Category Archives: society

Books about society in general.

Review 153: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, Compendium One by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore & Cliff Rathburn

Zombies are boring.

There. I said it. And I’m not ashamed.

They are, though. Zombies have no real motivation, they have no goals other than to kill all humans. They are mindless, a kind of twisted force of nature whose great terror lies in their sheer numbers and their unstoppability. As a concept, zombies are interesting, and as a symbol or a metaphor there’s a lot you can do with them, but the zombies themselves are kind of dull. They lurch about, slowly decaying, looking for people to devour. No one ever made a best-selling book or a hit movie with a zombie protagonist. [1]

Not many people know that zombies make great photographers. Photo courtesy of LaughingSquid.

Think about it: every zombie story rests on the same basic plot. The dead have risen and a small band of living survivors tries to find safety in a world that is actively trying to kill them. That’s it. Sure, the details may vary – fast zombies or slow ones, a cure or no cure, they eat brains or they’ll eat anything, trapped in a mall or a farmhouse – but the foundation of the story is the same, and woe betide the writer who strays too far from the formula. Writing a zombie story means agreeing to adhere to a set of predetermined rules, which allow only a little room for straying.

So what is it that makes zombie stories so popular? Why do people love books like this one, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or World War Z? Why do movies like Shaun of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead and even Resident Evil get people so excited? It certainly isn’t because of the zombies, although it is always fun to see the special effects improve.

We read and watch zombie stories because we love the survivors, and it is they who make or break a zombie story. The more closely we can identify or sympathize with a survivor, the more interesting and horrifying the story becomes for us. They are a great demonstration of the variety in the human condition, and illuminate new and interesting aspects of humanity every time. In this case, we are given Rick Grimes as our protagonist, a police officer from a small town in Kentucky who gets shot on duty and wakes up a month later in the hospital to find the world has been given over to the dead.

As he looks for his wife and son, Rick finds himself leading a band of survivors in their search for a place of safety away from both the dead who wish to devour them and the living who wish to kill them.

No, technically it's not. Which doesn't make things any better.

What makes this a really fun – and terrifying – read is that Kirkman carefully paces the plot so that we never really get much time to rest. A pattern quickly starts to emerge in the story, with Rick and his people finding safety, a kind of equilibrium between running for their lives and resting, only to have that equilibrium disrupted. Each time the interval gets longer and longer, both in terms of page count and story-time, but each time you know what’s coming. The hardest moments are the most peaceful ones, when they have found a refuge from the horrors of the world because you know it isn’t going to last, and you know that when the balance is finally undone, it’s going to be worse than before. Kirkman uses this pattern and this expectation to his advantage, creating a tight and tense narrative.

He also provides us with a look at some of the ethical problems that arise from a world where the dead outnumber the living. In nearly every zombie story ever written, the living immediately start killing the zombies, but is that the right choice to make? We don’t know all the facts. We don’t know what caused this outbreak, whether it can be cured, or even whether the people affected might just get better. We just start taking head shots in ignorance, but might it not be worth it to try and learn something about these “monsters?” [2]

There’s also the question of how to organize a post-outbreak society. What kind of person or people should run the survivors’ societies? Is this an opportunity to remake civilization, or should the old ways be adhered to? How much leeway to we have in restarting the world, and what will that look like in the end? The characters in this story have to deal with how to define a family when one’s partner or parents or children could die at any time. They have a chance to redefine what is lawful and illegal, to toy with the notions of what is right and wrong, and to re-evaluate the role religion plays in their lives. It’s a chance to rebuild the world from scratch, and the characters in this story test those limits in interesting and sometimes unsettling ways.

Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal...

And that’s assuming that the living will actually survive and thrive in a zombified world. This is a world where death is always only moments away. It is only a matter of time before the living survivors join the ranks of the undead, and the awareness of that fact is the classic existential puzzle with a little extra twist to it: how do you live when you know that you will die, and especially when you know the horror that your death will entail? One of the more heartbreaking moments is when one character gets killed, and Rick has to break the news to his young son, Carl. When he asks his son if he is upset, Carl replies, “No. People die, dad. It happens all the time. I’ll miss [him]… but I knew he was going to die eventually. Everyone will. Everyone.”

That is an observation that, frankly, no child should ever have to make.

The characters in this story make hard choices and sometimes do terrible things in the name of survival. But, with very few exceptions, there are few characters that we cannot truly come to understand and identify with. Their decisions and their reactions make them richer, more interesting, which is what truly makes for a fascinating and engaging story.

