United States. I’m bombarded with the liberal and progressive viewpoint every day in almost every single news broadcast and social media post. The right-leaning viewpoints that do get airtime seem to be too far to the right of the political spectrum to be worth listening to. I was hoping for something center right, or traditional right, I guess.

Unfortunately, this book is written by a liberal from a Midwest city. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. It’s just not what I wanted. The book is a collection of essays and, after having finished reading the book, they come across as kind of mixed bag. The most impressive point of the book so far is how prescient some of the author’s insights were, considering that she wrote most of the essays prior to the 2016 election cycle for Al Jazeera.

Kendzior’s diatribe against gentrification is well-intended but comes across as shallow and offensive. She had an opportunity to look at how class differences and the concentration of wealth were playing out in urban environments. Instead, she uses the issue to present whites as evil oppressors of minorities, forgetting that not all gentrifiers are white because not all wealthy people are white. “Hipsters” are a visible and catchy way to present gentrification but it ignores economic realities. Gentrification isn’t a race issue; it’s an economic issue and a class issue. Kendzior could have used gentrification as a segue into a discussion of income inequality but she chose to go the easy and provocative but less informative route of blaming white people.

The section on underemployment and low pay are masterful. Kendzior isn’t saying anything that I haven’t heard before, but she said it before it was common discourse and her arguments are clear and well made. The situation she describes is maddening. Kendzior’s essay sounds more like she’s describing the plot of a dystopian fiction than reality.

How does an adjunct lecturer work for a college for decades and die making penniless while still only making $10k a year? It sounds like the money in universities, like in the rest of US society, is being funneled into bureaucratic bloat instead of into paying educators. It should be illegal for companies to pay wages so low that costs are shifted onto taxpayers in the form of social welfare programs.

But how can we implement a system of enforcement that won’t result in companies further reducing their workforces and overworking those who remain? It is something that will have to be forced. And it can be done. Companies paid living wages before. We had living wages and dignity. We can get there again. Will it take massive riots and strikes before our aristocratic Congress finally acts on behalf of the American people? Before they remember that they work for us and not for corporations?

Regarding how Islam is portrayed, she writes under the assumption that US news organizations want to tell the news in an accurate and unbiased way, but they don’t. Of course, she probably had her suspicions about that when she was writing, but the true extent of the news industry’s dishonesty didn’t become apparent until after the 2016 election, when people simply couldn’t reconcile Hillary’s guaranteed win with the actual outcome. It’s almost as if the media industry was trying to create reality and expected the American people to act according to the narrative that they had presented.

The disillusionment and shock people felt after the 2016 election cycle was heightened all the more by the clash between what they thought the US was, what they thought it stood for, and the reality of the country’s situation. Honesty and complex reporting don’t get clicks. It doesn’t generate ad revenue. It doesn’t sell because most people don’t want to read the truth. They don’t have time. With the wealth disparity in this country, most people spend so much time working or thinking about working, that they can’t find the energy or will to engage with social or political discourse in any meaningful way. So, they look for cheap entertainment that doesn’t require thought. They want to hear about Snooki’s butt implants, so news producers have turned reporting news into another form of reality entertainment. The more spin there is, the better for ratings, ad impressions, and revenue.

For me, there were two big takeaways from The View From Flyover Country. One, the impact of income inquality, the wealth gap, on US society has far reaching consequences. Combined with a failure by our news organizations to maintain journalistic principles and keep the public informed can undermine our republic and cause more damage to US society than any foreign attacker.

Book Review: Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind

Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind
Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind

I enjoyed the exercise in world building that this book seems to represent. The author laid out the history of Anderith and then used that foundation to give us a story about political intrigue and domination.

I also enjoyed how things played out at the end, though I’m not sure it made much sense. The common people would be the ones to suffer the most, while the elites who manipulated them in the first place would likely escape retribution, like Dalton. So, could that really satisfy Richard’s desire for vengeance? It does make his actions seem more juvenile. What he’s doing at the end of the story is pretty juvenile too. “They don’t like me so I’m going home!” Isn’t this guy supposed to be Lord Rahl? Wouldn’t his past experiences have hardened him up and made a man out of him by this point? Are his actions believable?

I feel like Goodkind spends a lot of time building new characters up and developing them in really creative ways, only to have them meet their ends in extremely anti-climactic situations that felt rushed and left me wondering what the point of learning about them was in the first place.

That rushed feeling permeates the last 60 pages or so of the book. One moment everything is fine, and then suddenly the enemy is there and everything quickly wraps up in catastrophe. It doesn’t feel measured. It doesn’t feel like good storytelling. It feels like the author put too much time into the build-up and then realized he only had 50 pages to find some sort of conclusion. The ending was choppy and unsatisfying. Goodkind also puts too much weight on weak storylines. The prime example is using Franka’s situation at the end of the book to explain Dalton’s change of heart, but for that to be believable Dalton’s relationship with Franka should have been more deeply examined.

