Frank Herbert, “Dune Messiah” (1969) – I like Dune! It’s ridiculous, but good. This is the first time I tried the first sequel. Different friends of mine say that different of the sequels are good, but disagree on which, and no one I know seems to think that all of the sequels Frank Herbert wrote are good… or that the many more written by his son, Brian, are any good at all. But I figured the only way to do it, if I was going to do it at all, was to begin with the beginning, so when I found “Dune Messiah” on a free pile, I picked it up.
It’s twelve years after the end of “Dune,” and Paul Atreides rules most of the human-inhabited galaxy (and if there are aliens, we don’t see them, though some of the humans get freaky enough). The Harkonnens, the evil clan that killed his dad, is foiled. The imperial family has been thrown down and forced to give one of their princesses to Paul in marriage (not that he does anything with Princess Irulan, only having eyes for his Fremen lover Chani). Paul’s Fremen warriors, the baddest dudes around, have spread the word of the Maud’dib in a jihad that has killed around sixty billion people. Most of the remainder worship Paul as a messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach (say what you want about Frank Herbert, he comes up with cool names for things and people), and he has some pretty cool powers, like being able to see into the future. His sister, Alia, can not only see into the future but also has had full knowledge of the lives of all of her ancestors she was in the womb! So she’s fourteen but, you know, more or less omniscient except when the plot dictates she not be.
The previous power players in the galaxy are upset by the rise of Paul. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood, to which his mother belonged (and she’s just in the wind somewhere), had put the pieces into place to make Paul the Kwisatz Haderach, but he refuses to do what they want. The old noble families, including the imperial family through his wife Irulan, feel dissent for obvious reasons. Less obvious are the motivations of the freaky specialized mutants, the Spacer’s Guild, who are like weird spaceship fishmen who take the Spice drug to steer ships through hyperspace, and the Tleilaxu, weird biotech people who make zombie-clones and often “bio-hack,” as people now say, themselves. I guess the Spacers want an independent source for Spice, rather than letting Paul keep his Arrakeen monopoly, but Herbert both makes them a pivot of the plot, but they’re also definitely the bad guys he respects the least.
Between them, these players hatch a plot to do in Paul and Alia. The plot is really complicated, and moreover, to the extent it plays out at all – to the extent that the good guys don’t use their prescience to see through them, and all the measures they took to prevent the prescience from doing just that – it mostly does in drawn-out, boring conversations. Paul is in a snitty little mood throughout. It turns out he doesn’t like being the Maud’dib that much. He doesn’t like being worshiped, or constantly having to deal with conspiracies, and is less than thrilled over how many people have been killed in his name by his followers. He doesn’t want to just let the noble houses/Bene Gesserit/Spacers and whoever win, especially because they want to kill him and others close to him. But in many ways, he wins via the expedient of staying alive long enough to walk away, and become a different kind of legend.
But like I said, until some assassination attempts towards the end – which themselves are repeated, almost beat for beat, with different zombie-cyborg-assassins made out of friends of the family, if I remember right? – a lot of what happens in this book is conversation. The original Dune was also a bit slow and wordy. But there was more going on, and everything felt fresher. The strings show more here, the strain of a decently smart guy trying to depict a story of epochal geniuses with minds expanded beyond where humanity could go. In Herbert’s mind, that involves a lot of circular conversations made up of declarative sentences and high-nonsense philosophical aphorisms about power, fate, etc. Herbert had a better bag of tricks than others purporting to depict genius – Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Tom Harris from the thriller side of things – in that he stocks a lot of the genius less in what people say and more in how they observe things due to their super special vaguely-cybernetic training… but that can get a little old, too, especially when the plot does not move at the sort of pace you’d like. So this is a sort of middling effort. I’m thinking about whether it’s worth continuing, or just reading the wikipedia entries. ***
Dale Beran, “It Came From Something Awful: How A Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump Into Office” (2019) – I’ve come to call it the Mark Fisher school of social criticism. Mark Fisher, for those of you unfamiliar, was a British cultural studies writer who wrote about contemporary culture, especially online culture. If you’ve heard the phrase “capitalist realism,” that’s one of his. His work has proven highly influential on many writers in the same areas, in terms of ideas, themes, and tone. I think it is fair to say, at this point, that he is the object of what could be called a cult (think more like the Marian cult or the cult around Foucault, not Heaven’s Gate). A lot of writers in the “online discourse hell” space hail Fisher as not just an influence, but as something of a prophet, a saint figure, complete with martyrdom at the hands of the force that Fisher understood as fundamental to contemporary life: the depression and malaise induced by late capitalist existence.
I don’t want to dismiss Fisher intellectually, and I don’t want to downplay people’s emotional attachment to a writer who they felt understood what they themselves were going through, and who died, leaving a lot of people feeling bereft. That said, the thought produced by Fisher’s epigones has a lot of severe weaknesses, and a meta-weakness- the cult of Fisher, for all of its wide-ranging criticality, does not do self-criticism very well beyond ritual invocation of its own fecklessness and inability to effect change.
