Tamsyn Muir, “Gideon the Ninth” (2019) (read aloud by Moira Quirk) – People love this book! It’s about Gideon Nave, who lives on a planet that sucks in a solar system that sucks and both are ruled by necromancers. Every planet has its own kind – martial necromancers, sexy necromancers, brainy necromancers, etc., you know how contemporary scifi likes to sort things into houses and so on based on one or two traits – and the Ninth, Gideon’s, is run by the gothiest necromancers. You might think all necromancers are pretty goth, what with the reanimating skeletons and all, but the Ninth is extra goth, all about decay, darkness, stuff being old, repentance, etc.
Gideon doesn’t fit in that well, because she’s big, bluff, lively, and rebellious. She eventually makes a path for herself as a swordswoman. She’s also the only one of two people her age on her planet due to a ghastly accident near her birth. The other is Harrow. Harrow is the heir to the noble house who runs the place. She’s petite, delicate, and a manipulator, and as into necromantic magic as Gideon is into swords. They don’t get along. But they’re forced to go to the First planet, where the necromantic empire got its start, to get into a competition with all the other houses/planets. One (1) necromancer and one (1) swordsman from each planet are to compete to become, like, extra-special vaguely-immortal necromancers, and fight by the side of the necromancer emperor himself!
Here’s the deal: this is a plot and a setup perfectly balanced to produce a neutral starting opinion in me, basically because elements that interest me (science fantasy! Swords!) get canceled out by elements that don’t (goth stuff! Oft-repeated plot elements and tropes from contemporary series-based speculative fiction!). Similarly, the ecstatic reception this book has received from many friends- on the one hand, they’re smart people whose opinions I respect, on the other, I know my own particular tastes differ. So… I come with a very open mind, and in the end, it was the quality of the writing, from structure down to syntax, that decided it.
Aaaaand… that quality, while I could tell it would be just the thing to keep others more favorably inclined on the hook, was not the kind that I like. First, the book is surprisingly slow-moving for a popular bestseller about people with swords and magic fighting each other. After a pretty bravura opening, matters slow to a crawl when Gideon and Harrow get to the First planet. It’s a pretty funny twist, that they bring all these necromancy freaks and swordfighters to a big palace for a contest, but the Emperor’s flunkies don’t actually know what the contest is! And so, you get a long drawn out middle of everyone trying to figure shit out. You get leisurely introduced to all the weirdos from the assorted planet/houses, who of course have millennia of lore and rivalries and stereotypes about each other, not the worst worldbuilding but also the sort of stuff that will be familiar to anyone who has read contemporary SFF, living as it does under the shadow of Hogwarts. Not only do these weirdos need to banter, occasionally duel, get romantically obsessed with each other, etc., but they need to not just solve a mystery, but solve the mystery of what the mystery is! Too slow, and the stakes too abstract, for me.
Then there’s the dialogue and humor. Here, I worry most about stepping on the toes of friends. I didn’t like it. Despite existing in a millennia-old undead empire presumably light-years from Earth, Gideon still thinks in memes and internet jokes. Honestly, the anachronism involved doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that Muir follows this into having most characters talk in a sort of early-2000s internet forum argot, a wordy idiom of exaggeration and affected cynicism. She wrings a lot of mileage from the contrast of aristocratic high diction and puns and/or a Boing Boing reader’s idea of “naughtiness.” Harrow and Gideon, for instance, repeatedly threaten each other in… not exactly “flowery” language, a “fuckwaffle” isn’t a flower, but you know, like, very wordy threats with a lot of silly words thrown in. Sometimes more than one, in a string! Think the way your freshman year dorm-mates who misquoted Monty Python would talk if they had all the time they wanted to come up with the most needlessly elaborate lines possible and deliver them with as much mustard as they could muster. It doesn’t help I listened to this as an audiobook!
Basically, this is a book for goths, or anyway, goths in the way goth-dom has taken shape in the last… well, here, I don’t know enough to say. I understand that the goth subculture was always big on irony and camp. This scans from my memories of youth. I do also vaguely get the idea that they – not just goths, either, but other youth subcultures at the time too, like metalheads, punks, to a certain extent nerds, hippies, and so on – used to take the whole subcultural thing more seriously, thought their customs, outfits, music, tropes etc. really were superior and would fight, or at least argue, the point. I’m not sure if that changed, or if I was just projecting- back when it mattered (i.e. adolescence), I was pretty violently opposed to subculture as a concept. It’s hard to project myself back there. Why did I care?
Anyway! The points where this book rubbed against me seem to be points that either wouldn’t bother or would positively delight the contemporary, un-self-serious goth with a job and responsibilities. Moreover, the joy they could take from how dark, decadent, and skeleton-y (animated skeletons appear to do all the work, and being me, I wanted to know more about them, and think they’d probably have a better book in them, all amusing skeleton hi-jinks) would probably get them over rough patches, like the slow pace. If Muir has one strength, it’s atmospherics: even (especially?) with all the quipping, stuff does feel quite gothic. I’m glad they have something they can enjoy! This isn’t bad but it is definitively “not for me.” ***
George Schuyler, “Black No More: Being An Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940” (1931) – I’ve probably harped on this before in this space, but I never agreed with the nice-internet-people nostrum that satire is only satire if it “punches up,” that is, only targets people above the socioeconomic scale, vis-a-vis the author (and I guess the reader, too?). I’m not a strict prescriptivist, I don’t think we need to stick with the classical definitions of things… but I think it is a bad redefinition, the kind that trades in thousands of years of thought on something for a momentary comfort, or an edge in online arguments. This attempted redefinition only has any currency because we’ve decided that being funny is somehow sacred, in the same way that courage was once considered and still is by some, that it’s the sort of virtue you can’t apply to an enemy and see them as a real “bad guy.”Anyone is perfectly saying that they –don’t like– satire that “punches down,” against the downtrodden. I usually don’t, especially not with satire of contemporary societies! But I think it really doesn’t cut ice to say that somehow satire isn’t satire because it does something you don’t like. That’s part of the conceit of the genre, from Juvenal’s day on down – it is a mirror, it takes in society as a whole. Don’t like it? Blame light, blame glass, blame yourself for looking and being the way you are.
