Review – Chu, “Time Salvager”

Wesley Chu, “Time Salvager” (2015) – This was fun. It’s set in the 2500s after humanity has fled a toxic Earth into a precarious existence on space stations and in outer moons like Europa. A profoundly unequal, megacorp-dominated society fighting a losing battle against economic and social decay, they use time travel technology developed in earlier, better days to essentially loot the past for raw materials and the types of goods they can’t manufacture anymore.

Of course, like any time travel story, there’s a bunch of more or less arbitrary rules, both to time travel itself and the way the time-looting agency, ChronoCom, uses it. In order to protect the integrity of the time stream, you can’t give the secret away, or cause major ripple effects. In the book, this means they wind up looting a lot from people who are about to die imminently, particularly at the sites of battles or disasters. Looting engines from spaceships about to blow, for instance, or art (of course, the megacorps commission custom jobs) from a cathedral about to be shelled. You also can’t bring people back, but that turns out to be more of a political rule. There’s a bunch of other rules that basically are there for story purposes- as Time Pimp informs us, “Nobody knows or cares how time travel works.”

Of course, somebody has to break the rules, and of course, that somebody is a grizzled veteran of ChronoCom who’s seen many a disaster, on top of an already rough life. The main character, James, is your basic gunslinger character put into this time-travel story. Everything changes when he meets the love interest, a scientist named Elise who works on a doomed experimental ocean station in the late 21st century. She’s nice to him, so when the station is destroyed, after looting the stuff he was sent for, James saves Elise. This is a big no-no, so they become fugitives among the tribes of the toxic Earth, with both a megacorp and James’s chronoman buddies after them. Despite being stranded amongst the primitive scavenger tribes of post-apocalyptic Boston, on an Earth where every ecological disaster was turned up to 11 over a few centuries, Elise discovers a potential way to save the Earth. Naturally, it ties in with what she was doing before she got time-napped, which of course ties in to various dark secrets of time travel, etc. etc.

This isn’t Philip K. Dick or Octavia Butler here. Hell, it’s hardly Shakespeare, even. The characters are pretty basic- James the hard-drinking vet who’s seen some shit, Elise the optimistic scientist who’s tougher than she looks, Levin the by-the-book enforcer whose honor compels him to hard choices, etc. etc. The prose doesn’t sparkle, especially the dialogue. But it’s fast and fun. I also think the various futures we see (Chu makes the interesting, and I think smart, choice to have the characters go back more often to the future history — the period between now and the time the main action is set — rather than doing our past) are assembled out of found parts, but well-assembled without too much exposition. The action is fun- close escapes, fights with assorted future technology, etc. It’s a good subway/beach read that plays familiar rhythms well. ****

Review – Chu, “Time Salvager”

Review – Beniger, “The Control Revolution”


James Beniger, “The Control Revolution: Economic and Technological Origins of the Information Society” (1986) – This is a history of the technologies and techniques of controlling industrial processes. It’s both as interesting and as boring as it sounds. Beniger exhaustively surveys the industrial landscape, from materials processing to production to transport to distribution, digging up every kind of feedback mechanism from thermostats to cereal box-top contests and placing it in the context of an ongoing narrative of broadening and deepening control capacities. These control mechanisms both relied upon and were necessitated by the explosive growth in the speed of movements and the mass of productivity unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Much of the “Control Revolution” begins in the same places the Industrial Revolution did: coal and steel, textile manufacturing, and especially the railroads. It really comes into its own — and develops a class of specialists in control and feedback mechanisms (i.e. industrial bureaucrats) — with the Second Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century, which paved the way for a mass consumption society. It’s a truly impressive work in its depth and scope.


