Category Archives: Reviews

The Dancing Bees

Dancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee LanguageDancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language by Tania Munz

In his retirement, my father has begun keeping bees. Last year he had four or five hives, and if you let him he will talk to you for hours about the structure of the hive and the division of labor and the life cycle of the bees as he worked to naturally control the pests that threatened them. This year he is trying to go even more natural. He is not purchasing the domestic hives that seem less resilient to colony collapse disorder but instead is catching wild, native swarms. Learning along with him, I’ve come to realize how much of our agricultural system depends on the work these millions of bees do. I joke with my dad that he has a hundred thousand pets, though of course there is no way to keep them all straight as they fly in and out of the hives.

Yet that’s exactly what Karl von Frisch did in his studies to discover and understand how bees communicate with one another. Tania Munz’s study of the life and work of this Austrian naturalist is a surprisingly effective combination of my father’s hobby with my field of the history of science. Munz offers an accessible and somehow universalizing account of an individual who may not be well known to the wider public. Through an exploration of his career and influence, Munz explores not only the skill of a naturalist and the theoretical questions of communication among animals but also what life as a scientist was like in Germany during the Second World War.

Karl von Frisch discovered the “dance” of bees at their hive to communicate food finds with other bees. This might seem like an esoteric and rather minor discovery, but it had huge implications for the study of animal communication and the debate as to whether animals could actually think or simply acted on impulse and instinct. But Munz’s work and his directorship of a laboratory in Munich were threatened with the rise of the Nazis when it became known that he had Jewish great-grandparents on his mother’s side. One of the most fascinating aspect of Munz’s story is the narrative of von Frisch and his allies navigating the dangerous and complex Nazi bureaucracy to try to save his work and career. Ultimately, Frisch’s work was declared vital to the Reich, and Frisch began studying a parasite that was decimating bee colonies and threatening German agriculture.

Munz has done a fantastic job of interweaving the personal and political with the scientific. In the midst of her narrative she provides a series of “Bee Vignettes” illustrating different aspects of life in the hive and the history of apiary science. Just as fascinating as the portrayal of the rise of Nazi power and the war’s effect on working scientists like Frisch, Munz outlines the careful experiments Frisch performed to discover and then confirm the bee’s form of communication and how Frisch communicated this proof to other observers. The work is a powerful account of how field work is done, made even more compelling by not ignoring the things that were happening in the background. After the war, Munz explores how Frisch’s unique position (as a one-quarter Jew persecuted by the Nazis though still allowed to continue his work) helped him repair scientific relationships between Germany and other countries, particularly the United States.

For me though, Munz’s work was less important for the story it told than as an example of how to tell the story. The work balanced careful treatment of the science with understanding of the context in which it was done and returned a figure who might otherwise be obscure to a primary role in the development of theories of animal intelligence. My only regret was that while it did all this with an eye to Frisch’s personality and life, it was less biographical than one might have hoped. We learn about the beginning of Frisch’s career and his childhood, but we’re left with only a sketch of his final days, and though we’re told his wife struggled with depression we never get a complete domestic view. Though the world outside his lab affected his work and is handled deftly in Munz’s treatment, the domestic sphere was certainly just as important and was treated much more superficially.

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to GodWith: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani

I don’t often read contemporary devotional books. The market seems a roar of shallow, consumerist noise, and I don’t know enough about contemporary Protestant popular theology to know who is speaking well. But occasionally a book will fall into my hands, and I would like to believe that sometimes the books you get by happenstance are the books you are meant to read. Skye Jethani has spoken on my university campus in the past, and copies of his book were given to some of the faculty. Which is how (after it sat on my shelf for about six months) I found myself reading With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God.

In this book, Skye takes an important look at a set of four contemporary heresies regarding how we understand our relationship with God in Christian practice today, and he packages them in a very clever (and effective) metaphor built around the prepositions over, under, from, and for. He never uses the term heresy, but that’s what he’s discussing: four postures that we take regarding God and that twist, undermine, or corrupt what our relationship with God really should look like. I found the analysis and critiques of these four postures to be the most helpful and insightful portion of the book, as we all live into different aspects of these in our own lives to some extent. In this respect, the book was good for some sharp self-reflection.

