Category Archives: politics

Review 213: Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera 1)

LL 213 - Alera 1 - Furies of CalderonCodex Alera 1: Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

As you probably have noticed by now, I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The books are fun reads – fast-paced, gritty and realistic, while still maintaining that tarnished patina of fantasy about them. They have a great narrative voice and I could read them the same way I eat a bag of Doritos – all in one sitting, unsure of how it happened, but with less orange Cheez ™ on my fingers. I know for a fact that as long as Jim Butcher continues to write The Dresden Files, I will continue reading them.

At a certain point, I became aware of his Codex Alera series, mainly because he talked about them in author’s notes in the backs of the latest few Dresden paperbacks. I didn’t really read through the notes, usually because I was far too impatient to get into the next book, but I knew they were out there and that I would, sooner or later, have to read them. I also knew that they would be a different beast from what I was used to.

Not every story can be as inspiring as others...

Not every story can be as inspiring as others…

This series is Butcher’s real baby, as he tells us. From his childhood, Butcher was fascinated with high fantasy, the kinds of epic journeys that were made famous by people like Tolkien and Eddings, Zelazny, Brooks, and Weis and Hickman, to name a few. So, when he decided that he wanted to be a writer, it was on that kind of world-spanning, epic fantasy that he set his sights. He found what a lot of young writers find – that this kind of fiction is viciously hard to do well, and is really suitable only for writers who have either mutant-level innate talent or who have spent many, many years honing their skills.

Out of the process of working on his craft, of course, Butcher gave birth to Harry Dresden, which has certainly made the world a better place, but he never forgot his dream of writing an epic fantasy series. After much hard work, and what was no doubt a series of terrifying decisions to let it go public, Butcher published The Codex Alera, his contribution to the Sword-and-Sorcery genre.

It introduces us to the nation of Alera, an old and massive country build on swords, intrigue, and the strange talent possessed by most people to shape and control the very elements themselves. Within the very earth itself, in water and air and fire, trees and metal and stone, there are furies – spirit beings that can bend these elements to their will. The furies, in turn, link to a human, who gives them direction and purpose. A human in control of a fury is a force to be reckoned with, whether they are just bending a water fury to tell if someone is telling the truth, or compelling an earth fury to raise great walls in defense of a population. Most everyone has one or two furies at their command, and some of them have more. Young Tavi, living in the frontier region of Calderon, has none.

"We don't owe nobody nothin'..."

“We don’t owe nobody nothin’…”

Despite his disadvantage, however, Tavi is surrounded by good people. He’s been raised by his uncle, Bernard, who is the leader of their community at Bernardholt, and Bernard’s sister, Isana. Like all people on the edges of empire, the people of Bernardholt have learned to be tough and live without the security of armies or the support of central government. They take care of their own matters, thankyouverymuch, and don’t need a lot of interference from the rest of Aleran political society.

Unfortunately, of course, what they want doesn’t really matter. They soon find themselves at the heart of a violent coup, a plan to overrun the empire and topple its leaders. With the help of the inhuman Marat, the traitors to the First Lord are willing to sacrifice everything in order to save what they believe are the best parts of their nation.

Of all the themes that kind of got lost in this book, that last one is the one I wish had gotten more play – that sometimes people do horrible things for reasons that they believe are not only defensible, but actually good. The main antagonist, a man with the hilariously ironic name of Fidelias, starts out as a wonderfully conflicted character. He tricks his apprentice, the Cursor Amara, into traveling with him to the rebel camp. He makes an attempt to convert her to his way of thinking, and when she rejects a place in his coup, he reverts to Villain Pastiche – the former teacher who is very, very disappointed with his student, to the point where he just has to kill her so she won’t give away the plan. Fidelias travels with a sword-happy knight, Aldrick, who is almost invincibly good at what he does, and the knight’s lady-friend, a semi-psychotic water-crafter named Odiana.

He's an archetype we just can't quit.

He’s an archetype we just can’t quit.

It’s kind of unfortunate, really – I really wanted to be uncertain as to whether Fidelias and his crew were actually good guys, but I was pretty much convinced of their alignment within a few chapters. If I had one wish for this book, it would be that Butcher had kept me wondering throughout the book. I mean, it’s not impossible that the First Lord was deserving of being toppled, and that Amara had given her loyalties to the wrong man, but I stopped questioning that pretty quickly once Fidelias reached mustache-twirling levels.

In general, there were some parts of the story that I really liked, some that left me cold, and a lot that had me playing “Spot The Fantasy Trope” drinking game. Some of the best scenes were fast-paced and full of action, scenes that Butcher has always been good at. Whether it’s Tavi being chased by giant, heat-seeking spiders, or an all-out assault on a semi-impregnable fortress, Butcher does a very good job at controlling the action and making sure the reader knows what is going on where.

On the other hand, a lot of the narration itself, especially in the beginning, is way too talky. Probably one of the hardest things for any epic fantasy writer to do is to introduce his or her world to the reader in a way that is not only clear, but that also makes sense from within the story. Often characters spell out details of history and culture that they already know, and really don’t need to recap.

"As you know, the daily rotation of the Earth - the planet on which we live - makes it look like the firey ball of gas in the sky is rising."

“As you know, the daily rotation of the Earth – the planet on which we live – makes it look like the firey ball of gas in the sky is rising. In the east, no less.”

It would be as though I called my friend back in the United States and said, “As you know, President Obama, who was democratically elected by the people -” “Yes,” my friend says, “in a process that was established over two hundred years ago!” “Indeed,” I say. “President Obama – who is African-American – is thought by some to be Muslim!” “But he isn’t! He is a Christian!” “That’s right, a follower of that ancient religion founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ….”

It would be weird. But writers do this all the time, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction. And you have to feel a little sorry for them – they have all this information to give us, and no natural way to do it, because the residents of that world already know it. That’s why so many epic fantasies (this one included) tend to start in backwater, isolated regions, where people haven’t seen a tax collector in generations, and why the protagonists tend to be young, working-class people. They are the only ones who would need this kind of history recap. It’s one of the most common ways of filling the audience in, from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Star Wars, and Butcher is not an exception.

There is a lot of potential here, though, shining through all the weight that the first book of a fantasy series always has to bear. There’s a complicated political system that we have barely begun to explore, and the way that people and furies interact is shown to be very flexible and creative. As we follow Tavi through the rest of the books, we’ll get to see how someone without the ability to call on a fury might make his way in the world.

Also, I look forward to seeing Tavi grow out of his awkward mongoose stage...

Also, I look forward to seeing Tavi grow out of his awkward mongoose stage…

Incidentally, that is a place where I have to give Butcher credit. I seriously expected Tavi to finally gain his furycrafting powers in a big way at some point in the book, but he never did. For all intents and purposes, Tavi is a cripple in this world, and that is going to be a serious obstacle in his future endeavors. It looks like Butcher’s going to allow the boy to stay disabled, which makes for a far more interesting character in the end.

Anyway, out of loyalty to an author I really like, and in the hopes that he will be able to break the shackles of the Fantasy Formula, I will continue with this series. Don’t disappoint me, Jim….

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“Two days ago, I had a lot more sense….”
– Tavi, Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
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Filed under epic fantasy, fantasy, Jim Butcher, politics, war, wizardry

Review 197: The Long Earth

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

It is said that the population of the whole world, if packed together into a city of the same density as New York City, would fit into the current boundaries of Texas. This Texan mega-city wouldn’t be a pleasant place to live, and there’s the challenge of infrastructure and living space and waste management, but the point is clear: there’s a lot more space on Earth than we think there is.

True, a lot of it is unfriendly to us – ocean, desert, ice, mountains, New Jersey – but still, despite our habit of packing ourselves into tightly-bound metropoli, there’s a lot of room on this earth to spread out.

Now imagine there was another Earth just a step away. A simple exertion of will, perhaps aided by a small device that anyone could make at home with a potato and some spare parts, and you’re in a new world, untouched by human hands. You’d be standing in the same place you left from, but on another Earth. And if you don’t like that one, well, there’s another Earth just a step away. And another. And another. An infinity of Earths, each one so very slightly different from the one you left, each with its own story to tell.

I’ll take the fifth Earth on the left. It’ll go well with my living room.

With the potential for an entire planet per person, what would that do to the world? Who would go and who would stay? What would happen to the “original” Earth, or Datum Earth as it’s called in this book? The ramifications of the Long Earth are far-reaching and unsettling indeed, as is the quest to map it.

Of the people on Datum Earth, most are able to step with the aid of a Stepper, a small box that they can build from freely available parts using plans that were posted to the internet by a mysterious engineer named Willis Linsay. As long as you follow the instructions properly and to the letter, you should be able to step from Earth to Earth with ease and only a minimum of discomfort.