I’d like to say that this book encapsulates the Fisher school’s weaknesses and its strengths, but that’s only maybe a quarter true. It doesn’t have all the weaknesses of the Fisher school. “It Came From Something Awful” doesn’t have the wounded defensive quality Fisherite work often does, and doesn’t show the sympathy for the far right that often occasions displays of that defensiveness. Beran stumbles into other Fisher school mistakes, but not those, thankfully. The book’s strengths, on the other hand, are less that of Fisher and his epigones and more that of fairly solid, middle-of-the-road history or journalism: fine research, well-organized findings, the relating of an important and interesting story. I suppose where the Fisher school comes in at all is that the author’s embeddedness in some of its precepts undermines him, turns what could have been a great work into a decent one.
I avoided this book when it first came out for a stupid but honest reason: it’s title, subtitle, and cover all made it look deeply inane. But some commentators who I take reasonably seriously took this seriously, and for a while I was trying to keep up with altright-explainers, so I figured I’d give this late entry a try.
Right off the bat, Beran distinguished himself from other writers on the subject (most notably Fisher-cultist turned “main reason people googled ‘social patriot’ circa 2019” Angela Nagle) by actually knowing what he was talking about. Talking to Nazis like Richard Spencer, or even the boot boys, is like looking at bugs in a terrarium. Actually going into their spaces, especially the fora, is more like levering open a rock and sticking your face into what’s underneath. Journalists and scholars don’t like it, and usually can’t tell when someone fakes it (the sheer lack of new information in “Kill All Normies” should have been a clue, but hey, it was 2017). But Beran not only did it- he had been doing it for a while, at least lightly. He was a habitue of the titular “Something Awful” and no stranger to the chans, especially in the early days. He actually talked to people involved, not just founder figures like “Lowtax” Kyanka, “Moot” Poole, and Fredrick Brennan, but everyday, anonymous users of the boards.
And it shows. Beran lays out a sensible, comprehensible history of anonymous forum culture. He starts with early, pre-web message boards like the Well — which tried allowing users to be anonymous, but quickly wrapped up that experiment — to the beginning of contemporary forum culture with Something Awful (I had friends who were big into it on the early aughts) to the terrible marriage of Japanese anime image boards and American entrepreneurial innovation we came to call the chans.
In terms of interpretation of this story, Beran is on somewhat shakier ground, but makes some decent connections and points. His biggest point is about a conjuncture between the spread of forum culture and the death of counterculture. By the time the late nineties rolled around, every single counterculture since the Beats, including mutually antagonistic ones such as hippies and punks, and even those that eschewed the whole game, like grunge, had been co-opted, defanged, and commoditized by the overarching capitalist monoculture. Seemingly the only thing the culture industry could not sell, by the time Lowtax was starting Something Awful, was the rejected backwash of Gen X grunge ‘tude: cynicism, indifference, and a certain soupçon of fascination with gory death and sexual violation (it turns out that somebody could indeed sell those things, but I guess the fora habitues were past caring by then).
I split the difference on this. It’s an unsubtle reading and ignores or misreads some important factors (I’m still rewriting my birthday lecture which covered some of this ground- patience!). But it’s not so wrong as to be unusable, and also probably represents something like the historical common sense of a lot of the people who helped make the forum culture, and at least part of the story as understood by many participants in it today (including, mutatis mutandis, the Fisher cult).
One thing Beran gets, that a lot of writers both in and out of the internet-discourse fail to grasp, is that a lot can change in twenty years, and it’s not all meaningless signifier churn. At various points, the people on the boards bestirred themselves to do things other than swap funny or grotesque pictures, and abuse themselves and others. Anonymous grew out of 4chan, and while a lot of people pooh-pooh it now, whatever else it represented, it represented at least some people rejecting Gen Xer nihilism for some sort of collective, values-based project. And then, of course, various snitches snitched and it collapsed. A more organized movement probably would not have collapsed like that, but when you’re organized by whoever can talk the biggest on an IRC channel…
Into the gap left by both the decline of Anonymous and the collapse of the “hope and change” Obama dream — and I think a lot of us undersell exactly how high the hopes were for Obama because we don’t want to review how badly most of us, myself included, suckered — came the same sort of nihilism of the kind of people who, at the turn of the millennium, made mocking teenage suicides a sport… but changed. It got sharper and even meaner, weirdly more desperate, more violent. The rise of the incel culture seems to have been a leading indicator, that the nihilism was going to leave the realm of jokes and pranks and start getting bloody… and, for the product of groups of supposedly anything-goes jokesters, weirdly self-serious. I still sometimes try to imagine the reception on “the old internet” that I only watched from a distance to the idea that anyone was entitled to sex… well, between the rise of both internet porn and dating apps (the latter of which could be seen to quantitatively prove nerds’ inadequacy) and the egging on of cultural/political entrepreneurs like Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich, and eventually Trump’s man Steve Bannon, a new crew of culture industry vultures found ways not just to commodify a counterculture’s dissent, but to weaponize it.
