Biases, Past and Future

I’ve been reading again, lately. It’s almost indescribably nice to get lost in a good book and I do sometimes regret that I don’t read as many books as I used to; the ease and allure of internet writings tends to win in the competition for my time. You still can’t beat a book for a good story though!

The first of the books I read was a repeat for me, Protector, an Isaac Asimov novel I remember from childhood. One thing that leapt out at me now that I didn’t have the tools to recognize back then was how obvious the impact of the time it was written in comes through.

Asimov was, for his time and especially for his field, a quite progressive novelist (the colony’s only computer programmer is a woman! Another one gets to be an ace pilot!). For sci-fi in the 60’s it’s a step above the rest simply for having female characters at all, with bonus points as they aren’t there solely to be rescued. However, it’s quite obvious that although he tried, from a modern perspective the female characters really only have bit parts and aren’t entirely relevant to the plot. Oh, remember how I said Sci-Fi authors are really bad at hiding their fetishes in a previous post? I almost forgot to mention how in the future nudism is widespread and good and all the cool characters do it. Asimov didn’t forget to mention it though, especially when it comes to the female characters.

There’s other funny stuff to modern readers; although Asimov thought through a lot of the implications of sub-lightspeed space travel and thus how technology might evolve, there’s some aspects he didn’t predict. For example, when they need to take the colony’s sole computer with them to translate a language on-site, it takes up the spaceship’s entire cargo hold.

Overall, Protector was only an OK novel and one of Asimov’s weakest, especially compared to his “Robots” novels, although the description of alien though processes and the multiyear starship chase were good.

And despite the 50 year old book not being as progressive as you’d hope a 2016 sci-fi novel would be, at least Asimov has never been suspected of murdering their own baby son to frame a rival.

Which brings me to the second book I read recently, a biography of Wu Zetian. Spotting historical biases on accounts of events was much easier for this one as trained historians pointed out them out for me, while also relaying the life story of China’s only Empress.

Wu had an interesting life, to put it mildly. History first records her as a low-ranking concubine in the Imperial Palace, until the Emperor at the time died. At this point, tradition demanded she and the rest of the palace concubines should have been sent off to a nunnery, but while the Emperor was dying Wu, in her position as nurse, managed to charm his son. When the son became Emperor he almost immediately recalled Wom the nunnery and reinstated her in the palace, this time as favoured concubine.

A few judicial poisonings and witchcraft accusations later, she had thoroughly discredited the Empress and manouevered herself into position to challenge the Emperor’s wife. Which she did. Wu gave birth to a child: an Imperial bastard and a threat to the succession. Wu then engineered a situation where the Emperor’s wife visited that child alone and shortly thereafter it was found dead, murdered by the last person to see them! The court, outraged that anyone would commit such a crime, had the Emperor’s wife demoted from her position and shortly thereafter she died in prison.

What actually happened is, of course, unknown. It’s possible the wife did do it, as accused. Chroniclers from the time or shortly after Wu’s reign tended to blame the wicked and unscrupulous Wu who, without any womanly compassion in her murdered her own child just to frame the wife for the crime. Modern historians think it more likely given her devotion to her other children that she exploited a stillbirth, although no-one can rule out any other explanation.

Once installed as Empress herself, Wu followed the usual procedure of removing enemies via distant postings or trumped up charges, including more than a few members of her own family. When the Emperor died (of natural causes) the only candidate left was one of Wu’s children, a particularly weak-willed son who let Wu act as regent. Eventually, noticing how people who stood in Wu’s way tended to disappear and that she had recently taken part in a big religious ceremony traditionally only performed by Emperors, the son decided his best course was to abdicate in favour of his mother. From the facts we have left, whether acting as regent or on her own Wu was actually quite good as a ruler; instituting some helpful reforms and winning a war with Korea that the previous Emperor had failed at.

Most of the contemporary/immediately afterward accounts of her reign prefer to focus on the scandals of Wu; that she took multiple younger lovers, schemed to place favourites in powerful positions and generally did what she wanted. These traits were also traits that she shared with most of the other Emperors of the period, the difference they object to was that she was a woman.

So these days, Wu Zetian has a bit of a mixed reputation. It’s indisputable she was China’s first Empress in her own right but it’s also indisputable she did some bad things to get there. Is she picked on due to sexism? I’d say yes, the evidence points to her being a terrible person but not particularly worse than other Emperors of the time, so it’s unfair to hold her up as a particular example of a ruthless despot.


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