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.

Let’s Talk Spoilers

It’s been a long time since I wrote something specifically about spoilers. After coming across this article at Tor by Sarah Kozloff about “spoilerphobia” I got to thinking about them some more. I still maintain that any story that can really be “spoiled” by knowing what happens probably isn’t that great, anyway.

A good point that Kozloff makes is that spoilers are more than just what happens in a particular story. They can be signifiers of social standing:

Knowing about the hot new book or movie can embody a certain cultural “one-upmanship” and indicate class privilege. Those with the money, time, freedom, and motivation to stay on top of current releases or buy new hardcovers may obtain an experience denied to those who have to wait for library copies or cheaper venues. So, the power to “spoil” lies disproportionately in the hands of those with elite access—like the critic—while anxiety about being deprived of an “untainted” experience affects people with less access.

I think my attitude toward spoilers is what it is because I first experienced them in the context of sports.

That said, I tend to agree with Kozloff’s ultimate conclusion:

I understand that revelations and endings do matter. I just don’t think they matter as much as people think they do or for every story. What I object to most about admonitions never to reveal plot is the implicit evaluation that surprise is everything, vastly more important than every other element of the work.

I think it’s important to think of spoilers as being linked to good manners. There’s a comment to the Tor piece about someone reading an Agatha Christie book on a plane:

Imagine reading an Agatha Christie novel on a plane and the guy next to you saying ‘That’s an awesome novel – I never would have guessed that she faked her death and burned her maid in her stead.’ (example made up, of course!). I don’t know how you would feel but I would be livid.

I’d be livid, too! Now, from a technical standpoint, whatever book that person’s reading has been out for decades and, really, they can’t expect it to be unspoiled. On the other, more relevant, hand, however, this person is obviously reading it, probably for the first time (people reread books, of course, but one has to think that of all the “book reading” going on in the world right now an overwhelmingly high percentage is people reading something for the first time) and there’s no reason to spoil it for them right now! That’s just assholery.

But the opposite situation is a different kind of assholery. Over the Xmas break my wife and I watched a couple of older movies – not ancient, but old enough to drive. As I often do, I went over to MovieChat to see what people were saying about it. On one of the forums, someone was complaining about the discussion spoiling the movie – a movie that had been out for 15 or so years. This person had come to a place where people talk about movies they’ve seen and bitched about spoilers. That’s assholery, too.

Thus, I think worrying about spoilers should be more about policing your own behavior rather than demanding what others do. I recently wrote a post inspired by watching Wonder Woman 1984 that, uncharacteristically, I put a spoiler warning on. Not because I think spoilers should be off limits, but because I knew the movie had just come out and people were still flocking to see it in the first rush. Six months later I might not have done the same thing, but who knows?

“Don’t be a jerk” is solid life advice. It applies to spoilers just as well.

Weekly Read: Blue In Green

I have a weird relationship with jazz, in that I can appreciate it a lot more than I can love it. I can easily wrap my head around the awesome amount of talent it takes to improvise with any kind of skill, yet I mostly find myself left cold by a lot of that improvisation, too. It’s not just a jazz thing – a lot more of King Crimson’s improvs leave me wanting than strike me in any particular way, too.

I say all that because Blue In Green is very much “jazz” on the page, as much as any graphic novel can be. As it turns out, that’s not a happy coincidence. As this interview with writer Ram V and artist Anand RK explains, this book gave new meaning to the term “pantsing,” as Ram says:

It was literally us getting together each morning, going, “Okay, this is the previous page. I have looked at it. And now I think this is what the next page needs to be.” So every ensuing page is in reaction to whatever he drew on the previous page.

Later, Ram V makes clear that this was a one pass thing:

No, no, there was no going back to pages, because I mean, you can’t go back when you’re improvising in music either. So if you’re playing and you hit a sequence of notes, that’s it, it’s there and you can’t go back.

One the one hand, this is profoundly cool and a brave way to create a graphic novel. On the other hand, I think within that lies the reason I didn’t like it very much.

