Category Archives: fiction

General, non-specific fiction.

Lost in the Stacks 4: Writers and Readers

With the debut of HBO’s “A Game of Thrones” miniseries and a new article in The New Yorker, the strange story of George R. R. Martin and his fans has been on my mind. So, in this episode of Lost in the Stacks, we examine the weird, often dangerously codependent relationship between the Writer and the Readers.

What does the writer owe to his or her readers, if anything? What can the readers honestly expect of their writer? What promises, implicit or explicit, have been made, and what happens when they’re broken?

Join me for an interesting conversation, and let me know what you think!

George R. R. Martin’s homepage
Finish the Book, George
Is Winter Coming?

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Filed under analysis, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, George R. R. Martin, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading, writing

Lost in the Stacks 3: Women in Fiction

This week, Scott Adams handed the internet a firebomb and then complained when it went off. In a blog post (deleted from his blog, but kindly reprinted here), he compared women asking for equal pay to children asking for candy. It roused the ire of the ‘net’s feminist population – rightly so – but his reaction of, “You’re just not smart enough to get it” was the icing on the cake.

Yes, ma'am....

But some good did come out of it – I started thinking about female characters in fiction. What difficulties do writers have in creating female characters, and why? How can we go about making sure that more writers do a better job at writing women?

It was an interesting topic to talk about, and I’m sure I made some mistakes or omitted some important details somewhere. After all, from my testiculated point of view, I’m bound to overlook something, so give the show a listen, drop me a comment and let me know!

Some links of interest:

Comics Alliance – ‘Dilbert’ Creator Scott Adams Compares Women Asking for Equal Pay to Children Demanding Candy
Feministe – Scott Adams’ alleged response to criticism
OverthinkingIt.com – The Female Character Flowchart
OverthinkingIt.com – Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women
Feminist Frequency – The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies
The Bechdel Test Movie List

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Filed under analysis, fantasy, fiction, gender roles, Lost in the Stacks, science fiction, Scott Adams, women, writing

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
The Ghost Brigades on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s Blog

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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 104: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Remember – go and take the listener survey! The gods command you!)

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

This is the second of the Dirk Gently books – and the final one – and is no easier to explain than the first. But I’ll try.

Ah, just like college.... (photo by Gene Han)

In this story, Dirk is contracted to meet a client one morning at 6 AM, and play bodyguard. The time is vital. The client has made it a point that Dirk absolutely, positively has to be there by six, and he’s willing to pay handsomely for it. So when Dirk wakes up at 11 AM, he suspects that he’s screwed up royally.

His suspicions are confirmed when he arrives at the home of his client, who is sitting quite comfortably in an armchair while his head is rotating slowly on a nearby turntable. The only clues to his grisly demise are his ravings about a green, scythe-wielding monster and a mysterious packet of papers, written in a language that Dirk cannot begin to understand. But he does know their shape – they’re a bill. But for what services, and rendered by whom? So now Dirk has to figure out who, or what, did this to his client and why.

But there’s more to this story (isn’t there always?) An American woman, Kate Schechter, is one of the survivors of the explosion of an airline ticket counter, something that everyone who knows about explosions is calling an “act of god.” But which god would do such a thing, and why? Lucky for her, Kate is about to find out, and she’s also about to find out why gods aren’t quite all they’re cracked up to be.

This, of course, does not happen in the book. I needed a picture of Thor that wasn't the super-hero.... (art by Boris Vallejo)

There aren’t a lot of greater themes in this book – it’s an adventure, of sorts, but as far as overarching messages go, it’s pretty thin other than watch out for eagles and be nice to homeless people. It’s entertainment as only Douglas Adams can deliver it. There is some thought given to gods, however, which is a topic I always enjoy. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett asks where gods come from, and what sustains them. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman asked the question of what happened to gods who were brought to America by their believers. Adams asks what happens to gods once we don’t actually need them anymore.

