Review- Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction in America”


W.E.B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction in America” (1935) – The way historians looked at the Reconstruction period after the U.S. Civil War saw a sea change over the course of the twentieth century. From being seen – and taught to children – as a minor period in American history, a blemish soon erased, things started shifting more and more until today, Reconstruction is broadly understood as one of the pivots of American history (though given how much politics there is around pre-collegiate history teaching, one wonders how broad the understanding really is). The first wave to land from this tsunami was Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction.” Published in 1935, it pre-dated the widespread reappraisals of the period encouraged by New Left-inflected historiography by three decades. The openly reactionary Dunning School, which taught that not only was Reconstruction a failure, but its failure showed the unfitness of black people for self-governance, was still very much a going concern in the 1930s. The Dunning School’s main competition at that time was “progressive” history from people like Charles and Mary Beard, who refused to look at the racial questions, or even most political questions, involved with the Civil War and Reconstruction at all, consumed as they were with subjecting everything to an analysis that boiled down to clashes of economic interest.

So in 1935, “Black Reconstruction” was a gauntlet thrown at the feet of nearly the entire American historical profession. Du Bois sought to prove that Reconstruction was the key moment of American history and that it was nearly transformative of American democracy in large part due to the action of southern black people. Doing that involved both recreating the social history of the country and examining the war, its immediate aftermath, and the individual states that underwent Reconstruction in detail. As such, the book clocks in a little over 700 pages. It includes sociological analysis, detailed accounting of military and political maneuvers, political and historiographical polemics, excerpts from song and poetry, impassioned rhetorical passages on humanity and the arc of history, and many many block quotes from politicians, historians, and other actors. In terms of history, the closest work I can think of to it is Trotsky’s history of the Russian Revolution. In terms of reading experience, I would compare it to “Moby-Dick.”

Du Bois’s central thesis is that black people won the Civil War for the North – largely by mounting a “general strike” i.e. mass slave escapes – and that black communities, largely composed of the recently-enslaved, built the first true worker’s democracies in the United States within the Reconstruction-era South. These were always fragile, and were ultimately destroyed by a combination of white Southern revanchist terror and the fecklessness of the Northern capitalist power structure. Not only did this doom the democratic experiment in the South, in Du Bois’s telling; it also doomed real democracy in the United States and the world as a whole, possibly for good, by robbing the world of a multiracial democracy in a world power-center that would oppose both capitalism and white supremacy at once. Instead, we got the world after 1876, when Reconstruction was foreclosed upon- imperialism, inequality, spiraling racism and class struggle, resulting in one world war and well on its way to a second by the time Du Bois finished the work.

This is a heady thesis. It’s a heady work. In the portions where Du Bois lays out his theses, the excitement is palpable. I don’t want to say things drag in the portions where he sees to proving, year by year and state by state, the genuine democratic potential of the largely black-led Reconstruction governments, and the lies that previous historiography had told about them. “Exhaustive” is the word. He leaves nothing to chance, and doesn’t claim false victories. The Gilded Age was a bad era for political corruption, and the Reconstruction governments shared in it- but not any more than any other part of American government, and probably less than white-dominated ones. Du Bois busts through generations of lies, exposing them as having been brittle from the start- my favorite is how anti-Reconstruction historians bitterly rang their hands over the debts incurred by the Reconstruction governments… as though they weren’t in charge of rebuilding a war-ravaged country and often starting the first public schools and other basic functions of governance in their respective states. This is why the antebellum (and post-Reconstruction) South was such a beaux ideal to libertarians like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard- a lack of public spending meant no public infrastructure which meant the rich were the only ones with education and the poor (and black) stayed downtrodden.

Most interesting to me are the parts where Du Bois explores the stark dynamic between the intransigence of the problems of racism and oppression, and the radicalness of the solutions brought forth. Lincoln would have been fine uniting the country without freeing the slaves, even if he ultimately wanted slavery to end- most of the Northern public felt the same way. But winning the war was impossible without freeing the slaves. Moreover, as Du Bois and other historians of Atlantic slave abolition point out, there were numerous ways to end a given slave system in ways that minimized inconvenience to the white elite. The British experimented with a number of programs involving apprenticeship, property qualifications for voting, etc. to manage the black masses in their Caribbean colonies- that endless generativity of forms that liberalism displays when presented with a population to manage. None of this would go forward in the American South. The planter class was adamant about reestablish slavery under another name, with no franchise or social escape valve for black people. Between Northern disinclination to have the results of the war overturned, and black and working class organizing, they went the only other route available- civil rights and the franchise, without the sort of hemming in you see elsewhere, and which Du Bois argues many of the freedmen probably would have accepted if it meant moving forward peacefully. Revanchism created revolution, and vice-versa, a familiar dialectic.