Skye summarizes the four positions as these:

Life under God: seeing God as an arbitrator of certain moral guidelines that we must follow to be rewarded with salvation. We are sinners, and our relationship with God is about satisfying these rules and obligations.

Life over God: related to our approach to scripture or the natural world from a perceived position of power or knowledge. In either case, there are certain God-ordained principles (for obtaining wealth, happiness, influence, or security), and we must find and apply to life.

Life from God: seeing God as there to supply my needs and desires as a consumer. My relationship with God is a posture of approaching God for what the divine can provide me with.

Life for God: the mission that God gave me is central, and I evaluate myself and my relationship with God in terms of how well I am fulfilling or accomplishing that mission.

As Skye points out, there are aspects of truth in each of these postures, which is what makes them dangerous. When taken too far, they subvert a proper understanding, a right orientation, with God. All of them put the emphasis on things beside God; they all use God as a means to address what Skye calls the basic aim of religion, trying to address our fears and insecurities with a source of power. Against these four, Skye argues for an orientation that is centered on life with God.

And here’s where the book begins to get fuzzier. It’s easier to explain what things like God and our relationship with God are not (as Skye does in the insightful first portion of the book) than it is to say what they are. It’s easier to diagnose heterodoxy than define orthodoxy. This is the apophatic tradition: the ability to say what God is not but the inability to define God’s essence. The portions of the book where Skye tries to really examine what life with God looks like, taking a chapter each on the qualities of life with God—faith, hope, and love—fell a bit flat to me. They were gesturing toward something beyond a system of information that could be passed along in a text. They were pointing beyond the text itself.

But Skye got there in the end, in the very end. In the appendix, actually. I think maybe the paradox of any book about spirituality is that the truths it is trying to communicate can only be experienced beyond the book, in the context of practice and community. For Skye, the centerpiece of life lived with God, in communion and relationship, is a life with regular periods of quiet contemplation. He hit on this tangentially in examining the motivation for lives of love in some examples of contemporary saints, but he spelled it out more explicitly in the appendix, where he outlined three types of contemplative prayer.

The paradox of the book I think can be summed up in this: in the first half I can understand intellectually what’s wrong with the four heterodox postures Skye so convincingly discusses, but in the second half I can only experience the rightness of life with God through practices and prayers that the book itself (or really any book) cannot contain.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret WorldThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

If trees could speak, what might they say? I’ve written stories about this. I’ve grown up in their company, with a forest stretching out behind my home that I’ve still never fully explored. I speculate on what the trees might say, but Peter Wohlleben, a German forester turned conservationist, insists in the doubly subtitled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, that they most certainly are talking. Primary to this argument is the discovery that seems expected and unsurprising if you grew up watching movies like Ferngully or reading fairy tales: that trees, of all species, in a healthy forest are connected, that they work together as a linked super-organism, and that they together contribute to the overall health of the forest in a way greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course, today we would want to understand a mechanism for such a claim, and Wohlleben (“good life” in German) provides one from recent studies. Beneath the ground, the roots of trees are connected in a vast fungal network that allows them to share resources and pass chemical signals (in other words, communicate). Unfortunately, scientists can’t resist the parallels and insist on calling this the “wood wide web.” Awfulness of that label aside, the observed implications are remarkable: trees between different species can share resources, they can pass messages, and older trees can even “teach” younger trees. All of this, Wohlleben argues, is part of how the forest survives and flourishes.

This form of connectivity is central to Wohlleben’s book, though the book does not focus exclusively on this topic. The work is a series of short chapters that offer vignettes on different aspects of the forest. But though they don’t all treat the nature of the “wood wide web” (ugh), they all do emphasize the connectedness of the forest, for instance how it moderates temperature by creating a microclimate or tempers the wind velocity of storms, how it collectively adds to soil health or controls pests. Wohlleben brings a keen eye for detail in his descriptions of the traits and growth patterns of species in his old-growth European forests, where he worked first evaluating forests as economic resources as a forester and now views them through the lens of conservation.