Well… “Black No More” is a satire in the old mold, all right. The satirical conceit is like any other conceit: it’s not literally true, like any artist the satirist makes their choices of what to depict and how. But if the satirist is smart, they can make it seem as natural as the reflection you see (and, generally, loathe, one way or another) in glass or water. George Schuyler was a Harlem Renaissance guy who grew to hate the Harlem Renaissance. Child of a black military family who knew poverty and prison before becoming a writer, Schuyler gadded about the literary scene for some time, doing journalism, travel writing, criticism, and occasional fiction. This is technically scifi- it’s about a scientist (a black scientist, if anyone’s keeping track) who invents a process for rendering black people into white people, flawlessly and cheaply. Schuyler handwaves a lot of the science (which goes along with his ideas on race more generally- more anon) away, and soon enough, new white people are taking the US by storm.
On the one hand, Schuyler was a “race isn’t real” guy. He insists that, for instance, that differences in facial structure and accent wouldn’t give the game away for black people turned white (though I also think he has the process involve some kind of facial/bodily reconstruction? He’s vague). On the other, he has the US come close to collapse once it becomes clear that its black population is going to shrink almost to nothing. Without race, the whole culture starts to lose its grip, and massive upheavals occur in politics and society.
We see this mostly through the person of Max Disher, a charismatic and morally flexible young black insurance agent in Harlem at the beginning of the story. When he hears of the black-no-more process, he immediately takes it, because he wants nicer things and also is obsessed with a white lady who rejected him a gin joint. Max immediately becomes a success in the white world by joining a KKK-like organization and leading it against the threat of crypto-black people. Among other things, the process is not genetic, and the offspring of ex-black people come out as black as they would otherwise (the doctor who invented the process promises that he will have special infant clinics that can “fix” that). As luck would have it, the racist group’s leader’s daughter is the mean white lady of his dreams, and he gets married to her as he grows the organization.
As you can probably tell, the plot isn’t the point here, really. The point is Schuyler’s look, as acidic as it is panoramic, of American society and its hypocrisy around race. Schuyler depicts white racists, like Max’s new father-in-law, as stupid. But Schuyler depicts black “race leaders,” including very obvious parodies of W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Schuyler’s employer at the time, NAACP head Walter White, as utter frauds, pompous boobs living off the credulous. He shows them as willing to sell every notional value out immediately for white approval or for simple living expenses, mostly via trying to insist that black people stay black rather than de-racinating themselves. Of course, this is also what Disher’s new racist friends want. As tensions rise and white society falls on itself, trying to find a new scapegoat and mostly landing on “ex-blacks,” the movement Disher helped start finds itself in a position to take national power… only to find that racial purity, backed by anything like a “rigorous” understanding of race, doesn’t really work, either. In the end, everyone gets what’s coming to them, mostly violently.
So Schuyler doesn’t think race matters… but it’s also at the center of the society he depicts, the identity and needs of every character, and the whole story he tells. This doesn’t make him a hypocrite, necessarily. It sort of does make him a satirist of the old school- where would Juvenal be if he lived in the supposedly clean Rome of the early Republic, what would Thackeray have to do with himself in a society less grotesquely unfair than early Victorian Britain? This does get into one of the weaknesses of satire as a genre: that its most common topic is hypocrisy, the distance between professed value and observed deeds. The more inflated the sense of virtue and the more obviously dirty the deeds beneath them, the more entertaining pricking hypocrisy with pins can be.
Pretty much any period, given how people are, can be a good target for hypocrisy-baiting… but I’m not sure that applies to all times and places equally. Sometimes, the pretense of virtue wears thin, and it’s pretty obvious that the emperor has no clothes. Pointing it out isn’t that funny. By the time Schuyler was writing, the pretenses of white American society were pretty thin indeed. Scientific racism no longer held the stranglehold on anthropological thought it once did (though it was still a major intellectual force), the general skepticism of the Roaring 20s and the reaction to the Depression that came after was in the air… so Schuyler really has three main targets. There’s the ignorant “booboisie” (H.L. Mencken was a great publisher and booster of Schuyler, and they shared a lot of misanthropic attitudes- some called Schuyler “The Black Mencken”), mostly of the South, insisting that segregation was necessary for civilization. That’s pretty easy to lampoon. Then there’s black “race leaders.” I wouldn’t say Schuyler was “punching down” here, even if I thought such was the instant DQ some of the internet thinks it is. People like Du Bois probably had more power than a scribbler like Schuyler. I would say that, whatever their flaws, the black leadership of this class at the time was actually pretty smart, and the idea they were useless, feckless boobs really doesn’t wash- Schuyler couldn’t see the future, but he was awfully sure about the present, and the future has a tendency to knock people like that down a peg.
Above all, though, Schuyler’s target was people in general. People are stupid, greedy, concuspient, and inevitably bring about their own doom in what can only be called parodies of tragedy. We’re back at the familiar territory, why this book belongs in “Readings on the Right,” even though Schuyler had yet to break with the NAACP and go all the way to the arms of the as-yet-unfounded National Review, as he would later do, by this point. Even though race is bullshit, it’s definitional and will collapse society if it’s taken away because people are bullshit. Race is about what we deserve- it just sucks that George Schuyler, who sucks less, has to be inconvenienced by it, and listen to other people talk about it (some of his more well-known critical essays were about how it’s wrong to classify writers by race). We know where this goes. Trying to improve things is pointless, usually perverse, almost always involves improving things for (and worse, forcing interactions with) lame, stupid people, so, most misanthropes wind up opposed, to one degree of violence or another, to attempts at liberation or amelioration. You’d figure more people would think that, if people are as lousy as all that, that you should make power arrangements as equitable as possible so no one can lord it over you (roughly my position, on bad days), but it seldom seems to work out like that, with your freestanding public cynics.
