Category Archives: ethics

Books about or featuring the theme of ethics.

Review 114: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The book that preceded this one was Old Man’s War. It was Scalzi’s first novel and I loved it. It had everything – high-end science fiction, philosophy, cool battle scenes and a protagonist whose sense of humor reminded me a lot of many of my friends. The book’s premise was very simple – why do we use young people to fight in wars? Because they have the bodies that work best for the task – strong, fast and generally resilient. But young people can also be rash, impulsive and generally ignorant of a whole lot of life’s complexity. If their physical capabilities were not an issue, then who would we want? Why, old people, of course. They have the life experience, the patience and the perspective to be better soldiers.

No.

So, it’s The Future. Mankind has spread out among the stars, and the Colonial Union is the political organization that keeps them together. Any government needs a military, so the Colonial forces make sure they have the best recruits, all brought from Earth. With some pretty high-tech jiggery-pokery, the senior citizens from Earth’s richer nations are made into lean, green fighting machines, capable of performing in ways that make the Marines of our day look like palsey victims. Their minds are transferred from their old, decrepit bodies and put into new ones, grown from their own DNA, but altered to make them better soldiers. It’s all very exciting and cool, but at some point, I suppose Scalzi asked himself a question: what happens when someone signs up at age 65, but doesn’t make it to age 75 when they’re supposed to start their service?

NO!

Well, we have all this DNA just sitting there, right? We can’t let it go to waste, can we?

That brings us to the Ghost Brigades, the rather morbid nickname for the Colonial Union’s Special Forces. Their bodies are grown from DNA whose previous owners have expired, and are modded in more extreme ways than the regular defense force soldiers. Then, when the body is ready, they’re woken up. An amazing piece of biotechnology called, rather whimsically, a BrainPal prepares their brains for consciousness, acting as a kind of bootstrap for the emergent personality. It tells them what they’re supposed to know, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of learning it all. And, of course, much more. The Special Forces do what the regular Defense Forces can’t, and act in ways that their more “ordinary” soldiers couldn’t understand. In Old Man’s War the Special Forces only came in at the end. In this book, as you might have guessed, they play a much more central role.

I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!!!

Charles Boutin is a traitor to humanity. For reasons known only to him, he has sold out the Colonial Union to its enemies, a troika of alien species that would be more than willing to wipe us off the map. The Defense Forces would love to find him, of course, but he’s hidden himself among the enemy. So they got the next best thing: a copy of his own mind that Boutin had made while researching the BrainPal.

In theory, it should work: put this mental backup copy into a “clean slate,” a body that has no mind of its own. A Special Forces body.

And so, Jared Dirac was born. Decanted. Whatever. It was hoped that when he opened his eyes, he would be Charles Boutin in a new body, and could promptly be interrogated. But it isn’t that easy. Jared Dirac is a normal Special Forces soldier, a blank slate who is ready to do the job he was, literally, born to do: keep humanity safe.

Art by Vincent Chong

He’s sent off to training, with the expectation that he would be just another Special Forces soldier. But he is, of course, much more than that. As his brain matures, the memories and personality of Charles Boutin come with them, and Dirac starts to understand more of what made the man turn traitor to his own species. This information could lead the Defense Forces to their ultimate goal, or to their destruction….

It’s a great book. Tons of fun, although the exposition is a bit heavy-handed in the beginning. There’s a whole lot of reminding about what you learned in Old Man’s War, and I didn’t really need it. That’s the thing about recap, though: if you avoid it altogether, you can confuse people who haven’t picked up the previous book in a while. Slather it on and you bore the people who have good enough memories.

Once you get past that, though, it’s straight on fun, with some pretty serious questions folded into it. One of the major questions raised in this book is that of identity – who is Jared Dirac? How can a being who is brought to full consciousness by an implanted computer be properly called “human?” It’s clear that he is, but a fuller look at the Special Forces – especially the squad known as the Gamerans – really does push the definition of “human” to its limits.

The Japanese cover to Ghost Brigades

It’s a very thoughtful book in many places, exploring the grey areas of not only humanity and “human-ness,” but also of the role of humanity among the stars. Explaining his reason for turning traitor, Boutin asks us to consider the entire purpose of government itself – how it operates, how much power it has and how much it should trust its citizenry. He fundamentally disagrees with how the Colonial Union goes about its business, and will do whatever he has to in order to set it on what he believes is the right path. And in the middle of all this is Jared Dirac, who has to actually start making choices in his life – something that Special Forces soldiers were never bred to do.

As with Old Man’s War, this is a great book to read, and I look forward to the other books set in that universe. You should too.