I think our descendants will rightly think us idiots for the assumption that organisms are isolates, that they can be conceptually reduced to living machines that operate more or less individually. It’s the assumption that you could plant an oak alongside a city sidewalk and expect it would grow into the same organism that it would in a forest. People, animals, plants—I think our descendants will chide us for approaching these things as individuals first and only secondly in respect of the systems in which they are a part of, instead of starting the other way around.

This is what Wohlleben does in his book of rather (pleasantly) scattered information and anecdotes: see the forest first, as an integrated system, and only secondly analyze the trees within it. As just one example of this, he talks about the development of trees inside and outside a forest. Inside a forest, they grow slowly, shielded, sometimes nurtured, sometimes stunted by the shade of their parents, maturing gradually over several decades before they reach the crown and have a chance at gathering large amounts of light. Yet this slow growth, regulated by the forest, Wohlleben argues, is essential for ensuring that the tree will have a long and healthy life.

In contrast, “street kids,” as Wohlleben refers to trees planted outside of forests, for example along streets in cities or suburbs, grow too fast for their long term health. More than this though, they grow outside the networks that connect trees in a forest. They don’t have the same support structure or learn the same chemical codes. They are deaf and dumb. Plantations and nursery trees are like this as well, Wohlleben claims. They are orphans, not knowing how to live or speak in community with other trees.

Wohlleben, moving from forestry to conservationism, makes a case for a radically different way of managing and harvesting forests, but more than this, for the lay reader he makes a strong case for conceptualizing the forest in a different way, for seeing it as an entity with cooperative connections, both beneath the ground in ways outside our perception that science is only now bringing to view, but also by highlighting simple things anyone can see in the forest if brought to attention by a careful and watchful eye.

Kindling the Divine Spark

Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual ZealKindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal by Abbot Herman

Only the benumbed soul doesn’t pray. Preserve in yourselves the feeling of need, and you will always have stimulation for prayer . . . Necessity teaches everything. The need for prayer teaches one to pray. (70)

Of all the aspects of the Christian faith, monasticism (either of the male or female variety) may be the most misunderstood. Yet I would venture to say that the health of a church, the help and the hope of the faith, depends on the strength of its monastic communities. A friend has said that in the history of the church, renewal has often come from the monasteries. They’re like the spiritual batteries by which the church occasionally must be recharged.

But contemporary misunderstandings arise because we don’t see what such communities are actually for, what they’re supposed to be doing, how they influence or interact with the “normal” life of the church in the rest of the world. They’re not practical. They’re antiquated. They’re disconnected. What have poverty, chastity, and continual prayer to do with marriage, children, career, or even evangelism?

St. Theophan the Recluse was a bishop in nineteenth-century Russia who had a passion for starting monasteries and convents, and he gave regular sermons at these various communities in which he spelled out for their members the goal of lives as monks and nuns. Many of these sermons, along with some brief biographical sketches, are collected in this volume, Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal. There is a gap of culture and of a century or so, so while reading it’s easy to slip into an analysis of this work as an authoritarian bishop working to keep communities of women (nuns) under his influence. Except for the fact that Theophan ultimately abandoned his position to spend decades as a recluse, living out the life of austere monasticism that he had preached.

Besides being a living testimony to the spiritual heritage of Christianity across the world and throughout history, the power of monasticism, as illustrated in these sermons, is the example it provides for us in the world. Every Christian is called into the same struggle, and monasticism reminds us of the cost that we might otherwise be able to forget: that Christianity is not a system of knowledge or principles but a life lived out in community with the goal of perfection, of sanctifying individuals into the likeness of Christ.

Peace and tranquility and fulfillment are either the crown of perfection or a state of extreme fall, in which all spiritual striving and needs are extinguished . . . The state of those who are progressing toward perfection, however, is a state of struggle—intense, laborious, and full of tribulation. This state of progressing—is the narrow path. (40)

Of Theophan’s sermons, I thought “The Healing Pool” (Chapter 18) was the most profound. It talked about the paradox of considering oneself as the least, most humble, most struggling Christian and how this disposes the soul to be a source of help and healing for others. Advancing in the spiritual life, according to Theophan, does not make one more confident or sure of one’s self but rather more aware of one’s weakness and one’s innate and continual need for God. If the Christian life is one of resisting or overcoming the passions, Theophan argues, the more we understand ourselves and are aware of these passions, the more the struggle grows. We cannot resist passions of which we are not even aware.