This is one of the reasons why satire can be real iffy as a genre. As Clint Eastwood once put it, “we all got it coming, kid” – we are all, in some sense, hypocrites worthy of ridicule, or in some way or another shown up by the world around us. This applies to most of our ideas and social institutions as well. But that doesn’t mean just any “snarking” (to use a hideous newish word) does the job, or justifies a book. Among other things, it helps to either have interesting imagery (Juvenal, Ishmael Reed- the latter a big fan of Schuyler’s) or a plot (Confederacy of Dunces, Arrested Development) if you’re going to do longform satire, and Schuyler hasn’t really got either going for him. It’s funny in places and he clearly has some writing chops, but it also feels more like a phoned-in rant turned into a novel than anything else. ***
Gerard Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East” (2014) (read aloud by Michael Page) – Readers can have a little bit of orientalism… as a treat! That’s not entirely fair, in one direction or another- either something in Said’s towering labyrinth of what is and isn’t culpable essentializing doesn’t apply to this book, or else, I should be slamming it harder. Gerard Russell is a British ex-diplomat, journalist, and currently a kind of PR/lobbying guy (apparently helping the United Arab Emirates in its PR war against rival tiny Gulf oil tyranny Qatar?). He follows – somewhat self-consciously – in a long tradition of western, especially British, official and semi-official travelers in the Middle East who want to get to know the “real” culture of the area. Often, these travelers become partisans of one or another cause, most famously T.E. Lawrence and his fight for a united Arab kingdom, liberated from the Turks in WWI. The record of such figures is mixed, both geopolitically and intellectually.
Russell, working in an era where the British still have some pull in the region but are definitely not the big fish anymore, has a couple of dogs in the fight, and they’re not awful ones, as far as it goes. He thinks people should see the people of the Middle East as responding to historical circumstances, not some essential drive to conflict, sectarianism, whatever. And he’s a sympathizer with its small religions, which is what this book is about. As he points out in the introduction, despite the Middle East’s reputation as a monolithic bloc of Muslims, there is in fact greater religious diversity in the region than in most places, and much of it comes from religious groups that well pre-date not just Islam, but Christianity and in some cases even rival Judaism’s hoary agedness. Various religious scholars and enthusiasts have scrapped and squinted the harsh soil of European monoculture to find pre-monotheistic religious holdovers in isolated parts of the continent, but in the Middle East, there are full blown remnants of such religions in plain view, simple sociological fact.
In the grand old British orientalist tradition, Russell roots for these because they’re cool and different. Well… there’s a reason people liked (like?!) orientalism so much, and not just do put down and dehumanize “the other.” The religions Russell discusses are interesting and different! He finds opportunities to spend time with and discuss the beliefs of Mandaeans, Copts, Kalasha, Druze, Samaritans, Yazidis, and Zoroastrians. From our perspective, it is hard not to see many of these religions as “throwbacks,” though at least one, the Druze, do seem to post-date the rise of Islam in the region. All of them are either defined by, or retain features of, religious traditions that aren’t seen much today. In some cases, there is a direct, if somewhat obscurely documented, line between pre-monotheistic religion and these marginal religions of the region, such as among the Kalasha (essentially, Afghan Hindus) and the Mandaeans (who probably keep old Babylonian beliefs, especially surrounding astrology, alive). Others represent “paths not taken” by the mainstream monotheistic religions: the influences of Gnosticism and Greek philosophy (especially Pythagoras and Neo-Platonism) in the Druze and Yazidi faiths, the early draft of dualistic monotheism in Zoroastrianism, the dwindling pre-Temple-destruction Judaism of the Samaritans. The Copts of Egypt are a bit of an odd man out, being devout Christians and hence part of a large religious body, and Russell makes what seem like bigger reaches than usual in ascribing some Coptic beliefs and practices to the Pharaonic past. A Christian-dominated Egypt is enough of an anachronism for me without connecting it to people who worshiped animal-headed gods, but maybe if I knew Egypt better, it’d make more sense.
In general, you want to be careful with claims of advanced antiquity. In a lot of cases, they reflect myth-making more than anything else. But Russell isn’t completely off-base here, and the Middle East is hardly alone in having enclaves dedicated to what seem like other historical paths. Even if these religions aren’t as old as some scholars and adherents claim, there is clearly deep, involved, and obscure history here. Given the harsh politics of the region over the centuries, many of these religious communities grew clannish and secretive, and don’t just give over their histories or holy texts to anybody, even with their communities. Russell makes no claim of being a theologian or scholar of religions- he just likes cool stuff and wants a more diverse world.
He also admires their underdog quality. These religions have held on through many ups and downs, but are under severe threat now from multiple vectors of homogenization. The most obvious and spectacular of these is the rise of militant fundamentalist Islam. The Shia clerics who rule Iran do not love their Zoroastrian minority, but their persecutions pale next to those put on by those inspired by the oil-money funded revival of Salafist, Wahabbist, and other militant Sunni movements. ISIS nearly destroyed the Yazidi, who they regard as devil-worshippers, when they rolled through their homes in the mountains of Syria and Iraq, and less spectacular but equally discouraging persecutions of minority religious trends run throughout the Sunni world, from Sufis in North Africa to Ahmadis in Pakistan. The closest there is to a rationale for Assad’s side in the Syrian Civil War is that he slaughters based on opposition to his rule, less on the basis of sectarian identity, and Syria is home to many religious minorities that would stand to be exiled or massacred en masse if the opposition (after Assad killed what there was of a non-Salafist Arab Syrian opposition, those “moderate rebels” the CIA sought for in vain) won. Russell mostly stays out of the Syria situation, to his credit.
There’s the push factor of persecution, but there’s also the pull factor of the world outside. Many of these religious traditions emphasize education and cooperation with secular rules (insofar as said rules aren’t too badly oppressive), so many Copts, Druze, Zoroastrians and others have found economic and social success in places where they migrated to. Russell doesn’t end “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms” in Beirut or Baghdad, but in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest concentration of people of Middle Eastern descent in the US, and a place where people of many of the faiths Russell describes found refuge. You can find more Mandaeans in Worcester, Massachusetts, than you can in many of their traditional villages in the marsh country of Iraq these days, and my part of Massachusetts has seen chain-migration of Copts, many of whom open up pizza restaurants. People from most of these religions (Kalasha tend to stick to their valleys and Samaritans to a few towns in what’s now Israel/Palestine) have also found traction in Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. In those places, they face the classic immigrant dilemma: the benefits of assimilation versus losing their culture. The blessed indifference most Westerners have towards their beliefs (also a double-edged sword, often lumping them into a generic “Middle Eastern” off-white category and assuming they’re all Muslim, hence suspect- those Coptic pizza places often have BIG displays of crosses and saint icons, and I don’t think that’s down to piety alone) can also infect their children and themselves. Russell emphasizes these aren’t easy religions- the Copts have more fasting days than normal days on their characters, and many of these faiths have difficult rules to follow, expressed in obscure holy texts and oral traditions. Especially when the faith itself, its beliefs and practices, define your community, it seems hard to try to soften or “modernize” them to make them easier…
In any event! These religions have survived quite a lot, as Russell tells us. He also tells us a lot of interesting facts about them, and tells the stories of how he came to know these people. This is more journalism or travel writing than religious studies. Truth be told, I kind of prefer it that way, at least as far as recreational readability (well, listenability in this case) goes. Russell has both a certain amount of humility before the depth of this topic, and a willingness to speculate that might be a little “iffy” but does make for interesting reading. ****
Marge Piercy, “Woman on the Edge of Time” (1976) – Damn… this fucking ruled. A classic of seventies feminist science fiction, “Woman on the Edge of Time” advances multiple visions of the future with daring only rivaled by its vision of its present, the hungover, pessimistic seventies. Consuela Ramos, a middle-aged Chicana woman, starts seeing visions around the second time she is committed by the state to an insane asylum. These visions, however much Connie is annoyed by them at first, are unusually consistent: a person named Luciente, unfailingly polite and positive, telling her about a future, the year 2137. Eventually, Luciente is able to pull Connie’s consciousness into something that is either that future, or a very convincing vision thereof.
