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Sometimes I don't know why I bother!

(Blogging continues to be sparse because, although I just sent in a final draft of "The Delirium Brief", I'm hard at work on other projects—notably my 2018 space opera, "Ghost Engine", and my 2018 Merchant Princes universe novel, "Dark State"—and taking time off to attend a birthday party in Berlin.)

The trouble with writing fiction is that, as a famous novelist once said, reality is under no compulsion to make sense or be plausible. Those of us who make stuff up are constantly under threat of having our best fictional creations one-upped by the implausibility of real events. I'm pretty much resigned to this happening, especially with the Laundry Files stories: at least space opera and fantasy aren't as prone to being derailed as fiction set in the near-present.

But there's a subtle corollary to the impossibility of story-telling keeping up with reality, and that's the point that it is also pretty much impossible to invent protagonists who can keep up with reality.

Let's face it, most people lead lives which are, to all outward appearances, pretty boring. They're not boring if they're you, but major life milestones (graduation from school/university, your first job, your wedding day, birth of a child, death of a parent) can be encalsulated in a single parenthesized list because they're so ubiquitous that most of us have some experience of them. The hyperfocussed realism of much literary fiction is simply an introspective examination of the minutest details of such ordinary lives, and while a good writer can make the ubiquitous or the mundane somehow spellbinding, those of us who are used to the spicier diet of genre fiction tend to need some additional seasoning. For example: take the embarrassing family dinner where the nest-flown kids return to introduce their significant others to the generation gapped parents. Many or most of us have lived through that experience, but it's if you try to put it in a work of SF and run it for a chapter or two you will lose most of your readers—starting with your editor—unless you reach for the hot sauce. (For example: throw in all four of the youngsters having separate coming-out experiences over the dinner table, with a parental meltdown for light relief. Been there, did that in "The Nightmare Stacks").

Generally genre readers prefer, if not two-fisted action heroes, then at least people whose lives are less uninteresting than their (our) own. So we try to invent interesting protagonists, people thrust outside our own comfort zone who nevertheless are equipped to deal with the slings and arrows and ancient curses of a different reality.

But reality is always going to one-up you because it's under no requirement to make sense.

Let us take, for example, a fellow called Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln (Wikipedia biography here), who was (variously) a Jewish, Presbyterian, Buddhist, spy, British MP, Nazi, propagandist, and would-be Balkan oil cartel mogul. Oh, I forgot to mention: claimed reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and Japanese-backed candidate for the Emperor of China. (Not bad for a poor shtetl boy who started out as a Hungarian orthodox Jewish yeshiva student.) Nothing about this man makes any sense whatsoever unless he's a character from a movie script written by Thomas Pynchon for Woody Allen.

Ignatius was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Paks in Hungary in 1879, but after a brief student career as an actor (with a side-line in petty theft) he fled Hungary for London, fell in with Lutheran missionaries, and converted to Christianity. He joined a seminary, got in trouble, and was sent to Canada to evangelize the Jews of Montreal. Whereupon he decided Anglicanism was more to his taste, had a falling out with the mission, and decamped for Britain. Talking himself into a position as a curate in the Church of England he contrived to get himself elected to Parliament briefly in 1910. (He was unseated at a second general election later the same year.) He was less lucky in business but somehow managed to combine being a British MP with attempting to establish a monopoly on the Balkan oil fields. The outbreak of war saw him back in London and, when the British rejected his services as a spy, he promptly made contact with the Germans, who had no problem employing him as a double agent ... somewhat unwisely, as this all became material for his kiss-and-tell book Revelations of an International Spy, published in New York in 1916.

No. Just no. Not making this up.

High points of what happened after he was released from his prison sentence for fraud in Parkhurst Prison after the war? Well, his supernatural charisma failed him at one point: Adolf Hitler was not terribly impressed when they met in 1920. even though Trebitsch-Lincoln reputedly saved Hitler's life in the wake of the failed Kapp Putsch (whose Minister for Information Trebitsch-Lincoln briefly was, making him the only former British MP to serve in a German government). Drifting from one right-wing rabidly anti-semitic group to another (and serially betraying them to the highest bidder) he finally ran out of friends in Europe and fled east. In China he initially worked as an arms smuggler for various warlords before converting to Buddhism, rising to the rank of abbot, and establishing his own monastery, where initiates were required to hand over all their possessions to the abbot (who spent his spare time seducing nuns). He seems to have contracted a strong hatred for the British government along the way, which possibly motivated his transfer of allegiance to the Japanese empire in China ... or perhaps this was simply a diplomatic move intended to secure Japanese and Nazi backing for his bid to take over Tibet by proclaiming himself Dalai Lama. (Himmler was apparently an enthusiast.)

Circumstances surrounding his death in Shanghai in 1943 are unclear, but he is known to have written a letter to Hitler protesting the holocaust; the response—a Nazi diplomatic request that the Japanese authorities poison him—probably led to his death due to "stomach trouble".

We can't know for sure at this remove, but Trebitsch-Lincoln certainly displayed all three of the dark triad personality traits. The records don't suggest that he was physically violent (although his relationships with women were exploitative at best and almost certainly psychologically abusive), but he had an alarming ability to talk himself into anyone's good books. If the Kapp putsch had been successful he might well have gone on to be a sort of proto-Goebbels for an early Fascist post-war regime. If he'd been slightly more successful in obtaining backing from the Gestapo in the far east he might have had the necessary backing to proclaim himself Emperor of China.

And if he'd survived past 1945 I am absolutely certain that Ian Fleming would have drafted him in as the role model for a Bond villain.

This was going to be a bumper-pack of implausible larger-than-life characters from history, but I sort of overran my target. If you want some homework, though, you could do a lot worse than read up on Julie d'Aubigny, Mademoiselle La Maupin (1673-1707), cross-dressing swordswoman, opera diva, lethal duelist and seducer of nuns (and briefly mistress of Maximillian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria).

As wikipedia notes, dead-pan, "due to Mademoiselle de Maupin's beautiful voice, her acting skill, and her androgynous appearance, she became quite popular with the audience, although her relationship with her fellow actors and actresses was sometimes tempestuous ... Her Paris career was interrupted around 1695, when she kissed a young woman at a society ball and was challenged to duels by three different noblemen. She beat them all, but fell afoul of the king's law that forbade duels in Paris" (so she fled to Brussels and waited for the fuss to die down while having an affair with a foreign head of state).

Or, as Badass of the Week puts it, "Julie D'Aubigny was a 17th-century bisexual French opera singer and fencing master who killed or wounded at least ten men in life-or-death duels, performed nightly shows on the biggest and most highly-respected opera stage in the world, and once took the Holy Orders just so that she could sneak into a convent and bang a nun. If nothing in that sentence at least marginally interests you, I have no idea why you're visiting this website." Nothing particularly unusual here: just another 17th century bisexual Annie Lennox clone and opera star with a side-line in sword-fighting.

Two serious points for any fiction writer emerge from this meditation on eccentricity.

Firstly, any accurate depiction of mundane real-world life has to take into account the fact that reality contains multitudes, including outrageously and larger-than-life figures like La Maupin and Trebitsch-Lincoln. You can write hyperrealistic literary character studies of protagonists who are utterly barkingly implausible except insofar as they are based on real people; or you can write escapist genre fantasies about utterly plausible normal people thrust outside their comfort zone (a vampire! Except he just happens to be a low-level banking IT dogsbody turned civil servant). What you can't do is one-up reality, because reality has a bottomless magic wallet full of colourful surreal excess.

Secondly, if one wishes to add spice to a work of escapist SF or fantasy, sometimes we can do better by looting the historical archives than by trying to roll our own characters. La Maupin would work perfectly as a foil for the protagonist of a secondary world fantasy yarn (set in I-can't-believe-it's-not 17th century France, with added magic), or perhaps even as the protagonist herself. Trebitsch-Lincoln is of course the Bond Villain Who Got Away (because Ian Fleming forgot to write about him), a Bizzaro-world hybrid of Doctor No and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (and, on reflection, it's possible that Fleming did know of him; it has been several decades since I read the original novel of "You Only Live Twice", but Trebitsch-Lincoln's eastern self-reinvention may well have informed Fleming's depiction of Blofeld in Japan). But if we employ characters like this, we have to dial back on the weirdness of the setting, lest the dish come out excessively spiced to the point of implausibility. Better, I think, to dump the protagonists of a literary novel out of their comfort zone in the deep end of a space opera, than to try to write La Maupin in orbit.

So: who are your favourite barkingly implausible historic characters—not currently alive, please, that would be tasteless—and how would you deploy them in fiction? (Be sure to leave not only a name but a link to some biographical colour, and to explain your fictional reasoning.)



Maybe none quite so outrageous, but there's an entire trove of remarkable women at Rejected Princesses.


Not in the same level as above, but I have always boggled at Benjamin Franklin and Srinivasa Ramanujan. They can't compete with the ridiculous geniuses in some fiction, but are still impressively beyond the level of anyone that most people will meet (even in leading universities).


I have several:

Chevalier_d'Éon, who may have been a woman who dressed as a man (like Ms. D'Aubigny), or the exact opposite, but was definitely a master spy.

Simo Hayha a.k.a. The White Death, the deadliest sniper in WW2, who only stopped fighting the Germans because someone shot him in the head... and he survived that.

"Mad Jack" Churchill, the only British general in WW2 to regularly go into battle not only with a bow & arrows, but also a CLAYMORE.

But my ultimate choice is one who may even top Trebitsch-Lincoln, as he ACTUALLY became a Bond villain:

The late Sir Christopher Lee. The high points:

  • Descendant of Charlemagne
  • One of the most prolific actors... ever.
  • Champion fencer.
  • Worked in the actualSOE (predecessor to the Laundry)
  • Actually met J.R.R.Tolkein (the only cast member in the films to do so)
  • Recorded several heavy metal albums... in his 80's.

Some other supporting links


A good start can be made with Joe Carstairs, WWI ambulance driver, heiress, powerboat racer, ran an all female car hire and chauffeur firm (called X-Garage), had a variety of famous lovers including Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, tattooed, dressed like a man, helped Sir Malcolm Campbell fund his land speed attempts, bought an island in the Bahamas etc.

To really get a story out of it, her feud with her mother's fourth husband might be considered. Carstairs had married in 1918 to gain control of her trust fund from her mother, an alcoholic. In 1920 her mother married (again) then died in 1921. Carstairs promptly annulled her own marriage on grounds of non-consummation and accused her step-father of murdering her mother for her money.

Her step-father was Serge Voronoff, best known for grafting monkey glands into men's testicles for the purposes of rejuvenation. So we have the human-animal hybrid surgeon feuding with his powerboat racing cross-dressing step-daughter.

(Although Voronoff did inherit a lot of money from his wife's death, she was already funding his research quite happily, and he shortly afterwards began to make a profit from his work. There's no evidence she was killed).


There's a main sequence to life - a progression that everyone is expected to be on, or at least aspire to.

Most stay on it, but the interesting are those that hop off at some point - either through necessity, or because the path from birth to grave on the main sequence gets boring, predictable, pointless.

Not all carve their path through the realms of an author's wet dream, but all are more interesting than those hew close to the path, in their own way.

To find them you look off the path, away from where they are expected to be.

And my personal fav is an unknown eccentric, Tex West. A man when told that his office was moving from the nth floor of one building to the nth floor of an adjacent one, decided to send his belongings across on a rope slide, from one building to the next. And yes, he did ride a horse.

Even if you think someone is 'main sequence' they might surprise you - like the middle manager that was polygamous on the side.

In fact, I'm not so sure they are in a minority actually - you just need to find where they have deviated from what you might expect. They don't all have to be travelling the china to have interesting facets.


Since someone has already taken Mad Jack Churchill (who topped out at Lt Col, not General), I'll throw in Adrian Carton de Wiart, who, among other things, bit his own wounded fingers off when the doctor refused to amputate, and had a running gun battle with a Red Army unit from the footplate of a train in Poland in 1920.


On the Revolutions Podcast, I first heard about Francisco De Miranda , forerunner to Simon Bolivar in the project of South American Independence from Spain. In his wide ranging life, this guy met and made connections with nearly everyone famous in the 18th century you can think of. From American revolutionaries to French Girondists to Catherine the Great, Miranda tried to get help, aid and connections from anybody who was anybody. Six degrees of Francisco de Miranda!


My favourite example is Ulysses S Grant. Yes, General and President US Grant, who was all set to collapse into (plausibly) alcoholic (certain) poverty and obscurity and then the American Civil War happened.

Or with the Sherman quote about Grant -- "I do not understand him and I do not believe he understands himself."

(Another class of character it's obvious exists in real life but which is somewhat difficult to use in fiction!)

And then there's Mrs. Julia Grant's slaveholding family, the Dents, who disapproved of Ulysses because his career prospects were so poor. It would just not ever work as fiction...


I already did Roman von Ungern Sternberg in "The Fuller Memorandum". (And Edward Younghusband in "The Concrete Jungle", and Arthur Ransome in passing in "The Fuller Memorandum", along with a certain irritating secretary to the CNO ...)


Thanks. I'd fix he post if I knew how.


Okay, Joe Carstairs definitely goes on the list!

I note that a lot of these characters had a large degree of privilege in their backgrounds -- certainly the privilege of gigantic gobbets of money falling from the heavens, in the case of Carstairs. Probably there's a pattern here: having loadsa money makes it possible to take risks.


I will grant you all of those characters, while noting that Mad Jack Churchill is just another example of the fact that if your name contains two or more of the words "Mad", "Jack", and "Churchill" you are probably an insane badass. Or simply insane.

Example of evidence of insanity: in 1940 he volunteered for Commando service, without a clue what it was, because it sounded exciting. Hint: you are in a total war to the knife and a soldier and you've already seen the sharp end and you volunteer for the most bloodthirsty thing you can find because lulz bored now can haz bagpipes and hand grenades and go invade Nazi-occupied Europe?

Also of note: after wartime service -- during which he became the last British soldier ever to kill an enemy with a longbow -- he went to Australia for a while, got heavily into surfing, and introduced the sport to the UK, becoming the first man to surf the Severn tidal bore.


I think Mary Gentle did Julie d'Aubigny (or someone very like her) in Sundial in a Grave.

For unusual people try Dr Francia, dictator of Paraguay -


Also, Flavius Stilicho:


Oh my, yes, de Wiart was definitely a bit bonkers, in the Mad Jack Churchill dimension:

He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War [and three or four other smaller colonial wars]; was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. Describing his experiences in the First World War, he wrote, "Frankly I had enjoyed the war."

Also: Victoria Cross. Well of course, you don't earn that medal for filling out paperwork in triplicate.


Paraguay is always good for insane larger-than-life people.

How about Eliza Lynch, courtesan turned de facto first lady of Paraguay who arguably caused the War of the Triple Alliance (the bloodiest war in Latin American history) by persuading her boyfriend Francisco Solano Lopez to take on Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay simultaneously)?