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“We don’t mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight. It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood.”
Lieutenant Jane Sagan, The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades on Wikipedia
John Scalzi on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, aliens, ethics, existentialism, fiction, friendship, identity, John Scalzi, military, morality, philosophy, science fiction, technology, transhumanism, truth, war

Review 113: The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

I really enjoy Richard Adams. Part of it is his writing – he has an excellent style and a definite gift for description. When he talks about a place, it is immediately obvious that he’s actually been there. He uses multiple senses to tell you what a place looks, sounds and smells like, the feeling of the damp earth and the rolling mists, the tastes that seep through the air…. Not surprising when one is writing a book where a pair of dogs are the primary characters.

And that’s another reason I like Adams. Lots of people write books about animals, personifying them and making them into almost-humans. But most of these writers tend to idealize the animals, put them into the sort of “noble savage” category which places humanity immediately in the wrong.

The fox is almost unintelligible. Enjoy that.

Not Adams. His animals are animals. In Watership Down, which was ostensibly a book for children, the animals live through fear, terror, despair and war. There is blood and death and pain, mostly because there is blood and death and pain in the natural world. He does acknowledge that he over-humanizes his characters, but without that, there would be no story.

This book is about the intersection of animals and man, and asks a very important question: what is humanity’s responsibility towards the animals? While he may not know what the true answer is, Adams definitely knows which answers are wrong. The book begins in a scientific research lab, in the quiet hills of northern England, where any number of experiments are performed on any number of animals. Some of them are paid for by outside interests – cosmetics corporations, for example – while others are performed to, in the mind of the lab’s directors, further the scope of scientific knowledge. Adams’ utter contempt for this kind of activity is immediately evident when you read it, and he spares no detail in describing what happens in these experiments. Animals mutilated, burned, shocked, frozen, exposed to poisons in their air, water and food. Kept awake, asleep, isolated…. all just to see what would happen. And when they die, they are disposed of with no more thought than one might dispose of a burned-out light bulb.

Like this, only worse.

One of the subjects is a large black mongrel dog which is being used to answer the great burning scientific question of, “What would happen if we kept trying to drown a dog but never actually let it die?” Rowf (having never had a master, his name is just the sound he makes) has a single companion in the lab, in the cage next to him – a small terrier who, having had a master before, has a name – Snitter. Snitter has been the subject of a far stranger experiment, and the brain surgery has left a deep scar across his skull and a deeper rift in his mind.

The two dogs manage to escape from the lab into the outside world, where they manage to survive, if only barely.

Poor, crazy Snitter....

And normally, that would be the end of the story. But then Adams reveals his antipathy for bureaucracy and the modern media, for where both of these intersect, terrible phantoms and ghouls can arise. Worried farmers, whose sheep are targets of the two hungry dogs, call their representatives to get answers from the recalcitrant lab. The ministers talk and talk about it, and when word leaks out to a well-known London tabloid, the story explodes.

WAS the lab not working with many kinds of animals the night the dogs escaped, it asked. Among those animals, were there not RATS? And were those rats not the subjects of tests involving the horrible BLACK PLAGUE? CAN the laboratory ASSURE the taxpaying public that there is ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE, none at all that the dogs are not infected with the virulent PLAGUE?

The newspaper’s answer, the one that will sell more copies, of course, is NO. And so, the two dogs, who were lucky enough to escape and canny enough to survive, become known nationwide as the Plague Dogs, subjects of a hunt which escalates beyond reasonable proportions.

Poor, miserable Rowf....

As much as this is an animal adventure story, a kind of twisted version of Homeward Bound, it is also commentary. There’s a lot of dog philosophy in here, for one of Adams’ gifts is being to get into the heads of the animals he’s writing. The two dogs agree on one thing – it is a dog’s place in the world to serve humanity. But how? Snitter, who’d had a good master once, believes that they are there to make humans happy, to bring love to a home. Rowf, however, having known nothing other than the laboratory, believes that dogs are there to be abused by humans for their unknowable purposes, and that by running away from the lab and the water tank, he has become a Bad Dog.

Also, looking at the world from a dog’s perspective is interesting. Snitter, for example, believes that the newspaper-boy delivers a paper to the Master’s house solely so the Master and Snitter can play a fun game. Isn’t that boy nice? And having known only suburbia, he is shocked that humans have ripped up the world and replaced it with all these green things and mountains and deep holes filled with water – which, of course, Rowf believes are used to drown unthinkably huge animals much as he was drowned. Adams asked himself the question, “How would a dog interpret the world?” and got a lot of great ideas from it.

And, as I mentioned before, there’s a lot of talk about humanity’s responsibility towards the animals. Should we use them for whatever purposes we wish? Of course not. Are we necessarily “better” than the other animals? More skilled, yes, more clever, certainly, but better? No. We are animals, and as such we cannot allow ourselves to place ourselves above the great interconnected web of life. We may never know what our purpose in Nature is, but we can know what our purpose is not.