Piercy, a major feminist poet of her day as well as a novelist, is unsubtle without being at all cliche- people often conflate the two, but they don’t deserve to be put together. The contrast between Luciente’s future in the village of Mattapoisett (on Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts, not far from Piercy makes her home) and Connie’s present in the asylum might seem like obvious contrasts, but Piercy makes it about more than “good versus bad” or even “free versus oppressive.” It really is life versus death, or human versus machine. The asylum claims to heal, but really just warehouses the poor, sick, and obstreperous until they’re finally utterly disposable, either dead or drooling, passive zombies. Mattapoisett is the product of a successful revolution. The inhabited parts of the world, after decades of ecological catastrophe, now live in confederations of small communities that practice socialist economics, small-scale democratic governance, and generally a lot of “person-centered” culture.
Here’s the deal: the world Luciente presents to Connie is a good deal more hippie-dippy than I’d both think realistic, or even prefer, for a near-utopia. I don’t fetishize smallness, I certainly don’t fetishize nature, and it sounds like these people go to a lot — A LOT — of meetings, for everything from figuring out land use to interpersonal conflict. I’m more of a “fully automated luxury gay space communism” guy. Connie, even once she gets over the disbelief in what she’s seeing, is a little skeptical, too. Everyone has to work on farms? No flying cars? What kind of future is this??
Well, two things. First, Piercy is smart enough to not make it too hippie-dippy. It’s not a full utopia. There is conflict, and the people aren’t always great at dealing with it. Yes, people work on farms- but with profit and rent removed, everyone in general has more leisure time, and most people do other stuff, too, including advanced science, art, etc. Specialization is, in general, less of a thing in this future (again, not totally to my taste, but it’s not as dystopian as some back to the land fantasies). And there is technology- people have what amount to Apple watches, there’s advanced biotech, etc., and, eventually, you see something like flying scooters. That leads to the second thing- Piercy’s sheer power of description, and the wholeness of her vision, make you believe it, and if not necessarily want that future — at least not as much as I’d want Banks’ Culture future — you can see it as a thing of beauty, both reflective of its own time (and how!) and with meaning for ours, and for times to come. You come to know the inhabitants of Mattapoisett, see how they live, work, love, raise children, and die, and there’s a weight to it, a realness even in spite of the utopianism, that you don’t get with just any hippie bullshit. Among other things, I think it’s pretty important a woman wrote this- there’s sexual liberation aplenty, but the real kind, not the stylized sexual assault that countercultural men were often after.
I said that Piercy realizes her time as fully as she does Mattapoisett in 2137. She does- its grit, its grime, its exhaustion, its hopelessness, the many, interlocking ways it can beat people down, the way people learn to accept, even love, their oppressions (and oppressors). Connie isn’t, in any meaningful sense, crazy. She has had just enough hope — hope for education, hope for love, hope for societal progress — that when those hopes were dashed, by family, money, and bad luck, she had few places to turn. If she were more beaten down, she wouldn’t be where she is (she needs to pretend to be more beaten down for plot reasons later in the book). She’s not a plaster saint. She’s cantankerous, and she did something hard to forgive: after the love of her life died, she got drunk and depressed and hurt her little daughter. She paid endlessly for that, but still feels the guilt. Part of her attachment to the ghost of Luciente is seeing her daughter in this future-person.
Like I said- not subtle, but never cliche, and always powerful. Fuck subtle. The man comes for Connie’s head. A group of hotshot doctors (another point of divergence between me and the viewpoint of this book is I’m slightly more pro-psychiatry- but hell, it was the seventies) are cutting open the heads of “violent” patients like Connie and putting hormonal control switches in there. As her own day on the table comes closer, Luciente’s future starts to fade out. It becomes harder and harder for Connie to see. A few times she slips into another future, a cyberpunk avant-la-lettre (William Gibson honors Marge Piercy as a godmother of his genre) hellscape of destroyed nature, inscribed gender roles, and corporate control. If Mattapoisett is going to survive, not only will its inhabitants and the rest of the post-revolutionary future have to fight for it- so will Connie, in her own time. Maybe that’s what seals why I can admire this future, so far in many ways from my own aesthetic- the people earned it through organization, solidarity, courage, the will to fight and risk all… and it is never a certain accomplishment.
This is a singularly beautiful, intriguing, and readable book. But… if I’m going to be as honest as the future Piercy wanted for us, as honest as Piercy is herself here… I did the thing I always wind up doing when I read a second wave feminist author, and upon googling, found Piercy signed off on some bullshit anti-trans public letter. All of the commentary I saw on this was profoundly disappointed. You might see it coming from JK Rowling or Mary Daly or whoever. But among other things… all the Mattapoisett people use gender neutral pronouns! All children have three mothers, some of whom can be men, and are grown in vats before being implanted in one of them! Connie witnesses a man breastfeed! At first, she’s repulsed by the whole setup, she has fairly essentialist ideas, but she rejects them by the end, sees the beauty of it! What gives, Marge?! Anyway, I’m not about to “cancel” Marge Piercy or decide I don’t like — love is the right word — this book. It’s not about “separating art from artist.” It’s about appreciating both as what they are, and aren’t. Both are profoundly human, here, for better and for worse. *****
Laurent Binet, “HHhH” (2010) (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) (read aloud by John Lee) – One thing about the Nazis, is most of them died like punks. Shooting themselves rather than facing justice, sniveling on their way to the gallows in Nuremberg or Jerusalem… Reinhard Heydrich, arguably the coldest, evilest, Nazi-est Nazi of the bunch, died ranting and raving in his hospital bed from a wound that shouldn’t have been fatal – the shitty sten gun they shot at him with didn’t work, he got horsehair upholstery lodged in himself from a mis-thrown grenade, it got infected because his doctors sucked. Fuck him.