What to take from all this into a life outside the monastery? The awareness of Christianity as a struggle—not a thrown switch or single-time salvation experience—is paradoxically a source of encouragement. When will I finally arrive at grace? When will I be delivered from the struggle against my own selfish, awkward, grasping nature? Theophan says: never. At least, not here. This is the testimony of monasticism, that sanctity is a process, and a process that grows more difficult as one progresses.

This had profound implications for prayer, the awareness that it is driven by necessity. We cannot manufacture a desire to pray, but we pray out of need. The more awake and aware we are of our need—and the more we open our hearts to the needs of others—the more we find within us the desire to pray.

Isn’t this view of salvation rather discouraging though? I mean, all this talk of struggle. How could that invite anyone to follow after Christ? And what good would it do? Here’s where empiricism comes into play, the testimony of experience and the test of Theophan’s claims: what kind of people are those from whom you find grace, healing, and encouragement? Who are those through whom real good is done? In the world, we go after those with confidence and firm leadership, often to our enduring disappointment and chagrin. But the saints of the church are those who embody the struggle: their humility and self-emptying, all of the things they give up or walk away from, their self-denial—all of this becomes a means of healing for those around them.

And then we’re back at Christ, the exemplar of the whole Christian life, who gave himself up in humility, who made himself the least of all—not simply (or even) to propitiate some kind of cosmic justice but to show that the nature of God himself, that the hidden secret at the heart of the universe, was this kind of love. And it was a struggle, even for him. (Read the account of the garden of Gethsemane.) So the monk or the nun (or the Christian) follows this example, and the struggle is not one of despair but of hope, because the testimony of Christ reveals the ultimate outcome of such a life of self-emptying love: union with God.

In this context, the sermons of Theophan take on a deeper significance than simply exhortations to men and women over a century ago who were participating in a practice of Christianity that no longer has any bearing on the contemporary world. His words, while still difficult, are for all of those who have taken up the struggle of living out the Christian faith.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

The Death and Life of the Great LakesThe Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

The Great Lakes are in my blood. Every summer for as long as I can remember, with only lapses of a few years here and there, I have walked their shores. I am unfamiliar with oceans. These are the only seas I have known, but those coastlines—seemingly endless expanses of sand, water, clouds, towering cottonwoods on the dunes—are my own configuration of the northern shore (to borrow a Lafferty reference). Yet if Dan Egan is correct, we’re missing an ecological catastrophe, or rather a series of catastrophes, playing out beneath their surfaces right now. I recently read The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis, which was a wonderful celebration of the Lakes. In contrast, Egan’s book is a prophecy of the Lakes—not quite a Jeremiad, though I learned of the book from a sign outside a bookstore in St. Joseph, Michigan, saying the author was coming to speak, and I can only hope he is traveling the shores of the lakes talking about his writing with all the fervor of a prophet, and I hope that people are listening.

Because this book needs to be on the desk of every governor of all the states and provinces bounding these waters (and in the hands of everyone who treasures traveling to their shorelines). In the introduction, Egan speaks of seeing old photos of hunters on the Great Plains standing atop piles of buffalo skulls and being amazed today: couldn’t they see what was happening? Didn’t they realize what they were doing? What were they thinking? Egan argues that our grandchildren might well wonder the same thing about us and our lakes.

Egan is a journalist who has been covering the Great Lakes for decades, and this book arose out of the work of that career. What keeps the book from being a grim Jeremiad though or a shrill environmental screed—what makes it a great read as well as a powerful warning—is the journalistic voice Egan brings to telling the historical stories and the personal accounts connected with the picture of unfolding ecological disaster. It makes the medicine go down easier, but it also drives the medicine to the bone.

