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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Warning: May Contain Spoilers!
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the sequel to the fantastic Guardians of the Galaxy. The first Guardians was one of the strongest entries into the MCU and I would personally put it in my top ten favorite movies. Although the sequel does not live up to the original it is still a strong, funny, and good movie. Before we start I must warn people that this review may contain spoilers so if you have not seen the movie I would advise not to read further.

Plot
Since the end of the last movie the Guardians of the Galaxy have become galaxy-renowned heroes. However, they fall afoul of Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and the Sovereign when Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista) steal some powerful batteries from them. The Guardians are narrowly rescued by a powerful being called Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). We find out that not only is Ego a powerful, god-like being called a Celestial but also he is Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) father. Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) must come to terms with her adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) while Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) faces a mutiny thanks to his leniency concerning Quill.

Compared to the first movie there is a lot going on in Guardians but unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron or Batman v. Superman it does not clutter the movie. The three plot lines continuously interweave with one another where all three either progress the plot or develop characters. There is a good division between character development and action which made the movie seem very fleshed out. Out of the recurring characters the only who does not receive any character development is Groot (Vin Diesel) but then again it is hard to develop a character whose entire dialogue consists of 'I am Groot'. However, I did prefer the plot to the first one and at times this one felt like it was trying to set up the next installment. Luckily this was only at the end that I felt this, and thankfully since Age of Ultron Marvel has only tried to set up the next installment at the end of each movie. The comedy is very funny but at times is somewhat stale. I believe this is because of the first movie. Guardians did it so well so when Guardians 2 repeated the humor it seemed less funny. Thankfully, James Gunn had enough foresight to not repeat the same jokes (Drax's misunderstanding of metaphors is heavily played down in this movie) which ensured that for everytime a joke seemed stale there was a funny one to counteract it.

Characters and Acting
The Main Characters
As usual for MCU movies Guardians 2 is well acted. I could not identify one poor performance from any of the main cast. The recurring cast was again well done and I enjoyed how they also went down a more serious route at time with some of the characters for the development scenes. Three in particular stick out: Yondu/Quill, Gamora/Nebula and Quill/Ego. Throughout the movie there is a recurring theme of family and the definition of family. In these scenes we see really good development. Surprisingly we even see development for Drax and Rocket which made these characters feel fleshed out. It is a testament to James Gunn that the Guardians movies have the best development in the MCU (in my own opinion). Ego, however, is less well done. This is not a spoiler for those who have read the comics but Ego is the movie's antagonist. Like all over MCU movies he is not as good as the protagonists (so far Loki is the only memorable villain). Like Ronan in the previous installment I did enjoy Ego, and a large part of this is the charm of Kurt Russell. While Ronan was a straightman villain against the light-hearted Guardians Ego is a laid back villain, who just so happens to try and commit genocide... Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha is really good as a villain as well. She lies in between Ronan and Ego. Initially she appears to be an austere, serious overlord but when things go against her she turns into a screaming child. It was very well done by Gunn and Debicki. Overall the characters are done very well.

Before we move on I just want to say how much I loved Baby Groot. Initially I was fearful that they would turn Groot into a Minions type character but luckily this did not happen. I loved every scene where Groot was the main figure. Groot was motion captured, as well as voiced, by Vin Diesel and it was done well. There is one shot of Groot sitting on the ship's window with a look of awe on his face. There is also another scene which screamed Laurel and Hardy where Yondu and Rocket need Groot to get something but he keeps bringing the wrong items (including a toe) which was both cute and very funny.

Effects
Drax against an inter-dimensional alien
As always I prefer practical effects to CGI and I felt at times practical effects could have been used. However, unlike some other movies like Kong: Skull Island where the CGI looked poor at times I felt all the CGI used in this movie was very good. When the CGI looked somewhat fake or entirely fake I felt that this was intentionally done. Thankfully there was makeup and some practical effects instead of CGI to make most of the characters like Drax, Yondu and Nebula. It looked very good and it went well with the CGI. The effects to create Rocket and Groot were done well and managed to capture effectively the emotions these characters were feeling. There is one hilarious scene which has over the top Tex Avery style facial distortions which purposefully look fake and is hilarious to watch. It really was funny to see. Overall good effects.

References
Fan Theory Confirmed
Guardians 2 makes reference to both the wider MCU and the comics. Ego the Living Planet turns out to be the main villain and I like how they interpreted Ego in this movie. I also like how they made him a Celestial. In the comics Celestials were ancient beings who helped life evolve and are responsible for people have superpowers on Earth. It made sense for them to make Ego a Celestial in this universe. The Infinity Stones are mentioned again and it is revealed the only reason why Quill managed to hold one without dying in the previous movie was because of his Celestial DNA. Although in the comics Quill isn't half-Celestial; in the comics he is the son of J'son, the Spartoi Emperor who has no apparent god-like powers. In the end credits Ayesha announces that she has created a being called 'Adam'. This is referencing Adam Warlock who was originally meant to appear in this movie but was cut as Gunn felt there were too many characters. This means that Adam will likely appear in Guardians 3. The end credits also have a scene referencing the original Guardians of the Galaxy. The Guardians depicted in the MCU is actually the second Guardians. In the 1960s there was a team called the Guardians of the Galaxy set in the far future of an alternate dimension which Yondu was a member of (although he was vastly different in the comics). This scene has the old Guardians meeting up. One final major point to reference is Stan Lee's cameo. Stan Lee is seen as an astronaut with some Watchers describing different things that he had been. In the comics Watchers are a race of omnipotent beings who watch civilizations across the universe, the one watching Earth being Uatu. Due to Stan Lee's various cameos, and how Watchers can shapeshift, there is a fan theory that Stan Lee was secretly a Watcher. Guardians may have just confirmed it.