The story is of Erik, a sax player who has been relegated to teaching kids who want to know if they’ll be able to figure out when they’re great (it’s a fantastic opening scene). When he finds out his mother has died, Erik goes home for the funeral (although where home is happens to be . . . an issue). There he winds up getting sucked into a mystery about a strange, long dead player and how he relates to Erik’s late mother. Along the way, we get a fairly standard riff on the idea that to be great an artist has to sacrifice himself to some higher power, deal with the devil, etc. It ends fairly bluntly, but it’s earned, to be fair.

The best part of the book is the artwork. It’s very impressionistic and flows through different styles lyrically. That said, sometimes the art is a little too abstract and it becomes hard to figure out just who is doing what to whom at critical moments. Still, you could get a lot of enjoyment out of the book just by flipping through it and soaking in the images.

The writing is a different story. My previous experience with Ram was These Savage Shores, which used a lot of letters and journal entries to push things along. Here, almost everything is conveyed through Erik’s monologues and there is precious little dialog. It’s like a film where nobody talks to each other and  it’s all voice over. Eventually, it just got to be too much for me. It didn’t help that the monologue was overwritten in places.

I mentioned where Erik’s mother lived and this is where I think the whole improvisation thing caught up with Ram and his collaborators. I’m pretty sure Erik lives in New York City. When he goes to his mother’s funeral he gets on a plane (where he ponders the meaning of death), so she must live somewhere else, right? But the rest of the story takes place in NYC and Erik goes back to the house multiple times. On the one hand it’s not very important, but on the other it really niggled the back of my mind.

I’ve read a lot of praise for Blue In Green and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on “best of” lists as the year draws to a close. It makes me think of Kind of Blue, the Mile Davis album (“Blue In Green” is one of the tracks on that album) that’s generally regarded as the best jazz album ever. You know what? It does nothing for me. It’s all laid back and cool and whatever, but it leaves me cold. It’s just not my thing. Seems like Blue In Green is in the same boat.

Weekly Read: The Humans

The beginning of Matt Haig’s The Humans is great. After a quick intro that implies the following narrative will tell a tale of a mission gone wrong, we’re thrown into the main character’s point of view as he arrives on Earth. An alien, he takes over the body of an Oxford scientist who’s just made a breakthrough humanity hasn’t earned. It’s the alien’s job to squelch all knowledge of the breakthrough, by any means necessary.

That could be the setup for a very heavy book, but instead Haig plays it mostly light, invoking the vibe of Douglas Adams. The alien spends quite a while learning about life on Earth and, in the process, giving Haig the chance to point out all the weirdness of modern human life, from coffee to soccer to TV news (which the alien observes should be rechristened “The War and Money Show”). This portion of the book is generally funny (in a “because it’s true” way) and a quick, breezy read.

It’s once the alien has learned about the world a bit where things go downhill. Not far, and not very fast, but enough to make me wish things had turned out differently. The plot is predictable, as the alien – who comes from a species that views everything as math (perhaps not wrong) and humans as murderous, greedy beasts – learns to love the place and that complicates his mission, particularly the parts that might require him to kill the wife and son of the man whose body he adopted (who is already dead, of course). Complications ensue, although they’re dealt with pretty easily.

I will say this for Haig’s alien – I love where he finds his breakthrough for loving humanity. What does it for the alien is music. Not just high-falutin’ classical music either, being entranced by not just Le Mer but also the Beach Boys and Air (among others). He even makes a reference to how fun it is to count music, which warmed the cockles of my progressive rock loving heart. The turn isn’t something unexpected, but it’s done pretty well.