Not quite the end....

One really interesting part of the book is a wonderful section near the end where the Writer and the Reader argue about the fate of the dogs. It’s a little meta-fictional, but it’s an acknowledgment by Adams that he knows how the story should end, and he knows how his readers want it to end. Reading it, it appears that Adams clearly thinks the dogs should die – not because they were Bad Dogs or anything like that, but because the vision of humanity that he constructed for the book demanded their deaths. Most of the humans in the story want the dogs dead, and letting that inevitable ending take place would be his way of saying, “See? I told you so.”

If I had to guess, though, he showed the original, “Dead Dogs” version to someone – his wife, his editor, his agent – and that person said, “No. Uh-uh, no. No no no. No.” And so Adams grudgingly breaks the fourth wall with a short narrative poem which is essentially him saying, “Fine, have your happy ending….” It’s a wonderful part, and I admit to getting a little choked up every time I read it.

Just a little, mind you.

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“It’s a bad world for the helpless.”
Mr. Ephraim, The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, animals, dogs, England, ethics, fantasy, friendship, media, morality, Richard Adams, society

Review 112: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A little while after I started teaching literature, I thought about what kinds of books I’d like to do with students in the years to come. The texts I did last year – Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories – are all well and good, but probably not what I would have chosen to teach. I wanted something that would speak to the students, that would engage with their lives, and which ideally was some good classic science fiction. So I went over to Ask Metafilter and asked them what science fiction they would recommend teaching to high school students studying English as a foreign language.

Child soldiers in science fiction are so cute....

Just about everyone mentioned Ender’s Game, and with good reason. It’s a good story, for one, and it addresses a lot of the issues that young people have to deal with that are often left out of the literature they have to read for English class. The adults in the book are like the adults in the students’ lives – slightly removed, seemingly omniscient, and not necessarily acting in their best interests, at least not as they see it. It deals with issues of bullying and isolation, of fitting in and standing out and accepting your place in the grander scheme of things. It’s about critical thinking and moral reflection, all wrapped up in the unending carnival that is youth.

In real life... not so much.

Ender Wiggin is, as our book begins, six years old, and he may be the last, best hope for humanity.

Ender comes from a strange place. In a near-totalitarian America, families are allowed to have only two children, in order to keep the population static. If a good reason exists, however, they might be allowed to have a third. That third is destined from the beginning to have a hard life, no matter what happens, especially if that third has been bred for a very specific reason.

Ender Wiggin is a Third. His parents had two children already – their son, Peter, and daughter, Valentine. Peter is a brilliant young sociopath, and Valentine is an equally brilliant pacifist. In ordinary times, either of them could have been an historical figure, but these were far from ordinary times. Earth is at war with an insectile alien race it has named the Formics (nicknamed “Buggers”), and has survived two invasions. Everyone knows there will be a third, and if they can’t fight it off then humanity will be scythed clean off the planet. The International Fleet needs a commander, one who has enough empathy to understand the enemy, but who also has the killer instinct to be able to wipe them out. Where Peter is too hard and Valentine is too soft, Ender Wiggin could be the one they’re looking for.

Almost makes me want to have my childhood stolen from me....

Young and frightened, Ender is taken off-planet to Battle School, where he and hundreds of other youths will take part in battle games to train them in how best to one day defeat the Buggers. While Ender knows that he’s been chosen, he doesn’t know why, and his experiences in the school lead him to wonder if being a Chosen One is really worth it. In game after game, Ender manages to prove his worth to the International Fleet by defying their expectations of what a battle commander should do. He is pushed to his limits and beyond by the International Fleet, whose motives and methods remain a mystery to him until he has accomplished their goal – one which he never even knew he was aiming for.

It’s a fun book, and a very quick read, and it’s one of those “I should have read this when I was a teenager” books. While I was never put in a position where my action could very possibly save the existence of all humanity, I – like every other teenager ever – had doubts about my place in the world. I saw the conflict between what I wanted for myself and what the adults in my life wanted for me. I was given responsibility that I didn’t want, and had to make a choice about whether or not I would live up to it. In other words, while the scale of Ender’s problems are much bigger than that of the average young person’s, they are essentially the same. I am fortunate in that Ender’s Game can work to explode a pervasive and not entirely accurate belief held by all teenagers everywhere, from the dawn of time until now: the belief that there is no one else in the world who understands what they are going through.

The big question then becomes, How do I teach this? What can I do to not only get my students to read it but to also understand its relationship to their own lives? However I manage to do it, that will hopefully reveal to them the whole point behind reading for pleasure: that you can look at a book or a story and say, “Yes – life is like this.” Not all of it, but you can find that moment, that point of any story that can connect what it is saying to your own life, and thereby learn something from it.

