On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

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Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

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I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

Plus ca change . . .

There has always been controversial art. The reasons change – whether it’s the frank depiction of sex, or violence, or challenges to religious or political orthodoxy – but the fact that words or images piss people off is as old as time. We tend to think there’s more of it going around these days because social media tends to amplify controversies when they emerge. Just because the cacophony is louder doesn’t mean it’s any kind of major change in society.

This was driven home to me by a recent article in The Atlantic. Though the current title is “The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” the title that shows on the browser tab, which more accurately captures the theme of the piece, is “Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today?” Bucking the usual rule of headline questions, the answer, from the story itself, appears to be yes.

Some background first. The literary controversy of the year so far has been American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins. With a major push from its publisher, and a spot on Oprah’s list, it was poised to be the breakout title of the year.

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It’s about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico after a drug kingpin murders the rest of their family and, ultimately, their experiences as migrants heading to the United States. This article does a good job of highlight the resulting controversy, which ranged from questions of cultural appropriation (Cummins is neither Latina nor a migrant) to how writers of color are locked out of the publishing industry to the fact that, maybe, the book just isn’t that good at what it wants to be (this is an interesting takedown along those lines ).

The merits of the arguments about the book aren’t really important. What you need to know is that some people took issue with what was set to be a wildly popular book (there was a film deal before it was even published) and weren’t silent about it. Thanks to social media, blogs and what not their complaints reached a fairly wide audience.

Back to the Atlantic piece. The subject is The Confessions of Nat Turner and the “My Father” in the title is William Styron – the author of the article is his daughter, Alexandra. The Confessions of Nat Turner came out in 1967. Turner, of course, was the leader of a slave revolt in antebellum Virginia. The book is a fictional narrative of Turner as told to a prosecutor who will try Turner after the revolt. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it must be pretty good.

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Nonetheless, it led to some controversy, driven largely by the fact that Styron wasn’t black, much less a slave. How could he write a narrative from the standpoint of one? If it’s a familiar objection, it’s worth looking at how familiar the arc of reaction to the book is to what happened with American Dirt.

First, there was a swell of praise from traditional sources:

Through much of 1967, he was at ease, enjoying the swell of prepublication buzz for Nat Turner. The Book-of-the-Month Club (the Oprah’s Book Club of its time) paid my father the highest price for a novel in the company’s history. The paperback, serial, and foreign rights sold in a frenzy. Hollywood came calling. That July, when riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, newspapers asked him to help white America understand what was happening. By October, when the first reviews appeared, Nat Turner was a juggernaut. ‘Magnificent,’ The New York Times declared. “A new peak in the literature of the South,’ Time wrote. ‘It will endure as one of the great novels by an American author in this century,’ the Los Angeles Times predicted. In November, my father was awarded an honorary degree by Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio.

At this point, as Styron’s daughter points out, with one exception “no black writers were invited to critique Nat Turner in any major national publication.” Slowly, however, those overlooked voices started rising:

The first signs of black dissent appeared by the new year. Articles in, among other publications, The New Leader, The Negro Digest, and Freedomways condemned the novel and the white media that endorsed it. Around the same time, an ugly spat erupted in The Nation between my father and the Marxist scholar of African-American history, Herbert Aptheker. (They both behaved like self-important assholes.) In February, The New York Times ran the first of several pieces exposing an angrier vein: ‘Styron’s Nat Turner, the house nigger,’ declared the professor Michael Thelwell, ‘is the spiritual ancestor of the contemporary middle-class Negro … [the] type with whom whites including Mr. Styron feel most comfortable.’ The writer William Strickland groused that the novel was ‘the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged.’ My father’s critics took issue with the book’s dialect and character development, with what he put in (a master who teaches Nat to read, motive for the rebellion separate from bondage) and what he left out (a black wife, unyielding conviction). But probably his greatest crime, as my father reflected 25 years later in an essay for American Heritage, was ‘apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?’ In June 1968, the backlash reached its zenith when Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book generated its own front-page notices, and kept the Nat Turner dispute alive well into the summer.