In a nutshell, Egan illustrates how the Great Lakes have been isolated and protected from invaders for thousands of years, the Niagara Falls providing a natural barrier to invasive species. This was artificial breached by the locks of the Seaway, engineered with the intention of bringing international marine commerce to Great Lakes port cities. Egan shows the ecological catastrophe unleashed by invaders in bilge-water (waves of invasive fish and eventually the zebra and quagga mussels) but also the foolishness: trade promises that never materialized, an average of only two international ships a day and locks that were too small for most of the international cargo fleet the day they opened. Regulating single choke-point could ensure that what has happened to the Lakes doesn’t happen again. Egan’s simple solution is to order the unloading of all international ships at the Seaway onto rail or Great Lakes vessels, something he argues would be incredibly inexpensive compared to the economic damage already wrought by invasive species and the cost of further invaders.

The web of native Great Lakes ecology, Egan outlines, was devastated by invasive species and then pushed ever further off-kilter by stocking them as though they were sport fishing holes with non-native salmon (and the history here is a window into the history of state fisheries). He explains how a single state (Michigan) made unilateral decisions about fish stock that would affect all the lakes. Egan doesn’t place blame but rather tells the history of subsequent boom and collapse and potential rebound. He also explores the “back door” into the Great Lakes, the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opens the door into the Mississippi Basin and thus invasive Asian carp. He explores the spread of mussels to the west, toxic algae blooms fed by fertilizer runoff and loopholes in EPA protections—such as agricultural runoff being considered a “pointless” polluter and thus not regulated and bilge-water not being classified as pollution at all. Finally, he looks at the threats and complexities of thirst for Great Lakes water in an arid landscape.

The story he tells is comprehensive, contextual, and compelling.

And damning.

I’ll be sitting on the beaches of Michigan again this summer, but I won’t be looking at those waters stretching out before me in the same way.

Knowledge for Sale

Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education (Infrastructures)Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education by Lawrence Busch

Neoliberalism is undermining the values of higher education, according to this concise treatment by Michigan State University sociologist Lawrence Busch. Neoliberalism here is not, as a conservative Christian reader might assume, the liberal boogeyman who has hijacked the university and turned it into a godless secular factory for producing “Darwinist minions,” as (no joke) one student labeled my own. Rather, the neoliberalism Busch discusses is something more widespread (at secular and Christian universities alike) and to be honest a lot more frightening. Busch’s neoliberalism is an economic paradigm, one which most of the world is happily following, a paradigm that says free market competition is the surest means to happiness and prosperity. The neoliberalist ideal is to get governments out of the way wherever possible, let competition thrive, and let the assumedly politically neutral processes of free markets work.

Unfortunately, Busch argues, neoliberalism is a flawed dogma, and its effects become most insidious when they begin influencing higher education:

From neoliberal perspectives, markets are about producing efficiencies and thereby maximizing wealth and liberty. But markets can also be about other values besides efficiency. It is precisely because markets may be designed to optimize or maximize many different values that they must be considered a form of governance rather than some naturally occurring or logically justifiable phenomenon. (132)

The problems with neoliberalism and its march toward ultimate market efficiency are numerous, and Busch highlights only a few in his survey of recent critiques. To start with, markets are not actually natural and free; rather, they are created and regulated, and because of this they can be crafted to enshrine certain values and ignore others. Markets tend to prioritize private goods over public goods. They reduce societies to a collection of isolated individuals who are supposed to make market choices based on self-interest and flawed knowledge. They value certain types of knowledge and ignore others. All of this, Busch argues, makes the acceptance of neoliberalism by governments throughout the world problematic, but these issues become even more heightened when they intersect the values of the university.

Busch makes arguments for the problems of privatizing knowledge, of creating partnerships between private companies and public universities, and of seeing education as a purely individualistic commodity as opposed to a social good at public schools supported through public funds. These universities were founded on the belief that the knowledge they produced and the citizens they educated were public goods and should thus be funded by the common purse. As market forces have been introduced to (supposedly) make higher education more efficient and competitive, this has instead the effect of walling off the commons. Knowledge becomes seen as proprietary, a means of generating income for universities that are seeing their public support continually cut. Bureaucracy proliferates to protect this knowledge, to compete for funds, to seek corporate support or partnerships, and to enhance controls and efficiencies. In short, universities become more like businesses.

