Category Archives: what I’m reading

A Few Things

Summer Blogging Update     Several posts ago, I announced my summer blogging plans; I then dutifully followed up with a three-part series on memory, history, and forgetting in fairly quick succession. And then … well, nothing for two weeks. That’s largely due to the fact that my next series of posts, which will be a deep dive into postmodernism—what it is, what it was, what it isn’t, and why most of the people using the word in the media these days have no idea what they’re talking about—has been taking somewhat longer to write than I’d planned. Actually, that isn’t entirely true: the second and third installments are all but completed, and I’ve gotten a healthy start on the third and fourth, but the introductory post is taking longer (and is getting longer). I am optimistic that I will have it done by the end of the weekend, however, so hopefully Phase Two of My Ambitious Posts No One Will Read will soon commence.

What I’ve Watched     A few weeks ago I binged the series Rutherford Falls on Amazon Prime. I’d read some positive reviews of it and heard good things via NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (always a reliable guide); the show is also co-created by Michael Schur, a showrunner who, in my opinion, has been batting 1.000 for years: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place. But what’s particularly notable about Rutherford Falls is that the premise of the show is rooted in the relationship in the titular town between its indigenous and non-indigenous townsfolk. The series was co-created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, a Navajo screenwriter and filmmaker. The writers’ room is also well represented with Native American writers, and the cast is remarkable.

Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding.

Ed Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, a scion of the family that gives the town its name, and who is about the most Ed Helms character I’ve yet seen—a painfully earnest and well-meaning but frequently clueless fellow whose entire sense of self is bound up in his family’s history and that of the town. He runs a museum-ish space in his ancestral home. His best friend is Reagan (Jana Schmieding), a member of the (fictional) Minishonka Nation who is more or less persona non grata in her Native community because she left her fiancée at the altar a number of years before and instead went and did her masters degree at Northwestern. She runs—or attempts to run—a “cultural center” inside the local casino, which is owned by Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), the de facto leader of the Minishonka community.

The show is hilarious, but is also quite comfortable in its own skin (so to speak)—it engages with difficult issues of Native history, white entitlement and appropriation of Native culture, the memorialization of settler culture (the precipitating crisis is when the town’s African-American mayor seeks to remove a statue of the town’s founding Rutherford in the town square, not because it’s a symbol of colonialism, but because cars keep crashing into it), and the fraught navigation by Terry Thomas of American capitalism as a means of accruing power and influence for his people—all without ever losing its humour or coming across as pedantic. A key moment comes in the fourth episode, when an NPR podcaster, having sniffed out that there might be a story in this sleepy town, interviews Terry. He asks him how he reconciles the contradiction of running a casino—the epitome of capitalistic graft—with his own Native identity. Terry, who had been answering the podcaster’s questions with a politician’s practiced smoothness, reaches out and pauses the recorder—and then proceeds, in a stern but not-angry voice, to school the well-meaning NPR hipster on precisely how the casino is consonant with Native values because it is not about the accrual of wealth for wealth’s sake, but for the benefit of a community that has long been marginalized. He then hits play again, and resumes his breezy tone for the rest of the interview.

It is a bravura performance; indeed, Michael Greyeyes is the series’ great revelation. A Canadian-born actor of the Cree Nation, he has long been a staple in Canadian and American indigenous film, or film and television featuring indigenous characters, and has (at least in most of the stuff I’ve seen him in) tended to play stern, brooding, or dangerous characters. So it is a joy to see him show off his comedic talents. His best line? When arguing with Nathan Rutherford over the historical accuracy of a costume he wants him to wear in his planned historical theme park, he says in exasperation, “Our market research shows that the average American’s understanding of history can be boiled down to seven concepts: George Washington, the flag, Independence Day, Independence Day the movie, MLK, Forrest Gump, and butter churns.”

What I’m Currently Watching     Well, we just watched the season four finale of The Handmaid’s Tale last night, and I’m going to need a while to process that. And we watched the series premier of Loki, which looks promising—largely on the basis of the fact that a Tom Hiddleston / Owen Wilson buddy comedy is unlikely to disappoint no matter what is done to it.

F. Murray Abraham, Danny Pudi, David Hornsby, Rob McElhenney, and Charlotte Nicdao

But the show we’re loving right now beyond what is strictly rational is the second season of Mythic Quest on AppleTV. For the unfamiliar: it’s the creation of Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, the folks who brought you It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; the series is a workplace comedy set in the offices of a video game called Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, an MMORPG along the lines of World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls. McElhenney plays the game’s creator and mastermind Ian (pronounced “Ion”) Grimm, a self-styled visionary who is sort of a cross between Steve Jobs and a lifestyle guru. Charlotte Nicdao plays Poppy, the perennially anxious and high-strung lead engineer who is responsible for turning Ian’s (again, pronounced “Ion”) ideas into workable code. Danny Pudi, who most famously played Abed in Community, is Brad, the “head of monetization,” and is delightfully cast here as a kind of anti-Abed who knows little and cares less about pop culture and video gaming and is only concerned about how he can wring every last cent out of the game’s devoted players. And F. Murray Abraham—yes, Salieri himself—plays the game’s head writer, washed-up SF author C.W. Longbottom, a lascivious alcoholic whose sole claim to fame (to which he clings like a barnacle) is having won a Nebula award in the early 1970s.

That combination of characters alone is a selling point—but the show is also incredibly smart, and also—just when you least expect it—deeply emotional.

What I’m Reading     At this point in the early summer as I scramble to use my time to complete at least one article before September, as well as move my summer blogging project forward (to say nothing of starting on course prep for the Fall), the question feels a little more like what am I not reading.

But that’s all business. My pleasure reading of the moment is a trilogy by M.R. Carey. Carey wrote the brilliant zombie apocalypse novel The Girl With all the Gifts—which was made into a quite good film starring Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton—and its companion novel set in the same world The Boy on the Bridge. One of my grad students this past semester alerted me to the fact that Carey had recently published a series set in another post-apocalyptic scenario. The “Ramparts Trilogy”—comprised of the novels The Book of Koli, The Trials of Koli, and The Fall of Koli—isn’t really a trilogy per se. The novels were all released within several months of each other, suggesting that “Ramparts” was really more of 1000+ page novel that the publisher chose to release in serial form rather than all at once.

Like the other Carey novels I’ve read, the Koli books are post-apocalyptic, set in an England some three to four centuries after humanity more or less obliterated itself in “the Unfinished War.” It is a word in which humanity has been reduced to a mere handful of its former numbers, and everything in nature now seems to be intent on killing the remaining survivors. Human manipulation of trees and vegetation to make them grow faster as part of an effort of reverse climate change has resulted in hostile forests: only on cold or overcast days can anyone walk among the trees without them snaring them with their tendrils. Any wood cut has to be “cured” in saline vats to kill it before it can be used as lumber. And the animal life that has evolved to live in such an environment is equally dangerous.

Koli is, at the start of the novels, an earnest if slightly dim fifteen-year old living in the village of Mythen Rood in the Calder Valley in the northwest of what was once England. His family are woodsmiths; Mythen Rood is protects by the Ramparts, villagers who can use the tech of the old world—a flamethrower, a guided bolt-gun, a “cutter,” which emits an invisible cutting beam, and a database that offers up helpful but cryptic knowledge and information from the old world.