... And not to forget SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeney, "the most dangerous man in Europe", and his bizarre post-war twilight as a Mossad hit-man.


Talleyrand. Not so much for his (admitted) genius, but would you like to convince readers Louis-Philippe would make the guy who helped put Napoleon on his throne and depose him, one of the leading figures of the Revolution, his ambassador to Britain?


Talking of mad jacks, may I present Mad Jack Mytton?

Anyone who dresses as a highwayman to waylay his own guests or arrives at dinner riding a bear gets my vote.


I've got one from the Americas Nathan Bedford Forrest. I consider him an all around rat bastard - planter, slave owner, Confederate officer, duelist, businessman, cavalryman and early Klansman.

He and Otto are probably giving the devil fits in Hell.


I've always wanted to know more about Kawashima Yoshiko, a Chinese princess, raised in Japan, cross-dressing a spy for Japan in China. Could fit in with a story about Trebitsch-Lincoln.

A while back I had the idea of writing a series of fantasy stories based on classic Murder Ballads, like Frankie and Johnny, Stagger Lee, etc., but they turn out to be based on real people, and I didn't particualrly want to do the research on them. Maybe some other time.


Another woman of interest: Émilie du Châtelet

"...was a French mathematician, physicist, and author during the Age of Enlightenment. Her most celebrated achievement is considered to be her translation of and commentary on Isaac Newton's work Principia Mathematica. The translation, published posthumously in 1759, is still considered the standard French translation. Her commentary includes a profound contribution to Newtonian mechanics—the postulate of an additional conservation law for total energy, of which kinetic energy of motion is one element.

"Voltaire, one of her lovers, declared in a letter to his friend King Frederick II of Prussia that du Châtelet was "a great man whose only fault was being a woman"..."


There's always Richard Francis Burton, of course, if you like badasses.

There are quite a few less violent characters of the Mad Jack Churchill sort. Frederick Spencer Chapman was one.


Ok I've got a few.

Koxinga. He basically conquered Taiwan from the Dutch, and then opened the island up to Chinese settlers.

Abu Bakr II. Malian Emperor who tried to sail West. If you used him in a book, you would be accused of writing Space Cadet escapist fantasy, and writing politically correct escapist fantasy

See also Zheng He.

Pope: I'm not familiar with Pope that much.

Basically, I would use him as a case of absolute power corrupts absolutely. He did the impossible in making the Spanish look good.

Then there's Diego de Landa. Basically burns most of the books of the Mayan civilization.

Buenaventura Baez. President of the Dominican Republic who tried to remain in power by attempting to get another country to annex his. Also notable for being one of the few times the US refused territorial expansion.

This strains the rules of this contest, but it should be mentioned

And the Caste War, for those of you who haven't heard of it yet.

Short version of the Caste War. Yucatan peninsula succeeds in getting its independence from Mexico around the same time as Texas. The Spanish descent ruling class did this by arming the Maya hacienda peasants. Not surprisingly the peasants used their newfound weapons to revolt.

The thing here is that they almost succeeded. They had a successful siege around the capital, and were wearing down the Peninsulares, until the grasshoppers flew. To Mayans, the grasshoppers were a sign that it was time to plant. So the Mayan army disbanded. This gave the Peninsulares time to consolidate. They eventually got Mexican soldiers in return for re-annexation to Mexico.

What's also notable here is that they asked President James K. Polk for help in return for annexation, and he refused over the howls of his Southern Slave Plantation constituents. For those of you who don't know him, he's the President who started the Mexican American War.


And then there's Morris Abraham "Two-Gun" Cohen (1887–1970) was a British and Canadian adventurer of Jewish origin who became aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-sen and a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army....


Now imagining a story set in 1930s China, where a lot of these figures come together.


Yeah; speaking of which, how about the Dread Pirate Moses Cohen, a contemporary and advisor of the buccaneer Henry Morgan?


Although he doesn't have quite the range of activities one Ernesto Guerva who was a wealthy medical student, went on a motorbike ride across South America to basically drink and screw his way around during his summer vacation with his mate, and the experience so moved him he become probably the most famous Marxist revolutionary and poster boy of the 70's and 80's of all time.


Eddie Chapman is an "interesting" character who didn't have the privileged start that so many of these seem to. Some of the same personality traits though.

Here's Wikipedia on him: but you really need Ben Macintyre's book "Agent Zigzag" for the for the sheer exuberance of some of it.


Just want to say that I thought that dinner party was the single best scene in The Nightmare Stacks, at ones wildly comedic and sympathetic. And the fact that the four kids got through it without any of them ending up violently angry with the other really entltles the parents to some credit for bringing up Alex and his sister. Even if they were over their heads with that dinner party. Thinking about it, I realize that I enjoyed it more than the wildly comedic dinner in A Civil Campaign, because for all its clashes, it never made me feel embarrassed for anyone. Not even Alex. I guess I really do enjoy humor based on character more than humor based on embarrassment.


I always found Jean Laborde interesting. Shipwrecked on Madagascar at the age of 26 and had the country building blast furnaces, power looms, artillery, and horse railways by the age of 32.


Late and a lot of my favs taken,but there is always one more I adore: Beryl Markham. Went hunting and survived a lion as a child, became a superb horse trainer and after that an even better bush pilot. She crossed the Atlantic westwards and wrote a book about her life that got Hemingway feeling jealous and a fraud. Cancel all appointments, read the book, enjoy yourself. Thank this wonderful thread!

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He's not quite up to the standards of some of the other people mentioned here, but I'd like to put in a word for Évariste Galois: mathematician, revolutionary, political prisoner, lover and duellist.

Refused entry to the École Polytechnique at the age of 16 -- he didn't want to use the chalk and blackboard to explain himself (but he did end up lobbing the eraser at one of the examiners). In 1830, at 19, he was finally admitted, and expelled again in the same year for writing a public letter to the director, telling him exactly what he thought of his behaviour and that of the students during the revolutionary fervour of that year. (Not nearly revolutionary enough for Galois).

He then joined the Artillery, wrote a seminal paper on what is now known as Galois theory (rejected by Poisson as "incomprehensible"). At a dinner, he proposed a toast ("to King Louis Philippe") with an open knife in his hand, was arrested for treason, tried and acquitted.

A month later, carrying a rifle, a knife, and several pistols at a protest, he was arrested again, held without without charge as a "dangerous radical and republican". They eventually imprisoned him for 6 months for illegally wearing the uniform fo the (now disbanded) artillery.

After being relased on parole, in quick succession he fell in love with the daughter of the physician at the hostel he was staying with, broke up with her, and engaged in a duel. It's not known whether the duel was over the love affair, over political disagreements, or deliberately provoked by government agents to get rid of him.

He spent the night before the duel writing down as much detail as he could of all the new mathematics he had in his head, and was shot the next morning. He died the following day of peritonitis, at the age of 20.

His work set the foundations of modern group theory, without which we wouldn't have cryptography.

I can't imagine what he would have gone on to do had he survived the duel.


The Russian Revolution is an endless supply on unbelievable biographies.

Let's take for example Arkady Gaidar. A teacher's son born in 1904, he volunteered for the Red Army at the age of 14 (having lied about his age). Quickly rised in the ranks, decommissioned, took officer's courses. At the age of 17 he became a company commander again—this company being a special unit devoted to hunting and killing local bandits. At the age of 18 he is already a battalion commander on the Mongolian border, perceives most of the local people as "bandit sympathizers", creates his own informant network, orders executions left and right. After an internal investigation he is found not guilty by the tribunal, but is dismissed from the army diagnosed with "traumatic neurosis".

After several years spent in a psychiatric clinic (literally "troubled by visions of people he killed", according to the diaries), Arkady Golikov became a journalist. Took a pseudonym "Gaidar", actually changed his family name. And then he became one of the best children's authors in the USSR. Most of the kids raised in USSR and Russia read his books before the age of 12.

During the World War II became a war correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda. His unit was surrounded, he got away, became a partisan and a machine gunner. Killed in action in 1941.

The story loses some of its flavor if you have never read his books; but I did, and they are vibrant, full of life, friendship and hope. In the English literature I've read, possibly "The Dandelion Wine" comes close in the terms of the overall feeling. And these books about the best childhood imaginable were written by a former ultra-violent child soldier! It simply does not compute.

Also of note: any Soviet child knew that "Gaidar was a company commander at the age of 14", bot no more. And his grandchild (Egor Gaidar) was a major political figure in Russia after the fall of Soviet Union.


Okay, here's a slightly different type of character - Cecil Rhodes.

Sickly, weasly, and neither academically nor athletically gifted himself, Rhodes felt that everyone who was not an Englishman was of an inferior race/sex. Rhodes was an extreme misogynist: his secretary hid his marriage, wife & children from him for decades for fear of losing his job because Rhodes would not tolerate even his associates being too friendly with the opposite sex. As everyone knows, Rhodes ended up fabulously wealthy and even got a country named after himself. There was also some talk about his establishing a secret society to ensure British supremacy.

To me, the most interesting fact (irony) is his legacy. The Rhodes Scholarship whose aims (and awardees) are exactly opposite to what he was: athletically and intellectually gifted, demonstrated leadership, with a strong humanitarian drive toward building sustainable international cooperation. (I imagine him spinning furiously in his grave when the Rhodes Scholarships opened to women. And I also wonder what the female winners feel about the source of their award.)

'Selection criteria

Rhodes's legacy specified four standards by which applicants were to be judged:

Literary and scholastic attainments; Energy to use one's talents to the fullest, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports; Truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; Moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.'

As for SF material - Rhodes has already been done a few times according to Wikipedia:

'Rhodes is thought to have served as the primary inspiration and model for the character of Edward Rolles Weston in the C.S. Lewis novels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.[according to whom?]

The will of Cecil Rhodes is the central theme in the science fiction book Great Work of Time by John Crowley, an alternate history in which the Secret Society stipulated in the will was indeed established. Its members eventually achieve the secret of time travel and use it to restrain World War I and prevent World War II, and to perpetuate the world ascendancy of the British Empire up to the end of the Twentieth Century. The book contains a vivid description of Cecil Rhodes himself, seen through the eyes of a traveller from the future British Empire.'

From the same source ... this terrific insult, which for me, adds a whole lot of credence to Rhodes' thorough despicability:

'Mark Twain's sarcastic summation of Rhodes ("I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake"), from Chapter LXIX of Following the Equator, still often appears in collections of famous insults.[64][c]'


Can I propose the Māori as a collective historically implausible nation/character?

You can't have trench warfare a century before WWI, and you can't have a primitive tribe fight against the British Empire so efficiently, that's just dumb.


There are hundreds of WWII people who led "interesting lives," I will just toss Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, into the pot as another example.

39:,_10th_Earl_of_Dundonald - the original for every naval and space-naval Hero Captain from Hornblower to Harrington.

The adventure-stories-for-boys and space-opera versions are toned down considerably from reality.


I really gotta read my copy of "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean"--which should be unpacked with the rest of my books in a week.


You have understood neither Rhodes nor Twain, if you call him despicable, probably because you have been taken in by modern revisionism. He was a weird mixture of scoundrel, financier, politician, visionary and philanthropist, and was no more racist than the average for his era. You might like to wonder why the Matabele performed the bayete for him at his funeral, the first time ever for a non-Zulu (of whome the Matabele are an offshoot). To understand Mark Twain's epigram, you also need to know the contemporary meaning of the expression "he was born to be hanged".


I would go for Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. He was born in a remote part of Russia in the remote Grand Duchy of Finland as a minor noble. He served in the Imperial Russian Army, was a trusted officer and participated in intelligence operations in Turkestan and Beijing. He fought in the first World War and came back home on leave to see the February revolution. After this he retired.

Then Finland became independent and he was appointed the Commander-In-Chief. He did win the Finnish civil war for the Whites. He again tried to retire but at 72 he became the Commander-In-Chief, again, now for the Finnish armed forces, fought the war not to a victory but a good second place, met Hitler a couple of times (and didn't like him).

After the wars he was made president. He resigned from that after a couple of years after managing to keep the country together during difficult times. He died in Switzerland in 1951.

He is somewhat revered in Finland, and trying to bring more controversial aspects of him to the public discussion always elicits much criticism.

I have been toying with this idea of a dieselpunk Russia of the early Twentieth century - instead of being a large country it would be a large archipelago adn much of the traffic would be on ground effect planes. One start would be this officer of the Emperor being moved to his birth province after fighting a war far away - in that ekranoplan.


Read his biography about 20 years ago and my take-away then was that he was thoroughly despicable.

Given that Lewis' SF character 'Weston' based on Rhodes was the bad guy, my late 20th century perception appears to be shared by at least a few of his contemporaries and confreres. Twain's quote ... Twain became a staunch anti-imperialist in his later years by which time Rhodes embodied what Twain most feared, i.e., the on-going subjugation of others by so-called master races, whether English or American either for gain or for the subjects' own good.


I will admit to being ... peculiarly amused, let's say, by Finland's highest award for valour being the Cross of Mannerheim, 2nd Class.

(1st Class? Win your nation's war of independence twice. Yes, Carl Gustav got the award the Finnish government named after him.)


Contemporaries? Rhodes died before Lewis was born. He was both damned and adulated by his real contemporaries, which is why Twain's epigram was so brilliant, but his systematic denigration was late 20th century politically correct revisionism, and was biassed, incomplete and inaccurate as most revisionism. As was most of what they said and still say about most of the history of Africa :-(


Well, I'm not sure these fully qualify, but they might serve for character development on the basis of accomplishments and general weirdness:

  • Saul/Paul of Tarsus
  • Howard Hughes
  • Constantine the Great

  • maybe Ezra


Rhodes was complex and very interesting in both the good and bad version of the word; for one piece of contemprary coverage here's the Guardian's obituary in which they blame him for the Boer War (amongst other things).

(Pedantic observation: CS Lewis born 29 November 1898; Cecil Rhodes died 26 March 1902, so Lewis was 3 when Rhodes died)


Add to that that the Finns present their PhDs with top-hat and sword - cool!

To bring this back on-topic ... maybe as Elderly Cynic suggests we should also consider the societies that were either taken aback or embraced the individuals named above.

We should also consider the importance of the smaller sovereign states/cultures that managed to not get swept up into Empire or that somehow managed to hold on to their cultural identities, war after war. Apart from the Finns, I can only think of the Sikhs although there are probably many others. (Gypsies/Roma, Basque?)


After having read American Hippopotamus a while back (note: very long), I'm going to have to nominate Frederck Russell Burnham and Fritz Joubert Duquesne, especially the latter.


The story loses some of its flavor if you have never read his books; but I did, and they are vibrant, full of life, friendship and hope.

Any pointers to on-line versions in Russian? I try to keep up my reading skills по-русски, and "life, friendship and hope" would incentivize it.


