Nalo Hopkinson, “Brown Girl in the Ring” (1998) – I gotta level with you all, readers: until maybe a month before I started this book, I thought it was about a brown girl living in a ring habitat, as seen in Larry Niven’s “Ringworld,” which I recently reviewed. This is why I paired that book with this in the election gimmick I did, where I had Citizens vote on themed pairs of books! I thought it would specifically show up the racism of classic scifi writers. Niven wasn’t the worst with that but he wasn’t the best, having contributed to the pretty racist “Lucifer’s Hammer” with Jerry Pournelle. I thought the brown girl would be in the ring and show all those engineering Marty Stu’s what for, or something.
This wasn’t that! It’s actually an old Carribean children’s song sung to a ring game kids would play. Many of the chapters are opened by the lyrics of similar games. It also stands for the ring around which semi-post-apocalypse Toronto, the setting of this novel, is surrounded. First Nations sued Ontario so bad they had to give up on its biggest city! The Toronto-dwellers are trapped. This was written in the nineties so maybe the city was a bit less tidy/gentrified than it is today… Arguably, “the ring” is also the ring of combat against the fate to which Ti-Jeanne, the titular girl, might otherwise be stuck in.
Ti-Jeanne is a young woman with a baby, a missing mother, a formidable grandmother who practices West Indian spirit magic, and a fuckboy ex-lover who has one foot in and one foot out of post-apocalypse Toronto’s gang scene. She doesn’t have it all that bad, as far as survivors of a trapped dead city go. You see a fair amount of the city going about its life, surviving in its ruin, making little farms and businesses and stuff.
Alas, Ti-Jeanne also has a tendency to see spirits, and the future. She’d rather not be involved with the spirit world of her grandmother, dreaming of running off to the burbs with her ex-, Tony, but the spirit world has its own idea. So, too, does the Prime Minister of Canada, who needs a heart. Despite the fact that they’ve perfected using pig organs in this future, the PM wants a human heart, for political reasons. So, her fixers contact the gangs in the Toronto wasteland for a fresh human heart. Guess who the gang boss, Rudy, jobs it out to? Tony, the fuckboy ex, who stole from Rudy to fund his drug habit! Fuck!!
Ti-Jeanne and her family come into conflict with Tony, who can never decide if he wants to use grandma Gros-Jeanne’s magic to disappear and escape, or to just cooperate with Rudy. Rudy, in turn, turns out to be a lot scarier (and more connected to Ti-Jeanne) than anyone figured, largely through the strength of using the dark side of the West Indian/Caribbean magical tradition, making zombies and enslaving duppies, the spirits of the dead. He wants to finish off the assorted Jeannes and consolidate his hold over Toronto.
Rudy comes for Tony and Ti-Jeanne, with gunmen and dark magic. Ti-Jeanne has to accept her role as a seer and ritual daughter of the spirit of the crossroads, even though it’s scary and weird. Good magic, in the fine old way, doesn’t help as directly as evil magic in scary situations, but evil magic comes with much higher costs.
In general, this was pretty fun. Some of the blurbs and what have you recommend reading it for social commentary, but I didn’t see much of that, beyond the idea that men are maybe a tad unreliable. I think people just say that about books with protagonists who aren’t white men, or upper class white women. It doesn’t need the answer to racism or a particularly innovative plot, when it has well-paced action, some good gore and spooky stuff, and cromulent characters. It can be a good, fun book, which is all anyone needs it to be. ****
Rosalie Knecht, “Who Is Vera Kelly?” (2018) (read aloud by Elisabeth Rodgers) – This one was a bit disappointing. I didn’t know a ton about it, probably found out about it from an LARB article or something, put it on my wishlist, got a copy for christmas or a birthday. It’s about a CIA lady spy in Buenos Aires in the sixties, the titular Vera Kelly. She’s no femme fatale or Bond Girl, she’s a bisexual woman from a tragic upper middle class family who gets picked up by the Company from the Greenwich Village gay scene. The blurbs didn’t give a super-involved description of what she’s up to in the book, but hey, Cold War Buenos Aires, spy shit, gay lady, sounds novel, let’s give it a try.
I suppose if I were to try to classify this, with my very non-exhaustive knowledge of the spy fiction genre, I would say it’s roughly in a le Carre mold. It’s more about the inner state of the spy and the spy’s interactions with others than it is about action and derring-do. I love all of the John le Carre I’ve read so I’m into the model, but it also seems harder to carry off than what Fleming, Ludlum etc were up to.
Vera is reasonably interesting. You hear a lot about her troubled upbringing. She’s on her own in Buenos Aires, setting up bugs to spy on politicians, students, and so on. She has a handler back up in Langley sending her money and instructions, but no real backup. A coup (a real one, that led to a military government takeover in 1966) comes around, and she’s betrayed by a local contact and has to figure out how to survive. She doesn’t seduce any enemies in the classic sexist spy lady way, but she is able to stay low to the ground by crashing with a hookup.
The big problem is that there is no compelling mystery and no compelling bad guys or side characters. The local who betrays her is just sort of uninteresting, a Peronist heavy. The students she spies on are stereotypes of fiery upper-class radicals of the Latin American stripe, and the hook-up she stays with is a gormless Texan dude (Vera is passionate about loving women, but dabbles with dudes). She has to get out of Buenos Aires. It takes some doing, but she does. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t great, and I was expecting more. Apparently she quits the Company and becomes a private eye in later installments? Maybe I’ll do another “let’s try this disappointing genre series again” election and put that on the ballot. ***
Max Chafkin, “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power” (2021) (read aloud by Will Damron) – I’m a little behind on reviews. This was a pretty good audiobook about a juicy subject, but god help me if I’m not stuck on one weird thing. Journalist Max Chafkin, in relating the story of billionaire tech investor and political wirepuller Peter Thiel’s childhood, to portray the boy Thiel as bullied. California in the seventies, Peter Thiel a weird, hostile, skinny nerd, not hard to believe. That said, the one example anecdote Chafkin could pull out was some of Thiel’s high school classmates going around their town, stealing “for sale” signs, and setting them up on Thiel’s house’s front yard in the night. They then asked Thiel when he got to school “hey, you’re moving?!”
I mean… that doesn’t sound that bad? That actually doesn’t sound bad at all? Sounds kind of goofy? Maybe if there was an implied threat, like, “you better leave town,” but Chafkin didn’t imply there was, and probably wouldn’t leave it unsaid if there was.