Conclusion
Overall Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a solid entry in the MCU. It is not as good as the first movie but nevertheless it is a good movie. Overall I would give Guardians 2 a 7.7/10. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.


Saturday, 22 April 2017

Comics Explained: Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Two (Part 1)

Year Two
Last time on Injustice Superman had split the Justice League by enforcing a world-wide ceasefire after the Joker tricked him into destroying Metropolis and killing Lois Lane (who was carrying his unborn child). A war broke out between Superman's supporters (Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg etc), and those who opposed him led by Batman. The initial battles left Batman paralyzed by Superman, and several heroes including Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter dead at Superman's hands. Now Year Two begins and Superman's reign comes into contact with beings from other worlds...

Ollie's Funeral
At the funeral
The story begins with a flashback. In their civilian gear after defeating a 'planet-core-eating zombie moon' (this is a comic book after all) Dinah Prince (Black Canary) and Green Arrow (Ollie Queen) force Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) to come with them to a bar despite him protesting that he'll be a third wheel. When a biker rudely offering to buy Dinah a drink and insulting Ollie the two beat up the biker gang as Hal reminds them that he is still a third wheel. The scene shifts then to the present with the Justice League holding a temporary truce to attend Ollie's funeral. The League members leave one by one until only Dinah and Hal are at their fallen friend's grave. Hal attempts to talk to her but she refuses to hear what he has to say after finding out that he still stands with Superman. When Hal walks away Clark Kent to try and apologize to Dinah for Ollie's death (stating it was an accident). Enraged that Superman described the brutal beating to death of her partner an 'accident' Dinah releases her Canary Cry; a high-pitched scream which can incapacitate foes. It is so powerful that it causes Superman's ears to bleed. Unlike the old Superman this post-Metropolis Superman takes it badly and grabs Dinah with his eyes glowing red. Dinah demands to see 'the real him' so she can die seeing the same Superman which killed Ollie, and how Superman has deluded himself into thinking that he is human. Superman, however, notices with his super-senses that Dinah is pregnant with Ollie's child. The Man of Steel flies away and we find out that she had been wearing lenses. The entire encounter had been recorded by her friend Oracle, (the former Batgirl Barbara Gordon).

The next chapter cuts between several characters. We first see Kyle Rayner. Kyler is one of several Green Lanterns from the planet Earth, and he became a Green Lantern when Hal Jordan went rouge. We find out that for the last year Kyle had been on a mission for the Guardians of the Universe (who lead the Lanterns) so he has no clue about the destruction of Metropolis, the increasing tyranny of Superman, and how Hal has sided with a tyrant. However, the scene shifts to Gotham where Commissioner Gordon is figuring out who lit the Bat-Signal. He is met with Superman demanding to know where Batman is. After Superman paralyzed Batman Alfred took the Dark Knight somewhere safe and we can assume that it is not in the regular Batcave. Naturally Gordon would be the one to know where Batman is. Superman is dumbfounded to discover that Gordon truly does not know where Batman is (using his supervision to check Gordon's vitals to see if he is lying).
Superman meets Gordon
Gordon also tells Superman that he will happily help Batman as he doesn't see him as a fugitive. Superman informs Gordon that he has spotted several masses on the commissioner's lungs. Years of chainsmoking and fighting in a city full of the world's most dangerous criminals has taken it's toll on Gordon. We finally find out where Batman is when the scene shifts for a third time. Alfred informs Bruce that they are somewhere where Superman can never find them: the Tower of Fate. Zatanna Zatara helped bring Alfred and Bruce to Dr Fate's lair as Superman is weak against magic. We do not stay there long as the scene shifts back to Kyle Rayner in space. Kyle is captured by Sinestro and members of the Sinestro Corps. If the Green Lanterns are Jedi then Sinestro Corps (or Yellow Lanterns) are Sith. Sinestro was once a Green Lantern but went rouge and harnessed the power of fear, instead of willpower, before enslaving his homeworld of Korugar. Sinestro taunts Kyle saying that Earth has changed and that he can see allies for a future war. Before Kyle can message the Lanterns for help Sinestro cuts it off. He then laments that Kyle will be unable to see the upcoming war as he is torn apart by the Sinestro Corps. 
Sinestro kills Kyle
Coming of the Green Lanterns
On the homeworld of the Green Lanterns, Oa, the Guardians of the Universe question their fellow member Ganthet on what is troubling him. He tells them of a shift in power on Earth and how that one planet has been the center of several universe spanning crises. The other Guardians realize that what happens on Earth could throw the fate of the Lanterns into jeopardy, and more worryingly the Earth-bound Lantern Hal Jordan is closely tied to the events. In response they summon one of the other Earth Lanterns, Guy Gardner. Gardner was one of two people to be chosen to be Earth's Lantern (the other being Hal) but as Hal was closer Gardner was made a backup, but he eventually became a Lantern. Guy laughs off the idea that Superman is becoming a tyrant, (after all he is seen as a glorified boy scout by many in the DC universe), until he is informed that Kyle has gone missing and that his ring has been destroyed. On Earth Hal is testing a jet while being observed by Carol Ferris (it is likely in this universe she is not a member of the Star Sapphires; a group like the Lanterns which uses love instead of willpower to create constructs). However, Hal almost crashes the plane with it only surviving thanks to him wearing his Lantern ring. Ferris finds this deeply unsettling; Hal never wears his ring on flights and it seems like he is afraid...