There are also a whole host of other issues that can be brought up with this novel, not the least of which is the systematic indoctrination of young people by their educational system. Perhaps a bit self-defeating, but the anti-authoritarian in me would be vastly entertained if I could somehow encourage these kids to look suspiciously upon the very foundation of the system in which they were currently residing. There is also the greater issues of how a society teaches its children, and the limited value of truth. We tell kids that “honesty is the best policy,” but this book blows that axiom away. If they had told Ender the truth about what he was doing and why, he would have refused, and Earth would likely have been wiped out. In the same way, how do we – adults, and especially teachers – lie to young people in order to achieve a greater goal? What value, then, do these lies have, and are they worth telling?

Even Peter would be helpless against the LOLCats.

We can explore redemption and atonement through Ender’s attempt to make up for the things he has done. Even more interestingly, we can look at Card’s prediction of how the internet would shape political discourse and how citizens can easily be manipulated. Peter and Valentine put on electronic personae through which they gain immense power despite their youth, using their own innate genius to spark debate on the topics that will achieve their own goals.

Outside the text, too, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between a work and its author. While Ender’s Game is a brilliant story that is so well-written that it is recommended reading by both Quakers and the U.S. Marine Corps, its author holds some rather despicable views that don’t seem to mesh with the message he has put into his book. I speak here of Card’s public denouncement of gay marriage, including accepting a position on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage. This group has made many attempts to block the spread of queer civil rights in the U.S., and it disturbs me that an author whose work I respect is spearheading the effort.

FINE. I didn't want to marry you anyway....

What, then, is my responsibility as a reader? Should I never read his work again, lest it be seen as a show of support for his politics? Can I even read him fairly from now on, or will I always be looking for that anti-gay undercurrent, perhaps where there is none? Or should I simply ignore the author and enjoy the work? There are a great many authors and artists who are in the same position as Card, and it is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are so many topics to mine from this book that I had to stop myself from time to time and remember to enjoy it, rather than make mental lesson plans.

In any case, if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I recommend that you do. If you have a young person in your life, see to it that he or she has a chance to read it as well. If you’re really lucky, it’ll foster a lifelong love of reading. If not, at least they might walk away with the understanding that their problems are pretty universal, and that, on the whole, things could be a whole lot worse.

They could be Ender Wiggin.

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“It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren’t for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn’t fight with honor… I fought to win.”
– Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game”

Ender’s Game on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Game on Amazon.com

I couldn't NOT put it in....

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Filed under brothers, childhood, children, coming of age, ethics, family, friendship, military, morality, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sisters, teenagers, truth, war, young adult

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
– Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Identity Crisis on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer on Wikipedia
Rags Morales on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer’s homepage
Rags Morales’ blog (last entry2006)
Identity Crisis at Amazon.com

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Filed under Batman, Brad Meltzer, comic books, DC Comics, death, detective fiction, ethics, identity, morality, murder, Rags Morales, rape, super-heroes, Superman

Review 54: Superheroes and Philosophy


Superheroes and Philosophy by Tom Morris and Matt Morris

So there you are. You’ve been bitten by a radioactive, alien wolverine that’s been cursed by a gypsy and struck by lightning and you have finally, after years and years of waiting, been blessed with super powers. You can do things no one else can do, and you can do them faster, stronger, better and in more spandex than you ever dreamed possible. Now there’s only one thing to do: pick a name, put together a costume and go fight crime!

But… why?

Ever stop and think about it? I mean, I know I would want to go out there and fight the good fight, emulating my four-color heroes, but… why? What is it about getting super-powers that makes so many men and women do what they normally wouldn’t do – fight crime? Why risk their lives (or the lives of those they love) in the never-ending battle against the forces of human (and super-human) wickedness?

For that matter, why should anyone, super-powered or not, bother to do good? It’s hard, thankless work, after all, and despite the old cliche, crime can sometimes pay very, very well indeed.

The fundamental question about why super-heroes do what they do is a reflection of one of the oldest questions in human philosophy: why be good? And the fact that it’s the most popular theme in this book of essays suggests that there really is no single, simple answer to that.

Mark Waid, in “The Real Truth About Superman,” looks at the greatest do-gooder of them all, the Big Blue Boy Scout, Superman, and talks about the philosophical journey he took when he re-invented the character’s history in Superman: Birthright. To sum up, he believes that the primary drive that puts Kal-El out in the skies is not so much a desire to help the world, but to help himself, for only by being a hero can he embrace his true nature. The use of his powers to his fullest is a demonstration of his Kryptonian legacy. To hide that under the bushel that is Clark Kent would be to completely deny that part of who he is.

