Good Recent Swedish Popular History

I don’t read much in Swedish. On a whim I decided to check what recent Swedish books I’ve read and liked outside work. Turns out they’re all popular history. Alla rekommenderas varmt för den som delar mina intressen!

  • Kring Hammarby sjö. 1. Tiden före Hammarbyleden. Hans Björkman 2016. Local history.
  • No, I’m from Borås. Ola Wong 2005. Eventful family history in China and among German-speaking Romanians, Banater Schwaben. (Yes, the title is in English.)
  • Svenskarna och deras fäder – de senaste 11 000 åren. Bojs & Sjölund 2016. On DNA and the post-glacial peopling of Scandinavia.
  • Det svenska hatet. Gellert Tamas 2016. On the Swedish Hate Party and Scandinavian terrorism.
  • Jorden de ärvde. Björn af Kleen 2009. On big landowners in the Swedish nobility and how they avoid splitting up their estates.
  • Newton och bibeln. Essäer om bibeltexter, tolkningsfrågor och översättningsproblem. Bertil Albrektson 2015. Essays on Bible philology by an atheist professor who served on the last Swedish state-sponsored Bible translation committee.
  • Finna dolda ting: en bok om svensk rollspelshistoria. Daniel & Anna-Karin Linder Krauklis 2015. On Swedish roleplaying-game history.
  • Äventyrsspel: bland mutanter, drakar och demoner. Orvar Säfström & Jimmy Wilhelmsson 2015. On Swedish roleplaying-game history.
  • Drömmen om stormakten. Börje Magnusson & Jonas Nordin 2015. On Erik Dahlberg and the great 17th century topographic work Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna.
  • Vid tidens ände. Om stormaktstidens vidunderliga drömvärld och en profet vid dess yttersta rand. Håkan Håkansson 2014. On Johannes Bureus and North European 17th century mysticism.

WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

The 75th World Science Fiction Convention took place in Helsinki and seems to have had the second-highest attendance ever: more than 7000 people in the Messukeskus convention centre, 2000 of whom had (like myself) never attended a WorldCon before. There were 250 programme items only on the Friday between 10 am and 10 pm, so there is no way that I’ll be able to tell you everything that went on. (Check out the programme here.) Instead I’ll tell you the bits I enjoyed the most, plus some observations.

The WorldCon crowd was incredibly diverse even if you disregarded the cosplayers. Men and women and trans folks, old and young, white and brown, Western and Eastern and Sikh. Two couples that caught my eye, for instance, were a skinny Japanese guy and a well-favoured black lady who wandered about hand in hand, and a Scandy couple with their baby in a buggy where both parents wore dresses and lipstick but one appeared to shave daily. And the attendees awarded N.K. Jemisin the Hugo for best novel for the second year running. The Puppies movement of 2013–16 that wanted white masculine conservative technocratic Hugo winners, not a bunch of brown-skinned women and gay people, is well and truly an ex-parrot.

Awards that made me particularly happy (because here’s where my candidates won) were Hugos for Ursula Vernon (novelette), Ursula le Guin (related work) and Lois McMaster Bujold (book series). Also, my dear friend Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf won the prestigious Big Heart award for services to fandom, joining the august ranks of for instance Robert Bloch, Andre Norton and Jack Williamson.

The most interesting events I attended were Sonja Virta’s talk about Tove Jansson’s illustrations for The Hobbit, Karoliina Korppoo’s talk about boardgames in Finland, Kevin Roche’s talk about quantum computing and the Hugo prize ceremony.

The funniest events I attended were Lee Moyer’s presentation of weird and ugly book covers, Charles Stross’s reading from his forthcoming Laundry novel The Labyrinth Index (highly satirical – it has Nyarlathotep as main inhabitant of 10 Downing St.), the panel on mistranslations and the panel on Stockholm-Helsinki ferry culture.

My own programme items – a talk about crackpot archaeology in Scandinavia, a panel about Medieval reality vs fantasy, two Q&As about archaeology in the children’s room – all went super well, though the grown-up events could easily have filled much larger rooms than the ones we had been assigned.