There is much tech left over from the old world, but most of it is useless. Koli’s story essentially begins when he becomes obsessed with “waking” a piece of tech and joining the ranks of the Ramparts.

And that’s all I’ll tell you of the story: suffice to say, with one-third of the last novel to go, I am captivated by both the story Carey tells and the potential future he envisions.

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading     I first heard of Heather McGhee two or three years ago when she was interviewed on one of the political podcasts I listen to. She was then the president of Demos, a progressive think-tank focused on race and economics and strategies to strengthen American democracy; I was immediately impressed by how clearly and articulately she broke down the inextricability of race and economic policy, and the ways in which Republicans have successfully sold the idea to white voters of government spending as a zero-sum game in which every dollar that goes to help Black people and minorities is a dollar taken from them—and that government programs that help non-wealthy whites  are somehow stealing from them to benefit inner-city Blacks. And hence, non-wealthy whites have become reliable Republican voters who vote against the own interests in election after election.

To be clear, this is not a new insight. President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who signed the Civil Rights Act into being in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, knew that he was alienating a significant portion of his own party. “Well, we’ve lost the South,” he is reported to have said on signing the civil rights legislation; he also famously acknowledged the principle on which Richard Nixon would successfully court southern white Democrats: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

What impressed me about McGhee was how clearly she laid out the historical narrative, as well as how convincingly she argued her central premise: that systemic racism hurts everyone, white people included. I don’t remember which podcast it was on which I originally heard her, but that’s become something of a moot point as since then she’s been on all the podcasts—especially lately since her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together came out. Since that first podcast I heard, she resigned as Demos’ president and traveled the U.S., speaking to hundreds of experts, activists, historians, and ordinary people. The Sum of Us is the result, and it makes her original argument in an exhaustively detailed and forceful manner. It is an eminently readable book: personal without being subjective, wonky without losing itself in the weeds, and both rigorously historical while still relating straightforward stories that persuasively bring home the societal costs of systemic racism. The one example she shares in her interviews functions as the book’s central metaphor: starting in the 1920s, the U.S. invested heavily in public projects and infrastructure, one thing being the construction of public pools. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued this trend, using such community investment to generate jobs. By the 1950s, towns and cities across the country boasted ever-larger and more lavish public pools, which became a point of pride for communities—pools large enough, in some cases, to admit thousands of swimmers.

But such pools were, of course, whites-only. With the advent of desegregation in the mid-late 50s, courts decreed that these public pools were legally obliged to admit Blacks. Town and city councils responded swiftly, voting to drain the pools and fill them in with dirt and seed them over with grass (in Georgia, the Parks and Recreation Department was simply eliminated, and was not resurrected for ten years). Affluent whites did not suffer: there was a concomitant boom in the construction of backyard pools and the establishment of private swimming clubs, which could effect de facto segregation by leaving membership decisions to the discretion of a governing board. But non-wealthy whites were suddenly left without a key option for summer recreation, all because their communities could not countenance sharing a publicly-funded pool with their Black citizens. In what is one of the pernicious elements of systemic racism, McGhee observes, many of the non-wealthy whites who could no longer bring their children to swim in one of these magnificent pools for free probably thought that this was a fair deal—better to go without than be obliged to share with people you’d been brought up to consider beneath you.

I am at present about halfway through The Sum of Us; look for a longer blog post when I’ve finished it. Meanwhile, I would suggest that this book should be required reading for our present moment.

What I’m Watching     I wrote in my last post about how much I’m enjoying rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but as Stephanie and I took a hiatus from that show to binge The Mandalorian, so again we’re taking a hiatus to watch The Stand­—the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth 1978 novel in which 99.9% of the world is wiped out by a weaponized superflu nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the remaining people of the U.S. gather in two opposing communities. On one side are the forces of good, who have been drawn to Boulder, Colorado by dreams of a 108 year old Black woman named Mother Abigail. On the other are those drawn by promises of power, licentiousness, and revenge by the evil Randall Flagg, a denim-clad and cowboy-boot shod demon in human form, who establishes his new society in (of course) Las Vegas.

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, last term I taught a fourth year class on pandemic fiction; I did not include The Stand, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the few actual pandemic novels written prior to the 21st century, mainly because it is way too long (almost 1500 pages) to shoehorn into a semester-long course. Given its significance to the topic, however, I did record a short lecture in which I ran down the key themes and plot points (which you can watch here if you’re so inclined). But one of the things I found interesting in retrospect—I first read The Stand in high school, and then read it again when King published the unexpurgated version in 1990—after doing all the preparatory reading for my course, was how King transformed a story about a biological catastrophe into a Manichaean light v. dark, G v. E, cosmic battle royale with Mother Abigail as God’s surrogate and Randall Flagg as Satan’s proxy. While the novel meditated at length on the nature of civilization and how one pragmatically goes about rebuilding after the apocalypse—with 1500 pages, how could it not?—it is obvious that it’s the metaphysical war that most interested King.

We’re slightly more than halfway through the new adaptation, and quite enjoying it. It was quite badly reviewed; and while I can agree with some of the complaints, it has been on the whole well-adapted to the screen, and (mostly) well-cast. Alexander Skarsgard is at his menacing best as Randall Flagg, James Marsden is all wry southern charm as Texan Stu Redman, Greg Kinnear plays the professorial Glen Bateman with the right balance of pomposity and insight; Whoopi Goldberg basically plays Mother Abigail as a devoutly Christian Guinan with a head of white dreadlocks; my favourite however is Brad William Henke, who plays the mentally disabled Tom Cullen with a guileless, earnest simplicity that avoids stereotypes (those who watch Justified will recognize Henke from season two as Coover Bennett, a similarly mentally delayed character whose disability manifests instead in sociopathic violence).

There is much that is left out, and much that could have been done better, but on the whole it is a pretty satisfying adaptation of an intriguing but flawed novel (“intriguing but flawed” is how I’d characterize most of King’s oeuvre, but I suppose that is to be expected when you churn out an average of two brick-sized novels a year). If you like The Stand, or are just amenable to Stephen King more generally, I’d recommend this series.

What I’m Writing     I recently dusted off an article-in-progress that had been mouldering for a year or two, on zombie apocalypse and celebrity; in a fit of energy I finished it and submitted it to a journal. I now have another that I’m looking to finish, on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and nostalgia. Given that I’ll be doing that novel in both of my classes over the next two weeks, it seems an ideal time to return to it. Given that it is also about apocalypse, though of the non-zombie variety—and indeed about a civilization-ending pandemic—I’ve been trying to rewrite my introduction to put it in the context of the past year. It’s been slow going, not least because finding the right balance between the personal and the objective can be tricky when your aim is to submit it to a scholarly journal. But the overarching argument—that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world in which the main characters are actors and musicians travelling between settlements to perform Shakespeare and classical music comprises a nostalgic desire to return to a pre-postmodern humanism—is, I think, a strong one. I just have to fill out a core section in which I discuss humanism in a more granular way.

(This process will also be useful, as it will give me a lot of lecture material).

On a related subject, I’ve also been working on a new essay on Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I have an article on Pratchett and his campaign for assisted dying coming out soon in a new collection; I’m trying to carry that momentum forward on a handful of Sir Terry essays, but the one I’ve been focusing on is a reading the Discworld novels in the context of the philosophy of American Pragmatism and what I’ve been calling the “magical humanism” exhibited in a lot of contemporary fantasy.

