Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dan Carlin's hardcore history

I haven't decided yet whether Dan Carlin's hardcore history is a podcast that is here to stay. In any case I enjoyed the latest edition (Show 12 - Steppe Stories), quite well.

What is great about Dan is that he discusses the broad undertones of history. So in stead of going into the history of say, the Scythians alone, he makes connections with all the folk of the steppes of Central Asia. Thus we learn, that apart from the Western sources, also the Chinese report about a people that are similar and contemporary to the Scythians and maybe, in fact ARE the Scythians. He makes connections a.o. with Sarmatians, Huns, Turks and the Mongols. He explains the notion of 'womb of nations' of which I had never heard, but indirectly had bumped into and wondered about.
He also discusses the wide variety of features these peoples had, making it tangible how these are, not strange, wild outsiders, but rather the roots of our own ethnicity. In additon, he is also specific enough to mention key historic events and specific descriptions of the peoples.

The steppe peoples' history is particularly interesting to me as they serve as a template in my roleplay by email game. The central setting of the story is a powerful empire, but as the story develops we meet more and more peoples on the steppe and come to understand that they are not mere wild nomads, but in fact very powerful peoples with whom the history of the empire is intertwined.

So, apart from informing and interesting, the podcast is also very useful for me. I keep on listening and do not let myself be distracted with some aspects that I like less. If I have to mention my criticism, I want to stick it this time around on one point in particular.

In all of his hardcore history podcasts Dan takes very long time (IMHO too long) to get to his point. In this case, he introduced the subject by a lengthy excursion into SciFi, which has two major weaknesses. For one it is superfluous, as the facts of the case already bring home how alien the steppe peoples were for the ones who wrote about them (like the Chinese, the Persians and the Greek for example). Second, and more importantly, it sticks on the features of the steppe peoples as the Mongols had, tuning into the prejudice of Asian savages, which undermines an important notion that is introduced later on: Some peoples looked like today's Europeans, and: The Steppe peoples eventually mixed with and led the finer civilizations they encountered. Hence, they start out as aliens and fearful savages, but ultimately they are us. The become us as they have in previous instances become our ancestors.

My guess is, Dan does this, because his target audience is the wide public and he needs to draw them in with a carefully and popularly built case. I can appreciate that, but observe that this time and again collides with the ambitious aim and subject of the show: to touch upon the core of history. It results in him making a splits from a superficial high school level where the listener needs to be lured into the subject with a childish War of the Worlds stage setting, to an in-depth, beyond the facts of history level, that stimulates the listener to discern the finer subtleties and amazing connections in the subject, which is stuff of academic level.
I am part of Dan's listener public that is, frankly, annoyed by the debilitating angle to the story and then is thrilled by the thought provoking points made afterwards and I can easily imagine another kind of listener, that is taken in by the initial approach, but cannot help but expect this part of the public going lost in puzzlement or boredom, halfway.