The story could have been better if Goodkind had spent less time detailing characters and a culture that were disposable and had spent more time developing the main characters instead. Throughout the story, all of the main characters fail to work together. The actions they take aren’t believable given their situations. Kahlan doubting Richard and the mud people elder about the chicken is the most glaring example. Why would they lie about it, and if it had turned out to be untrue, so what? They’d have checked and maybe killed a few chickens and then they could have settled things. Instead, she gets portrayed as a doubting, whining bitch that slows down story progression, which isn’t fair to her considering who she is supposed to be. Richard has his turn to be an idiot when he doesn’t trust Kahlan’s opinion later on in the story.

The story just feels like a wasted opportunity, or like filler material.

Wide Awake: Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” and World War I

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark book cover image

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an eminently readable account of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I. Written in a narrative style, but rich with detail and innovative arguments about the origins of the war, Clark’s work is meant for a general audience but will also appeal to scholars looking to broaden their understanding of the events leading up to World War I. Clark is well versed in his subject matter. He is currently the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University with a focus on European history. His prior works include a study of Christian-Jewish relations in Prussia (The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941, Oxford University Press, 1995), a general history of Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Penguin, 2006), and a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Longman, 2000).

In The Sleepwalkers, Clark attempts to fundamentally change the way the origins of the war are discussed. Rather than trying to make a claim about who bears the most responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, the author is instead more concerned with the agency of individuals within the state power structures, the decisions they made, and why. Using a wealth of primary documents in state archives as well as secondary sources, Clark brings these “characters” to life in a story that begins with the assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga in Serbia in June of 1903 and ends with European mobilization in August of 1914.

The scope of Clark’s narrative is impressive, despite being limited. The focus is placed primarily on Serbia, the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Germany, and France. Clark goes into detail regarding meetings, conversations, letters, and press publications in these countries. Other nations that played important roles in World War I are only touched upon briefly, including Italy, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. Does it make sense to limit the narrative to these countries? For the most part, yes. Clark demonstrates that the rivalries between Russia and the Habsburgs and between the French and the Germans were the driving forces behind the outbreak of war; the assassination of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria-Hungary by Serbian assassins was simply a pretext used by these nations to pursue other goals. On the other hand, Clark positions the ongoing decline of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of Ottoman lands to other states as a primary cause of continuing unrest not only in the Balkans, but in Europe as well. If the loss of Libya to Italy and Russia’s longstanding conflict with the Ottomans over the Dardanelles and Bosphorus was so crucial in laying the groundwork for the events that led up to World War I, why was the Ottoman Empire (the so-called “sick man of Europe”) not given a greater place at the table in Clark’s narrative?

The role Clark attributes to the Ottoman Empire in The Sleepwalkers ties into one of his larger themes, in which he presents the alliance bloc system as a driving force behind the outbreak of hostilities. The new bi-polar system (Entente vs Central Powers) developed out of an earlier multi-polar system which hinged on the maintenance of the status quo, including the propping up of the Ottoman Empire as a vital part of the European political establishment. The formation of powerful alliance blocs coupled with the linkage of diplomacy to military power, as well as the lack of available colonial territories to barter and trade away in international diplomacy, created a situation that was inherently volatile. Clark writes that war was not inevitable, that it was the result of actions taken by individuals. The evidence Clark presents strongly supports his thesis. Clark clearly shows that the French elite were agitating for war to regain territories previously lost to Germany. Russian elites were looking for an excuse to finally capture the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. They understood that they would likely trigger a continental war, but decided to push forward with their plans anyway. These players were not sleepwalking towards war; they were wide awake, even if they were unaware of the scale of the consequences their actions would bring.

One of the larger problems with Clark’s work is that he places so much emphasis on Serbia and Serbian history when his narrative clearly shows that events in Serbia and Sarajevo were merely a pretext that France and Russia used to start a war that they hoped would allow them to achieve their own national goals. The amount of space in the book devoted to Serbian history seems disproportionate to the country’s influence on events. Without Russian backing, would a larger continental war have started at all? In his introduction, Clark writes that he is not interested in placing blame, but based on the evidence he presents, Russia is responsible for the start of World War I. Serbia was not a part of the Entente Alliance of 1907. Had Russia not intervened on its behalf, the treaty stipulations would not have been triggered. Germany, by contrast, comes across as an underdog in The Sleepwalkers.

Two minor issues stood out to me in this book. One is the mention of but lack of development of the idea that a new trend in masculinity affected diplomatic relations between the countries involved. The second is the repeated use of “public opinion” to explain events without developing the reader’s understanding of the actual relationship between the media or government and the public. Who was “the public”? The elite, or all classes? What was the literacy rate? Did people consume news by reading or through word-of-mouth in public spaces? Did people understand that some news was camouflaged diplomacy? Clark indicates that the outbreak of war surprised rural populations in Russia and France and they did not understand what was going on, so how could “public opinion” have played such a crucial role in government policy formation?

Overall, Clark’s presentation of the backdrop to World War I in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is brilliant. It is written in a way that is informative and yet entertaining. He opens an old topic to fresh discussion by revealing the complicated web of interactions between individuals in the state governmental systems, calling into question anew who is responsible for the start of World War I, even if that is not the author’s intention. More importantly, Clark’s work is a solid reminder that wars do not start themselves; people start wars and bad decisions by people in key positions can have devastating consequences.