“Black Reconstruction” is many things. It’s a reimagining of a given era. It’s a challenge to the historians of its day (and ours!). It’s an impassioned polemic. It’s a monument- along with providing the weight of evidence needed to take on an entrenched historical belief, all of Du Bois’s accountings of the various Reconstruction governments were efforts to give due homage to honorable people and movements for democracy, ignored or defamed by history. It’s an integration of one of the most American of American stories – the Civil War, the great American myth, and Reconstruction, the great American lost hope – into a broader global history of revolution and counterrevolution. It’s something of a slog, admittedly, but well worth it for anyone who really wants to know American history. *****

Review- Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction in America”

Review- Wolfe, “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”


Tom Wolfe, “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” (1970) – Like a lot of cultural movements of the second half of the twentieth century, “the New Journalism” or “gonzo journalism” did much to break up ossified patterns in a given field, raised up one or two genius figures… and for every genius, launched the careers of a half-dozen cheap hacks who could superficially copy them and who seemingly never, ever go away. So gonzo journalism gave us Hunter S. Thompson, one of the great American writers of his time. It also gave us Tom Wolfe, alas.

You start to sympathize more with literary traditionalists when you realize what letting people experiment means when undertaken by rubes. Thompson could make gonzo work because no matter how far he went out on a limb or how high he got on the job, he had real discipline and craft as a writer. Wolfe… does not. He apes some of the middling-unreadable aspects of modernist literature: lists, imagistic passages meant to be disorienting but mostly just boring, various distending techniques that don’t come across. But while his literary mugging frequently gets in the way, it never truly obscures his main point: name-dropping, talk about interior décor and clothes, posturing of the notables, and miscellaneous class-signifier bullshit. It was truly dispiriting reading his many lists of New York socialites in “Radical Chic;” I recognized few of the names (Leonard Bernstein; Barbara Walters) as crusty old-people favorites, but most of them meant nothing to me. Something tells me they didn’t mean all that much back then, either. But Wolfe is breathlessly taken with them, even as he despises them- kind of like Gollum. It’s even worse with the black radicals in both “Radical Chic” and “Flak Catchers.” Wolfe’s combination of contempt, stabs at hip (not unlike the white liberals he lampoons), and seething jealousy for their charisma comes through loud and clear, but precious little else about the people he’s talking about does.

Presented with two of the broadest targets someone looking to punch liberals could want – upper-crust types playing at radical, and a mutually-parasitic relationship between welfare recipients and social services bureaucrats – he doesn’t even really land that hard. I gotta say, I was expecting something more coruscating (should’ve known better- I tried reading “Bonfire of the Vanities”). “Radical Chic” is a bit better than “Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers” in this regard. If you want an instant low-grade nausea/headache, faithful reader, give Wolfe’s account of a shouted exchange between a Black Panther leader, Leonard Bernstein, Otto Preminger, and Barbara Walters at a party Bernstein threw for some Panther leaders a read. It’s about as bad as you’d expect. “Flak Catchers” is considerably less effective on this score, because it relies on the reader being stunned by the idea that mid-level bureaucrats – the titular “flak catchers” – exist to deal with annoyances their higher-ups want to avoid. Why is this considered a fresh observation? Why did it merit a whole essay, other than for the obvious reason of gawking at the multi-ethnic gangs of youth and their leaders flamboyantly hassling said flak-catchers?

The thing tying the two essays together… well, realistically, it’s Wolfe playing to the desire to gawk and to feel “in the know” on the part of white middle class audiences stuck with the expectation to be “progressive” but looking for the door. But thematically, it’s the kayfabe aspects of sixties radicalism. The “beautiful people” in Bernstein’s Upper East Side apartment don’t really know what the Panthers are about and don’t want to- they’re just a fashion accessory. The bureaucratic flak-catchers in the Great Society welfare program offices of San Francisco exist in tacit agreement with the radical hustlers getting gangs of “The Warriors”-dressed kids to yell at him and threaten riots- without both, nobody, bureaucrat or community organizer, gets their funding, according to the piece. It’s all kayfabe, all fake, all hustle.