I also enjoyed the short film programme, the art show and the socialising. I was lucky: my talk was one of the first events at the convention, so people learned early to recognise my face and several came up to me for a chat. Two of these conversations were particularly surprising.

1) The tall paunchy greybeard whom I didn’t recognise until minutes into the conversation, when I realised that he was an old Tolkien Society buddy that I hadn’t seen in a quarter century, and whom I remembered as a lanky beardless redhead.

2) The friendly Finn who had heard only 20 minutes of my talk before he and many other floor sitters were kicked out because of the fire safety rules, and who found the talk super interesting and wanted to hear more despite himself being a big believer in dowsing and several pretty far-out ideas about archaeological sites.

This was a super big, super rich and super well-organised convention. I found so much to do despite knowing nothing about the guests of honour and despite having no interest in several of the main strands of the programming (notably TV shows, comics, academic lit-crit and how to write fiction). Two years from now the WorldCon will be in Dublin, a city to which you can travel cheaply from Stockholm. I’ve never been to the Republic of Ireland. I’m thinking now that I’d really like to go to the con with my wife and then rent a car to spend a week at small-town B&Bs around the country.

LinCon & SweCon 2017

Ascension with its four days off is shaping up to be the geekiest time of the year. This time I had three big events to choose from: the LinCon gaming convention, the Kontur/SweCon scifi convention and the 45th anniversary of the Tolkien Society. Tolkienians do things in nines.

I decided to spend two days at LinCon on the Linköping University campus and one day at Kontur/SweCon in an Uppsala hotel, saving the Sunday for family pastimes.

Here are the games I played at LinCon. And I had lots of free Nepalese tea from the tea bar!

  • Through the Ages II (2015). This update of a 2006 civilisation builder is currently rated second-best game on the planet on Boardgame Geek. I enjoyed playing it though I found it too fiddly and counter-intuitive. Also it took six hours for three players including rules run-down and a lunch break. So it’s not for me.
  • Biblios (2007). This is a short and sweet abstract game with cards, colours and numbers. The theme, about Medieval monks copying books, is thinly but prettily painted onto the mechanics.
  • Innovation (2010). Another civilisation builder, though short and abstract. I taught this favourite of mine to noobs and got beaten twice even though I’ve played the game nearly 40 times.
  • Lovecraftesque RPG (2015). In this interesting short-session role-playing game, the group improvises a horror story in the tradition from H.P. Lovecraft using cards. Participants serve as game master, protagonist and assistant game master(s). After each scene, these functions shift one step clockwise around the table, so that last scene’s protagonist becomes the game master, (one of) the assistant game master(s) becomes the protagonist, etc. We got a really good creepy story together about inheriting a closed-down Civil War veteran’s hospital that has more recently served as a mental asylum. Check it out! The PDF is only £10. Also check out the games designed by Simon Pettersson with whom I played!
  • Star Realms (2014). Space battle deck-building game. Fun!
  • Forbidden Island (2010). Beautifully illustrated re-make of the Pandemic co-op game aimed at kids.

At the convention auction I sold Glass Road, Great Dalmuti, Province, Race For The Galaxy, Space Cadets Dice Duel, Spank The Monkey and Yahtzee. Instead I bought Sid Meier’s Civilization and The Castles Of Mad King Ludwig.

At Kontur/SweCon I chatted with loads of acquaintances, old and new. I also heard interesting interviews with Guests of Honour Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie and Siri Pettersson. Saladin Ahmed couldn’t come as planned but had sent clips of himself answering questions from con goers, which were interesting to listen to. Good academic talks too: Josefine Wälivaara about the relative absence of queer themes in scifi movies and television, and Jesper Stage about the economics of colonialism in scifi. And I bought a Lois McMaster Bujold paperback from the Alvar Appeltofft Foundation’s huge travelling used-books store.