Getting ahead of myself, here! This is a sort of meta-historical novel. French writer Laurent Binet talks about how he got fascinated with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, number two man in the SS, man who oversaw the planning of the Holocaust, overlord of what’s now Czechia when the Nazis seized it, one of the few Nazi leaders to even remotely resemble the “Blond Beast” Nietzschean ubermensch type. He got got by two soldiers, a Czech and a Slovak, dropped into the country by the British Special Operations Executive. After weeks on the lam, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were betrayed by a Czech resistance man, and hundreds of SS men tracked them down to a church basement. After a long siege where they shot several Nazis and refused to surrender, the two SOE men killed themselves. Among other acts of retaliation, the Nazis leveled the Czech town of Lidice and murdered all five hundred inhabitants.
It’s a great story! I think Slayer might have written a song about it… both heroic and grim. Binet does not tell it as a straightforward, historical-fiction style narrative, and talks a lot about how he learned about the lives of the people involved, how we would like to present them, how facts compel him to present them, books he read while writing this book, how he felt insecure about Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” a novel of Nazism that won the Prix Goncourt while he was writing it (a novel in French written by an American, to boot!), etc etc.
Meta stuff can go either way. I could see how one might not like it in this story. But I actually think it worked pretty well. “Showing his work” enhanced my appreciation for the story and its details. World War Two is such well-trodden territory, with so many layers of mythology drawn over it, that it can be hard to know what to think of it. Among other things, I see a trend where the smarter, more independent writers and critics kind of steer away from it. I get the impulse, but I think it’s good to not disengage… or maybe the little kid who loved WWII stuff in me simply hasn’t shut up yet. In any event! I thought this was pretty fun. ****’
Jacob Bacharach, “The Bend of the World” (2014) (read aloud by the author) – This was a pretty entertaining, agreeable, somewhat forgettable humor novel. Jacob Bacharach is a weird twitter habitue and entertaining guest on lefty podcasts, or was back when I listened to those more. He’s one of those small/mid-size city dudes who is all in on his small/mid-size city, in his case, Pittsburg. The main character – I’m behind on reviews and forget his name, it doesn’t really matter – is a young corporate drone from a rich family who’s wasting his life on noncommittal relationships, jobs, and priorities in general.
He then has a weird year! He meets a disturbingly fascinating couple, a bold young man and a tragic alcoholic sexy artist lady, at a party, the same night he sees some UFOs! The main character has been on the fringe of conspiracy stuff for most of life due to his best friend, Johnny (yes, I did sometimes imagine him as Johnny from “The Room,” but the author reads this in his own, non-Wiseauesque voice so it didn’t happen too often). Johnny is a gay, drug-addicted conspiracy theorist, which, if I remember Bacharach’s podcast appearances, is not too dissimilar to Bacharach himself as a teenager/young man. Johnny believes Pittsburg is the center of a massive conspiracy involving Nazis, time-tunnels, summoning alternate dimensons, and bigfoots.
The main character doesn’t really believe in all this stuff and alternately humors Johnny and tries to save Johnny from himself, his drug problems and tendency to annoy powerful Pittsburgers. Meanwhile, the dude from the compelling couple gets a job at the main character’s pointless company and offers to make the main character a soulless corporate shark like himself. Is this company, and the weird guy in particular, part of a big conspiracy? Maybe THE big conspiracy? It’s hard to say. The main character interacts with the art world, his family, his hippy artsy girlfriend and more serious tragic drunk artist second love interest.
Bacharach evokes an agreeable atmosphere of confusion as to what, exactly, the big Nazi/time-traveller/Pittsburg/bigfoot conspiracy is, intermingling it with a lot of shit both weird and mundane, but this does have the effect (especially when combined with my review backlog) of making me forget whether the conspiracy WAS real or not, and what exactly it was. At some point, the main character and the drunk sexy artist have to strike out into Appalachian Pennsylvania to save Johnny from the main theorist of the big conspiracy, who turns out to have weird designs of his own. There’s showdowns at a big weird drug/orgone party in the woods, complete with possibly-drug-induced visions of beneficient Bigfoots. In the end, some people die, and the main character decides to ditch corporate whatever and become… a landlord?! Well… this might have been before Bacharach made his turn all the way left, he was right-libertarian leaning as a young drug-addled semi-ironic conspiracy theorist… but that’s a minor point. I was worried it was going to take the path of “guy meets a weird alpha man’s man who leads him to uncomfortable discoveries,” ala “Fight Club,” “The Red Pill,” and I feel a fair number of zeitgeisty works from the last thirty years or so. That doesn’t happen! Stuff does happen, but usually without much sense of stakes. That’s not the worst thing in the world. This was pretty fun, somewhat forgettable- some of the things that might have made it less forgettable might have made it less fun, if you get what I mean. ****
Catherine Liu, “Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class” (2021) – I considered not doing a review of this, because it really is a glorified pamphlet. In this, it’s a lot like its competitor in my “let’s read unusual right-wingers” election, Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, and the resemblances don’t stop there, as I’ll discuss below. Most of the books I chose to put into that arc in my readings on the right slot have some kind of resonance with one or another vaguely zeitgeisty ideological trend: Wang Huning and the geopolitical rise of China (alas, the English translation I found was so bad as to be unreadable), Kaczynski is considered required reading by many on the accelerationist right, George Schuyler and racial pessimism, Peter Thiel and his bought and paid for Senate candidates, David Mamet and Thad Russell represent different flavors on supposed tough guy independent thinkers who are also culture war pantswetters.