It’s also pretty dry. It’s not completely lacking in historiographical zeal- in fact, it makes some big claims about seeing societies as processors of matter and information, organizing itself and the world around it from lower to higher degrees of control as a (ultimately futile) struggle against empathy… but at the end of the day, learning about accounting techniques, factory arrangements, and bureaucratic structures is something that only works for me in small doses. Two things also seemed to be missing. First, the rest of the world- this is a very America-centric story. It would make sense if the US was the center of the Control Revolution, but it would be good to get more of an explanation as to why. Second, not a ton about workers- stuff about Frederick Taylor and other (exploiter/)managers of labor, but not a lot about what seems like a key ingredient- producing and reproducing a labor force to make the whole thing go. That might complicate the picture of a self-organized informational society some, and I guess Beniger prefered to stick with his vision. Either way, an interesting dive into some of the undergirdings of modern society. ****

Review – Beniger, “The Control Revolution”

Review – Vance, “The Face”

Jack Vance, “The Face” (1979) – In this installment of Vance’s space-detective-western series, Kirth Gessen knocks off the fourth of the five Demon Princes that sacked his home planet. Space pirate Lens Larque hails from Dar Sai, a desert planet the climate of which breeds a harsh and haughty people. Think the Fremen from “Dune.” Herbert built his worlds like an engineer, with everything serving some purpose (however obscure) or making a point (however pedantic), and his desert nomads are an austere product of pure adaptation. Vance, more of a writer’s writer, makes his desert-dwellers capricious and proudly difficult, full of orientalist filigree like special sports and mating rituals. The reader spends a lot of time on this planet as Kirth attempts to track down stock certificates for a worthless company that Larque once controls which somehow will winkle Larque out of hiding, or provide information as to his whereabouts, or… something. It’s not very clear and it even gets tedious at times, which Vance usually doesn’t. There’s some encounters, including Vance beating the Darsh at their weird wrestling-diplomacy game, and the usual love-plot, in this instance with a winsome member of an elitist society colonizing Dar Sai for minerals. This would be the least inspired volume in the series so far if it didn’t build to a very satisfying and amusing end, when we find out what Larque was up to with all of his money-making and planetary construction schemes. It’s a gesture even Kirth has to respect- after getting his man, of course. ****

Review – Vance, “The Face”

Review – Lewis, “Babbitt”

Sinclair Lewis, “Babbitt” (1922) – Did Looney Tunes ever make a joke where Elmer Fudd was hunting a “wascally Babbitt?” Sorry, I promise I won’t start all of my subsequent reviews with dumb jokes. In a way, though, commentators on the American cultural scene have been hunting the Babbitt (:continues in extremely Ride of the Valkyries voice:” hunting da Babbitt, hunting da BAAAAAABBITT”) ever since Sinclair Lewis put up the big ol’ “Babbitt Season” sign in 1922.

Ok, end of the Wabbit-Babbitt jokes, I promise. “Babbitt” was the sensation it was in no small part because it created an instant and enduring symbol of what Sinclair Lewis’s pal and supporter H.L. Mencken called the American “booboisie,” the oafish upper-middle-class. The book’s publication launched editorials about the curse of “babbittry” and publicity campaigns by groups like the Rotary Club to fight back against Lewis’s biting depiction of Business Man. Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in no small part due to “Babbitt.” I first heard of the book as a college student reading old essays from “The Baffler,” which especially under Thomas Frank (something of a mark for early 20th century lefty Americana) in the mid-to-late 90’s saw itself as echoing Lewis’s skepticism of an America whose business was business.

We spend over 300 pages almost solely in the headspace of George F. Babbitt, one of the leading real estate salesmen of Zenith, a city assorted midwestern burgs — Cincinnati and Minneapolis being two of the lead candidates — have contended is based on them. Of course, Lewis has his Zenith booboisie spell out for you that Zenith could be any early 20th century American city of the appropriate size run by “solid business ideas” held by “100 per cent Americans” full of “pep,” which is to say, pretty much any American city. Lewis said he was depicting the men who rule America, and I think he has a reasonably good grasp on that, especially for a novelist who was half in the bag most of the time.

Babbitt is in his forties, has a wife, two point five kids, a house, a car, a business, no meaningful money problems, and pretty much no idea in his head other than the received wisdom of his time and place. Lewis seems to have a grand old time riffing on the goofy “swell” booster-talk of Babbitt and his friends and juxtaposing the contradictory ideas — “America’s the greatest place in the world because of its freedom, and we should hang all union agitators” is a typical one — that that kind of deal-maker bullshit patter encourages people to think.