We made them, after all, and most of the time we made them immortal. We needed gods to be bigger than we, stronger than we, and generally everything we weren’t. And then we went around infusing them with humanity – with jealousy, courage, rage and fear. When we were done with them, we let them go. But that didn’t mean they went away. An immortal is an immortal, and without work to do or followers to deal with, what is a god to do? In the case of Odin, the father of gods and the ruler of the Norse pantheon, the solution is very simple. What’s more, it keeps him pampered and cared for, which is all he ever really wanted.

While I love Hitchhiker’s Guide first and foremost among Adams’ works, I really wish he could have lived to write more Dirk Gently books. The character is a person of reprehensible ethics and somewhat tarnished morals, but you can’t help but love him. Lurking refrigerators, coffee-thievery and all, you find yourself wishing that you could hang out with Dirk, while at the same time knowing that he’d probably invite you out for lunch and somehow make you pay for the meal. He’s a bad person, but an excellent detective – and a great character.

So pick this one up and give it a read. It’s fast, it’s fun – you won’t regret it.

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“Nobleness was one word for making a fuss about the trivial inevitabilities of life, but there were others.”
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul on Wikipedia
Douglas Adams on Wikipedia
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul on Amazon.com
The Douglas Adams Homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, Douglas Adams, fantasy, fiction, gods, humor

Review 83: Crooked Little Vein


Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

The world is a weird place. This is as true now as it was fifty years ago, but there’s one big difference between us here in the twenty-first century and our primitive twentieth-century forebears: they didn’t have the internet.

With the democratization of information, what was once only whispered about is now available to anyone who wants to see it. What few people knew, they can now share with the world. This is certainly true of science and history, culture and arts, but what concerns most people on the internet is not the finer, more cerebral aspects of culture.

It’s the porn.

Have you heard of Rule 34, for example? The Rule states that, if it exists then there is porn of it somewhere on the internet. Remember your favorite childhood TV show? The one that you used to look forward to every week, and which perhaps you watched with your parents and/or siblings? You have fond memories of those times, I’m sure, and cherish the characters in your heart – characters that you grew to love and thought of as, dare I say it, family.

Well somewhere on the internet there’s a picture of them engaged in acts that would make the Baby Jesus weep. Weep, I tell you. [1]

And that’s not the worst of it. Warren Ellis is arguably one of the current superstars of the internet, with a huge online following. He produces content every day, and it’s followed by thousands of readers all over the world. Much of the time it’s talk about fiction and the industry of fiction, perhaps promoting up and coming artists or talking about the projects he’s working on. Sometimes it’ll be a commentary on the World Today, though that’s less often. His output is varied and always interesting, and occasionally comes with a link that says, simply, “Don’t look.

You looked, didn’t you? Serves you right.

Well when Warren sends one out, the consequences are much more severe. He links to people who are doing things – usually to their bodies – that I would shudder to describe. There are graphic photographs and descriptions by people who willingly cut, mar, mark and sever things that (in my opinion) really shouldn’t be cut, marred, marked or – and I’d like to stress this – severed. Should you be so brave as to click on one of Warren’s links (these days usually reading as, “Conan! What is best in life?“), you will see something that you probably never wanted to see, and which you most certainly cannot un-see.

Keep in mind that Warren doesn’t create these people. He doesn’t find them and put them on the internet, unless he is far, far more diabolical than we give him credit for. He simply shows us where they are and lets us make up our own minds. To look, or not to look. To condemn, or not to condemn. Regardless, what he’s showing us is a side of the world that most of us never knew existed, and were probably happy to have been ignorant of. The question then becomes, what are we going to do about it?

