Artists Need to Eat, Too

There’s been some interesting talk online about some of the economics of writing or, rather, being a writer. I have a day job I love that pays the bills, so this isn’t something I lose a lot of sleep about, but if you enjoy reading books or watching movies or listening to music, it’s worth remembering that the people that make them have all have bills to pay and families to feed, too.

Things sort of got summed up by John Scalzi on Twitter over the weekend:

I suppose this is an offshoot of the idea that artists need to suffer to make great art, which always kind of mystified me. Yes, there are writers and musicians that are tortured souls and managed to turn that into great, moving works of art. But there are just as many who seem pretty well adjusted and just love doing what they’re doing, the only real suffering coming from when people expect them to continue entertaining them for free or, worse, “for exposure.” “Happy” and “artist” should be used in the same sentence together a lot, I’d thihk.

Growing up, I sort of assumed that anybody who wrote a book or released an album made their livings doing that. It really wasn’t until I dove into the progressive rock world in college that I realized how many amazing musicians actually had day jobs to pay the bills (hopefully in music or some related field, but oftentimes not). That sort of opened my eyes about how economics and the arts intersect in the United States.

Now in the era of streaming services things are even worse for musicians. The per-play rate for a song on even the most generous service is pennies (and often a fraction of that). Fans need to realize that if they want more of their favorite music, they need to do more than just stream it. Buy LPs or cassettes, if your that particular kind of hipster. Or buy downloads directly from the band (or via something like Bandcamp) as a way that puts the most money directly in their pockets. Love and adulation is great, but it doesn’t pay the rent.

But whatever you do, don’t buy it, listen to it, and then return it.

I didn’t even realize this was a thing until posts like this started circulating from writers no Twitter:

As this article explains, Amazon allows you to return Kindle books within a week after purchasing them. Although this is to allow refunds for “accidental” purchases (mistakes happen, after all), some folks have spread this as a “hack” to allow readers to buy a book, read it quickly, and then return it for a refund:

It’s not immediately clear if new videos about returning e-books in the form of a “Kindle hack” were being spread around, but it was the subject of discussion on BookTok several months back as a debate over whether returning a fully read Kindle book could be considered “stealing.” Some who think the claim is nonsense compare returning a book you don’t like to returning a top that doesn’t fit or being comped for a meal when you find a bug in your food.

It should be obvious that returning a book that you read to completion is nothing at all like returning a piece of clothing that didn’t fit or getting bugged food for free. In both of those situations the product you received was defective in some way. They analogize to situations with books where you honestly buy the wrong one, get something other than is advertised (it’s a short story, not a novel, for example), or the file is corrupt and unusable.

But if you buy a book (or an album or a movie) and you read it then that’s it, you’ve got no right to a refund. It doesn’t even matter if you didn’t finish it because you thought it sucked. There’s a certain about of buyer beware that applies to any purchase, but that’s doubly true for art. It’s simply impossible to buy something to which reactions are so subjective with an expectation that you’ve got a money-back guarantee. Trying a new author or checking out a new band is an act of faith, of hope that it will be amazing, but you’ve got to be willing to accept that it might not be.

To return to the restaurant analogy, if you and a friend decide to try a new place that has a great reputation and seems just up your alley, but you don’t find that it met your expectations, you still have to pay for the meal. Sometimes, where matters of taste are involved, things don’t work out the way we want them to. That’s life.

A good rule of thumb for negotiating the world or books, music, or any other artistic thing in the modern era is to ask, “is this going to mess with the livelihood of the person (or persons) who created this?” before doing something that impacts their bottom line. If the answer is “yes,” think long and hard as to whether that’s justified. Deep down, I think you’ll realize it very rarely is. At the very least, before you start demanding your money back it ought to rise to this level:

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The Month of Lists – My Favorite Books

To wrap up the months of lists, it’s only natural to turn our attention to books. Just choosing ten favorite books is tough – so I’m going to cheat. A few years ago I did a post about ten books that were “particularly important to me,” spun off from a Facebook thing that was going around. Those are all favorites, right? Sure. There’s a difference between “favorite” and “important,” but I’m not sure that’s a hair worth splitting.

That said, I’ve read an awful lot more books since I did that, so rather than take apart that first list, I’m just going to add to it. So, these ten books are all recent favorites (recent to me, at least) and I love these and the old ones so much I don’t want to knock any of those off to make room. It’s my list after all, right? Speaking of, if Saga, by Bryan K . Vaughn and Fiona Staples was complete, it would be on this list in a heartbeat, but I worry about them sticking the landing (it’s still only about halfway through, after all). Thankfully, that leaves an open spot on the list (for now).

The only other cheat for this list is that I decided to consider series as a single entry, so I could consider those in their entirety. Other than that, no rules. Also apologies for the wonky order, as I originally had them listed by series title but the formatting looked awful. Honestly, they’re in alphabetical order! That said, let ‘er rip . . .