The zombies are really incidental to all that.

Pages and pages of this. I feel for you, Adelard.

As this is a comic series, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art, which is overall quite good. There were a few times when I had trouble telling some characters apart, but the high rate of attrition generally took care of that problem. The detail in the artwork is very impressive, though I can imagine there were more than a few times that Charlie Adlard cursed Robert Kirkman for setting a large part of the series in a locale with a prominent chain-link fence that couldn’t easily be ignored. As this is a horror comic, the art is sometimes horrifying, very graphic and quite satisfying without being gratuitous. Well, mostly without being gratuitous….

It’s a really excellent book, though I do have one caveat if you’re planning to buy the compendium edition: get a reinforced reading harness, or rest the book on a solid piece of furniture with a low center of gravity. This is one of the densest books I’ve ever read, packing nearly five pounds of book into less physical volume [3] than the last hardcover installment of The Dark Tower, a fairly hefty book. I think the ink may contain uranium or something. So, take measures to prevent back injury and hernias when you read this and you’ll be just fine.

Many thanks to my brother Michael for knowing I would enjoy this, and I look forward to watching the AMC television adaptation.

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“But honestly… I just don’t know what anyone’s thinking. To me, that’s scarier than any half-rotten ghoul trying to eat my flesh.”
– Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
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[1] Cue angry email pointing me towards exactly that book or movie in 3… 2… 1…

[2] Short answer: no.

[3] It comes out to 1.147 grams per cubic centimeter, which isn’t nearly as dense as it feels when it’s making the straps of your bag dig into your shoulder….

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Filed under comic books, death, disaster, existentialism, family, graphic novel, horror, made into movies, morality, Robert Kirkman, society, zombies

Review 152: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flag of Luna. Seriously.

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

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

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

Review 149: Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card

In his introduction to the book, Card says that the main reason he wrote his most famous book – Ender’s Game – was so that he would one day be able to write this. I think this is something that probably happens a lot to authors. They get a Big Idea in their head, something with great depth and complexity and meaning, and quickly discover that they don’t actually know what they’re writing about yet. There’s too much to say, there’s too much that even the author doesn’t know yet, and to go forward from that state of ignorance will result in what is, ultimately, an inferior narrative.

Andrew Wiggin, the Speaker for the Dead, comes to the human colony Lusitania in order to speak the death of a local man, Marcão. While given the same reverence and privileges as priests, Speakers are not the same. Their job is to learn about the dead, to understand who they were and who they wanted to be, and then tell the truth as plainly and as clearly as possible. They do not give eulogies, where they try to paint the dead in as good a light as possible. They reveal who this person was, and in the process try to help those left behind understand them. It’s a calling that requires an insightful mind, great empathy for others, and the ability to tell the truth despite how hard that truth may be to hear.

As a Speaker for the Dead, Andrew Wiggin is very good at his job. It was he who was the first Speaker, who wrote a text that is as revered as the Bible – The Hive Queen and the Hegemon – in order to understand how humankind could kill the only other intelligent species it had ever encountered. The book reveals who the Buggers were and why they attacked humanity. It tells how their understanding of what it means to be intelligent led to a century of warfare and, ultimately, their own destruction. The book also reveals humanity, the dreams and fears that it faced when it met the Buggers. And it tries to understand why humans were so afraid that they took one of their own – a little boy named Ender – and turned him into the greatest monster in human history. The Xenocide. The one who destroyed an entire alien race.

This book changed the way humankind saw the universe, and themselves. With the Buggers gone, but their technology still available, humans expanded out to a hundred worlds. Though their starships could only go just under the speed of light, the ansible provided instant communication between the stars. It formed a communications network that held the Starways Congress together and allowed humanity to become a multi-system species.

Ender – Andrew – is ultimately responsible for all of this, and is therefore the linchpin of this entire universe. In order to write this book, to understand the culture and the history and the politics that would be necessary to write Speaker for the Dead, Card first had to understand who Ender was. So, with the blessing of his publishers, he was able to turn Ender’s Game into a full-length novel. Once that was done, he was able to turn back to this book and craft it into what it has become.

Question: Will the aliens wear hats that are sillier than ours? No? Good.

