Category Archives: politics

Books about 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

Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

Imagine a world where magic is real. A place where people known as Others are born with powers they don’t understand. Their destinies are unwritten until that fateful day when they first become an Other – when they discover the strange, shadowy and powerful world known as the Twilight – and have to make a choice: will they stand with the Light or with the Dark. Will they dedicate their lives to Good or Evil?

Maybe it ain't what it used to be, but it's still dramatic.... (art by mirerror on DeviantArt)

It’s not an easy decision to make, by any means. Joining either side has its limitations and its rules, for the battle between Good and Evil isn’t what it used to be.

Long ago, it was simple – Good fought Evil, Dark fought Light, and blood was shed on both sides. It was a vicious, unending war that threatened to decimate the world. Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. A Treaty, well deserving of the capital letter. There would be a truce between the two sides, a balance that would be maintained at all costs. Any act of evil would be balanced by an act of goodness, and vice versa. Neither side is to have an advantage.

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

Making sure the peace is kept is the job of the Watches – the Night Watch, staffed by elites of the Light to guard against advances by the Dark, and a Day Watch, staffed by the elites of the Dark to guard against excesses of the Light. We begin our look at the Others of Moscow with a young adept named Anton Sergeeivich Gorodetsky, a wielder of magic and an analyst forced into the more exciting realm of field work. His job is to find out who a pair of vampires are illegally attempting to seduce and stop them. In the process of doing that, and saving the soul of a young Other named Egor, he stumbles upon something that threatens the entire city of Moscow, if not all of Russia. A young woman has a curse upon her head, so horrible and so powerful that the forces of the Light may have no chance to disperse it. If she dies, the city will die with her. If she lives, even worse may befall the world.

There are three stories in this book, somewhat independent but entirely connected. The first details the discovery of Egor and the cursed Svetlana. In the second, an Other of the Light, a maverick who doesn’t know about the rest of the Others, or the Treaty between Light and Dark, is murdering Dark adepts. Somewhat alarmingly, Anton is being framed for the murders. In the third book, Moscow is gripped in a heat wave. In the midst of this, the leaders of the Light are attempting to change the world. Whether it ends up being for the better or the worse, no one can know. But Anton is convinced that it must not come to pass….

Team ANTON!!!!!

It’s a gripping fantasy, in a very complex world. It’s compared to Rowling’s work, and justly so (although I don’t think there’s much of a case to be made for an attempt to ride on Rowling’s coattails – Night Watch was originally published in 1998, only a year after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). There are substantial differences, of course, making Night Watch a much more adult book than the Potter series. There are very few children, and the few that are there are not in very substantial roles. There’s far more drinking, smoking and sex in this, of course. But the world that Lukyanenko has created is every bit as deep and complex as the one Rowling has made. There are any number of roles that could be played, and an almost infinite number of situations that could be built on the fairly simple rules that are set up by the Light-Dark Treaty.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the complexity of the world. Rowling’s world is fairly definitive in its divisions between good and evil – there is good, there is evil, and there is no question of which is which. The evil characters are definitively evil, and the good characters are definitively good, and the reader doesn’t have to worry too much about who’s on which side, Snape notwithstanding.

The Others of Moscow, however, are not nearly so clear-cut. Yes, the Light is trying to do the work of the Good, to make the world a better place. But their machinations and their plots don’t always go as planned. See the Russian Revolution and World War II for examples why. They ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the horrors it can unleash. By trying to do Good, they unleash great evil upon the world.

He's just a big softie, really....

And how about the Dark? Yes, they’re populated by werewolves, witches and vampires, but they are advocates of utter and total freedom. They do not destroy for the sheer joy of destruction, but because they want to increase the personal freedom of the world. They’re not interested in making humanity “better,” or making a better world. They simply want to live in the world as it is, free from restraints – both internal and external.

While it may be pretty clear who is on the Light and Dark side, it’s not entirely clear who is doing Good or Evil at any given time. And, more importantly, it is almost impossible to know who is actually right.