My next con will be nothing less than the Scifi WorldCon 75 in August, in Helsinki! I learned from its organisers in Uppsala that I’m very likely to be giving a talk about Scandinavian pseudo-archaeology at the WorldCon, and I’ll probably also be on some panels. Everyone around the Baltic, you need to go to Helsinki! Not because of me, but because this is an extremely rare event for geeks in the region, pretty much like the Geek Olympics coming to your home town.

2017 was my fifth LinCon and the second one without my kids — see 2016.

Best Reads Of 2016

The Detective: Jonathan L. Howard's second book about Johannes Cabal, the necromancer.

The Detective: Jonathan L. Howard’s second book about Johannes Cabal, the necromancer.

Here are my best reads in English during 2016. My total was 42 books and 13 of them were e-books. Find me at Goodreads!

Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • The Detective. (Johannes Cabal #2.) Jonathan L. Howard 2010. Sardonically funny Ruritanian detective story.
  • Bully for Brontosaurus. Stephen Jay Gould 1991. Essays on natural history.
  • Ready Player One. Ernest Cline 2011. Wonderful adventure story for anyone who played video games in the 1980s.
  • Murder at the Vicarage. Agatha Christie 1930. Parts of it very funny.
  • The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien 1937. There and back again!
  • Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol 1. Richard Francis Burton 1857. Victorian genius dresses up as a Muslim and enters a forbidden holy city.
  • Thud! Terry Pratchett 2005. Inter-ethnic tensions in Ankh-Morpork.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz. Walter M. Miller Jr. 1959. What happens after WW3?
  • Swallows and Amazons. Arthur Ransome 1930. Sibling quartet have summer adventures in the Lake District.
  • Collected Stories. Lewis Shiner 2009.
  • The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. Toby F. Martin 2015.
  • Errantry: Strange Stories. Elizabeth Hand 2012.
  • 6 Stories. Kathe Koja.
  • The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories. Walter Jon Williams 2010.
  • Borders of Infinity. Lois McMaster Bujold 1989. Miles Vorkosigan stories.
  • Wild Things (Short stories.). C.C. Finlay 2005.
  • Women Up to No Good: A Collection of Short Stories. Pat Murphy 2013.
  • Moving Pictures. Terry Pratchett 1990. Hollywood on Discworld.

Here’s my list for 2015.

Announcing My New Essay Collection

cover250pxIn December of last year I finished a collection of short humorous archaeological essays. It’s my sixth book, my first one in Swedish, my first one aimed at the lay reader. Since then I’ve been waiting for established Swedish publishing houses to pronounce judgement on it. Five of them have now turned it down, none with any very detailed explanation, but most of them in terms suggesting that they think it’s competently written but it probably wouldn’t sell much.

As a long-time blogger and e-book reader, I am not particularly disheartened by this. After all, this blog has a greater number of hits in a week than the entire first print run of a typical Swedish pop-sci book. And so, here it is, my new e-book, Arkeologi är choklad, inte potatis (“Archaeology is chocolate, not potatoes”)! ISBN 978-91-639-2057-8, both EPUB and MOBI formats. It’s distributed under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non Commercial, No Derivatives licence. Please help me spread it around! It’s on as well.

(Having said No Derivatives, I should hasten to point out that I would be very happy to talk to anyone who feels like translating the book.)

The book is braided of three strings. One is a reverse chronological series of essays on archaeological periods seen through the lenses of sites I’ve worked on, from the Early Modern at Djurhamn all the way back to the Early Mesolithic with Roger & Mattias at Tyresta. The second string consists of partly quite polemical pieces on what archaeology is like and how it works in Swedish society, including titles like “We never go to Egypt” and “There are no jobs and you don’t want the jobs there are”. The third string is a chronological series titled “My Strange Career”.

To whet the appetite of Swedish colleagues, let me say that I mention a considerable number of names of people in Swedish archaeology whom I have reason to thank, and I talk about a few other possibly identifiable people without mentioning their names.

I’m very keen to learn what everybody thinks!