The Mechanical (2015) – The Rising (2015) – The Liberation (2016)

by Ian Tregillis

As I said in my initial review of the first two books in this series:

QUOTEIt’s 1926, but not the 1926 we remember. There is no Lost Generation following the First World War, no Jazz Age, no impending economic collapse. Instead, the world, or at least the largest part of it, is ruled over by the Dutch. How have the Dutch managed this feat? Magic, of course.QUOTE

That’s the basic setup for the Alchemy Wars trilogy – one of the “clakkers” created by a combination of Dutch magic (here called “alchemy”) and steampunkish technology gets a case of free will and a war of liberation is on. Along the way, we get a heavy dose of live in the world’s only non-Dutch outpost – a rump New France based around Montreal. The Mechanical is a brilliant opening book, full of world building and questions on the nature of being. The Rising gets a little too action heavy, at the expense of the philosophical questions, but The Liberation rebounds, bolstered by some temporal sleight of hand that shouldn’t work as well as it does.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (2016)

by Jeffrey Toobin

Just by growing up when I did and sitting in the culture I knew the outlines of Patty Hearst’s story – she was a rich young woman who was kidnapped by radicals and eventually wound up taking part in some of their violent activities. I was vaguely aware of the debate about whether she was really transformed into a believe or just going along out of fear. Toobin’s (yeah, I know) book does a really good job of filling in not just her specific story, but the time period out of which it arose. I had no idea bombings were so common in the 1970s! He also manages to dig into the argument on Hearst’s culpability deeply enough to allow people to draw their own conclusions, if you even can (I’m not sure I have). Super bummed that any adaptations of this book apparently aren’t going to happen.

The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer (2006)

by David Goldblatt

While soccer is my favorite sport, I admit that I’d not really dug too deeply into the history of it. I had a handle on the big stuff – Uruguay’s early success, our upset of England in 1950, Pele – but the development of the game itself was mostly a black hole for me. No longer, having absorbed this deep history of the development of the beautiful game. What amazed me is how much of the game’s reach today is the result of British influence overseas, both through empire and commercial power (Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs have English or Scottish origins). There’s such a wealth of interesting history that plays into the current state of the game that it’s easy to overlook some of the “you are there!” portions that try to describe game action but can only come up short.

The Fifth Season (2015) – The Obelisk Gate (2016) – The Stone Sky (2017)

by N.K. Jemisin

I mean, these books only won the Hugo Award back-to-back-to-back, a feat never before accomplished, so it’s safe to say they’re pretty good. The Fifth Season is flat out brilliant, a structural bit of leger de main that completely reconceptualizes all that came before when you reach the end. The other two can’t quite reach that height, but that’s no slight. The world building is amazing. Jemisin has an amazing knack for brilliant scenes, the basic building blocks of writing. They’re not light reads, but well worth the emotional toil they’ll wreak upon you.

Children of Time (2015)

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The main characters in this book are spiders. That is not a joke. They’re jumped up, hyper-evolved spiders, benefiting from a fuck up in human settlement on another planet. Science fiction has the ability to put readers in the head of truly alien creatures and Tchaikovsky did that here. But there’s also a second story line, of another ship full of humans (some on ice) where things are going to shit. They cross paths, of course. The next book in the trilogy, Children of Ruin, is just about as good. The only think keeping me from putting the whole trilogy on here is that it isn’t finished yet!

Leviathan Wakes (2011) – Caliban’s War (2012) – Abaddon’s Gate (2013) – Cibola Burn (2014) – Nemesis Games (2015) – Babylon’s Ashes (2016) – Persepolis Rising (2017) – Tiamat’s Wrath (2019) – Leviathan Falls (2021)

by James S.A. Corey

I’ve sort of concluded that the trilogy is the ultimate best length for a series. It’s long enough to tell tales of grand scope, but tight enough not to get away from the author. As a result, I rarely go more than a couple of books into a lengthy series unless I completely love it. Clearly, the fact that I’ve read all nine books in the Expanse series (and consumed all of the excellent TV adaptation) means that I loved this. It’s not all brilliant (looking at you, Cibola Burn), but the world that’s built is amazingly realistic (it feels that way, at least) and it’s full of characters I came to really care about. And, I have to say, I think the writers really nailed the ending in a way that was satisfying and felt complete. If you’re looking for a near-future space opera to simply lose yourself in, this is it.

The Half-Made World (2010) – The Rise of Ransom City (2012)

by Felix Gilman

The world of The Half-Made World looks a lot like the American west during the late 19th century, with white settlers streaming into “untamed” territory and finding conflict with the natives, not to mention each other. What really distinguishes this world is an ongoing (never-ending?) conflict between The Line (the embodiment of technological process in sentient train engines) and The Gun (chaos and immorality) that plays out in a world that is literally still in the process of being made. It’s a brilliant setup and serves to bring to life one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever encountered, John Creedmore. An agent of The Gun, Creedmore is a killer and a thug, but he’s also in thrall to a demon that lives in his gun. His struggle to leave it behind is exceptionally well done. Set in the same world and sharing some characters, this is more a pair of great standalone books (with The Half-Made World getting the nod) than an ongoing serious. Unless Gilman decides to give us another glimpse.