 

The backlash led to the film (to star James Earl Jones) to be shelved.
None of this is to say that the detractors of American Dirt or Nat Turner had the right of it. Maybe they do, but I’ve never read either book, so I don’t know. My point is that the experience of Nat Turner that Styron’s daughter lays out sounds almost exactly like what happened with American Dirt. Maybe the controversy didn’t burn so brightly, since it didn’t have social media to fan the flames, but it still burned pretty good.

Which is only to observe, as the song says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who writes a book (or makes a movie or paints a picture) risks blowback, whether the blowback is warranted or not. The arts are simultaneously vague and subject to so many interpretations, yet stir such deep passions. It will be a change when new books are written that don’t provoke any negative reaction. Human nature being what it is, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Weekly Read: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

Short story collections are weird beasts. By definition they rise and fall on the strength of each individual story, which I think makes it a little easier to notice the flaws. A dull spot in an otherwise good novel is most likely to just slip down the memory hole at the end of the day. A story that doesn’t work sticks out a little bit more. Given the number of stories in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection you’d expect more than a few duds. As the song says, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son.”. What’s amazing about Jemisin’s collection is how often everything does work.

This is a lengthy collection, so I’m not going to mention every story in it, only a few of the highlights. The first, for me, was “The City Born Great,” in which a homeless kid becomes a kind of midwife to the entire city of New York as it’s “born.” The setup is interesting and the birthing process itself is wonderfully evocative.

“The Effluent Engine” is a kind of alternate history/steampunk hybrid, where Haiti becomes this hemisphere’s leader in the dirigible race, leading a spy (of sorts) to come to New Orleans seeking aid from a famous engineer. A romantic angle cropped up here that at first made me roll my eyes (not because it involved two women – it just seemed cliché), but Jemison turned it on its head in the end, much to my delight.

My favorite title, if not my favorite story, in the collection is “Cloud Dragon Skies” (sounds like a Steve Hill age song – and, yes, I’ve got a musical idea for it in my head). Set in a future where most of humanity has moved off the poisoned Earth, the sky is now red and the clouds have become kind of sentient. Those who left try to fix it, but it doesn’t help. An interesting narrative and point-of-view in this story.

“The Elevator Dancer” is just a great, really short story about the power, or the need, to ignore something that’s right in front of you. The dystopia in which the story is set reminds me a little of the one in Zappa’s Joe’s Garage where music has been declared illegal. There are some things so essential to our humanity that no oppressive force can quash.

Of the several stories that revolve around food, my favorite is “Cuisine des Memoires,” about a restaurant that can serve any meal from any time in history, from the famous to the personal. Naturally the main character can’t leave well enough alone and wanders into a meditation on magic and memory.

In her introduction, Jemisin talks about how she same to write short stories and about how she sometimes uses them to try out worlds she’s thinking of using for novels. That comes through in “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the world of her Hugo-winning Fifth Season trilogy and “The Narcomancer,” which does the same in the world of her Dreamblood duology. I enjoyed the later one more, since it was completely new to me. The other felt a little like a demo version of a song – interesting, but not quite up to the final product. If I’m not misreading, I think “The City Born Great” I mentioned above served this purpose for Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

A couple stories left me scratching my head more than anything else. The lead off, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” is a direct consequence to the Ursula K Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an apparent utopia that comes at a terrible cost. Jemisin’s story is also about a utopia maintained through a vigorous program of execution for anyone who steps out of line ideologically. It’s hard to tell whether this is an agreement with “Omelas” that utopia isn’t really possible, or if it’s arguing that it can be possible with a cost, so let the cost be borne by those who deserve it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Likewise “Henosis,” a dark tale about a prestigious literary award that leads to the winner’s death. I can’t decide if it’s a pitch perfect satire of writers’ desire for glory or such a silly idea that it’s nonsensical.