Concede your point re: Lewis. But Neil W's link (thanks!) to The Guardian's obit clearly shows that Rhodes was not exactly revered.

Still don't understand your point re: Twain's quote being so apt ... please explain/elaborate.


The names that immediately spring to mind are Karen Blixen, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, and Jan Smuts on the one hand, and Eugene Chen, Ibn Battuta, and Joseph Conrad on the other. (There are also many people currently living who potter about at various Oxbridge colleges but will certainly merit entries once their files are released by the national archives sometime in the 22nd century. However, you have excluded those from consideration.)

Kate Beaton is also fond of covering "interesting" people in her comics, especially Canadians, though you are probably familiar with these.

(Apologies for all the links/adding to the moderator workload.)


I am trying not to derail this thread, so was trying to be brief. The expression "born to be hanged" was (and is?) used about people who push the boundaries of permitted behaviour, especially in inventive or unconventional ways. It was much less commonly used about people who were plain nasty, let alone evil. But please let's close this one.


For example: throw in all four of the youngsters having separate coming-out experiences over the dinner table, with a parental meltdown for light relief. Been there, did that in "The Nightmare Stacks."

And it was beautifully done. The very, very best part of a very good book. I thought about it yesterday during Real Life while dealing with a Gay relative in his/her early twenties - not so much the coming out as being ridiculously upset over the History Major.


So far no mention of Charles 'Mad Jack' Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk, 13th Earl of Berkshire, GC, FRS?

So I will!

Stealer of deuterium oxide from under the noses of the Nazis, and amateur defuser of thirty-four Luftwaffe bombs, until he and faithful assistant Fred Hards were turned to pink mist by bomb #35

Awarded the George Cross posthumously in 1941.


The Zulus did fairly well, though nothing like as well as the Afghans! Your post reminded me of Sequoyah, who deserves mention.


Trebitsch-Lincoln instantly made me think of Michael Moorcock's Colonel Pyat.


Herbert Yardley, author of the American Black Chamber, the Edward Snowden of his day?

Pioneering cryptographer, poker player, helped the US, China, and Canada with cryptography.


By coincidence I played Julie d'Aubigny in a Doctor Who RPG someone ran at a games con earlier this month. She's a fantastic character and a joy to role-play - though I must admit that I based my version of her on the Badass of the Week interpretation of her life with everything dialled up to 11. Haven't had so much fun in the Doctor Who setting since Mary Gentle played Leela, warrior of the Sevateem, in a game I ran at con in the eighties.

Christopher Lee is another great character, as others have suggested, though finding out exactly what he did in the SOE isn't easy - when he was once asked he said "Can you keep a secret?" - then when the questioner said yes, added "Well, so can I."

I think Douglas Bader has to be well up the list of implausible heroes, becoming a fighter ace several years after losing both legs, then (after capture) attempting to escape so often that he ended up in Colditz - where he was trying to build an escape glider when the war ended.


Oh, another person that hasn't been mentioned: Tisquantum, better known as "Squanto". Here's a somewhat long article on him, or here's a shorter summary that retells it as a science-fiction story (though with some inaccuracies introduced).


And I nearly forgot one of my favourites, E. W. Barton-Wright, an engineer who went to Japan in the late 19th century, saw demonstrations of judo and other martial arts, and ended up creating "Bartitsu," the first mixed martial art (which was misnamed Baritsu in the Sherlock Holmes stories), kick-started serious martial arts in Britain, became a pioneer of quack electrical "therapies", then was gradually sidelined and died in poverty in the 1950s.


Oh good, I get to be the one to bring up Sax:

The fiction hook is obvious: imagined as something of a meta-sequel to Rant wherein time travelers try to off Sax repeatedly before he can invent the instrument named after him. Where you go from there? Any number of directions. I also dig his beard.

For goddamn mantear generation, it's hard to beat: starting out as a struggling author and artist, winds up catching on to the danger of the Nazi requests for records of Jews "to protect them", goes on to try and spread the word, starts helping falsify records, and finally blows up one of the registration buildings--after removing the sleeping guards to the courtyard--inspiring similar attacks by other groups.

Then, when caught and sentenced to death he asks his lawyer "Tell the people that gays are no cowards!" Other than it being kept quiet until the 90's that he was actually gay, I would expect there to be movies and such about this guy by now.


I sadly forgot the name of the guy, I once heard this about an italian resistenza fighter: Ran into the mountains in Reggio Emilia to evoid beeing drafted into the fascist army (sometime '44) and joined the first partisan unit he found - a fiamma verde (chrisitan) group. After a few ays, they tell him and his friends tham, um, they might maybe be happier joining the garibalsi unit (communist partisans) two hills over? Which they did. Guy learned demolitions from an escaped Russian POW amd became the go to guy in his uni to blow up bridges. The twist: After the the war, he became a civil engineer and joined a contruction coop that mostly built bridges in Reggio Emilia.

Now I need to look up the guy who built the antifascist air force in spain from scratch because Goering insulted his wife ... (I promise the truth is less cheesy)


I'm currently reading Marina Yurlova's autobiography. Daughter of a Cossack officer, she ended up in the army at 14 — as a girl, not a boy, under an assumed name. Wounded in action several times, won the Cross of St. George several times — apparently ended up in the USA via Japan after walking across Siberia (but I haven't got to that part yet).

And there's Hedy Lamar. Actress who also invented torpedo guidance system that used spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping (which we still use today, as I'm certain almost everyone here knows).


Here he is: Antonius Raab (

German pilot in WWI under Hermann Göring (and frineds with him). Worked as pilot, flight trainer, later started a company that built planes - together with a jewish pilot with whom he had worked before. They gladly hired technicians twhiom where fired elsewhere for beeing jewish. Raab was also married to a jewish wife and tried to intervene with his old war buddy Göring on behalf of her relatives - the talk went not well, Göring told him to forget his wife and marry a german woman. Raab emigrated to Greece and worked, again, in planes. (raab was from a rich backgfround). When the spanish civil war started, he went to spain and supported the CNT with building a small airforce, hiring anarchist and communist workers who where in exile from Germany. Mostly as a revenge on Göring. After the may incidnets, the commnists arrested him and some of his workers. Excaped after a year and fled to france, then greece. Further stops in Egypt, India and finally ( in 49) settled in Italy. He had lost German citizenship sometime in the 30ties and gave up trying to regain it, the guy who had anulled his passport under the Nazis was a high ranking official under Adenauer.


I always liked Raluph Fiennes, who deserves a mention (being the worlds greatest explorer). Born in 44, raised fairly privileged. Was discharged from the SAS after blowing up a dam build for a movie and spent the remains of his military carreer working for the sultan of Oman. Did several expeditions around the world and many polar (north and south) expeditions, journeyed around the world on its polar axis, using surface transport only. He sustained severe frostbite to the tips of all the fingers on his left hand when he tried to walk solo and unsupported to the north pole in 2000. During the healing process he sawed off his own dead fingertips, because they annoyed him.Despite suffering from a heart attack and undergoing a double heart bypass operation just four months before, Fiennes completed seven marathons in seven days on seven continents in 2003. He then starded montain climbing an made Mount Everest in 2009 (Age 65). I think he jutst does not know how to stop and his body neither...


Okay, how about Marcel Marceau? Jewish French resistance fighter, and Master of Tactical Mime. After all, everyone loves mimes, right?

Marcel and his younger brother, Alain, adopted the last name "Marceau" during the German occupation of France; the name was chosen as a reference to François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general of the French Revolution.[6][7] The two brothers joined the French Resistance in Limoges, where they saved numerous children from the race laws and concentration camps, and, after the liberation of Paris, joined the French army.[6] Owing to Marcel's excellent command of the English, French, and German languages, he worked as a liaison officer with General George Patton's army.


Another favorite: Noor Inayat Khan was an Allied Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent during the Second World War who was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian decoration in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations. Also known as "Nora Baker",[1] "Madeleine",[2] and "Jeanne-Marie Rennier," she was of Indian and American origin. As an SOE agent, she became the first female radio operator to be sent from Britain into occupied France to aid the French Resistance.

Saw a documentary about her a couple years ago, right after having read Le Carré's "The Looking Glass War", and recongnized the radio procedures.


The twist: After the the war, he became a civil engineer and joined a contruction coop that mostly built bridges in Reggio Emilia.

Makes sense to me, to properly blow up a bridge it helps to know how they're built.


Yes, but he joined the resistenza as a youth =(draft age, 18 or so). I like to imagine that when doing demolition, he learned to appreciate bridges which lead to him becoming a civil engineer.


Yeah, and maybe to make up for the damage done?


Yes, seems likely. If I had only captured the name of the guy, I'm sure one could find an interview or something.


Matthias Buchinger. Born in Nuremburg in 1674. A magician, musician (including instruments of his own design), calligrapher specializing in micrography, and trick shooter, he traveled Europe giving performances. He outlived three wives and had fourteen children.

Did I mention that he had no hands or feet and was only 29 inches tall?

"I had never heard of Buchinger before the book arrived in the mail. The improbable matter and elegant manner of the writing put me in mind of Borges. I thought the story might be a brilliant fable, if not a hoax, and fell into enjoying it as such."


(Crowd Pleaser)

Micky Burn


Fucked Nazis, was a Nazi, attended a Nuremberg rally.

Fucked Communist Spys (Guy Burgess).

Friend (probably lover) to Alice Keppel, mistress to Edward VII (who happens to be a great-grandmother to another.. er.. mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles)

Times Correspondent

Commando, on the St. Nazaire Raid - earned a George Cross


Post-War, Times again (spy) went to Vienna / Hungary (Soviet occupation)

Wrote nine books of non-fiction, four novels and six books of poetry

Retires to be a neighbour to...

Bertrand Russell.

Didn't die early, his autobiography was done in 2003, called Turned Towards the Sun (THESUNTHESUNTHESUN)

He wasn't even rich. He was born poor, but hey. Fuck a Nazi, go to a rally, people forgave that stuff back then.

link text


More of a curiousity this as unfortunately very little is known about Albert Johnson, the mad trapper of Rat River. (He may not have been a trapper). Quote from the article: "A posse was then formed consisting of nine men, 42 dogs and 20 lb (9.1 kg) of dynamite which they intended to use to blast Johnson out of the cabin if necessary."

There was a 42 day manhunt across the Northwest Territories which ended after the Mounties brought in WWI flying ace and minor Canadian legend Wop May, the last pilot to be pursued by Manfred von Richthofen on the day of his final flight.


L Ron Hubbard. Clearly the inspiration for Fwi-Song in Consider Phlebas.


Commando, on the St. Nazaire Raid - earned a George Cross

Correction, apologies to Bootnecks/Them - wrong medal. Military Cross, five on the raid earned the Victoria.

That's an unintended insult, my bad, copy/paste erorrr.


Still, he was a pretty boy on a bad raid doing naughty things and went above and beyond.

And well... he fucked the Nazi's twice as hard as most of you.

nose wiggle


I'll point to one that is so obvious that most people don't think of him: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In one sense it's inevitable, because any major power sooner or later produces an amazing leader, but he's still off in Black Swan territory among US presidents.

Many of FDR's underlings qualify as black swans too. Two I'd point to, just for amusement's sake (and because they hated each other) are Edgar Hoover and Wild Bill Donovan.

Oh, and for the heck of it, let's throw in Emperor Norton as another obvious one.

As for the poly-religious thing with Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, that's far from abnormal. A lot of neo-pagans go through this as a matter of course, as do many Chinese Buddhist/Taoist mystics. As an example, I'd offer the priest I learned tai chi with (he was middle-aged, I was in college, we were both students). He also studied Buddhism, also had been ordained by the Dalai Lama and IIRC practiced magic on the side. About a decade after I knew him, I ran into another ordained cleric who was similarly poly-religious. In both cases, they fell foul of their higher ups, who reminded them that they'd actually sworn real vows and were not allowed to fool around in that way. Both of them got sternly sent back to running their congregations. I suspect that, like sexuality, religious activity actually has a rather broad spectrum, with varying degrees of fidelity to a single set of beliefs and practices.


Two suggestions:

Orde Wingate ( ). "Men I expect you are wondering why I am here on parade this morning wearing just an alarm clock on a string?"

And one I met: Daphne Park ( ). Somerville College was the closest to the Maths Institute, and therefore convenient for lunch. Sometimes we did not manage to sit far enough away from high table. If looks could kill I'd have been dead!


I believe this may be due to the idea that what would be considered "utterly bonkers" to most people is often considered merely "eccentric" among the aristocracy.


I will cite another writer, Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger). Godson of Sun-Yat Sen, expert in psychological warfare, polyglot, scholar of Chinese culture, and SF writer of the 1950's.


And because it amuses me to do so, I wish to enter into consideration one of the most insanely badass (as well as simply insane) men alive today:

Gentlemen, I give you BRIAN! BLESSED!:

Not mentioned:

During an expedition to the North Pole, he once punched a polar bear in the face when it got into his tent. Because it was more humane than shooting it.

And he claims to have wrestled a gorilla:


Not quite as absurd as some of the others, but the Public Universal Friend deserves a mention. Jemima Wilkinson was born in the 1770s to a Quaker family, but when she caught typhoid fever she (supposedly) died and her body was inhabited by an angel (neither male or female, but using male pronouns apparently) named the Public Universal Friend. The Public Universal Friend went on to start a variant of Quakerism which verged on a cult, and founded a religious settlement in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.


I'd suggest Frederique Darragon who started out as the kind of character Jilly Cooper tries to write. You know, a wealthy socialite who sails the Atlantic, plays polo to win even with a broken jaw, model, jockey, samba player. Did I mention real estate manager or that summer on a kibbutz? Then the story twists and she winds up studying those mysterious stone towers that dot western China. Taking refuge in a cave in Bhutan she had a stroke, but made her way to the Holiday Inn in Lhasa where she recovered living on room service not wanting anyone to see her. I'd suggest her, but she's still alive the last time I checked. Still, suppose she, or a thinly disguised version, discovers the truth behind those towers, and not the one she's actually likely to find.

For a dead person, I'll suggest Aaron Burr. He set up a colony in the Louisiana Territory and made a serious effort to establish an empire in Mexico which was then under Spanish control. I think there was some kind of treason trial. He also founded a major bank that is now a big chunk of JP Morgan Chase. He was never one to think small. (Oh yeah, he also shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.) I think he has already been used as a villain in The Wild, Wild West, an early steam punk television show, but there is no reason he can't be used in a more up to date Edisonade.

There are also the improbable people which one only knows in fragments. In a biography of Orde Wingate, 'Back to Burma', the book mentions a guy in backwater Burma named Goldberg who set himself up as a tribal power broker dispensing favors and British aid as he played off the various tribal groups. Who the hell was he? Where did he go after the war? Was he involved with the defeat of the French at Diem Bien Phu? What group in the British government was backing him? Wingate considered him a problem, not an asset, but there he was.