The first wave of devices were built by kids, prompting an initial missing-children panic as kids popped out of this universe with hastily-built Steppers, completely unprepared for what they were getting into. Soon, though, more and more people were stepping out, eager to explore these strange new worlds.

At the forefront of this wave of colonization were the rare few who could step from world to world without a Stepper. One of these is Joshua Valienté, who was propelled to fame when he rescued children from their first journeys on Step Day. Joshua is hired by the Black Corporation to explore the Long Earth. With the support of Lobsang – formerly of Tibet and now an artificial intelligence – Joshua is going to step as far as he can go and see what there is to see at the distant ends of the Long Earth.

And for every one of you, there is another one with a goatee.

This is a genus of book that I really enjoy – one that takes a simple, straightforward idea and tries to find all the angles of it. To that end, Pratchett and Baxter look at how the people, governments, and businesses of Datum Earth adjust to this new reality. And some of the questions are decidedly thorny. Is America still America on all Earths? If someone commits a crime in an alternate New York, could they be prosecuted by the NYPD? What happens to the value of commodities such as wood or gold when you have a nigh-infinite supply of it? And what happens to a nation when its people start stepping out en masse?

There is a sub-plot in the book, following police Lieutenant Monica Jansson, who becomes the law’s expert on stepping, with all the challenges that come with it. For example, what can you do to stop someone from stepping one world over, taking a few steps to where a bank vault should be, and then stepping back? How do you make a space step-proof against intruders? And what do you do with the increasingly disgruntled percent of people who can’t step at all? That’s to say nothing of the scam artists, the escapees, and the people who just abandon their lives to walk the Long Earth. It’s a concept rife with possibilities.

Each Earth is slightly different, representing an Earth that could have been. Some are steaming jungle, others arid wasteland and still others are lush and perfect for agriculture. There are animals that claim descent from the megafauna of North America, from our own ape-like ancestors, and from dinosaurs, and others still that are unlike anything on the Earth we know. On none of them, however, are there humans – only the Datum Earth has those.

You can have my gun when you pry it from Anton Checkhov’s cold, dead hands!

As great as the concept is, though, I found myself disappointed by the end of it. It seemed like Pratchett and Baxter missed a lot of good opportunities for the story, failed to fire at least one of Chekhov’s guns, and let the Datum Earth plot line with Monica Jansson go woefully under-explored. Furthermore, while the Big Bad at the end was certainly big, it wasn’t that bad, and it was dealt with in a rather perfunctory and, in my opinion, unfulfilling manner. The ending was flat, with a bunch of loose ends that really should have been tied up, and there was even one question that came to mind that seemed so painfully obvious that I was shocked none of the characters thought of it: the Stepper boxes refer to the alternate Earths as being “west” or “east” of Datum Earth, and are built with a three-point toggle switch.

If there’s a west and an east, how about a north and south? What if you had four choices from any given Earth instead of two? I can understand leaving that option out for reasons of narrative simplicity, but it seems like such an obvious question that I’m surprised it wasn’t even raised.

Overall, I think the book fell under the same curse as so many of Neal Stephenson’s works: an amazing idea, done really well until the authors had to figure out how to end the book. There’s no real climax to it, no sense of fulfillment and achievement. Just a feeling like they had to stop somewhere, so they did.

That said, if they’re clever, they’ll make this a shared world project. I would love to see lots of different authors take a crack at some Tales of the Long Earth, precisely because it’s such a useful idea. There are so many stories that can be told, including the ones that got short shrift in this novel. Let’s hope we get to see that.

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[Jansson] opined, ‘Oh.’ This response seemed inadequate in itself. After some consideration, she added, ‘My.’ And she concluded, although in the process she was denying a lifelong belief system of agnosticism shading to outright atheism, ‘God.’
– from The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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Filed under adventure, alternate earth, colonization, quest, revolution, science fiction, Stephen Baxter, Terry Pratchett, travel, world-crossing

Review 192: The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

I know, I was supposed to have read this, oh, back in 2007 or ’08 when everyone else was reading it. And I thought about it, really I did. But the cynic in me thought, “Come on – what do you think it’ll be? It’ll be a 400 page sales pitch about why he should be President.” I lost faith in our elected officials a long time ago, and if I wanted to learn about Obama, I would rather have done so from a third party, rather than reading a self-aggrandizing autobiography about how awesome he is.

In a way, my Cynical Self was right – this is a sales pitch for Barack Obama. I don’t know if he was giving the Presidency serious thought when he was writing it, but he could have re-titled the book “Why You Should Vote for Barack Obama” and it would have been perfectly appropriate. Given that he wrote the book after his exceptional keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, however, it is very likely that he wrote it with higher office in mind.

What an unpleasant little man he is…

The table of contents reads like a campaign platform, with chapters titled simply, “Values” or “Faith” or “Family,” and each chapter deals not only with Obama’s views on the topic, but his personal experiences dealing with it. In “Republicans and Democrats,” for example, he talks about how the Gingrich Rules bled out from Washington to infect his own state of Illinois, and how hard it was to get anything done when Republicans and Democrats viewed each other as enemies, rather than as different actors in the same play. In “Opportunity,” he talks about meeting the guys over at Google who can’t find enough American software engineers and the auto workers who can’t see their jobs surviving in the new economy. In “Family,” he talks about the challenges he faces as a political husband and father, and the more serious challenges facing other families around the country.

Make no mistake – this book is, first and foremost, an answer to the question “Who Is Barack Obama?” And it’s a very comprehensive answer. We get not only his positions on the issues of the day, but also his personal history (and how it informs his opinions) and a good sense of how the man looks at the world. For an angry, post-Bush Liberal, however, it is immensely, frustratingly even-handed.

You should see me – I’m grinning like an idiot already.

I’ll admit – if I’m feeling a little low, I think about my favorite things: a good book, a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, sunlight filtered through autumn leaves, and Dick Cheney in an orange jumpsuit and manacles, preferably tarred and feathered. With bells on.

It’s a natural human impulse, I think, the drive to give as good as you get, and after the last eight years of being on the side slandered every time it questioned authority; of being a supporter of elected officials who have been the target of right-wing vitriol since I was in college; of having to defend the idea that government can be a force for good against thirty years of the incessant, endless, Reaganite drumbeat of Government Is Bad, what I really, really want is to see some heads roll. I want shame and ignominy visited upon those who put their own twisted and medieval ideologies ahead of governing the country. I want to see talking heads and pundits begging on the streets for spare change while the rest of us soar into a utopia of rational understanding.

And Barack Obama won’t let me have that. Dammit.

There are a lot of people annoyed with President Obama right now, and not only from the opposition party. There are Democrats who are frustrated with his pace and what they perceive as his lack of action. All of those people really should have read this book before they got behind him. I’m sure they still would have thrown their support to him, but they would have known better what to expect – a centrist, deliberative politician who plays the long game in lieu of scoring empty political points by, just to pick an example out of thin air, sending Karl Rove to Gitmo.

Not a bad role model, if you ask me.

Throughout the book, he emphasizes that while he has indeed picked a side in our political system, he can also see the value in opposing opinions. He knows that there is merit to some GOP ideas, and that they have simply lost their way at this time. Rather than dismiss ideas that don’t match his own, he looks for where his ideas and those intersect, and tries to find some kind of common ground to work from, in the hopes that a synthesis can lead to good governance. He is constantly questioning his own assumptions and trying to examine his own biases, seeing the world in the manner of Atticus Finch. He admits that no real problem has a simple solution, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise. And above all, he knows that hope alone won’t make the world better. Only deliberate, consistent action will lead us to a better country. Hope merely points the way.

Reading this book is a glimpse not only into the mind of Barack Obama but, in some sense, into the mind of everyone who wants to occupy higher office. A great deal of the book focuses not only on his positions and how he has come by them, but what it’s like becoming and then being a lawmaker. He says near the beginning that it takes a certain kind of personality to make it this high in public office. “Few people end up being United States Senators by accident,” he writes. “At a minimum, it requires a certain megalomania, a belief that of all the gifted people in your state, you are somehow uniquely qualified to speak on their behalf….” Along with a burning ambition, he also admits to the other lodestone of campaigners: fear. “Not just fear of losing – although that is bad enough – but fear of total, complete humiliation.”

Describing not only the physical trials that are involved with becoming a Senator but also the emotional and interpersonal ones that come with it, my first thought was, “What sane person would choose this kind of life?”