Once the turn happens, however, the alien goes from being a sharp, amusing observer of the human condition to a mawkish purveyor of chicken soup for the soul. One chapter is entirely given over to a list of 40 pieces of “advice for a human” that he writes for his sort-of-son. A lot of this is pleasant, if not good, advice (“be alive” – who could argue!), but it includes those kinds of “live for today!” things that fall apart with any thought. Like, “don’t worry about your abilities, you have the ability to love – that’s enough,” which is a nice idea, but love doesn’t pay the bills or put a roof over your head. I’m not anti-love, far from it, but reliance on it as a life plan isn’t exactly solid. Or, “in your mind change the name of every day to Saturday, change the name of work to play.” Putting to one side how you’re going to figure out when anything happens in your new world of Saturdays (maybe there’s a book for that), but the thing about work is just insulting to anyone who does what they have to do (probably out of . . . .love!) to feed their family. Not everyone can lead a fulfilling professional life (I’ve been lucky in this regard) – some folks just have to scratch out a living. Or, “failure is a trick of the light.” No, it fucking isn’t! Sometimes you try something and fail at it – dealing with that is as much a part of life as anything. To see the supremely rational, mathematical main character fall so headlong into that kind of dreck is disappointing.

The other Haig book I’ve read, How to Stop Time, I thought wrapped up way too quickly. The same is true for The Humans. The alien eventually walks away from his semi-family, moving to California to teach and continue to live life. But, of course, he comes back and there’s a hopeful note of reconciliation in the end. This isn’t bad, necessarily, but it plays out over a chapter or two, whereas some detail of the alien’s life alone and what he does would have made the semi-happy ending feel more earned.

I don’t want to sound too harsh about The Humans. It’s a fun read, for the most part, and has some really funny bits, but it kind of peters out after a while. I understand that Haig wrote it after his own battle with depression and, through that lens, I can see the kind of zealousness of a convert coming through in the alien’s transformation into a lover of humanity. Maybe this is just one of those instances of the book ultimately disappointing me because it wasn’t what I wanted it to be which, after all, is my problem, not Haig’s.

One of my favorite current comics is Pearls Before Swine, in which the two main characters are a rat, cleverly named Rat, and a pig, cleverly named Pig. Rat is cynical, generally hates people, and finds fault with everything. Pig is open hearted, kind of lovingly dumb, and generally doesn’t let the foolishness of others get him down. I like to think that they reflect the two parts of my personality, constantly battling it out in my head (or think of it as killers and angels, if you like). This book, in the end, drove the Rat side of me nuts. The Pig side of me really liked it.

Make of that what you will.

Weekly Read: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

One of my favorite semi-recent films is David Fincher’s Zodiac, about the lengthy hunt for the Zodiac Killer (made before everybody agreed it’s Ted Cruz). While that’s an apt description of the film, it’s also pretty shallow. What the movie is really about is obsession, about the need to find answers, and what it does to people who dedicate their lives to trying to find them, yet don’t.

I thought a lot about Zodiac while reading The Feather Thief. Not because the crimes involved are in any way similar or because The Feather Thief is a gripping whodunnit. In fact, there’s no doubt whodunnit – on June 24, 2009, an American flautist-in-training (!) named Edwin Rist, studying at the Royal Conservatory in London, travelled to the nearby village of Tring and stole nearly 300 specimens of rare tropical birds from a branch of the Natural History Museum. This is hardly a spoiler, as it’s right there in the prologue. If the story is that simple, why is The Feather Thief worth reading? For several reasons.

First, Kirk Wallace Johnson does a really good job of laying out why anyone would bother to steal a bunch of birds. This starts with a history of these birds themselves, many of which were captured and cataloged by Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s rival in developing the theory of natural selection. Then there’s the late-Victorian fashion fad of using rare birds (not just their feathers, either!) as status symbols and the backlash that produced one of the first animal conservation movements. Laws and treaties followed and the birds were generally relegated to becoming museum specimens at places like the Natural History Museum. They were in a small-town outpost in 2009 because they had been relocated there for safekeeping during World War II.

That these kinds of birds were basically illegal to possess, or at the very least sell on the open market, led to them becoming particularly valuable to a particular community – that of expert fly tiers. These are not folks that tie flies in order to use them fishing, but rather out of artistic drive and the desire for historical accuracy. Rist was not only a member of this community, but a leading light of it, even as a teenager. He was, broadly speaking, in the right place at the right time to know the value of these birds and have access to them.