There are a few other stories that just didn’t work for me, although none of them are “bad” in a meaningful sense. Not because they aren’t cool ideas – “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” in particular is very cool – but because they feel rushed, almost like they’re half stories. “Non-Zero Probabilities” feels the same way, but I see that it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published (several of these stories are available online – hence the all the links, all legit), so what do I know?

All in all, How Long ‘til Black Future Month continues the serious roll Jemisin has been on the past few years. Most of these stories are great and show a great deal of range in terms of style, tone, and subject. In the introduction, Jemisin explains that she started writing short fiction in order to improve her novel writing. Other writers can only hope our exercises bear such amazing fruit.

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Weekly Read: “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

There is no such thing as a magic word.

As a writer, much less a writer of fantasy, that’s a hard thing to remember some times. But the reason words can hold sway in fantasy is precisely because the story being told isn’t set in the real world. Here in reality, even that most magic of all words – “Abracadabra!” – only has power because the magician uttering it has convinced the audience to buy into the trick their performing (as someone in The Prestige points out, the audience wants to be fooled).

Pro se litigants in the criminal justice system often think words have some kind of magic power. If only they can find the right sentence in a Supreme Court decision then the judge will have to overturn their conviction or vacate their sentence! I’ve seen it over and over in my years practicing law. That the law is rarely that clear and that their ultimate fate is left in the hands of another human being, with all their flaws and biases, can be hard to accept.

I thought about that a lot while reading A Problem from Hell. Samantha Powers’ 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner is an exhaustive examination of how the United States did (or, more often, did not) respond to genocidal crises that arose in the 20th Century, from the Armenian Genocide during the First World War through the multiple rounds of horribles in the former Yugoslavia.

Power spends a good amount of time on Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled at the earliest inklings of the Holocaust. He eventually came to the United States and made it his life’s work to create some international law that would address the systematic destruction (or attempted destruction) of an entire people. It was Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” and helped shape the Genocide Convention that was passed by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.

Make no mistake – this was a big deal. After the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Trials it wasn’t a given that the international community would make a fairly unified statement that genocide was a crime against humanity. And yet, the fact that there was a name for such horrors (along with a legalistic definition) didn’t magically change behaviors. Not only did further atrocities occur, but the international community, now committed to the idea of “never again,” nonetheless let it happen repeatedly.

One reason is that once the atrocity has a name, it gives the parties involved a way to argue that this particular set of killings or expulsions doesn’t rise to that level. In other words, if it’s not “genocide,” then there’s much less incentive to do something about it. That’s because, very often, there are other considerations in play than just stopping someone from doing evil. At best there’s the fact that exactly how to deal with genocide while it’s underway is always hard to figure out. In fact, Powers, for all her catalogs of what the United States didn’t do, doesn’t offer many alternatives, aside from the use of military force. That can be a hard ask in the 21st Century (not for nothing, but Powers’ book was written just as 9/11 happened and before US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan). At worst, the people doing all the killing are allies, even if we’re reluctant about calling them that (US policy towards the Khmer Rouge was basically driven by “yeah, but they hate the Vietnamese, too” thinking).

As a result, a lot of time is wasted on terminology. So long as perpetrators can drag out the question of whether something is genocide or not, the killings go on and their plan comes closer to fruition. Since there are no magic words, what’s the point in wasting time making sure we’re using the right one? That dance of nomenclature is one of the themes of Powers’ book.

One of the others is how bipartisan US politics was when it came to dealing with genocide. The champions of ratifying the Genocide Convention – which the US didn’t do until 1988 – came from both parties. Indeed, in classic American fashion, the final ratification wasn’t a triumph of principle, but a political gambit to deflect from a scandal.

The other thread that I found really interesting in all of these genocides is how unready the world is to believe it’s happening. Part of that is down to people just not wanting to believe something so horrible is going on. There’s an anecdote about Lemkin trying to convince a Supreme Court Justice (I forget who, specifically) that the Holocaust is happening and the Justice’s response is, basically, “I can’t believe you – I just can’t wrap my head around the barbarity of it.” Beyond that, though, there’s two related lenses through which people look at these situations that keep prompt responses from happening.