There’s an element of truth to this. But the stupid thing is, Wolfe is on the same side of the hustle. He needs it to be a hustle or else he has nothing to write about. If there was anything going on – which he concedes there was with the Panthers, if nothing else their propensity to get assassinated by the police kind of implies they had some contact with reality – he wouldn’t know what to do with it, and clearly doesn’t with the Panthers. He can’t write about the reality of anything, like Thompson did, because he hasn’t got the insight, the talent, or the motivation. He can’t even get at the reality of a given hustle, what’s actually happening behind the posturing- one of Thompson’s specialties. Wolfe has the contemptuous sneer of someone who’s figured it all out without having figured anything out other than convincing other rubes he’s figured something out.

This goes a long way towards explaining Wolfe’s staying power. Bourgeois audiences needed the means to sneer away the upheaval of the 1960s. Simply proclaiming it immoral, anathema, might work for the masses of rubes but it won’t work for people who fancy themselves smart. That’s too panicky, low-class, and besides, they like some of the loosened lifestyle restrictions. So when someone comes along telling them the whole thing was really about something they know about – class signifiers, fashion, posturing – and on top of that, that’s what things in general are all about, no need to interrogate any further, obviously people are going to jump on it. Thompson is dead, in part, because his society drove itself into a ditch rather than learn any lessons from his times. Wolfe continues to swan around in his dumbass white suits because he helped people actively unlearn. *’

Review- Wolfe, “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”

Review- Wright, “Black Boy”

Richard Wright, “Black Boy” (1945) – In many respects, Richard Wright’s memoir is about the myriad obstacles in the way of its own creation. The sort of closely-observed, passionately-conveyed depictions of the inner life of black people, himself included, was the sort of thing many of the circumstances of Wright’s early life conspired to make impossible. Wright was born in 1908 in Mississippi, to a poor black family that held to a stern, unforgiving version of Seventh Day Adventism. Wright depicts his child self as sensitive, inquisitive, and given to impulsive behavior.

These were difficult traits for a poor, beaten-down family to encourage, dangerous ones for a black child in the Jim Crow south, and often seen as outrageous by his abusive, religious obscurantist grandmother and aunts. The child Wright takes blow after blow, literally and figuratively. Wright spares us little of the terror he lived through- of his family, of poverty and hunger, of white violence, of his own awareness of the damage that oppression was doing to his consciousness and those of the people around him. The story of his white coworkers setting him up to stab another black boy (whose coworkers in turn were trying to set him up to stab Wright) was the most effecting to me, in its multiple levels of sadism, but there are numerous others.

In Wright’s self-depiction, if he succeeded — became one of the great American writers of his time, before bad luck and ill health helped derail his career and prematurely end his life — it wasn’t because of any special qualities on his part beyond, perhaps, a persistence in engaging with the written word despite all kinds of discouragement. Racism, on top of everything else it deranges in society, renders the lives and fortunes of black people (and whites) largely illegible. If hard work and talent can be ignored because of race, or simply terrorized into submission or killed with impunity, then what kind of cause and effect can you trace between people and their fate? Beyond a cruel pragmatism — avoid white attention and concentrate on the present — Wright sees the community he grew up in as lacking in any answer for dilemmas such as these. These dilemmas don’t simply frame black life; in many respects, Wright shows us that they are the human condition. Wright was instrumental in making black American life, like Goethe’s Germany, a universal mirror to show humanity itself.

We also hear Wright’s account of his time trying out one of the answers to the human condition: Communism. In Chicago at the height of the depression, Wright joined the party through some of its cultural institutions as he began his writing career. Much has been written about Wright’s politics: his embrace and break with the communists, his self-imposed exile in France, his feud with James Baldwin and writers embracing a different type of black radicalism, and perhaps most troubling of all, his collaboration with anti-communist propagandists up to and including secretly informing on anticolonial movements to American officialdom. I’m not going to come up with all the answers here, most of which concerns stuff that happened well after the publication of “Black Boy.” The bulletpoint version appears to be that he was drawn to communism, like a lot of people, by the fact they were the only organized, multiracial group taking the fight against racism seriously at that time and place.

