Category Archives: politics

Books about politics.

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

Review 135: Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Look around your house. Sneakers, computers, movies, household items. How many of those things are made by massive, multinational corporations? Probably all of them. And how many of these companies are from America? Lots, I’ll bet.

In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein takes a trip through the history of branding – the association of a particular company with a particular product. Given that most products with similar function – sneakers, for example – are fairly similar in their makeup and function, the companies that make them use brand marketing to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

The Nike people are a wee bit intense...

Thus, Nike, Reebok and Adidas, whose sneakers are, by and large, as good as each other, use brand marketing to make you believe that, if you buy their product, you are somehow superior to those who buy the product of the other guy. If you buy Nike, you’re part the the Nike family – the uber-atheletes, the people who Just Do It and don’t go in for all the fripperies of life. If you buy Reebok, you’re more down to earth, more involved in the gestalt of life, and not quite as intense as the Nike people. If you have Adidas, you’re probably more fun, a little irreverent, and you dream about sex all day. Or something like that.

We use brands to define ourselves. When my father worked for GE, we only had GE appliances in the house, even if that meant paying a little more for the new washer. I had a student who wore nothing but Jean-Paul Gaultier clothes. Hell, Generation X has been divided into the Pepsi Generation and the Coke kids, a terrible schism that may never be repaired in my lifetime, unless the Mountain Dew Freedom Fighters intervene. And we won’t even start in with the Windows-Mac Civil War.

Brand loyalty is more important to some of us than others....

I don’t pretend to be immune, either. I drink Diet Coke and used to smoke Marlboros, and would never have chosen another brand if those were available. Of course, this probably has something to do with scary chemical additives than anything else, but the point is the same. I was loyal to my brands, one way or another, without even thinking about why.

Like it or not, our brands define us, and we allow them to do so. Mainly because they use their commercials to terrify us – buy Preparation H or lose that valuable sale, wash your husband’s clothes in Wisk, or all the other wives will laugh at you, that sort of thing. And the moment you start to wonder if perhaps there isn’t any real difference between cars made by Honda and those made by Toyota, they hit you with a barrage of special offers, incentives and tie-ins to remind you that they love you. Really, they do.

Max Barry takes this kind of brand identification one step further.

This is a world where, economically speaking, most of the world is the United States. All of the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba), the UK, Southeast Asia and Australia, Russia, India and South Africa belong to the US, for all intents and purposes. The US government operates in all those places, if you have the money for it. Europe, Africa, China and the Middle East stand alone against the US economic juggernaut.

I pledge allegiance...

Corporations are king here. There are no taxes, as the US Government is simply another corporate organization, responsible for enforcing such laws as they have the budget to enforce. Every service – police, medical, fire – has been privatized. And while the concept of the political nation has pretty much vanished, there are economic nations emerging – the US Alliance and Team Advantage, both economic alliances that have their roots in airline mileage campaigns. Each of these groups controls dozens of markets, and cross-promotes all their goods. So if you wear Nike shoes, then you had better not eat at Burger King – that’s Team Advantage territory. And if you work for McDonald’s, then you’ll want the NRA to protect you, rather than the Police, because you get a membership discount. Schools are run by “kid-friendly” companies such as McDonald’s and Mattel, and are basically corporate propaganda mills. Not like now, of course. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, your surname is the name of whatever company you work for.

Thus, a young man named Hack Nike is given a pivotal role in the marketing of a new Nike sneaker, the Mercury. As part of their marketing strategy, they’ll limit production and distribution to five pairs per store. As Beanie Babies, among other products, have shown, the more limited the availability, the higher the demand, and the higher the price. Thus, charging $2,000 for a pair of shoes that an Indonesian laborer made for $0.85 is perfectly reasonable.

The second part of their marketing strategy is to increase the public’s awareness of the sneakers, as well as to give them some street credibility. That’s where Hack Nike comes in. His new marketing job is to shoot and kill ten purchasers of Nike Mercury sneakers.

Can Nike get away with this? They seem to think so, and they probably could have, were it not for Hack’s distaste for murder. Suffice to say, the plot becomes complicated, and the Government’s best and most dedicated officer, Jennifer, is on the case.