Here is where things start to fall apart in this book. First, so the blame doesn’t all go to the Fisher school, Beran relies way more on Hannah Arendt for his analysis of the right than makes sense. I tend to think this probably comes down to a mixture of simple… I don’t want to say ignorance, but maybe just unawareness of the way the study of fascism has gotten past/around the grand old lady, and the ways in which Arendt’s analysis actually coheres rather nicely with the hopelessness of the Fisher school. Even here, Beran isn’t completely off-base, and makes good use of some of Arendt’s ideas about déclassé upper class types allying with similarly deracinated lower orders to create fascist mobs, which suits the likes of Yiannopoulos and his gamer cohort to a T. But there’s some extreme flattening of historical patterns here that make it hard to see the differences between now and the periods Arendt writes about. I’m something of a lumper myself but it got a bit out of hand here.
This leads to the overarching weakness of the book, where it meets up with the weakness of the Fisher school of contemporary-awfulness analysis (and, in a weird way, Arendt). The Fisher school is so thoroughly invested in the all-encompassing awfulness of our lives under late capitalism that it can’t see anything else… including features of that awfulness that aren’t part of its pre-established menu of tropes and laments. Basically, they really, really don’t get offline. The further Beran gets from a screen (he laments “the screen” without getting into why it’s so much worse than “the page” or “the stage” or “the epic poem”) the less he knows what he’s talking about. Unlike some Fisher epigones, his hopelessness about/spite towards the left doesn’t lead him to hate on online libs/leftists to the detriment of his analysis. His chapters on tumblr are quite thoughtful.
But leftist opposition to the altright, to Trump, and to other instantiations of the right-wing resurgence we’ve seen post-2008 didn’t come from, or even mainly from, tumblr teens and their concerns for personal validity. Hell, if you want to blame the internet for the many weaknesses of today’s left, tumblr wouldn’t be where I’d look- I’d look at Twitter, which Beran does little with, mostly treats as a neutral medium. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that not only is antifa not a group — and that “black bloc” isn’t one (from Philadelphia?? Beran claims) either — but that whatever concerns those of us who do antifascist direct action may share with the stereotypical tumblr-teen, they/we didn’t get into this because they/we were mad about racist Halloween costumes. To think this betrays the ways in which Beran — and here is where his weaknesses sync up most completely with the Fisher school — really cannot imagine a world apart not from the internet, but from his version of the internet, to the extent that even googling what black bloc does not seem to have occurred to him.
Beran, unlike Nagle or some other Fisher acolytes, doesn’t add hatred and ax-grinding to the problems this intellectual inheritance brings with him. He does not seem to actively resent anyone who would actually try, however unlikely they are to succeed, to do something about our capitalist-depressive-realist state (and potentially show up the poster-philosophes in the bargain), which I’ve seen a lot of in online essays and comment sections. But the ways in which cynicism and the barest filigree of theory fill in for commitment to thoroughgoing understanding — which would imply much more work, in the archive and the long watch of thought, even if you don’t think it would also imply taking to the street, as I and my comrades do — did a lot to hamper his work. I’m probably making this sound worse than it is, but I think that’s because the good parts and the bad parts stand in the starkest contrast in this book. Moreover, the good parts are good in a simple way — they do the job — and the bad are better fodder for comment… perhaps reflective of the larger incentive structure motivating the fecklessness of the Fisher school. In any event, this book is better than many, for all of its flaws, but somewhat disappointing. ****
Philip Roth, “The Human Stain” (2000) – I started reading Philip Roth in basically the dumbest way: I picked up “The Plot Against America” as a teenager who was interested in alternate history fiction. Needless to say, I didn’t get whatever I was looking for, and wasn’t that interested in what was on offer from the man then enjoying his position atop the American literary heap. Many years later, my second Roth was “American Pastoral.” I didn’t and don’t like that one. I could see the talent. But you’re just not gonna hook me with “did you know that the New Left was an oedpial (or in this case, elektral) rebellion against :checks notes: Philip Roth’s generation, and to an extent, Philip Roth and his friends, personally??” And I’ve studied the New Left enough to not be, as they say, a fan.
But I read more, because I’ve committed myself to reading “important” writers, out of historical/critical interest even if I don’t think I’ll enjoy them. By the time I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint,” I was pretty glad this commitment (compulsion?) led me back to Roth. There really is no one quite like him in terms of craft. I do think one of the reasons I can appreciate his work more now is because I have spent a number of years thinking about the craft of writing myself, though obviously not to the same effect (or in the same fields).
“The Human Stain” is about a dude getting cancelled! Except not really. It is funny to see some of the ways the “political correctness”/cancellation discourse has changed, or hasn’t. This was published in 2000 and was written, and is set, during the Clinton/Lewinski impeachment imbroglio. It’s in this background that Roth’s self-stand-in, Zuckerman, relates the story of Coleman Silk, star classicist and academic power-player at Athena University in the Berkshires, brought low by political correctness… or was he? Silk loses his job because of a campaign, a few years before the action of the novel starts, to do him in when he refers to two black students – who had never shown up in his class, he didn’t know who they were or what their race was – as “spooks.”