The Lovecraftian Horror of French

1972 back-cover blurb

1972 back-cover blurb

I bought a used copy of Maurice Lévy’s Lovecraft ou du fantastique (Paris 1972) at the Fantastika 2016 scifi con, and now I’m picking my way through it with the aid of a dictionary. S.T. Joshi has published an English translation, Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic (Detroit 1988).

Here’s how little of Lévy’s literary French I understand without a dictionary. This back-cover blurb is a particularly hairy piece of writing, I should say.

The case of Lovecraft … the thick volume of fantastic literature. A limited case where … should cease: between a neurosis which, while it let phantasms bloom in writing, never would become quiet, and the … power of myth, rootedness, the return to …, modest foundation of … . Between the imagery of dreams – innumerable invaders of which the story … the equivocal but knew it also just well enough to become its structure –, and the work of wakefulness which … and organises them according to its persistent logic. But what power does the wakeful man’s persistence have against the might of the night if he has already quietly consented? … believe that the Origin conceals itself there…

Skeptical Sir Richard

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)

Yesterday I finished reading the first volume of Sir Richard Burton’s 1855 Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (in the public domain). Here Burton recounts his travels in the summer of 1853, when he disguised himself as a wandering Persian physician and performed the Muslim pilgrimage. At the time, if a non-Muslim was caught doing this, he would be lucky if he only ended up forcefully circumcised.

Burton is an amazing writer, with a keen eye for detail and fine cynical sense of humour. He comes across as a man without any religion who is nevertheless interested in other people’s religion. This lovely passage from ch. 20 of the 1893 Memorial Edition encapsulates his skeptical attitude.
(The bits about Spiritualism are late insertions by Burton.)

[In Hamzah’s Mosque outside Al-Madinah] It is believed that the souls of martyrs, leaving the habitations of their senseless clay, are fond of sitting together in spiritual converse, and profane eye must not fall upon the scene. What grand pictures these imaginative Arabs see! Conceive the majestic figures of the saints — for the soul with Mohammedans is like the old European spirit, a something immaterial in the shape of the body — with long grey beards, earnest faces, and solemn eyes, reposing beneath the palms, and discussing events now buried in the gloom of a thousand years.

I would fain be hard upon this superstition, but shame prevents. When in Nottingham, eggs may not be carried out after sunset; when Ireland hears Banshees, or apparitional old women, with streaming hair, and dressed in blue mantles; when Scotland sees a shroud about a person, showing his approaching death; when France has her loup-garous, revenants, and poules du Vendredi Saint (i.e. hens hatched on Good Friday supposed to change color every year): as long as the Holy Coat cures devotees at Trèves, Madonnas wink at Rimini, San Januario melts at Naples, and Addolorate and Estatiche make converts to hysteria at Rome — whilst the Virgin manifests herself to children on the Alps, whilst Germany sends forth Psychography, whilst Europe, the civilised, the enlightened, the sceptical, dotes over clairvoyance and table-turning, and whilst even hard-headed America believes in “mediums,” in “snail-telegraphs,” and “spirit-rappings,” [* In fairness I must confess to believing in the reality of these phenomena, but not in their “spiritual” origin.] — I must hold the men of Al-Madinah to be as wise, and their superstition to be as respectable as that of others.

An energetic man after my taste, and a writer I shall return to.

Machen’s Impostors

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

Arthur Machen’s 1895 book The Three Impostors, or The Transmutations, is a delightfully strange read. It consists of a short frame narrative interspersed with six standalone stories told inside the frame. Spoilers and musings follow.

First the background to the events, which the reader learns only in the sixth and last story inside the frame. The learned Dr. Lipsius is the leader of a secret Dionysiac cult in 1890s London, focused on sex, drugs and ritual murder. He recruits the young scholar Joseph Walters into the cult. After helping lure a victim to the cult HQ, Walters loses his cool, steals a valuable Roman coin with Bacchic imagery and disappears into the streets. Lipsius sends his three most trusted cultists, two men and a woman, to find Walters and retrieve the coin. These are the titular impostors.