The "E" stands for "Egregious corporate malfeasance that makes a mockery out of our democracy!" Yay!

The story is a lot of fun, and well written. The world that Barry has created is a logical extension of our own, if hopefully improbable, and his characters are pretty easy to identify with, with only a few who don’t shine as brightly as the others. Being a native of Melbourne, Barry also takes a few nice stabs at Americans, but they’re good-natured and accurate, so I didn’t mind. It was a tale of massive corporate malfeasance based on the solid marketing and corporate ethics of today. And since 2003, when the book was published, we’ve seen plenty of examples of how much large corporations are able to get away with and how unethical they’re willing to be in order to make a quick buck.

Barry’s book is, fundamentally, about the problems that arise when you allow the free market absolute control. The adage about the corruptive influences of power does not only apply to individual people, it most definitely applies to corporate entities as well. The excesses of the early 2000s showed that not even the law – to say nothing of basic ethics – could make some of the biggest corporations in the world behave honestly. The recent housing/financial services collapse is another example – when pursuing the almighty dollar, considerations for what is right and wrong fall by the wayside, and the law might only be a temporary stumbling block.

Read this book. It’s a lot of fun, and then watch the papers and see how true it really could be….

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“There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. There was no place in marketing for that, either.”
Max Barry, Jennifer Government
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Filed under consumerism, corporations, fiction, humor, Max Barry, politics, science fiction, society

Review 134: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

The last time I read this, I wrote: “While this book is remarkably huge, it’s a swift read – well-paced, interesting, creative and clever, which are all good things to have in a book.” At the time, that was true, but this time? Not so much.

I don’t know what changed in the intervening years. The first time I read this book, it gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. I fell into it, into the vast and horrible city of New Crobozon and all the madness that was built into it, and when I came out I was filled with wonder, surprise, and regret that I hadn’t spent a lifetime perfecting my skills at fantasy art.

I would love to read this book, but these naps aren't going to take themselves....

This time was different, and I knew it pretty quickly. I found myself spending more time listening to podcasts while on the train, or playing games on my phone. I ate lunch at my desk and checked my RSS feeds instead of bringing my book up to the cafeteria with me. I actively avoided reading this book and I really wish I hadn’t because it deserves better.

It is the job of every fantasy writer to bring to life not only characters but an entire world. Whether you’re Jim Butcher, creating an alternate Chicago, or Robert Jordan, creating an entire planet, the writer has to know the world inside and out. Every country, every type of people, every custom and culture, climate and weather – everything.

This is because the characters that populate the tale will inevitably be shaped by their environment and its history. Would Tolkien’s fellowship have come together if it were not for the millennia of tensions that existed from having such diverse people living in such a small piece of the world? Probably not. Would the warring princes of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight books fight so hard if it were not for the terrifying storms and the power they bring? I doubt it.

Whether the world is built before the story is made or during the process of telling the tale, the author is responsible for it. In the case of Miéville’s New Crobuzon, you know from page one that he has put more time into thinking about his city than almost anything else.

Steampunk. For when you really love brown. (art by gordillo on DeviantArt)

There is almost a palpable feeling of dereliction and disrepair that comes off the page when he describes the city. It’s a dirty place, a wet place, a place that has seen better days. It’s mayor is a tyrant, who uses a secret militia to keep the populace under control and horrifying thaumaturgical techniques to punish those who break the law. It is a great, sprawling metropolis at the confluence of two rivers – the Tar and the Canker – which should tell you a bit about the city they run through. In the tradition of modern urban fantasy, it’s a place of magic and technology, ruined by political greed and social apathy. There are desperate poets and mad scientists, gang bosses and petty criminals, whores and saints and madmen for every occasion.

Independent scientist Isaac der Grimnebulin is looking for the thaumo-physiological secret to flight in order to help a disgraced bird-man regain his wings, and to prove his theory of “crisis energy” that may well change the world. In the process, he accidentally unleashes an unstoppable horror that threatens to slowly destroy the city and everyone in it. He also manages to make enemies of both the city militia and the leader of organized crime in New Crobuzon. He and his friends have only days before the city is overrun, or they are killed, and if they hope to survive they must somehow get the help of two of the most powerful entities the city has ever known.