The colony of Lusitania is a small place, a group of Catholic settlers who live in a small and insular town. They have all the troubles that any new world would have, except for two that make it truly unique. The first is the descolada, a virus that nearly destroyed the colony and, thousands of years before, life on the planet. This illness literally unzips and recombines your DNA, ravaging your body utterly. If not for the dying work of the colony’s two great xenobiologists, everyone would have died. As it turned out, Gusto and Cida were the last to die, leaving their sad, strange daughter Novinha behind.

Even that wouldn’t be enough to make Lusitania a truly remarkable place. No, for that, we must introduce the Piggies – the third intelligent life form known to exist in the universe. They’re small, look like little pig-men, and are indisputably intelligent. They learn quickly, even despite the law forbidding xenologists from influencing their development, and present humanity with an important chance: the last time we encountered an alien intelligence, we obliterated it. Let’s not do that again.

This becomes harder, however, when the Piggies kill two of the xenologists in what appear to be a horrifyingly painful method. Now it looks like humanity may have to revert to type again, and that there truly is no way that humans can share the same space with other intelligences.

Into all this steps Ender. His years of lightspeed travel have kept him young while three thousand years have passed, and he has wandered from world to world to speak for the dead. Now he is on Lusitania to speak for Marcão, an investigation that will lead him to uncover secrets kept for decades, and to once again change the way humans understand their universe.

There’s really so much to say about this book that it’s hard to decide what to leave out and what to keep in. For one thing, Card is trying to write a very different kind of science fiction story. In his introduction, he says that a lot of fiction is adolescent in nature, science fiction especially. It’s about adventure, about people seeing a way out of their conventional lives and going off alone. It’s about being freed from responsibility and living a fast and crazy life. When that loneliness of adventure finally becomes too much, the hero settles down, but that’s usually the last chapter of the book, if ever.

Isolation. Not just for murderous adolescent geniuses.

Card wanted to go the opposite way, to take a lonely adventurer and show him trying desperately to become responsible, to become a member of a community. In class, where I’m teaching Ender’s Game, we’ve identified isolation as being one of the overriding themes of the novel. Ender is constantly taken away from those he loves or held apart from others. In the end, he becomes a solo wanderer. Even more than that, he is made into a monster, a name on par with Lucifer itself. He is virtually thrown out of humanity, and it is only because no one knows who he really is that he can travel unmolested.

So we’re seeing Ender in that stage where the loneliness and the wandering have become an unbearable burden to him, and all he wants is a place to belong. But as a Speaker, as a man speaking a death that could completely upend the lives of everyone in the colony, he has his work cut out for him.

There is also the element of redemption. In his years of travel, Ender has carried a very special package with him – the cocoon of the last Bugger hive queen. In exchange for her story, he promised that he would find a home for her, a place for her to rebuild her vast family. And on Lusitania, there is that chance. But first he has to save the Piggies, to prevent them from suffering the fate of the Buggers at the hand of a fearful and suspicious Humanity. If Ender can do this, perhaps he can make up for the horror that he unknowingly perpetrated.

There’s a lot going on in this book, to say the least. It’s a great book, better in many ways than Ender’s Game. It is more complex and adult and difficult, with moments of true emotion, a well-built socio-political system befitting a species that spans hundreds of worlds, and addressing the needs for changes in culture, politics and even language that would arise from the need to define relationships between worlds and between species.

Ender would have been a natural for the Indigo Tribe. You listening, Geoff Johns?

Fundamentally, though, this book is about what the Speaker for the Dead does best – understanding. It’s about how we deal with The Other, even when that Other is completely alien to us. Humans and Buggers, Humans and Piggies – hell, Humans and Humans, we have a hard time understanding people who are not like us. We find it very difficult to look at the world from their point of view and to see the world through their eyes. Understanding what they love and fear, what they value and honor, or what they abhor – and more importantly, understanding what they see in you and how they understand you – is the best and surest road to making peace with those who are different from yourself. And that’s a lesson that is valuable for all of us.

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“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.”
– Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the Dead

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Filed under children, colonization, death, disease, empathy, family, friendship, morality, murder, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sins, society, space travel, teenagers, women

Lost in the Stacks 09: Banned Books Week

Harry Potter
The adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A Diary of a Young Girl
Fahrenheit 451
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
The Jungle
Lord of the Rings

These are just a few books that the American Library Association has reported as being banned or challenged in American libraries, and the list grows longer every year. Sometimes it’s because it offends someone’s religious sensibilities – like Harry Potter – and other times because it offends their moral sensibilities – And Tango Makes Three for example. And then there are those that make you think banning books isn’t so bad after all – Twilight is on the list – before you shake it off and think about how it does no good for anyone.