In his book, Crooked Little Vein, the U.S. government has the answer to the rising tide of deviation that seems to have engulfed the country in the latter days. There exists a book – a Secret Constitution of the United States. It was allegedly bound in the skin of an extraterrestrial and is weighted with exotic meteorite stones. The act of opening the book creates a sonic pulse that resonates with the human eyeball and forces you to read it. In it you will find the secret Constitution and its twenty-three invisible amendments that tells Presidents what the true intent of the Founders was. For nearly two centuries this hidden document governed the country, until it was lost in the 1950s. Since then, America has slid into perversion and degradation, and the White House Chief of Staff wants private investigator Michael McGill to track it down.

For his part, McGill wants nothing to do with it. Despite the huge amount of money that he stands to earn, he knows that taking this case will refocus the Universe’s attention on him and he’ll start to draw the freaks like iron filings to a magnet. And since finding the book is all about stopping the freaks, Mike is in for all of the weirdness that America can throw at him. Before he can find the book, Mike will have to confront the twisted, kinky and perverted side of the country and decide what is to become of it.

This book works on a lot of layers. For one, it’s a fun read, and you’ll probably get through it pretty quickly. Ellis is an accomplished writer, with a vivid imagination and an excellent ear for dialogue. He also has a very good sense of written rhythm, which probably comes from his main gig as a writer of comic books. Some of the chapters are single sentences, meant to be read and absorbed in a moment, but also to be thought on. When you get to Chapter 6, which simply reads, “I wish I still had that photo,” you’re meant to take a moment to think about what that means, both to the character and to the story.

What this means is that not only does Ellis know that he’s telling us a story, he’s vividly aware of the medium through which he is doing it and exploits that very well. It shows an awareness that most authors lack, or at the very least don’t often take advantage of.

I have only one nit to pick about Ellis’ writing, though, and I’m sure he will subject me to Horrors the likes of which you cannot fathom for pointing them out, but not to do so would mean I was shirking in my duties. This is how much I love you all.

While it is set in the United States, and is something of a dirty love letter to the country, there is a distinctly British English tone to some of the writing. Not too much, just enough to make you notice, if you’re the kind of person who notices these things. His narrator uses the verb “trod” at one point, as in “I trod on her foot,” which doesn’t sound very American to my ears. Likewise, he refers to wainscot and leatherette, words which ring with a certain amount of Britishness. Maybe it’s just me, but they kind of stood out. Your experience may vary. [2]

Anyway, beyond the simple entertainment of reading the book, there are some very real things to think about in there. For example, in an age where anyone can put up a webpage, what does it mean to be “mainstream?” What’s more, what does it mean to be “underground” these days? Fifty years ago, homosexuality was something that most decent, God-fearing people didn’t even know about, much less experience. Now there are openly gay actors, athletes and politicians, and the “gay next-door neighbor” is already a character so common that it’s become a cliche. Is S&M, for example, “underground” when we’ve been making jokes about it in TV and movies for years? How about swingers? Hell even the pedophiles are mainstream, which you’d know if you were a viewer of Family Guy. How long with it be until we see saline injection fetishists, macroherpetophiles or functioning heroin addicts as being simply part of the endlessly variegated crazy quilt that is American culture?

What’s more, should we allow all these people into the cultural mainstream? Is there a kink limit for society? Is there something that people can do to themselves, or to other consenting adults, that is just so Out There that we have to draw the line and say “No further, weirdo!” For those of us who are a bit more open-minded than most, can we turn around and decry the whitebread people who like their vanilla lives and sexual predictability?

Who will make that judgment call, and how? In this book, it’s the U.S. Government that’s trying to do it, and they’ll roll the country back to the Fifties if they can. One of the wonderful and scary things about living in the Internet Age is that these cultural rules have yet to set in. We’re looking around and seeing all the strangeness that we never knew was there and deciding in the moment what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Should we appreciate these unusual practices for their creativity and for the flavor they lend our culture, or should we snuff them out in the name of some notion of “Decency?”