The first is that information about atrocities often comes first from people who survive them, mostly refugees fleeing to other places. Repeatedly, authorities downplay the reports of refugees until they reach such a critical mass that they can’t be ignored. While we know more and more about how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be, it can be all too easy to let prudence and caution roll over into dug in skepticism. The second is that there are repeated examples of the outside world doubting atrocities are taking place because it’s not a logical thing for the perpetrators to do. Who would risk the opprobrium of the international community by trying to kill off or otherwise destroy an entire population? But, of course, history shows that perpetrators usually get away with it, at least to a certain extent. And for true believers, what’s the big deal about after-the-fact punishment if you succeeded in your goal?

Ultimately the problem of how to deal with genocide is the problem of international law at its most acute. Put simply, international law only works as well as the nations committed to it allow it to work. There is no outside force, no world police, to enforce promises nations make to one another if those nations aren’t willing to enforce them. One of the provisions of the Genocide Convention was to allow one state to take another to an international court to stop an ongoing genocide. It took until 2019, when The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Rohingya, for that to happen and it’s still not clear whether the court’s ruling will really have any impact.

It would be great if words were magical, but the hard truth of history is that they aren’t. It takes more than a label to get people and nations to do the right thing, even if it should be as simple as stepping up and saying, “stop killing defenseless people.” That’s why something like genocide really is a “problem from hell.”

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Decade – Favorite Books

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

Writers read. I’m always surprised when I find someone who writes who thinks that either reading in their genre is a bad idea or, in some cases, that reading itself just takes away from valuable writing time. You gotta do your own work, of course, but it’s critical for a writer to nourish their mind and soul with the works of others. Besides, reading is fun! So, naturally, I do a lot of it, although most of it these days is less “reading” than it is “listening” via audiobooks. Regardless, I’ve read some good stuff over the past ten years.

Here are the rules for this list . . .

1. Only works first published during the last decade are eligible.

2. Only one work per author on the list BUT (and it’s kind of a big one) I’ve included series, trilogies, and the like under one heading, so the list is actually more than ten books.

3. As with all the other lists, these are personal favorites. I don’t make any claim to these being the best, most influential, or what have you. I just really liked ‘em.

Saga (2012-present)
by Bryan K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

 

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A couple of years ago when I wrote about why you should be reading this science fantasy space epic, I called it “the apex of what comics can be.” That’s completely true – if you’ve never read a comic or graphic novel before, you could do worse than to start with Saga. But as I also said back then, you should read it because “it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop.” How could it not be a favorite?

Redshirts (2012)
by John Scalzi

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By now even people who have never seen an episode of Star Trek know what it means to be a “red shirt” – an expendable character who gets sacrificed so the audience knows the peril our heroes are about to face (and escape, obviously). Is there something deeper there than just a cheap joke and internet meme? John Scalzi took the idea and ran with it, crafting a story about a group of low-rung characters on a suspiciously Trek-like ship who figure out the game. What follows is good fun and a meditation on what it means to live your own story and find out who you really are. Also, how can you not love a book with three codas?

The Master of Confessions (2014)
by Thierry Cruvellier

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Thierry Cruvellier’s book is not a history of what the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia in the 1970s, nor is it a straight biography of Duch, the titular master of confessions. Rather, it’s a more freeform observation and commentary on Duch’s 8-month trial for crimes against humanity. As such, while it certainly talks about the brutal history of that era (and that place, Tuol Sleng, the former high school that still had blood on the walls when my wife and I visited in 2015), it also dives into the idea of confessions as legal proof and what happens when legal proceedings drag on an on, to the point where the defense team openly spars with each other.

I wrote a more in-depth review of the book which you can read here. Needless to say, it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.