This is about a lot more than the hounding of an innocent high-end academic, though. In fact, we see relatively little of Silk’s booting, even as we learn the ins and outs of his life both before and after. It’s even implied that Silk could have fought, and likely won, but chose not to. Zuckerman meets Silk as Silk emerges from years of writing the indictment of the university that slandered him, that he sees as having killed his wife (his wife died during the contretemps)… and as Silk has decided to abandon the writing project. Silk has something else in his life- an affair with one of the cleaning staff at the school, who’s about half his age (note- she’s thirty-seven, Silk is seventy-one). Faunia, his new lover, has her own stuff going on, having lived through a history of abuse, survived the death of her two children, and is currently being stalked by her deranged Vietnam vet ex-husband.
I guess you could say that the strength of this novel is that everyone “has their own stuff going on,” as I so eloquently put it (with the interesting exception of Zuckerman, Roth’s narrator alter-ego, who we hear less about). We learn all about Faunia, her ex-husband, the French theory-lady who leads Silk’s accusers, various members of Silk’s family, and above all, Coleman Silk himself. In keeping with this book, and with Roth himself, Silk is a complex, fascinating, deeply frustrating character, who has led a brilliant life and done dark, fucked-up things. I don’t know how many spoilers we need to have for a decades-old literary fiction novel, but, just in case, SPOILERS: Coleman Silk, who spent his academic career depicting himself as a kind of Harold Bloom figure, complete with Jewish background, is, in fact, a black man who has spent decades “passing.” We go, unsparingly, into the logic of the decision, the will with which the young, ambitious, light-skinned black boy Silk decides to abandon his family and his beloved mother in order to live his dreams of success and, more than anything, of individuality- to be a him, rather than part of an “us.”
We get all of this over the course of a novel of average length, and more. It’s easy to describe this novel, and most of its features, in such a way that it sounds like the complaint of an obnoxious mid-twentieth century white American male intellectual, pissed that time is passing him by. These tropes are the sort of thing that a substantial portion of the critical internet, your Toasts and your Booktoks and what have you, were connected to a network in order to pass negative, usually “snarky,” judgment upon: the “political correctness gone mad” scenario that impels the book, the “they were the REAL racists!” angle, the woman depicted as an anti-intellectual “natural” woman-child and everything a seventy-something pedant needs, of course the French theory lady persecuting the old-school intellectual is sexually frustrated, etc. etc. And, in classic Roth fashion, there’s validity to all of that. Roth was an obnoxious midcentury intellectual over-achiever who did not care for any of the moralizing – good, bad, or indifferent – that has, historically, gone with pretty much every politics – left, right, and center – that took hold in America during his lifetime. He couldn’t necessarily have predicted our current situation, but he did have a good hard look at the nineties (a depressingly large portion of the landscape hasn’t changed since), and still dangled all these features out there, like a matador’s cape.
And, like Johnny Cash’s matador, he “killed just one more” (well, probably more than that, if his subsequent novels are any good). Nothing is simple for Roth, even when he says it is, he almost always complicates it with the left hand what he has narrators declare in ignorance about with his right (he actually comes pretty close to uncomplicatedly condemning the internet, but, hell, who can blame him). Things aren’t what they appear- but for Roth, that’s never a reason to ignore the appearances, or soften the aspects of either the depths or the surfaces of the human tragedies we create in order to spare our sensibilities. What this results in, when it works, are gripping narratives, needing little or nothing in the way of formal tricks, verbal pyrotechnics, or genre hooks to sustain the reader’s interest- just prose, polished to diamond clarity and hardness, about the complexities of being alive. I can’t really encapsulate everything that happens here, except to say it is, indisputably, human, in all the messiness that implies. *****
Sergio De La Pava, “A Naked Singularity” (2008) (read aloud by Luis Moreno) – It’s like “Infinite Jest,” but good! This was recommended me by a friend early on in grad school. I’ve had her copy for most of a decade, as she tends to flit amongst the continents and isn’t anchored by physical belongings (plus this copy is donged up a little and would not sell at the used places). I tried reading it physically but wasn’t in the mood, then, when I started having a “contemporary lit fic” slot in my audiobook rotation, thought this would do the trick.
Sergio De La Pava originally self-published this, but then a publisher picked it up and it won some awards. Gotta say, it does feel a little older than it is, more 2000 than 2008, when it got picked up. A lot of stuff about how weird and off-putting television is, and pretty much none about how weird and off-putting the internet is, for instance. This is one feature, along with its length and discursiveness, that led me to compare it to “Infinite Jest” – Wallace had that weird Gen X fear of/fascination with TV, too.