Ellis’ answer is pretty clear once you get through the book, and I have to agree with him. I’ve always been on the side of personal liberty, so long as you’re not hurting anyone who doesn’t want to get hurt. As for those of us who might be a little weirded out by knowing what it is that people get up to in their bedrooms, remember – you don’t have to click on the link.

Either way it’s a serious philosophical issue for the 21st century, and Ellis has done a very fine job of presenting it to us. Beyond the book, I have no doubt he will continue to do so.

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“You don’t get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you’ve got America.”
– Mike McGill, Crooked Little Vein
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[1] Rule 35, by the way, states that the if no porn is found of it, it will be made.

[2] Warren’s eels are doubtless on their way for me now. Run! Save yourselves!!

Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on Amazon.com
Warren Ellis’ homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, fiction, sexuality, The United States, Warren Ellis

Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

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“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
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Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com

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Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel

Review 45: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What is there to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? I mean, it’s one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the last fifty years, and is considered a classic of American literature. It’s required reading in nearly every high school in America – and at the same time it’s a regular guest on the American Library Association’s “Most Banned Books” list.

A lot of minds, many better than mine, have turned their thoughts to this book, and have no doubt picked every last shred of meaning, metaphor and symbolism from it. So what’s left for me to say about it? Sure, I can talk about how it’s a classic coming-of-age tale, about how Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small, insular town in Alabama, saw her world shaped and changed by the goodness and integrity of her father, Atticus. We can look at the family dynamics of the story – a family without a mother, save for the surrogate matriarch roles played first by the maid, Calpurnia, and then by Aunt Alexandria, Atticus’ sister. We can analyze how the power in that family structure changes and shifts, and ultimately rests in Atticus’ capable hands.

Or we can look at the elements of symbolism in the book – the mad dog, foreshadowing the vicious Bob Ewell, whose hatred for Atticus costs him his life. Or the title, as we wonder throughout the book, “Who is the mockingbird?” Is it a person, even, or could it be something as intangible as Innocence? Of course we find out, in the end – it’s the shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, who must be protected as a mockingbird would be.

And who is Boo, anyway? What does he mean to the America of the 1930s, in which the book was set? Or the 1960s, in which it was published? Or the Aughts, in which I’m reading it? Is he a metaphor for America at that time, too consumed by its troubles to venture out, yet willing to protect those it holds dear, an intentional foreshadowing of the Great War that lays only six years in the future? Or is he the ghostly antithesis of Atticus Finch, a man who does the right thing only once in his life, rather than every day?

It’s also a defense of the American legal system. The trial of Tom Robinson is hopelessly unwinnable, but Atticus knows that it is something to be marveled at that Tom even gets a chance. A thin chance, yes, but in so many other times and places, Tom would have just been killed right on the scene of his alleged crime, and no one would have done anything about it. But in America, the courts are the great levelers. Even a black man, who in that time and that place was a citizen only on sufferance, can still have his day in court. He had very little chance, but with a lawyer like Atticus, who believes wholeheartedly in the purity of Law, he had a better chance than most. “Our courts have their faults,” he says, “as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.” Without this system, however, even a man of Atticus’ talents and integrity wouldn’t have been able to help Tom Robinson.

I guarantee – someone, somewhere has thought about all of these things, and has probably written more about them than I ever could. And with more passion and skill. So I’ll just write about what the book made me think, and hope I can put that into words that sound good to all of you.

I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.

As much as the book may be narrated by Scout, and Boo Radley haunts it like an unquiet ghost, the story is about Atticus – a good man in a small town who tries to do everything he can to make his part of the world a better place.

The central event of this book, which echoes from first page to last, is a trial in which Atticus has to do an impossible thing – defend a black man from charges of raping a white woman. By taking this case, Atticus knowingly risks his reputation, his safety and his life, as well as those of his family. It’s hard for us here, in an age when the United States has a black President, to truly understand just how racially broken the country used to be. Not that everything is hunky-dory now – anyone who claims that the election of President Obama somehow solved the problem of race in America has a lot of re-thinking to do. But it was so much worse back then.