Oh, the notes I’ve taken…

It’s an illuminating book in many ways. My Inner Cynic has asked me to remind you that this is a book about Barack Obama, written by Barack Obama, and is not necessarily trustworthy in that sense. But the things Obama said in here are very consistent with the things he’s saying now, as long as we control for new information gained between 2006 and now. If I learned anything from this book, it’s that I now have confidence that he’s dealing honestly with the American people (given a certain political value of “honest” of course).

While I still don’t know if he’s going to be able to pull the country up into greatness the way his advance press claimed he would, I am at least confident that he has the nation’s best interests at heart. I like a lot of his ideas, and I think he’s got a good vision for the kind of America that I would enjoy living in someday. He may not get us there, but he can at least get us started.

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“I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.”
– Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
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Filed under Barack Obama, memoir, politics, society

Review 191: The Great Derangement

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

There is an essential flaw in human nature that makes us think we’re special. It used to make us think that we were literally the center of the universe, which it turns out we aren’t. It makes us think that we’re all going to grow up to be movie stars and astronauts, which we aren’t; our children are all brilliant and well-behaved, which they aren’t; and that God is on our side, which It isn’t.

Oddly enough, though, there is one place where this boundless optimism is flipped on its head. Every generation is absolutely convinced that this is the nadir of human accomplishment, that we are well and truly screwed and that there has never been a more messed-up, terrible time to live. The past was better, we think, and we look back on the days gone by as a golden age when things were simpler and no one had the kind of troubles that we have today.

When you join us, all will be perfect. Join us. Join us.

Of course, that’s not true. We are healthier, freer, and generally better off than generations before us, who were healthier, freer, and generally better off than the ones before them, and so on. While things certainly aren’t perfect, they’re not nearly as bad as we like to think that they are. If people were able to look at their world with an unjaundiced eye and a fair heart, we would realize that and maybe start living our lives accordingly.

Of course, if we were able to do that, then Matt Taibbi wouldn’t be able to sell his books.

To be fair, the first decade of this century was messed up on a grand scale. Not the same way the 60s were, or the 30s, or the 1860s, but truly twisted and burdensome in their own special way. We had been attacked, seemingly out of nowhere, by a shadowy cabal of extremists who managed to make a laughingstock of our supposed invulnerability. We reacted by flipping out and invading the wrong country and passing reams of knee-jerk legislation designed to chip away at civil liberties wherever they could. Our government, when it wasn’t handing us lies that were about as transparent as a window where the glass has been removed and replaced with nothing but pure, spring-fresh air, was telling us that there was nothing to see here and that the best way to get involved was to go shopping. And if you did have to get involved, you’d better be with us.

Because we know who’s against us. The tehrists.

Overseeing all of this was a simplistic frat boy idiot manchild of a President and the band of Washington technocrats who had been itching to bomb the hell out of the Middle East since the 70s. The media, for its part, was playing along, doing what it was told, and making sure that the people, with whom sovereign power resides in the United States, had no way of knowing what its government was actually doing at any given time.

This could probably be a campaign sign for whatever politician is running near you.

Americans had been lied to over and over again for decades, starting with the post-ironic age of advertising (which Taibbi pinpoints as the Joe Isuzu ads) up to the utterly unswallowable “They hate us for our freedoms” line that we were supposed to believe when it slid, wet, horrible and putrescent from the mouth of George W. Bush. And then, if you raised your hand and asked questions about the story you were expected to buy into, people turned around and accused you of being a faithless traitor. So what are people to do when they can’t trust the narrative that their leaders are giving them?

Why, they turn inward, of course, and build their own narrative. Their own bubble, as it were – a space within which everything makes sense. Everything can be explained, people can be trusted, and all the rules work. It is utterly incomprehensible to outsiders, but that’s okay because outsiders are the whole reason the bubble exists in the first place. As Taibbi discovers, there is far more in common between the far right hyper-Christians and the far left conspiracists than you might expect, and that there are far more of them than you really want to know.

This book is basically two interwoven parts, with a few interludes to keep the story on track. In one part, Taibbi goes down to Texas, uses a fake name and gets involved with a Megachurch in San Antonio. He joins the church to find out what brings these people together in a time when the government and the media can’t be relied upon, and what attracts people to a life of fundamentalist Christianity in the first place. He goes to meetings where demons are cast out, to small group discussions in beautiful Texan homes, and listens to people explain why it is that they’ve given their lives to Christ, something that Taibbi would never do himself, were he not researching a book.

Woah.

He also finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of the 9/11 Truth movement, a group that believes that – to varying degrees – the Bush administration bears some of the blame for the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Some believe they knew about it but chose to do nothing, so that they would have a reason to launch their war against Iraq. Others believe that they directly caused the attacks, mining the collapsed buildings and aiming the aircraft. The more elaborate theories involve holograms, missiles and a conspiracy of silence that is continually upheld by thousands of otherwise loyal Americans.

Much like the fundamentalist Christianity, Taibbi immerses himself in Truther culture, trying to find out what it is that keeps them going, even when they – like the Christians – have no real evidence to support what they believe. Even moreso for the Truthers, there is actually a lot of logical, circumstantial and physical evidence that outright debunks their theories, but they soldier on anyway, utterly convinced that they are the only ones in America who haven’t surrendered to the lies of the political and media machines.

So what do these two groups have in common, and what do they say about America?

American politics are, generally, about Us versus Them. All politics, really, but we do it really well. The parties in power do their best to say that they stand for Us against Them, regardless of which party you vote with, but it’s become increasingly evident that the parties in power are not really for Us – they’re for Themselves. They push the same canned platitudes and wedge the same minor issues every election cycle with the sole purpose of keeping their jobs, and that is finally becoming evident to the public. Rather than governing, which is ostensibly their jobs, Our Representatives in Congress are doing what they can to help themselves, their parties and their friends, and this is more and more evident the closer you look. To have them then turn around and say, without a trace of irony, that they’re doing their best for the country they love, that they actually care about the concerns of the voter, is enough to make even the most optimistic Pollyanna turn into a Grade-A cynic.

“A riot is an ungly thing… undt, I tink, that it is chust about time zat ve had vun!!” – Inspector Kemp, Young Frankenstein

But rather than rising up as one and kicking the bastards out, the public turned inwards and went into their bubbles. If the game we’re playing is Us versus Them, then let’s do it right. Now we’re not just one group of people with a certain set of political views, we are the anointed of God or, depending on where you are, the only intelligent people in a world of sheep. And who are They? They are not just corrupt politicians. They are agents of Satan, sent to bring about the end of the world. They are power-hungry chessmasters, bent on ruling with an iron fist.

It’s a world view that makes sense to the people who have chosen to live in it, more sense than the “real” world does.

Now this book was written back in 2006 and a lot has happened since then, so it is very much a book of its time. Since then, we have seen our political theater change in many interesting ways, not the least of which is the Tea Party, which is kind of the coming-out party for a lot of the people who felt they had been left out of the discussion for so long. They’ve had their chance to incubate in the churches and on the internet, and now they’re out in force and ready to change the way politics works. A later addition to the party is the Occupy movement, bound together in its view of a nation run by plutocrats and their puppet government. They’re what happens when the Left sits in the echo chamber for a while.

Whether they will ultimately be successful is still up for argument, but so far, well… They’re all kind of freaking me out.

The take-home message from the book is this: There have been far worse times to be in the United States, and our nation has seen its way through far greater trials. But each one is different, born of different causes and with different effects, and we do not have the benefit of being able to look back and see how everything works out. It is much easier these days to find people you agree with and isolate yourself with them, and every time Congress or the President or the Media lets us down, it’s more and more tempting to do so.

HAVE YOU ACCEPTED JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR?!?!

But that way lies madness. The madness of an evangelical movement that is anticipating the end of days, the madness of a conspiracy of vast and perfect proportions. The answer is not to isolate ourselves with the like-minded but to seek out those with whom we disagree and make sure that we’re all living in the same world, no matter what it’s like. Rather than dividing ourselves into two giant camps of Us and Them, pointed and aimed by people whose only interest is in seeing us rip each other to shreds, maybe we can finally see what it is that unifies everyone.

Once we can do that, once we can fight the derangement, perhaps we can see our way to making our country into the one we want it to be.

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“Washington politicians basically view the People as a capricious and dangerous enemy, a dumb mob whose only interesting quality happens to be their power to take away politicians’ jobs… When the government sees its people as the enemy, sooner or later that feeling gets to be mutual. And that’s when the real weirdness begins.”
– Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
The Great Derangement on Amazon.com
Matt Taibbi’s blog at Rolling Stone

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Filed under american history, analysis, Christianity, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, memoir, nonfiction, politics, religion, society

Review 189: Men at Arms

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

When last we left our intrepid Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, things were looking up. This is a nice change from the gutter’s-eye-view we had at the beginning of Guards! Guards!. Things have changed in the time between books. The Watch has a new headquarters, much nicer than its old one, thanks to Lady Sibyl Ramkin, the fiance of Captain Sam Vimes. She comes from an ancient and respectable family, has more money than anyone else in the city, and loves Vimes despite his deep-seated curmudgeonliness, if that is a word.