The second thing that makes The Feather Thief compelling is Johnson’s role in this tale. He was once responsible for trying to rebuild parts of Iraq after the war, then transitioned into helping Iraqis who had worked with the United States seek asylum in the US.  Although he wants to know why Rist did it (which is pretty obvious), he’s more interested in trying to right the wrong and locate the birds that hadn’t been recovered via the usual process of Rist’s criminal prosecution (he got no time, thanks to a shaky autism diagnosis by – no shit – Sasha Baron-Cohen’s cousin). This began with a stray comment from a buddy while fly fishing and, well, the rest is history.

This is where the Zodiac connection really comes in. Almost everyone in The Feather Thief is driven by an obsession that border on all-consuming. Wallace spent years in the Asian jungles in pursuit of specimens (while Darwin jumped in front of him with the whole evolution thing). Rist took to fly tying the way an addict-in-waiting takes to heroin. The ecosystem in which he swam online was obsessed with these birds as a means to creating the perfect fly. And, finally, Johnson himself nearly let his life get away from him as he tried to track down all of Rist’s birds.

None of these obsessions really end well, which returns us to Zodiac. There is no happy ending here, except maybe for Rist – yes, he’s a convicted felon, but he got his degree from the Conservatory and is making a living as a professional flautist. Johnson doesn’t find a trove of stolen birds. He can’t make the museum, and science itself, whole. Instead, he has to walk away before it consumes him, unsatisfied that he wasn’t able to make a difference.

The Feather Thief isn’t the knottiest whodunnit. The bad buy here isn’t really that inscrutable (whatever he convinced a court about his motivations). It’s more about the impact of a crime and the need to try and set it right. Along with the realization that, a lot of the time, that’s a hopeless crusade.

On Changing the World

There are generally two kinds of speculative fiction in terms of where those stories take place. One kind takes place in a world that is wholly divorced from our own. In fantasy that means the typical kind of second world story (like, say, The Water Road), but it applies to a lot of science fiction, too. Even if a sci-fi story is told in our reality, if it does so hundreds of years in the future it’s hardly “our world” it’s taking place in.

The second type, of course, takes place in what is basically our current world and universe – at the very least, it looks like what we think our world looks like (before The Year of the Plague, at any rate). Think urban fantasy or any of the numerous examples of near-future sci-fi that dot our pop culture landscape. There’s a particular issue with this, however, something that pops up more often in fantasy and something I first thought about because of a bunch of law professors.

The Volokh Conspiracy is a blog collective of most libertarian law profs and scholars. A few of them are also sci-fi/fantasy geeks, and so talk about that occasionally in and among lengthy posts on the Fourth Amendment and what have you. Several years ago, one blogger talked about having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy.

For those not familiar with the books (or the excellent SyFy series that was based on them), the elevator pitch is “Harry Potter, but at college.” With that in mind, the blogger highlights an important difference:

Like the Harry Potter series, Grossman’s world features a hidden society of magicians who wield enormous power yet are unknown to normal humans, whose history they have little effect on. In the Potter series, however, there is a very powerful wizard government that prevents wizards from revealing their powers to Muggles and trying to dominate the world. The magical authorities in Grossman’s world are a lot weaker. It therefore strains credulity to believe that powerful sorcerers have been around for centuries, yet have never revealed themselves to normal humans, seized political power, or had any impact on history.

In other words, the world of The Magicians is different from ours not just in the general sense that “magic exists,” but that people have been trained to use it for generations and are living among us and . . . so what? What major historical catastrophe was averted? What major political movement played out a different way? The answer is nothing, and it’s a bit disappointing.

As I said, the issue has stuck with me. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell I really loved the way that magic worked in that book – it was about knowledge, it was about books, not bloodlines and destinies and all that. The relationship between Strange and Norrell reminded me of the apprentice system that trained new lawyers before law schools rose to prominence in the 20th Century. My mind whirred and I came up with an idea for a world, like ours, where magicians organized into firms and did contract work for clients, just like lawyers do, complete with oversight by the state (my main character was going to be the equivalent of a State Bar investigator). “Okay, cool,” I thought, “but how is this world different from ours? After all, if magicians have been operating like this for decades, things should be different, yes?” I’ve foundered on the shoals of that question for years.