I've met a lot of people with interesting stories. I once hired an electrical power systems consultant who had fled Poland and spent World War II holed up in Samarkand. Maybe he learned something there and will someday rival Tesla using just that knowledge.

There was also the image processing expert who had fought as a mujahideen against the religious government of Iran, spent some time in jail, then made his way to the MIT PhD program. Maybe he's working on drones now, but not quite following the specifications. He might have things to settle.

You get some amazing stories if you just ask people. Just because they are doing something that seems run of the mill today, doesn't mean there weren't a few interesting stories.


Gossip from those on set is that when Peter Jackson said to Lee "Imagine the sound of someone being stabbed with a dagger", Lee said "I don't need to imagine it, it's not a sound one forgets"

Recruited to SOE in WW2 because of his language skills, spoke several very well including regional accents, ended up an actor - all makes sense really.


"Dark Traid" huh? D Trump?

Has no-one mentioned Lola Montez yet & if not, why not? (Look her up)

@ 39 The other thing about Cochrane was his film-superstar wife ... & volunteering for the Crimean War, at the age of HOW OLD?

Oh & Dr Dee - I'm really surprised he hasn't made the list so far.....


On a smaller scale perhaps, but in a time when women doing science was pretty shocking, she was the first person to win two Nobel prizes was Marie Curie. First woman to win a Nobel, first person to win two Nobel prizes, only person to date to win two science Nobels in different subjects, first woman professor at the University of Paris, first woman to buried in her own right at the Panthéon. And all this in her second language, despite being born in poverty after her family were involved in Polish independence uprisings and not going to school until she was 10.

She doesn't have quite the range of some of the others on the list but I'm still plenty impressed.


A bit of a European/Western focus here. Let me try something different:

William Adams, English navigator sailing to Japan in 1598 on a Dutch ship, reached (=shipwrecked) Japan as first Englishman, with powerful enemies in the present catholic jesuits. Adams became a trusted advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu and lived through his rise to Shogun, became a successful trader in Japan, aided the Japanese in establishing seafaring trade, one of the few Westerners to obtain the title of Samurai. If this seems familiar, you might have watched James Clavell's "Shogun" with Richard Chamberlain (or better, read the book).

The reason why I like this biography so much, apart from its obvious adventurous traits, are twofold: - There is a bit of fatalistic human drama his success in Japan, as he never returned to England (and may not have been allowed to). - With a bit of fantasy, Adams' work in Japan cast an incredibly long shadow, as Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu later initiated a 250 year period of Japanese isolationism, forbidding the practice of Christianity etc.

Ok, that's still Western. How about this?

Ching Shih - best told in bullet points: - A prostitute who... - married a pirate and in the process took up piracy herself, and upon her husband's death... - powermongered herself into position to take over said fleet, then regulated piracy through a strict law (which among others established that pirates can sleep with female prisoners... provided they marry them first), ... - grew her pirate fleet (the Red Flag Fleet) to over 300 ships (some accounts say 1500, with 80000 men), ruling the South Chinese Sea and remaining undefeated in the face of Chinese, Portuguese and British efforts... - and eventually took up an offer of amnesty and opened a casino (some say as a front to a brothel, neatly closing the circle).

Forget Blackbeard, Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan. The most successful pirate in history is a woman.


Leon Theremin

Invents Theremin. Famous, mixes with the cream of society. Disappears back to Russia (maybe abducted). Invents effectively an RFID device, used to bug American embassy. I have not remotely done his life justice. There is a documentary.


Going back to an earlier thread, the Caste War of Yucatan did NOT end until 1900? (or was it 1920?); (Read the book twenty five years ago); The insurgency just went on and on....

Mexico still isn't in firm control of it's periphery, the Chiapas Rebellion and various Drug Cartels. Don't really want to be up to date on the stays of that conflict, hope the FBI has some handle on it. Often thought Chaos in Mexico might make a good (bad) near future Thriller. What would the US Military do if Cowboy (?) told them to execute War Plan GREEN. "What plan GREEN?" Tom Clancy (tm) gets whacked on the head by reality. Standard US Topographic maps do NOT extend across the Mexican border. Of course, now days we have Google earth in addition to tourist highway maps.

The Republic of Texas Navy (A neat little side story, if irrelevant) spent most of it's active sea time supporting the Yucatan Rebels.


Another oddity from Burma is Walter Fletcher (nee Walter Fleischl von Marxow) ( ). His war service in Burma as part of Force 136 included:

"In Operation Remorse, a businessman named Walter Fletcher carried out covert economic operations such as trying to obtain smuggled rubber, currency speculation and so on, in Japanese-occupied China. As a result of these activities, SOE actually returned a financial profit of GBP 77 million in the Far East. Many of these funds and the networks used to acquire them were subsequently used in various relief and repatriation operations, but critics pointed out that this created a pool of money that SOE could use beyond the oversight of any normal authority or accountability."

Rumour has it that a proportion of the £77M was not actually used by SOE, and ended up in his own pocket. Of course after the war he became Conservative MP for Bury. A man for our age, indeed!

ps re: Daphne Park mentioned earlier -- think Agatha Christie's Miss Marple as a Lesbian member of the Double-O section.


I'm surprised Theodore Roosevelt hasn't come up. Off the top of my head: Born "sickly" and not expected to live long, he pretty much just decided he was going to be better than okay, and eventually ended up (again, from memory, details might be off) captain of the Harvard boxing team when boxing was an important national sport. Youngest person ever elected to the New York state assembly, wife and mother died on the same day, Valentine's Day no less. Moved out west to work on a ranch he owned but insisted on starting from the ground up rather than assert his authority as the boss. Appointed Undersecretary of the Navy, when the Secretary took the afternoon off to get a massage, he decided that he was in charge and put the entire US Navy on a war footing, giving it a head start in the Spanish-American war. He felt that it was wrong to boost the war as a "jingo", so he resigned his position and joined the Army (as a major or Lt. Col, I don't remember which). Led the charge up San Juan Hill, for which he was (100 odd years later) awarded the Medal of Honor. Fun fact: His unit was cavalry, but only his horse made it over, still rode the horse and made himself a sniper target. One of his men was sentenced to... don't remember, but by a general court martial. There was no brig available, so T.R. put the man to work, and then pardoned him, something that he had no authority to do. Got back into New York politics (police commissioner, governor?), caused so much trouble for the big money interests that they decided to stick him someplace where he'd be helpless: the Vice Presidency. Somewhere in there he was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin, but the combination of a very thick speech (large print to account for his bad eyesight) and his glasses case slowed the bullet to where it lodged in his chest but didn't injure him badly enough to keep him speaking for over an hour. OK, fingers are tired, look up the rest:


Shoot, forgot to mention the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. Only person, AFAIK, to win both his nation's highest military honor (Medal of Honor) and the Nobel Peace Prize.


The first name that springs to mind is of course Che Guevara. Doctor, traveller, revolutionary in three different countries, minister of agriculture, prison warden and finally a martyr. Although still alive I find Werner Herzog also a latterday renaissance man with a shitload of weird experiences.


Was going to mention Brian Blessed and Squanto - glad they get a mention.

CB Fry certainly had an interesting life - turns down Kingship of Albania, cricketer, diplomat, politician. Tries to get Hitler's Germany to take up Test cricket.

Or James Robertson Justice

Not quite so varied but from journalist to actor via fighting in the Spanish Civil War and working as a lumberjack and ended up dying penniless.

Or Spike Milligan , invented the Goons and died.

Probably not over the top lives but full and interesting.


Been thinking of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas - born a slave AND a member of the French nobility, joined the French Army in time for the revolution to come along and became Lieutenant Colonel in the all-black regiment founded by the Chevalier Saint George, promoted to General, then argued with Napoleon, was taken prisoner in Naples and forceably retired after his release. Along the way he took the time to father Alexandre Dumas (Count of Monte Cristo*, Three Muskateers) making him an ancestor to a variety of prominent French over-achievers...

But he's not really over the top or eccentric enough. Most people would accept a fictional hero who is a black French Revolutionary soldier rising from the ranks to become a general. It's no more outrageous than the stuff that happened in Sharpe. I don't even think he's even in the top twenty most interesting French Revolutionary/Napoleonic personalities.

  • Best known today as a classical composer ** Loosely based on a series of real incidents

Tadeusz Kościuszko. (ściuszko)

Knew simply everybody who was anybody during wildest changes in Europe during the last half of the eighteen hundreds. Part of the Polish bid for freedom, was a Russian prisoner of Catherine the Great, joined the American Rev., went back to Europe, knocked around, went to the Congress of Vienna, unfortunately left his American holdings to Thomas Jefferson to free the slaves--bad move. But he seems like a charismatic guy.


I remember once hearing that one of Napoleon's Marshals ended up as King of Sweden, and fought against Napoleon.

This is true, and rather understates the remarkable career of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte.

Bernadotte was born the son of a minor lawyer in Pau (making him the second most-famous person from that small town, after Henri IV). He was an apprentice lawyer until his father died (when he was 17); his family could not afford to train both he and his brother, and he ran away to join the marines, where he was promptly posted to Corsica. In Corsica, he first met his lifelong friend Joseph Bonaparte. Joseph's little brother Napoleon was away in Brienne at military school at the time, and Bernadotte wouldn't meet Napoleon until they were both generals.

A sergeant at the outbreak of the revolution, Bernadotte rose quickly through the ranks, being both military able and politically favoured, going from sergeant to brigadier-general in four years. He was an able and inspiring leader of men, but not always a great strategist (he performed very well at some battles but much less well at others). He was also famously well-dressed, both before and after he had money and success.

He mostly fought in Germany, but led some reinforcements into Italy where he met up with Napoleon for the first time, just as Napoleon was making his name as commander of Italy. After the peace, he was appointed ambassdor to Austria - and was promply kicked out of Vienna for provoking a riot.

When he got back to Paris, he married Desiree Clary - the woman that turned down Napoleon before Josephine, and also the sister-in-law of his best friend Joseph. He was supposedly invited to become military dictator of France at Prarial (the last coup before Napoleon took over at Brumaire) but missed out because he had a hangover.

After Napoleon took over, he was made a marshal of the Empire, even though he and Napoleon never got on well - but he was never purged, mostly because he was big bro's best friend.

... and then in 1810, he goes and gets elected as the successor to Charles XIII of Sweden, largely because a Swedish courtier called Mörner thinks he can manipulate him and managed to persuade the Riksdag.

That didn't work out quite as Mörner worked out, but as Crown Prince (Charles XIII was old, and ill, and largely left the government to Bernadotte, but lived another eight years), he ended up as part of the coalition against Napoleon - which is why he's the only one of the many people to get put on thrones during the Napoleonic era to stay there. He also managed to conquer Norway for Sweden (from Denmark) at the very end of the Napoleonic wars.

So, this man who had been a revolutionary ends up as King of Sweden... and then becomes, of course, the most conservative reactionary the country ever had.

Oh, and his son and successor Oskar? He married Josephine de Beauharnais' granddaughter. So while Napoleon's descendants died out, Josephine's great-great-great-great-great-grandson is King of Sweden.


I'm surprised Theodore Roosevelt hasn't come up

<snark>I'm surprised you didn't do a simple search in page. If you had, you'd have noticed that he was mentioned by Heteromeles some hours earlier back in comment #80</snark>


Harald Hardrada is an interesting guy. Half-brother to a guy who became a Saint, forced into exile at age 15 where he became a commander for Yaroslav the Wise of Rus, then latter going to Constantinople and joining the Varangian Guard where he fought around and amassed a fortune then returned to Norway and took the throne, conquered Denmark, and invaded England... He would have been even more unbelivable if he hadn't died during the invasion though (which would be an interesting Alternate History, where Harald beats Harold then goes on to fight William.


I did consider nominating myself, but decided that would be gauche. So you'll have to wait, I'm afraid, until I tell all in my forthcoming memoir "The Life and Strange Adventures of D.J.P. O'Kane".

I will nominate, however, Eleanor of Aquitaine:

She was like something out of Game of Thrones, only better.


Merian Caldwell Cooper (October 24, 1893 – April 21, 1973) was an American aviator, United States Air Force and Polish Air Force officer, adventurer, screenwriter, film director and producer. Cooper was the founder of the Kościuszko Squadron during the Polish–Soviet War. He was a notable movie producer, working for companies like Pioneer Pictures, RKO Pictures, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He is also credited as co-inventor of the Cinerama film projection process. Cooper's most famous film was the 1933 movie King Kong.


Josephine Baker is a name worth considering. Born a poor black child, lived on the streets where she performed for coins, did Black-face, moved to Paris where she frequently performed nude with her pet cheetah, which frequently escaped and terrorized the orchestra. She performed in films, got vocal coaching, performed in an opera, etc.

At the beginning of World War II she was recruited by French Intelligence, and after the Nazi conquest of France assisted the French Resistence. She was able to move around Europe due to her status as an entertainer, and kept notes in invisible ink on her sheet music... she was granted the Crois de Guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance, and was inducted into the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle as a Chevalier.

After the war she again worked in the U.S. where she refused to play in segregated clubs, and became a huge supporter of the Black Civil Rights Movement, and was so effective that she was offered leadership of the movement after the death of Martin Luther King.

She was also bisexual and had an affair with Frida Kahlo!


Mention of Frida reminds me I thought of bringing up Bernard Wolfe, author of "Limbo", and one time bodyguard/aide of Trotsky while in Mexico. Wonder if he and Kahlo met? And Diego too.


That explains all. You must be the reincarnation of R.E. Raspe in what passes for real life.


craziest guy I ever heard of, bloke invented leaded petrol- poisoned chtulu knows how many generation. then invents Freon. effectively inventing the ozone hole manages , finally to kill himself with an improbable pulley gadget.


You could just switch to writing non-fiction instead. The reason so many people write non-fiction and resarch history isn't to do with the money, but because there are amazing stories in there that could do with a wider audience. There's a reason the Edinburgh non-fiction writers group is called "Stranger than Fiction".

As for OTT historical people, I shall have to ponder that a while. Just a glance at the shelf above my computer remind me of Edward Kelley, who had a dull and boring background, but persuaded one of England's top intellectuals that he could see angeld in a sheet of stone, which led to swapping partners with Dee because the angels said it was okay, then when they went to Hungary and eastern Europe to see abotu doing some Alchemy, got made a nobleman and made many friends at court, before being arrested and probably dying from blood poisoning after breaking his leg when trying to escape from prison.


Unless there's a deeper subtext in your snark that I'm missing (very possible), I thought Heteromeles @80 discussed FDR rather than Teddy. Both larger than life, but in quite different ways.


Kelley is a major and disturbing figure in both John Banville's Kepler and John Crowley's Ægypt.