Beyond it just sticking in my head, why do I lead with this? Ultimately, I tell this story because it illustrates the ways in which Thiel was shaped — and then went on to shape himself — the myths and lacunae of late capitalist culture in the US. More than a bullied kid, Thiel seems like one of those kids who just doesn’t like anything, someone who never outgrew a sort of infantile colic (I’ve known kids like that- and other kids do wind up bullying them, in part because damn near any interaction with kids afflicted that way turn out to be experienced as bullying). It’s not quite depression, at least not as I know it, just a general disdain for and dissatisfaction towards the world. His parents, German immigrants, sound unpleasant, but not abusive. Who knows how people get that way? But “bullied nerd makes good, takes revenge” is part of the Silicon Valley myth. Thiel probably believes it- Chafkin, normally pretty perceptive, might have gotten taken for that ride, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Generation X lately, for my birthday lecture. They all thought they got dealt a pretty shitty hand, and it didn’t help that many of them came of age during the recession in the late eighties/early nineties, but really, it was about as good a time as any for a superficially smart white American with ideas and grudges. Thiel didn’t start out as a tech guy. He started out as a politics guy. In eighties Stanford, he edited a review, like the ones Anne Coulter had at Cornell and Dinesh D’Souza had at Dartmouth, dedicated to ponderous conservative essay-writing next to brazen bigoted provocation. More than promoting any policy agenda, Thiel just hated the culture around him, though even that is more myth than reality. Thiel said his issue was the permissiveness, hedonism, and lack of standards supposedly inherited from the sixties counterculture. But like… at Stanford? The most preppy school in Northern California? It wasn’t that countercultural, never was. Maybe hedonistic, in a lightweight collegiate way, but still. The point is, Thiel hated, and put himself in the script that allowed that hate to flourish.
He became a corporate lawyer in New York and tried to get into higher-end political law by clerking for federal judges. At some point he got sick of it, went back out west, and started a hedge fund. This was the mid-nineties, and one of his investment fields was online payment systems. You could say Thiel has a decent nose for opportunities. You’d probably be right, but again, it’s possible to overstate, and he’s banked on some weird shit over time too. Part of his motivation to look into moving money online was his anti-statism. He was a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon,” all about daring tech entrepreneurs chasing gold to make a non-state crypto-currency (I read that book myself several times as a teenager- these days, I’d say it’s mid-rank Stephenson). Eventually, all of this led to PayPal.
One interesting point Chafkin makes is the inflection point Thiel’s rise represents in internal Silicon Valley culture. There was always a ruthlessness there- it’s capitalism, and the military-industrial complex always had a major hand in the tech industry. But it was, if not tempered, then modulated by countercultural values and promises. Hippie bullshit didn’t stop Steve Jobs from being a dick to all and sundry (until some genius convinced him he could stop cancer with juice); it did stop him from crowing about it, and perhaps inflected the culture around his businesses, making for a mellower corporate culture. Chafkin depicts Thiel, whose original bugbear was hippies, as leading the turn away from this ethos, to the “move fast and break stuff” era. The counterculture-cyberculture lineage had a vision of a sort of techno-pastoral idyll as the end point – the anarcho-capitalist Thielian vision is more like rolling around a blasted Earth in a robot body, absorbing hippies and other lesser breeds for the energy in their blood. Ironically, both are meant to be visions of liberation.
Chafkin entertainingly relates the twists and turns in Thiel’s career. He fucked over Elon Musk — Musk spoke on the record about Thiel to Chafkin, seemingy in tones of wistful regret “but make it stupid” — and Meg Whitman at Ebay and whoever else he felt he could get a dollar out of. It’s a mistake to make too strong of a distinction between the hacker as hippie and the hacker as hateful nerd: both take glee in breaking rules, and Thiel certainly did plenty at PayPal. Say what you want about Apple, but it did and does make a product that people want, that’s different from what came before. Thiel was a pioneer of that other way to make a bundle: backdoor deregulating an industry, destroying competitors through the competitive advantages unpunished rule-breaking gives you, and establishing a monopoly. That’s what PayPal did, up to and including facilitating fraud and burning through millions of dollars of venture capital to lose money to hook people on their product. This is what a number of later Silicon Valley unicorns, most of which Thiel invested in, did and do as well- Uber, Airbnb, on and on.
It’s another myth, the myth of disruption. Disruption “works” in the sense of “succeeds” — within the structures we live in, you can make a lot of money doing it. Maybe that’s the typical Gen X thing- acting like exploiting what we already have is the supreme genius, and that trying to create something fundamentally different is the ultimate stupidity. In any event, Thiel also sought to “disrupt” politics. He took the same view of establishment politics as he did of the likes of Meg Whitman- Thiel may be pro-capitalism, but he hates most successful capitalists for being office creatures, not Randian entrepreneurial supermen like himself. There’s a conspiracy, you see, of intellectuals and administrators — the bad kind of nerds — to lord it over both normal people and, crucially, entrepreneurs and visionaries (good nerds, for those keeping score) through rules, regulations, and encouraging cultural values inimical to the people who (supposedly) create value. Thiel, and other Silicon Valley right-wingers like Balaji Srinivasan and Thiel’s court philosopher, Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin, think they can disrupt this government/academia/corporate complex the same way Uber disrupted taxis.
As it turns out, Thiel could do a lot in that vein, but not enough to satisfy. He could destroy Gawker for its cheek in covering him negatively (also, for violating his privacy in the matter of his sexuality — he was partially in the closet when Gawker publicly wrote about him being gay — but it seems clear he would have gone after them anyway). And he invested in Donald Trump’s political career back when everyone thought the alliance between the Silicon Valley giants and the Democratic Party would last forever. That’s one of his bigger “everyone thought he was crazy but he was right” moments. He celebrated the victory alongside his friend, openly racist blogger Moldbug Yarvin.
It wasn’t really to be, though. Disrupt something big enough, and you can’t control it. Something the old hippie capitalists could have told Thiel- at times, you need to surrender control, blah blah surfing, etc etc taoism. Needless to say, Trump’s personal style and that of Thiel did not mesh. Thiel didn’t succeed in his big goal of appointing his people on to various regulatory boards, in order to “destroy the administrative state” or whatever, really stick it to those bad nerds. You have to wonder… does he really not notice how sickly the regulatory state was already? Maybe half a regulatory state makes people even madder than a real one… but in any event, Trump couldn’t do whatever it is Thiel wanted him to do.
The world still irks Thiel. It makes sense, because the world still has the source of all of Peter Thiel’s troubles in it, in the form of Peter Thiel. He can’t understand that, though, so he has to pour everything into narcissistic fantasies: New Zealand bugout bunkers, seasteading, life extension. Thiel’s on record as saying that he sees death as the ultimate evil. Revealing my own personal biases, there are few postures I respect less than an exaggerated fear of natural death. Especially from someone, like Thiel, who quite clearly does not actually enjoy life! So yeah, uhh, this dude sucks. The way he sucks is interesting, somewhat. One funny thing about contemporary life: we’ve put so much power at in the hands of so few people, and have ensconced hierarchy and elitism so thoroughly in the structures of life, that there’s a certain extent to which a few key people really are crucial to the functioning of many key bodies, organizations, and movements. Get rid of Trump, Musk, Thiel, and it’s pretty clear there’s no replacement, not really- someone can take their offices, but not their mana. It’s not because they’re actually that smart, talented, or even charismatic. It’s just a function of how power works, now. You’d figure people would draw some obvious strategic conclusions from that… but that’s not Chafkin’s job, here. ****’
Larry Niven, “Ringworld” (1970) – The “soft versus hard” distinction in science fiction, like a lot of similar guidelines, should not be taken too seriously or schematically. Among other things, some of the most distinguished hard scifi writers can’t quite keep themselves from one or another magic-like technology: faster than light travel, various unobtaniums. And why shouldn’t they? Especially the “golden age” writers, who lived through so many technological developments that would have seemed like magic when they were kids? To me, the distinction seems to be more about what bases writers use for their speculation.