Atticus Finch is a man with an unshakable moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to make sure he does the right thing. He knows that he is a role model not only for his children, but for the people of his town – in several parts of the book, he’s likened to a savior.”We are so rarely called on to be Christians,” says Miss Maudie, a rather progressive neighbor of the Finch’s, “but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” He exhorts his children to spend time in another’s skin, to really look at the world from their perspective, in order to understand why they do what they do. He values intellect and reason over emotion and fighting, but is not afraid to take action when it’s absolutely necessary. He bears an immense responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the people of his town – black and white – but for his family, that he may raise his children to be good people as well.

Probably my favorite Atticus moment in the book comes in chapter eleven, with the redemption of Mrs. Dubose. A cantankerous old woman living down the street, Mrs. Dubose is a terror to Scout and her brother Jem. She eventually provokes Jem into a fury, whereupon he destroys her camellias, the punishment for which is that Jem must go to her home and read to her for a month. He does, as he’s Atticus’ son and therefore keeps his promises, but it’s not a pleasant duty. She drifts off into nearly comatose states by the end of their reading sessions, which last longer and longer as what Jem believes must be further punishment for his crime.

It is only later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, that Atticus reveals the real reason Jem was sent to go read to her – so he could help her overcome a crippling morphine addiction before she died. She wanted to die free of her burden, and Atticus wanted his son to see what it means to truly be brave. It was important that Jem understand, before the trial got into full swing, that, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Mrs. Dubose won, thanks to Atticus, and his son learned what it means to be brave.

The only real criticism I can think of with regards to Atticus Finch is that he’s too good. It’s hard to find a flaw in the man, other than his nearly unbending insistence on doing the right thing, even if it should put his family in danger. He’s kind of like Superman in that regard – his greatest flaw is his unwillingness to compromise on what is right, even if it hurts those close to him.

Of all the flaws one could have, though, that’s not too bad.

I am reminded that one of the greatest questions of philosophy is “Why should we do good?” Atticus knows why. Because it’s the only thing he can do and still live with himself. He doesn’t need to justify what he does to anyone else. He doesn’t need to convince anyone that he’s doing what is right. He only needs to convince himself. As long has he can look his children in the eyes, he knows that what he’s doing is right, and that’s all he requires. And perhaps he is an idealist, yes. But he’s an idealist who lives up to his ideals, who lives through those ideals every day. He knows that what he does won’t necessarily change his little town, much less the world, but he does it anyway. Because that’s what living a good and honest life means, and that’s what I learned from Atticus Finch.

What surprises me, honestly, is that this is the only book Harper Lee’s written. It’s so rich, so gripping, just so damn good that it’s hard to believe she never had another story she wanted to tell. Her entry in Wikipedia says that she’s written some essays and started a few novels, but never finished them, which saddens me. But then, perhaps some writers have countless stories in them – some of them great, some of them not – and others just have one. And in Lee’s case, it was a humdinger.

If you’re going into high school and you’re reading this – you will be required to read this book at some point. I know how irritating it is to be forced to read a book, and I know that anything an adult tells you is good must automatically suck. Nevertheless, I’m going to ask you to trust me on this one and give it a fair shake. There’s a lot to learn from this book, and it’ll stick with you for years.

If you haven’t read this one since high school – read it again. It’s far better than you remember.

——————————————————–
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
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To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikipedia
Harper Lee on Wikipedia
To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon.com
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikiquote
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The Boo Radleys on Wikipedia

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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.

————————————————————
“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
————————————————————

Little Brother on Wikipedia
Cory Doctorow on Wikipedia
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Filed under children, Cory Doctorow, ethics, fiction, internet, politics, security, society, technology, young adult

Review 30: Fight Club


Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Well, now I reckon y’all have seen the movie, so there’s probably not a whole lot that you need to know about this book.

You know Tyler Durden.