Hogfather (1996)

by Terry Pratchett

Generally speaking, I don’t reread books. It happens every now and then, but for the most part I’d rather move on to newer things, given the increasingly absurd size of my to-be-read pile. That is to say, Hogfather has a special place in my heart as I read it every year during the Christmas season. It’s a story of Hogswatch, the Discworld variant of Christmas, in which someone is trying to kill the Hogfather (i.e., Santa) leaving Death to fulfill his duties and Death’s granddaughter to stop all of existence from coming undone. It’s funny, sweetly nostalgic without overlooking how narrow nostalgia can be, and just all over brilliant. It warms my holiday cockles in a way that nothing else much does.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2018)

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Speaking of rereading books. I just went through a jag reading about Irish history, finishing up with a history of the (provisional) IRA, so I decided to dive back into Say Nothing, which covers The Troubles but on a more personal and street-level way. It also deals with questions of memory and how we talk about, and study, the past. It’s simply brilliant on every level. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sex Criminals (2014-2020)

by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

When I saw a story somewhere about a comic called Sex Criminals I thought it might be about the kind of people I represent in my day job as a defense attorney. How surprised I was that it was about people who had sex and then committed crimes! That’s because time literally stops when the two main characters (and several others, as things go on) have an orgasm, allowing them to get up to all kinds of nonsense (one of them takes the time to drop a shit in a plant in his boss’ office). If that was the entire joke the series couldn’t have run for more than thirty issues, but the series builds into a deeper exploration of relationships, depression, and other things. It wrapped up in 2020 in pretty satisfying fashion.

That’s it! The end of lists! Regular programming returns next week (probably).

Hey Kafka (Or, Ruminations on Dead Authors and Duties Owed to Them)

Five years ago I wrote a post about dealing with requests from writers to destroy their unfinished (or other) work upon their death. It was sparked by the destruction of the recently passed Terry Pratchett’s hard drive by running it over with a steamroller, per his desire. As I wrote then:

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.

In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.

I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?

The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.

As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.

I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”

The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.

While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.

My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.

Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.

The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.

Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?

I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.

My Fantasy Confession

If you’re reading this, you probably know that as an author I primarily write fantasy stories. As I’ve said before, I love that fantasy basically has no rules and, so long as the world you build makes sense on the page, you can do anything you want. Given that, I figure it’s time that I came clean about my deep, dark secret as a fantasy writer:

I have never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkein.

It’s not that I have anything personal against ol’ JRR. I’ve seen all the movies! Not the super-extended versions that take entire years to watch, but all the ones as released in theaters. I enjoyed them, too (well, the actual Lord of the Rings ones). But if I’m honest, the Tolkien link that has the most meaning to me is the fact that Marillion was originally called Silmarillion, before changing their name early on to avoid any legal problems.

Nor was this a case of conscious avoidance of Tolkien’s work as a reader. I just never really was that interested in diving into it. When I was young and first encountered traditional fantasy books it was the first couple of Narnia books and, particularly, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, which I really enjoyed. But once I finished those my tastes turned more towards science fiction.

I wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really dug back into reading fantasy, thanks mostly to my wife, who introduced me to Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. While both of them would, assuredly, note the influence of Tolkien on their work, their stuff (or at least the stuff that appealed to me) isn’t very Tolkienesque. Gaiman’s work like American Gods and the Sandman series showed me that “fantasy” was a much broader thing than stories about wizards and goblins and the like. A Song of Ice and Fire draws deep on Tolkien-style world building, but does so in the service of a story that’s more about political maneuvers and human failings than it is about grand quests.

That part of the fantasy world hasn’t appealed to me that much lately. I’ve got nothing against a good quest – I’ve got a quest story percolating I hope to write one day – but I was more drawn to weird worlds and things that didn’t require the explanation/technobabble of science fiction. That’s where I found my inspiration to tell stories in worlds that aren’t our own, but aren’t necessarily filled with magic.

Am I missing out on something? Possibly. Am I going to try and rectify that situation? Not necessarily. I read for pleasure and so I’m not likely to decide to read something as homework just because most others might. Hell, I write for pleasure, too (that others enjoy the end product is a bonus), so I can’t see taking the time to force feed any particular author’s work.

The bottom line is I know enough about Tolkien to understand the memes and spot the references in progressive rock songs. Right now, that’s all I need. Plus I got to play the first movement of this in high school:

Doesn’t that count for something?