Babbitt does some social climbing; his glib bullshitting, flexible morals, and genuine hatred of people who might upset the applecart, who aren’t “regular fellows,” helps him along into being a major player in Zenith. He also does some rebelling, and it’s unclear whether his rebellion against the conformity that defines him and all of his friends is a genuine movement of what’s left of his soul, just another aspect of his conformity (what’s more white-American-bourgeois-man than deciding that his life is bullshit and he needs to ditch his responsibilities and run away?), or if there’s even a distinction between the two at all. Either way, Babbitt takes up with flappers and flirts with a sort of dippy liberal-radicalism for a few weeks before fleeing back into the bosom of respectable society.

I’ve read that Sinclair Lewis did real research for this book- immersing himself in the world of Booster’s Clubs and car accessories. This is reflected, on the one hand, with the exhaustive range of aspects of the Babbitt-ish lifestyle and mindset he crams into the novel, and on the other, with what reads like a heavy hand. I doubt Lewis was heavy-handed in terms of how boorish or authoritarian middle class WASPs were in his time. I do wonder if they quite so roundly and systematically declared their opinions on the kinds of things Lewis and his readers cared about — socialism, prohibition, the nature of life in America — as Lewis depicts them doing. Babbitt and co are oddly articulate in terms of the things they choose to articulate poorly and when. As the man once said, “people with real lives don’t need to be articulate,” and the whole point of Babbittry is that this — whatever the American upper middle class thinks and feels left to its own devices — is what real life is. Intellectuals often fall down portraying non-intellectuals, but Lewis does pretty well, at least in part because of his own verve and talent, and in part because he’s dealing with the class and milieu that, whether they’ll admit it or not, from which most American intellectuals hail. ****

Review – Lewis, “Babbitt”

Review – Ross, “Against the Fascist Creep”

Alexander Reid Ross, “Against the Fascist Creep” (2017) – It took a weirdly long time for me to get around to this book, as I have read many (and lousier) examples of writing on our contemporary fascists… I think part of my brain slotted it as “anti-fascism,” which obviously I support but about which I don’t feel the need to go out and keep up with the literature. Memetic association with AK Press, I suppose.

Like most of our books about recent fascism, “Against the Fascist Creep” serves as something of a primer, and also advances a thesis on what should be done. Ross, an anarchist writer, also makes some provocative statements about fascism as a whole, dipping a toe into the perennial intellectual wrangling around defining fascism. Most of the latter turns on the “fascist creep” of the title- not gross haircuts with unwholesome habits saying repugnant things to trigger the libs (though it’s presumably a happy accident), but fascist entryism into and poaching from the left. This is both an interesting subject and an invitation to some fancy footwork around definitions of “fascist,” “radical right,” “populist” (and “left” for that matter) that Ross doesn’t quite carry off- some of his definitional portions get confused and this confusion finds its way to spots throughout the analysis, where you’re not sure whether he’s talking about fascists or mere “radical right-wingers” and what either might mean. This gets especially confused around Ross’s analysis of ideologies like anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism, frequent sites both of entryism and genuine sympathy to fascist ideas from people like von Mises and Rothbard, but that don’t quite fit the categories Ross lays out…

But for the most part, it’s an interesting and informative analysis. Anarchists have, by and large, borne the brunt of fascist attempts to enter the left, from infiltration of the punk scene to “National-Anarchists” trying to get tables at their book fairs. The snob in me wants to say this might have something to do with their lack of theoretical sophistication… but the trying-to-be-better-comrade in me also has to say that it probably has something to do with the ways in which anarchists emphasize going along the grain of people’s lived experience, and that many of them have been alert to these things more consistently than, say, democratic socialists have always been.

