Category Archives: totalitarianism

Books about or featuring totalitarianism.

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 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 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
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Wikipedia
Online comic adaptation
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, dystopia, ethics, existentialism, fiction, futurism, George Orwell, language, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, psychology, totalitarianism, truth

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
Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Darick Robertson on Wikipedia
Warren Ellis’ homepage
Darick Robertson’s homepage
Transmetropolitan on Wikiquote
Transmetropolitan on Amazon.com

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Filed under Darick Robertson, DC Comics, futurism, graphic novel, humor, media, politics, science fiction, technology, totalitarianism, Warren Ellis

Review 18: Swan Song

Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Okay, have you read The Stand? Humanity being wiped out by a short-sighted government, small groups of people struggling to survive in an America laid low? A dramatic escape from New York through a dark and scary tunnel? An evil adversary from an unknown place whose only dream is the end of the world?

Yeah, that’s Swan Song, too. Only with nukes instead of a virus.

It really is an alarmingly similar story, published about ten years after The Stand, but – and this is important – it’s still a really good book. Derivative? Sure. But it’s still good, which is a neat trick.

The story starts in an alternate world, one that seemed all-too-probable in 1987, when this book was published. The US and the Soviet Union are toe-to-toe, fighting proxy wars all over the world. Nuclear exchanges have already happened between smaller nations. The world is inches away from war, and there seems to be no going back.

Domestically, things aren’t much better. In New York City, the city has fallen to crime and decay – drugs, trash and whores are all that can be found, and if any city deserves destruction it’s this one. It’s the worst projections of New York come true, and its eventual destruction is almost like a blessing.

In the western mountains, a group of survivalists have hollowed out a shelter against the possibility of The End, and Earth House is full to bursting. Young Ronald Croninger and his parents are there, but the boy is not impressed by what he sees. Colonel Macklin,the ex-soldier who is the public face of Earth House, seems to have gone to seed, and the shelter itself is falling apart, just like everything else.

The world is going straight to Hell, and it’s all too easy for the US and the Soviets to send it all the way there.

The book has an epic scope and a massive cast, lined up pretty equally on the sides of Good and Evil. As the book progresses, the disparate groups finally come together in a final confrontation that will decide the fate of the world.

In the midst of all that, a certain mystical quality has arisen. There’s a… being, a creature of demonic countenance who can change his face and travel freely throughout the wasted land. His sole desire is to see the end of humanity – he revels in destruction and despair and wants nothing more than to see the end of Our Heroes. On the other hand is the title character, Swan. As a girl, she loved plants and flowers, and had a strange affinity for the natural world. As she grew up, however, her powers matured, and that affinity became a full-on partnership. They each collect a following, through fear and hope respectively, and they each know that there’s only one way this can all end.

There’s an element of mysticism to this as well, though why it should be there is not explained. For example, the burned-out rubble of Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue creates a shining glass ring, filled with strands of precious metals and valuable stones. This ring becomes the guide for Sister, a woman who was once mad but becomes the sanest one of the survivors. With the ring, she is able to perform miracles. There’s a magic mirror that shows the future, prophetic dreams and other elements of mysticism. It seems that when the world as we know it ends, the world as we don’t know it steps in. And then there’s the Job’s Masks – a mysterious growth that covers a person’s head in an impenetrable shell, only to crack open years later and…. Well, I’ll let you find out.

The appeal of apocalyptic fiction is an interesting one, and easily understandable. Humans have been interested in how the world will end since about the same time we figured out that the world could end. And there are many ways for it to go, whether it’s the nuclear fire of this book, the insidious virus of The Stand, the near-miss religious apocalypse of Good Omens, the various meteor impacts and climatological disasters that Hollywood loves to show us…. The ways in which the world ends are countless, but they all share one distinct feature – when the end comes, you’ll find out who you really are.

It’s tempting, then, to give it some thought and wonder, “Who would I be, when all was gone?”