And what of Batman, the poor, paranoid loner? When you think of the Bat, do you think of his friends? Probably not, but of all the best-known heroes, he’s probably got the biggest cast of confidantes – from his ever-present assistant, Alfred, to the unstable love of his rival, Catwoman, Batman has a tangle of friendships that normal people could not sustain – but that’s Batman for you. Always has to be better than the rest of us. In Matt Morris’ essay, “Batman and Friends: Aristotle and The Dark Knight’s Inner Circle,” we get a look at the traditional Aristotelian levels of friendship (those of utility, pleasure, and virtue”) and how the people with whom Batman surrounds himself fit into these categories.

The First Family of Marvel get their due as well, when Chris Ryall and Scott Tipton look at “The Fantastic Four as a Family.” In this essay, they look at the bonds of family, and what exactly that means. What is it to be “family,” and how is that bond so different from others? They see the Fantastic Four as an excellent example of how the bond of family (by blood, marriage, or other means) can transcend nearly any difficulty. But in the case of the FF, what is it that’s held them together for so long, despite numerous break-ups and substitutions? Is it Reed’s guilt over how he nearly killed the people he loved, disfiguring one of them horribly? Is it Ben’s loyalty to his friends that keeps the whole thing together, acting as a reminder of the price of failure? Or is it something else?

The book, much like the science books I’ve read, aims to accomplish something very important – to show that there are lessons to be learned from comic books, that they aren’t just mindless entertainment for empty-headed children. Questions of good versus evil aside, I enjoyed some of the more unexpected philosophical questions – what is identity, and how can we morally hold Bruce Banner responsible for the crimes of The Hulk? How does Barbara Gordon exemplify moral perfectionism, and of the female X-Men, what do they tell us about women and heroics? And is it ethically permissible for a hero to have a secret identity, the maintenance of which requires lying to the people she loves the most?

These aren’t questions that occur to the average comic book reader, I’m sure, but the average comic book reader should be able to instantly understand them. More importantly, he (statistically speaking) should be able to understand why they need to be asked. Super-heroes are us, writ larger. Their problems are our problems, only bigger, faster, and looking much better in form-fitting clothes. We must all struggle with the questions of doing good in this world, and how far our responsibility to the world extends. We all try to balance different parts of our lives, our “secret identities” that divide the different people we are from day to day. We ask ourselves about who we are, and what it is about ourselves today that makes us different from who we were yesterday, or ten years ago.

Classical philosophy suggests that humans all tend towards wanting to do the right thing, and I agree (with some reservations). The thing is, doing the right thing is often hard, and doing the wrong thing often is so much easier. In order to be good humans, we must ask ourselves these questions about right and wrong, good and evil, responsibility and plain old selfishness. And if Daredevil or Spider-Man, Wonder Woman or Barbara Gordon are able to serve as models for the best decisions we can make, then I see no reason why we should not follow their examples.

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“The more power we get, the more avidly we tend to serve ourselves, and our own interests. But this is where the superheroes stand apart. They realize that there is no real self-fulfillment without self-giving. They understand that we have our talents and our powers in order to use them, and that to use them for the good of others as well as ourselves is the highest use we can make of them.”
– Jeph Loeb and Tom Morris, “Heroes and Superheroes”
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Thomas Morris on Wikipedia
Superheroes and Philosophy on Amazon.com
The Morris Institute homepage

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Filed under ethics, Matt Morris, morality, philosophy, super-heroes, Tom Morris

Review 36: Little Brother


Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome when reading young adult fiction is the fact that I’m not a young adult. As most adults know, things look very different from this part of the timeline, and it’s often very difficult to remember not only how you thought when you were younger, but why you thought the way you did. And it’s not a matter of just denying the feelings and emotions of youth – it’s that we literally cannot reset our minds to that state. We know too much, we’ve experienced too much. The best we can do is an approximation of how we think we remember how things were when we were still young enough not to know better.

It was with this in mind that I started to read Little Brother, and while I thought the book was a lot of fun to read, it probably wasn’t nearly as cool as it would have been if I were fourteen years old.

Young Marcus Yallow, AKA w1n5t0n, AKA m1k3y, is a senior at Cesar Chavez high school in San Francisco, and he’s what we used to call a “computer whiz” back when I was a kid. Marcus has an excellent grasp of how systems work, and finds great pleasure and thrill in either strengthening or outwitting those systems. Thus, he is able to fool the various security measures in place in his school building so that he can do the things his teachers don’t want him to do – send IMs in class, sneak out whenever he wants, steal library books, that kind of thing. He’s a hacker supreme, a trickster, and a very big fish in his little pond. He’s so confident and cocky, in fact, that within twenty pages I wanted nothing more than to see him get his comeuppance.