This issue raised its head again recently while I was reading N.K. Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

If you’ve read her short story collection you’ll recognize the basic idea from the story “The City Born Great,” which effectively serves as the prologue for this book. Essentially, for reasons that aren’t really all that clear, at some point certain cities are “born” into actual, living entities. Some of these births go well – London, Hong Kong, and Sao Paolo are all living breathing cities at this point – while others don’t make it, or don’t make it for very long – think Atlantis and Pompeii, and New Orleans is having troubles, too. In the book it’s New York City’s turn and its difficult birth in the prologue leads to the avatars of the city (one per borough and an additional one overall) fighting to keep it living.

The book overall is pretty good. Jemisin can lay words on the page like just about nobody else going right now and the individual scenes and chapters are great as set pieces. The broader plot doesn’t quite work, however, and the book winds up feeling like less than the sum of its parts (props here to the audiobook production which, aside from one minor quibble – longer pauses between scenes please! –is brilliant both in production and performance). One reason that’s true is that we’re not given any idea why any of this matters. I mean, there’s a villain to vanquish (in the next book, apparently – grumble, grumble) and a city to save, but as to what makes London and Hong Kong and Sao Paolo different from what New York was prior to its birth we never learn.

On the one hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean the main story suffers. After all, it’s likely that The City We Became didn’t address this issue because it wasn’t really applicable to the story Jemisin set out to tell. Still, one of the great pleasures of speculative fiction is digging into a fully developed world that’s not ours and glossing over such things can leave the experience a little hollow. In other words, if you’re writing modern-world fantasy, or near future sci-fi, it’s worth thinking about what’s going on in the world beyond the discrete story you’re telling. Maybe it’s not that important, but it introduces some interesting possibilities for how to deepen the world you’re building and provide some extra details for readers who are interested in sinking their mental teeth into that kind of thing.

Serious Fantasy Revisited

A few weeks ago I put up a post wondering whether people are inclined to treat science fiction more seriously than fantasy – that is, more likely to capably deal with “big” issues – to the point that it shades peoples’ perceptions of what is and isn’t fantasy. The very same day I posted that I came across another head-scratching example that I wanted to share.

Over at Tor, James Davis Nicoll posted an article about six books that “defy easy categorization” and straddle the sci-fi fantasy divide. I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with most of these (several went on my “to read” list). The one I was familiar with, however, left me shaking my head. That was Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

As Nicoll explains, Kindred is about a black woman from modern American (it was written in ??) who, inexplicably, is ripped back in time to before the Civil War where she is exposed, brutally and graphically, to the horrors of slavery. It’s a tough read, to be sure, but it’s brilliant. As for its classification, Nicoll writes:

But is it science fiction or fantasy? While I will grant that the physical mechanism is never explained, Dana is caught up in a stable time loop whose logic dictates much of what happens to her. . . .. Butler thought Kindred was fantasy, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to call it science fiction.

It really doesn’t, any more that it seems perfectly reasonable to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on any factual dispute at this point. As Nicoll says, there’s no explanation or mechanism given for the main character’s time travel. It just happens. It’s certainly not the result of some kind of deep tech or scientific advancement. It’s more one of those Twilight Zone setups you just accept as existing, without wondering why. That, to me, is the defining feature of fantasy – here’s a world that’s different than ours, accept it (or don’t) and move on.

So why try and turn Kindred into science fiction? Could it be that it deals with deeply serious and traumatic topics that most people don’t associate with fantasy? I don’t buy the “it’s magic, but it’s magic that follow rules, therefore it’s sci-fi” logic. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (to pick an example) has a very regimented, logical, magic system (it sometimes feel like video game controls), but nobody would call it sci-fi, would they? Fun as those are, they don’t deal with the kind of issues that Kindred does, however.