This book has some excellent role models to choose from – and to avoid. The characters are compelling, and the world is vividly drawn, so as long as you’re not thinking, “But this is just like The Stand!” you should greatly enjoy it. I highly recommend it.

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“Once upon a time, we had a love affair with fire.”
– Robert McCammon, Swan Song
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Swan Song at Wikipedia
Robert McCammon at Wikipedia
Swan Song at Amazon.com
Robert McCammon on Swan Song
Robert McCammon’s homepage

BONUS! The Boyfriend decided that there needs to be pictures of me recording the podcast. So he took some….

Doing the Podcast

Doing the Podcast
Listening to the playback. I’ve had a haircut since then….

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Filed under apocalypse, death, fantasy, good and evil, horror, nuclear war, Robert McCammon, society, survival, totalitarianism, war

Review 16: Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This is one of my top five books. Whenever anyone asks me, “What is your favorite book?” this is at or near the top. It was the first adult-length book I read when I was in Elementary school, and I have every intention of getting my hands on a copy for my goddaughter at some point soon. I remember watching the movie when they used to show it annually on CBS, way back in those days beyond recall….

Why should this book, of all the books I’ve ever read in my life, stay so dear to me? I have no idea. Perhaps because, even though its main characters are rabbits, it isn’t a “talking animals” book. Adams didn’t talk down to his readers, and assumed that they were ready to follow Hazel and Fiver wherever they went. And so, unusually for children’s literature, there is violence and loss and true danger in this book. Characters die. Unpleasantly. The rabbits live in fear of mankind and the Thousand, and accomplish great things despite. They do what no rabbit had done before, and find a new world for themselves. And, of course, are forced to fight for it.

Our heroes, you see, are living an idyllic life in a warren in England. They do what rabbits do – eat, sleep, mate, and entertain themselves. But one rabbit, Fiver, can see more clearly than others. He can sense danger, and grasp the shape of the future, and he knows that any rabbit who stays where they are will certainly die. With his brother, Hazel, Fiver and a small group of rabbits leave their home.

They do what rabbits never do – they explore. They go through dense woods and cross streams. They hide among gardens and search for the best place they can find to set up their new warren – a safe place, high in the hills, where they can see all around and the ground is dry. They seek to build a new society, as so many humans have done in our history.

And what’s more, they try to build the best society that they can. The need leadership, yes, but how much? How much freedom should the ordinary rabbit have to live its life? This question becomes more and more important when they meet the cruel General Woundwort, de facto leader of the warren known as Efrafa.

The battle that they have, choosing between personal liberty and the safety of the warren, is emblematic of so many struggles that have gone on in our world, and continue today. Through a tale about rabbits, Adams manages to tell us about ourselves, which is the mark of a great writer.

As cynical as I have become in my years, I still find this story to be honest and true. Adams isn’t trying to make an allegory or grind an axe. He’s trying to tell a good story about hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity, a story with – as Tolkien put it, “applicability” – that we can overlay onto our own lives and experiences. The fact that the main characters are rabbits is incidental.

Well, not really. Another layer to this story is the culture that Adams has created. The stories of Frith and El-ahrairah (which, I’ve just noticed, is misprinted on the first page of the contents in this edition as “El-ahrairah.” Weird) are sometimes deep and meaningful, sometimes fun and silly, but always relevant and rich, in the tradition of oral storytelling. There is a language to the rabbits, which is regularly used throughout the book (and one complete sentence in lapine – Silflay hraka u embleer rah. Memorable….) Adams did a lot of research into the social structure of rabbits and their lifestyles, making it as accurate is it could be….

Anyway, every young person should read this. Hell, older people should read it too. Every time I read the story, it moves me. I can hear the voices of the characters clearly and see what they see. I am inspired by the steadfastness of Hazel, the strength of Bigwig and the resolve of Blackavar. I find qualities in these characters that I would like to possess, and that’s as good a reason as any to love a book.