What’s more, the Watch is taking on new recruits, as ordered by the Patrician. Ankh-Morpork is a city with a very diverse population, and the Patrician believes that the Watch should reflect that diversity. Now we have a Watch open to anyone – trolls, dwarfs, the undead, apes, women – who wants to join, or who doesn’t want to get their heads beaten in. Carrot Ironfoundersson has become a beloved figure in the city – he knows everyone and everyone knows him. All in all, things are looking up.

But there are those who are of a mind that things would be better if only Ankh-Morpork had a king….

Of course, some kings only make things nightmarishly worse…

This is a recurring theme in the early Watch books – the irrational need for royalty. Although, that’s not entirely accurate. Pratchett is a British writer, of course, and he’s got the Queen to look up to, but she doesn’t have all that much real power. Certain people in Ankh-Morpork are looking for a sovereign – not to wave at them and make a Hogswatch speech, but to actually take over their city. They hope, in their hearts, that a king will solve everything. In that way, this recurring theme is not so much about royalty versus populism, but rather the ability to control one’s own life versus allowing someone else to control it for you. The idea that one has responsibility for one’s own actions and well-being is dominant in the Guards books, no more so than in this one.

There is a man named Edward d’Eath, and he has a vision. He is the last of an aristocratic line whose power has declined in this age of guilds and merchants. He looks to the past and sees it as better, brighter than the future. He knows that, if he can just do one little thing, Ankh-Morpork – and he – will be restored to glory. That one little thing, of course, is to put a king on the throne.

Not just any king, of course. The fools who thought to use a dragon to set up a puppet king showed how ineffectual that would be. No, this would only work with a real king, a descendant of the ancient kings of Ankh-Morpork. Find him, put him on the throne, and everything will finally be set straight.

I like to imagine it looks like this.

Of course, that doesn’t work out nearly as well as Edward hopes. He steals a mysterious artifact to set his plan in motion – the Gonne. It is a weapon created by one of the most brilliant minds on the Disc, a man kept peacefully imprisoned by Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician. It is a device that should have been destroyed, but was instead put on display so that the Assassins, the bringers of death, could look at it and say “Beware this thing.”

Like I said, this book is all about making choices in life. Vimes is engaged to be married to Sybil Ramkin, and thus his days as the Captain of the Watch are numbered. He may be in a better position than he was in the last book – having someone try to kill you is always refreshing, after all – but he knows that the life he’s giving up, with all of its pain and trouble and heartache, is the life that he needs to live.

Corporal Carrot needs to choose how best to serve the city of Ankh-Morpork. He is an excellent policeman, probably the only man on the Disc who could get in the middle of an incipient troll/dwarf race riot and shame them out of killing each other. People do what he says – he is, in his own words, “good at being obeyed.” If he wanted to, he could run the city and the city would be glad to let him do it. But is that the best thing for the city?

How could you not trust a chin like that? (art by Simon Lissaman)

The troll Detritus and the dwarf Cuddy both have choices – will they conform to the ancient animosity that stands between their two races, or will they overcome it for the common good?

And then there’s the Gonne itself. As a weapon, it is frighteningly powerful – much more so than the standard-issue crossbow – and as a firearm, however primitive, it represents a vast escalation in the way violence is done. What’s more, since this is a fantasy novel, the Gonne has something of a mind of its own. Its wielders hear it talking to them, convincing them that the only thing standing between them and what they want are a few simple deaths – something the Gonne can easily provide. It even uses the old NRA saw verbatim – Gonnes don’t kill people. People kill people.

But people have a choice, perhaps more of a choice than the characters of these books do. The Gonne controls them, the trigger practically pulls itself, and when you’re holding it, you can easily understand how a simple shot, one simple thing, could change the world. For the better, of course – always for the better.

Pratchett’s views on guns and their efficacy aside, it’s a very gripping book. There’s the mystery of it, of course – who has the Gonne, and why are they using it – but it’s also a story about characters and the choices they make for themselves. My absolute favorites in this are Detritus and Cuddy. Trolls and dwarfs have a famous antagonism, stretching back to the ancient battle of Koom Valley (the only battle in the multiverse where both sides ambushed each other) and it would be very easy for them to fall into simple, culturally conditioned roles.

They’re better buddy cops than you’ll likely to see in the movies, anyway.

While it may be a cliche to say that they found common ground, learned to look past their own prejudices and learned to respect – nay, to like one another, that’s exactly what they did. It is due to Pratchett’s skill as a writer and as a creator of characters that we come to deeply care for this relationship, investing a lot of hope in it. We know that if Cuddy and Detritus can become friends, then maybe there’s hope for everyone. This emotional investment pays off, and Pratchett reaches deep into our hearts at the end, showing that just because you start with a cliche, it doesn’t mean it can’t have depth.

Of course, if you’re not quite as analytical as I am, you can still enjoy it as a good murder mystery. Watching Vimes and company piece together the crime is always fun, because there’s always a twist somewhere that you never saw coming. And Vimes really is one of my favorite Discworld characters – he’s cynical and world-weary, but he still has enough idealism within him to carry him through those times that look like they’re trying to kill him.

All in all, a great book and one that’s highly recommended. The earlier Discworld books are largely stand-alone, so if you’ve never read any of the series before, don’t worry – you can pick this one up and you won’t really miss anything. You may, however, find yourself driving back to the bookstore to get as many other Discworld books as you can. I’m just saying….

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Generally, I meet people before they’re buried. The ones I meet after they’ve been buried tend to be a bit over-excited and disinclined to discuss things.
– Death, Men at Arms
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Review 180: The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale

The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale by John Scalzi

In Old Man’s War, John Scalzi brought us a new future, vast in scope, amazingly advanced and yet horribly familiar at the same time. Humans have spread out through space, snatching up habitable planets as fast as they can and setting up new colonies to thrive or perish. Back on Earth, most of the population is fed just enough information about the greater universe to ensure a steady supply of colonists and soldiers, but not enough to make them aware of all the cool stuff they’re missing.

HELLO NEIGHBOR! DO YOU HAVE A CUP OF YOUR CHILDREN’S BLOO – SUGAR! SUGAR WE COULD BORROW?

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones out there who want this real estate. Dozens of alien species are out there, and most of them want the same worlds that we do. We – and they – will fight tooth and nail to get and keep the precious few worlds that will support life. Existence out in space is much like existence on Earth – a constant struggle for scarce resources, and the species who is best adapted to get and keep planets will be the one that, for lack of a better word, wins.

To keep human colonists alive, the Colonial Union has created the Colonial Defense Force. These soldiers, taken from senior citizens of Earth, are given new, superhuman bodies, terrifyingly effective weapons, and just enough training to make sure they can defeat the horrifying things that they are sure to face. John Perry, a widower from Earth, joins the CDF and becomes one of the few Earthlings to learn about the wider universe into which humanity has spread. Sarcastic and quick-witted, Perry learns a lot more than he bargained for – among other things, that his dead wife’s DNA had been used to make the Special Forces soldier called Jane Sagan.

In The Ghost Brigades, we follow Sagan through the shadowy and violent world of the Special Forces. Where the regular CDF soldiers have bodies that would make them superheroes on Earth, the special forces are on a whole other level. Grown from the DNA of people who did not survive to become CDF soldiers, the special forces are where the newest and most interesting genetic modifications are tried out. Better vision, faster reflexes, a nearly telepathic connection with their squadmates, and even in some cases whole new body plans are all options for the Special Forces soldier. They are single-minded, deadly, and proud, knowing their purpose in the universe almost from the moment of their “birth.” What they lack, however, is the years of living that ordinary humans have and all that comes with that. This makes the Special Forces even more separate from the rest of the CDF – human, but not quite, yet essential to the survival of humanity.

Jane Sagan is one of the people trying to find Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist who has vanished, taking a dangerous amount of information on the CDF’s mind transference process with him. Their worst fear – that Boutin will try to sell that technology to their enemies – isn’t even close to how bad the truth is. Boutin hates the Colonial Union with a passion and devises a plan that will make all human colonies everywhere completely vulnerable to attack. When he dies, the only thing Jane and her squad can do is escape, but not before saving Boutin’s young daughter, Zoë, from the terrifying Obin. More on them later, though.

It’s… It’s a space thing.