Thoughts on Christmas Stories

A confession – I’ve never seen Die Hard. I’m not really an action movie guy, so it’s not really in my wheelhouse. I was kind of surprised when it started popping up described as a “Christmas movie,” but I suppose it takes place during the holiday, so why not? Then early this week I saw an interesting push back against that argument – basically that while the movie takes place at Christmas it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Christmas or what it means. That got me thinking about what makes a Christmas story and whether you can have a Christmas story that doesn’t even have Christmas in it.

I’m kind of into the “if it takes place at Christmas it’s a Christmas story” argument, because then I could force my wife to watch one my favorite movies, Brazil, under that rubric.

Make no mistake, Brazil is not at all what anyone would call a “Christmas movie.” It takes place at Christmas time, but aside from satirical asides on the consumer side of the holiday – one little girl asks Santa for a credit card, while there’s a running joke of people repeatedly gifting the kind of meaningless doodad gift you do when you’re forced to (everyone refers to it as “a gift for an executive,” so it says something about those folks, too) – the holiday doesn’t really enter into it. There’s certainly no “Christmas message” in it, given that it’s a dystopian nightmare in which the “happy ending” is the main character going insane.

That’s not a really good metric. Don’t you need some tie-in to actual Christmas and the holiday? Think of something like Gremlins, which, again, is more set at Christmastime than a “Christmas movie,” but at least you’ve got the horrible back story of Kate’s father, who died trying to pull a Santa to surprise the family. Still, there’s not really much of a message to that movie (aside from “don’t feed them after midnight,” of course). Let’s concluded, then, that we need at least “Christmas plus . . .” something, although I’m not sure what. That eliminates Brazil, but I can’t say if the same is true for Die Hard (this article makes a pretty good argument that the movie works as well as it does precisely because it’s merely “Christmas-adjacent”).

The “plus” is mostly going to be some kind of message, right? Lots of classic Christmas stories have some moral component, from A Christmas Carol (don’t be a dick to the poor at Christmas or the rest of the year) to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (don’t be a dick to people celebrating Christmas). I like those. I’m particularly a sucker for variations on Carol, my favorite being Scrooged.

Any movie that puts Miles Davis and other jazz greats in a band of street musicians for a throwaway joke is OK by me. Of course there’s also the religious angle, probably pulled off best by A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I love even though I don’t buy into the theology. I suppose we can also ditch the messages altogether and just focus on nostalgia, as in A Christmas Story, which manages the impressive task of selling that nostalgia to an audience who largely are too young to wallow in it.

I feel much less favorable toward what I call “you’re doing Christmas wrong” movies, wherein somebody dares to celebrate the holiday in their own way, only to have their individualism squashed by some kind of hive-mind celebratory conformity. Seriously, is there any reason to look at how somebody else does (or does not!) celebrate a holiday and decide you need to fix them? Drive me up the fucking wall.

So if we agree that a real Christmas story is “Christmas plus” something else, what if we don’t have the Christmas part, at least technically?

My only real routine for the holiday season is to reread (relisten, in actuality) Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett.

The Hogfather is the Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus, basically. His holiday, Hogswatch, is a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, combining the gift giving aspect with the midnight revelry.

I love Hogfather in a way I don’t with many things. It’s brilliantly funny throughout. Lots of characters from the other Discworld books show up to play their part in a really clever plot – someone hires the Guild of Assassins to kill (or “inhume,” as the head assassin prefers) the Hogfather as means of bringing some order to the universe. Turns out the human imagination is both a destabilizing thing – it makes folks to wacky things – but it also inspires us to grander things. Thus we have this truth from none other than Death himself (hence the all caps – he talks that way): “HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”*

Death shows up in Hogfather to do the fat man’s job while he’s disposed, thus shoring up the role of belief in the universe. This allows Pratchett to do a lot of commentary on the holiday and what it means to different people. He shows up at a mall to give kids exactly what they want, even if they really can’t have them (he tries to give one kid a real sword, then announces to a little girl that there’s a pony in her kitchen). He butts in as a king tries to pass of his leftovers as an act of benevolent charity. He actually forgoes collecting the soul of the “little match girl,” concluding that it’s unfair for someone to die alone and cold on Hogswatch, even as his pixie henchman Albert (a fabulous character in his own right) explains that touching stories of that kind of death make other people feel better at Hogswatch. It’s through this relationship that Pratchett deals with the economic inequality of the world, which shines through during the holidays just as it does all year ‘round.

None of this message, commentary on what it means to knowingly celebrate a story you know not to be true, would land if the rest of the book wasn’t so funny, if the characters weren’t so sharp and memorable. But the Hogfather (much less Death!) isn’t Santa and Hogswatch isn’t Christmas, so does it count?