And it wasn’t hypocrisy on that score (which existed, but less so than one might think) that drove Wright to break with the party. In his telling, it was the endless paranoia and insistence on defining reality for its members that led the party to treat him sufficiently poorly that he had to leave. Whether this excuses anything that came after is another question. But even taking into account anti-communist exaggeration, and the ways in which state repression bolstered the worst behaviors, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that the party lacked a healthy democratic culture, to say the least. Its lack of effective power over much except for the lives of its members meant that its exercise of power in that arena was all the more intense and arbitrary. I disagree with Wright’s contention that true art is always unconcerned with politics and the social- that seems like overreaction to disappointment, to me. But the insistence on reordering the whole world according to an overarching vision — and Stalin-era communism was far from the only such vision — and a sensibility attuned to the world’s complexities are always going to be at odds, and Wright, in “Black Boy” and elsewhere, doesn’t fall easily into any given box. *****

Review- Wright, “Black Boy”

Review- Ludlum, “The Bourne Identity”

img_0542Robert Ludlum, “The Bourne Identity” (1980) – Calling the campy and kitschy things we enjoy “guilty pleasures” is an example of cultural inertia at work. Among reasonably cool, educated twenty- and thirty-something’s, there’s no guilt associated with camp, kitsch, and silliness. I get the sense many of them regard a preference for serious fare as vaguely reactionary.

Consider: at this point, what do you think will get you scoffed at more- liking pro wrestling, or liking Oscar-bait biopics? Self-seriousness, especially in situations where there’s no moral edification to be gained (I.e. the self-seriousness of the male, the white, the rich, etc), is much more frowned-upon than camp, in my experience. It’s my luck that my particular tastes don’t run to the sort of “serious” twentieth century literary writers that whole schools of pop-criticism have grown up around denouncing: Hemingway, Roth, Wallace, writers “literary” enough to count but accessible enough to be on the syllabi of the sort of lit courses that form the basis of a poppist bloggers’ understanding of these things. Those are guilty pleasures; guilty as in “seen as vaguely sinful” along with being uncool.

My middlebrow guilty pleasure is the self-serious action movie. I also like the acceptable kind of action movie, too, campy blockbusters, cool low-budget foreign actioners, etc. But I like the kind you can’t really laugh through and enjoy the same way, too. Michael Mann is my favorite director, warts and all. Naturally, I loved all three of the “Bourne” film trilogy. You might be able to scrape something to chuckle at out of them, if you tried — Matt Damon’s alternating befuddlement and serious-man-ness, the now-massively-overused shaky-cam action scenes — but it’s a job. The movies are meant for earnest engagement, and the filmmakers empty a reasonably capacious bag of competently-executed tricks to get it. Either you accept them on their own terms, more or less, or you don’t. I do. I get why people wouldn’t, but I do.

So, when the novel upon which the first Bourne movie was (loosely) based turned up on a library fifty-cent pile, I picked it up. You can generally find a lot of Robert Ludlum in free piles- he was a reliable bestseller and arguably the father of the “airport thriller.” Take the basic spy-fi framework you see in Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsythe, or whoever else; one ultra-competent man (all the women want him all the men want to know his drink order etc) versus a giant evil global world-ending conspiracy. Scrub away residual layers of open camp or weirdness (jokes, sci-fi, etc) and then dump “realism” on it, mostly by taking time out to discuss “real” techniques, gear (weapons, cars, surveillance stuff), institutions, etc. Et voila- a genre for the busy bourgeois man on the go!

This is the literary equivalent of the “crackpot realism” we all know from dealing with centrist politicians- absurd scenarios slathered in spurious facticity. It makes for some interesting literary devices. For one thing, “The Bourne Identity” the novel is, essentially, fan-fiction about someone who lived while the book was being written, and lives still: Ilich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramirez Sanchez. He’s the villain, by name, in the book! I guess he was hardly in a position to sue for defamation. If anything, Ludlum compliments him by depicting him as much more competent and powerful than he actually was.

What’s more, Ludlum was canny enough to realize the sort of effortlessly competent violence Bourne dishes out doesn’t read as that exciting on the page. It’s there, him fighting and shooting and fleeing from Carlos’s various goons, but it’s not as emphasized as you’d expect. Instead, you get a lot of Bourne (and his lady-friend Marie) basically socially-engineering various exclusive institutions — Swiss banks, fancy hotels, high-end clothiers, airlines, assorted bureaucracies — tricking them to get what they need and evading their surveillance. On the one hand, it’s an admirable adjustment to the realities of prose and the needs of the target audience- these days you’d have to imagine Bourne somehow using his ultra-competence to get the Comcast people to show up on time.

On the other hand, it’s honestly pretty tedious. Much of the time the book replicates the experience of dealing with bureaucracies, in this instance the analog kind, from the seventies. Even his admirers admit Ludlum was no prose stylist. The movie stripped it down admirably- Bourne vs the security state that made him. In the book, there’s Bourne vs the people who made him vs Carlos and his supposedly infallible network. One problem with the enemy being everyone, as in some of these paranoid thrillers, is that the enemy loses any definition, fades into the background. When the background is high-end Zurich and Paris at the end of the seventies, it’s not exactly exciting.