On the Watchtower as Superman looks over a comatose Wonder Woman (still very injured from when Superman was forced to burn Martian Manhunter out of her) Hal informs him that Congress is planning to shutdown the government. Superman is still angry over the US president's interference which lead to his father being injured, Wonder Woman's injury, and, the deaths of Ollie and Captain Atom (both at the hands of Superman). When Hal doesn't want to stop them as it would be him interfering to much Clark chastises him by saying that as the Lantern for Sector 2814 it won't be interfering but protecting. Due to his anger at the United States Superman sent the Flash to Congress with Hal who seals the House of Representatives in informing them that they cannot leave. Desperate the president calls Batman (who is puzzled about how his cellphone can get reception in the Tower of Fate) but it is diverted to Oracle in Gotham who informs her that Superman has taken over Congress. 
Congress Taken Over
As the Flash and Green Lantern force the Senate to resolve their differences on the Watchtower Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons (Wonder Woman's mother) arrives to see her daughter. She informs Superman that although the doctors have failed to heal her the gods of her island should be able to. However, the Watchtower's alarms go off and Robin informs them that Sinestro is here. As Wonder Woman is taken to the teleporters Superman flies to Sinestro and smashes him into the Moon. Before Clark can do to him what he did to Kalibak Sinestro informs him that 'they' are coming who would undo all that he has done. On Earth the Flash and Green Lantern leave the Senate to be faced with armed forces, Guy Gardner, and Ganthet.

Next chapter we get a flashback to the destruction of Kypton. Jor-el places his infant son in a rocket as his wife, Lara, asks about if 'outsiders' could help. He tells her that Kypton has been abandoned. Lara gives her son a pendant and the rocket is sent off before the planet explodes. In the present Superman sitting in the Hall of Justice clutching his pendant he asks Ganthet what he can do for the Guardian. Flanked by Hal and Guy the Guardian tells Superman that he has come to Earth as an ambassador and a friend. His advice is: stop what he is doing. When Superman says he is protecting Earth Ganthet interjects that Clark is controlling, not protecting Earth. He tries to explain that he is of Earth but Ganthet reminds him that Clark is Kyptonian, not human. Begrudgingly he agrees but says that he cannot allow the ignorance of leaders not acting to take Earth down the same route as Krypton. Sadly Ganthet reveals that the hardest part of being a Guardian was not interfering and that he has seen civilizations rise and fall. Earth must chose it's own path. However, like a devil on his shoulder through an earpiece someone says 'Ask him the question'. Superman asks if the Guardians allowed Krypton to be destroyed. Ganthet doesn't reply shocking Hal and infuriating Clark. Superman berates Ganthet for lecturing him when it was the Guardians who doomed his homeworld as Ganthet claims that Krypton doomed itself. Gardner steps in between them telling him to tone down their 'ominous power levels' and that they're in danger of losing a continent. During the argument Ganthet is ordered to leave Earth and, the Guardian tells Gardner and Hal to return to Oa (something which Hal reluctantly does). When they leave Sinestro comes out from the shadows where Superman tells him that the Guardians are Guardians in name only. He also tells Sinestro that he doesn't trust him to which Sinestro responds that he will need his help.
John Stewart
Upon returning to Oa Ganthet orders several Lanterns to return such as Kilowog and Tomar-Re. One other is Earth's final Lantern (in the Injustice universe that is) John Stewart. When Guy Gardner was badly injured John Stewart was chosen to temporarily replace him but he became a full time Lantern. John had been fighting an undead horde threatening to take over Ryut in Sector 666 and reluctantly returns stating that leaving a planet full of undead would never come back to bite them (literally). On Earth Superman's new army walks into Gotham as the Man of Steel and Lex Luthor talk to the mayor. Although the mayor is in favor of it he doubts that Gordon would be to which Superman spits that Gotham's staggeringly high crime rate is a testament to Gordon's failure (although Gordon's belligerent support of Batman is hinted to factor into Superman's disdain and occupation of Gotham). The GCPD has no other choice but to let the army enter. Gordon later standing in the rain yells at a CCTV camera announcing to Barbara that he knows that she is in there. Meanwhile, at the Ferris Airfield Hal has to tell Carol that he has to return to Oa where Ganthet informs them that Guy will remain on Earth in Hal's place. Back at Gotham Gordon snaps that he's always known that she was Batgirl and Bruce Wayne was Batman (it really should be obvious to be honest), and that he knew it was pointless to stop her from being a vigilante. Barbara admits that she can't contact Bruce and has no idea where he went after the confrontation with Superman: they are alone. Gordon reveals that Superman's army has entered Gotham...and that he has cancer. Silently the pair hug as Gordon cries that he soon won't be there to protect her and Gotham. However, Barbara does have a plan. She reveals that she has made a new Birds of Prey consisting of Catwoman, Batwoman, Huntress, and Black Canary.
The New Birds of Prey
The New Axis
In the Hall of Justice the Flash tells Superman that creating an alliance with Sinestro 'is pretty much the worst idea ever'. Lex Luthor agrees with the Flash that allying themselves with a tyrant like Sinestro cannot be good but Superman insists that Sinestro came to warn them. When Luthor calls him dangerous from a special holding cell Sinestro agrees stating that Superman's 'pets' are wise to fear him. He says that he is very much like Superman and that is why he told him the truth about the Guardians allowing for Krypton to be destroyed. Sinestro says that like Superman he had brought justice to an injust world after the death of his family but the Lanterns undid everything that he had worked hard to achieve. He relates a story of how he had once been the most respected Lantern (even training Hal Jordan) he decided to oust the corrupt government of his homeworld of Korugar from power to install himself as a benevolent ruler. Then the Lanterns and Hal betrayed him and ended his rule. The audience gets the true account though. After ousting the government Sinestro quickly descended into tyranny upsetting all of Korugar. His wife, Arin Sur, hid their daughter Soranik before killing herself which Sinestro refused to accept. Blaming the old regime he murdered the surviving council members and firmly created a dictatorship. The Lanterns arrived finding that Sinestro had become mad like a rabid dog with Hal distraught on how far his mentor had fallen. 
Sinestro on Korugar
Sinestro states that he doesn't blame Hal but rather the Guardians who tricked him. Lex and Flash are, however, unconvinced. When Luthor says that Sinestro can't be trusted the Yellow Lantern agrees but insists that if Earth is to be free from the Guardians then they will need his help. He also states that he simply wants revenge (which the Flash admits that at least he is being honest). To alleviate their fear Sinestro hands his ring to them (after using his powers to escape from the cell). 