I'd also like to nominate Patrick Leigh Fermor, who has been described as "a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene."


There's more than one of them? How unfair!

Okay, snark retracted.


There have been several obituaries recently (inevitably) of people who did quite astonishing things in WWII, then settled down to live out an utterly mundane existence.

You get three columns of being parachuted behind enemy lines, being interrogated and bluffing their way out of it, blowing things up, having love affairs with all and sundry and then a short paragraph where they married their childhood sweetheart, moved to Little Blithering in 1947 and ran the village post office for 30 years.

I think there's a lesson for fiction here: the ordinary person picked out of their rut by circumstances beyond their control can do extraordinary things. But that doesn't keep happening and - given the opportunity - most people will happily drop back into mundanity. The hero of recurring accidental adventures is not particularly realistic.


Earlier references to Almirante Cochrane reminded me: Sir Sidney Smith - duked it out with Boney several times, in differing circumstances


Regarding Che Guevara, I think you forgot one of his achievements; mass murder.


The best story about Bernadotte (I think) is that he had, from his revolutionary youth, a tattoo saying "la mort du roi" or thereabouts.


His main contribution to the American Revolution, being one of the best military engineers of his age.


Yes for my part seeing Cochrane was already here, I'd probably also suggest William Bligh (the serial mutinee) should get an honorable mention. And also Arthur Phillip, who was allegedly far more interesting in his younger career than history has traditionally mentioned much.


Nick writes:

You get three columns of being parachuted behind enemy lines, being interrogated and bluffing their way out of it, blowing things up, having love affairs with all and sundry and then a short paragraph where they married their childhood sweetheart, moved to Little Blithering in 1947 and ran the village post office for 30 years.

And then you get the other sort..

( )

Father of Simon (Mr Haskell to you and me), nephew of the Commander of HMS Shark ( ).


I'd suggest Wilson Mizner "Mizner had a vast firsthand criminal erudition, which he commercialized as a dramatist on Broadway and a screenwriter in Hollywood. At various times during his life, he had been a miner, confidence man, ballad singer, medical lecturer, man of letters, general utility man in a segregated district, cardsharp, hotel man, songwriter, dealer in imitation masterpieces of art, prizefighters, prizefight manager, Florida promoter, and roulette-wheel fixer. He was an idol of low society and a pet of high. He knew women, as his brother Addison said, from the best homes and houses."

Benvenuto Cellini - his works show up in fiction more than he does, but perhaps his autobiography is enough fiction for anyone.

Since the SOE seems to be showing up, may I add Nancy Wake and Denis Rake the latter a child acrobat, musical comedy performer, survivor of two torpedoings, radio operator in Occupied France, escapee from the Gestapo, and eventually valet to Douglas Fairbanks. Also gay, and could not bear explosions.


Of course most of us have ignored Mr Stross' second point: ".. and write a scenario involving your heros".

So, how about a Laundry prequel -- interwoven with a current story, as was The Fuller Memorandum.

In 1937 Heinrich Harrer has been sent by the Abnenerbe SS to Tibet to open the pathway to The Sleeper. British Intelligence has long known of the danger (Rudyard Kipling and "The Man who would be King") and has sent a number of it's top occult operatives to thwart this plan.

People getting in the way, playing one side or the other (or both!) include Trebitsch-Lincoln, Eric "Chariots of Fire" Liddell, William Fletcher, Herbert Yardley .. and of course James Jesus Angleton!

In the course of this investigation our hapless protagonist (possibly Dick the PHANG) discovers how the Laundry came about and how the Black Chamber was subsumed by an Alien Intelligence.

The setting may move to the forests around Angkor Wat where a suitable McGuffin has been deposited by Force 136 during WW2.


Moe Berg, catcher for major league baseball teams, Wall Street lawyer in the off season, linguist fluent in multiple languages, spy sent by the U.S. to check if Heisenberg needed to be assassinated (Berg thought it unnecessary)


Count Rumsford, born in Massachusetts, left due to Loyalist activity in Revolution, settled in Bavaria as aide to the Elector, discovered link between motion and heat while drilling cannons, ended up marrying Lavoisier's widow, established the Royal Institution in London and hired Humphrey Davey as the first lecturer for it.


Re fighting Nazis, even the unsung ordinary soldiers (all all sides) had their bad-ass moments. My father, front line infantry with Patton across Europe, Normandy to Czechoslovakia, was the Company nose. Really. He could smell Germans at range. When they were clearing out an area, he was sometimes asked whether there were Germans around the corner/hiding in the basement. What happened next when he indicated that Germans were present was left unsaid (I was raised as an absolute pacifist) but almost certainly involved fragmentation grenades. (Also; sharpshooter, bazooka operator.) Apologies to any current Germans. War was/is war/evil/nasty-beyond-explanation. The smell had to do with the cooking; goulash basically.


Read a review of an interesting sounding biography of this one, then forgot about him till now: Samuel Steward: (July 23, 1909 – December 31, 1993), also known as Phil Andros, Phil Sparrow, and many other pseudonyms, was a poet, novelist, and university professor who left the world of academia to become a tattoo artist and pornographer.

Throughout his life he kept extensive secret diaries, journals and statistics of his sex life. He lived most of his adult life in Chicago, where he tattooed sailor-trainees from the US Navy’s Great Lakes Naval Training Station (as well as gang members and street people) out of a tattoo parlor on South State Street. He later moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he spent the late 1960s as the official tattoo artist of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

Friend of Gertude Stein, and later a Kinsey subject.


I'll be civil and point out that that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not Theodore. Two different people.


Whoops,missed @Bellingham's retraction. Frosty tone microwaved to a friendly room-temperature.


How has anyone -not- mentioned Rasputin by now?


Sometimes it's the opposite - desperation and chaos gives someone the opportunity to break the rules, or forces that opportunity on them Under normal circumstances, it's unimaginable that Joan of Arc could ever have become a top military adviser. The 1930s produced two writers - Raymond Chandler and Robert Heinlein - who revolutionized their genres but only became writers after failing at other careers and needing to pay the rent.

There's also the example of Joseph Carroll, who started as a seminarian, quit just before becoming a priest so he could get married, then worked at a meat packing firm while attending law school at night, then became an FBI agent, then got commissioned as an Air Force General to become head of the OSI and later the DIA. Also he had one son who became an anti-war priest during the Vietnam War. Not quite as dramatic as the other examples but definitely too soap opera for serious fiction.

Also Bill Parker of the LAPD - less for his career (cop becomes police chief) than the way he did his job. He deliberately made his power over the LAPD as absolute as possible, manipulated popular culture to polish the image of the LAPD and in general made extraordinary efforts over decades with no higher purpose than creating his ideal police force. He'd be a great model for a fanatic and horribly misguided utopia builder.


On my post about Nathan Bedford Forrest - not my hero. And I'd use him as the template for a villain in a historical piece, or completely out of his depth in a SF piece.

And I still don't know why my mom's side of the family calls him "that murdering horse thief."

For a hero? Sergeant York. I'm stuck on how to use him though...


I'm going with Vidocq. Frenchman. Head of French police multiple times. In jail multiple times, I believe at least once while head of the police. Undercover operative multiple times, at least once by accident. Revolutionary, detective, counter-revolutionary. Duelist, lover.

Fighter of corruption, probably.

May have been lying in his memoirs, but many stories corroborated by external evidence, some of which evidence he may have managed to fabricate. Some info in memoirs possibly written by other author who thought it wasn't interesting enough. Sued publisher of memoirs against additions.

As a fictional character, would make belief suspension fail quickly. Wait... head of the police HOW MANY times? In jail first? Arrested for Treason? Then again made head of police...

Died at the age of 81, at home, of natural causes. Three years after surviving cholera. Eleven women came forward as "owners of his testament", according to wikipedia.


For bush league Special, check out Jack Parsons, American rocket scientist, follower of Aleister Crowley. He left his first wife (and fellow cultist) after having an affair with her sister,then watched his wife hook up with fellow cultist L. Ron Hubbard, with whom he attempted a major OTO rite. Hubbard and ex-wife defrauded him of his life savings (is this another OTO rite, or am I confused?). He was subsequently black-listed during the Red Scare in 1952 (why, one asks?), and died in an explosion caused by home made rocket fuel at the age of 37. Whether it was accident, suicide, assassination, or a goddess annoyed by being shaken awake was never conclusively determined, although the cops ruled it an accident. Was it...a conspiracy?

Anyway, aside from a youthful flirtation with Marxism, Parsons ended up a strong libertarian, and was a strong early advocate of space exploration and human spaceflight who helped found JPL.


How about Vladimir Peniakoff, of Popski's Private Army? Not quite in the Mad Jack leagues, but still an interesting character template.


Yes, This. If I was going to use the Maori for a swashbuckling story (I'm not, because I'm not an author, and I don't quite have the cultural knowledge required), one option would be to have the European first contact slightly earlier, say 1740's, with a bit more technology transfer, potatoes, pigs, but then have the contact ease off a bit, so they don't get the disease and conquest quite so bad, but they do adjust to the tech, and get the population boom of the improved food resources (Kumara don't grow far enough south for the southern tribes to have reached the population density of the northern, but with potatoes and pigs a bit earlier, they would have caught up quick.)

Then you have the dual problem of a warrior ethos society suffering population pressure, say in the 1780's, and have a Maori political confederation being destabilised by risk of an earlier Musket Wars/Te Rauparaha episode, (Lots of young people, annoyed at the reduction in opportunities for glory and land because of the population boom, say). And then you have either the Brits or the French or both turn up again in force, but relatively peacefully, and have a wee word with the worrid chieftains: "Well, you have this slight angry youth problem, we have this slight Napoleonic wars problem, want to hire us all your xtras, they'll get to see the world, learn our tech,yadda yadda yadda)"

And then you have, say, the swashbuckling adventures of Major Hone Heke and his Maori Battalions cutting their way through the Napoleonic wars with facial moko, haka before the bayonet charge, and using a full length musket and bayonet with taiha combat training. (works really effectively).


Gah, edit: worried for 'worrid'...


In the "quietly bonkers" camp, there's Göran Kropp, who didn't think life as a military officer was sufficiently adventurous and decided that becoming an International Adventurer sounded more exciting. As it is a fact commonly acknowledged that any International Adventurer needs a schtick, he decided his would be "under my own power".

His first appearance on the Adventurer Scene was to scale Mount Everest, under his own (and only his own) power, starting from Stockholm, riding himself and all his kit to near Mt Everest, from where he carried all the kit in, then summited without oxygen (because that would've been another 40-50 kg of load, over a fair distance).

A year or two later, he brought his fiancee up, to help clear up left-behind oxygen bottles and other crap.


I always saw that as a pointed protest against the people who fly in and have all their stuff carried for them.

Probably the only person to attempt to climb Everest in proper style for decades.


If Swedish folklore is correct, he did, on one of his butt-cheeks.


I once attended a talk by the man, it was (partially) that, but partially His Thing. Adventurous Stuff simply wasn't worth doing unless you powered the Stuff entirely with your own body (he was looking at a trans-Atlantic rowboat trip, but apparently someone stumped him, so he started considering doing a South Pole trip, but I think that ended up being a "walk to the North Pole" instead). So, I guess, a bit of both.


I used to know a guy who was working through the old English county tops. Highest point in each of the pre 1974 administrative counties.

Using things like transport you could knock them off in maybe 2-3 weeks if you were reasonably fit and went for it. He doesn't think it counts unless each walk begins and ends at his front door though.


Eric "Chink" Dorman-Smith (later O'Gowan)

Depending on who you ask, a heroic figure (Hemmingway, Corelli Barnett) or a menace (Allanbrooke, Montgomery, Churchill)

When not climbing mountains and running the bulls with Hemmingway, Dorman-Smith spent the inter-war years ascending the British Army career structure, making influential enemies as he went. He received a 1000pts out of 1000 marking by JFC Fuller (remember him?) for his Strategy paper when taking the staff college entrance exam. His Irish connections made him somewhat suspect.

From 1940-42 in the North African campaign he was a key military advisor, until he was sacked along with the CinC Auchinleck when Churchill and Allanbrooke came to clean house and installed Montgomery as 8th Army commander. (short version) His military reputation figured prominently in the post-war battle of memoirs .

In 1944 he was successfully commanding a brigade at Anzio and in the breakout, until sacked by the 1st Division commander Penney under controversial circumstances. As far as I can tell, Penney, who had known and disliked him before the war, had been wounded by shellfire and on sick leave when Dorman-Smith had been wished upon him, and later took steps to get rid of him.

After the war, more than a little bitter at his treatment, he retired to his estate in the Irish Republic and changed his name to O'Gowan, allowing the IRA to use the grounds for training and offering advice during their border campaign in the 50's . The IRA eventually seemed to have formed a similar opinion of his value as Allanbrooke and severed any connections.


I remember my English teacher in school complaining about the elite soldier trope in fiction and saying that there's "no real soldiers like that".

Years later I read about Simo Hayha, a real life soldier significantly more deadly than Rambo. Literally.

Because people on the internet obsessively make list of things like this we can know that rambo only kills 313 people on screen. Simo Hayha apparently reached 505 confirmed.

I think the cracked article does him justice.

"He became known as "The White Death" because of his white camouflage outfit, and they actually mounted whole missions just to kill that one guy.

They started by sending out a task force to find Hayha and take him out. He killed them all.

Then they tried getting together a team of counter-snipers (which are basically snipers that kill snipers) and sent them in to eliminate Hayha. He killed all of them, too."

He was eventually shot in the head and ended up in a coma. Peace was declared the day he woke up. Perhaps they heard he was regenerating and was likely to be pissed about being shot in the face. He went on to live until 2002.


I'm going to have to go 'citation needed' on your last paragraph. Stranger things have happened in Irish history, but I'd need to have a bit more solid evidence before taking that one at face value. Don't forget either that the border campaign was an utter fiasco for the 'ra, leading to the internment of most of their organization, and the complete failure of their struggle.


A cogent point there, Mr. Christian.

Of course Guevara was a mass murderer, if the term has any meaning whatsoever. Alas, those who point this out tend to leave themselves open to attack on the grounds that they don't render the same verdict on types such as Blowtorch Bob d'Aubuisson of El Salvador (he who famously used the blowtorch for a purpose other than it was intended).

The best line on this sort of issue was issued by Umberto Eco years ago:

"The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else. If it had been possible he would have settled the matter otherwise, and without bloodshed. He doesn't boast of his own death or of others'. But he does not repent. He suffers and keeps his mouth shut; if anything, others then exploit him, making him a myth, while he, the man worthy of esteem, was only a poor creature who reacted with dignity and courage in an event bigger than he was."

How many of the maniacs and Dark Triaders cited on this thread could be described like that?