Inter-left inside baseball aside, the space of fascist entryism is an interesting one. I go with the Robin definition of left and right- the right is about bolstering (or reinscribing) hierarchy, the left is about distributing power downward and horizontally (liberalism is about rules- I say that in jest, but only partially). But, naturally, not everyone goes with the program. Horseshoe theory is mostly nonsense, but there is a point where people on both sides of the spectrum meet up- undertheorized anti-system sentiment. AFAICT, this is what Ross means when he distinguishes “fascism” from “the radical right”- fascism has an anti-system bias, or anyway rhetoric. This is far too much of a thin reed — most fascists usually wind up liking capitalism, the police, the army et al just fine — for me to place much emphasis on. But it is useful as a heuristic to see who on the far right could try to play entryism with the left. “Radical rightists” like the John Birch Society or the Minutemen would find it tough, given their attachment to both the structures AND the symbols of traditional power. But those who can eschew the symbols — skinheads, “national anarchists,” right-counterculturalists, “national bolsheviks” et al — can make a better try, especially when people’s guards are down. Ross does a good job encapsulating many of these efforts- his narratives are clear, interesting, well-written.

I’m not going to recap them here (just read the book if you want that- there’s so many weird little groups and fashy randos running around). There is a degree to which I was right about my initial impression- in certain respects, the thesis (if not all of the content) is about the left — how it needs to be careful about fascist entryism and vigilant in antifascism — than about the right. I want to illuminate a few interesting points about the stories Ross tells-

First, the dynamic wherein fascists after the end of the war flocked to the proverbial last men standing- who tended to be outsiders and space-takers when the fascist regimes were still in good shape. So you wind up with people flocking around fascist occultist woo-slinger Julius Evola, who Mussolini would barely give the time of day to, and the few remaining Strasserites (Nazis who were a little more mad about bankers than the dominant Hitler wing of the party) or “conservative revolutionaries” in Germany, never-wases like Oswald Mosely, or National-Bolshevism, a small but surprisingly hardy and insidious germ of fascist entryism.

Call it an example of the “cunning of history,” or natural (read- the Russians killed and/or the CIA stashed away everyone more important) selection, but this, in certain ways, helped them in a left-entryist strategy more than if more competent, central fascists had survived. Strasserites and Nat-Bols can pretend to be leftists, if you don’t look too close. Followers of Evola and other cultural fascists can even more more easily infiltrate the arts and various subcultures. Their very marginality under actual existing fascism provides an alibi- they weren’t really fascists, the arguments go, because Hitler/Mussolini/whoever didn’t take them seriously and sometimes vice-versa. Of course, that argument doesn’t hold water — Strasser was also a vicious antisemite, Evola if anything wanted a crueler state than Mussolini wanted, etc etc — but that requires research and argument, and entryists look for spaces where people won’t bother with that… like countercultures, spaces where people go more by feel — the feel of rebellion, of authenticity, whatever — than by thought.

Second, even taking into account Ross’s desire to warn and energize his readership, it really is notable, when you read about them one after another, how widely fascist entryism has extended its tendrils. Not always effectively, mind- I’d say it goes wide, but not notably deep. But especially in the period between the downfall of the global oppositional, anti-capitalist left in the late 1970s and, basically, the alarms that white behavior in the wake of the Obama election in the US began to ring, people really seemed to have their guards down about who fascists are, what they do, and why they should be driven out of anywhere they take a hold. When people lose the ability to name the structures of power — which, then and now, means capitalism and what comes with it — that opens the door to all kinds of silliness, which can turn insidious where it isn’t simply useless.

Anti-system — as opposed to anti-hierarchical-structures (like capitalism and racism) — thinking took hold hard in this time, and a lot of people who should have known better flirted heavily with what amounted to red-brown politics, though it seldom called itself by that name. People knew what Gavin McInnes was, or what Jim Goad was, or what Death In June was singing about, or what the post-Soviet Nat Bols were, in the nineties just as much as today. They just didn’t care, or felt there were bigger fish to fry in the form of “the system,” generally defined more by mundanity than oppressive power… This affected a wide range of actors: European Greens, anti-Zionism, anti-globalization movements, numerous artistic and literary figures who confused edginess with insight and freaking out the squares with a meaningful goal… we’re still shaking off the aftereffects of how badly the global left managed the fin de siecle, in this way as in many others, and some of them still don’t manage this stuff very well. In part, this is because the left for decades failed to articulate a meaningful critique of fascism, either relying on a Trotskyite (or Stalinist) catechetical definition, which doesn’t have much room to develop even where it’s strong, or else basically letting liberalism turn these issues into moralism, which tend to lose their force once, well, people stop taking the moral (or its messengers) seriously. It’s good we’re doing it now. Let’s hope it’s not too late. ****’