On Oa Hal desperately tries to plead Superman's case in front of the Guardians stating that the only reason that he acted the way he did before Ganthet was because he had found out that the Guardians were complicit in Krypton's destruction. Ganthet reminds Hal that it is Superman, not the Guardians, who are on trial, but Hal responds that Superman is doing good by channeling the pain over Lois' death to help bring peace to Earth. Hal tries to show the Guardians of the wars that Superman has ended and the dictatorships toppled by the League, but the Guardians also question him about the legitimate governments toppled by the League and how Superman has made an army. He claims that the army in unaligned and necessary as the League cannot be everywhere which the Guardians retort that Superman is creating an enhanced army. Hal points the hypocrisy in this as what are the Green Lanterns if they aren't an enhanced army? However, the Guardians then end the conversation. After leaving the Guardians' Spire he meets Kilowog and John where Kilowog jovially hugs his friend. As Kilowog goes to meet the Guardians Hal starts informing John about what is happening on Earth as they see thousands of Green Lanterns. Soon after a glum Kilowog returns to tell Hal that he has to lead a group of Lanterns to arrest Superman, and that Jordan has to hand over his ring. After being warned not to do anything stupid Hal tries to fight the Lanterns in order to get to Earth to warn Superman. However, he is soon knocked out by Kilowog and John. As Hal is taken to a cell Kilowog leads a small group of Lanterns to arrest Superman...

Thus ends the first part of Injustice: Year Two. Next time the Justice League will face the Green Lanterns as Sinestro's plans fall into place...

Friday, 14 April 2017

World History: Mali and Songhai

The Mosque of Djenne
African history is often overlooked by people. Larger than Europe, China, and the continental United States in terms of geography Africa over the centuries has been home to thousands of unique cultures. Last time we visited Africa on World History we looked at the impressive archaeological site of Great Zimbabwe (please see here). This time we shall look at West Africa and the empires of Mali and Songhai. Mali was home to Mansa Musa, a man rumored to be the wealthiest person in human history. Before we look at Mali and Songhai we first need to look at the world where they sprang from.

West Africa
Mali at its height
As you can see from the above map the Empire of Mali stretched over a huge area encompassing savanna, forests, grasslands, and deserts. The nucleus of Mali was in the fertile southern savanna region which was perfect for a vibrant agricultural economy. What would become Mali managed to create an agricultural surplus creating an internal exchange economy which soon branched out into an external trade economy. Before Mali there was the Kingdom of Ghana (incidentally it was not in modern day Ghana) who had profited through a trade with Muslim and African merchants. To the north there was a group of people which for the sake of simplicity we shall call Berbers. To the south there was the Gold Coast, (aptly named for the rich gold mines). To the east were Arab traders. Ghana, and later Sudanese kingdoms, became middlemen for trade. Gold and kola nuts were sent across the Sahara in return for grain, while these items were traded with Arabs as well for a wide array of goods, and unfortunately slaves. Those who have read my other World History posts on the Vikings and Russia will remember how Arabs created trade posts in Russia to facilitate trade, They similarly did this in West Africa. For this reason centuries later French colonizers believed that the ruins of Mali were made by Arabs and not Africans, although similarly to Great Zimbabwe this was influenced by racist thinking as well. This trade was the reason for Mali's wealth. It also introduced Islam to West Africa. Arab traders brought their religion with them and locals adopted the religion for better trading prospects although it would take until the rise of Mali for Islam to become the dominant religion in the region. 