It’s a great read – full of anguish and self-doubt and torture, like any good Russian novel should be. Anton knows that the Light doesn’t live up to the standards that it preaches, but he knows that he needs to be on the right side. He picks apart the intricate, decades-long plot of the Night Watch and very nearly figures out how to foil it. But even in revealing the truth, he does not manage to save the world from the doom of the Light.

Or does he?

We’ll have to read the next book and find out….

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“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
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The Night Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Night Watch at Amazon.com

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Filed under ethics, fantasy, good and evil, horror, identity, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, short stories, society, USSR, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 123: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Gods, where do I even start with this?

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I read this during Banned Books Week for two reasons. First, it’s on the ALA’s list of top banned or challenged books, and second because it’s really, really good.

As with all the books I read, there’s always a little part of me thinking about what I’m going to say about the book once I finally decide to write about it. Sometimes I start composing in my mind, coming up with the pithy words and phrases that have made me into the international book reviewing superstar that I am.

This time, however, I could barely concentrate for the cacophony in my head. There’s just so much going on in this novel that doing it any sort of justice would probably require writing a book that was longer than the book that it was analyzing. And as much as I love you guys, I’m not about to write a whole book about this. Probably because I reckon better minds than mine already have.

Art by Party9999999 on DeviantArt

Regardless, it’s hard to choose where exactly to go on this one. There are so many political, sociological, psychological and philosophical threads to pick up here that no matter what I write about, I’m pretty sure I’ll get responses about how I didn’t mention the solipistic nature of Ingsoc and its relationship to the philosophy behind modern cable news network reporting strategies. Don’t worry, guys – I got that one.

I suppose two big things came to mind while I was reading it this time, and the first of them was inspired by the previous book I read, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus Finch talks a lot about bravery. To teach his son about what it truly means to be brave, he gets him to take part in an old woman’s struggle to free herself of a morphine addiction before she dies – an excruciating process that is more likely to fail than to succeed. But she does it anyway. Atticus says to his son about bravery, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

The question in my mind, then, was “Is Winston Smith brave?”

I really want to put this on a t-shirt....

It’s a hard question to answer, really. By Atticus’ definition, you could say that he is. A member of the Outer Party that rules the superstate of Oceania, Winston Smith is a part of a greater machine. He works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, diligently altering and “rectifying” the data of the past to bring it into alignment with what the Party wants to be true. His is a world where there is no such thing as objective truth – the truth is what the Party says it is.

A good member of the Party sublimates his will to that of the Party. What Big Brother wants, she wants. She has no love but love for the Party and no dreams but to do what the Party wants of her. A good Party member doesn’t have plans or hopes or dreams. He doesn’t ask questions or idly wonder if things could be different from what they are. A good Party member doesn’t think. He is born, lives, consumes, and dies.

Winston, however, cannot be a good Party member. He wonders why the world is the way it is, and begins down a road to assert his own identity as a human being. He knows full well that he will fail, that in the end he and the woman he loves will be delivered into the hands of the Thought Police, and he is appropriately terrified. But he goes through with it anyway. He keeps a diary of his thoughts and actively tries to join an underground movement that is determined to overthrow the Party and Big Brother. He declares himself willing to undertake acts of heinous treason, all in the name of resistance against the Party.

The new faces of the Party. DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!!

And in the end, he fails, just as he knew he would. So does this make Winston, a man who is so far in character from Atticus Finch, a brave person? Well, yes and no.

He does meet Atticus’ definition of bravery – persisting in what you believe to be right, even in the knowledge that you will probably fail. Winston puts his own life on the line multiple times, committing Thoughtcrime of the highest order. But is he doing it for some higher ideal, or is he doing it for more selfish reasons? Flashbacks to his younger days suggest that Winston Smith was an unrepentantly selfish child, who was willing to disregard the dire straits of his own mother and baby sister in order to get what he wanted. Could we not say that the adult Winston does the same? That he is more interested in freedom for himself than for others? Is his rebellion against Big Brother political or personal? He claims that he wants to see the world changed and freedom brought to all people, but how far can we trust a mind that’s been well-trained in Doublethink?