For many, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I hear constantly that the field of higher education is changing and that we have to change with it if we hope to remain competitive. The problem though, and Busch’s primary point, is that universities by their very nature are supposed to do things that in themselves critique and at times openly contest the neoliberal paradigm, revealing it to be the value-laden (not neutral or natural) system that it is. The kind of goods created by universities are not private goods, and they are not always amenable to market forces. Indeed, some of the most important work of universities is the production of “slow knowledge,” results of investigations that take years or even decades, that cannot easily be monetized and that may never have a payoff in dollars and cents. Such research is devalued in a university unduly influenced by neoliberal pressures. In addition, certain forms of knowledge (humanities and the arts, for instance) become seen as luxuries because they don’t have the same market value in the way STEM fields do. Instead of being seen as essential forms of knowledge for perspective and cultural literacy, a common and not a private good, they become seen as a poor investment for students and thus an easy target of cuts for administration. Finally, market pressures applied within the university undermine the freedom to pursue (and support) research that exposes harmful effects of big business or corporate sponsors, an obviously corrosive influence on how universities ideally function.

Such examples might seem obvious, but Busch’s concern is that concepts of competition, efficiency, and market forces have become so ubiquitous in our society that they become seen as tools to apply in any situation, regardless of context. They seem so natural in our lives, the way we run our businesses and the way many of us wish we would run our government, that they begin to be seen as self-evident axioms for the way society should be organized. The problem though is that when administrators trained in a business mindset begin applying these paradigms to the university, the university’s ideals and purpose become compromised.

We talk about competing in a “knowledge economy,” where higher education begins to be seen “solely as an investment in one’s self, an investment designed to enhance future earnings.” (49) (Again, I hear language like this all the time.) The danger, Busch argues, is that technoscientific knowledge prioritized in this way (technical training to get a job) is only one aspect of knowledge, and our market economy biases us toward giving it too much value. Rather than an economy of knowledge, Busch claims, we need to recognize that we function in an “ecology of knowledge,” where things like local knowledge, cultural knowledge, moral knowledge, and social knowledge are tools in our epistemological toolbox alongside technoscientific knowledge.

The market economy is not the end all and be all of the good society or what it means to be human. Yet our application of its modes and models to the university threatens to silence one of the strongest voices we have for critiquing, questioning, and broadening that view.

Victoria: the Queen

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

I remember an evening class session my first semester as a history PhD student at Notre Dame held in the living room of a professor who has since passed away in which this incredibly erudite historian made a case for empire. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the crux was a contrast between the relative peace that prevailed between various peoples who saw themselves as part of a single empire against the contemporary strife of nationalism among the ashes of collapsed empires. I remember that many of us were still young enough to find this idea shocking, distasteful, and certainly heretical to our American ideals of democracy. The democratic, in-fighting cities of Greece were the good guys, after all. The absolutist, domineering emperor of Persia was the singular Bad Guy.

Because that’s the problem with empire, isn’t it? You need an emperor. It never seems to work to unify a disparate collection of nations or peoples under the authority of an elected body. (Or at least, it didn’t work for the Romans for long, and one could argue whether the United States is in some respects simply a relatively young experiment in democratic empire-building.) It doesn’t work because an empire doesn’t really want all its constituent pieces represented. It just wants them unified, and the best way to do that is to place them all under the authority—perhaps only a symbolic authority, though sometimes that’s the strongest authority of all—of an emperor.

We’ve forgotten what a Christian idea this is. Christianity was not born in democracy, nor does it tend toward it. Every day, Christians around the world pray for the coming of a kingdom, an empire with a benevolent Prince of Peace as the ultimate, un-democratic authority. This was an ideal I was first introduced to in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, when the ghost of Severian’s tutor walks his pupil through what Severian assumes are progressively higher and more developed forms of government until the tutor asks in what relation Severian stands with most loyal, obedient companion. Democracy, Wolfe seemed to be saying, does not have a monopoly on virtue and loyalty. Indeed, these might flourish more easily in an empire ruled by a worthy leader. (And much of the plot of this five-volume epic is the story of Severian becoming a worthy emperor.) Famously atheistic Terry Pratchett makes a similar argument in the character of Lord Vetinari, the benevolent dictator of the Discworld’s most fabulous city.