Review – Ross, “Against the Fascist Creep”

Review – Mcdonald, “Fletch”

Gregory Mcdonald, “Fletch” (1974) – The best thing about this book is the way that it illuminates the genuine pleasures of crime fiction, beyond rubber-necking at the low life. The pleasure of ratiocination and exposition, the thrill of the chase, some well-executed action scenes, characters that may fit archetypes (read- cliches) but add their own wrinkles, a bit of local color, some laffs, some spills, and so on. This is what brings us, or me anyway, back to crime fiction.

“Fletch” had me thinking about these pleasures due to their almost complete lack in the book. The title character isn’t a compelling antihero: he’s a rancorous, thinly-drawn asshole. An investigative reporter (this is immediately after Watergate, when they were the coolest dudes around), he conveys that he’s a maverick by radiating hostility towards everyone, which everyone reciprocates in kind. Most of the conversations are a collection of seventies assholes snarling at each other, larded with newly-uncensored cusses. I believe this is meant to convey what “real life” is like in the hungover 1970s. But it’s basically like if you took Joss Whedon (who I don’t like already), lobotomized him, gave him… whatever makes people mean… and asking him to write a mystery. We spend all our time in the book with Fletch: Fletch screwing strung-out underage girls and then having the gall to act persecuted when his ex-wives demand their alimony; Fletch bragging about how great he is at journalism; Fletch playing cruel pranks; Fletch complaining about his female boss, who is described but not meaningfully depicted as incompetent; Fletch having wistful moments with an old man he’s fleecing for information about the Bronze Star Fletch won, proof he didn’t used to be a feckless lout, but which basically builds his character not at all. It’s honestly a drag.

In terms of story structure, “Fletch” is also a mess. Mcdonald solves the exposition problem by having Fletch talk his thoughts on his cases into a tape recorder, so we get even more of this prick just dumping pageloads of exposition on our lap. The B plot — concerning Fletch getting to the bottom of who’s supplying the local beach bums with heroin — is comparatively well put together, and earns this book what esteem I can give it. The A plot — the (relatively) famous bit where some guys asks Fletch to kill him — is a mess. I wanted to like this book. Gregory Mcdonald seems like he was an all right guy. He organized an anti-Klan group in Tennessee (afaict they mostly arranged to vacate town centers where racists marched, which isn’t exactly my idea of bashing the fash, but what can you do). But this book sucks. *’

Review – Mcdonald, “Fletch”

Review – Levine, “Surveillance Valley”

Yasha Levine, “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet” (2018) – Some of the nerds in my life are mad about Yasha Levine, for reasons somewhat opaque to me. Some sort of issue with his issue with Tor or Signal or something. This is not a request for clarification. I’m a low-tech kind of guy. I assume anything put out over any kind of electronic communication can and will be found and read by the authorities if they take a mind to do so. As far as I’m concerned, the way the smarter mob bosses went about it is right- don’t write anything down you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. Anything that needs to be denied should be kept to verbal communication, or better yet, not communicated at all. I’m sure your crypto math is just wonderful, nerds, but still.

Anyway… here, Levine attempts to invert one of the conventional understandings of the internet is. Many people (I tend to think that number is shrinking, actually, but later for that) see the internet as a tool for the common good — sharing cat pictures, cultural communication, even collective liberation — that has been subverted by mean actors such as the NSA into being a tool of surveillance and oppression instead. In Levine’s telling, this is precisely backwards. While the origins of internet precursor ARPANET as a command and control technology in case of nuclear war are relatively well known, Levine illuminates how many of the technical advances that went into the internet and computing had the other side of the Cold War in mind- proxy war in the developing world.