Children of Time (2015)
Children of Ruin (2019)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky

If you had told me in 2010 that one of my favorite books in the next decade would involve sentient spiders I would have rolled my eyes. But it’s true! Children of Time begins with a disrupted experiment on a distant planet which results in spider-like beings getting infected with an uplift nanovirus. In the eons it takes for humans to make it back there, we’re treated to the evolution of the spiders and development of their own space-faring society. It’s completely brilliant, outside the box stuff. The story continues in Children of Ruin, which is almost as good.

The Fifth Season (2015)
The Obelisk Gate (2016)
The Stone Sky (2017)
by N.K. Jemisin

Broken

I generally do not buy the hype. Almost never do I read, see, or hear something that is wildly praised and think it’s as great as all that. If anything shouldn’t have met my standards it’s this trilogy – a volume of which won the Hugo award for best novel an unprecedented three years in a row. Somehow, it managed not to disappoint. The first book, in particular, is utterly brilliant for the narrative sleight of hand it pulls off. The other two don’t quite match that high mark, but are both excellent and the trilogy tells a hell of a story overall.

The Mechanical (2015)
The Rising (2015)
The Liberation (2016)
by Ian Tregillis

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“Clockmakers lie.” Not such a big deal if they’re all making timepieces, but if they’re making scores of mechanical men? It could be a big problem, particularly if some of those “clakkers” start to think for themselves. That’s the thrust of the Alchemy Wars trilogy, which is set in an alternate universe 1920s where the world is basically ruled by the Dutch as a result of their mastery of clockwork automatons. Only some, like the books’ hero Jax, aren’t content to do what they’re told. A great story set in a fascinating world that raises interesting questions about free will and such.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War On Drugs  (2015)
by Johann Hari

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I read this book along with Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, which investigates the origin of the current opioid crisis. Chasing the Scream goes back much further and investigates the origins of the drug war itself, back in the beginning of the 20th Century. It focuses particularly on a slimy shit named Harry Anslinger, who ran the predecessor to the DEA for more than three decades. He was the prototypical drug warrior, pathologically certain of his moral correctness and impervious to evidence showing just about every assumption he had about drugs was wrong. More than that, however, the book allows Johann Hari to look at various alternatives to our current drug war, almost all of which look more promising.

The Road to Jonestown (2017)
by Jeff Guinn

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I knew the basic story of Jonestown – the far out settlement in the jungle, the fateful Congressional fact-finding mission, the murder/suicide that ensued. What I never really knew is how things wound up that way. Guinn’s book is a fascinating and comprehensive look at a man who began life as a charismatic preacher and civil rights activist who slipped slowly into authoritarianism and paranoia. It’s frightening, yet completely understandable, how many of victims were drawn in by him and equally horrific the things so many of them eventually did in his name.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)
by Joanne Freeman

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I went into reading this book thinking that the incident pictured on the front – the beating of a northern Senator by a southern colleague in the Senate chamber on the eve of the Civil War – was a singular thing. I expected some interesting history you point to and say, “look out how uncivilized they all were.” Instead, I came out the other end thinking the age – which included numerous acts of inter-Congressional violence and at least one death – sounds an awful lot like ours. Given where it all led the first time, it wasn’t a comforting read.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)
by Radley Balko & Tucker Carrington

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Radley Balko is best known for his work chronicling the rise of militarism in police procedures, but during that same time he’s done a lot of work on the hot mess that is forensic science in this country. In this book he, along with Tucker Carrington (of the Innocence Project), take one particular case study of this, chronicling the death investigation system in Mississippi. Thoroughly political and slanted towards the prosecution, it sends innocent people to prison – who then only sometimes get released, because the courts have problems dealing with stuff like this. It will make you throw the book across the room.

Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

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The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

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The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

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I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

Weekly Read: The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System

I’ve practiced law for more than twenty years. I’ve been a fairly regular political observer for longer than that. Which is to say that little that Bruce Gibney details in The Nonsense Factory about how messed up the American legal system has become is new to me. But having it all lumped in one steaming pile really drives how just how bad things are. We are so fucked.