As a side note, this book is the reason I got into Magic: The Gathering way back in college. For a long time, I thought it was just a stupid card game, with no cultural or imaginative merit. Then I happened across a “Thunder Spirit” card, which had a quote from Watership Down at the bottom:

“It was full of fire and smoke and light and…it drove between us and the Efrafans like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning.”

Still gives me goosebumps.

Anyway, I thought, “Maybe there’s something to this,” and the rest was (very expensive) history….

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“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you, digger, listener, runner. Prince with a swift warning. Be cunning and your people will never be destroyed.”
– Frith, Watership Down
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Watership Down at Wikipedia
Richard Adams at Wikipedia
Watership Down at Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, England, fantasy, made into movies, rabbits, Richard Adams, survival, totalitarianism, travel, war, young adult

Review 14: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

There are people who think that comic books are just for kids. They see Superman and Batman and Spider-Man, with their bright costumes and their rather simplistic moral codes and think, “Well, that’s all well and good for children, but as a thinking adult, I need something more.” Some of these folks are lit-snobs, who view any kind of book with pictures as immature. Perhaps they were told that they need to grow up, and have distanced themselves with comics as they have done with their own childhoods. Or perhaps they simply don’t know better….

The point is that while there certainly is a lot of childish dross in comics, there’s also a lot of gold. In the right hands, a great story can be told in any medium, be it print, painting, film, stage, or yes – even comics. In this case, the right hands are those of Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

Moore is considered one of the giants of modern comic books, having penned many a dark and strange tale, ignoring the accepted norms of comic book storytelling in order to tell the weird and off-kilter stories that he wants to tell. In the famous Watchmen, Moore told us about the flaws and imperfections inherent in the heroic ideal. In V for Vendetta, he looks at the flaws and imperfections in our societies and ourselves.

The book is set in an alternate London, a place that Could Have Been. In this world, the worst of our modern nightmares has happened – a nuclear war that ravaged many parts of the world. Europe, Africa, these places were, as the characters put it, “gone.” England survived the turmoil by the skin of its teeth, pulling itself up from chaos and disorder thorough the strength of the new government party, Norsefire.

This government is unapologetically fascist. In the turmoil following the war, they saw the only solution to England’s survival in absolute obedience. And so they built a new England – an England of strict rules and laws, with ears and eyes everywhere. Minorities of all kinds were systematically wiped out from the country. Blacks, Muslims, homosexuals – anyone who didn’t fit into the world view of the new leadership was eliminated, and in many cases just disappeared. The government espouses a doctrine of absolute control over its citizenry, seeing that as the only defense against the horrors that the world had just barely survived.

But, for all that, England prevailed. People were safe in their homes, as long as they followed the rules. They were entertained with radio and television, given plenty of amusements and a healthy dose of fear to keep them in line. The government of England seemed almighty, governed by their fascist ideology and a massive supercomputer, known simply as Fate. Nothing, they thought, could challenge their supremacy.

Until V arrived.

With no name, and no face besides the Guy Fawkes mask he wore, the terrorist known as V began to cut a swathe through the ruling elite. All that is known of him is that he had been a prisoner in one of the concentration camps set up by the government. In that place, terrible experiments were done on the human detritus of society – experiments with truly horrific results. Whether V’s incredible mind and physical ability were because of those experiments or despite them, we will never know. All we do know is that he survived, and with a single-minded determination bordering on madness, he sought revenge.

With public demonstrations of terrorism and pyrotechnics, he took it upon himself to wrest control of the city from those who had locked it down. His goal is freedom for everyone, anarchy in its truest sense, and he will not be stopped.

As the title suggests, this is a vendetta on many levels. It is revenge for what was done to V in the prison camps where they took all the “undesirables,” and for what was done to England by its new rulers. V is a man with nothing to lose, and everything to gain – not just for himself, but for his country.