The Rise of Mali
A modern drawing of Sundiata
Mali came from the Kingdom of Kangaba. Ghana was very much like the Achaemenid, Roman, and later European empires where kingdoms could survive if they swore fealty to the empire. Kangaba was one such prospering as middlemen in the Trans-Saharan trade with the Mandinka people becoming gold traders. The Dyula or Wangara as they are called today would become famous for their skill and enterprise. It was a somewhat mutually beneficial system: Ghana needed gold and Kangaba needed markets to sell their gold. However, like all empires Ghana started to collapse from external wars and internal revolts. Ghana was eventually toppled by Sumanguru who extended his power over the capital of Kumbi Saleh and the caravan routes making them more dangerous for the Mandinka. From here we get a rather biased tale of events. The founding of Mali is told in the Epic of Sundiata which has been passed down generations. Kevin MacDonald has described Sundiata as a 'King Arthur figure' and was described by Arab scholar Ibn Kaldun as Mali's greatest king. His name also means 'Lion King', (he also is sometimes called Mari-Diata). According to the Epic Sundiata's mother was a hunchbacked 'Buffalo Woman' but was said to bear the king his greatest son. The king married the woman who gave birth to Sundiata who for years was disabled and could not walk. To honor his mother Sundiata he learnt to walk and became so strong that he could uproot a baobab tree. When his father died he went into exile but then Sumanguru conquered the Malinke. Sumanguru was said to be a tyrant so Sundiata returned with an army:
As Sundiata advanced with his army to meet Sumanguru he learned that Sumanguru was also coming against him with an army prepared for battle. The met in a place called Kirina. When Sundiata turned his eyes on the army of Sumanguru, he believed that they were a cloud and he said: 'What is this cloud on the eastern side?' They told him it was the army of Sumanguru. As for Sumanguru, when he saw the army of Sundiata, he exclaimed: 'What is that mountain of stone?' For he thought it was a mountain. And they told him: 'It is the army of Sundiata, which lies to the west of us.'
Sundiata's witchcraft was said to be greater than Sumanguru's who was killed. Due to the Epic being passed down through oral tradition it has changed many times and will change with each telling. However, we do get some important information which has been corroborated by archaeological evidence. We do know the Battle of Kirina took place around 1235 and the Empire of Mali was formed. There has been some debate on where the first capital of Mali was with Niani on the River Niger being often cited. Kevin MacDonald has argued that the first capital it possibly at Segou, also on the River Niger. 

After Sundiata came his son Uli who adopted the title mansa which means 'lord' in Mandinka. The mansas of Mali would continue conquering and surprisingly even a slave managed to become mansa. In 1298 a freed 'slave of the court' called Sakuru seized the throne, and has been seen as possibly Mali's strongest rulers. The most famous is Mansa Kankan Musa whose pilgrimage to Mecca became world renowned.

Governance and Religion in Mali
Similar to Ghana Mali was comprised of land directly ruled by the mansa and various kingdoms who swore fealty to Mali. Unlike Ghana Mali's population was larger and trade was far larger. The Trans-Saharan trade flourished under Mali, and when Mali incorporated major trade routes and the gold-rich areas of Bambuk and Bure in 1255 it had easy access to this trade. Most of our sources about Mali come from Arab sources who at times at highly praise the Mali society. One such was Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan scholar and traveler who went across the world, mostly to Muslim regions, to describe what he saw. Below is a map of all the places which he visited.
Ibn Battuta's journeys
Starting in 1349 he traveled to the Islamic regions of West Africa. There he described some of how law operated in Mali:
The small number of acts of injustice that take place there, for of all people, the Negroes abhor it [injustice] the most. The sultan never pardons anyone guilty of injustice. [Something praiseworthy is] The general and complete security that is enjoyed in the country. The traveler, just as the sedentary man, has nothing to fear of brigands, thieves, or plunderers. 
Although it is hard to corroborate Ibn Battuta's observations it is possible to see a rather just society (despite having slaves). However, how just it is hard to estimate without other valid sources. He is critical of some aspects of Mali's society, namely how female servants and slaves are often naked and how they supposedly threw ashes/dust on their heads to show that they were educated or being respectful.

Islam was adopted by Mali during the reign of Barmandana in the 1050s; centuries before Mali became an empire. Like in India and Malaysia Islam had first been introduced thanks to Muslim merchants from either the north or east. With Islam having a written script, (Arabic), and proscribed sets of rules for trade. This made it a nice prospect for Mali's rulers. However, Islam for a long time was something just for the ruling elite. Ibn Battuta talks of the piety of the Malians, and Mansa Musa would later build many mosques many people continued with local religions, or would mix Islamic and local practices. Although pious, Musa and other rulers allowed this mixture to happen and, they even occurred in court. West African Islam gained its own identity in contrast to North African, Egyptian, or Arabian Islam. When we get onto the jihadi states of nineteenth-century West Africa we will see again the attempt to balance local traditions with Islamic scholarship.