Their days of adventuring over, Perry and Sagan marry, creating a partnership that sounds impossible, if you stop to think about it for too long – a man well into his 80s, with the body of a 30-year-old, marrying a woman cloned from the DNA of his former wife, and who is technically still too young to get a driver’s license. They love each other, though, and are willing to bring Zoë into their family. Following their discharge from the CDF, they got new, normal bodies and accepted a position on the oddly-named colony world of Huckleberry. In the town of New Goa, John is the ombudsman, which means having to deal with all the petty problems that come with a small town, and Jane is the constable. They live with Zoë and her two Obin bodyguards in what could certainly be considered a good life.

So you know that won’t last.

They are tapped to lead a new colony – a new type of colony, actually. Whereas previous colonists had all come from Earth, the new colony of Roanoke will be founded by representatives from ten of the oldest human colonies. It’s a second generation colonization, which would be a fantastic milestone if it weren’t for one tiny little detail: the Conclave.

Having been willing to fight pretty much everyone in their area of space, the Colonial Union hasn’t made many friends. In fact, they have damn few. Their enemies, sensing a common threat, have banded together into an organization called The Conclave, which is working to end interplanetary war through a representative government of sorts. One of their first acts was to forbid colonization by any non-Conclave members. Unauthorized colonies that resist the Conclave are vaporized.

Humanity, always the contrarians, wants to flout the Conclave’s rule and undermine its presumed authority. Thus begins an intricate web of deception and misinformation and scheming that all centers around the colonists at Roanoke, who know nothing of what’s going on over their heads. There are a few clues, though, and when John starts pulling at loose threads, a whole tapestry of intrigue is revealed to him. Roanoke may be vital to the survival of humans in space, but that doesn’t mean that the colony itself has to survive.

The reason I’m putting these two books together is because they’re really one book. The Last Colony is a fantastic read, where every time the plot turns it’s like a punch in the gut. The tension never really lets up, and every time we think things are going to get better, that’s the cue for them to get a whole lot worse.

Taking narrative shortcuts makes the Baby Jesus cry, Johnny!!

After finishing the book, however, Scalzi got a light wrist-slapping by his readers for taking a few shortcuts. One is that an indigenous, intelligent life form is discovered on Roanoke, which cause the deaths of several colonists… and then they vanish, never to be seen again. From the description, they sounded pretty cool, and I was disappointed that Scalzi had just let them kind of drift away so quietly. The other problem was with Zoë – Perry comes up with an interesting end-run around the Colonial Union, one which involves Zoë pulling rank with the Obin, who revere her as the daughter of the man who gave them consciousness. She gets sent off with her Obin bodyguards, partly to get help and also to get her out of harm’s way, and returns twenty pages later with a piece of alien technology that just happens to be exactly what they need to win the final, climactic confrontation against the Conclave. The author knew he couldn’t put all that into the book without producing something of doorstop proportions, so he “did a little hand waving and hoped [he] wouldn’t get caught.”

This is what you get for cultivating an intelligent readership, Scalzi.

The other reason for writing Zoë’s Tale, of course, was that Zoë was a really interesting character. The daughter of a man who would have betrayed humanity, and at the same time brought consciousness to the Obin – a species that had been uplifted long ago to have intelligence without consciousness. The Obin revere Zoë, and would do anything to protect her. Under these circumstances you might think that she would grow up kind of weird, but she actually ends up pretty cool. We get to see her in action a few times during The Last Colony, and those few times are more than enough to make you want to read a whole book about her.

That book, then, is Zoë’s Tale, a re-telling of the events of The Last Colony from the perspective of the most important teenage girl in the known universe.

This is what I imagine being a teenage girl is like. How’d I do?

It’s hard enough being a teenage girl here and now (or so I’m told), so imagine how much harder it must be when your father is one of the greatest traitors to humanity; when your adoptive parents are ex-soldiers, and your mother is technically younger than you are; when an entire species depends on you as a model of what it means to be a conscious, self-aware being; and when you suddenly have to leave your home to start a new colony on a world that no one has ever heard of.

That would be enough to mess anyone up.

Fortunately, Zoë is a tough girl. She’s bright, resilient and sarcastic. She enjoys a deep inner life, knows how to taunt boys, and keeps her head in a crisis. In short, the kind of teenage daughter we would all want to have, if we wanted to have teenage daughters. She and her friends do what teenagers do best: push the boundaries of their new home, have fights, fall in love, and feel big feelings about everything. Through her, we learn a lot more about the indigenous life forms of Roanoke, and we find out much more about the universe at large when she is sent to find a way to save her family and friends.

While Zoë’s Tale was very enjoyable, I find it hard to evaluate fairly. I love Zoë, and her friends are great characters as well. Scalzi does a fantastic job at writing the intricate webs of angst that make up our teenage years, fraught with emotional land mines and exciting new feelings. Her relationship with her boyfriend Enzo is very well handled, as is the ever-shifting dynamic of friendship between her and the other teens of the colony. There are some beautiful, raw moments of emotion in the book that made me – the man whose heart was long ago replaced by a spinning, cold lump of stone – stop for a moment and say, “Wow.”

What I can’t fairly say is whether or not Zoë’s Tale works as a stand-alone book. As I read it, I was constantly filling in gaps from my knowledge of The Last Colony, which made everything make sense. If I had my way, I would wipe my memory of both books and then read them again in reverse order to see if they still worked. Perhaps one day, if Scalzi has a lot of free time, he will integrate the two into a larger single volume. I wouldn’t envy him that work, but I think the resulting book would be a brilliant read.

One of the things I like about the work of John Scalzi is that I can always recommend him without reservation, so I’m doing that now. If you like good science fiction, an engaging plot and wonderful characters, pick up The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale. You won’t regret it.

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“Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don’t have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they’re happy to kill him for what he’s got in his suitcase.”
– John Scalzi, The Last Colony

“You and I are so totally going to be best friends.”
“Are we? I don’t know. What are the hours?”
“The hours are terrible. And the pay is even worse.”
“Will I be treated horribly?”
“You will cry yourself to sleep on a nightly basis.”
“Fed crusts?”
“Of course not. We feed the crusts to the dogs.”
“Oh, very nice. Okay, you pass. We can be best friends.”
“Good. Another life decision taken care of.”
“Yes. Now, come on. No point wasting all this attitude on ourselves. Let’s go find something to point and laugh at.”
– Zoë and Gretchen, Zoë’s Tale
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
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Filed under aliens, colonization, coming of age, family, humor, John Scalzi, revolution, science fiction, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 167: A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

History is, in its way, a fiction.

While it is made up of facts, things that are verifiable or at least reliably accepted as being what really happened, our understanding of history rests on a certain assumption that doesn’t always hold up – that what we are reading or hearing is The Truth. It’s how we learn about history when we’re kids – that this happened and that happened, and that’s all we really need to know.

The problem, however, is that what we got in our history books wasn’t the entire story. Oh, it was true, for a given value of “true,” but the historian who wrote the book did so with a specific narrative in mind, one that fit his or her perception of the past and which – more importantly – would sell textbooks to hundreds of schools across the country. The history that we get from those books is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a populace that is already inclined to think well of its nation, and rarely deviates from the theme. While they do try to note the excesses, injustices and impropriety of the past, they tend to bury it in the glorious achievements of governments and industry.

AMURRICUH!!

Unfortunately, doing so means that there’s a lot of history that gets left on the cutting room floor. Incidents, people, whole populations get brushed aside because either there’s not enough room for them or because telling their story in detail ruins the mood that the historian is trying to set – usually one of bright optimism for a good and just nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, either. An historian cannot practically include all of the historical viewpoints, good and bad, into a book meant to be used for only 180 days out of the year. So out of expedience, if not a conscious desire to tell an uplifting tale, they write books that look upon our past as favorably as possible, while including just enough criticism of our failures to fend off any serious accusations of bias.

As Zinn tells us, though, there’s no such thing as an historian without bias. Every historian has a story to tell, and Zinn has decided that he doesn’t want to tell the one we’re all used to hearing.

He starts in much the same place as most American history books – with the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Immediately he reminds us that Columbus’ mission was not one of exploration but of commerce, and that the first question he asked the natives of what he would label Hispanola was, “Where is your gold?”

It all went downhill from there.

Reading this book, it would be very easy to get depressed. I can see how those who were brought up with a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism (the idea that the United States obeys different rules from the rest of the world and, more importantly, cannot do wrong) would really dislike this book. It is page after page of lies, misdeeds, cruelty, greed and deception. It is the story of a nation built not on the principle that all men are created equal, but that all men must be leashed to the yoke of the capitalist overclass. It’s a tale of genocide and oppression, of revolts both peaceful and violent, and it never lets up for a moment.