So, despite faster than light travel and various super-materials, I think it makes sense to call Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” hard scifi. I say all that less because the distinction is that important in and of itself, but because this is paradigmatic of the kind of scifi that begins with an engineering concept and works it’s way out from there. Larry Niven basically decided to one-up his buddy, the scientist Freeman Dyson. Dyson came up with the “Dyson sphere,” where super-advanced spacefaring civilizations could use all the matter not otherwise in use in their solar systems to encircle their suns in shells of matter, thereby absorbing all of the sun’s energy and unlocking limitless technological potentials (for everyone to sit around and browse the internet all day, later writers insisted). Niven said, why bother with the shell? Why not just a ring? A ring that encircles a star, with about the radius of Earth’s distance from the sun. You could implant all kinds of habitats on it and spin it. Bingo- trillions of square miles, all the room you’d need.
Ring habitats have since become a trope in science fiction, so I maybe didn’t have the same sense of wonder readers were supposed to get at the sheer scope of the idea when I read it (or the same feeling that the perspective characters were supposed to have encountering it). We only get to the ring about halfway through the book. First, a crew must be recruited by a member of a weird old muppet-looking alien race. It includes a member of a cat-people race whose culture is basically Klingon, and two inhabitants of post-scarcity spacefaring Earth, a bold rational enterprising man and a naive sexy lady who may or may not be preternaturally lucky. The muppet-alien wants to know what the deal is with an astronomical anomaly (in keeping with classic scifi, every alien race has one main characteristic, and for the “puppeteers” as they’re known, it’s caution that shades into cowardice). That anomaly is the ring.
Messed up by its automated defenses, the crew crash lands on the ring. The creators of the ring — or anyone with anything near the technological know-how to create such a stupendous artifact — are nowhere to be found. There’s oceans the size of planets, a massive eye construct, deadly laser plants, villages full of primitives who worship engineers as gods, etc. In order to get home, the crew needs to find out what happened to the “Ringworld engineers,” as they’re known. So there’s a whole series of adventures they have to go through to figure stuff out, the various alien representatives bickering all the while. Many of the adventures serve more to show off the features Niven came up with for his world — giant rotating shades to create the illusion of night and day! Hyperfast elevators to the top of the walls of the ring that the engineers could use! — than to advance the plot.
This was pretty fun scifi. Not mind-blowing, far from enlightened attitudes (especially about gender and about progress), but basically enjoyable. I’m aware Niven was one half of the genocide-fantasy-pair Niven and Pournelle and a big right-wonder, backer of Reagan’s “star wars,” and if you know how to read that stuff back it shows up here. There’s that weird sort of social-technological darwinism, that the most rational and enterprising people (ie, those most like scifi protagonists, ie, those most like how a lot of scifi writers fondly imagined themselves) develop the best tech so they beat everyone else, only laid low by cosmic accident, etc. Stick to that too rigorously and you can wind up some odd places. Still, it was pretty good for a recreational read. ****
Ann Patchett, “Bel Canto” (2001) – The main question this book raised for me was this: how to describe and rate a novel that has flawless prose, from sentence level to plot construction, but that is also, fundamentally, a little boring? That takes something notionally exciting — a hostage situation! wealthy socialites held by third world guerrillas! — and makes it, mostly, a site of examination for the personal regrets, cares, and in some cases growth of some of the hostages and hostage-takers?
Fine prose is one of the keys to Ann Patchett’s reputation. Another is her real lack of pretense. She hasn’t even got that sort of stuck up pretense of rebellion a lot of writers who manage to escape more conventional pretense wind up displaying. What you see is what you get. Patchett didn’t promise a deep, searing examination of the causes or effects of terrorism, of social stratification, or of anything else. She didn’t promise literary experiment. She told a story, and on a prose level, told it with unrivaled grace. There’s not even really any kind of prose pyrotechnics: just very clear, effective, elegant writing, every word in place.
There’s a theme, which is love. Love is put in extremis here. First, it’s a rich man’s love of opera. A Japanese executive, one of the richest men in the world, lets a small, impoverished Spanish-speaking nation bait him to a pitch meeting that the businessman doesn’t take seriously by getting the world’s greatest soprano to sing for him. The businessman is a big opera guy, you see. Once the terrorists take the dinner party over, love of art gets contrasted with the desire of the terrorists for revenge for various bad things their regime did, and the meaningless deaths that result. But the protracted siege allows hostage and hostage taker to come to some understandings. Love blossoms across these lines, and along them, little gesture of kindness depicted by Patchett with minute fineness and great emotional intelligence, especially for a scenario that could lend itself to laughable romanticism. The violence of the state comes along to take its own tax on love and humanity, but it goes on… for some, anyway.
Well… it’s not a bad plot. I didn’t find it especially compelling, especially as the characters, while elegantly sketched and differentiated, also weren’t super-interesting, and only had a limited range of action, given the circumstances Patchett put them in. I guess my main critique was that it’s almost too smooth. There’s no real “biting point,” nothing to chew on. Me and my eating metaphors! Surely, Patchett deserves a great deal of credit for her chops, in any event. ****’
Patricia Lockwood, “No One Is Talking About This” (2021) (read aloud by Kristen Sieh) – Well… I listened to this at a time where a fair few things came together for me. Whatever other effects this confluence had, it has made me very, very impatient with this book. I am informed, by people whose taste I respect, that Patricia Lockwood is a very talented writer, largely on the strength of her memoirs “Priestdaddy,” which I perhaps will one day read. I could see glimpses of it in this work, a smooth prose style and bits of humor. I have also been told she is a “master of Twitter.” This is probably part of the problem. I did not enjoy, like, or respect this book.
A friend of mine — a friend I’ve known exclusively online, if that matters, one I’ve known for years and shared writing and other intimacies with — did something extraordinarily self-destructive recently. His stated motivation for so doing, the way he went about it, and the formats in which he informed his friends, all simultaneously critiqued and reflected the sort of internet zeitgeist that seems to be one of the main topics of contemporary literary attention. His critique, and what he did in response, struck home not just for his perspicacity, though he is quite perceptive, or the extremity of his action, though it was quite extreme. It also struck home because at bottom, he and I are in similar positions- failed writer/intellectuals. People flinch from that word, “failed,” “failure” (like a certain other “f” word that I freely self-apply, “fat”). They point to my accomplishments, and they — I — point to his. They’re real. But there’s also no getting around the fact that neither my friend nor I can make a living from writing, academia, or any of the other societally-approved venues to cash out wordy oddballs.
So much for the material! I usually play straight man to this friend. In our dynamic, based as it is on discussing ideas and aesthetics, I’m the stolid one, considering the implications, striving for consistency, trying to be “real,” he’s the zany one, throwing such mundane concerns to the wind, even to the point where he’d dispute this characterization. No pigeon hole for him! Maybe this is the way to put it: I make statements; he makes gestures. Another way to put it: we discussed depression, once, and he told me some facts about narcissistic depression, the depression of people capable of making flashy gesture and big deals out of themselves (as you can tell, my psychological vocabulary is… impoverished), whereas my depression, my family’s depression, was more the self-obviating kind.