As much as I love Sir Terry’s writing, I find it difficult to write about it in a scholarly manner, for the basic reason that I find it difficult to find a focus and not end up running off madly in all directions. The essay I wrote for the collection, which came in way past deadline, needed to be cut from nine thousand words to six thousand (one of the essay’s blind reviewers said something to the effect of “this is obviously a piece of work gesturing to a much larger theory of Pratchett’s fiction,” which was at once both gratifying and true). Part of the problem is the iterative nature of the Discworld’s world-building: each  of the forty-one novels is a standalone narrative, and with each new installment, Sir Terry modified and refined aspects of that world, but also returned to the same themes and preoccupations in such a way that it is close to impossible to discuss the political and philosophical preoccupations of a given novel without being obliged to reference a dozen others.

This isn’t the most conducive thing for my intellectual temperament, which at the best of times is digressive and inclined to run down whatever rabbit holes I find, until I realize that, several paragraphs of writing on, I’ve found myself discussing an entirely different topic. (Presumably, devoted readers of this blog will have noticed this). That being said, however, it is a pleasure to lose myself in this topic … not least because I increasingly see Sir Terry’s humanism as a necessary antidote to our present toxic political moment.

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading  Aside from my reading for the term and for research, I’m about three-quarters of the way through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. It is a very long book (700+ pages) that doesn’t even get to the end of his first term; it is reflective, often pausing in its narration of events so Obama can ponder the vagaries of decisions he made or didn’t make, and ruminate on the broader significance of this or that detail in the broader context of American history; he also frequently digresses into little potted lectures on history and political philosophy to better frame the stories he’s telling.

Or to put it another way: I’m loving it. There are many reasons why I have such vast respect for this man, and why I think history will ultimately rank him as one of the best presidents; his humanity, intelligence, and passion are among those reasons, and they come through on every page, along with a professorial and nerdy wonkishness that I aspire to. After four years of Trump, this book is a salve to my soul.

What I’m Watching  Really, my life these days in measured out in week-long increments of impatience between each new episode of The Expanse. I latched onto the novels by James S.A. Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abrahamson and Ty Franck) soon after the first one (Leviathan Wakes) was published, and have read them obsessively since (we’re now eight novels along, and I’m waiting for the ninth and final installment rather impatiently). So when I saw they were adapting the novels to TV, I experienced the usual excitement and trepidation one often does when beloved books are being adapted to the screen. Will it be good (Good Omens, Game of Thrones) or bitterly disappointing (American Gods) or just … meh (The Magicians)?

The Expanse not only did not disappoint, it has gotten steadily better every season as the writers have found their groove and the special effects budgets have grown. This season—the fifth—is the best so far. It benefits in part from the narrative build of the previous seasons, in which otherwise seemingly insignificant plot points and elements of world-building have culminated in some pretty virtuosic storytelling, matched by amazing acting and visuals that now rank The Expanse among the best SF/F that has been brought to TV.

I don’t want to get into detail, because spoilers, but I will almost certainly write a much longer and spoiler-filled post once this season is done.

The Pleasures of Zoom-Teaching  To be certain, I miss being in the classroom with the intensity of a nova—teaching and interacting with my students is easily my favourite part of my job, and the classroom has always been a quasi-sacred space to me. Talking to the Brady Bunch arrangement of squares on my laptop screen is nowhere near the same thing … but there are aspects of it I like. Not the least of which is I can conduct classes wearing pyjamas. Also, they don’t know what’s in my mug, heh …

There is also Zoom’s chat function. As class discussion progresses, sometimes students will carry on a parallel conversation in text. It’s as if they’re passing notes in class, but I get to read them.

But by far my favourite aspect is the presence of pets. My cat Gloucester is a frequent visitor, jumping up onto my lap and staring at the faces on my screen with his golden eyes. And there is a petting zoo worth of dogs and cats—and in the case of today’s class, a bunny!—perched on my students’ laps or occasionally pushing their snouts close in to the webcams.

Oh, Yeah—Classes Started Today  Memorial delayed the start of term for a few days to give students a slightly longer break (something I was grateful for, too), so today was day one of the winter term. My first class was my graduate seminar “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” and if today was any indication, this is going to be a good term. There was a wonderful energy to the class, and everyone was enthused and engaged.

Tomorrow I start with my fourth-year seminar “Utopias and Dystopias,” a class that was designed by a former colleague of mine, now retired. It was always a student favourite when he taught it, and I’ve been requesting it since he retired several years ago. My teaching dance card was always too full to slot it in previously, so I’m delighted to finally get to teach it.

Last semester I taught a course on pandemic fiction; this term, it’s utopias and dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives of the 21st century. Sense a theme? It feels a little bit, after 2020, like I’m steering into the skid.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading

I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to theme the fourth-year contemporary American literature seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, when I realized the obvious topic was right in front of me: Pandemic Fiction! Having taught a course a few years ago on post-apocalyptic narratives, I already had a handful of titles under my belt. A quick internet search yielded an embarrassment of riches, and I put in an online order for some that seemed likely candidates.

pandemic reading

(Possibilities not pictured: Katherine Ann Porter’s 1938 novella about the Spanish Flu, Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Jack London’s weird post-plague dystopia The Scarlet Plague [1912]; and Philip  Roth’s last novel, Nemesis [2010], about a polio outbreak in 1945 New Jersey).

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d decided on pandemic fiction for my course, the response was pretty uniformly enthusiastic. Some people asked me to post the reading list when I’d finalized it; a few others, some of them former students, wistfully said that would be a course they’d love to take. And more than one person said it would likely be a course that would draw in a lot of students.

I think it will, but I also think there will be a not-insignificant number of students who will, as I commented back, “avoid it like the plague.” (The bad joke was unintentional, but apt). For everyone who might welcome the perspective a course on pandemic fiction might offer on our current moment, I’m sure are those who would much rather not either revisit the coronavirus experience or deal with such fictionalizations during an ongoing crisis (fingers crossed pretty damn hard for the first eventuality).

It’s an odd quirk of human idiosyncrasies that some of us lean into fictional figurations of crisis in response to the experience of a real one, while others most emphatically do not. It makes me think of the way in which, after September 11th, Clear Channel distributed a memo to all its radio stations listing the songs they were to avoid playing because they might evoke thoughts of the attack (including some truly bizarre choices, like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” or risible ones, like “Walk Like An Egyptian”), and movie studios froze production or postponed release of films depicting terrorism or large-scale destruction; meanwhile, video stores (remember those?) reported that movies like Armageddon and Independence Day were constantly being rented. In the present moment, one of the highest-trending offerings on Netflix has consistently been Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2010 film about a pandemic. I have seen a significant number of discussions of this sort of thing on social media, i.e. people soliciting pandemic/apocalypse/dystopian themed isolation viewing, as well as people voicing incredulity that anyone would want to watch or read such stuff in the present moment.

I suppose it doesn’t come as a great galloping shock that I fall into the former category, and not just because I need to read a bunch of titles and make final reading list decisions before the call comes from the English Department to submit our book orders for the Fall (usually, that happens early-mid May). Speaking personally, it’s not the fictional representations of pandemic that bother my soul, but the daily news that makes me afraid for my blood pressure. As I mentioned in my initial “isolated thoughts” post, what narrative tends to offer is catharsis; it is, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson (my copy of The Political Unconscious is currently in my campus office and thus inaccessible), the symbolic resolution of irreconcilable real-world contradictions … even when that resolution entails something putatively negative, like a pair of sclerotic old men in a Beckett play, or the wholesale destruction of society in a zombie apocalypse.