Miéville has created a new flavor of fantasy here – a kind of steampunk world of brass and wood and gears, analog computers and over-designed firearms that really appeals to all the reader’s senses. He describes the city in unrelenting detail, and if pressed he could probably give you a tour from memory. You get the feeling that New Crobuzon has been sitting in his head for a long time, and all he’s done is finally put it to paper.

For a change of pace, grayish-brown. (art by Trabbold on DeviantArt)

For me, that might have been what changed. The first time I read this, I was swept up by the city, but this time… this time I kept thinking, “Yes, yes, the city is a cesspit, I get it. What about the giant moths?” I wanted the story more than I wanted the setting, and my impatience (combined with a whole lot of backed-up Radiolab episodes) kept me from really settling down, slogging through the descriptions of decaying brickwork, overgrown rooftops and beggars wrapped in filthy rags who crawled through the pestilential streets. In a way, it was kind of like Tolkien, but slightly more restrained.

But perhaps, like Tolkien, that was the point. For all that we’re reading an adventure now about a scientist and the horrors he has unleashed upon the world, about a strange patchwork crime lord, a tyrannical mayor, a sentient clockwork intelligence, a dimension-hopping super-spider and moths that will swallow your soul, this book really isn’t about them. This is just one event in the long and bizarre history of New Crobuzon and the vast and strange world it inhabits, and we’re granted a glimpse into it. When you get to the end of it, whatever else you think of the story, you’ll be stunned by what Miéville has been able to come up with.

I know that a lot of the cognoscenti of science fiction and fantasy just adore Miéville, and I can certainly see why. He’s creative, he’s imaginative, and he’s built a wonderful world for the imagination to play in, populated with some of the most bizarre races and people you could think of. He’s grabbed the trend of Steampunk retro-futurism and made it his own in a way that few other writers can do. He deserves all the credit he can get.

For me, though… Perhaps it was the right book, but not the right time.

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“New Corbuzon was a city unconvinced by gravity. Aerostats oozed from cloud to cloud above it like slugs on cabbages. Militia-pods streaked through the heart of the city to its outlands, the cables that held them twanging and vibrating like guitar strings hundreds of feet in the air…”
– China Miéville, Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station on Wikipedia
China Miéville on Wikipedia
China Miéville’s blog
Perdido Street Station on Amazon

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Filed under adventure, China Miéville, dystopia, engineering, fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, totalitarianism

Review 129: The Day Watch

The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

The previous book left us with an unbalanced Moscow. The forces of Light gained a powerful ally in the form of Svetlana Nazarova, a potential Great Sorceress. Even before she knew she was an Other – one of that mysterious class of beings who can work magic, who can curse, bless and change their shapes – she was able to create a curse that very nearly destroyed Moscow. She, and the city, were saved through the bravery of Anton Gorodetsky and the Night Watch, who guard against the excesses of the forces of Darkness. In the end, the Light prevailed.

But this battle between Light and Dark is far from over….

Summer camp is different when Others are around

As with The Night Watch, this volume contains three books. In the first, a young witch named Alisa Donnikova has overreached herself. In a fight with the Night Watch, Alisa poured every last drop of her magical energy into supporting her fellow Day Watch members, an act of selflessness that nearly cost her her life. Burned out, she’s directed to take a break at a children’s summer camp in the Crimea. Posing as a camp counselor, she would be in a prime position to feed off the nightmares of impressionable young girls.

A word about Others and their powers. The foundation of an Other’s power comes from humans. While any Other has her own reserves to call on, she may… feed on the normal people around her. The Light Others take happiness and joy – literally. Have you ever been feeling really good, and then somehow the feeling just drains away? That’s what the Light Others do, and it powers them to no end. Much like a flowering shrub, pruning someone’s happiness doesn’t make it go away forever, and it may even come back greater, but still – in order to become stronger, the Light Others have to weaken people.