Here's another Eco quote, from the same essay ("Why are they laughing in those cages?"):

Real heroes, thoes who sacrifice themselves for the collective good, and whom society recognizes as such (maybe some time later, whereas at the time they are branded as irresponsible outlaws), are always people who act reluctantly. They die, but they would rather not die; they kill, but they would rather not kill; and in fact afterwards they refuse to boast of having killed in a condition of necessity.

Real heroes are always impelled by circumstances; they never choose because, if they could they would choose not to be heroes. For example - Salvo D'Acquisto, or one of the many partisans who fled to the mounterains, was captured and tortured, and never talked, in order to lessne the tribute of blood, not to encourage it.


And who was Salvo D'Acquisto?

It's quite a story.


D'oh! I seem to have doubled the address in my link @128. Can the Mods please fix? Much appreciated.

[[ done - mod ]]

I tried posting this last night, but I've been having trouble signing in & commenting, probably the dodgy hotel wifi I've been stuck with the last couple weeks.


How about a Scotsman, Thomas Blake Glover, who is almost single handedly the reason why Japan was obsessed with Scottish things like whiskey, trains, engineering and golf.
An ambitious schoolboy who managed to wangle a job with Jardine Matheson, went on to found his own trading company in Nagasaki, supplied arms to the Meiji rebels helping topple the Tokugawa Shogunate, smuggled the first Japanese students out to England to study at university, was friends with the Emperor, brought the first train to Japan, established the first coal mines and shipyards, and formed what later became the Mitsubishi Corporation and separately what has become the Kirin Brewery company. Eventually was awarded Order of the Rising Sun (2nd Class).


Not if you include him (though spiced up a bit as an immortal alchemist) in a universe full of Gods, gods, old gods, devils, angels, half-angels, monsters, demons, Hollywood and magic, as Richard Kadrey has.

I had no idea the character was based on a real person.


Okay ....

Counterpoint because it's disheartening (I'm fed up with) seeing only the bad apples glamorized. How about non-charismatic normal people whose actions showed that it doesn't take a superhero to change the world.

Mahatma Ghandi

Francis of Assisi

Mother Teresa

Terry Fox (the TF Run takes place worldwide about this time of year)

MSF (aka Doctors without Borders ... founders were: Max Recamier and Bernard Kouchner.)


How about Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel? She was a composer herself, though apparently she gave up when she was told by Mahler that a woman should support her husband rather than be her own artist. Apart from the men in her married names, she also consorted with Gustav Klimt and was a lab assistant to Dr. Paul Kammerer, the author of Rejuvenation and the Prolongation of Human Efficiency, and The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, among several other adventures in early Sciencing. (Trigger warning: anti-Semitism)


NOT number three under any circumstances, I'm afraid! Like almost all ( All? ) "christian" "saints" this woman was a complete egocentric, unconcerned about those around her, except as vehicles for her ego/"holiness" - see the late Christopher Hitchens for this. VERY controversial subject, I know, so beware of flame-wars if you follow the rabbit-hole .....


Mithridates -- ancient King, toxicologist, and anti-Roman insurgent. or

He started out with BOTH his conception and his birth marked by comets, and pretty well lived up to it. Gave the Romans fits during a lifetime of politics and warfare, and died by assisted suicide after being betrayed, to avoid being displayed in a Roman triumph. The assistance was needed because he'd made himself so immune to poison one of his bodyguards used a blade to finish the job.

Aside from being king in the same area as the earlier Midas and Croesus, some of his wealth came from pigment mines -- which in those days meant compounds of arsenic and other heavy metals. And apparently the ecosystem in his area would give Australia a run for its money. (If someone offers you rhododendron honey, just say No.)


Juan Pujol García, codename Garbo. A double agent during World War II, he managed to convince the Nazis he was running an extensive network of spies in Spain - and pocketed the pay he received for them, because they didn't actually exist. His deception was so successful that he was awarded the Iron Cross - and also an OBE from our side!

After the war he was so scared of retaliation by surviving nazi party members, he faked his own death and disappeared to Venezuela. But most badass of all, he managed to survive a "particularly long audience" with the Duke of Edinburgh.


I've been thinking about the line of thought alluded in the OP rather more than the direct question posed. Mostly because it raises a lot of questions that have been on my mind, some loosely coupled with a central question around whether I want to try to write literary fiction or genre fiction. I've seen complaints elsewhere that literary fiction doesn't seem to deal with "big" subjects anymore, although it used to. Much as per the idea that genre fiction requires "spice", I'd suggest that once literary fiction had plenty of this whether or not it was needed (even just thinking of Joseph Conrad).

But this thread also reminds me of Eco at his snootiest, describing Ian Fleming's as "fake" literary writing based on a sort of pastiche of techniques. Prompts bizarre thoughts about whether there's an authentic gestalt of "real" literary writing or whether it is as it has become in trade terms: that "literary" is just another genre, one with a problematic market and relatively poorly followed conventions.

Is it still possible to say we think (say) Conrad "has something" that (say) Chandler lacks? Is the same true for (say) Austen and Agatha Christie? Are novels even going to be a form the next generation cares about?


that "literary" is just another genre, one with a problematic market and relatively poorly followed conventions.

Well, yes, that's what it is and what it should be. Like other genres. Think about various forms of painting and dance. If "literary" has pretensions to superiority, it should demonstrate that or get over itself.

Are novels even going to be a form the next generation cares about?

I hope so and believe so. They do have a very substantial record.


Scipione Cicala aka "Sinan Kapudan Paşa" (sorry, italian page)

His father was a viscount in Genua, at first commander for the Doria's family and then corsair and mercenary, his mother was a turkish from Montenegro. He was born in Messina in 1552. His father and he was captured from the Ottomans in the year 1561, taken prisoners to Istanbul where his father paid from his freedom but not for his son's. Scipione survived accepting the conversion to the Islam and become a Giannizzero (a converted soldier). He soon become a protégé of the emperor Suleyman II and of his successor Selim II. Someone thinks he was bisexual too. He become very powerful and very rich, fighted against Persia, become the commander of the Erevan fortress in Armenia, then become Vizir, then admiral of the ottoman fleet. With a corsair fleet attacked various cities in south Italy. Goes to Hungary with the sultan Mohammed III for the war against Austria. Become Gran Vizir. Then lost some battles in south Italy and Turkey and dies there at the age of 53.

Fabrizio De Andre' wrote a song about him in the Genoa dialect:


I'm aware that MT and probably most 'saints' are controversial but as with the other examples, MT was one of the common folk: no birth lottery, no special charm or talent apart from personal belief that she was doing the 'right thing'. (Some people agreed, some disagreed.)

Basically I'm saying it's not just human psychological train-wrecks that can attract people's attention but if media (including fiction authors) keep saying that this is so, then don't be surprised that it increasingly becomes so, i.e., self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having a flawed, vulnerable, humane/sympathetic, competent (without superpowers) hero/heroine can and does sell books - Discworld is full of such characters.


It would be sad to leave Basil Zaharoff out of this discussion. Known as a 'merchant of death' he was an arms dealer who sold munitions to all of the great nations pre-WWI. He was accused of fomenting a war between Greece and Turkey in order to sell weapons to both sides. His role in the development of a successful submarine was breath-taking. He retired wealthy and successful, married a wealthy Spanish duchess, and wrote his memoirs, which were promptly stolen.

He appears as a formidable character in the television show Riley, Ace of Spies, but the fiction isn't a patch on the real person.


If you can't do something with Benjamin Disraeli, you're doing it wrong. Anyone with the savoir-faire to change from a morning cane to an afternoon one at noon while passing through Egypt with one's sister's fiancé (who didn't survive the experience, alas), inherits Byron's large manservant Tita, and can play Diplomacy with Otto von Bismarck and win, is someone to take a look at. He also had some exotic ideas about personal finance (possibly the first person to acquire a negative credit rating even after marrying a rich widow), but was able to parlay his debt-acquiring abilities into purchasing the Suez Canal on a dull Sunday afternoon (though you have to wonder at the genius who thought he would make a good Chancellor the Exchequer, even if only for a couple of months). His wife was even more extraordinary in her way; starting as a hat shop girl, she Married Up despite the unhappiness of the stepchildren, and then Married Even Upper even though most of her contemporaries believed she was simply acquiring an overly ambitious boy-toy. She became Vicountess of Beaconsfield before Dizzy got his title, because Queen Victoria was sentimental like that. Oh, and wrote best-selling novels and got in trouble because you could tell who was who even under the fake names (if Jacqueline Susann knew her roman-a-clef novel history, she would have bowed before his statue three times every morning. Who knows, maybe she did!).


The Abbe de Choisy.

Raised in girls clothes by his mother, he decided gowns were for him, and went on to become the most beautifully dressed fashionista in the court of the Sun King, as well as one of its leading casanovas. His memoirs are shocking even by modern standards.

He was also best friend of Phillipe, Louis XIV's younger brother and fellow warrior-crossdresser. (They bonded over a shared love of clothing.) Surprisingly he was completely hetero, a situation that caused the Bisexual Phillipe great disappointment.

Ruining himself in turns via expensive fashions and the gambling tables, he submitted to the tonsure in order to collect the rents from his position as Abbe. He alternated over the next decade between seducing young farm girls and annoying the King's officials at versailles.

Eventually, since his influence at court was too great, they sent him on the first diplomatic/exploratory mission to Siam, along with major theologians and explorers (They managed to convince him to take orders and wear vestaments for this, in public at least.) They unsuccessfully tried to convert the King of Siam, but his charm saved the Jesuits and explorers from being imprisoned after an unfortunate faux pas.

After this, he managed to settle down somewhat, writing a number of histories of the characters of the court.

Perfect counterpart to Julie d'Aubigny. They almost certainly met at Versailles


Pharoh Akhenten, tried to start monotheism up early

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, US revolutionary war general, took part in the french revolution, turned down an offer to become dictator, enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte, has half the US midwest named after him,_Marquis_de_Lafayette

Eva Peron worth a mention (despite the Madonna movie)

Roman Emperor Julian was pretty fascinating,


Then there's Casanova. Many of his exploits have been confirmed by contemporaries (he dined out on that prison escape for decades). One has difficulty summarizing all of his accomplishments, though I should think all of them were overwhelmed by his remarkable memory and inability to hang onto any of the money he garnered by his exploits.


As a student of history, I can say this-

You can't make some of the shit up that you read, because nobody would believe it. Fiction has to be believable, history doesn't.

You couldn't make up the story of the guy that created an entire fake spy network during World War II in Turkey, and had never been to England, and was awarded both money and honors by the Germans and the British.

And, his story is a mild one.


Thomas Blake Glover even survived the Nagasaki bombing in 1945 and he was long dead by then...

I've visited his grave in Nagasaki which was far enough up in the hills from the hypocentre of the bombing that it wasn't damaged by the blast and heat. He's buried there with his Japanese wife and his son.

Both Charlie and I know one of his family's close relatives.


Captain John Smith.

Mercenaried around Europe in his youth, various duels and honors from foreign monarchs, enslaved by Turks, sold as a boytoy to a noblewoman, escaped back to England. Instrumental in founding America. Charged with mutiny on one of the voyages over (some of which involved various of the ships being stranded in Bermuda and such, all easily adapted to space opera) but not executed due to royal orders as a colony leader. Became the main leader when conditions were so horrible his iron hand was needed. Had the whole fling with Pocahantas (Disney made a movie ).


Antonio Gramsci, who did more for political science while in a Fascist prison than Lenin and Engels did running wild.


William Grover-Williams -

Chauffeur, 1920s and 30s Grand Prix racer (would have been a Formula 1 driver but F1 wasn't invented until 1950), After the invasion of France, fled to England, joined the army, was recruited to the Special Operations Executive, more or less started the French Resistance (and recruited his mate Robert Benoist), and may or may not have been executed in a concentration camp in 1945.


I see what Marcus means about Douglas Bader, although I wasn't aware of him having been involved with the "Colditz glider" (although that was a real thing).


Cecil Lewis had an odd and varied life of almost 99 years, from 5 years before powered flight to 25 years after the last moon landing. A fighter pilot in WW1 (starting while still 17, winning the Military Cross over the Somme, having a brush with the Red Baron and surviving to be the last ace of that war) and squadron leader in WW2, in between, according to Wikipedia, he "taught the Chinese to fly" and established the Peking-Shanghai air service. His flying autobiography Sagittarius Rising (some scenes from which were represented in the film Aces High) is a great read, became a classic and kicked off a successful writing career .

In 1922 he was one of five people (including the later Lord Reith) who founded the BBC, where he was a writer, producer, and director, and in 1936-7 was a presenter in the BBC's infant TV service. In the 1930s he went to Hollywood for various writing projects and co-won an Oscar for the screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. In Shaw's "salon" he met HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and TE Lawrence.

Later on he became interested in the ideas of Gurdjieff, and in South Africa estabalished a farm community based on his ideas. In the early 1950s he was employed by the UN to produce programmes for the Specialised Agencies and later he was a Daily Mail journalist for ten years. In his 70s he and his wife bought a boat and sailed to Corfu where he lived until his death in 1997.

At the age of 93 he was interviewed by Sue Lawley for Desert Island Discs, and was still broadcasting and writing poetry through his 90s, and even flew a Tiger Moth at 94. [Desert Island Discs episode]


The life and times of Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown RN certainly came across in a heroic way...

Flying the latest and daftest inventions (I mean, flying the Me163 and Ar234 on the strength of a couple of pages of notes?) he's the ideal character to take on the task of test pilot for a 1940s/50s "captured alien spacecraft".

You could consider Michael Bentine. A half-Peruvian actor and comedian who during WW2 joins the RAF, trains as a pilot, transfers to RAF intelligence, and works with MI9. He's the "fastest gun in Britain" - not in a "draw and fire a blank round", but in a "draw, fire, and actually hit multiple targets using live rounds" sense, and goes on to be a consultant to UK Special Forces in pistol shooting, involved when they were setting up their door-kicking and covert surveillance units.

He's a founder member of "The Goon Show", and is in the memory of my generation for the childrens' TV show "Michael Bentine's Potty Time"; he's also a CBE, and friend of the Heir to the throne.

So - for story purposes, you could use him as a wartime operator for SOE/SIS (with his native-language Spanish skills). A real "James Bond", in the Wild West that was 1940s intelligence work, doing dodgy stuff in neutral countries, and it would be entirely plausible...

Come to think of it, several film actors of the time had rather impressive wartime CVs; David Niven was a Commando who worked in Combined Operations; Anthony Quayle had helped set up the Auxiliary Units before heading off (like Christopher Lee) to SOE. Any 1950s film with that lot in the cast would have been a good cover story for nefarious acts... Gavin Lyall's book "Shooting Script" applies...


Yes! I was trying to link to him last night, asking if he was too obvious to mention, but dodgy hotel wifi seems to be worse at night.


More people, and hence a higher contention ratio on an already inadequate bandwidth?