Which is pretty much what happens. A series of bombs go off, destroying the Bay Bridge and killing thousands of people in an attack that dwarfs 9/11. In the chaos that ensues, Marcus and his friends get picked up by Homeland Security, taken to an undisclosed location (which turns out to be Treasure Island) and interrogated within an inch of their lives. They quickly break Marcus’ smug self-confidence and assure him that there is no way he can win against them if they decide he’s a threat to national security. When he is sufficiently cowed, Marcus is released back into the city, which has become a zone of hyper-security.

In this post-attack San Francisco, the police and Homeland Security have unprecedented powers to search and seize, access to every trace of electronic records of citizens’ movements and transactions. In other words, everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise, and DHS is confident that the security they provide is worth the loss of liberty.

Malcolm, of course, disagrees. His natural tendency to buck authority meets his desire to get back at DHS for what they did to him and his friends, and comes together in a plan to not only subvert the Department of Homeland Security, but to actively drive them out of his city. To that end, he creates a youth movement, powered by a secret internet known as the XNet and kept safe by means of complex cryptography. The youth of the city come together to cause chaos, to show Homeland Security that they are not all-powerful and that if anyone is terrifying American citizens, it’s not al-Qaeda.

In the end, of course, the good guys win, though not without some losses and some disappointment. Freedom triumphs over security, but how long that triumph will last is unknown. All we do know is that the right of the citizens to tell their government what to do – as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence – is maintained. So in that sense, all is well.

It’s a fun book to read, and I’ll admit, there were times where I could feel anger building and my heart racing as the story moved along. Perhaps that’s because, like Marcus, I have a solid distrust of authority. I don’t automatically assume that governments act in their citizens’ best interests, so in that sense, this book is targeted at people just like me. Or, if it’s a younger reader, at creating more people like me. The narration is well done, a believable 17-year-old voice, and it’s a pleasure to read. Moreover, it all holds together very well.

In some ways, this book reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Doctorow has clearly done a lot of research on security, both electronic and otherwise, cryptography, politics and history, and found a lot of cool stuff that he’s incorporated into the novel. Unlike Stephenson, however, Doctorow makes sure the story is more important than the trivia. All the cool stuff serves to support the plot, rather than having a plot built up around all the cool stuff the author’s found, which is what Stephenson seems to do a lot. So there are some asides where Malcolm takes a few pages to explain, say, how to fool gait-recognition software or how public and private keys work in electronic cryptography, but he does it in an interesting way and you can be sure that what he’s telling you will feed into the story sooner or later.

With a couple of caveats, and a pretty major plot hole, I’d be glad to hand this off to a nearby teenager and say, “Read this.” But the caveats are kind of big. So let’s get to them.

First, the plot hole, which bugged me from the moment I saw it. And as with all plot holes, I may have missed something, so let me know if I did.

After the bombing of the Bay Bridge, Malcolm and his friends are picked up by DHS and given the Full Guantanamo Treatment. While it looks like they were picked up randomly, the Homeland Security agent who puts them through the wringer implies that they were specifically looking for Malcolm and his buddies, seeing them as a very real and imminent threat to national security. My question is: Why? It’s never explained why DHS picks them up, nor why they treat them as severely as they do. If DHS knew something about Malcolm’s activities as a hacker, why weren’t we told what they knew? It looked like DHS was just picking up random citizens and trying to scare the piss out of them. Which, given the characterization problem that I will discuss later, is entirely possible.

Before that, though – this is a book of its time, and is ultimately less about Malcolm than it is about the time in which Malcolm lives, i.e. about ten minutes in our future. It was published in 2008, which means it was being written during a period in American history where the debate over privacy versus security hit its peak. After September 11th, after the creation of Homeland Security and the Iraq War, Americans had to answer a lot of questions about how safe they wanted to be. It was possible, they said, to be very safe, but only if we sacrificed some of our freedoms. Thus the no-fly list, warrantless wiretaps, and waterboarding. It’s a dilemma that mankind has faced since we started organizing into societies, and it seemed, in the opening years of the 21st century, that America was willing to give up a good deal of its personal liberty in exchange for not having thousands of citizens die.

Doctorow believes this is a very bad exchange to make, and has been publicly vocal in saying so. On Boing Boing, a webzine that is decidedly in favor of intellectual and informational freedom, Doctorow has repeatedly railed against ever-intrusive technology measures by both governments and corporations. He, and the other editors of Boing Boing, champion the personal liberty of people, both as citizens and consumers, and I tend to agree with them.

But that makes Little Brother less a book about the issues that affect young people than a book about what it’s like to live in a hyper-security culture. And that’s not a bad thing, mind you – like I said, it makes for a very exciting book. I just don’t know how long it will last once we stop having the liberty/security argument as vocally as we are now.