This, of course, gets right back to the Big Question of why people do the right thing, when it might be so much easier and profitable to do otherwise. Atticus Finch could have let Tom Robinson swing, thus saving himself and his family a whole lot of trouble, just as Winston could have just given up and emulated his neighbor, Parsons, becoming as good a Party member as possible. Neither man could do that, though, because is was not in their nature to do so. It was impossible for Winston to continue to live the way the Party wanted to and, given time, he may have been able to reach beyond meeting his own personal needs and seen to the needs of his greater community.

Unfortunately, we never get the chance to find out, as the Thought Police eventually get tired of watching him and take him in. To his credit, he does hold out to the last extreme before he betrays Julia in his heart, so perhaps he is brave after all.

How adorable....

The other thing that came to mind while I read was the modern use of the word “Orwellian,” and how it falls vastly short of what is depicted in this book. It gets thrown about any time a city puts up a few CCTV cameras downtown, or a business decides to put surveillance cameras in their store. It comes up when we put RFID chips in passports and credit cards, or when we think about how much data Google can hold about us. The word brings to mind a sense of constant surveillance, never being able to move or act without some government or corporation knowing what we’re doing.

While the concept of the two-way telescreens in this book certainly are a logical extension of surveillance culture, to call a customer database or red light cameras “Orwellian” is like calling a Bronze-age chariot a Ferrari. It betrays an incredible lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in the world that Orwell has built. We may be watched by these people, but in comparison to the average citizen of Oceanea – prole or Party member – we are still remarkably free.

Freedoms available to us. Not these people.

There are still freedoms available to us that people like Winston never had, and couldn’t understand even if they were offered. We can protest, we can voice our disagreements, we can channel our energies into whatever pursuit we choose, or not channel them at all. We have the freedom to decide who we want to be and how we want to live, at least within the limits of a well-ordered society. We do not live in daily terror that we might be abducted from our beds, our lives ended and our very existence erased from record and memory. Honestly, I think a few security cameras pale in comparison to the horror that is Oceanea and the world of Big Brother.

There is so much more to talk about with this book. I find Newspeak fascinating, and its foundations both amazing and terrifying. The idea that a concept can only truly exist if there’s a word for it brings to mind those “untranslatable” words you find in every language. For example, there’s no equivalent to the English “miss” in Japanese, as in “I miss my mother.” Does that mean that people in Japan are incapable of missing people? Of course not, but the underlying theory of Newspeak suggests otherwise. Once the party reduces the English language to a series of simple words with no nuance or subtlety of meaning, the idea goes, Thoughtcrime will be literally impossible. After all, how can one wish for freedom if the concept itself is impossible to articulate?

Then there’s the idea of the mutability of the past. The way the Party exerts its unbreakable control over the population is by virtue of the fact that they control all media – newspapers, radio, television, publishing of all sorts. If the Party wants to, say, claim that Big Brother invented the airplane, all they have to do is revise all relevant media to reflect their desired past, and then replace and destroy anything that disagrees with them. With no evidence that Big Brother didn’t invent the airplane, all that’s left is fallible human memory, and those who do think they remember the “right” version of the past will eventually die anyway. Whoever controls the present, the Party says, controls the future. And whoever controls the past controls the present. By remaking the past, the Party guarantees that they can never be gainsaid or proven to have erred in any way.

Even Big Brother would crumble before 4chan....

Fortunately for us, Big Brother never had the internet to contend with. As anyone who’s been online for a while knows, nothing on the internet ever goes away. Ever. The words of any leader or influential person are all there, in multiple copies, all of which can themselves be copied and distributed in mere seconds. While it is possible to fake a photograph, the awareness of that possibility, as well as the technology to suss out the fakes, are just as available to anyone who wants them. Even in cases where there are disputes about the past, or re-interpretations of past events, it is impossible for one version to systematically replace all others. While this sometimes results in competing versions of the past, the one with the most evidence tends to prevail.