Mansa Musa
Mansa Musa
Mansa Musa is said to have been the richest person in history. When he came to power Mali had a firm grip on trade routes, the gold fields of the south, and salt lands in the north. From here he expanded Mali to include Timbuktu, Gao, and northern Hausaland (the southern tip of modern Niger). Like Akbar in the later Mughal Empire in India Musa allowed a flourishing of Islamic and non-Islamic customs in his court. However, Musa is famous for his hajj (holy pilgrimage), starting in 1324. Medieval records have a habit of exaggerating numbers so we have to take reports of Musa's wealth with a pinch of salt, but it was said that he had 100 camel-loads of gold and each slave had a stick of gold. He visited Cairo and North Africa generously handing out gold. Scholars paint a very positive picture of Musa and his entourage describing them as being overly polite, pious and hygienic. However, he spent so much in Cairo that it devalued gold by 10% and it took over a decade to recover. While on his pilgrimage Musa encountered other Muslim rulers so he established embassies in Morocco, Egypt and other areas, and in return he got Muslim scholars to return with him to Mali. One, as-Saheli from Andalusia (then under Muslim rule), was tasked with designing new mosques where he designed mosques in Djenne, Gao and Timbuktu (as well as Musa's palace). Unfortunately, only one sort of survives today. The Mosque of Djenne (pictured at the very top) was built on top of the old one in 1907 after the old one went into disrepair. Musa's wealth, however, went down in history and when Europeans first started looking for El Dorado they first looked to West Africa.

The Fall of Mali and the Rise of Songhai
An artistic depiction of Gao
Like Rome and Ghana Mali faced dynastic worries, external attacks, and internal revolts. After the death of Mansa Suleiman in 1359 infighting caused issues for Mali which became exacerbated by attacks from the Tuareg in the north, and the Mossi in the south. In 1433 the Tuareg even captured Timbuktu. Here Songhai (sometimes spelt Songhay) enters the scene. Songhai, at Gao, were one of Mali's vassal kingdoms and in the late-1300s Songhai tried to brake off under Ali Kolen. It failed but later in the mid-1400s Sunni Ali managed to successfully brake off. Songhai had accepted Islam in 1010 under Dias Kossi, possibly to win favor with Berber merchants according to Basil Davidson, and Gao became a major trading area. However, it faced greater challenges than Mali as Gao was near the rich grasslands that Mali was so it could not use agricultural surplus to trade with. Sunni Ali relied heavily on the military and became a power through military might. Sunni Ali managed to have Songhai supersede Mali as the regional power (although Mali would survive until 1610). In 1469 he conquered Timbuktu and in 1473 he conquered Djenne. Today Sunni Ali is fondly remembered by people in the region where Songhai ruled.

Songhai Rule
It was under Songhai that Timbuktu became the center of African Islamic thought that it became famous for. Under Mali it had never became a major center due to it being hard to defend from primarily Tuareg raiders. Under Songhai rule it gained more autonomy and prospered primarily through the salt trade. Wealth flooded into Timbuktu and with it scholars allowing it to become a major center of Islamic scholarship. Despite Timbuktu being more independent under Songhai than Mali the empire as a whole was more centralized under Sunni Ali's successors. Particularly under Askia Muhammad the central government was stronger but it was somewhat meritocratic allowing talented men (like always it was patriarchal) not in the leading families to have positions. For this and his impressive conquests Askia is referred to as Askia the Great. However, Islam was nearly ousted from Songhai after the death of Sunni Ali. His son, Sunni Baru, refused to be a Muslim. Here we see a common theme in history: countryside versus urban areas. Non-Muslims were located in the country while Muslims occupied the urban areas. Sunni Baru allied himself with the countryside as Askia Muhammad allied himself with the Muslims in the cities. When Askia won he placed more emphasis on the power of cities over the country. We have seen this in past posts and future posts ranging from the Reformation to the French Revolution to communism in China. In 1528 Askia Muhammad was ousted by his son.

Decline of Songhai
Mali/Songhai cavalry
Like Mali and Ghana Songhai came into trouble from abroad and domestically. In 1448 Portugal had set up a trading post in what is modern day Mauritania where they bought slaves from Mali (and Songhai). By the late sixteenth-century trade had shifted from the Trans-Saharan route as the Spanish brought the Americas to European attention when they tried to find an alternate route to the East. Africa's gold became less important when Spain could simply take it from Mesoamerica. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade had started as well (a topic for another post) taking more of Songhai's wealth from them. In the 1580s the Hausa states started to revolt against Songhai rule, and in 1588 a civil war broke out. Similar to the earlier civil war between Askia Muhammad and Sunni Baru it fell along religious lines. Askia Ishaq II had claimed the throne but he was challenged by Sadiq. Sadiq was supported by Muslims whereas Ishaq was supported by traditionalists. Ishaq won but Songhai was weakened. Although Songhai's wealth had started to be weakened by the Atlantic trade it was still formidable which the sultans of Morocco looked enviously at. In 1578 at the Battle of Al-Kasr al-Kabir Morocco defeated Portugal which ended ideas of European conquest of North Africa until the 1800s. Sultan Mulay knew the gold mines of Songhai would enrich his state so in December 1590 a force of 4,600 soldiers under Spanish eunuch Judar Pasha was sent to fight Songhai. At the Battle of Tondibi on March 12 1591 the Moroccan firearms overwhelmed Ishaq II's forces. The Moroccans took the wealth of Timbuktu and Gao back to Marrakesh, and with various revolts with no army Songhai splintered. What was left of Songhai formed the Dendi Kingdom which lasted a very long time with it being conquered in 1901 by the French. Mali, in contrast, managed to linger on until 1610 when the sons of the last musa fought over the throne and divided the kingdom, according to oral traditions.