That said, the saving grace of “A Naked Singularity” versus “Infinite Jest” is that the former has incident and life, where the latter has pretentious noodling and the stink of death. I don’t use either of those descriptors lightly, for different reasons. I heard the word “pretentious” applied to me a lot, it won’t surprise you to know! And it didn’t help that the best response I could muster would be pointing to the fact that most of the people using it weren’t using the word properly. They couldn’t tell me what I was pretending to be. Well, they didn’t have to, because they meant “annoying” (can’t really disagree with them there, in retrospect) “in an intellectually-themed way.” In any event, that made me have a flinch reaction to the word, not so much because it was hurtful to me and more because it seemed just too easy and underthought. But “Infinite Jest” does pretend, and so did David Foster Wallace- pretend to be avant-garde, pretend to be humanist, pretend that there was anything “new” in whichever version, at least the third, of “new sincerity” it and he were trying. And it reeks of death not just because of the subject matter, but because it’s clear that Wallace’s answer, insofar as he fails in eluding question, is to batten down the hatches from the mean old world and cultivate a set of virtues that sound less New Sincerity and more Second Great Awakening…
Anyway! There’s my review of “Infinite Jest,” if you’re wondering. I wouldn’t call “A Naked Singularity” an entirely successful novel, but again, has an emphasis on incident (a good idea if you can’t really summon up convincing internal space, which De La Pava sort of can and which Wallace could not) and is, for lack of a better term, lively. This is the story of a few days in the life of Casi, a young Colombian-American lawyer in the New York City public defender’s office (De La Pava is, or at least was, also a public defender). Casi’s a hot shot- takes on too much but always succeeds, has gotten all twelve of the cases he’s taken to trial to a not-guilty verdict (in keeping with judicial reality, the vast majority of his cases are plea deals sans trial). He lives in an apartment with Brooklyn with a variety of white, TV-obsessed Gen-Xer neighbors. He gets into philosophical discussions with them, with his family in New Jersey, and sometimes with other lawyers. These are generally less compelling than his efforts in the legal direction – we get some good sequences of Casi trying to hold back the tide of bullshit drug war prosecutions destroying lives – but they’re not the worst in the genre.
The most consequential, for the plot anyway, philosophical discussions Casi gets into are with Dane, an older public defender. Dane plays the sort of devil/archon figure I’ve been increasingly thinking plays an important role in early twenty-first century literature. Dane foists a sort of perfectionist Nietzscheanism on Casi over Italian lunches. First telling a story of how he shit his pants during a trial, then telling a story of how he dedicated himself to a philosophically perfect defense only to blow it in the end, Dane slowly convinces Casi, over Casi’s own philosophical takes and good sense, to do a heist. How much Casi is convinced by Dane’s philosophy, and how much he’s inspired by some bad turns in his own life – losing his first case, coming up against some limitations in both legal, personal, and family life – is hard to tell, but Casi does tell Dane about a client who is moving a lot of money in the drug trade, and eventually agrees to take the score down. With swords.
This is a shaggy, lumbering work, sometimes agreeably and sometimes annoyingly so. The heist is a bit silly – swords! – but not badly done for all that. The sequences involving the criminal justice system are good, very human in an unsentimental but deeply felt way. The heist has some bad consequences, but not as bad a sudden cold snap that shuts down New York for a few days and gives the TV-obsessed neighbors some good scenes. The attempts at futurism – the rise of “video vigilantes,” jokes about media consolidation – are both somewhat prescient but still don’t quite land. He also intersperses a narrative of the great boxer Wilfredo Benitez, which is cool and all and kind of goes along with “Latino wiz kid knocked around by life” theme, but, you know… it’s kind of funny, the ways in which contemporary literature did, and did not, follow the path De La Pava laid out here, making this book feel both very current and like something of a time capsule simultaneously. ****
E.C. Tubb, “The Winds of Gath” (1967) – I picked this up, one half of an Ace Double, a “flipper” which features two novels in one volume- you flip the book over when you finish and you’ve got another scifi novel. It’s also the first of a thirty-odd volume space opera series by Edward Charles Tubb, an English scribbler from mid-twentieth century. The series stars Earl Dumarest, a space wanderer from Earth, considered a lost planet by the interstellar human diaspora. Presumably, him trying to find Earth again, and the circumstances of his leaving in the first place, will unspool as the B-plot across series, which usually have some planetary adventure, it seems, as their main thing.
The first outing for Dumarest isn’t bad, but is a tad derivative. The beginning is probably the best part. Dumarest is basically an interstellar hitchhiker, part of a subculture who wander from planet to planet, staying on a given planet only long enough to save up enough cash to get into spaceship-steerage again to see the next place. Someone outbids the ship Dumarest is on, so it doesn’t go to the destination he thought it would, but rather, to a weird backwater called Gath. In the grand space opera tradition, Gath is a whole planet defined by a small set of characteristics. It’s positioned such that at certain times of the year, you can hear “the music of the spheres,” the interstellar wind, or something. Other than that, it’s a barely-inhabitable dump. Getting stranded there sucks, because it’s basically a planet for very rich, very bored tourists, and it’s hard to get your stake to leave.