That's awesome. I first learned about him when a very full busload of Japanese tourists disgorged outside the b&b I was staying at in Fraserburgh in October. Was rather out of season but they were on a pilgrimage up from Aberdeen to a plaque showing his birthplace. Must be the only rural Scottish town to keep Kirin beer on tap.

Speaking of great Scotsmen, we should also tip a hat to William Spiers Bruce, one of the only men to lead a true scientific expedition to the Antarctic rather than for glory, and effectively provided the foundational readings for a lot of our climate change studies. He established a scientific station in the South Orkneys that has been continuously manned ever since by Argentina, but a bitter rivalry with the English establishment pretty much screwed him over completely.


John Muir, born in Scotland, grew up in Wisconsin. An extraordinarily strong walker and mountain climber. Mechanical genius and inventor. Scientist. Writer. Conservationist.


Yardley needs to be countered by the Friedman's

Husband and wife team, also tied into the black chamber, but stayed in the black during the 1930's rather than writing a tell all. Stayed under the Army rather than the State department. Broke Purple, the Japanese Code, and Mrs. Friedman was in a group loaned out to various other agencies, including quite a bit of revenuer work. She also caught Velvalee Dickison, who was also character.

The Friedman's were also way into the occult, and spent most of their life working on the Voynich Manuscript. Their work was so secret, we know some of it only thru patents being declassified 70 years later.


Since Charlie mentioned Arthur Ransome, I would like to recommend "The Last Englishman" by Roland Chambers.


A few that movies are out or will be coming out:

Desmond Doss , who the upcoming movie 'Hacksaw Ridge' will be about. Conscientious Objector who shows that pacifists can be the bravest of us. Was a medic in the Okinawa campaign on the front lines, his unit was cut off, and 75 men were wounded. He lowered all 75 down a rock face by himself to friendly hands. His story goes on, but he ended up getting the medal of honor for his bravery and how many lives he saved. Wounded a few times, and Lost a lung to TB by the end of the war. Still lived to 80+

Flip side is Audie Murphy , most decorated American of the war, and a man whose bravery was a bit bloodier. Small, and joined the war under aged, his most famous incident involved taking a machine gun from a German tank firing on his troops, and fighting back, while the tank was on fire. Post-war he became a movie star, including an auto-biographical film which toned down his accomplishments. He also famously suffered PTSD, and did a hell of a lot for Vietnam vets by de-stigmatizing it, including going in front of congress and asking for an expansion of the VA to cover mental health. (There are now VA centers named after him). Also not a bad poet or song writer.

Ok now for an original.

I propose Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the US, and proof that being awesome doesn't make you good at understanding economics. Arguably the first student at Stanford, he was an insanely talented student and engineer. Managed the baseball and football teams in the first big game. Became a globe trotting mining engineer after some time in Australia. Prior to WW1, he had investments and mining work in 6 continents, became pretty dang rich despite being from a Quaker farming family. Lectured on mining engineering at Columbia at Stanford, translated De Re Metallica into English. His wife was a geologist and with him since her time as the first woman in Stanford's geology program and his co-author on many papers, including his De Re Metallica translation. They were in China during the Boxer Rebellion, and both became fluent in Mandarin. (They'd use it for privacy in the white house).

They were in Europe when WW1 started, and began their humanitarian work, first helping Americans evacuate the war zone, then running the Commission for Relief for Belgium. Running the CRB was one of the biggest relief organizations during the war, with Hoover being a massive driving force using his skills to negotiate with all relevant countries, ally and entente, for CRB access. Apparently his skills impressed the British who offered him a government position if he'd immigrate, but he told them off as he was proud American. So Hoover took over the US Food Agency, which ran the rationing and provisioning system for the US during the rest of the war.

The Hoovers in the post-war world were society people. Mrs. Hoover ran the girl scouts. Mr. Hoover got into the American Friends Service Committee work and the American Relief Administration. Especially in relief work for Russia during the famine. Gorky even praised Hoover. There's allegations some of the relief in Poland was partisan. Hoovers paper's from this time are now the core of the Hoover Institute.

Hoover got involved in politics as the war ended, becoming Secretary of commerce in the Harding Administration. He was considered very good at this job, although he was also extremely pro-business. But the best thing he did was the relief for the great flood of 1927, where he acted as the coordinator for the Feds, State and private efforts like the Red Cross. (Otoh there were issues with racism in the relief, that Hoover tried like hell to cover up).

Hoover became president on the good will of this. He also caused a re-alignment because of his appeal to white southerners, and unwillingness to court the black vote, a break in Republican policy. (Otoh he had a Native American running mate, and did a bunch of reforms for the BIA some of which were good and some of which were bad). He's hated for history for his failure to handle the great-depression. He was weak on civil rights. Otoh his good neighbor policy put a curb on the worst excesses in Latin America.

The great depression will always define him. He's blamed for it, and hoovervilles were common enough, and the bonus army marched on DC during his time in office. He tried to help, some of his policies became the basis for more successful FDR policies, some were silly like his Mexican reparation. Ok enough politics

Post-presidency, he was extremely active, including war relief efforts 2 years before the US entered the war. Post-war he did official US relief work, including his own evaluation of the West Germany economy which helped change from the Pastoral policies prior to the Marshall plan. The Hoover commission was run by him under Eisenhower to restructure the federal agencies.

Bit of an ass, fulfilled the American dream by being a farm kid who became a millionaire. Lacked an empathetic understanding of his advantages that not everyone could do the same route to success. Still, would volunteer to lead and take charge when there was a disaster.


Yes, I assume so. FWIW, this is an "Army Hotel" mainly for GIs, their families, and Vets to stay in. They're former barracks, probably from the 70s-early 80s, and not terribly modern--all the cables for TV etc. run up the outside walls. They're being slowly fixed up. Tried to reply around noon, but couldn't.


One of my hero's is Francis Younghusband.

Frankly, he shouldn't be my hero, but the dering do and the just ridiculous bravery is quite amazing.

It is worth saying that he did bad things with machine guns.


Songs of Love, Poems of Sadness: The Erotic Verse of the Sixth Dalai Lama by Paul Williams, Tsangyang Gyatso

The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), refused to take full monastic vows, returned the vows that he had already taken, and loved alcohol, archery, and women with a passion that perhaps suggests he had a premonition of his early death at the age of twenty-four. He also wrote a remarkable collection of love poetry. In this book, the author offers a completely new translation of the erotic poems attributed to the Sixth Dalai Lama. With hints on how to read the verses, as well as explanations of obscure points or allusions, the author makes this extraordinary Dalai Lama and his verses accessible to those with no background in the study of Buddhism or Tibet. This first translation to be based on the latest critical edition will be of great interest to those eager to learn more about Eastern religion and spirituality.

No, I am not making this up! Here is a sample of his erotic poetry

The girl of the market place And I made that "True Love Knot." I did not try to untie it, It untied of its own accord.

When the fortune God smiles at me, I hoist a fortune-bringing flag. Then I am invited to the feast, By a girl with beautiful leg.

And final detail which is impossible to invent:

"Wearing the clothes of a normal layman and preferring to walk than to ride a horse or use the state palanquin, Tsangyang only kept the temporal prerogatives of the Dalai Lama. He also visited the parks and spent nights in the streets of Lhasa, drinking wine, singing songs and having amorous relations with girls. Tsangyang retreated to live in a tent in the park near the northern escarpment of Potala Palace."


Audie Murphy -

Book and film of "To Hell and Back" both readily available from a large South American River.


I'd like to suggest someone less dramatic, Glenn H. Curtiss Bicycle, motorcycle racer and manufacturer. Member of the team that reverse engineered the Wright brothers three axis flight controls, in a more structurally sound manner. There was also an unofficial speed record with a motorcycle with a V-8 aircraft engine and no brakes.


Obviously the age of colonialism had no shortage of colourful characters.

My entry to the list is Eduard Schnitzer, better known as Emin Pasha. Jew, lutheran Christian and later perhaps Moslem; as he was banned from practicing as a physician in Germany he moved to the Ottoman Empire, became fluent in several languages, and eventually became governor of the Egyptian province Equatoria on the upper Nile. From there he explored the Great Lakes region. During the Mahdist uprising his province was cut off from Egypt, thus he established himself in Buganda. The European powers started several Emin Pasha Relief Expeditions, the most famous—and successful—of which was led by one Henry Morton Stanley. However, in the end it was Emin who had to save Stanley, who had fallen ill. Both went to German East Africa, where Emin Pasha remained and entered in the service of the German East Africa Company. He was killed three years later in the Lake Victoria region by Arab slave traders. Also, as a side effect of Stanley's relief expedition the infamous slave trader Tippu Tip became governor of a district in Congo.

He's also made responsible for introducing sleeping sickness to Uganda through his travels—ironic if you consider that he started out as a physician.

Oh, and I once met an old man in north-western Tanzania who told me that his grandfather and Emin Pasha had become blood brothers.


I'm trying to think of an alternate- history/ fantasy treatment for Count Rumsford, see comment #126 above, to tie him in with the general advancement of technology. As far as occult aspects of Isaac Newton's activity go, Neal Stephenson seems pretty much to have exploited the concept all he wanted to back in "System of the World." So if it's fair game now, I'd like to see further development to explore who the mantle of supernatural seer-scientist would have been passed to down the generations. Sort of like a tradition in some Chinese Buddhist sects of transmitting the Tao from an aged master such as the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen school to his successor, symbolized by inheritance of a cloak, staff, begging bowl or similar personal item. Benjamin Franklin could have got it from Newton and passed it on to Rumsford, who then transmitted it on to Faraday by way of Humphry Davy. Einstein supposedly kept a portrait of Faraday in his office, but I'm unclear about who the intermediate link could have been. Edison was twenty when Faraday died, but it would take an implausible backstory to arrange for a meeting between those two. Maybe someone like Isembard Kingdom Brunel would work better. His engineering of London's first subway could have put him in Faraday's vicinity, then Brunel's later work on the Great Eastern giant steamship used to lay the first transatlantic cable might have put him in contact with Edison working as a telegraph clerk at the time. Tesla worked briefly for Edison, he might have zapped the spark on to Einstein somehow. Then onward to Von Neumann and his early computer design, maybe Shockley with transistors. After that the scheme probably collapses of its own weight because individuals quit making the same kind of difference as far as breakthrough insights. Hard to award the begging bowl to a whole team of software developers, they'd fight over it.


Well, Brunel did know Faraday and consulted with him, so that bit's already in place.


Re: 'supernatural seer-scientist'

Most of the famous scientists I'm aware of - and quite a few you mention - were/are introverts whereas most of the weird-but-true people sound pretty extroverted. Extroverts typically go chasing after adventures, introverts have to be dragged into adventure by the promise that they'll learn something that will validate their pet theory. Consequently, seer-scientist investiture must occur at by-invitation-only conferences*, with on-going re-inforcement by personally penned letters.

  • Who knows what was actually discussed at Solvay but that's where the cream of early 20th century physics adopted the Copenhagen Interpretation and (probably) changed the world.


(Solvay) Fifth Conference

'Perhaps the most famous conference was the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, where the world's most notable physicists met to discuss the newly formulated quantum theory. The leading figures were Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. 17 of the 29 attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners, including Marie Curie, who alone among them, had won Nobel Prizes in two separate scientific disciplines.[2]

This conference was also the culmination of the struggle between Einstein and the scientific realists, who wanted strict rules of scientific method as laid out by Charles Peirce and Karl Popper, versus Bohr and the instrumentalists, who wanted looser rules based on outcomes. Starting at this point, the instrumentalists won, instrumentalism having been seen as the norm ever since,[3] although the debate has been actively continued by the likes of Alan Musgrave.'

'The term 'Copenhagen interpretation' suggests something more than just a spirit, such as some definite set of rules for interpreting the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics, presumably dating back to the 1920s. However, no such text exists, apart from some informal popular lectures by Bohr and Heisenberg, which contradict each other on several important issues.'


I think most of them had at least a tinge of egotism and self promotion, Rumsford, Franklin, Davy, Edison, Neumann and Shockley maybe more than just a tinge. An abstract theorist type like Paul Dirac might have suffered a mixed blessing from autism, in that it made him painfully awkward in all social interactions but permitted the kind of hermetically sealed mind capable of predicting the positron before anyone started looking. Truly a weird correspondence between Dirac's description of vacuum energy with particles flashing in and out of existence, and the phrasing of Zen influenced writings like in "Discourse on Vegetable Roots" (Cai Gen Tan) saying "Since the void is not void..." (how did they know that!?) But back in the 18th and 19th centuries the struggle just to exist was so intense, there wasn't much chance for the retiring or self-effacing personalities to make a contribution. Cavendish being an exception, but then he was super rich by inheritance. Can't think of any others.


Makes for a good alternate Laundry sequence too. Lovelace, not Turing, cracks open Godel and by extension Magic (The Byrons have a genetic predisposition to magic and mild K-Syndrome, perhaps), is quietly removed from Babbage by her own mother, and disposed of by "illness" and bleeding.


Here's a couple of interesting lives that touch some key points of 20thC history, led by not-famous people but related to people I knew personally - Charles Sydney Gibbes, whose grandson (via adoption), also Charles, was my boss at a US college textbook publisher in the 1980s; and Roy Essoyan, whose son David I was at a British primary school with in Beirut in the 1960s.

CS Gibbes was born in Rotherham in 1876 and went to Cambridge with the idea of entering the Church of England; realising he had no vocation but with a talent for language, he went abroad, and for some years before 1917 was English tutor to the children of the Russian Emperor. After the imperial family's killing Gibbes was involved in the enquiries. As the Russian revolution unfolded, he then went East, working as a British diplomat in Siberia and Beijing and adopting a Russian refugee teenager he found in China (who became my boss's father). Gibbes Sr joined the Russian Orthodox Church and became an Abbott, possibly, acc. to Wikipedia, the first such English abbott in 1000 years. Returning to the UK he set up the Orthodox St Nicholas House in Oxford, and died in 1963. His collection of Russian icons went to Luton Hoo.

Roy (orig Karekin) Essoyan was born in 1919 in a Japanese fishing village to an Armenian family who'd also escaped the Bolshevik revolution. As Japanese militarism grew, they moved to Shanghai in the 1930s... possibly seeing young JG Ballard on his bicycle. Temporarily stymied in becoming a reporter, Essoyan at 17 went to sea on a Danish freighter. However, he was a reporter in Shanghai when Pearl Harbor happened (a couple of days after he got married) and the Japanese took over the bits of Shanghai they hadn't occupied in 1937. He was still there in 1945, and got a job with Associated Press at 26, and eventually was sent to Hawaii, became a US citizen and lived and worked in his third language (after Russian and Japanese).