Here’s where I’ve come down on all this – if something’s a Christmas story to you, then that’s all that matters. We all find meaning in different places and different days. At no time is that more true than when all these competing winter celebrations are underway. However you celebrate, whether it’s with Die Hard or not – Happy Holidays (whatever your holiday may be)! See ya’ in the new year.

* The book’s loaded with great lines. Here’s another, from Death’s granddaughter, Susan, who’s the heroine of the story: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.

Why “The Cold Equations” Is Still Horribly Plausible

Netflix recently released a new sci-fi flick, Stowaway. The trailer gives you a sense of what it’s about:

A spaceship on the way to another planet, finite resources, and an extra person. It’s the classic lifeboat problem IN SPAAACCCEEE!! FYI, expect spoilers from here on out if you’re worried about that kind of thing.

Stowaway also owes a lot to “The Cold Equations,” a 1954 short story that’s one of the most talked about in the history of science fiction. The release of Stowaway has lead to another round of reevaluation of the story, although there are some pretty big distinctions between the two.

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of “The Cold Equations”:

The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the ‘UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!’ sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.

The thrust of the story is that the EDS is designed to do a particular job in a particular way and the additional variable of a stowaway wrecked all that. Physics, the “cold equations” of the title, mean that’s a problem and there’s only one solution.

While those same equations play a role in Stowaway, it’s really quite a different story. For one thing, the “stowaway” of the title really isn’t. He’s an engineer who wound up on the ship by accident. He did not intentionally sneak on like Marilyn in “The Cold Equations.” It puts him on a completely different ethical/moral footing. Another important distinction is that the problem in Stowaway that creates the drama is a mechanical malfunction, not just the presence of an additional person on the ship. Again, it changes the moral calculus. Most importantly, the eventual sacrifice is completely different – a crew member in Stowaway sacrifices herself to save the rest of the crew, whereas poor Marilyn has to take the task on herself.

That said, things are close enough to make mention of “The Close Equations” understandable (it even comes up in this really interesting video from one of the science advisors on Stowaway) and it’s always worth revisiting classic works. However, a lot of the criticisms of “The Cold Equations” always struck me as a bit off.

Lots of people who read “The Cold Equations” want to change it somehow to create a happy ending. There’s lots of criticism (much of it summarized here) of the entire setup, both of the fine margins in the EDS which subjects it to not having any room for error and for the society that would not go to greater lengths to keep someone like Marilyn from sneaking on in the first place. Surely they’d do more than put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT,” right? They’d place armed guards or design the EDS with more room for error? Why wouldn’t they do that?!?

For a certain idea of science fiction, I can see where these criticisms are coming from. For some folks, sci-fi is a genre of positivity or showing people overcoming odds and crises through knowledge, ingenuity, and hard work. David Brin is famously an exponent of this theory of sci-fi, which excludes things like dystopian fiction as “sci-fi” since it doesn’t have a positive, “go humans!”  message.

Thing is, humans are often awful to each other and that is sometimes reflected in sci-fi, too, as it should be. Anyone with a passing familiarity with history would know that the corner cutting that leads to tragedy in “The Cold Equations” are really plausible. That summary of criticisms I linked to above notes this history, but presumes that it’s just that – history, something we’ve moved passed as a species. Sadly, it isn’t. After all, if laws passed to ensure safe working conditions have been on the books for the past century or so, how could 29 coal miners die in an accident in the 21st century caused largely by ignoring and working around those law? Laws don’t get followed or enforced just because they’re on the books, not when the bottom line is at stake.

This really came into sharp focus for me recently when I was reading Midnight In Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham’s excellent book on the 1986 meltdown in the Soviet Union. One of the reasons the disaster happened is that the RBMK-type reactor was an inherently flawed design. Experts had said it was flawed for years. Indeed, in 1975 a similar accident happened in another nuclear plant that highlighted this design flaw. Did they redesign the reactor? No. Did they move on to an entire new design? No. Did they rewrite the manuals and assume human beings would react rationally if the same thing happened again? YES! In other words, they decided to put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT” instead of spending extra money to fix the problem.

The same dynamic is evident in Stowaway. Lots of people talking about the movie complain that NASA would never allow this problem to happen. The oxygen problem is similar to what happened to Apollo 13, so wouldn’t NASA know to have backups on board? Problem is, the mission in Stowaway isn’t run by NASA, but by a company called Hyperion. More to the point, there are bits of dialog that suggest that Hyperion is not beyond cutting corners in order to save money. Should space travel work that way? No. Does history suggest it could? Absolutely. We may progress to the point where such thinking doesn’t happen, but we’re a long way from there (if we ever reach it).

As for Stowaway as a movie – if you can swallow the setup it’s pretty good. How the stowaway got on board is never satisfactorily addressed (leading to a lot of people to assume it was intentional, which really doesn’t fit the film), but once you’re beyond that things greatly improve. The performances are all good. The filmmakers made a choice to keep the action entirely focused on the four people on the ship, to the point that we don’t even hear the other side of conversations with ground control, much less see any of them grappling with the problem. I found that this reinforces how cut off the ship was, how on their own they were, and was very effective. The ending just kind of is there, but it would have been hard to go much further without changing the vibe of the thing. Worth a watch, certainly.