Dumarest, of course, being a scifi protagonist and only Earthman around, is resourceful and independent. It’s interstellar wind season, so a lot of tourists are around, and he tries to make some money and/or connections with them. The depictions of being down and out in space are kind of cool, well-conveyed- I wonder if Tubb maybe hadn’t been a stranded hitchhiker before. But the rest of the world-building Tubb does here really borrows a lot, a lot, from then-recent scifi hit “Dune.” Among the tourists are a matriarchal clan of kind-of-ok people and a clan of evil sadists. There turns out to be a resource on the planet that could break the monopoly on necessary scifi business held by creepy interstellar humanoid mutants. Single combat proves important. There’s dudes whose brains are computers and wouldn’t you know it, they have agendas. Along with the Dune derivations, the interstellar winds of Gath turn out to be kind of lame, not even up to Frank Herbert level trippiness- you just wind up seeing your past and it freaks you out, also, it rains real hard. The depictions of the rain were more interesting than the depictions of the more psychical phenomena. I’ll probably give this series a second try if I find the next book somewhere in my wanderings, as this one wasn’t wholly without interest, but a somewhat uninspired first out. ***’
Rachel Sharona Lewis, “The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire” (2021) – This was a pretty fun crime novel about a mystery-solving rabbi! Inspired by a mystery series from the mid-20th century starring a rabbi, we have Vivian Green, who just started at Providence’s Beth Abraham congregation (I think it’s Conservative but not certain). It’s a fairly typical staid Jewish congregation, losing members out of an aging demographic, unsure what to do about it all. Vivian wants her congregants to get more involved in local social justice causes. Her boss, senior rabbi Joseph, supports her in theory but much less so in practice. For instance, it looks like most of the congregation will back the establishment Dem candidate in the next election for mayor, despite there being alternatives in the form of a smart, vaguely Warren-esque policy lady and a firebrand young Dominican-American man out to fight police injustice.
And then some of the temple burns down! No one is hurt but everyone is scared. Among other things, it encourages the congregation to withdraw further into the defensive shell that Vivian (and, one suspects, the author) sees as the characteristic issue in American Jewish life today. Assuming anti-semites are out to get them — knowing, in fact, that some are, despite a lack of evidence that they had anything to do with the fire — the congregation gets closer to the police. This is the same police that brutalized the son of the temple groundskeeper, and who Rabbi Joseph refused to say anything about when they did. The groundskeeper, pretty much the only black person involved with the Beth Abraham community in any capacity, was also the last person seen at the site of the blaze before it went up. To pay for the damage, the congregation eyes selling off some of its real estate to luxury developers, making even worse the gentrification issues that, in turn, enable further police abuses.
It’s a mess! Vivian tries to figure out what’s going on while also fulfilling her clerical duties, and as someone who has known a fair number of people in similar roles, Lewis accurately depicts the endless round of the conscientious mediator between mundane and divine. In the course of trying to figure stuff out, Vivian does have time for the occasional brunch with fellow lady clerics (a Unitarian and an Episcopalian, if anyone is keeping score), and strikes up a romance with the lady who runs the establishment candidate’s establishment-ass, “smart growth” mayoral campaign. Eventually, her poking around gets noticed, and she has to deal with some tense situations before any kind of resolution comes together.
It’s pretty good! Especially considering this is a first novel. The pacing and plotting works well, and while the book wears its politics on its sleeve, it’s never didactic. I will say that for me, one of the most important elements of any crime fiction is compelling villains, and in this one, the villains are not very well fleshed out. I wonder if the author preferred to dwell with more savory characters- other than a few out and out bad guys, most of the characters, even when they’re wrong, are very much human, acting out of credible motivations, and are very much distinguishable. The bad guys here act out of the most credible, as in believable if you know anything about the world, motives imaginable, but don’t have a ton of character or distinguishing features to them. But maybe we can get more of that on Vivian’s next outing, which I hope Lewis will write soon! ****
John Scalzi, “Redshirts” (2012) – Fun (?) fact: John Scalzi is one of the last white men to have a work nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel! This was in 2018, and he shares this distinction with Kim Stanley Robinson. From a cynical perspective, you can say the two men represent the two “acceptable” faces a white male writer can present to the SFF world, at least if you want awards. Robinson has the wonk face, the thoughtful digester of papers and reports about space technology and climate change, a leftist but a thoughtful (read: not especially revolutionary) one. You can also call it “the far face” – it almost certainly helps that he’s been in the field since the eighties, hasn’t thrown racial slurs or weird sex stuff around in his books, and is not on twitter. Scalzi has the nerd face, a sort of Joss Whedon figure (but, doing scifi novels instead of TV and films, does not squat atop our culture in quite the same way Whedon does), lots of quips, lots of genre self-awareness, you can map his work, bit by bit, on TVTropes. His is the near face- he’s on twitter, a lot, and seems to have a well-considered idea of where to stick the knife in, on there- into anybody who kicks against the idea that current scifi (that is, the scifi scene that has made him at least somewhat rich and famous) is the best scifi we could hope for, at least those with the temerity to kick on Al Gore’s Internet. I shouldn’t have to say this, but seeing as this is going out notionally public: I don’t think white men are oppressed, or have bad chances in contemporary SFF, I think the SFF scene as it exists now has prescribed roles for everyone, including women, PoC, etc., and for in-the-club white dudes, the above seems to describe the workable roles. Not my fault!
I’m probably making this more about internal SFF scene politics because A. I’m trying to figure what, if anything, it all means myself, as a pretty outside observer and B. the book itself does not bear that much interest. It’s not a bad book, but it suffers in comparison to an earlier work with similar ideas and energy, namely, the movie “Galaxy Quest.” Like in “Galaxy Quest,” a cheesy scifi space-exploration show – like Star Trek at its most pro-forma – intrudes on the real world. In “Galaxy Quest,” there’s a pretty clever explanation as to why: an alien civilization gets our TV signals, sees the cheesy show, and bases its space exploration on it. “Redshirts” starts out with a somewhat more ambitious premise: the characters lives are being written, as they live, on Earth, as a cheesy scifi serial. So the characters – who are the sort of disposable lower-ranking officers who can be disposed of by scifi writers to show the danger of a given planet or other away team mission, the titular “redshirts” – go through some sort of wormhole and wind up in Hollywood, begging a bunch of low-rent network producers for their lives.