This isn’t an argument against democracy, or even an argument that one form of government is better or worse than another. But it is an argument that to understand other peoples and periods (and maybe even our own theology) we need to at least consider giving up the notion that democracy is inherently and without question the best or the natural progression of all states. When we do, we might be in a position to understand the life and significance of someone like Queen Victoria.

As Julia Baird sets out in this sweeping biography of the life of the queen (and empress), Victoria reigned over an empire that during her lifetime grew to encompass a quarter of the world’s inhabited landmass and hundreds of millions of subjects—arguably the largest empire in history. Yet her life and reign (second in British history only to the currently-reigning queen) spanned the industrialization of her empire and a growing tide of liberal reforms. Under her rule (though not always with her support), Reform Bills expanded the voting franchise, and new laws began modernizing women’s rights and protection of children and workers and even animals (through anti-cruelty laws). Throughout a reign lasting from 1837 to 1876 (she came to the throne at the age of only eighteen), Victoria balanced being a figurehead and yet a real, forceful symbol of devotion to empire with the exercise of true political power.

Baird does a tremendous job mining primary sources and balancing her treatment of Victoria as a person with the context of the political and social world that was being transformed around her. From her stormy relationship with her mother to her adoration of husband Prince Albert and her veneration of his memory after his death decades before her own, to stubborn battles of will with the various Prime Ministers she outlasted and outlived, to her (previously often censored) relationship with her Highlands servant John Brown, Baird shines the light on Victoria the woman—often stubborn, selfish, and self-interested, but just as often stubborn, indomitable, and compassionate. Throughout, Baird highlights what it meant, for men and women, to have a woman as sovereign in a period when the rights of women in Britain were still developing.

This treatment of her personal character is balanced with enough context to help the reader place Victoria and her family in the center of shifting European politics and historical developments. Her children and grandchildren were scattered across the royal families of Europe, with repercussions up to the time of First World War. The ultimate fate of her granddaughter, wife of the doomed Tsar, in the Russian Revolution is well-known, but I had not realized the intricacies of what the rise of Prussia in the late 1800s (eventually ruled by Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm) implied for family loyalties even before the Great War. Baird does a good job giving an overview of these complexities (and among the German kingdoms this could easily become dizzying) without getting lost in the details.

Finally, Baird finds a balance between the civilizing aspects of empire and the brutal realities this often entailed—usually for subject peoples. She doesn’t shirk from outlining the forgotten wars that played out on the fringes of the empire, like the Taiping Rebellion in China that she says cost millions of lives. At the end of Victoria’s reign, the Boer War in South Africa was pitting British imperialism against descendants of Dutch settlers in a conflict that put to rest ideals of empire as a benevolent force in light of the realities of forced relocation, concentration camps, and a naked bid for mineral wealth. Tangentially, Baird’s account outlines the true magnitude of the “Scramble for Africa”, in which colonial powers carved the continent between them and laid the groundwork for conflicts that would explode across Europe in the First World War. It made me wonder whether a more nuanced exploration of the conflicts that have shaken Europe might usefully recast them in light of the consequences of exploitation on the edge of empire, which historical treatments have often kept off the primary stage of history.

In my own fiction, empire often functions as a monolithic background in my fantasy. Empire is an easy background for epic. Allegiance to a distant, aging, perhaps half-forgotten emperor has something of romance, and I’ve looked at what loyalty to a larger ideal embodied in the person of an individual in a few of my published stories—”The Glorious Revolution” and my Wizard’s House sequence. I’ve also explored what the character of an empress forced into power might be like, in “Deathspeaker,” which is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. But all fiction is only a mirror, and it is only as rich as the history that informs it. I’m coming to realize that books like Baird’s and the characters like Victoria who return to life through them are essential for literature and that the interplay between history and fiction– even fantasy– might be closer than I realize.