Continuing in that vein, the understanding that the Party controls all information about itself leads to a very interesting question that’s not addressed in the book – is anything that is not directly witnessed by Winston Smith true? We are led to believe, for example, that there are three world powers – Oceanea, Eastasia and Eurasia – which are locked in a state of perpetual war. The nature of this war and how it serves the interests of these three nations is laid out in Goldstein’s Book, which is the text of the Revolution that Winston and Julia want to join. But here’s the thing – Goldstein’s Book is an admitted fiction, written by the Party as a kind of honeypot to bring suspects through the last stages of their Thoughtcrime. So we have no proof that the world of Nineteen Eighty-four actually is laid out the way it appears.

Is this the real world? GO TO ROOM 101, CITIZEN!

The Party could in fact dominate the world, using the pretext of war to keep the world’s citizens terrified, needy and compliant. On the other extreme, Oceanea could just be Britain, turned in on itself like some super-accelerated North Korea, its borders sealed and its citizens kept in utter ignorance of the world outside. We don’t know. We have no way of knowing, and neither do any of the characters in the book. Even the Inner Party members might not know the truth of their world, and wouldn’t care if they did.

One more thing, and I’ll keep this one short – Doublethink. The ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind, believing in both of them simultaneously and yet being unaware that there’s any conflict at all. Knowing, for example, that last week chocolate rations were at thirty grams, and at the same time knowing that this week they had been raised to twenty. All I can say here is to look at the health care debate in the United States. Here’s a fun game: see how often someone says, “We have the best health care in the world,” and then see how long it takes before they tell us that health care in the United States is irrevocably broken. Your average politician and pundit does this kind of thing all the time and, in accordance with the basic principles of Doublethink (also known as Reality Control), they immediately forget that they had done it.

No! Not Obamacare! Do it to Julia! DO IT TO JULIA!!! (Art by Scott Sullivan on Flickr)

This game is much easier if you watch Glenn Beck for half an hour. You’ll be missed, Glenn.

There is just so much to be gleaned from this book. Probably the most important is this – the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four is certainly not an impossible one, but it is unlikely. The people of that world allowed the Party to take over for them in a time of crisis, and in that sense this book is a warning to us all. It is a warning to keep the power that we have, and to resist the temptation to let a government decide who we should be.

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“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-four

George Orwell on Wikipedia
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Review 82 – Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway


Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway by Dave Barry

When an election year comes around, I try really hard to stay above the fray. I know that there will be rumors and speeches and policies that get everyone really riled up, and I like to think that I can remain emotionally detached and not allow things to get under my skin.

I usually last until about the Conventions, at which point the slumbering poli-sci major in my brain wakes up and grabs the controls. At that point, I start to take things WAY too seriously. I write long, link-filled diatribes about why certain candidates (who shall remain nameless, in case I ever want to recycle this review during another election year) are completely wrong, utterly bereft of any kind of legitimacy or moral standing and how the American people obviously have the intellectual capacity of zucchini if they vote for them.

It’s easy to get caught up, because that’s what they want. Logical, well-reasoned approaches don’t go over well with the public, so they rely on the emotional heartstrings, and sometimes they get me. I turn really serious and absolutely devoted to the idea that I Am Right.

The only antidote to this is humor. It’s why I love watching The Daily Show – the more seriously you take things, the more self-assured you become in the absolute rightness of your position, the more you need to be taken down a peg. You need to take a breath, take a step back and allow yourself to laugh at the process. If you don’t, you end up risking becoming one of those humorless, fanatic talking heads that just drive everyone crazy.

So, if you need some laughs, and we all know we do, you could do worse than to pick up this book.