Conclusion
Mali and Songhai shows us how trade and religion can greatly expand the fortunes of any state. Islam opened doors for both empires who then managed to sell gold, slaves, salt, and grain to their lasting benefit. When we think of Islam we often think of the Middle East but doing so leaves out the rich Islamic culture of West Africa. We focus on the great mosques in Saudi Arabia but forget the magnificent Mosque of Djenne. Mali and Songhai also shows us the importance of oral traditions and archaeology. Traditionally historians have looked down upon oral and archaeological sources but by looking at these sources we fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle that is our history. Finally, looking at Mali and Songhai we can see that no matter if it's Asia, Europe, Africa, Australasia, or the Americas empires fall for the same reasons. Thank you for reading and next time we will look at the worst epidemic to strike Eurasia and the chilling warning that it gives us: the Black Death.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-'Mali' by Ibn Battuta in African History in Documents: Volume 1, Western African History edited by Robert O. Collins
-West Africa before the Colonial Era, A History to 1850 by Basil Davidson
-A History of Africa by J.D. Fage and William Tordoff
-'Sudanese Kingdoms of West Africa' by J.I. Dibua in Africa: Volume 1, African History before 1885 edited by Toyin Falola
-'The Empire of Mali', BBC In Our Time podcast

Saturday, 8 April 2017

What If: The Galactic Empire invaded Earth?

Invasion of the Empire
I love Star Wars. While on YouTube earlier this week I saw a very entertaining two-part video detailing an invasion of our planet by the Galactic Empire (Part 1 and Part 2). These videos got me thinking: what would an actual invasion of the Earth by the Empire be like? Would Earth manage to resist the power of the Empire? As I'm rather illiterate when it comes to non-Star Wars related military all my information on the actual fighting of the Earth-Empire War comes from the YouTube videos themselves (which I highly recommend watching). This scenario will combine both Canon and Legends information.

The Coming of the Empire
The Galactic Fleet
Like all empires the Galactic Empire were always looking for more resources. Setting off from the planet Jakku the Empire sends several scouting parties into the Unknown Regions looking for resource rich planets to pilfer, or alternatively to build/hide superweapons like their Death Star (currently under construction). One of the scouting parties discover a mysterious star system which they name Sol, and discover that Sol 3 has life. They find the planet has satellites and that they have invented a primitive version of the HoloNet. However, upon investigation they find that this planet is extremely unusual. Humans live on this planet but there are thousands of different cultures, languages, and religions on this planet. The language English when spoken seems awfully familiar to Galactic Basic. Instead of one unified government like on Alderaan or Coruscant there are many regional leaders who range from monarchs, elected leaders, and dictators. The diversity of this planet also staggers the Empire. It has giant cities like Coruscant, deserts like Tatooine, forests like Kashyyyk, great oceans like Kamino, and tundras like Hoth. The Empire hated aliens so it was another bonus for them that the only sapient species on this planet were humans. Several Star Destroyers are sent to Sol 3 with a message: Join the Galactic Empire or else...

The propaganda machine would show the glories of being in the Empire: mass employment, access to advanced technology, the ability to live on different planets (solving the looming overpopulation problem), and preferential treatment as Sol 3's inhabitants are human. Also the threat of being destroyed by an intergalactic power is significantly reduced under Imperial rule. This is where my scenario differs to the YouTube video: Earth will not be united in their reaction.

The Invasion
The Invasion Begins
Earth is divided today. We would like to imagine that an invasion by aliens would unite humanity but there is a strong chance that we will remain divided. This has been shown throughout our history. During the Japanese invasion of China the leader of the Nationalists, Chiang Kai-shek, was placed under house arrest by one of his leading commanders, Zhang Xueliang, as he was going to ally with Japan over the Communist Chinese. During the Second World War it was famous that people allied with the invading Nazis instead of the resistance. Wars can unite people but equally they can divide people. While some would be enticed to join the Empire for the advanced technology and access to new markets others would notice the similarity with fascist regimes, like the Nazis, and the apparent xenophobia of the Empire. The Empire would exploit this. Unless if both ally with the Empire it could use Kashmir to entice Pakistan or India to their side, it could use the Korean conflict to get allies, it could use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could divide the EU, and the list goes on.

The Empire would first destroy satellites of hostile countries and then use Star Destroyers to rain down upon key military and civilian targets. Star Destroyers by themselves are capable of turning a planet's surface to glass so it is not too far-fetched to imagine that they could level entire cities. It is doubtful that they would destroy capitals (what if they killed the people who can call for a surrender?) but large cities would definitely be destroyed. If the USA opposed the Empire then San Francisco and New York would be destroyed, if Russia St Petersburg and Volgograd would be destroyed, China would have Shanghai and Hong Kong etc. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex would stand no chance against the blast from a Star Destroyer. Earth does have a fighting chance though. This is better explained in the YouTube videos which I would advise watching. Several nuclear blasts can take down a Star Destroyer and our jets are more maneuverable compared to the cheaply made TIE Fighters. The ground attack would also be difficult for the Empire. Stormtrooper armor is designed to resist laser blasts so they are weak against our ballistics. As shown in Return of the Jedi stormtrooper armor was easily pierced by Ewok spears. Our combat armor isn't designed to resist a longsword so stormtrooper armor isn't designed to resist bullets. Equally, Imperials rifles have a shorter range than our guns and their helmets themselves impede trooper vision.
AT-AT walkers
Earth would come into issue with Imperial vehicles. Many Imperial vehicles were made of durasteel; although weaker than titanium durasteel is very resistant to kinetic damage. Although severe blunt force can destroy them (like how Ewoks destroyed AT-STs with logs) we would struggle to take them down. With no Snowspeeders which the Rebels had we would be hard pressed to topple the AT-AT walkers. Our mines, and other paraphernalia, would help take down AT-STs our weaponry would struggle against the Empire's vehicles. Our body armor and tanks would be weak against the Empire's lasers and plasma blasts. Despite this we will still start to resist the Empire until Palpatine decides that he's had enough. With the Rebel Alliance causing problems, such as on Jedha, and not simply wanting to turn Sol 3 to glass Palpatine sends one individual to end the war: Vader. 