To his credit, Zinn tells us right up front that he’s going to take the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the put-down, and there’s no way you can tell that story without it being really depressing. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly, though, where his sympathies lie:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Hey, even executioners got problems, buddy...

His portrayal of the underclass, rebellious or not, is one of suffering nobility, and the System as a deliberately malevolent entity. Any good that it does is simply whatever was necessary to maintain its power, and the above quote speaks to that. The parallel structure that he uses effectively groups all of the upper class into the “persecutor” role, and the lower class into the “victims.” And while there is some truth to that – human history, after all, is a long story of rich and powerful elites governing poor and powerless people – it is painting with too broad a brush, in my opinion. He seems to work from the premise that all those with power are bad, and so those without must therefore be good.

As much as I wish that admitting bias was an excuse for it, it isn’t. It does a disservice to all involved to flatten your view of the American class system into a two-dimensional shadow play. Not all of the populist agitators were good and noble people, nor were all politicians cunning manipulators. Just keep that in mind as you read.

It’s a sobering read, though, to say the least. The best simile I could come up with is that it’s like watching your parents have sex. It’s something that you always suspected went on, but you could have gone your whole life without being presented with the reality of it. So it is no surprise that, after reading this book, some people become absolutely insufferable, cynical and disillusioned.

If you’ve already gone through that stage of your political thinking, however, you find something else in this book – hope. It’s something you have to dig for, but it is there, buried in the larger narrative that Zinn is telling us.

Not sure he saw this coming...

Given the amount of detail he goes into, it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger picture at work. Zinn details slave rebellions, gives stories of workers pushed to the extremes of human existence, soldiers thrown away for nothing, and entire segments of the population ignored or actively persecuted. But alongside these horror stories come tales of resistance. Whether it’s the quiet contemplation by a poor white farmer over whether he might have more in common with his black neighbors than his white landlords, riots of prisoners and guards against a corrupt prison system, or the militant, city-wide shutdowns organized by the Wobblies, the people can only be pushed so far. And while the Powers That Be are very good at figuring out how to distract, scare or defy the people, they eventually do make changes for the better, and everyone benefits a little bit.

Inasmuch as this book is a chronicle of America’s misdeeds over the last few centuries, it is also a tale of Americans’ triumphs. It is a tribute to the will of the people who, no matter how difficult it may have been, decided to stand up and demand respect from the men who held the reins of power. It is a testament to the women who wanted equality, the socialists who wanted a better world, the workers who wanted safe jobs at living wages, the blacks who wanted to be full citizens, and the Indians who wanted the wrongs of the past redressed.

Not everybody has gotten what they wanted – America is still very much a work in progress, and there is bound to be some backsliding as we go. What Zinn shows in this book is that no matter how bad the American government can be or how greedy American business might become, the American people want what’s best for themselves and, when the time comes, will stand up and shout for it. Given enough time, and enough courage, The United States will continue to be a better and better nation, and perhaps someday – someday – it will finally fulfill our expectations for it.

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“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….”
– Frederick Douglass, 1857
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Review 158: Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents AND Hail to the Chiefs

Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents by Cormac O’Brien

Yes, a double-header today, mainly because it’s what makes the most sense with these books.

As we come up to another Presidential election, we’re being asked to make a very important choice. We’re electing someone to join a very powerful and elite group of men who have shaped the history of the world in the last 200-odd years. It’s an important decision, to be sure, and not one to be taken lightly. Will our next President be a political powerhouse, a man who is able to take the reins of the country and lead it into a better and more just future? Will he be inept or corrupt, allowing his cronies and his pals to use the nation for their own personal gain? Or perhaps he’ll simply be a cipher, one of those Presidents who is forgotten by everyone except for over-achieving elementary school kids who think that everyone will be impressed that they know who Zachary Taylor was.

We don’t know, and we can’t know, and that’s one of the most interesting lessons of this book. Every President, from Washington to Obama, was elected by the people in the hopes that he was the right man to lead the country. Every President was praised and damned. Every President was, before the election, sold as the one man who could save the nation from ruin and despair. If not all of those Presidents lived up to their hype, well, therein lies the lesson….

This is the kind of history I like... (image by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

For people who like their history to be amusing and bite-sized, this is the book for you. It’s a “gateway book” for Presidential history – you read this and then go on to read more serious treatments of the Presidents, hopefully becoming more appreciative of the vast spectrum of personalities that have guided our nation. And what an interesting group it’s been.

There are, of course, the heavy-hitters that everyone knows. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew), all men who made their marks on America. Washington, of course, set the entire tone of the Presidency. He demanded formality, and the acknowledgment that the office of President was one that should be treated with respect. At the same time, he didn’t want to be revered, or treated like American royalty. His decision to serve only two terms of office became unbreakable tradition, at least until FDR, and then law with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. While the stories that are attributed to him are mostly apocryphal – chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock, wooden teeth – the real stories are even better. He spent vast sums of money on alcohol, had a terrible temper, and probably wouldn’t even have been the President if he hadn’t married Martha Custis. In short, Washington was human, just like the other forty-two who followed him.

Then there are the infamous – the Presidents who are excoriated for their misdeeds and who are the ones we all wish never actually happened. Nixon, Hoover, Buchannan, Harding, Pierce…. These are the ones you tell your children about when they turn 18 and they’re wondering who to vote for. Warren G. Harding, for example, was only President for two years before his death, but manages to make the bottom of the “Best Presidents” list nearly every time. For one thing, he never wanted to be the President – it was all his wife’s idea. But Warren didn’t like to say no, didn’t like to stand up to people, so he let her railroad him into running for and winning the office. Once he was in the White House, he was perfectly happy to let Congress govern while he had sex with his mistresses and lost vast sums of money – and the occasional priceless White House tea set – to his poker buddies. It’s said that his father told him he was lucky not to have been born a girl, “because you’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no.” While he amused himself, his cabinet and his friends did their best to rob the government blind. He was lucky that his ineptitude wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1923.

There are, of course, the ciphers. These are the Presidents that no one really remembers much about. The middle-of-the-pack Presidents, neither good enough nor bad enough to be really memorable. James Polk, for example. Ever dress up as him for a history class skit? No, I didn’t think so. This is because he was a boring, humorless workaholic who had about as much personality as a table lamp. Still, he did get us into a war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of what we now know as the American Southwest, so there is that. How about Chester Arthur? He became President when Garfield was shot, and was most renowned for the fact that he was a very snappy dresser. He restricted Chinese immigration, so there’s a point against, but supported the Pendleton Act, which made it harder to appoint unqualified drinking buddies to important civil service posts. Other than that, he had parties, drank a lot and was kicked out after finishing his term.

Forty-three different men, forty-three different stories. It’s very easy to forget that these were Real People, complex human beings with incredible merits and flaws. Franklin Pierce was so despised that his own party came up with the slogan, “Anybody But Pierce.” John Tyler was so hated that he was burned in effigy and was the first President to receive a full-time bodyguard. On the other hand, Lincoln had a soft spot for pardoning soldiers who were to be shot for unmeritorious conduct, and Theodore Roosevelt once opened a speech with: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” Now THAT is hard-core….

It’s also hard to remember that, for all the mistakes made by Presidents in our lifetimes, they’re hardly new ones. Clinton was not the first guy to be unfaithful to his wife while President – in fact, compared to what some others got up to, a little hummer under the desk is practically innocent. And Bush is not the first dim bulb with delusions of grandeur either.

Bush has said, many times, that history will be the final judge of his administration, and I think he’s right about that. Very few people in President Monroe’s time would have known the horrors that would eventually emerge from the Missouri Compromise, and there were countless people who thought that FDR’s New Deal would spell the end of American capitalism. It’s hard to objectively judge the Presidents we still remember so vividly, but we can compare them to the ones who have gone before them.

I'm sure this really happened. It must have. (art by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

If you’re new to Presidential history, or if you want an easily accessible refresher, this is an excellent text to have. Mind you, it’s slightly incomplete – it was published prior to Bush’s second term, so there’s a little bit missing at the end, but I think we can all remember four years back. And maybe, just maybe, our next President will be so special that Mr. O’Brien will be moved to update and re-publish in, say, four to eight years.

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“As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
– Martin Van Buren
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Hail to the Chiefs by Barbara Holland

What was true for Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents is just as true for this one: we’ve had 43 incredibly interesting and varied men in the White House in our 221 years as a nation. We’ve had men of passion and energy, men who were weak-willed and lazy, men who preferred golf to governance and men who worked themselves to death. Good men, bad men, tall men, short men – this book reminds us of something we need to recall from time to time:

The President is a human being, with all that goes with being one.