Those on the side of the Dark, on the other hand, feed off of fear and anger, but when they do, that fear and anger remain. It’s like warming yourself by the fire – as long as you keep feeding it, it’ll keep you warm. A Dark Other at the height of his power could probably super-charge himself just by going to a snowed-in airport for a day. Believe me. This stew of rage and frustration is a little too much for Alisa, however – she must subsist on the “thin broth” that is children’s nightmares.

He's a real catch, ladies!

While she’s there, however, her plan hits a snag in the form of a handsome, solid, beautiful man named Igor. Despite herself, she falls in love with him, and she falls hard.

The fact that he’s a Light Other doesn’t come up until it’s much too late.

The second story brings a mysterious figure to Moscow. Vitaly Rogoza has no memory of who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he has to go to Moscow, and that he has power – the power of a Dark Other. Despite his personal amnesia, he has no trouble ingratiating himself with the Moscow Day Watch, and soon discovers that his power appears to have no upper limits. Why this should be, no one knows. Is he some Dark magician, beyond classification? Or is he something else entirely – something new and terrible? Whatever he is, what is his goal, and what is his link to the theft of Fafnir’s Talon, a Dark artifact of unspeakable power?

The third story brings it all together – the sad fate of Alisa Dinnokova, the theft of the Talon, and the rise and fall of the Great Sorceress Svetlana Nazarova. What’s more, the greater plans of the Light and the Dark are laid bare – and changed forever.

As before this book is heavily laden with the philosophy of Good versus Evil, Light and Dark. More importantly, it addresses the issues of freedom, a central tenet to the forces of Darkness. How free, they ask, can we really be?

The Light wants to make humanity better. They believe that, given the right influences and incentives, humanity can be great. But they need to be guided. Molded. Shaped. Consequently, the Light occasionally embarks on grand, world-changing plans, few of which actually work out the way they intend.

No one ever said freedom was nice....

The Dark, on the other hand, worships freedom. Every person, they say, should be free to choose his or her own path. If that path means doing good, then so be it. If it means doing evil, well, that’s cool too. The point is that every person is capable of deciding how their lives should be led, and no one – human or Other – should be able to take that freedom away from them.

It’s one of the oldest questions there is – how much freedom do we really deserve? And it’s a question that can never be definitively answered. But in these books, it’s fun to watch it play out.

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“There are some who think that we Dark Ones are evil. But that’s not true at all. We’re simply just. Proud, independent and just. And we decide things for ourselves.”
– Alisa, of the Day Watch, The Day Watch
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The Day Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Day Watch at Amazon.com

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Filed under death, ethics, fantasy, made into movies, mystery, politics, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 127: The God Engines

The God Engines by John Scalzi

There is not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of theological science fiction. Madeleine L’Engle’s books may qualify, but to be honest, it’s been years since I read them so I don’t know. The Golden Compass books, too, but they struck me more as fantasy, seeing as how there were no spaceships. My only successful foray into National Novel Writing Month produced some theological sci-fi, but it was questionable at best and is still fermenting on my hard drive somewhere.

In any case, that is what John Scalzi has given us, and if you’re a regular reader of his blog and his other books then you may find this one to be a little… off. You see, like many accomplished writers, Scalzi has a Voice, a way of writing that is immediately identifiable as his own, and which a lot of his fans have gotten used to. There’s no single thing I can point to that really illustrates what this is, but trust me – it’s there. A certain whip-quick sarcasm, a way of looking at old questions from a new angle and the ability to cut through the requisite fuzzy thinking that seems so endemic to the human race.

Not quite like this... but kind of.

In this book, he tries on a new voice, something that sounds kind of like his, but at the same time like he’s trying on something new. It’s as if Jonathan Coulton started doing Manowar cover songs. It’s not bad, it’s just something that takes a little getting used to.

Captain Ean Tephe is the commander of a great starship, the Righteous, one of the many ships in the fleet controlled by the Bishopry Militant. He and the other captains in the fleet are charged with carrying out missions for the Bishopry in the name of their God, a being of immense power who uses the faith of millions to rule them. Their Lord is a powerful and active god, one who brooks no dissent from His followers and who will suffer no challengers to His dominion. Long ago, the Lord battled countless other, smaller gods, and won, chaining them to his will and turning them into the engines of the great starships that carry His people out into the universe.