This friend would try to destroy himself all over again, I bet, before he accepted any kind of descriptor that said he, and his attempted last performance, were part of any kind of zeitgeist. Well, he doesn’t have to accept it. The thing that made me most angry as I read through his lengthy manifesto was the unsaid thesis: that he is above the real, above the quotidian. I answer emails about 3D printer failures forty hours a week, and try to eke out time for what I care about — writing, reading, organizing, fun time with friends and family — when I can. I can live with my failure to be a professional writer, and try to convert it into success, and this dude…
Well. This is not a request for an explainer on the realities of depression and suicide. I get it, please believe me, intellectually at least, and you’re hardly going to get me to grok it emotionally more than the last week or so already has, so please, please don’t try. Among other things, and here it’s hard to see how much my friend “meant it” — he is a long-term practitioner of the “Schrodinger’s Joke” — but his manifesto included instructions for his posthumous acclaim.
He’s not a “get famous or die trying” guy, exactly (he has invested a lot of energy in being hard to pin down). That’s made explaining this difficult, when I’ve tried to talk about what’s going on to other friends. I think it would be fair to say he is a “live in extraordinary fashion or try to die in extraordinary fashion” guy, or was, anyway. Surviving the experience seems to have woken him up to the fact that people care about him, and that living like the rest of us relatively-normie scrubs might indeed be preferable to death and mutilation.
So, getting back to “No One Is Talking About This” (including me for the last thousand plus words, hey-o!), it’s not a fame thing, exactly. It’s not an internet thing, exactly, though most of my friend’s relationships seem to take place there, and a good portion of his friend network do appear to be internet-damaged millennials. It’s a hands-up-thrown refusal of concrete reality that can’t, even, really commit to its own lack of commitment. That’s what I see, both in internet discourse and in the discourse about the discourse. Half-digested nth-generation tropes from continental ding dong philosophers who barely even meant it themselves, circulated and recirculated like old coins until even the names wear off… glibly talking like nothing is real and nothing is worth speaking seriously about even as they milk everything from derogated social media platforms to climate catastrophe for cheap bathos… well, my friend wasn’t down with that, either. And in his attempted final act, he tried to put some chits on a commitment, of sorts. But a commitment to what, exactly?
“No One Is Talking About This” is about an unnamed female narrator who becomes moderately famous via “The Portal,” i.e., Twitter, but, like seemingly everyone else who is connected to said social media platform, is unsure whether she likes it or hates it. It certainly has a profound effect on how she processes reality and communicates with others! This is gotten across in the text through a first half dominated by little vignettes, tweet-length remarks, no real plot, less “nods” or “winks” at James Joyce and more just Lockwood pointing openly at Joyce and saying “yeah, I’m doing that, but more so, because our TIME is just more so, you know?”
We do get a pivot to something like the real, due to a family crisis. The narrator has a family, the family has a crisis. It’s not really a plot, but it’s something other than a social media scroll (self-conscious, because, you know, we’re all so self-conscious now!!). That’s the thing… they really can’t manage either, these “we live in discourse hell” writers, whether fiction writers like Patricia Lockwood and Lauren Oyler or the legion of nonfiction commentators that shade into the overly-online people on your feed. They can’t do the all-pretend world that some cyber-boosters of the eighties and nineties promised, but they can’t really do the real, either. And they’ll insist that their inability mirrors a human inability, or at least a contemporary inability… and they’re not wrong. It’s an old theme and it’s been done reasonably well. What’s real, how much do our feelings determine at least the subjective reality of experience versus what’s “actually” in front of us blah blah blah.
Look- I’m not some “I fucking love science” dork or an objectivist. I’m a reader, trying to read something interesting. And “discourse hell” isn’t cutting it anymore, to the extent it ever did, and pivoting to noticing how hard it is to take a family tragedy totally seriously because you spend too much time online- that’s not gonna get you over, not with me, anyway. Maybe I should be able to do it. Maybe this really is “the human condition,” with an earned definite article and everything. Maybe every rejoinder I could make to that is a cliche about how we should read about Bangladeshi factory workers instead (it isn’t, but the internet smallfolk can make you feel that way, when they’re all saying the same shit- we are social apes, after all), maybe I’m the stupid, blockheaded socialist realist next to the beautiful thoughtful modernists in the thirties tableau (the latter already on their way to neoconservatism but later for that).
But I don’t think that’s how it is.
I said there was a confluence of factors that, perhaps unfairly to Lockwood, rendered me incapable of enjoying or respecting this book. One was my friend’s situation. Another, longer-term one, is that I am, sort of, recovering from depression. I’ve felt better the last few years than I have in a long time. Life is far from perfect, but I experience more feelings (and I’ll say it- whatever set me up for success in terms of family and friend support and talk therapy, antidepressants landed the most important blows). One of those is anger. I’ve gotten used to suppressing it, got used to thinking of it as a self-indulgent gesture of my adolescent self (which, when I was an adolescent, it often enough was). But let’s put it this way: I experience anger as impatience. And I can still be very, very patient, when the thing I am being asked to contribute is just time, or honest effort.
My patience for dishonesty, though, is gone. My patience for glibness is gone. Worn through. My patience for bullshit is mostly gone, the only thing keeping it from being entirely effaced is an appreciation for funny bullshit. You can do what you want. You can be as glib as you want, act as though it’s all just performance and I’m just doing a dishonest (hypocritical!) glibness myself. You can “cringe” (there, using it as a verb, not an adjective, like we’re supposed to). You can fuck off, or not. But I’m not doing it anymore. Not with Lockwood, who is intermittently funny but not funny enough, not here, and not with you.
Because on top of whatever else it is — genuine cris de coeur over authenticity! Artistic expression of your experience! Funny memes! — the glibness of the “we live in the hell of discourse” thing is intensely disrespectful. It does not live in peace, as I would live in peace with the internet people. It oversteps, by nature. It disrespects life, disrespects effort, personally disrespects everyone who tries to live something better than a shitty day on any given “hell site.” And they generally haven’t even got the integrity to admit that they are spitting in your face. A number of internet strangers recently, and at least one or two IRL acquaintances, have behaved disrespectfully to me, impugned my intelligence and my integrity, and, my patience gone, I asked or told them to stop, and I got earfuls about my “defensiveness.” “U mad, bro?!” gone to therapy. Fuck off. I see you, and I’m not playing. Not now, not anymore.
Ironically, my self-destructive friend discussed a fair amount of what I’m saying now in an essay of his on… well, notionally on David Foster Wallace, but really on the whole literary scene circa 2010, around when it was written. His major thesis is that because hipster writers (this is back when hipster discourse was a thing) live such cushy lives that they have no real suffering to write about, and so write about a fake suffering, the feeling of inauthenticity. I have a number of friendly critiques of that article but I think, if anything, the situation has degenerated since then, even if we’ve made the relative advance of ditching hipster discourse. Now, books like this one, and “Fake Accounts” and I tend to imagine many others, somehow manage to be “about” ever less, and to be corrosively hateful to even the possibility of being about anything at all, and somehow, somehow! managing to dump themselves into the same old same old of familial sentimentality or careerist pseudo-heroism in the end.