Most of what a modern reader/viewer can relate to in the movie isn’t there in the book. The Frankenstein element — the security state brainwashing and playing god with its sleeper agents, and one of them accidentally breaking out and trying to stay out — isn’t really there. The security state isn’t good in the novel, as such, but the real bad guy is Carlos and his improbable network. Moreover, whatever poignance you can get out of the relationship in the movie between Matt Damon’s befuddled Bourne and Franka Potente’s vaguely alternative drifter Marie isn’t there in the book either. In the book, Bourne basically kidnaps Canadian economist Marie, who’s alternately prissy and swoony. It’s much more Steve McQueen than Matt Damon, and while that’s a decent trade much of the time, I don’t think it works as well for this story. To the extent Bourne works at all — that it’s not just Bond but self-serious — it’s because Bourne’s alienation tempers, and arguably justifies, the power fantasy. The movies do a better job with that balance than the books. **’

Review- Ludlum, “The Bourne Identity”

Review- Wolin, “Heidegger’s Children”

Richard Wolin, “Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, Herbert Marcuse” (2001) – There’s no saltiness quite like that of an academic vindicated in a long-held, long-dismissed belief. Intellectual historian Richard Wolin had been beating the drum about the Nazi past of Martin Heidegger, the greatest (in the sense of being a big deal) philosopher of the twentieth century, for years. Heidegger is as big of a deal as he is because his influence goes well beyond philosophy departments into… well, other university departments- literature, architecture, etc. His phenomenological framework is sufficiently powerful, flexible, and more than anything else, glamorously incomprehensible, that he was useful and appealing to a lot of people. They all knew he was a Nazi party member. Most of them probably knew that his excuses for it — he felt pressure, he tried to avoid politicizing the university, etc etc — were specious at best. They must have noticed certain, shall we say, elective affinities between Heidegger’s critique of modernity and some of the “Völkisch” tendencies that went into Nazism. But it was all vague enough to be waved away, at least during Heidegger’s lifetime.

Wolin didn’t buy it in the nineties, when he became embroiled in the Heidegger Controversy (it gets caps- Wolin edited a collection on it) and when he was writing “Heidegger’s Children,” and his exasperation with the defenses of the Black Forest Sage shines through the text. It examines four of Heidegger’s major students – Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse being the best known, though I’d say Löwith is also worth reading – all of whom were Germanized Jews, and their relationships with their teacher. Even his pre-Black Notebook defenders admit Heidegger had an anti-semitic streak (not that it stopped him from sleeping with his grad student Hannah Arendt, which, you know, not exactly what you want in a sage either). But evidently his charisma and philosophical powers were enough that it attracted these students. Wolin argues that the degree and kind of assimilation on the part of middle-class German Jews played a crucial role in allowing these relationships to take place despite the master’s distaste for Jews. I don’t know enough about German culture at the time to say, but it sounds both basically accurate and overstated, perhaps majorly so.

Wolin goes through each one, considers parts of their oeuvure, and in each case condemns the philosopher in question for not separating themselves far enough from Heidegger and his elitist anti-modernism. He attributes the flaws in Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and her bien-pensant liberal elitism to the same flaws that led her to play a weird double game for Heidegger even after their affair. Hans Jonas (whose work I don’t know) seeded the German Green movement with bizarre and unhelpful antimodern sentiments drawn from Heidegger, the master he abandoned decades before. Marcuse managed to escape his gravitational pull more — he had more independence from Heidegger, in large part due to his Marxist commitments – but still meandered through efforts to square the circle of reconciling Heidegerrian phenomenology and Marxism. Löwith… I don’t remember what his issue was and I haven’t got the book in front of me. He did something wrong, and it was the fault of whatever it was drew the guy to Heidegger.

All this, in 2001, before the Black Notebooks came to be published to the extent they have, and Heidegger’s genuine enthusiasm for Nazism became impossible to hide! My edition has an extended preface where Wolin relishes dunking on Heidegger’s assorted defenders. It’s hard not to appreciate his enthusiasm- even if you take something from the philosopher’s work, his academic defenders were a trendy lot (there’s a hipster architecture magazine called “Dwell,” a self-conscious nod to one of Heidegger’s later philosophical hobby-horses), their prevarication was pretty weak, and it’s satisfying to see the historical record get its due. That being said, it leaves a larger question – what do we do with important cultural figures with abhorrent political views? – unanswered.