I can imagine Vader landing on the lawn of the White House (if Trump decided to oppose the Empire) with members of the 501st. Televised we see the sheer power of the Sith Lord. Using the Force the White House's doors are forced open. The Presidential guard shoot at the Sith but their bullets are stopped mid-air. With one flick of his hand the guards clutch their throats as their life is slowly squeezed out of them. Vader's lightsaber flies to his other and a flash of red erupts from the end. Vader starts approaching the Oval Office and the guards fall one by one as Vader's red blade slices through them. Meanwhile, the 501st search through the White House dispatching security and arresting members of Trump's cabinet: Ivanka, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Mike Pence etc. Vader then uses the Force to smash into the Oval Office where Trump is. His bodyguards are Force-lifted upwards with their heads smashing against the roof. "Mr President. I must inform you that your term has ended earlier than expected" Vader's lightsaber would then impale the president. The 501st would bring in Pence. "Mr Pence. I hope you are more willing to accommodate the Empire than your predecessor. Otherwise you will find me less forgiving than your other Lord." After seeing the fall of the United States the last free world leaders would flee to the apparent security of underground bunkers. However, as the Separatist leaders found out at the end of the Clone Wars there is no escaping the Sith...

The Empire's Vietnam
Earth under the Empire
As the United States found out in Vietnam, the USSR found out in Afghanistan, and the US-led coalition found out in Iraq and Afghanistan it is one thing to fight a weaker power but something entirely different to win the peace. Earth may have lost the war but it will win the peace. Those who aligned with the Empire would be given positions of power over the rest of us, but a loyal member of the Imperial government would be placed in charge. From Coruscant high-tech products and the HoloNet would be imported to Earth. With them would be Imperial mining teams to take advantage of Earth's rich resources. Slavery would publicly return to Earth. Some of the collaborators would be willing to have Twi'lek and Wookie slaves arguing that as they are aliens human rights don't apply to them. In contrast the rest of society would virulently turn against the Empire and the collaborators if they hadn't already.

Just by looking at our own history and contemporary world would we be able to see what the Empire would face. Guerrilla factions would spring up around the world to oppose the new regime. As shown with Jedha and Alderaan the Empire has very heavy-handed methods in dealing with revolt. We all know Order 66. There were many other orders for the Clone Army with Order 37 having troopers arrest civilian populations and execute them if someone does not give themselves up. Although clones were fazed out of the Imperial Army, in Legends due to the Kaminoans rebelling, it is not too hard to imagine that at least some of these orders remained in place. Order 37 would be used to quarantine civilians and execute them if rebel leaders would not hand themselves over. Thanks to this many would actually side with the rebels over the Empire. As Earth is more divided compared to any other planet in the Galaxy the rebel groups would not form one congruent unit; in comparison the Twi'lek resistance on Ryloth during the Clone Wars was only divided based on who would lead them. Looking at contemporary Libya, Somalia and Syria there are many rebel groups fighting not only the government but each other. We can imagine something similar in this scenario. However, the Rebel Alliance would seek allies on Earth. This would unite some of the rebel factions. Thanks to the Rebels and the fighting the Empire the Earth rebels would get Imperial technology. Most importantly Imperial armor more resistant to blasters. When the Death Star is destroyed during the Battle of Yavin support for the rebels would grow but only with the death of the Emperor at the Battle of Endor would Empire rule end. Vader would be universally feared on Earth so the announcement that he died at Endor would be a huge moral boost for Earthen rebels. The Rebel Alliance would help oust the last Imperials from Earth. The remnants of the Empire would flee further into the Unknown Region where they eventually will form the First Order.

Post-Imperial Earth
The New Republic
Like the rest of the liberated Empire Sol 3 would be integrated into the New Republic. However, the New Republic would be receptive to Earth's diversity. Instead of being one unified government like Coruscant Earth would have a similar government like Naboo. Naboo has two governments: one for humans and one for gungans where both are represented with human and gungan politicians. Earth would be the same but with a more diverse set of politicians. On Earth many former countries would return like France, the USA, Russia etc. However, the map wouldn't be the same as it was when the Empire invaded. With the Republic's aid the borders would be redrawn to accommodate various groups. Maybe an independent Scotland, a united Israel-Palestine, and a Kurdistan? However, for years rebel groups not affiliated with either the New Republic or the new world order would still remain, For years they would be a problem until they either willing disarm (just like the IRA in real life), or be destroyed (like the LTTE in real life). However, Earth would remain connected to the wider Galaxy as Earthen humans move across the stars and various species like Twi'leks, Wookies and Rodians come to Earth. There could be even a populist movement to leave the Republic, or even a resurgent racism against aliens. Maybe even the new Jedi Order would visit Earth looking for prospective new Jedi. Earth would remain part of the Republic until out of the depths of space the First Order comes and Earth would be eerily reminded of her past when Snoke and Kylo Ren come onto the scene...

Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.