He’s the Id, the unchained spirit that wants what he wants and he wants it now. He’s the voice in your head that tells you that everything is worthless, that chaos, death and the end of civilization would be better than anything our so-called “society” could ever create. He’s the one standing over your left shoulder, whispering “Burn it all down. It’ll be fun.” He acts in secret, he has an army of minions, and he has a plan.

Oh yes, you know Tyler Durden.

The narrator of this dark and strange cautionary tale knows Tyler all too well, and tells us of how he and Tyler tried to change the world. It all started very simply – with basement fight clubs where men could let out their rage and frustration on each other. There were very few rules to fight club, but that was okay. Rules were, in fact, the problem. The regimented society in which we live imposes constant rules on us – social rules, cultural rules, corporate rules – that tell us who to be and what to think. The rules of our society have sapped us of our strength and purpose, making us soft. Pliable. Weak.

But Tyler’s plan doesn’t end there – the fight clubs morph into Project Mayhem, a well-oiled anarchist movement, determined to bring down the very fundamentals of our society. With an army at his beck and call, Tyler is sure that his plan will succeed.

It’s a book with a couple of very powerful messages, one overt and incorrect, the other subtle and accurate. The overt message is Tyler’s message – we are a generation with no cause, no purpose. Our lives are governed by what we buy and what we wear, and none of us will die having done anything with our lives. In order to be Real Men, we need to strip away the veneer of civilization – our Ikea furniture, our make-work jobs and our cornflower blue neckties – and rediscover the inner core of ourselves. The brutal, unafraid, unapologetic beast that is Man.

This, to no one’s surprise, appealed to a lot of people when the film came out because it’s a very believable world view. Those of Gen X and beyond are reminded over and over again that the generations before us were the ones who actually did things. The Baby Boomers got herded into the slaughterhouse that was Vietnam, toppled a President, faced down the chaos of the Sixties and fought to change the world. Their parents, of course, were the Greatest Generation – a label that I have come to despise – who fought Hitler and freed Europe. Their parents struggled through the Depression, and their parents fought in the trenches of World War One.

What have we done? Until the beginning of the 21st Century, how had we suffered? What had we sacrificed? Not a whole lot, and I think a lot of us secretly believe that we’re not only not pulling our weight in the world, but that since we have not suffered, we’re not really adult. Our miseries have not been those born of chaos, war and destruction. Ours have been tiny, personal tragedies that are, in their way, insignificant.

I can see where Tyler Durden is coming from on this point – I do sometimes look around me and ask, “Where are our great challenges, our Normandy or our moon landing?” And I fear that without these milestones, my generation will never really be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, this is about where most folks stopped thinking and decided, “Shit, man, he’s right! I wanna start a fight club!” And short-lived fight clubs sprang up all over the country, lasting about as long as it took for people to realize that while Brad Pitt on the movie screen can get beaten within an inch of his life and still look cool, a normal human cannot. They missed the subtle message because it wasn’t one that they really wanted to hear.

The book is not about the triumph of nihilism over a consumer-driven culture. It’s not about being a Real Man. It’s not about being a unique snowflake or a space monkey.

It’s about overcoming both the desire to destroy society and the desire to be completely subsumed by it. It’s about the need for purpose, and the need for connection with other people, and what can happen when one is deprived of those things. Tyler doesn’t show up because the narrator is rootless or bored – Tyler shows up because the narrator has forsaken people for things. He has replaced personal achievement with material gain, and that’s not a very fulfilling way to live.

It is a cautionary tale for our generation – you are not your tragedies. You are not the club you belong to. You are not your scars. You are neither worthless nor undeserving.

You are what you make yourself to be, no matter what Tyler Durden wants.

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“If you could either be God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?”
– The Narrator, Fight Club
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Fight Club on Wikipedia
Chuck Palahniuk on Wikipedia
Fight Club on Amazon.com
Official Chuck Palahniuk Fan Site

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Review 09: The Man Who was Thursday


The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

I lost my backpack thanks to this book.