Figures from the cold war social science world like Ithiel de Sola Pool sought to enhance American capacities to process social information, of the kind useful in counterinsurgency, and sought out computer technology to help them do it. Levine used a somewhat broader definition of counterinsurgency than I do in my dissertation, but the picture he paints of a social science that believed it could scientifically predict and manage human societies provided they had the right kind of data married to a Cold War state looking to prevent a rash of communist revolution in the third world is accurate in broad strokes. I ran across many documents of social scientists from places like RAND and Simulatics discussing how to parse massive amounts of data produced by many studies across Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, though not any about the technological angle specifically- wasn’t looking for that.

In Levine’s telling, whatever else it was for command and control purposes, the internet was supposed to be an “early warning system” for social revolution, both at home and abroad, made possible by networked computer combing massive databases of social facts. Moreover, people in the sixties and seventies understood it as such. There were protests against the development of ARPANET and other early computer networks, and people generally saw computers, networks, and those who put them together as sinister agents of The Man.

Networked computers only came to be seen as normal, or liberatory, or anything other than a vast surveillance machine, through a decades-long cultural shift. Certain refugees from the collapse of the hippie dream adopted computers as a potential apolitical liberatory technology, like LSD was supposed to be, the culture as a whole got more trusting of corporate power after the hangover of Watergate, marketing got better… Levine is less specific with this, in what is after all a journalistic account and not a deep dive into cultural history. For that, I recommend Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” though that doesn’t cover the counterinsurgency angle of the internet like Levine does.

Either way, just in time for computers to get small and powerful enough to fit in private homes in a way people might want, people let their guards down about what computers and the internet might mean. Personally, I’d put a lot more chits on “people like playing games and looking at porn in the privacy of their own home” than “people came to see the internet as a new frontier of freedom” as the reason why people embraced it the way they did, but Levine, in his long fight with nerds of several stripes, puts a good deal emphasis on the dreams of cyber-libertarians ala Wired, the better to dunk on them. One way or another, they’re everywhere, all linked up on a network essentially handed out for pretty much nothing to private interests after having been built with taxpayer money.

Here’s something I didn’t know, and feel stupid for not knowing- apparently, google, facebook, amazon et al actively scan all the stuff you put in? See, even with my idea about keeping anything truly secret off of the machines, I still thought if they wanted to find something, they’d go look for it. But no- if Levine’s right (and this doesn’t seem controversial afaict), they keep and analyze everything, just as a matter of course. All of it goes in to making profiles of you- the kind of thing the counterinsurgents would have loved to have to, I dunno, suss out the “modern personality types” among the Vietnamese peasantry (and to shoot anyone who was putting aside enough rice to feed a guerrilla), but in this instance, mainly to sell you shit. I always wondered about that, too- do those ads actually work well enough to fund all this? I maybe make one purchase a year based on clicking ads I see… guess it’s the same logic behind naming sports arenas after your brand, which never made much sense to me either… One way in which ideological cyber-libertarianism really has had a broad popular effect is in propogating the idea that the internet would be great if not for the government snooping. But Levine drives home the point that it’s not just the government- it’s private actors, as well, who libertarians either elide or laud.

This is, to say the least, not a hopeful book. Getting offline isn’t really a solution (among other things, I have to figure that’s a huge red flag to the relevant powers that be). “Self-regulation” is more or less what got us here in the first place. As far as I can tell, the main beef the nerds have with Levine is he dismissed popular encrypted message software because it was in some part funded by the same government agencies that they’re supposed to guard against (to say nothing of once you get on google, amazon, or facebook — i.e., the internet — those companies have you, crypto or no). Presumably this came with the usual twitter mudslinging that just sort of seems to happen around our modern-day muckrakers.

I don’t know the rights or wrongs of it — I do not know tech — but I know that I use Signal A. because friends insist and B. because I figure one additional hurdle can’t hurt- and I wouldn’t put anything well and truly secret on there, following the New York Times rule. Either way, I think even with occasional gaps and goofs (I don’t know tech, but I do know Massachusetts geography: Lincoln is ten miles west of Cambridge, not east, and MIT is on the same side of the river as Harvard) it’s a good readable way to get across an important point about one of the basic structures of our world. ****

Review – Levine, “Surveillance Valley”