Gibney really takes a holistic approach. Entire books could (and have) been written about particular problems with courts or lawyers or Congress, but Gibney brings them all into the discussion and shows how no part of what we think of as “law” – from those who make it to those who enforce it to those who judge it – is free from serious problems. I wish he had provided more concrete examples, however. Several times he’d outline a potential problem, setting up a “for example” or “as in this case,” only to move onto the next target. Granted, it’s already a long book, but some of that detail would have been nice. Still, in adopting this drone’s-eye-view he finds some threads that run from area to area that might not be obvious when viewing each in isolation.

For instance, there’s a lot of “American exceptionalism” (a phrase, according to Gibney, coined by Stalin, of all people) in our law and that’s not good. It would be one thing if the quirks of the American legal system were producing better, more just results, but for the most part they don’t. As one example, Gibney points out that judges in most other Western democracies are professionals who are trained to be judges, not lawyers (perhaps not even that) with the political skill to win elections or be picked by an executive to fill a spot on the bench for ideological reasons. As a result there’s a pretty steep learning curve for new judges. We could learn from the rest of the world’s experience, but that’s generally not how we roll.

Another example that crops up throughout the book is that although the American legal/political system isn’t designed to do particular things, that doesn’t stop it from trying to do them. The result is that we often end up with patchwork procedures held together by mental duct tape and without any great grounding in larger political or legal principles (one of Gibney’s observations is that legal education in this country provides precious little exposure to ideas about legal philosophy that could inform the system). Arguably the entire federal regulatory apparatus – something the Constitution is silent about – falls into this category. The more salient one these days, however, is the way we go to war, which is largely a Presidential decision rather than a Congressional one. Gibney wants Congress to step up and reassert its own authority, but overlooks the political calculus of the thing – actually voting for or against an overseas adventure is a big political risk, while staying out of the decision and riding the result however it goes isn’t.

For as good a job as Gibney does at diagnosing problems, he doesn’t provide very much in the way of concrete proposals for change. There’s an underlying vibe of “blow it all up and start again,” but he doesn’t actually say that needs or is going to happen. And while he does offer some specifics as he addresses some issues – close a bunch of law schools, allow non-lawyers to invest in law firms, etc. – he doesn’t really tackle bigger issues. For example, he recognizes the need to have more jury trials and more well informed juries, but doesn’t suggest changing the law to produce that result. Rather than suggest the law inform jurors of the potential sentences faced by defendants, for example, he suggests it’s sufficient that jurors be engaged and interested enough to Google the information themselves and engage in jury nullification.

In the end, Gibney’s suggestions largely boil down to exhortations to all involved to do better. Politicians should care more about institutional prerogative than political expediency. Constituents should hold them to account. Lawyers and judges should worry more about the perception of law as just than in burrowing down into their own particular specialties at the risk of losing the big picture. That’s all well and good, but if history teaches us anything it’s that people generally don’t do what’s best, they do what’s in their self interest.

How do we deal with that in the context of a Constitution that’s two centuries old and not designed for the realities of the 21st Century? I don’t know. Unfortunately, neither does Gibney, really.

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Weekly Read: The New and Improved Romie Futch

This spring the wife and I spent a long weekend in the other Charleston (South Carolina) and, naturally, found our way to a bookstore. There, in a display of local authors, I was drawn to one of the wildest covers I’d seen in a while:

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The concept seemed as intriguing as the artwork, so I put it on my “to read” list. Having now finally digested the saga of Romie Futch I can say the whole book lives up to the wild premise of that cover.

Romie is a man in a mid-life mess, with an unsatisfying job as a taxidermist, some issues with substance abuse, and carrying a huge, blazing torch for his ex-wife. He sees a potential way out of his rut in a medical experiment in which he (and several other similarly down-on-their-luck middle-aged dudes) has volumes of knowledge downloaded directly into his brain, turning him into a super loquacious narrator.