Ban a book and its sales will surely rise in the resulting media firestorm. Tell kids that a certain book is forbidden, and the first thing they’ll do is go get it. And even if you somehow manage to keep them cloistered from all the Bad Books out there, sooner or later they’ll find out what you were trying to hold back from them. When that happens, they will not think fondly of you.

Last week was Banned Books Week – but really it should be every week. Give the episode a listen and come join the conversation!

The American Library Association’s Banned Books Week page

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Filed under censorship, culture, Lost in the Stacks, reading, society

Review 139: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Imagine, for a moment, one of our early human ancestors. A first-generation Homo sapiens, exploring his world with an amazing brain that would be the envy of the animal kingdom. If they understood envy. He, and his children, and their children and grandchildren will spread across the Earth as hunter-gatherers, the first beings (so far as we know) who can look at the world and attempt to pass on what it knows and learns. Their threats were simple: survive or don’t. Find food or starve. Hunt or be hunted. And those fantastic brains did such a bang-up job that their descendants are still walking around, thousands of generations later.

Now, take that Paleolithic man – swift of foot, sharp of eye, strong of hand – and drop him in the middle of modern-day Times Square. And, as his minder, give him a bored, easily distracted teenager – one who knows the world, but can’t be bothered to do the work to make decisions.

We are all of us Captain Caveman.

Congratulations. According to Daniel Gardner, we have just constructed a fine metaphor for how the human brain works. Part of it is very old, able to make decisions in an instant based on the slimmest of clues. The other is newer, more rational and savvy, able to put together reasoned, logical arguments, but doesn’t have the sheer speed and force that is prehistoric partner has. And as much as we want it to be true that the rational, modern part of our mind is in charge,the sad fact is that out inner caveman has far more influence over us than we care to admit.

Gardner begins the book with an interesting story about the most terrifying thing to happen in the last decade – the attacks of September 11th in the United States. By the time the towers fell, people around the world were watching, and anyone who didn’t see it live would surely see it soon enough as it was replayed over and over again. It was truly terrifying to watch, unlike anything Americans had seen before in their country, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of people. Many people, as a result, chose to forgo air travel in favor of driving.

Now, as Superman famously told Lois Lane, flying is statistically the safest way to travel. In fact, the most dangerous part of any trip that involves flying is usually the drive to the airport. But, in those days and months after the attacks, people were scared to fly. So they drove instead. And, according to a five year study of traffic fatalities in the U. S. after 9/11 by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, 1,595 people died on the roads who otherwise would not have.

They were afraid, and that’s understandable. But they were afraid of the wrong thing. So they died.

Gardner sets out in this book to figure out why it is that people in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous nations on Earth – in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous era of human history – live in a state of near-constant fear.

As long as he doesn't insist on eating children halal, I don't care...

A lot of it, as the intro implies, comes down to the fact that our brains, which evolved over millions of years to be very good at judging risks that might be found on the savannah, are simply not prepared to do the same in a modern technological world. Our brains can’t tell the difference between risk in fiction and reality, between something that happened to us and something we saw on the news. When it comes to risk, our brains play it very safe, which is great out in nature. Is that shadow in the bushes a tiger? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s probably a good idea to get the hell away from it. We can’t say the same thing of that guy sitting on the bus who looks like maybe he might be a Muslim.

We also tend to assume that if we’ve heard of something recently, then it must be more common. Again if you’re out in nature and you saw a bear yesterday, there’s a decent chance that the bear is still around today and you might want to be wary of that. But what if you see constant news coverage of a high-profile child abduction? It’s on every show, being talked about on every blog – does that mean that the chance of your child being abducted has increased? Of course not, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. Your brain thinks that your child will be taken from you the moment you look away, and all the reasoning in the world won’t change its mind.

One more thing: we don’t get numbers. The news tells us that the rate of certain risks is up by 10%, but they don’t tell us what the original figure was. We hear about millions of starving children in Africa, but don’t do anything unless we get a personal story of one. We don’t understand probability at all, we can’t deal with randomness, and this lack of innate numeracy (compounded by an educational culture that makes it hard to teach kids to become numerate) costs us billions. Or more, as the recent economic Clusterthing has shown, when you have people who are good with numbers deliberately exploiting this flaw in order to profit.

Numeracy is also useful for getting certain kinds of jokes.