Weekly Read: The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy In Three Acts

What if the CIA hasn’t been a bad idea all along? That’s the theory underpinning The Quiet Americans, a look at the early days of the agency and its roots in World War II. Fascinating and detailed as the book is, I’m not sure I completely buy Scott Anderson’s thesis that if the guys on the ground would have been allowed to do it their way things might have worked out better.

Telling even part of the history of the CIA is a sprawling affair, which Anderson does by focusing on four early agency operatives, all of whom came out of the hastily assembled intelligence groups the United States used during the war. This Washington Post review summarizes them well:

Frank Wisner, the first chief of the CIA’s covert-operations unit, provides a top-down view of the early Cold War, while Michael Burke, a jack-of-all-trades charmer, delivers an agent’s experience from the ground up. The German émigré Peter Sichel, the most intriguing and least known of Anderson’s characters, spends most of his time in Berlin and Eastern Europe, while Edward Lansdale, the best known of the four, traipses through the Philippines. Lansdale gives the book its title, borrowed from Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” rumored to be based on Lansdale’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. An early adopter in the emerging field of “psychological warfare,” Lansdale would become best known for his clandestine scheming in Vietnam, but Anderson captures him at an earlier moment, as a young man grappling with the moral and logistical complexities of foreign intervention — more “Lawrence of Asia,” as his nickname suggested, than Dr. Strangelove.

What the CIA eventually becomes – a black hole out of which clandestine operations toppled governments and propped up dictators – has an origin story in Anderson’s telling. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviets treated the areas of Eastern Europe they liberated less as newly freed lands than as conquered territories. They installed puppet regimes, stripped resources, and even hauled people away to work in the Soviet Union in scenes reminiscent of the transport of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. This was evil, without a doubt, but it was also a kind of fait accompli and there wasn’t anything short of another war that the US and its allies could do about it.

With Eastern Europe locked up, US foreign policy eyes turned toward what was now being called the Third World. The problem was that the thing that gave the Soviets such leverage in Europe – geographical proximity and boots on the ground – didn’t apply in Asia, Africa, or Central and South America. More to the point, populations in these areas often had legitimate grievances arising from generations of colonial rule. Instead of recognizing and working with that anger, the US saw everyone who didn’t toe their line as communists and battled against them accordingly.

A large part of Anderson’s story is about how the four titular quiet Americans came to become disillusioned with the CIA’s work. Part of that came from the abandonment of two American ideals in the name of fighting communists. The first was rejecting the anti-colonial position of the Roosevelt administration in favor of helping Cold War allies prop up their failing empires. This was always a bit hypocritical – we’ve got our empire, too – but siding with, say, the French in Southeast Asia over local independence movements only proved to the locals that if they wanted outside support it wasn’t coming from the Americans. Most spectacularly, this led to the morass that was the Vietnam War.

The other guiding principle that the US let slide in the name of fighting communism was a commitment to democracy. Two of the early CIA’s successes were orchestrating coups in Iran and Guatemala that deposed popularly elected leaders that were perceived as problematic. In Iran it was more down to British oil interests than anything else, while in Guatemala the CIA managed to turn an elected president who was, at most, a little left leaning into a communist scourge who had to be stopped at all costs (though Moscow didn’t even know who he was).

If ditching those principles were strike one and two, then the third was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For most of the Cold War up to that point CIA operatives had staged operations behind the Iron Curtain, flying in expat agents (many of whom were captured or killed – or both) and generally trying to lay the groundwork to aid in a popular uprising, should it come. When it did, in Hungary, the US didn’t do anything. Part of this was due to the specter of a nuclear war which everyone figured would arise from conflict in Europe. That led to the CIA guys, as one of them put it, not knowing what to do if they “won.”

Of course, there was no “winning” the games they were playing. I followed up this book with The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, which focuses on the CIA’s role in overthrowing the Indonesian government in 1965. What’s interesting is that, in laying the background, Bevins provides some more detail on things like the Iranian and Guatemalan coups, making their unsavorinous clear, while pointing out the long-term consequences for those countries. In other words, even the successes of the early CIA really weren’t, in the long run.

This comes out sounding a little harsh on The Quiet Americans, which isn’t really fair. It’s a very compelling book, with lots of interesting details about not just some of the overseas operations, but also the political context back in the US. Indeed, one running thread was how J. Edgar Hoover pretty much had it in for the CIA from the beginning, since he wanted to run the intelligence show from the FBI. But there’s a definite theme that the CIA itself wasn’t a failure, but that it was failed by higher ups, in much the same way that, for years, the debacle in Vietnam was framed as what happens when the politicians don’t just get out of the way and let the military run the show.