In the latter, at least you might get to use a crossbow.

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Thoughts on Reading The Road in a Time of Crisis

ENGL 4272 - title

I must admit that it is somewhat unsettling to be starting a course on post-apocalyptic fiction at this particular moment. Uncertain of how to order my selected texts, I finally decided—for the sake of everyone’s sanity as the term progresses—to start with the bleakest and most cynical novels, and finish with the most hopeful. Which means I’ll have the pleasure of finishing the term with Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful Station Eleven. But it means starting with Cormac McCarthy’s well-nigh nihilistic vision in The Road. Now, I do love The Road, but it means I’m reading about an environmentally devastated world that has reverted to Hobbesian brutality and scarcity. This while the direst predictions of climate scientists are burning up huge swaths of the American and Canadian west while drowning Houston, Florida, and Bangladesh; while an unhinged despot with nuclear weapons taunts and goads a dangerously incompetent and thin-skinned president; and while we’re seeing the kind of social cohesion and trust necessary to address such large-scale, transnational problems dissolving into nationalist and nativist tribalism.

There are times when the obvious contemporary relevance of a given text I’m teaching is a gift. Then there are times when I wish it wouldn’t feel quite so on the nose. Perhaps comparing the bleakness of The Road to our present moment seems a little extreme—after all, we’ve hardly witnessed the collapse of social order. This much is true. And yet as I have watched the images of devastation, specifically those of Hurricane Harvey, it’s not the destruction that evokes McCarthy for me so much as the feel-good news stories about ordinary citizens stepping up and risking life and limb to help strangers.


To be certain, these are inspiring stories, and the individuals pictured in the image of the long line of trucks towing boats into Houston should be celebrated. I should hope that we all might find it in ourselves to behave in such a manner if presented with such circumstances. But as someone pointed out on a podcast I was listening to (don’t remember who or which podcast, unfortunately), this celebration of individual heroism highlights a flaw in the American character: people are eager to be heroes in a crisis, but collectively unwilling to do the tedious stuff or make the minor sacrifices that might ameliorate or even prevent a crisis. Run into a disaster area to volunteer? Sign me up! Raise property taxes slightly for the sake of infrastructure and regulate development in potential flood zones? Don’t tread on me!

I hasten to add that this is a bit of an over-generalization, and Americans are hardly unique in their penchant for individual action and collective apathy; but the mythos of rugged individualism that inflects the national psyche is one much better suited to reaction than foresight. Part of the problem is that individual heroism and sacrifice makes for much better news copy, and resonates more powerfully with audiences. Perhaps the most iconic moment in coverage of Harvey is the guy who, when asked by CNN (as he prepped his boat) “What are you going to do?” replied “Go try to save some lives.” That sound bite went viral almost instantly—both because it was admirable, but also because it had the kind of laconic “git ‘er done” sentiment one expects to hear from Bruce Willis or Tommy Lee Jones in a Hollywood blockbuster. It put me in mind of the way in which “Let’s roll” became a catch phrase after 9/11—spoken by a passenger on United 93 just before they rushed the cockpit and crashed the plane, sacrificing themselves but preventing greater carnage, it came to symbolize American resilience in the face of crisis, and the willingness of civilians to step up. As well it should.

Heroism, however, especially the kind that entails great sacrifice, is a compelling narrative that tends to paper over the uncomfortable fact that many crises are avoidable; heroism is the proverbial pound of cure that would be unnecessary had an ounce of prevention been applied—better urban planning, for example, or a president who took seriously his national security memos. Heroism is also contingent on a certain amount of altruism, which itself entails a certain amount of privilege. Not “privilege” in the way the term tends to proliferate now—though class and racial privilege can certainly play a part—but the privilege of being confident that one’s own corner of the world is not directly threatened.


The Road (dir. John Hilcoat 2009).

Strip that confidence away, and altruism and sacrifice will become entirely contingent on whom they benefit. In its extreme vision, The Road makes this point plain: while all post-apocalyptic narratives depict some form of social collapse or another, few match the level of scarcity of McCarthy’s novel. Indeed, in many there is material pleasure to be taken in the apocalypse, as the sudden depopulation of the world leaves behind the excess of consumer society: such is the centerpiece of both versions of Dawn of the Dead, as the survivors plunder the goods in the malls in which they shelter; one thinks of the grocery scene in 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead certainly has no shortage of cars, gasoline, guns and ammo, and food. In all of these examples, of course, there is the clash between different pockets of survivors and the perennial moral and ethical questions about survival versus humanity; but none truly present the problem of scarcity as McCarthy does, and the dehumanizing process that entails.

All of which is by way of saying that the kind of heroism on display in localized catastrophes is unlikely to manifest itself when catastrophes are not so localized. It is sadly not surprising that the far more devastating floods in Bangladesh received a tiny fraction of the coverage devoted to Houston and Florida, but that goes to my point: what’s missing in the coverage of the heroism here is that it’s responding to a global crisis affecting the people there. And what happens when the crisis becomes even more prevalent? Harvey, Irma, and now José … and whatever comes after that. Individuals are not going to step up when they are themselves under threat, and in the absence of a collective will, the state itself will fail to cover all its bases—something we see in the hypocrisy of Ted Cruz clamoring for relief for Texas a mere five years after he voted against an aid package for Hurricane Sandy victims.

All I can hope is that things get more hopeful in lock-step with the progression of my course readings. Though even the end of the course will see us traveling around a post-apocalyptic landscape … performing Shakespeare, yes, but still …

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You should watch The Expanse, but you should also read the novels


Tonight, the new ScyFy Channel series The Expanse premieres, which seems as good an excuse as any for me to nerd out about about the novels from which it is adapted.

Leviathan-WakesI picked up Leviathan Wakes earlier this year, as much out of curiosity as anything. It’s a thick, brick-like book, and at that point it had three others in the series on the shelf beside it. Its cover featured generic huge-spacecraft art, but what had been catching my eye was the blurb above the title from none other than George R.R. Martin declaring “It’s been too long since we’ve had a really kickass space opera.” Its author, James S.A. Corey, is actually the pseudonym for two people: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the latter of whom was GRRM’s personal assistant for a long time (or might still be, but I suspect he’s busy with his own stuff now). Colour me intrigued: I gave Leviathan Wakes a chance.

And then proceeded to devour the next three books—Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn—all of which are 500+ pages, in the space of about a week.

It is a really, really good series, and if you like SF at all you owe it to yourself to read them. It’s space opera in the hands of a pair of pros. Structurally, one senses GRRM’s influence: they proceed through point-of-view chapters like A Song of Ice and Fire, but unlike Martin’s books, they exercise restraint. At no point are we overwhelmed by a surfeit of perspectives, and each novel has a contained narrative arc. They are very tightly plotted, and feature well-realized characters.