I can agree with the internet scribblers about this much- it is a discouraging picture. But I have a better solution than they have- turning the fucking page. The exigencies of my reading scheduling, a fun little game for me, has led to my next audiobook being about the Armenian militants who hunted down and shot the Turkish pashas who led the genocide against their people. A perfect palate-cleanser!
I turned definitively against this book after Lockwood, culminating a series of little jokes about how being political is stupid — I get the impression she is meant to be a somewhat serious leftist, who knows, I don’t care — belittled people’s reactions to the killing of Heather Heyer at Unite the Right in Charlottesville. A good friend of mine was a medic on the scene. She split a vuvuzela in half to manufacture a splint for someone’s broken leg. Why are we telling the story of some dumb internet person’s inability to be honest about their, or any, situation, again? Why are we telling it over and over again? I don’t care what a commie you think you are, this whole fucking business is fash nonsense.
What did we do when the altright manifested itself out of the discourse? We — the actually committed, the ones who know we’re imperfect and fucked up and still drag our asses out into the productive real, no matter how “cringe” it makes us — dragged it into reality and we kicked the shit out of it and now, no one, not even Richard Spencer, will admit to being altright. There’s still fascists, and we’re working on them, but that bridge burned, because we burned it. That’s the reality I’m interested in. That’s the reality I live in, and I’m not going to take disrespect for living in it, even — especially — if it’s sly, sneaky disrespect that acts like I’m just being “defensive.” Lockwood gets an extra half star over her rival, Oyler, for being funny, sometimes. But I’m done. Quite done. **
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “Mexican Gothic” (2020) (read aloud by by Frankie Corzo) – It’s hard to say many people benefited from covid, and I’m not really willing to say Canadian horror writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia was one, but her breakout novel, “Mexican Gothic,” fit the mood, found a literally captive audience, and became a big enough hit to make it to my “zeitgeisty reads” slot. It’s also basically “Get Out” Latin American, a novel, and considerably less deft than Jordan Peele’s hit horror-satire film. It’s a reasonably promising premise: a young Mexican ingenue in the fifties has to go rescue a lady cousin from the clutches of an evil house and the family that lives there and which the cousin married into.
Here’s the thing with the increasing awareness of a certain kind of history and politics among the sort of writers who, twenty-thirty years ago, would have made a point of not giving a shit: it can be used to score cheap points and cover over flaws in the execution of a work of art. It’s the closest the anti-PC crowd gets to a point when it comes to criticism, and fittingly, the baying hordes of anonymous commenters come closer — though not very close — to the truth of the matter than the notionally smarter contrarian essayists and podcasters paid to opine about it. It’s not some big conspiracy. It’s just fashion. So the ingenue is a girl-boss who never needs anyone’s help and always has a ready zinger- no innocent final girl here! The evil family are creepy British race science people, as though Mexico lacks its own oppressors and cooperators with foreign oppressors. That’s one thing Peele managed in “Get Out” that his many imitators have not- contemporary relevance and real strangeness. Given that he only had the suburbs to work with, that’s quite a feat.
The plot of “Mexican Gothic” is sufficiently by-the-numbers that if she was so inclined, Moreno-Garcia could probably argue it’s that way intentionally, as an homage to the cheesy horror we’re all supposed to love. There’s about as much feeling for being in either the 1950s, or in Mexico, or really in danger, as there is in any cheap period drama, or actually probably rather less, given there’s no set design to carry it off. Everyone talks like a contemporary person or a contemporary person’s bad parody, more worthy of a sarcastic tweet than a novel, of what various stock characters — the creepy racist, the bookish innocent — from the past would sound like. It wasn’t a terrible book. But it was mediocre and I have to figure covid-brain has something to do with its rapturous reception. **’
Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Mind” (1953) – There’s a big pull quote on most editions I’ve seen of this book — and there’s been lots, conservative presses keep it in print — by William Buckley, saying something like that the modern conservative movement would be inconceivable without Russell Kirk, and “The Conservative Mind” in particular. Like much of what Buckley says, it’s neither quite true nor quite lie. Russell Kirk was a funny little nerd, an accomplished horror writer, wikipedia tells me, along with being a conservative ideologue. His ideas on what conservatism meant were sufficiently heterodox that a lot of big names on the right registered serious disagreement with him, and with this book in particular. You have to figure the right-wing juggernaut of the second half of the American twentieth century could have missed one divisive nerd.
That said, there is some truth here. The fifties were a good time to be an anglophone pedant with a systematizing streak. A country that not twenty years earlier was suffering a massive depression and ideological ferment which led right, left, and center to borrow like mad from foreign sources was now, all of a sudden, the center of the world, the source of authority and economic value. That’s a weird set of circumstances to adjust to, and it was the guys on the spot — not necessarily the smartest guys (gendered pronoun used advisedly) with the best ideas — who got to take advantage of sitting on the commanding heights. On the liberal side of the fence, structural functionalist social scientists like Talcott Parsons were, so they thought, comprehending social reality and finding that it looked a lot like fifties America. Among leftists… well, there weren’t a lot left.
With conservatives, guys like Buckley’s pal Kirk had a similarly wide-open field to define conservatism. It might look like a thankless effort at the heyday of the liberal postwar order, when liberal social scientists like Daniel Bell were proclaiming “the end of ideology” and Lionel Trilling was calling conservatism less an ideology and more “an irritable mental gesture.” But it wasn’t. Buckley wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, but he was cunning, and he knew plenty of people hungered for the old prejudices, and that the liberal order had holes in its game a mile wide (if your best defenders are guys like Bell and Trilling, you’re in trouble). Arguably, the biggest problem he had was that the whole right of the political spectrum was associated with the Nazis, and in America with opponents of the New Deal and other popular liberal reforms, many of whom liked the Nazis until the Nazis forced them to pretend otherwise. You can go back and forth on whether Gore Vidal was right to call Buckley a “Nazi” (I typically don’t seriously call people that unless they hate the Jews- “fascist” does just as well). But it wasn’t a good look.
Russell Kirk, in what I imagine was a gormless, pedantic way, helped give Buckley and his coterie an out. Kirk waved his hand at the whole tradition of conservative, reactionary, and counter-revolutionary thought since the French Revolution and said that pretty much only the British and the Americans count. He lets Tocqueville in the door, an honorary Anglo-American, but that’s it. Hegel and anything he touches- out, his impious dialectics too divorced from traditional life, or something. Frenchmen like Maistre? Right out. A nice nod near the beginning and then shown the door. Certainly, no fascists need apply (in keeping with the custom at the time, and with Buckley’s own program, he could be more “nuanced” in support of slavery and the Confederacy), what with their “totalitarian” designs. The point of conservatism is to “CONSERVE,” remember??
Corey Robin tee’d up on this book and knocked it down so hard there’s very little redeeming any of its central arguments. The title of Robin’s breakout book, “The Reactionary Mind,” is a play on Kirk’s title, and gets at what actually animates the right: not “conserving” anything, but reacting to advances on the part of the lower orders of society. Robin did most of his work through the simple expedient of a thoroughgoing reading of figures Kirk thought he had a near-monopoly on, like Edmund Burke, and broadening his scope a smidgen to include people outside Kirk’s large but limited hall of fame. There’s a reason, between Robin’s work and the time that it reflects, the era between 9/11 and the Trump election, that “the point is to CONSERVE, it’s there in the NAME,” went from being common sense to a joke to everyone except a small clique (including a disproportionate number of op-ed writers, alas) of liberal-conservative dead-enders.