But, overall, this is a very worthy read. Just remember to take it with just a few grains of salt.

Weekly Read: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

I was born in 1973, so I kind of came into political puberty in the mid 1980s. As a result, the Religious Right has been a part of my political scene essentially my entire life. My impression of them then, and still today, is that they’re mostly culture warriors, fixated generally on the sexual behavior of others (to steal Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”). It seemed like a natural reaction to the “free love” of the 1960s and, so, I figured that’s where it’s all come from. I’ve also read some theories that the operatives of the Religious Right largely came out of losing side in the battle over segregation, as they searched for new wedge issues in the culture.

In One Nation Under God, historian Kevin Kruse argues differently. His thesis is right there in the subtitle: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The Religious Right isn’t an organic outgrowth of grassroots fervor. Rather, it’s the result of some careful calculation of big business interests searching for foot soldiers in their fight against the regulative state. What’s funny is that while they got the movement, it just never delivered on the goal they really wanted it for.

In Kruse’s telling, the Religious Right got its start in the 1930s as business leaders sought to combat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was all prompted by the Great Depression. More directly, it was that Roosevelt dared to use the Federal government to try and lift the nation out of poverty, ushering in an expansion of power at a national level. It really was the birth of the modern regulatory state, which is something big business couldn’t deal with. But simply making their case – to the impoverished masses to whom some government regulation of the industry that drove the country into the ditch in the first place was a good thing – wasn’t really working.

Nor was it enough to fall back on paeans to the Founding Fathers and the American way which, to be fair up to that point, had involved a lot of lightly regulated capitalism. Again, it couldn’t really cut through the economic reality. That’s when religion appeared and alliance formed between politically minded preachers and leaders of industry to turn capitalism not just into the American way, but God’s way, too.

One of those preachers was Billy Graham. While not involved at the very start in the 1930s, he quickly became part of the new religion/business alliance. He was particularly important to bringing Eisenhower around on the whole idea, going to far as to write bits for some of Ike’s speeches (he’d do the same for Nixon later). The idea, floated somewhat when Graham died a few years ago, that he wasn’t part of the Religious Right as a political entity is, thus, complete bullshit. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but he was part of the cadre of religious leaders who turned the White House into a kind of religious bully pulpit.

As skeevy as the entire operation was, it does have a huge sense of irony about it, thanks to Eisenhower. He was the first President (and presidential candidate) to really embrace the idea of “ceremonial deism” and the canard that Christianity is the foundation of the Constitution. So, when he was in office and running things (and becoming the first President baptized while in office), the money men who put him there expected to finally be able to cash in on all their work and get the New Deal dismantled. Ike, however, balked, recognizing that dismantling popular New Deal programs would be political suicide, noting that the party that got rid of Social Security and unemployment insurance would shortly cease to exist. All that work and no reward!

Nevertheless, the movement these guys had birthed shuffled on into the culture war crusaders we know them as today (the first big fights were over school prayer). There is definitely a certain feel from the story Kruse is telling that the Frankenstein’s monster got loose and beyond its masters’ control, but one thing he doesn’t address is whether these guys were true believers in the first place. My natural cynical inclination makes me think they were doing whatever they thought was necessary to bolster the bottom line (co-opting eager religious leaders in the process), but I’m not beyond thinking they were getting high on their own holy supply, too.

“Ceremonial deism” – the idea that there’s no First Amendment issue with public officials invoking the name of God so long as it’s in a squishy non-sectarian (within limits) way – certainly has taken on a life of its own. As Kruse lays out, a lot of what we consider foundational parts of this – “In God We Trust” on money, “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – are fairly recent inventions based on spurious readings of history pushed by these early crusaders. It didn’t take even a generation, though, for them to be evidence to prove the very “ceremonial deism” they were created to birth in the first place.

While Kruse makes a compelling case, I do have two beefs with how he does it. First, he refers to most of these captains of industry as “Christian Libertarians,” which doesn’t seem to fit to me. For all the things “libertarian” can mean it has to at least mean freedom from the state trying to dictate religious belief, which is essentially what these guys were (and are) pushing. I think “Theocratic Capitalists” would be a better fit. Secondly, with a couple of exceptions, Kruse doesn’t bother diving into how untethered from reality most of the arguments were that these folks made. He does discus it it somewhat in the epilogue and highlights an early example of how they selectively edited part of the Declaration of Independence (which has nothing to do with the law of this nation, by the way) to make it fit their agenda better. These folks are prototypical liars for Jesus but aren’t called on it enough.

Those small quibbles aside, Kruse has done important work here. In the modern world, where a little sleuthing can easily unmask the actual source of astroturfed “grassroots” political movements, we sometimes get lulled into thinking such campaigns are a fairly recent development. They’re not and it’s worth knowing the kind of long-term impacts they can have, even if they don’t meet their initial goal.