The basic premise is a compelling one: set several centuries in the future, humanity has colonized the solar system, but has not progressed into interstellar space. In interviews, the authors cite the fact that the great deal of outer-space SF tends to focus on our first steps in becoming spacefarers, or skips ahead to a point where we’ve mastered the technology that allows us to travel between the stars. What these novels do is posit a future moment when we’ve become quite facile at hopping between Earth, Mars, and the outer planets (the “Belt”), but lack anything resembling the capacity to traverse the unthinkably vast distances beyond. Hence, we encounter a future with a notably industrial, jury-rigged feel to it, as the economies of this future depend upon vast fleets that essentially approximate the tramp steamers plying the oceans of the present. Many of the ships, to say nothing of the ports and shipyards, are old and rusted, oft-repaired; much more Millennium Falcon that U.S.S. Enterprise.

I won’t get into plot points, as my main goal here is to just plug the books. As the series proceeds, however, I imagine there will be a number of posts in the future getting into the narrative particulars.

I do however want to say that one of the things I really love about this series of novels is that they’re a big thumb in the eye of the Sad Puppies. Last April I wrote about the furor surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, in which a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies successfully lobbied a portion of Worldcon’s membership to nominate their slate of choices, in order to strike back, in the words of one of their more vociferous agitators, “against the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.” To recap, the previous round of Hugo nominees featured a significant number of works by women and authors of colour, or which featured stories with socially progressive elements. And, well, we couldn’t have that!

My blog post on the subject focused mostly on the arguments of author Brad Torgersen, who along with Larry Correia spearheaded the Puppy revolt. Torgersen’s main beef is that science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) has forsaken its origins in order to effect “subversive switcheroos” that appropriate traditional SF/F tropes and pervert them to articulate leftist, social justice agendas rather than good old-fashioned straightforward adventures.

Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.

Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?

You can read the entirety of my critique in my post, but my response basically boiled down to this:

The reductiveness of this kind of thinking is truly sad, as it implies yet another canard—that one can’t do sweeping, epic, Tolkienesque fantasy, or bombastic space opera, and introduce the elements Torgersen derides. Except that you can, and writers do, all the time. It might not precisely be Tolkien or Heinlein, but the last time I was at the bookstore (yesterday), Tolkien and Heinlein were still quite well represented on the shelves.

Which brings us back to The Expanse, which is as perfect a demonstration of this principle as I’ve encountered. The novels depict a racially diverse future, one in which race and ethnicity are hardly remarked upon, often leaving us to divine characters’ origins through their names (Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal, Julie Mao, e.g.), and features a lot of sharply drawn, compelling female characters without it ever feeling as though this representation is there for the sake of representation. One of the best characters is a U.N. undersecretary named Chrisjen Avasarala, an Indian woman with a marvelously foul mouth, who generally functions as the power behind the throne on Earth (she’ll be played in the TV adaptation by the magnificent Shohreh Aghdashloo). The series deals with such contemporary concerns as corporate power and malfeasance, terrorism, colonialist arrogance and colonial resistance, militarism and the ethics of warfare, and more. And it does so with all the spirit and bombast of the space operas of yore that Brad Torgersen and company lament as passing from this earth.

What’s more, the series delights in the trappings of genre: Leviathan Wakes is a noirish, hard-boiled conspiracy narrative. Caliban’s War, the second in the series, is good old-fashioned military SF, replete with space marines in mechanized combat armour. Abaddon’s Gate is a classic revenge drama. Cibola Burn is a about a standoff between planetary settlers and the corporate interests who have assumed ownership of their new home. And Nemesis Games is the high drama of desperate diplomacy in the midst of war. All of which unfolds from a variety of points of view, but especially from a core group of characters whose depth and complexity is what makes us care about the larger dramas engulfing the solar system.

So I’ll be turning on The Expanse tonight with about the same level of anticipation as a new season of Game of Thrones. My fingers are crossed that it will be good, but early reviews are all positive. Even if I hadn’t read the novels, one critic’s promise that “it will fill the void left by Firefly and Battlestar Galactica” would certainly have me watching.

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What I’m Reading: Michael Crummey, Sweetland

Fair warning: the following post includes mild spoilers.

If you haven’t yet read anything by Michael Crummey, you need to correct that ASAP. Not because his books are capital-G, capital-L Great Literature (though they are), but because in not reading his work you are denying yourself a great pleasure. I’d rank him as one of the best prose stylists currently writing, but never does his talented wordsmithing distract from his stable of vibrant, humorous, tragic characters or his superb storytelling. Reading a Michael Crummey novel is a balancing act between wanting to read slowly to savor the prose and race ahead to see what happens next.

And because you can’t swing a dead cat in St. John’s without hitting a great writer, I can also personally attest to the fact that he is one of the nicest people you could ever meet (he didn’t even get upset with me for hitting him with a dead cat).

sweetlandSweetland is his fourth novel, and like the three previous, it is about Newfoundland’s fraught relationship with its  history. In River Thieves (2001) he tells the story of the extinction of the Beothuk as seen from the perspective of British naval officer; in The Wreckage (2005), he depicts a romance between a Catholic young man and a Protestant girl, and the intrusion of the Second World War into Newfoundland in the form of the recruitment of its young men and the presence of American military bases. Both novels are solid pieces of storytelling, beautifully written; but it was his third novel Galore (2009) that truly blew me away. Set in the fictional outport of Paradise Deep, it is a multi-generational narrative (I hesitate to use the word “epic,” though it comes close to being appropriate in this case) that tells the story of a community and their struggles: with each other, with their own selves, but especially with this hostile geography to which they have been brought by hope, misfortune, or happenstance. Galore is a magical realist novel whose most obvious influence (or at least precursor) is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s landmark novel, Galore is about a small village beyond the fringes of civilization, in which anything can happen and indeed often does. Crummey employs a combination of harsh realism to describe the hardships endured by the community, and a host of legends and folklore from Newfoundland’s past; the result is a narrative that pivots between a painfully tactile sense of reality and outsized events and circumstances.

Sweetland, by contrast, is set in the present day in the midst of what has become the most recent wave of Resettlement. If you wonder why that word deserves a capital R, you need to know that in the aftermath of Newfoundland joining Confederation in 1949, premier Joey Smallwood embarked on a project of modernization. He had been able to sway the province’s opinion to his side on the Confederation issue by making lavish promises to rural Newfoundland about the financial benefits that would accrue by joining Canada. Part of fulfilling those promises entailed resettling huge swaths of outport populations to more central locations, where they would have access to both the promised financial benefits and such infrastructure as roads and electricity, health care, and education. Huge amounts of money were spent in payouts to those being relocated, and in literally uprooting entire villages.


One of the many bewildering images from Resettlement: a house being towed across the water to its new home.

Resettlement remains a painful wound in Newfoundland’s modern history, as it was carried out more or less by fiat and destroyed countless communities with, in many cases, hundreds of years of history.

Today, there is a similar move (this time termed “Relocation,” presumably to avoid the painful connotations of “Resettlement”) as Newfoundland’s economy, largely buoyed by oil revenues, booms; outports, many whose only connection to the rest of the province is by ferry, find their populations shrinking and aging as the young move to St. John’s or farther afield to Alberta. The government is again offering money to those wishing to relocate—and in the process leaving behind villages that will no longer need ferry service or electricity. But with Smallwood’s high-handedness and the resentment it incurred (and still incurs) ever in mind, the deal now is that Relocation can only happen if a community votes unanimously for it.