Here’s where the book starts and the storyline turns from lurid to inexplicable. The frame narrative’s main viewpoint characters are two young friends, both wannabe writers of independent means: Dyson and Phillipps. By chance, Dyson gets hold of the coin, a fact that the cultists never learn. Despite not knowing this, they for no apparent reason seek out Dyson (and in one case Phillipps) repeatedly under false identities and tell five really long and elaborate make-believe stories that form the bulk of the text. This means that most of this book is told by really unreliable narrators, and Dyson and Phillipps don’t actually believe much of what they hear. Each of the stories features a character who looks exactly like the coin-thief: a young, nervous-looking man with spectacles and black whiskers. In the first story he stars as the leader of a Wild West outlaw gang. Then he appears as a supporting character in stories two, three and five: a school teacher, an assistant antiques scammer and a sinister private detective. But in the fourth story he doesn’t feature at all.

The only reason I can see for the impostors to pay any attention to Dyson is that he unwittingly shares a literary acquaintance with the man the cultists are chasing. But the impostors’ story-telling is so odd, long-winded and irrelevant that even Dyson and Phillipps find it ridiculous. When the bespectacled man is introduced again near the end of the fifth story, Dyson just snorts, stands up and leaves, and the female cultist/narrator breaks out into laughter. Finally the cultists place a watch on the aforementioned shared acquaintance, grab their quarry and kill him in a grisly fashion. Dyson happens to find poor doomed Walters’ notebook and in it reads the sixth story that explains everything to the confused reader.

This is such a strangely plotted book – best seen as a short-story collection that has had a really contrived frame narrative bolted onto it. What makes it worthwhile is the high quality of the individual stories. Two of them exerted a huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft. He eagerly grabbed several details and at least two of Machen’s main thematic preoccupations, that of sliding back down the evolutionary tree to a “lower” state of being and that of ancient evil cults surviving into the present day. But Lovecraft, a self-identified “mechanistic materialist”, certainly did not share Machen’s hostility towards rationalist science that keeps being voiced by characters in the stories. Machen had seen the world become entzaubered, disenchanted, and he really wanted to re-enchant it.

The Three Impostors is highly recommended if you like feeling slightly lost and confused yet intrigued and amazed by what you read. It’s available for free at

Best Reads Of 2015

Andy Weir's The Martian. My single best read this year!

Andy Weir’s The Martian. My single best read this year!

Here are my best reads in English during 2015. My total was 55 books and 16 of them were e-books. Find me at Goodreads!

  • The Summing Up. W. Somerset Maugham 1938. An old writer and traveller looks back on his life and turns out to have settled upon pretty much the same philosophy as myself.
  • Live and Let Die. (James Bond #2.) Ian Fleming 1954. Short and neat action novel.
  • The Martian. Andy Weir 2014. Robinson Crusoe on Mars! With science! And jokes!
  • Going Solo. Roald Dahl 1986. Youth memoir of a WW2 fighter pilot.
  • Tour de Lovecraft – the Tales. Kenneth Hite 2008. Snappy and insightful commentary on the Sage of Providence’s fiction.
  • The Girl with All the Gifts. Mike Carey 2014. From a neat opening conundrum to the fungal zombie apocalypse!
  • Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars. Daniel Pinkwater 1979. Funny and bizarre Young Adult novel.
  • The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Ian Mortimer 2008. Making it all come alive. The people you’ll meet are generally young, gullible and violent!
  • The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe. Charles Nicholl 1992. Deep dive into Elizabethan sectarian-political spying. Could be improved with some trimming of peripherally relevant asides.
  • Recovering Apollo 8. Kristine Kathryn Rusch 2011. Elon Musk-like space entrepreneur jump-starts a lot of tech through his ultimately pointless quest to salvage fictitious Apollo wreckage.
  • The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream. G.C. Edmondson 1965. Time travel in a sailing boat. Entertaining though laddish.
  • Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Alfred W. Crosby 1986. He’s eco-centric and he knows absolutely nothing about archaeology or paleoecological methods. But it’s a compelling perspective nonetheless!

Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

Here’s my list for 2014.

Toby Martin: The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England (part 1)

Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England

Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England

This is the definitive study of English cruciform brooches. Now and then a study comes along that is so comprehensive, and so well argued, that nobody will ever be likely to even try to eclipse it. It is my firm belief that future work on English cruciform brooches will strictly be footnotes to Toby Martin. He has collected and presented a huge material, asked interesting questions of it, and dealt with it competently using state-of-the-art methods. I’d be happy to hand this book as a model to any archaeologist anywhere who wants to produce a detailed study of an artefact group.

These brooches belong to the 5th and 6th centuries AD, or in Scandy terms of relative chronology, the Migration Period and Early Vendel Period. Every area around the North Sea (including western Sweden) has its regional varieties, yet they are similar enough that it is abundantly plain that contact between Scandyland and England was certainly not waiting for the Viking Period to begin. My own studies of the period have concentrated on the shores of the Baltic, and so I have never done much with cruciform brooches. I am happy to learn.

Still, I have a few nits to pick with Toby Martin’s book. This is going to get technical, but he clearly cares about methodology, and so I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested in the points I make. I’ll cover chapters 1-3 here and then return to the book in a later blog entry. Chapters 4-7 deal with societal interpretations of the jewellery.

“The cruciform brooches in the grave from Alveston Manor … are exceptionally primitive for group 2 and therefore belong to the very earliest part of phase B, if not the latter end of phase A.” (pp. 114-115, my italics)

This is nonsense and a rare case of Toby Martin slipping into an ugly analytical error, viz typological idealism or reification of the phase. By this point in the book, he has spent endless care in defining brooch types and then dividing his type list into three chronological phases. We only know that there is a phase B, and which brooch types allow us to recognise it, because Toby Martin has done the work and told us so. By his own definition, no group 2 brooch can belong to phase A. It is logically impossible for Toby Martin to be unsure of which phase a group 2 brooch belongs to. After all, his types and phases do not exist outside his definitions. As he points out on p. 123, “The opening of phase C … defines the end of phase B”. He knows how this works.

“… some phase B cruciform brooches in at least the second quarter of the sixth century. There is one slight discrepancy in the decidedly primitive type 2.1.1 cruciform brooch from Eriswell grave 28 … This cruciform brooch, with its fully round top-knob, like the pair from Alveston Manor …, appears to straddle the group 1 and 2 divide.” (p. 118, my italics)

This again is typological idealism, reification of the type. Toby Martin isn’t allowed to wonder like this if a well-preserved brooch belongs to group 1 or 2: he is the one who decides the rules for that. If he thinks this brooch is dodgy, then he needs to separate it out as an edge case, defining groups 1 and 2 in such a way that the Eriswell 28 brooch gains admittance to neither of them. He has chosen not to.

“These final, flat and exclusively bichrome cruciform brooches find no parallels whatsoever among Norwegian cruciform brooches … Perhaps the persistence of cruciform brooches in England was due to their becoming akin to the flatter, broader relief or square-headed brooches. The latest Norwegian cruciform brooches do not share these similarities and never tended toward such flat forms and in so doing, perhaps sealed their fate.” (p. 123, my italics)

Brooches do not make themselves, Toby Martin. The Norwegian brooches did not fail to jump aboard a new fashion for flatter brooches. What happened was that Norwegian people pondered the option of making flat cruciform brooches like their relatives in England wore, and decided, “No, fuck it, let’s start making an entirely new class of brooches instead. After all, in Eastern Norway the Vendel Period is already starting.” You can’t explain the end of a brooch series with reference to the brooches themselves failing to make a fashion jump.

I’ve called these points nitpicking, and that is what they are in the context of this enormous and enormously solid study. Let me end by emphasising again that Toby Martin should be a model for us all in how he deals with small finds!

Update 16 June 2016: And the review continues.

Martin, Toby F. 2015. The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Studies 25. Boydell Press. Woodbridge. 338 pp. plus plates. ISBN 978-1-84383-993-4.