This is an original book, rather than a collection of Barry’s columns, and he promises right from the outset that he would do absolutely no research whatsoever. “To do an even halfway decent book on a subject as complex as the United States government,” he says, “you have to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. So the first thing I decided, when I was getting ready to write this book, was that it would not be even halfway decent.”

He is, of course, wrong. The book is at least three-quarters decent.

The government is a great source of humor, probably going back to the very first government when a particularly strong hunter-gatherer decided that he was the one best suited to tell the tribe what to do. Barry looks at the evolution of government, back from those early caveman days up to the early days of the twenty-first century. These days, instead of a large, heftable rock to beat possible opponents over the head with, they use commercials. Otherwise, the methods haven’t changed.

Barry’s sense of humor relies on him being The Common Man, someone who’s not really interested in the intricacies of how the government works, but is perfectly happy just sitting back and making fun of it. He has a great time re-writing the Constitution (“Article IV, section 1: There shall be a bunch of States.”) and illustrating the continual growth of the U.S. Government with the use of handy free clip-art pictures.

One of the best things he does is point out the fact that no politician ever, ever actually reduces the size of government, no matter what they promise. Government gets bigger, departments get more and more complex all the time, and there’s really nothing that we can do about it but try and get a laugh. So whether it’s the futility of trying to call prunes “dried plums” or trying to get Congress not to buy things that the military neither wants nor needs, the people in Washington that we trust to run the country are, obviously, insane. Why we keep sending them back is beyond me.

There is, of course, a section on the 2000 election – this book was written in 2001, so there was no escaping that – and a look at it from the unique perspective of those people who screwed it up for everyone. South Florida. The book gets kind of tangential at this point, going from making fun of the US government to making fun of Miami, but he does give us some warning. And in his defense, it is both funny and, in its own way, relevant. It has been argued that Florida is the reason why we had eight years of George W. Bush, so perhaps if we understand it better we may avoid such… unpleasantness in the future.

But I doubt it.

So, if you’re looking for a good laugh and something to remind you that you can’t take all this too seriously, pick up the book. It won’t solve your problems, and it won’t stop you from wanting to strangle everyone on the internet who disagrees with you, but at least a moment’s respite is worth it.

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“What the Founding Fathers were saying, basically, was: ‘Why should we let people over in England saddle us with an unresponsive government and stupid laws? We can create our own!'”
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway
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Review 80: Common Sense


Common Sense by Thomas Paine

This being an election year, there are a lot of people telling us what we should think about our country and its purpose in the world. Newspapers, magazines and books are churned out at a dizzying pace, each one designed to bend our wills to the writers’ opinions. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by them, honestly, especially the hardback tomes that – more often than not – turn out to be 300 pages of poorly disguised propaganda and party talking points.

From out vantage point, with a myriad of news sources at our fingertips – print, internet, and, of course, the insatiable maw that is 24-hour TV news – it’s difficult to truly appreciate the impact that Common Sense had when it was released as an anonymously penned pamphlet back in 1776.

No matter what your history teachers told you, the American colonists back then were not unanimously crying out for independence and liberation. Tensions were high between the Colonies and Britain, what with the various tax schemes and the conflicts in Boston, Lexington and Concord, but for everyone calling for independence, there were just as many who were looking for reconciliation between the Colonies and the Crown. They were British subjects, after all, and the thought of breaking from their God-given sovereign caused them great distress.

“We are his subjects,” the argument ran. “Who are we to disagree with his decisions? This may not be so great right now, but surely if we acquiesce, if we bow our heads, then we’ll receive all the benefits due his loyal subjects.”

Thomas Paine thought that this line of thinking was, in modern terms, bullshit, and he set out to explain precisely why.

Common Sense was written as a call for independence, aimed at convincing those hoping for reconciliation that their hopes were in vain. He believed that there could be no benefit to reconciling with the Crown, and that the only hope for Americans to have a decent future lay in the severing of bonds with Britain.