Well, that lonely gal Minerva’s owl tends to fly at dusk. To bring in another animal metaphor, Robin shut the barn door after the horse got out (arguably, in an effort to get us to… not ride horses? What would the metaphor here even be?). It’s unlikely that Kirk did it all on his own. Not that many people read his ponderous tome. But it helped establish a foothold for the idea that conservatism was genteel, thoughtful, and not at all scary, violent, or fascistic like the experience of the thirty or so years before 1953 might indicate. He defined the Scotsman in such a way that Buckley’s new club could deny entry to anyone who would make the new conservative movement look bad (including actual Scotsman and major right-wing thinker Thomas Carlyle- kind of hard to imagine a meaningful history of conservatism without him, but people like Isaiah Berlin were saying he was a fascist progenitor at the time, so best to leave him out).
Mutatis mutandis, “The Conservative Mind” presents conservatism as the sort of thing Buckley could sell to Anglo-American audiences at the time, a collection of gentlemen standing athwart history yelling “stop!” No-good philosophers, soulless bureaucrats, and the dumb masses that follow them want to tear down all that’s good in the world and replace it with abstractions, which inevitably leads to terror. What’s needed is a few good men grounded in reality to fight a rearguard action against them and salvage what they can to keep civilization going. How to create a whole ideology out of the particulars of a given reality that spans time and space? Well, Kirk doesn’t really answer that very well. Mostly he punts to religion, which is a non-answer as his conservative minds, if they were born two hundred years earlier, would have been co-signing the slaughter of their fellow conservatives because they called it “church” instead of “mass.” But this was Eisenhower-era America, which saw the promulgation of “Judeo-Christianity” as a bulwark against the left. It could play then. And Kirk also throws out enough stuff about how conservatism promotes individuality, and liberalism/leftism supposedly doesn’t, that it fit in with Buckley’s aim to make American conservatism seem cool and rebellious. It played- it shouldn’t have, but it did.
You’d think a book with this kind of agenda, and that was wrong about its major points, and that was written by a man motivated by deep pedantry and ideological fervor, would be bad. Well, in many respects it is. But I actually enjoyed a lot of it. Kirk really did go deep, in his vein. He told interesting, if often bathos-laden, stories of interesting figures. Being forced to stick to Brits and Americans, he had to go rummaging around to fill the bench out. So we get the stories of weirdos and assholes like John Randolph of Roanoke, Fisher Ames, Orestes Brownson, assorted Lords who farted out some essays about how revolutionary France was bad before overdosing on laudanum and beef. They’re genuinely interesting. He sent me to wikipedia time and again to learn what this or that old-timey politician, philosopher, or faction was. I like that kind of read (I never get why people nowadays have an issue with references to figures or words they don’t know, when they carry the internet in their pocket).
That’s not to say that “The Conservative Mind” also didn’t irritate me. I’m also a pedant and have trouble sitting through presentations of dumb ideas peaceably. Kirk tries to carry his argument with a high-serious tonality — another artifact that reminded me of the War on Terror era — and yields a patronizing head pat from anyone who knows better. And, of course, he was writing this as the Civil Rights struggle started. He sort of waffles about slavery. He was a northerner, he doesn’t find it good, and he embraces at least some anti-slavery figures, including John Quincy Adams. But he puts himself in the hands of the Dunning School — abolitionists were fanatics, ala the sans-culottes, and Reconstruction was a corrupt failure — and trusts the cliches Dunning at al taught to generations of American schoolchildren to get him through to his readers. I imagine they heard him loud and clear.
But my star ratings come from goodreads, originally, and goodreads says they’re based on enjoyment. I put this in a similar category to David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed.” Every now and again people ask me if I’ve read it. As the askers are perhaps impressed by the book’s heft and range of research, I have to let them down gently when I tell them that its thesis — that American culture, from 1609 on down, is defined by four (4) British subcultures with no meaningful change or even mixture or adaptation in the intervening four centuries of epochal historical change — is ludicrous, the kind of thing Fischer could not have published even ten years later. But- I keep my copy of it around, because it’s kind of a fun “let’s dip in and see how Scots-Irish ‘folkways’ surrounding childcare differed from equivalent Quaker ways” sort of book. Just don’t take it seriously. It’s the same here. Read for the stories of drunken swaggering “orator” John Randolph of Roanoke or T.S. Eliot transforming himself from Tom from Saint Louis into aged sage Tiresias, you probably don’t need to take the whole thing at one go. ****
Charles Gallagher, “The Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front” (2021) – A member of my dissertation committee wrote this! It’s a fascinating story along with one that illuminates various odd corners of history with academic chops, a rare combo. I know a fair amount about the history of fascism, and I knew very little about the Christian Front- and nobody knew some of the stuff Charlie, as I know him, uncovered before he published it.
The Christian Front was, basically, the street instantiation of the vision of American Catholic fascists like Charles Coughlin, a sort of radio-based catholic Glenn Beck figure for the thirties. Catholic meatheads flocked to Coughlin’s message and sought out conflict with the many enemy figures Coughlin pointed them to: communists (also a growing movement in the thirties), liberals, Jews. It was a weird moment in Catholic America, and here we’re mostly talking Irish Catholics though Italians, Poles etc come up sometimes too. Catholics were sort of outsider-insiders. They had been around for long enough, had dense enough populations especially in northern cities, and done enough of the assimilationist things — Charlie especially emphasizes Catholic participation in the American effort in the First World War — that they felt some ownership in Americanism. But this period saw the rise of an Americanism that was explicitly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, as exemplified by the resurgent KKK of the twenties, and a crippling economic depression. Perhaps it looked like they were, to borrow a line from a guy Christian Fronters wouldn’t have liked, assimilating into a burning house.
None of the Fronters say that- they’re all flag-waving Americans, even when they’re actively undermining American war efforts as some of them would go on to do. If nothing else, it’s hard to say what exactly an American Catholic anti-Americanism would look like… they’re hardly going to secede… in any event! The Christian Front became a thing on the scene, especially in New York and Boston, brawling with leftist groups, making speeches back when street corner speechifying was a big deal. There was already a custom of neighborhood conflict that you could paste an ideological skin on to.
One thing about eras of ideological ferment — the thirties, the sixties, right now — is that they allow nerds, goons, and pedants to take the things they’d do normally and dream of expanding them in terms of scope and importance. The brawls between Irish and Jewish kids suddenly aren’t just scraps between poor ethnics stuffed like rats into overcrowded cities, but part of some global conflict between Christianity and judeo-bolshevism; your clique of nerds and weirdos that you met in college aren’t just free-standing public assholes but a revolutionary vanguard. You can see why Christian Front people would think they could get real big, real fast. They had a deep well of American hatred and ignorance to tap into, and the classic fash assurance that the cops and the military are with them. So when a few got too big for their britches and started stealing and training with National Guard weapons, they were as surprised as anyone when they got pinched by the FBI.