Which brings us to Sweetland, which is about a fictional island outport called Sweetland and the argument about Relocation. The village is mostly on board, but for one or two holdouts—among whom is Moses Sweetland, a stubborn old bachelor who refuses to sign on even as his few allies fall away and leave him standing alone. He resists the blandishments of his neighbours, which eventually come to comprise threatening notes, vandalism, and a few gruesome messages in the form of mutilated rabbits.

When a certain tragedy befalls the village, however, particularly affecting Moses, he finally agrees to sign the papers. Perhaps predictably, he does not leave with the rest but effectively fakes his own death by setting his boat adrift and hiding until the village has emptied.

The novel’s first half—which is all about Moses’ relationships with his friends and neighbours, and in particular his autistic nephew Jesse—is a wonderfully nuanced and textured depiction of Moses’ life in his village, and dramatizes the political context to great effect. But it is the second half of the novel, when Moses is left alone on the island without power or any means of contacting the outside world, that Crummey’s narrative reaches virtuosic levels. For one thing, it leaves the political argument behind and becomes the story of a man very slowly losing his mind as solitude and winter implacably close in on him. But it is also where the political argument of the first half opens up into symbolic and indeed allegorical dimensions. Left alone with only the ghosts of the past—and his neighbour’s mutt—for company, there is nothing to mediate between the two Sweetlands, the man and the outport with which he shares a name.

The more I reflect on Sweetland, the more I find it functions as a companion piece to Galore. Where the former is a sweeping story in the mold of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Sweetland is a minutely observed story about a single person in a narrow corridor of time. And yet what they have in common is the vivid sense of the mystery of place, the invidious way in which geography conflates with history in ways that are by turns comforting and pernicious. Galore, by its nature as magical realism, romanticizes a certain dimension of Newfoundland history, but it most emphatically does not sentimentalize it. It is romantic in the true sense of the word, in that it depicts a space outside the settled, domesticated world. If not literal wilderness, Paradise Deep is nevertheless as close as one can be to it while still being inhabited: a marginal space that, in the tradition of romance, is also a mythic space home to the embellishments of reality that extreme geographies spawn.

The first half of Sweetland is neither sentimental nor romantic; the romance of Galore does burble up in the second half however, but only in suggestive, fleeting ways, and only at the fringes of Moses’ decaying sanity. His explicit connection to the village, made first by their common nomenclature, develops allegorically as he erodes along with its structures, as he cannibalizes the village for supplies. Seeking toilet paper (which he kicks himself for not having stockpiled), he plunders his neighbour’s collection of Harlequin romances. Among the pulp novels are a handful of “literary” texts the woman’s daughter had attempted to get her to read, one of which has the bookmark at the halfway point. It is a novel about Newfoundland, he sees, and as a means of passing the time decides that he will finish what she had started:

Half an hour later he was ready to throw the bloody thing in the stove. Three afternoons in a row he sat in the day’s last light with the book, feeling like a man sentenced to dragging beach stones up the face of the Mackerel cliffs. He looked at the cover each time he quit reading, flipped it to inspect the back. A quote from a Toronto paper about “authentic Newfoundland.” Whoever wrote the book didn’t know his arse from a dory, Sweetland figured, and had never caught or cleaned a fish in his life. “Jesus fuck,” he whispered.

This comic reaction to a novel about “authentic” Newfoundland (my money is on The Bird Artist) speaks to one of Sweetland’s subtle themes, which is the fallacy of authenticity. Though Sweetland is adamant in his refusal to abandon his home, even in the face of overwhelming opposition and threats, he cannot articulate his reasoning to himself. He offers no speeches, articulated either internally or externally, about history or community roots, about the depredation of traditional Newfoundland, about the need to hold fast to one’s principles in the face of nefarious societal change. He is no sentimentalist, and in the final stages of his life bears little in the way of affection for any of his neighbours (with the exceptions of Jesse and his longtime friend Duke).

So why does he reject Relocation for so long, and after capitulating, go to the extreme of faking his own death in order to stay behind? Crummey leaves that questions unanswered, and it is in the very lack of articulation of Sweetland’s motives that the novel ultimately rests. As mentioned above, it is in part the mystery of history and geography: Sweetland’s home as both a lived reality but also an imaginary space, which functions as a representation of Newfoundland more broadly. The fallacy of authenticity on display in the nameless novel he reads finds a somewhat more symbolic articulation in the final few pages of the novel. Not long after winter starts to set in, Sweetland takes refuge from a snowstorm in a cabin once owned by the thuggish Priddle brothers. In a delirium of near-hypothermia (as well as the alcohol and stale pot he finds stashed there), he annotates a map of Newfoundland tacked to one of the walls. He takes the map with him when he escapes back to the village, but forgets about it until the final pages, when he looks at what he has written:

Noticed the map there, spread across the table’s surface, the paper kinked along the rough creases where it had been folded in his knapsack. Stay Home Year scrawled across the top. Sweetland shook his head at that now, at the long list of fanciful harbours and coves and islands and straits he’d pencilled around the coast. Along the entire length of Newfoundland’s south coast were the words Here Be Monsters with a shaky emoticon happy face drawn beside it. His handwriting, though he couldn’t for the life of him remember settling them there.

In one way, Sweetland is a novel about the impossibility of writing a novel about Newfoundland—or rather, the impossibility of reaching an authentic understanding of what I’m calling the conflation of history and geography and its effects, of the representation of place as being at once a set of lived realities and necessarily imaginary. Moses’ literally ecstatic over-writing of the map, especially with the warning Here Be Monsters, evokes the medieval cartographic imagination and the long tradition of romance in which the spaces beyond the known are invariably filled with the stuff of legend. It also however evokes the geographies of Galore, which articulate the truths of story and myth and the unreality of history.

In the end, Moses Sweetland’s very name provides one of the novel’s central ironies: if his surname explicitly speaks to his apparently absolute connection to place, his first name is a cruel reminder that there is no Promised Land, and that the exodus his people undertake is a movement away from home. If there is an epiphany for Sweetland at all, it is at best an ambivalent one, which occurs as he nearly drowns trying to escape his self-imposed solitude:

This was the sway of things, Sweetland knew. There was fighting the sway of things or improvising some fashion of riding it out. And then there was the sway of things beyond fighting and improvisation. It was almost impossible to know the difference between one and the other.

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What I Read On My Summer Vacation

I didn’t post that much this summer … I had all the best intentions, as exhibited in my folder of unfinished blog posts, some of which barely made it past a sentence or two. All of which speaks to the fact that I had a lot on my mind these past few months, but little in the way of closing. Always be closing! Dammit, now Alec Baldwin will deny me coffee …

I hope that will change in the coming months. I am now eleven days into my very first sabbatical, and while my favourite new pastime has been walking up and down my department hallways and making faces at my colleagues as they teach, I do mean for this to be a productive year. And given that being prolific on this blog tends to reflect being productive in other areas, I mean to be posting a lot more here.

I haven’t done a “What I’m Reading” post in a while … which, again, isn’t for a lack of fragmentary paragraphs in my work-in-progress folder. I read a lot this summer, though much of it was re-reading, as I was doing a directed reading course with one of our doctoral students. And there were some unfortunate reading choices (most notably, the Guillermo del Toro collaboration with Chuck Hogan on The Strain), but I also read some pretty extraordinary books. I’ll give you the highlights here.


Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby and Men Explain Things to Me

solnitThis was the summer when I discovered the writing of Rebecca Solnit and fell deeply in love with her gorgeous prose and genre-defying vaguely-autobiographical essays. I had read her without being aware of her for some time, as she is prolific and frequently turned up on online journals and magazines. But it was her now-famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) essay “Men Explain Things to Me” that stuck the landing for me and made me sit up and take notice whenever I saw her name on a byline.

I was in San Francisco for a few days in June and made the requisite pilgrimage to City Lights bookstore. And because I cannot enter a bookstore without giving them money, but also not wanting to be a cliché and buy something by the Beats, I picked up The Faraway Nearby. Next door to City Lights is the bar Vesuvio, made famous by a list of clientele in the 50s and 60s that reads like a who’s-who of San Francisco arts and letters: Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, among others … and the pictures crowding the walls show everyone from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan dropping in for a drink or three (or, presumably in Dylan Thomas’ case, a dozen). Because I’d been tramping all over the city, I had a pint there and started reading Solnit—which turned out to be serendipitous, as she lives in San Francisco. (Lest I felt like too much of a cliché, reading in a famous literary bar, I was out-cliched by a magnitude by a fellow in hipster glasses and big mutton-chop sideburns sitting in an alcove reading On the Road).


The view from my seat in Vesuvio.

The view from my seat in Vesuvio.

Suffice to say, The Faraway Nearby is one of the most gorgeous collections of personal essays I’ve ever read, moving effortlessly between Solnit’s fraught relationship with her mother and her mother’s descent into dementia, through a dizzying series of meditations on winter, Iceland, adventuring, rafting, and the proper methods of preserving several bushels of apricots she finds herself with. The essays are deeply erudite without being esoteric, personal without being mawkish, and written in prose that I can only envy with the white-hot intensity of a thousand stars.

men-explainI then read Men Explain Things to Me, a slim volume of essays on women and violence prefaced by the original essay that inadvertently gave rise to the concept of “mansplaining.” Solnit has expressed ambivalence about having become associated with the term, not because it is not a real thing (and as someone who has occasionally been guilty of it, there was a lot of internal cringing when I first read the essay), but because it is reductive. The essays grouped in this short but incredibly powerful book remind us—forecfully—of the original essay’s main thesis, which is that the phenomenon of men condescendingly explaining things to women (even, or especially, when they’re ignorant on the topic) is reflective of the gendered structures of power in the world today and systemic violence that proceeds from it.


Michael Waldman, The Second Amendment: A Biography

2ndamendmentI won’t say much about this book, as I’m slowly working on a blog post talking about it in greater detail. I will say this: it is a bracing and very concise read that manages to make the endless debates in and around the Continental Congresses, and all of the court rulings on the Second Amendment since, not merely not tedious but gripping. It is a persuasive and balanced discussion of the Second Amendment’s origins, interpretations, and evolution, but in some ways, the focus of the book isn’t really the right to bear arms at all: rather, it’s a polemic against constitutional originalism, the judicial philosophy holding that the Constitution must be interpreted in terms of what were the Framers’ original intentions. As it turns out, the Second Amendment (for a variety of reasons) is the perfect departure point for this argument.

As I said, I’ll have more to say about this book at a later time.


Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

equalrites1As I said in my post of July 5th, I’ve been rationing the remaining Discworld novels against the unthinkable day when Sir Terry will not be around to write any more. Equal Rites has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, both because of my rationing but also because I don’t care as much for the earlier novels. Equal Rites was the third, after The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic; what’s slightly off-putting about the earliest novels (when you have, like me, initially entered Discworld with the more recent novels) is that everything still feels a little formless—as if the landmarks and characters still await greater definition, like rudely shaped clay. Granny Weatherwax makes her first appearance here, and while she is very identifiably Granny, she is also … not. Or not quite. Nevertheless, the novel is hilariously funny: a baby girl is accidentally chosen by a dying wizard to take his place, precipitating a protracted argument between Granny and the wizards of Unseen University about what defines magic, about what is specific to men and women—or wizards and witches—respectively, and how those definitions are arbitrary.

What I loved about this book, coming at it as I am from the far end of Discworld journeying, is how you can see Sir Terry’s shift from the overt parody of his first two novels (in which he’s just basically taking the piss of fantasy as a genre) to a more thoughtful use of fantasy and its conventions to offer a critique of “real world” social and societal mores—which in the end is what tends to define the Discworld novels overall.


Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land

magicians-landSpeaking of parodic fantasy that isn’t really parody at all: if you haven’t yet read the first two installments of Grossman’s trilogy about a school of magic and a Narnia-like alternative world, you really must do so. Like, now. The Magician’s Land completes the story begun in The Magicians and carried on in The Magician King, the story of narcissistic and self-absorbed Quentin Coldwater, who is inducted into a secret school of magic called Brakebills at the age of seventeen. As critics have pointed out, it’s like Hogwarts for grownups.

Again, there will be a more in-depth blog post in the future on this book, and the trilogy as a whole. But for now, let me just say: this was about as perfect a conclusion to a fantasy series as has been written.


N.K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon

killing-moonNo, I didn’t read this because it shares a title with an Echo and the Bunnymen song. My broad research project of the moment is all about humanism and fantasy; one of the problems I have right now is one of representation. That is to say: my current list of authors on whom to focus is almost entirely male, and so I have been on the hunt for fantasy written by women that fits the criteria of the novels I want to look at. N.K. Jemisin was a repeated recommendation, and so I started on her Dreamblood trilogy, set in an alternative world modeled vaguely on Ancient Egypt. Reading fantasy that moves outside the medieval European model is wonderful in and of itself, but Jemisin is a very talented writer who renders her world with wonderful tactility and establishes its mythology with an enviable economy of storytelling. The overarching conceit is that in the city-state of Gujaareh, an elite priesthood exist to harvest “dreamblood,” the magic that exists in sleeping minds. Dreamblood is used for healing and other positive ends, but its reaping by the “Gatherers” kills … and so the Gatherers move at night across the rooftops to harvest it from those who have been judged corrupt.

For several reasons, The Killing Moon is not a novel I will be able to use to argue my broader thesis, but the second book of the trilogy (The Shadowed Sun) sits in the pile of my eagerly anticipated reading.


Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop

Rise-of-the-Warrior-CopAbout three weeks ago I wrote a post about the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, the rise of police militarization, and The Wire. Largely due to the fact that a friend of mine posted it to Reddit, it received the most hits this blog has ever received, by a magnitude (my average post gets between sixty and seventy hits when it goes up; the most I’d ever had was just shy of three hundred, back when I posted on the whole David Gilmore and guy-guy Lit fiasco; the post on The Wire and Ferguson received twelve hundred, and a comment from David Simon himself. That’s not actually relevant, I just like reminding people of it). While reading the various news items and opinion pieces that ultimately informed the post, I kept hearing about Radley Balko’s book, conveniently just out in trade paperback. So I ordered it.

The book is … terrifying. It exposes in excruciating detail the violence done to the Fourth Amendment—for the rise of SWAT teams in towns with populations as low as fifteen thousand or less has not, ultimately, been about responding to well-armed criminals, but the use of the militarized groups to kick in doors for drug raids. And as the book chronicles, the sheer number of botched raids in which ridiculously armed and armored cops burst into the wrong house, terrorizing the inhabitants and destroying property (and, distressingly, shooting an awful lot of dogs in the process) is bewildering—especially considering how rarely the wronged citizens receive anything resembling remuneration.