Without resorting to personal attacks, without naming names or pointing fingers, Paine systematically lays out a logical and clear rationale for independence. He begins by arguing against the legitimacy of Kings in general, and the King of England specifically, and puts forth the benefits that could only arise from representative government. He puts forth the practical economic and political reasons for independence in a calm and clear manner, and he does so in a way that makes it all sound like, well, common sense. It’s easy to imagine him standing there, saying, “Come on people! It’s friggin’ obvious!”

Political writers in the 21st century don’t really appreciate the things that they can get away with these days. If Ann Coulter wants to write a book about how Barack Obama is the vanguard of a Liberal Muslim Homosexual Revolution, she can. If Michael Moore wants to do a movie claiming that George W. Bush is the demon love child of Margaret Thatcher and Adolph Hitler, he can. The worst that’ll happen to them is a libel suit and a humbling public apology.

The worst that could have happened to Thomas Paine was a public hanging – if he was lucky.

Common Sense is such a pivotal document in American history – its influence cannot be overstated. It was so widely read, so acclaimed, that it is reasonable to say that the United States as we know it might not have come into being without it. It’s writing that I wish we could see these days. Not a call for independence per se, but rather clear, level-headed writing that treats its readers with respect. I’ve read a lot of political books in the last few years, and none of them were as straightforward and to the point as this book was.

What’s more, reading it is a reminder of the hopes and dreams that the founders of this country had for it. When they finally risked their lives and signed the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, when they fought and suffered and died in the years following, when they argued and compromised to create a Constitution, they did so in the hopes that the country they were forging would be a good one. They did so in the knowledge that they would never see the era of the United States’ true greatness, but in the hopes that it would one day come.

It is the responsibility of all Americans to live up to those hopes.

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“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense . . .”
-Thomas Paine, Common Sense
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Thomas Paine on Wikipedia
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Cracked.com – 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think

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Review 38: Transmetropolitan


Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

There are times I look around me and think, “I love living in the future.” I mean think about all that we have – even the simplest phones can call anywhere in the world, and the higher end ones are basically backup brains. Surgery that used to require horrible invasion can now be done with a fraction of the time and the pain. We can cure diseases that a century ago would have been thought of as afflictions by God. Our transportation networks have grown to a point where there is practically nowhere on Earth that cannot be reached in twenty-four hours, and advances in communication have provided us with more information than our ancestors could have hoped to see in their (briefer) lifetimes.

We live in an age of wonders, when you really think about it.

Leave it to Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, then, to show us what living in the future really means.

Transmetropolitan is set in the far, far future – so far ahead that even they don’t know what year it is. It’s set a in future that can do anything – cure any disease, bring people back from the dead, synthesize consumer goods from blocks of inert matter…. You can turn yourself into a dolphin for a day or into a sentient dust cloud for the rest of eternity. It’s a future that defies imagination.

And yet, it is very similar to now. The same problems, the same mistakes and the same short-sightedness that plague us will be around in the future, no matter how good the technology is. Despite being able to have anything you want, there is still greed. Despite being able to reassemble matter on an atomic level, there is still hunger and homelessness. Despite the human form becoming malleable in a thousand different ways, there is still discrimination. This perfect future has a flaw, and like so many perfect things, its flaw is its people.

Our guide to this future is Spider Jerusalem, a celebrated journalist whose love of the truth eclipses his hate of the world he lives in, and he’s determined to set the City straight, even if it kills him. He’s an analogue of Hunter S. Thompson, with a little H.L. Mencken thrown in for balance, and he’s the most awesome character to grace comics in a long time.

Spider is angry because he has to come back to The City, the nameless hypertropolis that both sustains him and drives him mad. He looks around and sees the ugliness under the shiny plastic shell of society and is instantly furious that no one has done anything about it yet. What’s more, it’s time to vote for President again, and this time it looks like it’s a race between an incumbent so horrible that he was nicknamed The Beast and an utterly amoral snake called The Smiler, who wants to be President just because that’s what he wants. Spider Jerusalem, whether he wants it or not, holds the keys to power for both of these men, and even his high moral sense isn’t able to tell him which of the two villains should get it.