The prosecution of the New York Christian Fronters has two main points of interest. The first is how the American Catholic establishment, both the actual church itself and politicians aligned with it, moved heaven and earth to get across two things: the Christian Front was no real threat; and that they had nothing official to do with the Church. Both are funny claims, true in some ways, but more revealing of how people in power understood political violence in this period than anything else.
The Christian Front was extremely unlikely to overthrow the American government, like Hoover’s FBI informants caught them saying they wanted to. That the FBI insisted on going after them for this — and not, say, for their many plans to indiscriminately attack Jewish targets, in the idea this would bring about a communist uprising that the Front would then help their pals in the police and the army repress — speaks to their priorities. Fascists are right that cops share a lot of their views (with soldiers, it usually depends on the makeup of the service in question). What they get caught up on is a powerful police service usually sees street fash as cats paws, at best, and have no intention of taking orders from them. Hoover’s FBI was quite strong- perhaps not as professional as it would eventually become, but Hoover felt no need to bend the knee to any would-be fuhrer. They don’t care that much if you bash up people they don’t like- they do care if you overstep, make more work for them.
The “are they Catholic?” part also has interesting historical questions attached. Charlie is a Jesuit along with being a historian, and an expert on the history of American Catholicism. In the fine Jesuit tradition, he does not evade intellectual responsibility: the Fronters were deeply invested in two Catholic doctrines that are either unpopular or officially derogated now, but were big deals at the time. One is the idea of the “mystical body of Christ,” that all Catholics are part of one body, and an injury to one is an injury to all, and to God. The other is “Catholic action,” which held that even if lay Catholics doing good works in the world couldn’t formally lay claim to the mana of the apostolic succession like priests could, they could claim to be doing the church’s work and deserve some kind of institutional recognition as such. Sometimes, these ideas inspired charity or even solidarity. Other times, they inspired fascism. American Catholics couldn’t claim to be systematically oppressed by the time the thirties came around, but as part of a “mystical body” with Russian, Mexican, or Spanish Catholics catching hell from leftists, they could take “Catholic action” and lash out at the supposed oppressors, and this usually meant Jews.
So, the church fathers and their political friends could tell the truth- no bishop made the New York Christian Front plan to bomb Jewish community centers. But they were wrong to say that the Front had nothing to do with Catholicism. The FBI flubbed the prosecution of the New York Front leaders, but they went relatively quiet after that. Much of the action, in the Front and in the book, shifted to Boston. In characteristic Boston fashion, the leader was less of a street orator and more of a pedant and a sneak. What Francis Moran’s plans lacked in outward violence compared to his New York comrades, they made up for in ambition and sly interweaving with existent community practices in the Boston area.
Francis Moran was a failed priest and failed businessman, a classic smart underachiever. If you think those sorts are bad now, throw in growing up in the urban overcrowding and sexual repression of the Catholic American milieu at the time and you’ve got Moran. He got into the Coughlin movement and found a talent for organizing and public speaking. He made the Christian Front into a local organizing force, getting at least implicit nods from big politicians like James Curley. He, like the New York Fronters, was lucky in his choice of prosecutors, bumbling Irish-American political cops who more than half agreed with him about Jews and leftists.
The war was probably the worst thing to happen to all of these little fash chieftains, and before it happened, before even aligning with Hitler, they wanted to make sure no such thing happened. In fact, this was a substantial part of their appeal. It’s a historical tragedy that the American people almost learned a lesson from the First World War — don’t let the British gull you into winning their stupid imperialist wars for them — just in time for the one time in history when that lesson was, in fact, invalid. A lot of people were slow to pick up that Nazi Germany was a different beast than the Kaiserreich (and yes, I get the latter was no picnic either, I’m a socialist), didn’t want to believe it. And of course, plenty thought that the Nazi program sounded good. But once the war was on, it was pretty hard to sustain American patriotism — which all of the fash groups, then as now, lay at least some claim to — while supporting other fascists, to say nothing of the massive expansion of police power that came with.
One of Charlie’s big discoveries is that Moran was working with the Nazi consul in Boston, a creepy SS intellectual named Herbert Stoltz. There were limits to what Gallagher could find or what Moran could provide- it mostly looks like Stoltz cultivated Moran as a potentially useful asset to sow discord in an important population center, should the US go to war. It seems that both the FBI and antifascist researchers — led by an indefatigable Irish-American Catholic leftist, Frances Sweeney — had at least some evidence that this was the case, but were unable (or, perhaps, in the FBI’s case, unwilling) to bring Moran down, especially after the Boston cops muddied the waters. Moran might have passed on intelligence, but more than anything it looks like Stoltz valued Moran as a political actor, a counterweight to pressure for America to join the war on the British side, and to spread a mood of defeatism and general shittiness that would make America less effective if it did jump in.
Charlie also discovered that the Nazis weren’t the only foreign intelligence agency active in Boston at the time. British intelligence also funded political groups to bring America into the war, precisely the sort of thing Moran and others crowed about. The British intelligence and foreign policy establishment were especially worried about Irish-Americans impeding the political campaign for intervention and possibly the war effort itself. They set up Irish American groups to try to counter groups like the Christian Front, with little success. Frances Sweeney got her start working for an MI-6-funded front group, though she continued pursuing Boston fascists well after the British got what they wanted, American involvement in the war, and gave up funding local antifascism.
Likely Moran’s most lasting legacy — he left politics in the forties, never recanted, and lived out his days as a reference librarian at the Boston Public Library — was his work to radicalize the already extant antisemitism of the Boston Irish. This, more than anything involving the war, is what local antifascists like Frances Sweeney were fighting hard to abate. There was serious antisemitic violence in Boston in 1943, as mostly Irish-American gangs coordinated attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, aided and abetted by the largely Irish Boston Police Department, and ignored by the largely Irish-American political leadership of the city. Evidence Charlie dug up, including statements Moran made to FBI and antifascist infiltrators, suggests that Moran worked hard from underground to encourage this violence to go from the endemic condition of urban life to serious, planned assaults. Things only cooled down once the national media started paying attention.
One of Moran’s last recorded political statements was that he thought the returning veterans of the war would join him in sorting out “the Jewish problem.” Perhaps this is why he felt comfortable taking the heat off the Boston burner after the riots in 1943. It didn’t quite work out that way for him. But in other respects, Moran accomplished a good amount of what he set out to. He helped sew antisemitism into the fabric of twentieth century Catholic life in the area, and helped make a pigheaded authoritarianism a prime expression of Boston Catholic identity, especially among the Irish. It might sound like the community didn’t need much help with that, and there’s truth to that crack. But the twentieth century put a lot of pressure on the circuit between bigotry, conservatism, and ethnic identity in the US, and things could have gone a different way. What Moran showed was that you could get away with a lot, as a white bigot, through sly cultivation of publicity and politicians, playing that half-blind wrestling ref that is mainstream liberalism for all that it’s worth.