Being the President inevitably means becoming a larger-than-life figure. People despised Bush, people adore Obama, venerate Reagan, abhor Clinton, all for what they see as virtues or flaws that only they possess. As if being the President not only means you have to be better than everyone else, but that your failings must be that much deeper.

The point of this book, and of any book on the Presidents, is that they were human beings just like the rest of us. Being President doesn’t make you immune to the fundamental flaws of being human – greed, apathy, short-sightedness – nor does it bless you with any trans-human virtues. Learning about and humanizing these 43 men is a grounding and humbling experience, and can keep you from both setting your expectations too high and allowing your disappointments to overwhelm you when your President doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Having said all that – if you want to read a book on the Presidents, this is a very funny one to read. The style is more narrative than O’Brien’s, and exceptionally snarky. Holland wields her pen like a dagger, stabbing and poking as she goes. She’s not really mean, but she has no problem making fun of these men when it can get a good laugh. And I certainly laughed a lot while reading this, much to the dismay of my co-workers. They come in short shots: “[Clinton] was a big affable fellow who hugged total strangers and felt their pain, like some ancient Norse bear-god, probably named Potus, good-natured but with a weakness for milkmaids.” And they come in longer passages, i.e. the Spanish-American War and the rather clever means by which we got the Panama Canal.

"The Great Communicator" indeed...

It’s a hilarious, irreverent read… until she gets to Reagan, which is where either she’s being so sarcastic that it’s impossible to be sure what’s serious and what isn’t, or she’s absolutely gushing over the Great Communicator. She imbues him with the same invulnerability that he seemed to have while he was President – showing the complaints of his critics, but then deftly removing the sting. George W. Bush gets much the same treatment, which disturbs me a bit, although since the book was published in 2004, I might be willing to chalk that up to post 9/11 fervor. But it does seem that, from 1981 to the present, she’s not being quite as fair and balanced as she was to the other Commanders in Chief. Perhaps it’s harder to be objective when you actually had to decide whether to vote for the guy in office….

Anyway, the final four Presidents aside, it’s a fun book to read and another way to bone up on your Presidential history. They really all were interesting people, in their own ways. Even William Henry Harrison, who may have been too sick to be in interesting President, but still made for a fascinating person.

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“Many people consider James Buchanan the very worst President ever. I suppose they think they would have done better. I suppose they wouldn’t have let Dred Scott happen, or John Brown, or secession, and there wouldn’t have been any Civil War and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Too many Monday-morning quarterbacks, that’s what we’ve got.”
– Barbara Holland, Hail to the Chiefs
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Filed under american history, Barbara Holland, biography, Cormac O'Brien, history, nonfiction, politics, presidential history

Review 152: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

What would you do if you had access to the greatest supercomputer ever built? A computer so complex and intricate that it finally gains full consciousness – and only you knew about it? Would you use it for your own nefarious purposes and hack your way to riches? Would you try to teach it how to be human? Would you tell it jokes? Or would you use it to start a revolution that frees your people in the Lunar Colonies from the yoke of Terran oppression?

Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis never really meant for that last one to happen. One of Luna’s best computer technicians, Mannie’s philosophy was “Keep mouth shut” when it came to matters political, and never considered the political fate of the Moon to be something he needed to worry about. When he attends a meeting of Lunar dissidents, people protesting against the rule of the Earth-based Lunar Authority, he goes more out of curiosity than cause. An attack by Authority troops drives him together with lifelong revolutionary Wyoming Knott and anarchist professor Bernardo de la Paz, and together they hatch a plan to take down the Lunar Authority and make Luna into a sovereign nation above Earth.

Would he have been as scary if he'd been named Mike? Probably.

To do so, they’ll need the help of Mike, the world’s first – and only – sentient computer. He knows the odds, he can run the scenarios – with Mike on their side, the people of Luna can gain their independence and create a new nation in the grand tradition of old.

A friend of mine said that this was the best political science textbook that she’d ever read, and in many respects she’s right. This book packs a lot of social philosophy into three hundred pages, and Heinlein requires you to be pretty quick on the uptake. From Manny’s clipped way of narrating the story to all the new lingo and concepts that are necessary for Lunar life, the reader needs to pay close attention in order to get the full impact of what’s going on in the book.

In a way, this book is Heinlein asking the question, “How do new nations begin?” Historically, there are two ways: top-down and bottom-up. In the first case, a person or people of strength brings a group of citizens to become a political entity. In the second, the people themselves rise up to overthrow their former masters. Most revolutions are a mix of the two, really, and Luna’s is no exception. The very charismatic Adam Selene (Mike in disguise) and the brilliant Professor manage to bring the people of Luna together in order to rid themselves of the Lunar Authority.

What makes it very interesting is that the book is pretty much a how-to book on insurgency and revolution. They work out an improvement on the traditional cell system of a conspiracy, and how to make it as stable and secret as possible, while still maintaining reliable communications. They figure out how to involve people in the revolution indirectly, harnessing the energies of everyone from children to old people. Working against a better-armed and more powerful enemy, Luna’s revolution is a textbook model of how to overthrow your oppressors and gain your freedom.

Of course, once you have your freedom, then what do you do with it? How do you run your new country, and how do you make sure that your freedom can be maintained? How do you build a government and write a constitution and establish trade and do all the other little things that have to happen if you want a country all your own?

What’s more, Heinlein puts forth a new society that is radically different from the ones we know now, and by necessity. With drastically different demographics and gravity, life on Luna cannot follow the same rules as life on Earth. This new life includes a near reverence for women, marriages that span not only multiple partners but multiple generations, and a spirit of individualism that would make the most grizzled pioneer proud. Life on the moon, as the title implies, is not easy. Many of those who come to Luna do not survive. Those who do, however, become the backbone of a new nation that will one day be the crossroads of the solar system.

It’s a dense read, but fun, once you get used to the narrator’s mode of speech. Manny often leaves off pronouns and articles, making him sound very choppy and direct. And a lot of it is done in speeches and Socratic dialogs between the Prof and whomever is unlucky enough to get in his way. I’d say that the greater part of this book is discussion of how to have a revolution from the point of view of the moon, and a look at how Heinlein thinks a society should be ordered.

Other than being very narrative-heavy, which modern readers might find somewhat tiring, there is one point about the book that didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t ruin the book, necessarily, but it put a big asterisk next to everything that Heinlein was trying to say. That asterisk is Mike.

Mike is a truly marvelous AI. He is not only self-aware and blessed with a rather rudimentary sense of humor, but he is tied into all of Luna’s main systems. His processing speed and memory are exceptional, and while he doesn’t really care one way or the other about rebelling against his owners, he does think that organizing a rebellion might be an entertaining diversion. He’s a good character, really, but he is entirely too powerful.

RTR-9000 would have liberated the Earth while he was at it, just because it was in his way. (via Cracked.com)

All of the problems that traditionally plague conspiracies, undergrounds and rebellions are solved by Mike. He knows the probabilities of success and can run thousands of scenarios in a moment. He is able to set up a moon-wide communications system that is completely secure. He can tap into the Lunar Authority’s database while at the same time keeping the Rebellion’s data secret. What’s more, he can be trusted to know everything about everyone in the group – he cannot be bribed or drugged or forced to name names under interrogation. He can organize the bombardment of Earth with pinpoint accuracy, bring down attacking ships and organize attacks all over the moon.

With Mike at their side, the rebels couldn’t help but win, and I found that a kind of hollow victory, in a narrative sense. I kept waiting for Mike to be compromised – his power disconnected or his actual intelligence uncovered – or for him to change his mind about helping the rebels. One way or another, I wanted the rebels to win Luna without the help of their omniscient computer conspirator. As it is, Mike pretty much delivers the Moon to its people, and then vanishes without a trace. That’s not to say that the human element isn’t necessary – even Mike couldn’t have won independence without them – I would rather have seen a wholly human revolution.

The flag of Luna. Seriously.

Other than that, though, it was a very good read, and it’s a book that ties into a lot of Heinlein’s other works. Many concepts that are key to Heinlein’s vision of the world are in this book – the freedom of the individual to direct his or her own life, the benefits of polygamy over monogamy, and of course the notion of TANSTAAFL – “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” – which is arguably one of the governing principles of the universe. In this book, Heinlein asks the reader to do more than just enjoy a good story – he demands that the reader think about the message as well. And that’s what makes Heinlein one of the greats.

If you’re looking for some essential science fiction and you like your politics rough-and-tumble, check this book out.