Scalzi’s not a bad storyteller, structurally speaking, does decent action scenes, brings the “mystery” of why the ship is so strange and so many people die along pretty well, and obviously knows his tropes. The problem is, he has too many indistinct characters and none of them really land. There are more redshirts in “Redshirts” than are necessary, except maybe insofar as to give them analogs in the real world and therefore cross-dimensional storylines- this one gets swapped out for a producer’s dying son, that one falls (platonically?) in love with the actor who plays him in our world, etc. I suppose it makes sense that only a few of the characters on the ship have any character – the main characters on the show, who survive numerous terrible incidents while the redshirts die all around them. But it’s a bit of a problem when the less fleshed-out characters are the characters in your book! And there’s seemingly at least one, upwards of three too many!
Those dorky little aliens in “Galaxy Quest” weren’t, like, Ibsen characters or something, but they had characteristics. The washed-up TV stars they drafted into helping them were pretty cliche, but they were well-written and funny. This is more than Scalzi manages for any of his characters in “Redshirts.” I’m probably making it sound worse than it is. Like I said, it wasn’t utterly without good characteristics. But if you’re going to work in a story groove that’s already been pretty well-worn – especially by one, well-loved work like “Galaxy Quest” – you really need to distinguish yourself, and “Redshirts” doesn’t do much to do that. But I guess that’s what the SFF public – or anyway, the SFF scene loudmouths who edit, publish, review, and give awards to books – want! ***
Peter Thiel, “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” (2014) – This is the last book I read of a series of seven unconventional right-wing books, books that in some sense were off the beaten path of conservatism, but reflected or were influential or parallel in some way… or anyway, a projected series. There doesn’t seem to be a good English translation of alleged Chinese state authoritarianism apologist Wang Huning out there, and the Unabomber Manifesto is really more of a pamphlet than a book, no more within my ambit of reviews than any single article.
I say all that to say this: Peter Thiel is probably the slimiest motherfucker out of those seven with which I started, which include a slavery apologist in the person of Thaddeus Russell and an actual murderer in the person of Ted Kaczynski. The depths to which Thiel would sink to accomplish his ends reach far below what a middling scribbler like Russell could manage, and his capacity for destruction is much more real than anything Kaczynski could have dreamt. And yet, I was probably the most on board with Thiel as I was with any of the writers I read in this series… for the first, maybe, quarter of “Zero to One,” his business manifesto, assembled out of notes his catamite and potential Arizona Senator Blake Masters took when Masters sat Thiel’s tech business class at Stanford.
At this point, contrarianism-posturers – and there is arguably no bigger or more historically important claimant to the throne of contrarian-philosopher than Peter Thiel – have to overcome reflexive skepticism from anyone who has noticed how contrived their postures and goofy their claims often are. But Thiel did manage some actually good and, in some ways, genuinely contrarian, in a good way, points, early in the book. The big one is that competition is not the boon to innovation that people think it is. Market competition does not lead to the best products- it leads to the products that can beat others at market, which is not the same thing. “He overstates his case,” I thought, reading it, “I know a lot of nerds and that’s just how they talk,” I reasoned, going over his pro-monopoly arguments. Monopolies can focus on their task, not on competition, and therefore prevent themselves from either pursuing illusory goals or simply competing away their whole profit margin. “If he could get that profit in and of itself is in large part the problem, we’d really be getting somewhere!” I figured.
ANNH! Buzzer noise, around a third or a quarter of the way in. It turns out that market competition is a bad way of assigning value not because of the warping effects of profit-taking, but because it involves the preferences of everybody, i.e., the stupid little people who don’t care enough about space travel and life extension technology. What you need are small, dedicated, elite bodies – like the founding core of a tech startup, Thiel tells us – willing to flout rules and conventions, truly “think different” (about things like “the diversity myth,” the title of another Thiel book, or obeying safety regulations), and achieve monopoly power. Only such people can get us out of our current demoralizing state, with ever-improving gadgetry and entertainment options, but basic needs failing to be met… that is, the basic needs of Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel needs space travel, because he’s a nerd, and he needs life extension, because he’s one of those chickenshit, profoundly hard to respect nerds who are terrified of natural death. What’s the matter, Pete? Death will eliminate the source of all your problems, the irritation you can’t be rid of despite your billions of dollars- it will eliminate you. Once it takes that turn, the book is useless, except as a guide to the thought of a man our society, in its wisdom, has imbued with absurd amounts of power and money. As far as I’m concerned, the closer the day he meets that big fear of his, the better. It certainly won’t leave the written word any poorer. *’
Avram Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix” (1969) – This was fun. Apparently, during what I’m told I’m not supposed to call “The Dark Ages” (though honestly, considering all the shit people say about the twentieth century, which say what you want about it, but cured a lot of diseases and put a man on the moon…), many Europeans believed that Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid, was a wizard of some renown! Old SFF hand Avram Davidson took that idea and made this story around it. Not only does he depict Vergil (he uses that spelling, apparently it’s gone back and forth) as a wizard, he depicts the world as a whole as having the confusion and geographical/historical inconsistency that a half-literate scribe scratching away in tenth-century Thuringia might give to it.