Which brings me to my other caveat, and one that bothers me more than the book being period fiction – bad characterization. Malcolm is great, as are his close friends and his eventual girlfriend, Ange. They’re real, they’re complex and they’re interesting. In fact, most of the “good guys” in this book are well-drawn. Depending on your definition of “good,” of course – after all, Malcolm is technically a terrorist, so long as you define “terrorist” as “someone who actively operates to subvert, disturb or otherwise challenge the government by illegal means.”

If Malcolm and his subversive friends are the good guys, then that makes the Government the bad guys, and this is where Doctorow falls flat on his face. The characters who operate in support of security culture, whether they’re agents of Homeland Security or just in favor of the new security measures (Malcolm’s father being a prime example), are cardboard cut-outs that just have “Insert Bad Guy Here” written on them in crayon. There is no depth to their conviction, no complexity to their decisions. Doctorow makes it clear that anyone who collaborates with DHS is either a willful idiot or outright malevolent, without considering any other options. He gives a little in the case of Malcolm’s father, but not enough to make me do more than roll my eyes when he came out with the hackneyed, “Innocent people have nothing to fear” line.

Any character who acts against Malcolm in this book (and, it is implied, disagrees with Doctorow) is a straw man, a villain or a collaborator straight from central casting with all the depth of a sheet of tinfoil. They are all easy to hate and make Malcolm look all the better, even though he’s acting as, let’s face it, an agent of chaos.

While this may make the story easier to tell (and, from my readings of Boing Boing, turning those who disagree with you into objects of ridicule is a popular method of dealing with criticism – see disemvowleing), it cheapens it. As much as I – and Doctorow – may hate the idea of security infringing on liberty, as much as we hate the reversals in personal freedoms that we’ve seen over the last eight years, and as much as we may want Malcolm to come out on top, it has to be acknowledged that sometimes people who want to restrain liberty aren’t doing it out of malice.

There are those whose desire to see a safe, orderly nation is so strong and so honest that they’re able to make the decision to curtail those liberties that make order harder to attain. And they’re not doing it because they hate young people, or because they’re some cinema villain out for power or just to see people suffer. They’re doing it because they truly, honestly believe it is the right thing to do. To write them off as “Bad Guys,” as this book does, is to ignore the reality of the situation and boil it down to an “Us vs Them” scenario, which is not how the world works.

Now it could be argued that this was a reasonable artistic decision – after all, Malcolm is the narrator of this tale, therefore we’re seeing things through his eyes and his perceptions. But that doesn’t wash. Malcolm is obviously an intelligent person who understands complexity, and if Doctorow had given him the opportunity to see shades of gray, he could have been able to handle it. More importantly, though, that argument is a cheat. A book like this is meant to open eyes and minds, and that can’t be done by reducing the issue to us versus them. Doctorow does his readers a disservice by not allowing them the opportunity to question their own attitudes towards the issue.

I really think the book would have been better, and had a deeper meaning, if Doctorow had made an honest attempt to show the other side in a more honest light. I still would have rooted for Malcolm, and hated the DHS, but his ultimate victory would have been more meaningful if it had been a fairer fight.

Of course, I say this as an adult, who understands things in a different light than a teenager. Perhaps if I had had this book when I was thirteen it would have changed my life. And despite my misgivings about the characters and the universality of the story, I still think it’s a great book and well worth reading – probably one of those books that will be a model of early 21st century fiction. Indeed, the core lesson of Little Brother – that citizens have the responsibility to police their government – is a lesson whose time has come. The G20 protests in London this year are a great example – many incidents of police abuse were clearly and unambiguously recorded by citizens armed with cell phones. The ability for information to be quickly and reliably distributed is the modern countermeasure against government abuse, though I doubt it’ll end as cleanly as it did in this book. Reading this book in the context of the last ten years or so gave me some hope for the power of the populace.

But it also served to remind me that I’m not that young anymore. The rallying cry of the youth in this book is “Don’t trust anyone over 25,” and I’m well past that stage in my temporal existence. The rebels of the day are young. They’re tech-savvy and unafraid, with nothing to lose but their lives. In this age of rapidly evolving technology, in a time where youth is everything, is there a place in the revolution for people who have advanced in age to their *shudder* mid-thirties?

Other people pull muscles trying to play sports like they did in high school, I have existential dilemmas reading young adult fiction. I never claimed to be normal.

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“They’d taken everything from me. First my privacy, then my dignity. I’d been ready to sign anything. I would have signed a confession that said I’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”
– Malcolm, Little Brother
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Little Brother on Wikipedia
Cory Doctorow on Wikipedia
BoingBoing
Download Little Brother for free
Little Brother on Amazon.com

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Filed under children, Cory Doctorow, ethics, fiction, internet, politics, security, society, technology, young adult

Review 28: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man


Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

This book probably would have enraged me if I hadn’t already more or less known what it was talking about. As it was, I was resigned and depressed.