Keen observers of 20th century history will see a lot reflected in this series, deliberately and clearly, and Spider is Ellis’ avatar His word is beyond dispute and his decisions are beyond question, which is why Warren Ellis is a kind of internet cult figure these days. He created a character that was a brash loudmouth who could scream the things that we’re all thinking, but someone with whom we feel an almost immediate and unshakable sympathy. He’s enough to make me want to be a journalist.

The future of Transmetropolitan is a place where Ellis was able to tell us everything that had been bugging him, from the hyper-escalation of technology to corrupt government to social apathy. The first few issues, before the real meat of the story kicks in, are “soapbox” issues, where Ellis rails against everything that’s going wrong in our time by making it so much worse in the future. My favorite of these, of course, is the religion issue (#6, God Riding Shotgun) where Spider crashes – and trashes – a convention for new religions. Alien Love Gardeners, the Church of Cobain, and the Church of Release, where trepanation can be practiced as an act of evangelism are excellent examples.

Eventually the story settles down with the arrival of the Presidential Election and Spider’s determination to bring down The Smiler no matter what it costs him.

The writing in this story is fantastic, of course, as we would expect nothing less from Warren Ellis. Spider is utterly, completely foul-mouthed, so don’t let your children read it unless you want them to shock sailors. But there are touching moments and angry tirades and passionate speeches that dig right into your heart, and whether you love Spider or hate him, you know he’s speaking from the core of his soul.

The art, too, is outstanding. It takes great skill to make such ugliness look beautiful, but Darick Robertson certainly has it. The City is a living, breathing place, and it has all of the beauty and horror of a living organism, if you look closely enough. Robertson can render gleaming cityscapes alongside the hollow eyes of child prostitutes with equal care and detail. While you read, be sure to look, because every panel is worth looking at.

Transmetropolitan is a story about truth, really. Or if we want to be specific, The Truth. Spider believes in The Truth, no matter who it hurts, and his mission as a journalist is to discover and promulgate the truth. Whether it’s the truth about the alien-human hybrid prostitutes delivered to the presidential suite or the truth about a level of poverty in the City that would shame a third-world nation, Spider’s aim is to show people what their world looks like and force them to take action. Unfortunately, he’s fighting an uphill battle.

You see, much like in our world, people don’t actually like truth. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, especially because there’s a very good chance that the truth could implicate us in some pretty horrible situations. What’s worse, there are countless situations where you can have contradictory situations and explanations, and yet both can be considered “true.” That’s the unfortunate difference between fiction and real life.

Still, I would appreciate Spider Jerusalem today. In this world of instant news, where something that’s an hour old is “old news” and where opinion is put side-by-side with fact as if there were some kind of controversy, we need someone to stand for the truth. Someone who doesn’t care about what people think of him or the consequences of her quest for herself. Someone fearless enough to push as far as he can and then push farther. Someone to stand up and say, “This is what is true.”

We may not listen to this person. In fact, given the way things are going right now, we may even come to hate the one who tells us how we are responsible for the world in which we live. But we need him nonetheless, and if Spider Jerusalem can inspire even a few of us to look at our societies and ourselves with a critical, unblinking, bloodshot eye, then perhaps his spirit lives, even if he doesn’t.

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These are the new streets of this city. Where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt. Television and teddy bears. But all we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.
– Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan
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Transmetropolitan on Wikipedia
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Filed under Darick Robertson, DC Comics, futurism, graphic novel, humor, media, politics, science fiction, technology, totalitarianism, Warren Ellis

Review 36: Little Brother


Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“They’d taken everything from me. First my privacy, then my dignity. I’d been ready to sign anything. I would have signed a confession that said I’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”
– Malcolm, Little Brother
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