It was years and years ago, probably my first winter in Japan, and I’d picked up this book at Maruzen. I had heard about Chesterton, mainly from the dedication page of Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens (“The authors would like to join the demon Crowley in dedicating this book to the memory of G.K. Chesterton. A man who knew what was going on.”) and the title looked weird enough to be entertaining. So, I was reading the book on the train, as I often do, and I had my backpack on the floor between my feet. When the train got to my station, I stood up, still reading, and walked off.

It wasn’t until I had to put the book down again to eat that I realized I no longer had my backpack.

This was no small problem, either – the bag had a lot of important stuff in it, not the least of which was my Palm Pilot with all my friends’ addresses on it. There were also about two dozen Christmas cards in there, along with other various and sundry things. And it was a good bag, too.

Long story short (too late), I never got the bag back. The staff at my school, and even one of the students, were kind enough to call the Keihan lost & found a few times to see if anyone had turned it in, but with no luck. And whoever got it didn’t do the obvious thing and look at the return address on every single one of those Christmas cards, nooo….

Ahem. I’m over it. Really.

My point is this: beware the seductive power of this book. Beware the enchantments laid upon it, and the dreamlike web that it weaves. For if you let it, this book will enrapture you, and gods help you if that happens.

The story is one that sucks you in almost from the first page, when two passionate poets argue the worth and detriment of society. Should it be torn down, and let chaos reign in the world? Is order the true glory of humanity, the crowning jewel of mankind? Should the existing paradigm be praised or destroyed, and is he who advocates the path of anarchy true to that path?

From that moment, that confrontation of poet-philosophers, we are drawn into a dark heart of true anarchy, where no one can be trusted to be who he appears to be. And not even the protagonist himself can be absolutely sure where his path will end.

Needless to say, I think this book was awesome on many levels. The whole thing reads like a dream, moving in and out of locales with odd fluidity, and it’s honestly hard to put it down. It has a great cast of characters, each one distinct and interesting and worth your attention, and a great ending that, while not making a whole lot of sense, is entirely fitting.

What’s really interesting is the modern applicability of this story. Its major theme is that of law versus anarchy, and when Chesterton wrote this back one hundred years ago in 1908 the anarchist movement was seen as a real threat. These people were not the angry kids, spray-painting Anarchy signs all over the place and listening to punk rock. The fringe radicals of the Anarchist movement advocated violence. They liked dynamite and struck terror in the hearts of the citizenry, much in the way that terrorists still do today. And like modern terrorists, they were driven by a twisted and dark ideology which placed their own motivations above society. In the world that Chesterton has made, the Law is in a perpetual battle with the forces of chaos, the dark and shadowy enemies who are always out to destroy us.

Sound familiar?

The hunt for terrorists is a great plot for any writer, and hundreds of them – good and bad – have used this trope as a way of telling a story. Chesterton, however, reached into the heart of that idea and found the uneasy twist that we are not always willing to deal with. He found the Nietzschean paradox about what happens when you battle monsters, and saw that it could very well be true. He has shown us that it is dangerous to act without knowing the truth, even if the truth isn’t what you want it to be.

Neil and Terry were right – Chesterton knew what was going on. This book is just as relevant today as it was a century ago, even if Chesterton never meant it to be. No matter what the subtitle to the book may be, and no matter how he may have meant it, the book is still valuable to us. Well worth reading.

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“Blessed are they who did not see,
But, being blind, believed.”
– from the Dedication, The Man Who was Thursday
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G.K. Chesterton at Wikipedia
The Man Who was Thursday full text at Wikisource
The Man Who was Thursday at Wikipedia
The Man Who was Thursday at Wikiquote
Mercury Radio dramatization of The Man Who was Thursday (direct mp3 link)
The Man Who was Thursday at Librivox
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