We think that correlation equals causation. We believe stories over facts. We think we don’t have biases that we clearly possess. We assign high risk to things we don’t like and low risk to things we do, regardless of how risky they actually are. And on top of all that, we know how to exploit others’ fears in order to gain money and power for ourselves. It’s easy to do, and it works like a charm.

Reading this book won’t make you into a magically unflappable person, mainly because all of this stuff is pretty well hard-wired in our brains. Even Gardner, who should have known better, tells a story about hunting through the slums of Lagos in the middle of the night to retrieve a photo of his children from the wallet that had been stolen from him. He had plenty more, but at that moment, his brain was convinced that losing the photo meant losing his children. Irrational, yes, and it nearly got him killed, but that’s just one example of what a powerful force this primitive brain is.

Never overlook an opportunity for a Green Lantern reference.

The good news, though, is that you can strengthen the newer, more recent brain – the lazy teenager from the initial example. By knowing how you make mistakes, how you can be fooled into fearing things that you don’t need to fear, you can better understand your own reactions to events and make better decisions. You can educate yourself about the things that are actually dangerous, and stop losing sleep over the things that are not a threat. Being afraid is not your fault – it’s an ingrained biological feature. Staying afraid, on the other hand, is something over which you have control. With enough will power, even you can overcome great fear.

Sorry. Nerd moment there.

Are there terrorists who want to destroy the United States? Sure. But they won’t, because doing so is indescribably harder than certain politicians would have you believe. Are there creepy child molesters who want to abduct and defile your children? Yup. But the chances of that actually happening are so low that the odds of any specific child becoming such a victim are nil. Are there angry teens who want to come to their school and kill everyone they see? Of course. But when you look at the incidence of school shooting compared to how many kids go to school every day, you can see that the odds of your children being caught in a school shooting are slim to none. In fact, there are many parts of the country where your children are probably safer in school than out of it.

There are real risks in our modern world, but they’re not spectacular and they’re not viscerally terrifying. A car accident, a heart attack, a diabetic death – these things don’t make the news. Imagine a 9/11-style attack happening every three days, 3,000 dead each time. It would be an outrage, a national disgrace, and people would be scared to their bones. But it would take just about 233 attacks to equal the number of deaths in 2001 that occurred from cardiovascular disease in the United States.

The nearly nonexistent chance of being killed by terrorists is enough to get people to submit to any number of indignities and intrusions on their persons and liberties when they travel, but the very real risk of death from a heart attack isn’t enough to get people to go take a walk once in a while or stop eating junk food. So enjoy that delicious moment of irony the next time you go through the TSA molest-a-thon and get a seriously overweight screener taking liberties with your person.

The fact is that we have it damn good compared to our ancestors. We live longer, we live better, even in parts of the world that are still developing, and it looks like the future will progress that way. But we still insist on needing to be afraid, even as we have less and less to actually fear. So put down the newspaper, turn off the 24-hour news, and take some time to figure out what is actually a threat. Give that bored teenager something to do with his time and let the caveman go back to his cave.

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You don't see a lot of these anymore. There's a reason for that. (photo by Steve Cornelius on Flickr)

“Anyone who has spent time in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.”
– Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear

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Filed under culture, Daniel Gardner, fear, media, nonfiction, psychology, science, security, society, terrorism, The United States

Lost in the Stacks 8: Guilty Pleasures

Everybody has a guilty pleasure book. It might be one author or a specific series or even a whole genre – that book you don’t want to be seen reading. The book you know your high school English teacher would scold you for wasting your time with. The book you feel stupid talking about at parties because you know they’re going to say, “Really? That’s an interesting choice. I enjoy reading James Joyce in my free time and have first editions of the collected works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in every room of my home,” after which they all laugh at you until you run out of the party in shame and swear never to read another word of anything fun as long as you live. For example.

You didn't know about Twain's little-known short story, "A Connecticut Yankee in a 30th Century Court?" It's fascinating, really....

But should it really be that way? Why do we let the bestseller lists and “Best Books of ALL TIME” lists or some knucklehead with a podcast tell us what we should read and what we should like? In this edition of Lost in the Stacks, we explore the idea of Guilty Pleasure Reading and whether or not the concept should even exist. Share your guilty pleasures with us and stand up for your tastes in reading!

Obama’s Book Club
NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Guardian’s Best Books
Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels
The Telegraph: Top 100 Books
New York Times Bestseller List
The Comics Code Authority on Wikipedia

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Filed under classics, comic books, criticism, culture, fantasy, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, reading, reviewing, science fiction, society

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