Vergil gets a job from a high-end lady: find her daughter, who went missing on the way to becoming an imperial concubine. To sweeten the pot, the lady steals Vergil’s potency! He doesn’t like that. He’s motivated. He has to create a mirror, and not just any mirror- a “virgin speculum.” This bronze mirror needs to be made in such a way that in the very instant of its ability to reflect light, Vergil can cast a spell and see where the daughter went. Mirrors were tricky enough for the ancients, I’m told, but a virgin speculum! That’s a whole thing. Vergil needs to secure tin and copper because normal bronze won’t do it, he needs his own bronze. Tin is a monopoly of Cornish chieftains, copper only comes from weird degenerated Aphrodite-worshiping Cypriots, the “Sea Huns” have given up their horses and taken to terrorizing the Mediterranean, so it’s pretty hard to get all that stuff. Meanwhile, there’s all kinds of mysterious hints as to where the daughter might be, and Vergil’s Phoenician friend who sails him around acts increasingly weird.
This is an agreeably shaggy, ponderous work, especially for a fairly short novel. It’s not hard to tell what’s going on but there’s also not the kind of handholding one gets used to in secondary world fantasies, especially contemporary ones. The world feels not just like there’s magic, but that it runs according to a magical logic. All too many stories with magic – and I can’t help but notice how the turn in this dynamic seems to have come with the popularization of games with magic systems, like Dungeons and Dragons – make magic seem like technology, a set of tools to use like any other, possibly dangerous but not really irrational, the world still works according to rules a Galileo or a Descartes could describe. It’s fun to see a world that isn’t like that, especially based on history. ****’
Kathy Acker, “Empire of the Senseless” (1988) – No less a figure than Sarah Schulman praised Kathy Acker big-time as the sort of transgressive, innovative figure you don’t get in the arts these days, as both cities like New York and San Francisco and the minds of their inhabitants take on capitalist bourgeois values. Schulman depicts Acker’s death in the late nineties as a great tragedy for American letters, the cutting off of a great young voice… It says something that you can still be “young” in literature at fifty, about the age Acker was at the time (she was vague about when exactly she was born), but Acker could be said to have “written young” – energetic, transgressive.
Certainly “transgressive,” if by that we mean “depicts things people would rather not have depicted, generally in less-than-easy-to-scan prose.” We come out the gate with pedophilia, incest, apocalypse. Thivai and Abhor, outlaws, cyborgs, sometimes-lovers, wander semi-post-apocalyptic Paris. We’re not sure exactly what they’re doing – that would be sensible, and that’s not the empire we’re in, as the title reminds us – but they’re after something and meet all kinds of characters whilst they’re after it.
Here’s the deal: it’s hard to shock people who grew up with the internet, or anyway, hard to shock them with –content–. You can sometimes get a content-tone combo, some disjunction, that can do the trick. I don’t claim to be unshockable. But writers like Ackerman at the tail end of the twentieth century who wanted to be shocking and relied on weirdness, edginess, or just randomness to do so… that doesn’t age well. As the back blurb of “Empire of the Senseless” puts it, “Navigating the chaotic city, they encounter mad doctors, prisoners, bikers, sailors, tattooists, terrorists, and prostitutes…” Terrorists, sure, you might not want to encounter. Mad doctors… well, depends how mad. The rest of them? Who sees tattooists as especially edgy or noteworthy these days, anymore than any other craft worker, like a chef or a bricklayer? I imagine you could drop this book in a high school library in many parts of this country, and if you alerted the school committee to its presence, they might put it on the list to ban… but they might not bother, either.
There’s also the way the first few chapters include basically part of the plot of “Neuromancer.” The characters join with youth gangs of “Panthers” to do a cyber-heist to aid an AI with a name based on “Winter-something.” Pretty blatant! Supposedly, this is the sort of thing Kathy Acker just did, a sort of “intertextual” practice, and there’s interviews with both William Gibson and Acker and Gibson doesn’t seem to mind. Still and all… kind of seems like New York artsy writers ripping off genre writers and getting high-class plaudits for it. Granted, this was a period where some from the critical establishment were trying to take on board the existence, and effervescence, of science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Both cyberpunk as a literary movement, and the sort of theory-inflected cool-kid vibe the cyberpunk-theorists were trying to pull off, dissipated into the general cultural churn soon after, but it was definitely a thing…
All told, not sure what to make of this. Acker definitely is doing something and she definitely had chops. But it’s hard to react to this as much other than a time capsule. I’m a historian- I like a good time capsule. But I don’t think that’s what Acker was trying for, and there’s limits to how much time capsule qua time capsule can hold my attention. I’ll try some more Acker sometime, especially as I don’t think I’m letting go of fin de siecle literature and history as a topic any time too soon. ***