What this reminded me of was, in part, the fascists I fight here, but more the population base they seek to reach: those sullen pasty faces in the suburbs, the progeny of the mobs Moran once moved, feeling that glowering itch to stamp out anything or anyone who would make the world better than a bad night at one of their shitty sports bars. It’s up to us to disconnect the circuit between their resentments and the ability to harm others, once and for all. This book doesn’t show us how, or purports to, but it’s a fascinating read with some unfortunate contemporary resonances. *****
Jo Walton, “The Just City” (2015) (read aloud by Noah Michael Levine) – This is a weird one! A compelling premise: the goddess Athena uses time travel to try to create “the just city” as described in Plato’s “Republic”! She finds three hundred Platonist “masters” from across time, including his names such as Cicero and Marsilio Ficino (no word on if Leo Strauss made the cut- he may never have prayed to Athena, which was part of the deal). She buys ten thousand and change slave children who can speak Greek! Her masters raid time for books and inspiring works of art, and they get some robots to do a lot of grunt work. They set up on the Mediterranean island that would inspire the Atlantis myth, way back BC, and then they just go to town!
Jo Walton, a stalwart of the scifi/fantasy world with numerous acclaimed books to her name, gives us three viewpoint characters. One is Maia, who starts out as a classics-loving Victorian spinster and gets zapped to the Just City to become a Master. The one who gets the most screen time is Simmea, who we see go from a terrified slave girl to one of the Guardians destined to become a philosopher queen. And then there’s a few chapters from the perspective of Apollo, who consults with Athena about her scheme and, for reasons of his own, manifests as a mortal child and gets picked up into the city to be raised with the other kids.
I’m all about people with too much power and too many ideas trying to instantiate their loopy visions and stepping on the rake of circumstances. This is sort of that. Really, things go better for our Platonist friends than you’d have any reason to expect. Sure, it’s hard to keep 10,080 (Plotinus insisted, it’s a magic number) ten year olds in line, but it’s easier when you have robots to help, and the kids are grateful for not being slaves anymore (mostly). The kids develop mind, body, and soul in the Plato-approved pattern. They live in beautiful gardens and dorms named after “the great cities of civilization” with artworks time-zapped to the island before they got destroyed (one wonders what artworks they grabbed for “Novus Erboricum” — all Latin and Greek here! — before the big apple bought it, or if it wasn’t considered “civilized” enough). Life’s not too bad.
But there’s questions… questions of freedom. I try not to reduce these reviews to ideological critique. And I try to appreciate what various ideologies can bring to the literary table. I think it’s fair to say that Walton hails from the moderate wing of the geek liberalism that dominates the speculative fiction field, comfortable within its walls but always peering over them at the wild chuds outside, after winning the “puppygate” conflicts a few years back (around the time “The Just City” was being written). Truth be told, a lot of these people are sore winners, quite capable of being as vindictive — complete with internet harassment campaigns — towards people who don’t toe their line as the “puppie” factions were. We used to associate extreme behavior with fans of extreme culture. Now, the nastiest fuckers fight and fuck people over for anodyne culture: for SUVs and child beauty pageants on the chud right, for Whedon quipfests and corporate pride on the useless liberal center. Weird time.
Anyhoo! I don’t know how much any of that is Walton’s scene- her big intervention during the Puppygate era was an extended series of essays on the Hugo’s histories, which I dipped into and found even-handed and completist- old-school geek virtues, and the woman is an old-school geek. The point is, the questions in this book circulate around a framework that I think manages to, at one and the same time, speak to the issues of freedom such an experiment would involve, place her firmly in the zeitgeist of the contemporary geek-liberal camp, and also miss a fair a few points while really “grokking” others.
This, of course, is consent. Apollo joins the project because he doesn’t get why a nymph would disdain his attentions so bad she’d pray to his sister, Artemis, to become a tree. Artemis doesn’t say, so he incarnates as a human boy to play Athena’s game. The slave kids might be “free” once the masters buy them- but A. the masters still buy slaves, supporting the Mediterranean slave market and B. the kids can’t leave, or really go against the masters’ platonic program. Most of them don’t want to, but some of them do, and more and more of them resent the program as they get older. Some of the masters don’t get consent very well, as an encounter between Maia and a Renaissance figure shows, in a harrowing scene that doesn’t seem to amount to much after it happens?
I think that, in any encounter between classical civilization and people from considerably further down the time track — like us as readers — consent, and the different valuations we put on it, is an important thing to consider. Sometimes, I wonder if “golden age” scifi doesn’t hit like it does because, whatever else it had, it had sort of a shruggy and smirky attitude about consent in a way that I think a fair few of the writers would have thought was following fine classical fashion (when it wasn’t doing straight up rape fantasy, like the Gor novels). It’s too much to say that the Athenians of Plato’s time had no concept of consent. But it did not have the same valuations as it has here and now. This is something I tend to think of as an improvement between now and then.
Walton takes the conversation into some interesting places, and some less interesting ones. Not much happens to people who undertake sexual assault in the city. Half of the masters are women — as Walton points out, there’s good reason for women in eras where they weren’t allowed to do much intellectually on their own to be attracted to Plato’s vision, which did not formally distinguish between male and female masters — and you’d figure maybe they’d do something when one of their own was assaulted? But nothing happens with that.
In another set piece on the consent question, once the kids are sixteen, the masters follow the recommendation in The Republic: they divvy the kids up into classes, led by the Golds, the ones who could become guardians, philosopher kings, steer the city. In each class, the kids are then randomly chosen to have sex during fertility rituals. This is meant to secure a supply of children. You’re supposed to be more or less celibate except for that! You can do platonic “agape” but not any kind of erotic business. It’s weird! All these kids doing it (or not) out of “duty.” What the kids don’t know — they’re not supposed to read The Republic until they turn fifty! — is that the masters do a “noble lie” and match the kids up via eugenical scheming, only saying it’s random. Of course, kids go out to the woods to do their illicit liaisons.
At around this time, who shows up in the city but Socrates! It was unclear to me, but apparently Athena summoned him there to teach the kids rhetoric. Of course, he does his Socratic thing, asking questions. He actually thinks his student Plato was a bit of a weirdo. And also, the robots — called through most of the book “the workers” — start acting a little odd. Our man Socrates learns to communicate with them, because it turns out some of them have become conscious! Uh oh!
As it turns out, it’s all about consent and self-actualization, for people, and robots. Everyone wants a chance to be their own best self, as the Just City promises, and they also want to choose to do so, and decide what their best self actually is And here’s the deal: I absolutely agree! Here’s the other half of the deal: not the most interesting point you can make and ignores the presence of beings who can literally reverse time, among other powers! To say nothing of basing your whole civilization on a dude with distinctly different ideas, and having a lot of your leaders come from that end of the timeline. It’s not clear exactly what Athena, Apollo, and the rest can and can’t do. They’re not omnipotent, like YHWH supposedly is. Their dad might be, but they aren’t. But still!
It’s not so much that I think the existence of gods obviates consent, either for sex or for labor. Any god you like could say it didn’t, and I would tell any god you like that I live according to what I think is right, not them. I just think you’d get a different set of arguments other than Socrates owning the goddess with Reason and Logic until she resorts to force, in this situation. This dynamic — not isolated to the last confrontation, but in a few other places too — undermines the more intriguing elements of the book, in my opinion. Not fatally, but enough to make me wonder. Anyway! I’ll probably pick up the sequel, some time. ****