Armed with his newfound data dump, Romie tries to get his life on track. That largely involves occasional blackouts and other issues related to his upgrades, continued pining for his ex-wife, renewed interest in taxidermy as post-modern art, and the pursuit of an enormous mutated wild boar dubbed Hogzilla. No prizes for figuring out where the cover image came from then.

But that’s not really the point. The joy of this book is in the character of Romie and those he meets as he tries to get his life straight. Author Julia Elliott has lots of fun with Romie’s newfound vocabulary – the scene where he and several other test subjects sit down and talk for the first time, each unable to keep up with the stream of 5-dollar words coming out of their mouths, is hilarious. It helps set the tone for the rest of the book, too, as everything is always on the verge of just being too much – too many words, too many character quirks – but Elliott always keeps it from going too far. Romie may not have the best life, but it’s an amusing one to be a part of for a while (another highlight – his inner verbal monologue imagining his pregnant ex-wife being knocked up by her fiancé’s young hipster relation).

Along the way, Elliott is able to explore a lot of different areas of modern (and near-future) life. The whole book has a decaying Southern Gothic vibe to it, wherein all politicians are corrupt and big corporations wield power without any real oversight. There’s definitely a strain of anti-science through the book, as the only real knowledge pushers are doing it for malevolent ends (so far as we know – more on that later). It’s deeply cynical and the satire is pretty sharp in spots.

That being said, it does feel like there are some missed opportunities here and there. Romie’s pursuit of Hogzilla is much more satisfying than just about anything to do with the medical experiments performed on him. Since our point of view is Romie’s we never get a broader picture of what the point of the experiment was or who was really behind it. When it comes to wrapping up that part of the story the book feels at its most perfunctory, like Elliott knew she had to do something with it but wasn’t quite sure what. It’s a minor quibble, since this is a book where the journey is well worth taking, even if the destination isn’t quite what you hoped for.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character trait of Romie’s – that he’s a progressive rock fan! It starts out early with references to Yes and The Moody Blues, but gets so esoteric as to include a reference to Henry Cow bassoonist (you read that right) Lindsay Cooper. Romie has a particular affinity for King Crimson (not the Belew years, apparently, as the songs he name drops later all come from the band’s earlier days). To say I could see a bit of myself in him is an understatement.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this book a whole bunch. Whatever shortcoming it might have with some of the plot is more than made up for by the characters and the way they’re written. Weird and highly recommended – just like King Crimson.

Guilty Pleasures

This, floated recently in the New York Times, I can fully get behind:

We know them when we see them: The TV shows and movies we love, even though we just know they’re bad. The trashy books we simply can’t put down. The awful earworms we hate to love.

Yes, these are our guilty pleasures — what some people consider the junk food in our media diets. But if we enjoy them, why should we feel guilty? We should be free to enjoy whatever we like! And as it turns out, these so-called ‘guilty’ pleasures can actually be good for us, so long as they’re enjoyed in moderation.

I really loathe the term “guilty pleasure,” since it makes a value judgment about the kind of art or entertainment that grabs you. As I’ve said over and over, reaction to art is personal and what thrills one person will bore another. Think of the most popular thing on the planet (say, Avengers: Endgame) and consider that as popular as it is it hasn’t been seen, much less liked, by a majority of the population.

Don’t get me wrong – I have what others might deem guilty pleasures, I just refuse to feel bad about it. In particular I seem to have a particular fondness for “bad” movies with Max von Sydow in them – Flash Gordon, David Lynch’s Dune, Strange Brew, Victory. None of them were critically praised and at least two of them are loathed by portions of the fandom of the originals upon which they’re based. Those folks are entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to feel superior to me because I enjoy that stuff (while recognizing I’m in the minority).

I think part of why we like to label things as “guilty pleasures” is that it allows us to like what we do without actually copping to it, so we can still think we’re cool. That’s why we come up with ideas like reading something ironically or hatewatching to cover the truth – we just enjoy what we’re reading/watching/listening to. I mean how stupid is “hatewatching”? If you watch something that you hate so often you’re just in denial – you’re enjoying it, even if in a different way than the creators intended.