Liu, for her part, is probably the writer of the lot who can least be called a right-winger, as she identifies as a socialist and anti-capitalist (George Schuyler did, too, while writing “Black No More,” but eventually became a conservative and minor National Review hanger-on). But I think given what “professional managerial class” discourse has become, and how Liu herself has used it… I first became familiar with Liu via left-wing facebook, where she used to be quite an active commenter- enough that I remembered her, despite the fact we never friended or followed each other, and I can’t recall any interactions with her (she is not on facebook, my network of choice, anymore, it seems). You can probably tell what that means: Liu was memorable because she was… and here we run into a vocabulary problem. As someone who believes more or less any reigning in of bigoted language is an attempt by nefarious bourgeois actors to police the working class, Liu herself should be the last person to point to how problematic most words a white man could use to describe an Asian woman acting outre in public could be. But, A. Liu and other… upside-down-and-backwards culture warriors on the sort-of-left aren’t known for their consistency or high-mindedness, and B. I hold myself to certain standards because of how I want to live my life. So… I’ll just say Liu made an impression on me with the vociferousness, frequency, and unsolicitedness of her commentary, all over leftbook, on any issue pertaining to the problems of what used to be called “political correctness” and is now called “wokeness” or just “woke.”
So, I was intrigued, in a car-crash rubberneck kind of way, when I saw she was putting out a book on “the professional managerial class.” The “PMC” as it’s inevitably abbreviated online is the sort of bogey-figure for the anti-woke left, and at the same time the closest they get to a coherent concept beyond “PC sucks” (which is funny… the antics of enforcers of moral codes, including those around social justice, often do suck… why do you need a big theory for this?). The idea here is that a class of people defined by their role using educational credentials to manage systems of production and reproduction use various cultures mores – lead among them “PC,” “woke,” whatever – to maintain their class position, sabotage the actual solidarity-based politics that could upend the class system, and just generally suck pretty bad.
In the good old internet way, this is a massively expanded and bowdlerized version of a relatively nuanced and modest claim made by smart people a while ago. The idea of the professional managerial class began, back in the seventies, to explain the changing makeup and role of who exactly was running the capitalist machine. It’s pretty undeniable that credentialed professionals have been increasingly important to the management of capitalism (and have been since at least the late nineteenth century), and, as Ehrenreich was pondering when she modified some of the ideas of the Yugoslav socialist thinker Milovan Djilas, a fair number of members of the sixties New Left, like Ehrenreich, were now in that professional strata. What might it all mean? I’m pretty sure “diversity trainings are stopping the revolution from happening” isn’t what they had in mind, but here we are.
Most stereotypes have some basis in fact, and there are, indeed, some pretty annoying promoters of a sort of civic virtue based on rather stilted, corporate-friendly diversity-thought out there. Some of them wind up in notionally leftist organizations and cause cultural problems, though typically not the kind that the anti-woke people would think. Moreover, it’s definitely true that a lot of organized leftists in the US and Europe have been through a lot of education and carry with them the organizational styles and sometimes the priorities of their environments – suburb, school, office job – even when they’re away from those things, meant to be antagonistic towards them.
If Liu were a clever propagandist, she probably could have restricted her pamphlet to these problems. But as I remembered from her facebook comment tirades, she really does not know where to stop. She baldly and seemingly without irony or shame makes wildly inflated claims about the power and, especially, the unity of the PMC. Apart from the kind of analytical uselessness of any category that includes the head of HR at Facebook and a shift manager at Starbucks with 90K in student loans because both went to liberal arts college and think trans people are people, there’s also just sloppiness. Here, Liu’s work is similar to that of her friend Angela Nagle, the left’s favorite interpreter of the alt-right for about six months before people started noticing the slipshod quality of her work, capped by appearances on Tucker Carlson (Liu, of course, holds her up as a free speech martyr- I really don’t think Liu can help herself with some of this shit).
Both the slipshod quality of the work, and the flaws in the analysis, can be seen most clearly in Liu’s rigid determination to break down everything into a set of dyads: there’s the PMC, which endorses the politics of identity because they seek to divide others, and there’s the working class, which has a politics of solidarity to unite themselves (Liu makes fleeting allusion to their being an actual capitalist elite in actual control of the economy but they are quickly ushered back behind the curtain). These qualities hold true, everywhere and always, throughout space and time. Bring up class or money: good! Bring up race, gender, sexual orientation: bad! I’m aware that most people who complain about cancel culture or woke culture or whatever on the left usually at least grant that racism and other “identity-based oppressions” are an actual thing it’s ok to organize against, but Liu basically does not, not in this text. It’s honestly pretty wild.
It gets slipshod, too, not just in many many “citation needed” (and “I’ve read that book, the author isn’t saying what you’re saying they’re saying when you cite –their whole book– in a footnote instead of a page number”) moments, but in things that would probably have helped her argument. Perhaps the most baffling historical lacuna to me was her treatment of the Progressives. The Progressives of the early twentieth century were mostly lawyers, professors, social workers, and other… professional… managers… whose reforms had a lot to do with making American society more rational and easier to manage. Critics, supporters, and people neutral towards the Progressives all agree on this. If there was ever a professional managerial class hand on the American tiller, it was in the days of the Progressives… and they did enough weird, bad shit (along with the good they did- they were complicated) that they’re easy enough to make into bad guys, and to lump modern “progressives” in with them- conservatives do it all the time.
Nope! Liu passed that one up. She talks about the Progressives a few times in this short book, and always in the positive, because they mostly monkeyed around with the regulatory state. They didn’t make anyone attend sensitivity trainings! They didn’t really do much with, say, labor organizing, or even income or wealth redistribution, or any kind of politics that didn’t benefit their class specifically, but it really is “talks about money + not woke = good” as far as Liu’s concerned. It probably doesn’t help that one of the Progressive weak spots was race (including against Asians, and uhhh, we needn’t get too deep into the psychology here buttttt), so, you know, being against their racism means you’re doing identity politics, and hence not doing a solidarity. To quote a line flung at Liu’s supposed maitresse Ehrenreich, that would be doing a no-growth.