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“At one time kings were anointed by Deity, so the problem was to see to it that Deity chose the right candidate. In this age the myth is ‘the will of the people’ … but the problem changes only superficially.”
– Professor Bernardo de la Paz, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
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Filed under colonization, economics, futurism, politics, revolution, Robert Heinlein, science fiction, society, space travel, technology

Review 145: Griftopia

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

This book made me want to get rip-roaring drunk, set a banker on fire, and kick a member of Congress square in the nuts, preferably from a running start. It put me one step closer to finally realizing my dream of living somewhere in the wilderness like the Unibomber (although without all the Unibombing). It took all of my already cynical ideas about how America works, patted them on the head and said, “You’re just adorable,” and then proceeded to tell me that Santa Claus is not only dead, but that his body was stuffed, covered in rhinestones and sold to the CEO of Goldman-Sachs to use as a towel rack in his guest bathroom.

Much like The Great Derangement, wherein Taibbi explains how Americans have built new realities for themselves based on their politics, this book really seems to be aimed right at me. My natural distrust of the government and especially of business makes me a natural reader for this kind of thing, and that sets off my bias alarms. So keep that in mind – I’m probably having a hard time evaluating Taibbi and his claims fairly, in that I think they’re all absolutely correct. They may not be, but that’s how they felt as I read the book.

"I'm sorry, but this diamond-encrusted nut-scratcher is clearly made of 14-karat gold, NOT 24-karat as I specified. I wouldn't give this to my stableboy's cheapest whore. Throw it away!"

Taibbi’s premise is disturbingly simple: the American political and economic system is set up to reward lying, cheating and grift. From the fraudsters who convinced poor families to take out loans on McMansions to the Great Greenspan himself, our economic engine has been running for years on an unstable fuel of high-octane mendacity. Every now and then, there is a hitch – the tech bubble of the late 90s, the housing crash, the oil price spike of 2008, the Great Financial Meltdown – but the engine keeps going. What’s more, the people who caused the bubbles and crashes manage to skate clear of damage and punishment, rewarded by lawmakers who are beholden to them. It’s a self-corrupting system that values short-term profit over long-term stability, and it’s probably going to be the ruin of us all.

The mortgage fiasco is well-described here. Taibbi takes us from the bottom of the financial food chain – a low-income homeowner who thought he was getting a great chance for a home of his own, and follows the chain of deceit up and up and up, from the mortgage broker who sold the deal (and, incidentally both lied about his client’s credit score and got him an adjustable mortgage in order to garner a higher finder’s fee) to the banks that put all these rotten mortgages together, to the insurance companies and financial institutions that bought them, sold them and traded them. All across the board, they lied about what they had and made sure that they passed their rotten goods off to some other poor sucker before the whole thing went wrong. And when it did, it was like some horrible chain of dominoes that started with people who discovered they couldn’t pay $1,500 a month for their home, and ended with the failure of banks that had ruled the financial sector for decades.

"Well, Congressman, I'm just going to put this down over here - it's heavy, you see - so just put it out of your mind. Don't worry about it at all."

What’s more, the US government let this happen. Under the guise of being “pro-business,” politicians have been loosening restrictions and adjusting interest rates for decades under the willful delusion that the free market can manage itself just fine. Under the direction of Ayn Rand disciples such as Alan Greenspan, the power of the government to manage corrupt banks and insurance companies is about as impressive as an elementary school crossing guard. They wanted business free of its regulatory fetters, and that’s what they got. What everyone else got, of course, was screwed.

Another example: during 2008, Taibbi noticed something weird. Gas prices were skyrocketing, but supply was keeping pace with demand. There were no lines at gas stations like there had been in the 70s, when OPEC refused to sell us oil. If you wanted to fill up, you could, as long as you were willing to pay a price that went up moments before you pulled into the station. Even people with the barest understanding of economics understands supply and demand – if the supply is lower than the demand, the price goes up, and vice versa. But here, neither the supply of gasoline nor the overall demand for it changed, yet prices were shooting up past $4 a gallon. What, as they say, the HELL was going on?

Our politicians – especially the ones battling for the White House – had pat answers ready for the cameras. Obama blamed the Evil Oil Companies and wasteful SUV drivers. McCain blamed anti-drilling legislation and environmental regulation. Everybody blamed China for its accelerating growth. All of that, as it turns out, was misleading at best, bullshit at worst.

Well how else are we going to get the bathroom redone? I mean look at it, the place is a sty!

The answer: oil speculation, the use of commodities futures to make a ton of money by driving the price of oil ever higher. Futures were originally intended to provide a safety net for buyers and sellers of commodities, so that neither one would lose too badly if supply or demand shifted unexpectedly. But a way was found to exploit this system, for profiteers to buy and sell massive amounts of stuff to each other, raising their profits to obscene levels.

While a few clever people on Wall Street were getting rich through oil money, thousands of regular people were getting boned. The higher price of gas meant people with long commutes had to quit jobs and leave schools, which put them in ever-deepening financial straits. The price of oil has a very real effect on lives, but that was all ignored so that some high rollers could get rich. The close ties between the banking sector and the US government were what allowed this to happen, after decades of “pro-business” deregulation.

The health care overhaul, the sale of American cities to foreign investors, the collapse of the stock market and the erasure of untold billions of dollars of savings and investments are all given a close, angry look in this book, and Taibbi does a good job at making it understandable to those of us who aren’t really good with the intricacies of the financial sector. He takes his time, breaking down each scam into its component parts, and makes sure you can see every piece of the puzzle as he puts it together.

But what he also does – and I don’t think this is necessarily intentional – is paint a picture of hopelessness. At least, that’s how I saw it. The “great vampire squid” of the financial sector (a metaphor he used specifically with Goldman-Sachs) is inextricably attached to our government and the people who run it, sucking the blood out of the country that we thought we had. The more you see the connections, the more it seems like that squid simply cannot be removed and will never be sated.

Such a vivid image, isn't it?

What’s more, our elected officials are doing a brilliant job at convincing the American people that removing the squid is not necessary. The Tea Party chants its simplistic message that the Constitution is all the law we need, and our leaders smile and nod and watch the money come in. Lawmakers rail against the evil of “earmarks” right up until the day they get elected, and then make sure they reward the people who got them into office. Every time someone tries to loosen the tentacles a bit, they’re attacked as anti-business or anti-capitalist or just out and out socialist, and they’re either shamed or threatened into submission. They tell us that it’s all really complicated, and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it – here’s another season of Jersey Shore.

And the American people? We are, after all, the holders of sovereignty for the country – what about us? We’re idiots. We don’t want to spend the time necessary to understand a problem as ridiculously complex as the fraud that’s being perpetrated in our names, and the leaders we elected aren’t at all interested in making sure we’re educated. We’re instantly distracted by the new shiny thing and forget what happened only a few months ago thanks to smooth talking fraudsters who want us upset about gay marriage and Mexicans in our schools. We trust a media that needs us to be angry, but only just angry enough to keep watching. We’re tied up with businesses that see us as nothing more than a resource to be exploited.

Contrary to popular belief, money does not always make it easier to get your message across.

As of this writing, the “Occupy Everything” movement is still going strong, and I think that’s great. If nothing else, it will cause people to ask questions about how the government is run and why, but I fear it will have little effect in the long run. Why? Because the Occupiers are going after the wrong people.

Corporations make money. That’s what they do. And they’ll do it good and hard if they can. Much like a tiger, they’re just obeying their nature. Chris Rock put it best when he was talking about the Sigfried and Roy incident where one of their show tigers nearly bit off Roy’s head. Everyone said that the tiger had gone crazy, but Rock disagreed – “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”

"I said GOOD DAY, sir!"

Well, Wall Street is the tiger. Chant and occupy and wave your signs all you want, you’re not going to change the fundamental nature of corporate America and how it works. Where all this energy should be going is into Washington, to the people who let the tiger run loose through our villages and happily picked up whatever it left behind. The lawmakers are the ones who can stop this, but right now it’s not in their interest to do so. The status quo has kept them safely employed and empowered, and until they see a real threat from the voters, there’s no way they’re going to turn their backs on their plutocrat supporters.

When the whole thing finally becomes unsustainable, when that final bill becomes due, they will slip away in the night with the wealth of nations in their pockets, leaving the rest of us to kill each other over refrigerator boxes and dogmeat.

See? Told you this book made me angry…

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“This story is the ultimate example of America’s biggest political problem. We no longer have the attention span to deal with any twenty-first century crisis. We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it – who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust these people to do the right thing, but we can’t, because, well, they’re scum. Which is kind of a big problem, when you think about it.”
– Matt Taibbi, Griftopia

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
Griftopia on Wikipedia
The Taibblog at Rolling Stone
Griftopia at Amazon.com

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Filed under consumerism, corporations, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, nonfiction, politics