After all, it’s not like a bad movie or book is the same thing as an artery-clogging meal:

Guilt can be a healthy motivator to push us to change behaviors we don’t like, while shame — the painful feeling that our behavior makes us horrible people — is never productive. But when we disparage our reality TV viewing habits, for example, we typically aren’t describing a behavior we hope to change, nor are we saying we’re terrible people.

‘When you feel guilty, but haven’t harmed anyone, then you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism,’ said Dr. Neff, the associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

So throw down your chains of shame, brothers and sisters! Give not a single fuck about what other people think about your entertainment preferences! We all need brain candy sometimes – might as well admit it and move on with our lives. I’m with Loki:

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Weekly Read: Great North Road

There was a time when how long an “album” could be was confined to the limits of vinyl. Somewhere between 35 and 50 minutes was the best you could do, and the higher limits were only available with compromising sound quality (hence why all the old Zappa/Mothers albums are so short per side), unless you were making a double. Regardless, it set expectations for what an “album” should be.

Then along came CDs and all that changed. The apocryphal story goes that the amount of music a CD could hold was designed so it could contain all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so about 79 minutes worth of music. Not surprising then that artists in the 1990s and 2000s took full advantage of the extended time, sometimes with great effect (Mike Keneally) and sometimes with an overabundance of filler (I’m looking at you Flower Kings). Equally unsurprising that, as we push on towards the 2020s, album lengths have generally returned to that 45-50 minute zone, even though with digital download formats they could be nearly endless.

Which is to say that in a world of vinyl-length novels, Great North Road is a jam-packed, full-length CD (my understanding is that author Peter Hamilton is known for lengthy books). Sadly, like many of those early Flower King albums, it doesn’t benefit from the additional time it takes up.

Which is a shame, because there are some very cool things happening in Great North Road. The title itself is a bit of a hint, as “North” is actually the family name of a huge clan of clones that has more money than God at this point. The family fortune was made on supplying a petroleum replacement (in the audiobook it sounds like “bi-oil,” but I have no idea how it’s actually spelled) sourced from the planet St. Libra. Said planet is reached through a Stargate kind of gateway located in (of all places) Newcastle, England. There are other worlds, other portals, and an existential threat called the Zanth (again, no idea how it’s spelled) that lingers over everything.

Into all this comes the murder of a North in Newcastle, which kicks off the book’s parallel plots. One is terrestrial, as a Newcastle cop tries to solve the murder. The other takes place mostly on St. Libra, where a military expedition is mounted to find if there is, perhaps, sentient alien life on St. Libra after all. The focus of that plot thread is Angela, who’s lengthy backstory is revealed as the book progresses. She, and her backstory in particular, is the most interesting part of the book, since it allows Hamilton to explore some other worlds and the societies that have developed on them. The way Angela’s past informs her present and dovetails into the St. Libra plot is really well done, even if that plot line is largely an extended riff on the “expedition is caught in the middle of nowhere with an angry monster” trope.

There’s no such compelling narrative to the plot happening in Newcastle, however. While the two do connect in the end, you’re left wondering if the Newcastle stuff could be confined to a lengthy prologue. The investigation just goes on too long with lots of extraneous details (the narratives of the way detectives navigate Newcastle’s highways makes me think of the SNL skit “The Californians”). Sid, the main detective, is a decent enough character, but he never really comes to life.

There are other annoyances – all the woman are beautiful, the Newcastle banter is really repetitive, things really wrap up a bit to neatly – that come and go, but given the length of the narrative they pop up a lot. It makes the narrative more of a slog than you’d expect for an interstellar adventure in which clones and a monster somewhat reminiscent of Hyperion’s shrike should be.

So all in all, there’s a really good, interesting book to be exhumed from Great North Road, but the effort leads to a solid shrugging of the shoulders by the end.

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