Weekly Read: The Ball Is Round and The Age of Football

Does anyone really need to read more than 1500 pages about soccer? Or, in my case, listen to more than 63 hours of it? Probably not, but if you’re at all interested in the beautiful game beyond watching games, you could do worse. These two volumes – both written by journalist David Goldblatt – explore why the game developed as it has as well as the challenges facing it in the 21st century.

I should say, right at the top, that I’m going to call the game “soccer” throughout. As the history in these books points out, soccer is a derivation of “Association Football,” the actual name of the sport, and is a British phenomenon (in several quoted period sources the game is called “soccer”). It’s not just a heathen American thing – it’s a it’s-called-different-things-around-the-world thing.

The Ball Is Round is the more essential (and longer) of the two because it covers the history of the game, rather than the state of its current form (it was written about the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany). And it starts with the beginning – surveying the games of ancient cultures to try, without real success, to find the ancestor to soccer.

As an aside, let me say that one thing both of these books have going for them is their scope. They deal with the game on a global level and while Europe (and South America, to a lesser extent) command the most attention, Africa, Asia, and the unholy alliance known as CONCACAF (North and Central American and the Caribbean) are examined pretty closely.

Getting back to the history of the game, more interesting than the nitty gritty origins of the sport and the codification of its rules (sorry, “laws” – soccer is serious business) is how the game spread around the globe. Given its origins in the UK and its spread while the British Empire was at its height, you’d think it was a simple question of imperial imposition, but it really wasn’t. Indeed, large countries with close ties to the British Empire have largely rejected soccer in favor of other pastimes, including the United States, Canada, India, and Australia. What really did it was the soft power of British industry and financing, the tendrils of which reached well beyond the formal boundaries of the Empire.

Thus, in lots of places, the game arrived with expat British workers and grew from there. It’s why so many big named clubs around the world actually have British origins, including Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs. Ever wonder why AC Milan’s big rivals are Inter? It’s because Internazionale was formed in response to the closed up Britishness of AC Milan!

Another interesting part of the development of the game is how tied it was to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of more affluent working and middle classes (there’s an interesting intersection with the nascent labor movement, which was providing folks with more free time). This helps partially explain why Brazil, for example, has robust state championships based around big cities, in addition to a national league, as the big clubs grew up in cities, without a lot of development in the hinterlands.

Things get less compelling after the Second World War and the book focuses on what Goldblatt calls “industrial football.” That is, the rise of big money in the game, particularly with the increased profile of international competitions like the European Cup (now Champions League), the Copa Libertadores in South America, and, of course, the World Cup. The history is interesting, but Goldblatt slips into a style that is more a string of anecdotes than a compelling central thesis with supporting evidence. The result, as he checks in all over the globe, is a little numbing and overwhelming.

It also highlights some flaws in the book, such as some of the chapters that end with “you are there!” style descriptions of particular matches. Listening to the audiobook it was unclear whether these were taken from actual reports of the game, but it appears that they were Goldblatt’s creation. They’re fine, so far as they go, but it seems to me that writing about a soccer game is a little bit like Frank Zappa’s turn of phrase that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – it just doesn’t capture the essence of what you’re writing about.

Speaking of the audiobook – the narrator of The Ball Is Round has some odd blind spots when it comes to pronunciation. My heart died a little bit every time he referred to Juventus as “Jewv” (as opposed to “Juve” – aka “you vey”). He gets some other Latin names wrong, too, just often enough for it to be an issue. Thankfully, Goldblatt himself narrates the sequel and it doesn’t have the same problem.

As for The Age of Football, it basically picks up where The Ball Is Round leaves off in terms of chronology – starting with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and ending with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Rather than just updating the history, however, this book focuses more on how soccer is intertwined with other aspects of politics and economics around the world. As such, it suffers from the same checking of boxes as we go all around the world seeing the same pathologies play out over and over.

In that sense, The Age of Football is pretty depressing. It shows how the game is used by regimes, authoritarian and otherwise, for legitimacy and national unity. It shows how money had become the primary driver of the global game, with little regard for what that means in places that are left behind.

Goldblatt notes how, for example, interest in local African leagues has plummeted since the advent of satellite TV and smart phones, which allow people all over the continent to watch top leagues in Europe instead. What’s funny is that the same is true, somewhat, in the United States, where diehard fans of English or German teams don’t give Major League Soccer the time of day.

Amidst the gloomy underbelly of the modern game, there is the damned near universal nature of its allure. All those places I mentioned above where soccer didn’t take root initially are starting to come along. China, where the game’s never had much of an impact, is ramping things up. The World Cup is one of the few moments of unity the world gets, which is worth celebrating. And the game is, as they say, the beautiful one, whether it’s played in a gleaming stadium in front of a worldwide audience of billions or in a bare field in the middle of nowhere.