I shared my original post with a group of sci-fi and fantasy writers on Facebook and got some interesting answers (and some amusing ones – to the question of “is sci-fi more ‘serious’ than fantasy,” one person just answered “yes”). The one that really caught me was this one:

Now, being a prog fan, I should have come up with this one myself. Nonetheless, I think bringing musical genres into this might help shed some light on the question. I think this is something that happens to new fans of all musical genres, but I’ve seen it repeatedly with prog fans (I may have even gone through it a bit myself): Fan of a particular bands discovers they’re generally classified as “progressive rock,” finds out that there’s more groups out there with similar characteristics, falls madly in love with “prog” as a thing and . . . starts to expand its boundaries exponentially. In other words, they go from “prog = good” to “good = prog” and try to define every band they like into their new favorite genre. No matter how great XTC are (and they are great!), they aren’t a progressive rock band – nor do they need to be categorized as such!

Is the same thing going on here? Are people who are normally drawn to sci-fi reading fantasy novels and feeling the need to reclassify them accordingly? I know sometimes there’s a rift between fans who only dig one or the other (I still remember the howls when the then-Sci-Fi Channel dares to show something that might actually be fantasy!), so maybe there’s some desire to cleave off the stuff at the margins and claim it one way or the other.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing. As I said in the original post, my beef is less about erecting boundaries around genres erasing grey areas and more the desire to see people treat fantasy (or crime fiction or romance or . . .) as just as able to raise serious issues as other genres. But maybe, in the end, it’s a lot of sound a fury and all that.

Is Sci-Fi More “Serious” Than Fantasy?

Fantasy has a reputation for taking itself pretty seriously. Outside of some outliers like Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books, the prevailing image of fantasy is that it’s about big deal themes of good against evil, fulfilling destinies, and such like that. The Lord of the Rings is not a “day in the life” story with no big stakes, after all. Indeed, in a lot of ways fantasy can seem – to use an epithet thrown at progressive rock all the time – “pretentious.” But for all that, when it comes to dealing with the big questions, the ones that probe the nature of reality and humanity, do people take science fiction more seriously than fantasy? Even to the point of letting that reflect how they categorize a story?

This occurred to me after I’d finished up The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

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The setup is this – the title character is one of a few select people in the world who live their lives over and over again. When they die, they basically go back to the beginning and are reborn, but with the collected memories of their prior lives still intact. Thus these are some seriously “ahead of their time” children roaming around, as you might guess. The story follows Harry as he lives a bunch of his lives and tries to stop another of his kind that is seeking a revelation will destroy the world. It’s pretty good, and has some really excellent bits. I recommend it.

When I finished the book I do what I usually do and seek out reviews to see what others thought about it. To my surprise, I saw a lot of people file The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August under “science fiction,” which made little sense to me. Sure, there’s some discussion of quantum mechanics and parallel worlds (at i09, Charlie Jane Anders lists all this as reasons why “it’s a real science fiction book,” so what do I know?), but what makes the story go is the completely fantastic bit where these people live their lives over and over again. It’s never explained, much less with some kind of semi-plausible scientific reason. For all we know a genie thousands of years ago granted somebody’s wish and it got out of hand.

The mechanics don’t matter much because North uses them to deal with issues of free will, destiny, and the price of the pursuit of ultimate knowledge. These are the kinds of big issues that science fiction sometimes tackles, but that doesn’t mean that every story that does that is science fiction. Could it just be that people expect sci-fi to be more thoughtful about this stuff than fantasy?

Regular readers know one of my pet peeves is when people who write “Literature,” rather than just tell stories, write something that’s unambiguously fantasy or sci-fi but refuse to label it as such because of genre snobbery. This feels kind of the same way. Sure, fantasy is fine for satisfying tales of good vanquishing evil or ass-kicking vampire slayers, but if you want to ponder the big questions, well, it’s not for that. But why not?

Any story can plumb the depths of the big questions that have plagued humanity since we started walking upright. Genre doesn’t limit the stories you can tell, only change the way that they’re told. Embrace the idea that deep thoughts can come from anywhere in the library.

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Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.

DangerousMelodies