Liu made the interesting choice to divide up several of the chapters in this book into baffling pairs of good, non-PMC examples of something – childrearing, sexual mores – and bad, PMC versions. Doctor Spock (not the Star Trek guy, though some depictions of the PMC have a vaguely Vulcan cast), PMC individualist childcare, very bad; Donald Winnicot, says parents can be “good enough” unlike neurotic PMC parentic, good! Winnicot, of course, was by any standard just as much a member of the PMC as Spock or any other famous psychologist. Of course, so is Liu, professor of Media Studies at UC Irvine, as she admits. But PMC isn’t, after all, despite Liu’s professed hatred of cultural explanations (weird flex for Media Studies but about what one would expect from the worst field, don’t at me about Economics, Media Studies is much worse), an actual socioeconomic category as far as she’s concerned. It’s barely a political tendency. Honestly, it’s not even a set of cultural traits, not for all Liu’s trying, not in any coherent way. It’s a way to walk backwards into calling anyone who calls you on your shit a class enemy to be crushed.
There is a legend – a poorly-verified and likely apocryphal one – that during the bloody and protracted civil war in Algeria that roiled through the nineties, one Islamist militia became undone by what it had seen and done and decided to become Islamist Satanists, massacring villagers to the dark being they became convinced ruled the universe, spiting the god they once devoted themselves to and who led them to this pass. There’s a way that whatever you want to call it – the post-left, the anti-woke left, the dirtbag left (the last a little bit less so, as they at least seem to derive some joy from life, unlike the others) – reminds me of that story. Swap out the bloodbath of nineties Algeria for the mild and entirely voluntary unpleasantness of tens twitter, which is a pretty big swap I admit… what I mean is, getting so deep into a mucky conflict that you decide that your particular circumstances (which you did most of the work to put yourself into) are so important that they deserve to define the moral universe and can generate monocausal explanations, that become a kind of warped-mirror-image of the ideology that led you into the soup to begin with.
Look: I’ve known the sort of people this book, and the anti-woke left in general, lampoons (in the case of this book, ineffectively, missing a very very broad target some very stupid people have hit easily). I’ve known a number of expensively-credentialed, passive-aggressive people who do, indeed, use identity politics, less to divide on principle, and more as a cudgel to get their way in petty disputes. It sucks. But if you actually value solidarity, as Liu ritually intones she does, page after page, you wouldn’t let petty grievances with the Martin Princes of the academic left drive you into inane analysis and cooperation with the right. I think it’s pretty clear that for a little cluster of academics and social media gadflys, leftism was always a posture, associated with a kitschy caricature of working class life, than it was anything else. When that caricature became harder to retain – work at a Starbucks or a cleaning company or a call center or a nursing home and tell me they can’t handle knowing about trans people or the existence of racism – they flounced off. Numerous commentators who shared political or social media space with these people, mostly from the marginalized communities whose organizing the anti-woke left writes off, called that this would happen long ago. Extra half star for staying fully dedicated to the bit. *’
Naomi Alderman, “The Power” (2016) –A kind friend and patron of the art of literary criticism sent me this book in the mail, saying he had mixed feelings about it and wanting to know my takes!
Let me start by talking about some other books altogether. For a while there, it looked like journalistic accounts of fictional genre disasters might become a big thing, or maybe it only seemed that way to me after Max Brooks’ “World War Z” was all over the place in 2006 or so (it is a profoundly 2006 kind of book). “World War Z” is deeply silly, so I didn’t appreciate how well Brooks did with it until I read a book in the same vein about an AI/robot uprising which was extraordinarily bad. Apparently Brooks also did a bad job writing about a war between people and Sasquatches? Writing! It’s not easy, folks!
No less a figure than Barack Obama (who was big-upped but not by name in “World War Z” – like I said, big time 2006 vibes) named Naomi Alderman’s “The Power” one of his favorite books of the year when it came out. It’s a somewhat more high-concept deal than “World War Z” or the robot book- women develop the power to basically shoot lightning from their hands. It starts with teenage girls, but they can pass it on to other women, and soon enough, pretty much all women can zap people right up.
So… I get this would be a big deal, should it happen “in real life.” But like… people can already kill people, women very much included. Yes, it would be convenient to be able to kill people from a distance with something that is just in your body (though there’s all sorts of limits in terms of how much juice a given woman has, how well they can control it, etc). I mean, it would be weird if half of all people just had a gun on them at all times that they wouldn’t even have to conceal, or draw to use! It would be weirder still if this situation were in-born, and gendered.
But I’m not convinced such a situation would collapse society, which it does in “The Power.” But I’m more convinced that it would collapse society – among other things, societies are maybe more delicate than we thought when I was a kid – than I am that it would result in millennia of matriarchy, and that said matriarchy would be, more or less, opposite-day patriarchy, like a world Quinn and the gang might wind up in on “Sliders.” The framing story is an interaction between a lady editor (named Naomi Alderman) and a dude writer (named an anagram of Naomi Alderman) about the dude trying to write a historical novel of the rise of global matriarchy! So, they reconstituted our society not just down to having publishing houses like ours, but also, as the book progresses, women wipe out refugee camps for fun, wipe out depictions of men ala the Taliban, etc etc.
Look, two things: one, I don’t think future histories need to be credible or even believable to be good or fun. Two, I absolutely think women are capable of abusing power. But the way Alderman handles both the unspooling of this story and the story of women proving as beastly as men just seems kind of pro-forma, a going through of the motions. Like… wouldn’t they come up with more interesting ways of being fucked up and wrong? Different ones, anyway? Given that they’ve got superpowers and all, and the different socialization of women, that first few generations who get powers at least? Why just have them replicate what men do already?
The characters and the writing aren’t awful but aren’t enough to restore the interest lost by whiffing on the execution of the premise. To probably contextualize too much, this was written around the time Black Mirror made its comeback, going from charming and subversive-seeming indie favorite to big-market, overly-lugubrious butt of “what if your mum was an app??” jokes. That’s what “The Power” feels like, to me. **’
Ross Douthat, “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the American Ruling Class” (2005) – It’s too goddamned hot and I read this too long ago to do a deep dive on this. We all know what Ross Douthat does, if we’ve made the foolish life choice to know about the sort of people who opine in newspapers for a living. He’s an “intellectual conservative,” big time Catholic, hates Trump, chin-strokingly curious about social policy, etc etc blah blah blah.
He went to Harvard in the nineties and aughts and didn’t like it, or anyway didn’t find the disinterested aura of scholarship and bonhomie that he craved. Instead he found privileged kids who cared about maintaining their privilege and having some kicks with the years they were allowed them. No shit, Sherlock. Was this a surprise in 2005 (or 1905, for that matter)? They’re mostly liberals so uh, checkmate, egalitarians! His anecdotes are exercises in pointlessness, meandering yarns that he clearly thinks make solid points about things like meritocracy and race/gender relations and the like. They don’t, not on their own terms, and you really get the idea that they’re not especially thoroughgoing accounts either, for all their length (helps that this is memoirs, not history or journalism- we only get Ross’s word).