Several times, Wolin insists on Heidegger’s brilliance and importance, while also condemning his work tout court as fruit of the poison tree of German reaction. We are left with no idea of how to reconcile that. For my money, he’s right- Heidegger is both brilliant and toxic. We make use of many toxic, dangerous substances, and the work and ideas of those who walked on the dark side of modernity – by no means restricted to fascism – should qualify, if radioactive materials do. Heidegger asked a lot of questions in a very provocative way, and helped break up the staid academic philosophy of the early twentieth century (with a lot of help, including from mentors he spited, like Husserl). He isn’t someone you should take moral (or political) advice from, and maybe this is just my materialism talking, but that seems to be the problem more than anything. Both Wolin and the Heideggerians he puts on the dock tried to get usable morals out of a twentieth century philosopher. Classic mistake! ***’

Review- Wolin, “Heidegger’s Children”

Review- Ashby, “Company Town”

Madeline Ashby, “Company Town” (2016) – The great David Forbes, of the Asheville Blade, recommended this sci-fi novel, and they did not steer me wrong. To me, more than the tech or the trippy stuff or the aesthetic (I’ve got the aesthetic sense of a dying eel), what made the few undeniably great works of cyberpunk great was the marriage of science fiction and hardboiled crime fiction. That describes “Neuromancer,” “Blade Runner,” and the work of early precursor Alfred Bester. This particular combo is surprisingly hard to do well. It’s also really easy to parody, especially when it winds up hanging its conceptual hat on rapidly dated ideas about technology- William Gibson’s cassette-driven VR internet, for instance. But it’s not just the tech- cyberpunk ‘tude came to be seen as pretty passé around the time the internet started to be an actual thing, and Neal Stephenson and his cohort came around to bury the genre. Stephenson edited a collection of intentionally optimistic sci-fi stories a few years back, declaring that dystopian speculative fiction was inhibiting our ability to dream or something. That came out late in 2014- hell of a sense of timing.

Well… as it turns out, a suspicion that technology-driven social change in a context of deep structural inequality, institutional stagnation, and ecological catastrophe isn’t exactly a recipe for happiness doesn’t seem as silly now as it might have seemed to people in the nineties who could get paid six figures because they knew what a modem is. So that aperture between technological potential and social reality that cyberpunk worked with is open wide for artists to walk through.

A long prelude to discussing a reasonable-length, punchy book! Madeline Ashby’s titular company town is a series of towers built around old oil infrastructure in the North Atlantic. Technically Canadian territory, a variety of social forms have organically glommed on to the towers, looking for work or from refuge from climate disasters- this could take place anywhere between ten and a hundred years from now. The protagonist, Hwa, is an enforcer for the sex worker’s union local — making sure that the workers come back from their assignations safe and that customers are respectful and prompt with payment — before she gets mixed up with a megacorp that comes to buy the city. The corporate guys like her because she’s a native, and also completely unmodified- no genetic tailoring, no custom-grown parts, no cybernetic implants. Among other things, this means she can’t be hacked.

Ashby weaves the sci-fi and the crime elements together masterfully. The guy in charge of the megacorp is a dying patriarch surrounded by decadent bloodsucker heirs, like General Sternwood in “The Big Sleep” – but was raised on an “anti-science commune” in California and is haunted by the singularity and Roko’s Basilisk. Hwa gets access to surveillance software that Sam Spade could only dream of, but her shady employers know about it every time she uses it. There’s a… I guess the term would be homme fatal? A potentially dangerous love interest, an all-too-perfect corporate dude (I imagine him played by Alex Sarsgaard or else Zach Wood- I know they’re opposites in many respect, lay off me) who may or may not be the one killing Hwa’s friends, and may or may not have been grown in a vat. It’s creative, and a lot of fun.

I don’t want to give away the ending but it’s pretty good and getting there is brutal. Ashby clearly has a pretty contemporary liberal social conscience but that doesn’t keep her from the crime fiction tradition of having a lot of women brutally murdered in her crime stories. There’s also a little bit of the “chosen one” stuff in there, borrowed from the dystopian speculative fiction that came to replace cyberpunk- young adult apocalyptic novels. But in the end, to the extent Hwa is special, it’s due to her embededness in a larger community of outcasts and the exploited, clinging to their precarious lives in the rising sea. Something tells me people can relate to that. ****’

Review- Ashby, “Company Town”