The book is a short autobiography of an Economic Hit Man (EHM) who saw the error of his ways. The idea of the EHM, as he describes it, is to manipulate the governments of developing nations to accept huge loans from the IMF and the World Bank based on inflated projections of future income, under the theory that they would experience huge economic gains from the projects – things like electrical grid upgrades, roads, dams and the like. These nations would then become indebted to the United States and forced to give business to US corporations, thereby effectively putting that nation under US control. He calls it the Corporatocracy, and he was a part of it. He traveled around the world to manipulate cash-strapped world leaders into signing their nations over to the control of US corporate interests.

He describes himself as one of the earliest generations of EHM, the ones who knew exactly what they were doing. Perkins describes his entry and rise in the EHM world as a series of decisions inspired by coincidences, at least at first. His childhood was marked by clear class differences, growing up in a small New England town and going to school with the children of the super-rich. His family taught at the school, thus gaining him both entry into classes and a raging feeling of inferiority and anger.

After doing a stint in the Peace Corps, he was approached to work for the NSA. Following the NSA screening, he was tapped to work for MAIN, an engineering company who, in the 60s and 70s, was at the forefront of modernizing developing nations. At their expense, of course.

When Perkins was initiated into this world of money and power, he was explicitly aware of what he was doing: he would vastly overstate the economic potential of, say, a hydroelectric dam project, leading to the leaders of governments such as the Philippines, Columbia and Venezuela taking out massive loans based on expected future returns. When those returns didn’t come in – and they never did – they were forced to make concessions, which always, always benefited the interests of MAIN and other US corporations. By doing so, they became part of the American Economic Empire, without one politician ever laying a finger on it.

It’s considered the softest method of empire-building. Take a country that needs money to help its people, and arrange so that the government has to spend upwards of 50% of its GNP repaying loans. The people get nothing, a few rich leaders become richer, and US corporations spread further out into the world. All forwarding the cause of US economic interests. For Americans, it means cheaper gas, food and raw materials. For the corporations involved, it means higher and higher profits. For the people of the developing countries targeted, it means poverty and disenfranchisement.

The EHMs don’t always succeed, though – remember Panama? We had the canal, and made lots of money off it. Until the leader of Panama, in the 70’s, decided to take it back. Omar Torrijos was that rare breed of third world ruler who honestly wanted to help his people, and he knew that the best way to do that was to re-assert control over the Panama Canal. He knew what the EHMs were up to, and wouldn’t have any part of it. In his recollections of their meetings, Perkins sees him as the kind of leader every country should have, and it was his example that led him towards leaving this world. His example and, of course, his death.

When the EHMs fail, the jackals come in and people start dying in “mysterious” plane crashes. Torrijos was replaced by Manuel Noriega, who was in our pocket, but not quite far enough. He didn’t toe the line that Washington wanted, so we made him up to be the Hitler of South America, invaded Panama without cause (see, Iraq is not a new thing) and took him back to the US. The result? The canal is effectively back under US control, and any advances that Torrijos might have made are gone.

One of the reasons Perkins left the industry and wrote this book is because he’s worried about the future of the EHM. Not that it’s fading, but that it’s getting stronger. With the ever-increasing pace of globalization, governments are jockeying with corporations for power around the world, and the EHMs are coming with them. But the new breed is different. The people following in Perkins’ footsteps honestly believe that they are trying to help these beleagured countries They see themselves as part of a great march towards progress, never really noticing that the progress only really benefits them.

One thing I noticed about this book. While I don’t doubt Perkins’ honesty and intentions in writing this book, I do wonder how much of the “torn between two worlds” persona he adopts is honest. Throughout the book, he talks about his moments of indecision, of inner conflict as he tries to justify the things he’s doing. He talks about meeting dissidents in Iran, going to anti-American puppet shows in Bali, encountering supercilious Canal Zone residents in Panama, all of which serves to make him look like he’s much more thoughtful than the average corporate warrior.

Perhaps he’s representing himself sincerely as a person caught between his moral code and his pride. He did, after all, leave the business – and the vast amount of money and power that it offered him. But I kept thinking, how much of that conflicted feeling was real, and how much was remembered? It’s a small point, but one that kept nagging at me. It doesn’t add to or detract from his argument, however.

This is not a happy book, and it’s pretty likely to piss you off. It’s not about the US government, mind you – it’s about US corporations assisting the government in its imperial ambitions. It’s about the marriage of economics and governance and its dark, dark offspring….

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“Confessing a sin is the beginning of redemption.”
-John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on Wikipedia
John Perkins on Wikipedia
John Perkins’ website
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on Amazon.com

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