In the 1950s his Russian skills got him sent to the AP bureau in Moscow, from where he was expelled after revealing the famous Sino-Soviet split in 1958. He worked in Hong Kong and covered the early years of the Vietnam War, and then moved to Beirut in 1965 in charge of APs Middle East operations, where his son David was in my year at the British Community School (not sure why David was there - there was a much bigger American Community School, which he went on to, while I went off to boarding school in Blighty). If Essoyan Sr had moved to Beirut three years earlier he would no doubt have made a colleague of Observer and Economist reporter Kim Philby, but he had defected in 1963. The Essoyans moved on to Tokyo in 1973 so Roy, an Armenian-American who came to adulthood in China, was back in Japan, the land of his birth. He died in Hawaii in 2012.


Lovelace, not Turing, cracks open Godel Already been done ... "Difference Engine"


Most of the famous scientists I'm aware of - and quite a few you mention - were/are introverts ... introverts have to be dragged into adventure by the promise that they'll learn something that will validate their pet theory.

Depends on what you mean by adventure. I know an awful lot of mountaineering physicists. Lots of adventurers of the "explorer" subtype are introverts. After all, disappearing into the mountains for a few weeks or setting off to cross a remote ice cap is a fantastic way of not talking to people.

'The term 'Copenhagen interpretation' suggests something more than just a spirit, such as some definite set of rules for interpreting the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics, presumably dating back to the 1920s.

I think you are over interpreting interpretation :)


Keith @191:

Retiring sorts .... Charles Darwin and Johann Gustav Mendel? Mendel was completely overlooked/ignored for about 30-40 years. (If you're interested re: Dirac bio 'The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac' by Graham Farmelo - highly recommended.)

bdp @195:

Copenhagen interpretation .. you're right, I'm deliberately over-interpreting ... looking for any chink in the wall. :)


I forgot about Darwin, you're right he did have to make real efforts to not become a recluse, maybe a natural tendency toward morose disposition, but we can easily forget how stressful family life would have been back then. Most children weren't expected to survive into adulthood and even adult mortality ran way high by our standards, a condition in which you learned to lose your sensitivity fast or just be miserable all the time. Mendel, however, served capably as abbot of his monastery for decades, not a job they'd likely have saddled someone with who lacked at least passable people skills. His work being neglected was bad luck in choice of publisher, an obscure regional German magazine, and timing relative to the rest of the research community. Physicians still couldn't even get their heads around the germ theory of disease.


Just started reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and the story so far indicates that Mendel had zero salesmanship/self-promotion ability. Interesting factoid: Mendel failed the university teacher's biology exam twice which is why he gave up pursuing a teaching career. (He had some problems esp. with taxonomy it seems.) His appointment to Abbot had more to do with his superior math (vs. other monks), i.e., being able to balance a budget/pay bills than with any people-skills.


"After all, disappearing into the mountains for a few weeks or setting off to cross a remote ice cap is a fantastic way of not talking to people."

Heaven! It's getting increasingly difficult to do, though.


The secret is to go for the obscure areas that aren't on anyones greatest hits list. There are few places less remote than famously remote areas.

If you are careful it is even possible to not see people for a few days at a time in Scotland so long as you don't go too close to any munros.


Oh, yes - been there, done that :-)


Darwin had other issues, most specifically his health (yes, that's a whole Wikipedia article on the subject). If you read the list of issues he normally dealt with, you'll see why he didn't go out in public much.

There may be a link there: Wallace came up with his version of natural selection while dealing with malaria.


9Just home from Berlin)

Counterpoint because it's disheartening (I'm fed up with) seeing only the bad apples glamorized. How about non-charismatic normal people whose actions showed that it doesn't take a superhero to change the world. ... Mother Teresa

Stop right there!

She was a horrible, horrible person. Truly vile. (At least if you go with Christopher Hitchens' verdict, as I am inclined to.)


The church was better with the office of the devil's advocate (aka Promoter of the Faith). Their job was quality control. Hitchens actually informally took part in the canonization proceedings in that role, but I think his style and attitude was much easier to dismiss as an outsider rather than had a respected canon lawyer. More internally respected sources, now that she's been dead a while are coming out and talking about her flaws.

Otoh the counter point of us muggles changing the world can look to plenty of other imperfect, flawed, messy people who did a powerful acts of good. Oscar Schindler is an easy example, a womanizer, drank too much, and had a temper, yet managed to answer who he was in the dark.


See also my own shudder @ 155


John Rabe, who I have seen cited as a "patron saint of moral complexity." Head of the Nazi Party in Nanjing - and leader of the Nanking Safety Zone, which saved up to a quarter of a million civilian lives in the Nanjing Massacre.


Yes, but at least she wasn't Christopher Hitchens (who apparently plagiarised his exposé of the Albanian from a local Indian journalist).

Hitchens prostituted his (real and genuine) talents in the aid of promoting a war that not only killed up to a million people, but had precisely the opposite effect from that which it was purported to have.


AND he once got a parking ticket!


Well, my Grand Unified Theory of Hitchens is that someone, somewhere, had the goods on him . . . and that's what accounts for his spectacular political meltdown after 9/11.


My point is none of that was in any way relevant to the truth or otherwise of his claims about M T.

I'm no fan of the guy, but on the plus side he did publically recant his views on waterboarding after being persuaded to give it a go. Most journos would have just blustered instead.


on the GUT of H side, people getting less liberal and more paranoid with age could cover it just as well. I'm seeing a lot of it with people I know unfortunately.


Having just skimmed both Hutchins' piece on MT and Hutchins' Wikipedia entry (he comes across as the DT of journalism) ... can't say which is worse.

Did find another super-shy seer-scientist though: Frederick Griffith - a bacteriologist who was the first to demonstrate that a 'gene molecule' could carry hereditary instructions between organisms in his research on Streptococcus pneumoniae (smooth vs. rough coat). Excerpt from Mukherjee's The Gene [pg 114]: 'Griffith published his data in the Journal of Hygiene - a scientific journal whose obscurity might have even impressed Mendel.' Like Newton and Darwin, Griffith needed to be prodded to publish. And, like Darwin and then Crick&Watson, his transformative idea was only alluded to.


I've got a few.

F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, son of a coal merchant, veteran of the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, employee of a prominent French fashion house between the wars, SOE operative during World War II, winner of the George Cross, and defense witness for Otto Skorzeny.

J. Rives Childs. His Wikipedia entry is sparse. His obituary in the New York Times gives more detail, but still misses some important things. Childs was drafted into the US cryptologic effort during World War I because he was mistaken for someone with a similar name who had published some things on codes and ciphers, and ended up a wartime colleague of people like Herbert Yardley and Friedman. After the war, he made a career in the US State Department, culminating in a posting as Ambassador to Ethiopia, despite the fact that part of what made him an expert on Casanova was extensive (and documented in a published memoir!) work on duplicating Casanova's love life, and also despite his vocal advocacy for hard left causes.

Childs bumped into another interesting character during World War I, Major Malcom Hay. A Scots Catholic aristocrat, Hay was taken prisoner at Mons, paroled back to England, and eventually led the British War Office SIGINT group MI1b during World War I. When Hay failed in a bid to be appointed to head the Government Code & Cypher School, he resigned in a fury and spent much of the rest of his life writing correctives to Protestant historiography, and he was one of the first historians to spend time srious time breaking ciphers in journals and the like. (To be fair, he had experience others lacked.) During a papal audience, he gave the Pope advice on cryptography.

Russian history has some very interesting characters, too.

  • Abram Gannibal was a child slave presented as a gift to Peter the Great, who ended up becoming a major figure in the courts of Peter and Peter's daughter Elizabeth: he's also Pushkin's great-grandfather. He had serious problems with the next person on the list.
  • Prince Menshikov went from selling pastries on the streets of Moscow to being Peter the Great's grand vizier. He introduced Peter to the next person on the list, and was essentially her regent for a few years.
  • Catherine I. A Livonian peasant of Polish background, who was either a servant or, in some accounts, a camp follower of the Russian Army, and had the good fortune to become friends with Prince Menshikov, who introduced her to Peter the Great, who made her his mistress, and then his wife. She was the only person who was able to calm Peter's rampages, and she was the great love of his life. When Peter died, she was his successor.


Childs was drafted into the US cryptologic effort during World War I because he was mistaken for someone with a similar name who had published some things on codes and ciphers

Shades of Geoffrey Tandy; an expert in cryptogams who allegedly got picked for Bletchley for that reason.


Re: Catherine I ...

'Catherine represented the interests of the "new men", commoners who had been brought to positions of great power by Peter based on competence.'

She continued Peter the Great's modernization of Russia and, by claiming the throne upon his death, led the way for future Empresses.


Going back a bit, but what about Poggio Bracciolini? Started life as a scriptor in Rome in the early 1400s, moved up in the Vatican world to become Papal Secretary and a roving diplomat, ended up in Florence at the very point the Renaissance was kicking off, was one of those people who knew everyone and went everywhere.

More significantly, he took it into his head - with the support of certain Florentine scholars and humanists - to go searching the libraries of the various religious institutions of Europe for surviving copies of classical Latin works, recovering a huge trove of material which in turn really kick-started the humanist movement that led in the end to the Enlightenment. Where he encountered reluctance on the part of institutions to part with mouldering relics he wasn't averse to bribing monks or resorting to outright theft. Wrote prolifically, and while he hewed to Latin rather than vernacular he was a shrewd social observer - you could say his collection of jokes and funny stories from across Europe has never been out of print except it predates the printing press. His handwriting was so famed for its clarity and legibility that it formed the basis of the Roman script, and later typeface. His best buddy Niccolo Niccoli was similarly honoured, his method of handwriting being the prototype for Italic.

Would be interesting in a fictional sense to wonder what other, less famous, works he was looking for in Cluny and Reichenau - and who his sponsors were...


Talking about not being able to make stuff up that even resembles the astounding nature of "real life".

Try this - looks as if we are close to being able to speak to Dolphins - will they want to speak to us is the next question ....


Found another good one, this time I can at elast sketch a fictional scenario (compatible with teh laundry verse): Otto Feige, born 1882 in now Poland, then Germany. Labourer. Afer the great arthquake hit San Francisco in 1906, he reinvented himself as US-born actor Ret Marut and claimed all his documentation had been lost in the quake (a popular stunt at the time). Works as director and actor at several theaters in Germany. In 1917 he moves to munich and starts to publish Der Ziegelbrenner, an anarchist 'zine advocating peace during the height of WWI. During the short lived munich council republic he was the head censor and tried to socialize the press. Was arrested in 1919 when the Freikorps entered munich but could escape. After several years of trying, he maneged to migrate into Mexico in 1924. He he reinvented himself again as B. Traven and started to publish a whole lot of books (The treasure of the Sierra Madre is likely the most famous). He also learned several native central american languages, took part in an expedition into Chiapas and indigenas featured prominently in many of his novels.

Now the ficional stuff: As we all know, the Thule Gesellschaft was very active in squashing the Munich council Republic (abducting one of their ministers, etc ...). What if, in working for the council government, Ret Marut encountered something even more sinister about their workings, caught a glimpse of the horrors they tried to summon? As someone in the know, he was even more in danger than other prominent members of the council government and made his escape as quickly and as far away as possible. Even as B. Traven he stayed reclusive - after the first chapters of his first novel as Traven where published, his old comrade Erich Mühsam speculated loudly that B. Traven must be Marut, so he needed to stay in hiding (only dealing with his publishers via proxys or by mail, sending a proxy to counsel on filming the treasure of the Sierra Madre, etc.). His studies of native american culture and language, the expsidtion to Chiapas, where not idle curiosity, but an attempt to look for an antidote to the eldritch horrors the Thule society and their ilk had been working with - and seeking to find it in the customs mayas' descendants.

So much for the fictous scenario, now here's where it breaks down: Anarchocommunism of the sort Traven likely believed in (his novels where AFAIK not author tracts (I only read one) but big on social criticism of the powers that be and typically featured working class heroes) is essentiall a humanism: We are all basicall equal and decent human beeings. We could easily live lives full of freedom, equality and solidarity if only states and capitalism would'nt get in the way. This humanism is not compatible with the one true religion of the Laundryverse.


oops, forgot the link: Interestingly, teh english wikipedia is far less sure on B. Travens identity than the German one.


I think that Dr. G. Larsen documented something like this in one of his publications.


You forget the other side of Parsons, and that's that he invented the practical modern solid fuel rocket. Godard didn't publish or share, and is a dead end. The Germans are where the liquid fuel tech come from. JPL, aka Jack Parson's Laboratory, is where the powered aluminum fuel, ammonium perchlorate oxidizer, and a synthetic rubber binder solid fuel rocket was born, and what we use today is not that different.


How about Paul Linebarger? The son of an ambassador to China, who sent him to the USSR for a few years in order to disabuse him of a youthful interest in communism, Linebarger trained as a psychologist before literally writing the book on propaganda (a book titled Psychological Warfare); meanwhile, he was writing strange and influential science fiction as Cordwainer Smith. It's been strongly implied that Linebarger is the patient described in the anecdote that inspired the book K-Pax -- in which a highly intelligent patient convinces his shrink that he is a space alien. At age twelve, he wrote and published a short story about a future where a UN-like organization manages "wars" that are bloodless competitions between professional aerial drone pilots -- in 1928.


That's a much better summary than what was posted in #83. Thanks!

I'd add that Psychological Warfare is still in print and still worth reading, not only for insight into current political campaign tactics (yet another instance of The Street finding its own use for things), but also for his comments on the utility of a trustworthy and independent media in counteracting propaganda attacks. In a fit of postmodernism, we've gotten away from trusting any information source, and that might not have been a completely good idea. If you believe Linebarger (who went through the 1930s and 1940s and got to see and presumably write a lot of propaganda first hand), that lack of trust in our news paradoxically makes us more susceptible to propaganda attacks, not stronger. Apparently, if you believe that everyone's lying to you, for most people, the tendency is to believe what they feel to be true, rather than try to thread the mirror maze rationally. Linebarger believed that rational skepticism thrived on a bedrock trust of some source of information, rather than in an space where nothing was trustworthy. He based his belief on how well propaganda did in countries where the official media were in the government propaganda game and nobody trusted them.

224: milestones (graduation from school/university, your first job, your wedding day, birth of a child, death of a parent) can be encalsulated in a single parenthesized list because they're so ubiquitous that most of us have some experience of them...

Dear Charlie,

As I understand, for 90% of this planet's population "graduation from from school/university" is an unattainable dream (think about war zones in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq etc.) In fact, even the "birth of a child" may be quite problematic when US, UK, or RF planes are dropping cluster munitions on your village. Anyway, why are you so dismissive of the achievements of the lucky few, who managed to follow the path to so called "normal life"?


Ivan Belkin


Because people who are living reasonable lives make up more than 90% of the world's population.

Bear in mind, when comparing war deaths, that 150,000 people a day die from non violent causes (mostly age related)



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 3, 2016 12:29 PM.

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