This is a book about freedom on many levels. It’s about political freedom, which makes it especially relevant today, and it’s no coincidence that the film emerged during the headiest days of the Bush administration. Following the attacks of September 11th, Americans were afraid, and the government – like the government of this book – was all too willing to harness that fear in exchange for control. People were told to watch what they say about the President, the government or the troops. Television pundits and spokespeople demanded that criticism be shut down, and that those who disagreed with what the country was doing were branded traitors.

Fortunately, we got through those frightened times, but even today, those who would stay in power use fear to keep people in line. Fear of death, fear of immigrants, fear of gays – fear of The Other – are the first weapons they use to command obedience from their citizenry.

And most people fall in line very easily. It’s not surprising, really. Most people, when they’re afraid, look to someone to take care of them, to protect them and to tell them what to do. It’s a natural impulse, a natural need of human beings. But V exhorts us to move past that. He reminds us that, in a quote from the film, “People should not be afraid of their governments – governments should be afraid of their people.” While our government never reached the depths of the one in this book, it is something that all citizens of all countries should remember.

The book is also about personal freedom. We are all of us prisoners, really – prisoners of our societies and prisoners of ourselves. We are held down by our preconceptions , our doubts and our illusions; our own minds and our beliefs about what others expect of us are what keep us locked into a prison whose bars we cannot even see. V freed himself from his own literal and spiritual confinement to go from prisoner to a societal force, bursting free in an explosion of flame and destruction. He meets a young woman, Evey Hammond, and brings her into his world – partly to be his accomplice, but also to show her how to be free. Her freedom comes at a cost too, enduring the greatest nightmare of a citizen of a fascist society. But she survives, and finds her freedom in the rain and the dark.

The lesson that V teaches us, whether as individuals or societies, is twofold: we hold ourselves prisoner, and there is no more vicious or cruel jailer than ourselves. And that freedom is frightening – it is wild and uncontrolled, and never comes without a price. But that price is well worth paying.

To be honest, it took me a long time to finally enjoy this book. When it came out originally, I was big into super-hero books, and V struck me as just goofy. Why would someone wear such a dumb mask? I thought. And that hat? The cloak is okay, but…. Of course, I knew nothing of Guy Fawkes at the time, so perhaps my ignorance of British history held me back, but still, I was very impatient with it. Also, the art was much rougher and darker than I was used to. The usual four-color palette and clean inks of super-hero comics are not to be found in this book. Instead there are washes of pale purple and yellow and green, with heavy inks and faces full of sorrow and pain.

In other words, it was not what I expected from a comic, and so I gave it a wide berth. And that was probably for the best, since I think that having a better idea of politics and society makes the story that much more interesting. It’s a complex and multi-leveled tale that deserves a thoughtful read, and asks a lot from its reader, and if you expect to get through it without doing some thinking of your own, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

That is, however, the mark of a great work – does it make you think? Does it come back to you later, when you’re watching the news or reading the newspaper? When you see a story about the pervasiveness of security cameras and think, “I wish V were here,” then Alan Moore and David Lloyd have truly done their jobs.

V isn’t the hero we expect from comics. He isn’t the hero we’d necessarily want, either. But a person like V is necessary sometimes – someone who values freedom above all else. Let us hope that we never need him.

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“Noise is relative to the silence preceding it. The more absolute the hush, the more shocking the thunderclap.
Our masters have not heard the people’s voice for generations, Evey… and it is much, much louder than they care to remember.”
– V, V for Vendetta
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V for Vendetta on Wikipedia
V for Vendetta on Wikiquote
V for Vendetta at DC Comics
Alan Moore on Wikipedia
David Lloyd on Wikipedia
V for Vendetta on Amazon.com
Guy Fawkes on Wikipedia

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Filed under Alan Moore, anarchy, comic books, David Lloyd, DC Comics, England, made into movies, murder, politics, terrorism, totalitarianism