Some gods are less tractable than others. (art by Evolvana on DeviantArt)

The god that powers the Righteous, however, is not cooperating. Some ships’ gods are quiet and obedient, others chatty, some cowed into good behavior by fear. The god on this ship is defiant, despite the prayers of priests and acolytes, and the horrible whip that the captain wields to compel obedience. This god soon reveals itself to be part of a greater plan, one which enfolds both Tephe and his crew and reveals a truth about their God that is enough to drive men mad. It is a test of faith for the men aboard the Righteous, and if they should fail, their lives will end in short order.

It’s a very cool concept, really, one which I haven’t seen done before. Scalzi has powered a civilization by faith, quite literally, in a God that not only exists, but it quite active in the lives of His worshipers. His high priests exert complete control over a population that rightfully fears for their souls, and manage to channel the God’s power into various science-like applications. Through the use of amulets called Talents, the God facilitates communication over great distances, compels obedience, and opens gateways. He has a civilian population whose faith nourishes Him, and a military arm that travels the galaxy spreading His word and destroying His enemies. And it all makes sense.

As cool as the idea is, though, the book itself felt like a rough sketch rather than a fleshed-out novel. It’s quite short, as novels go, and we are introduced to a lot of concepts and characters in a fairly brief amount of time. The Bishopry Militant, for example, sounds like a great place to see intrigue and double-dealing, lies upon lies that somehow manage to get things done, and we do see a bit of that when Captain Tephe gets a secret mission to a new world. Scalzi showed us in The Last Colony that he can handle this kind of multi-layered politicking, and I think it would be even better in a place like this. Add to that the Rookery, a kind of church-sanctioned brothel/therapy center aboard the ships, where the women who work there have nearly as much power and influence as the Bishopry itself. What would happen if these two institutions came into conflict, and what weapons would they wield?

This god has some opinions he'd like to share.

The chained gods, too, are a wonderful chance to explore a lot of ethical questions. They are undoubtedly sentient beings of great power, enslaved by a God that is stronger than they. Is this kind of slavery justified? Would it be possible for a ship to work with its god-engine, rather than compelling it with whips and prayers. What do these gods know, and how reliable are they? The god powering the Righteous seems to know a lot about how this universe works, including some terrifying tales about the God that Tephe follows, but how much of what it says can be trusted?

And what are the powers and limitations of a faith-powered science? Much in the way that engineers and scientists in our world manipulate a few basic laws of nature to achieve amazing things, what could be done in a world where prayers have power and where a high priest’s whim can decide the outcome of an entire mission? How do you creatively solve problems in a reality like this one, where they deal in belief and faith, rather than wavelengths and mass?

So yeah, there was a lot that I wanted from this book once I figured out what Scalzi was doing with it. After a great opening line (and a third line that just left me confused), the learning curve was a little steep. Once you figure it out, though, the possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, the book itself ends rather sooner than it should.

The less said about this album, the better.

It’s not my favorite book by Scalzi, not by a long run, but since he’s said he’s going to lay off the Old Man’s War universe for a while, I should be thankful that he is willing to experiment and try new things. As many music lovers know, it’s sometimes very hard to accept that an artist you love wants to try to do things that are new and different, rather than keep doing the things that made you love them in the first place. I remember when U2 put out Achtung Baby and my friends who fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were almost personally offended. Zooropa, of course, was not to be mentioned aloud in their presence.

That kind of experimentation and risk-taking, however, is ultimately what helps an artist grow. You may not like what comes of such experimentation, but that’s tough – it’s not about you.

I don’t know if Scalzi will return to this universe or not, but I hope he does. If he does, I hope he lingers longer than he did in The God Engines, and brings forth another wonderful and complex universe.

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“Faith is not for what comes after this life. Faith is for this life alone.”
– A God, The God Engines
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s Blog

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Filed under gods, good and evil, John Scalzi, morality, religion, science fiction, sins, space travel, theocracy, theology, totalitarianism, war