He’s not the worst prose stylist out there, but really all that means is he’s not screamingly painful to read throughout. He does get across the idea that life at Harvard manages to be neither elitist fun or egalitarian goodness but basically the worst of both worlds, and he’s almost admirable in the way he admits his adolescent self was still attracted to it, the insularity and the feeling of eliteness, but again, so what? Maybe this just seems pointless because the sort of conservative anti-elitism Douthat delicately pursued in some dumb Evelyn Waugh way got it’s money took by Trump, so this is at best a time capsule, and not a very informative one. My attitude towards this book now is somewhat worse than the star rating I wrote down. Who knows, who cares. **’
Maya Jasanoff, “Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World” (2011) (read by L.J. Ganser) – When I was a kid, the town historian (not an official position- he was just a local who cared about it enough, from back when it was a company town even) used to tell people “legends” about Tories fleeing town during the revolution burying a treasure somewhere. My aunt and uncle, when they bought their house in the eighties, even agreed they’d turn the treasure over to the seller if it was found on their land! Nobody ever found it or much proof it ever existed. Chances are the story was an effort by said town historian to make the town’s history sound a little more exciting, though, he was quite resistant to other interesting tories that cast the town in a bad light, like anything about how the Know Nothings and the Klan were quite popular in town in their day.
Anyway… I listened to this book of what became of the Tories! Nothing about a treasure in the area of the old hometown, alas. This is some classic 2010s global history. This was a mostly-admirable movement in historiography that took advantage of information access advances (and the kind of funding clever sparks can get to travel) to try to write histories of stories that took place in multiple parts of the globe. The Tory story is a pretty good candidate for this treatment, because Tories/Loyalists — Americans who supported the British during the American Revolution — wound up all over the place, and Maya Jasanoff traces the fate of various ends of the “Loyalist Diaspora” in a number of places.
Probably the best known Loyalist destination was Canada. For a long time, before they shifted gears to a national identity based in liberal multiculturalism, the Canadians (the Anglos, anyway) made a big deal out of being descended from the Loyalists, literally or figuratively. “Canadians are Americans who reject revolution,” as Northrop Frye put it. It is true that the Loyalists did a lot to anchor Canada as an Anglo settler colony, balancing the population away from the earlier French settlers. Many other Tories went “back” to Britain, though many of them had been born in America, as had generations of forebears. One group tried settling “East Florida” — basically, the northern part before it gets into the panhandle — and maybe starting their own country before the Brits and the Spanish pulled the plug on that. Some went to Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies, especially the many Loyalist slaveholders. As some have taken pains to point out on social media, the British recruited numerous escaped slaves (only from Patriot slaveowners though!) during the war, and some of those became Loyalist refugees who helped found the British West African colony of Sierra Leone.
Jasanoff does a good job of telling these stories and hitting notes about how different circumstances — most notably race and class — affected the fortunes of different parts of the Loyalist cohort, as did imperial rivalries. This is sort of the global history thing, especially as pitched to teachers teaching undergrads- compare and contrast, wring some thought out of the little tuition equivalents. Given that there were black, white, and Native American loyalists of a variety of social classes, this was a decent approach.
It does leave some areas underexplored, though, and both of these tie in to that era of global history’s major weakness, it’s a disinclination to ask political questions that can’t be answered by a trip to the archive. The first I thought of was British disloyalty to their Loyalists. Jasanoff points out how often the British screwed over this group of people that put a lot on the line for them. It took a lot for a few of them to get land grants in Canada, a place that had basically nothing but grantable land at the time. The British completely gave up on the East Florida project to placate Spain, not exactly the toughest out. They did nothing to help accommodate Loyalists going to Jamaica, who found themselves trying to buy into one of the most hostile and expensive places to buy land you could think of. I’m not about to shed tears for incommoded slavers, but the British were also utterly transactional with the ex-slaves who fought for them, allowing numerous of them to be captured back into slavery, and they abandoned their Native American allies, after letting them think that maybe the British would back them in keeping the Americans from pouring over the Appalachians, completely.
Jasanoff points to this… but doesn’t really interrogate it. The Loyalists kicked back, hard, enough to force concessions in a few places (mostly Canada, ironic given the tea-sipping more-royalist-than-the-king thing some Canadians used to affect). But it feels like getting more into how the British thought about it, beyond “bluff and unconcerned,” might have been beneficial. You figure a strategy had to go into it- and it continued, as every tool of the empire has found out, up to and including those other Loyalists, the ones the Brits keep around only to bully the (other) Irish.
There’s another little-considered dynamic that enters into this: something like seventy-five thousand people fled the new US after the Revolution. That’s a lot, when you consider that the population at the time was only around three million. A lot of the Loyalists fled from fierce and bloody partisan fighting, massacres and counter-massacres, torture, the works. That kind of thing isn’t new to me. But it is when it’s between people who didn’t really have much of a racial, ethnic, religious, class, or any other difference we’re used to seeing lend themselves to this sort of internecine violence. This was pretty much exclusively white English-speaking Protestants from America doing it to same. There’s some similarity to the US Civil War, in that regard, but at least that one involves high racial/class stakes, even if it didn’t really take on the character of a war between truly different systems of arranging affairs until after the Emancipation Proclamation.
What happened, less between the American and British armies (which fought reasonably cleanly and treated each other’s civilians well- very unusually well, for the British, or hell, compared to the American record with Native American civilians), than between Patriot and Loyalist civilians, seems an oddity, or maybe a sort of road not taken… a period when the possibilities seemed different and compelled people to take action that didn’t really correspond that much with what we today see as the usual lines. Jasanoff doesn’t explore this much, just providing some ghastly blow by blows to show why her Loyalist subjects wanted out so bad. I suppose, among other things, no one could have known that the US Constitution would take hold, the likes of Washington, Hamilton, and their allies in the American gentry would suppress any kind of mob-based funny business sooner rather than later. So people could have envisaged all kinds of apocalypses… still. Not trying to ding Jasanoff for not writing a different book. This is a pretty good one! ****