Just today there was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the spread of military equipment and munitions to campus police at various universities in the U.S. Campus. Police. Armed with grenade launchers (seriously) and equipped with armoured vehicles. Even before reading that, I’d concluded that Balko’s book is required reading for the contemporary moment.


So as not to end on such a down note, here is “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen—which on reflection, is also kind of a downer, but would weirdly work as a not bad theme song for Jemisin’s novel.

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24, the CIA, and the Fantasy of Hyper-Competence

I’ve been watching 24: Live Another Day, a so-called “event series” of 24 that brings back everyone’s favourite gravelly-voiced secret agent, Jack Bauer. I’ve watched 24 since its third season (and have since watched the first two on DVD), and it is difficult to pinpoint when my interest morphed from “hey, exciting TV show” to something more academic. Certainly, it was the academic interest that saw me through some of its terrible later seasons, for even when the show got repetitive and (oddly) lugubrious, it always functioned as a fascinating window into a terrified zeitgeist that imagined terrorist threats in increasingly absurd and outlandish ways.


“So, what does it take to be an uber-agent? Training? Tactical brilliance? Ruthlessness?” “No, it’s mostly just shouting.”

Watching the newest season (really a half-season, though I suppose they can’t very well rebrand it as 12), I am struck anew by the way the show rests on the foundation of a sort of symbolic arms race, in which the terrorists possess increasingly sophisticated technology and apparently unlimited funds, which they employ in increasingly, ludicrously, complex and intricate plots against America. Arrayed against such threats is the CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) and, in Live Another Day, the CIA, which possess something resembling omniscient surveillance capabilities and the technological savvy to instantly hack almost any electronic system for information and/or more surveillance. This panoptical apparatus and its operators’ preternatural technological ability (as embodied in the savant-like Chloe O’Brian) is tacitly justified by the terrorist du jour’s own sophistication and resources. A typical 24 plot would never be concerned with a bunch of foreign nationals attending flight school in, say, Florida; it would instead feature terrorist hackers taking over air traffic control communications, or, in the case of the current season, taking control of American drones.

Michelle Fairley, aka Catelyn Stark, as the most recent alpha-terrorist on 24. See? I told them there's be serious blowback from the Red Wedding.

Michelle Fairley, aka Catelyn Stark, as the most recent alpha-terrorist on 24. See? I told them there would be serious blowback from the Red Wedding.

All of the apparatus of an electronic surveillance state is present but unremarked: 24 would be unthinkable without it. And yet, it is invariably vulnerable. In every single season of 24, CTU’s omniscient technology proves insufficient to deter whatever attack is afoot. It falls instead to the indomitable Jack Bauer, whose instincts and intuition almost always trump the conclusions of legions of intelligence analysts.

24 has such an odd paradox at its center, one that is something Fredric Jameson would call a symbolic resolution, in fiction, of an intractable real-world contradiction. On one hand you have the implicit faith in the panoptical surveillance state—and not just faith, but the tacit understanding that such apparatus is necessary and indeed a given, something so universally understood as reality that there is no question of it being, well, questioned. And let’s be clear on what this means: though all we ever see of it are the dim offices of a subterranean CTU station, it represents a vast and omnipresent governmental reach with apparent impunity to spy on both citizens and foreigners. On the other hand, I don’t believe there has been a single season of 24 in which Jack Bauer hasn’t gone rogue in some capacity, because working within the confines of the “law” (however egregiously attenuated it might be) straitjackets Jack and prevents him from doing what has to be done.

Hence, 24 has always been equally invested in pervasive and invasive government and the need to escape it. It’s really no surprise that 24 is a favourite of neoconservatives, as it articulates that contradiction at the heart of their creed: the desire for American omnipotence co-existing with an ideological antipathy to “big government.”

And while the series’ main ongoing controversy—and its most egregious and troubling element—has been the use of torture as a legitimate means of extracting actionable intelligence, more subtly pernicious is the depiction of Jack Bauer’s preternatural competence, as well as that of CTU. This is not, of course, anything different from the dozens and hundreds of films and television shows about espionage and clandestine military ops—from James Bond to the Smoking Man to every film about elite commandos ever, the appeal of these stories lies in their illusion of mastery and control and the unerring accuracy of intelligence, intuition, and interpretation.

Legacy_smpbAll of which is, of course, a patent fallacy. I probably wouldn’t be writing about all this if I hadn’t recently read a history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes (2007), by Tim Weiner. It might as well have been subtitled “A History of Abject Failure,” given that it is a brutal chronicle of the CIA’s chronic ineptitude, from the opening salvos of the Cold War to the clusterfuck that was the catastrophic intelligence failures of Iraq. Much of Weiner’s source material is reams of documents that were declassified in 2004-2005, so the story he tells is not only a new one but decidedly at odds with the way the agency has been depicted in popular culture, and how it depicted itself. Depending on when the CIA has been depicted in film, fiction, or television largely determines whether it is portrayed as malevolent or heroic; but one way or another it has tended to appear as a ruthlessly efficient operation, sometimes riven by internal rivalries and discord, but always a terribly efficacious tool in the service of either good or evil.

The reality of its history as detailed by Weiner is one in which failure, incompetence, and willful institutional blindness are the norm. If the agency has been consistently good at one thing, it is the ability to whitewash those failures, spin them as successes, and burnish its reputation as an omniscient and omnipotent force for American security and freedom.

Weiner starts his book by noting that the CIA was founded for the sole purpose of intelligence aggregation and analysis. Harry Truman basically wanted a small agency whose job would be to present him on a daily basis with a snapshot of what was going on in the world. The agency that developed, however, was very quickly hijacked by men far more interested in covert operations: who instead of keeping tabs on international communism and other threats, saw themselves as freebooters whose job was to actively combat these threats and work to roll them back. As the Cold War took shape and the USSR emerged as the United States’ principal antagonist, their energies went into clandestine skirmishes. They never succeeded in providing the president with what he most desired: a window into Soviet operations and a reliable intelligence that would warn of an imminent nuclear threat.

In fact, the first two hundred pages of Legacy of Ashes reads not so much as a comedy of errors as a tragic farce. It took the CIA over a decade to realize that the Soviets had spies riddling both American and British intelligence. In operation after operation, they trained refugees from behind the Iron Curtain (and in the Korean War, South Korean nationals) in combat and intelligence gathering and dropped them into enemy territory. The failure rate for these operations was one hundred percent, as the enemy knew precisely when and where these drops would take place and often had men there waiting for them. The hapless agents were imprisoned and tortured (if they weren’t summarily shot on sight), and either turned by the KGB or executed. Ten years the CIA bloody-mindedly continued … and that is only a single story from Weiner’s six hundred page litany of incompetence. As he remarks about the early, enthusiastic forays of the fledging agency, the United States was childishly blundering into a world of espionage that Russia had been playing like a chess master for two centuries.


When I watched Homeland for the first time, my initial thought was that here was a series that functioned in part as a corrective to 24—it approached the questions of nation, identity, faith, and loyalty (as well as the business of intelligence-gathering more generally) with a nuance and complexity alien to 24. And yet in the aftermath of reading Weiner’s book, it becomes obvious that even Homeland manages to completely overestimate the CIA’s efficacy and competence.

The figure of the elite soldier or agent backed by a technologically sophisticated agency has become increasingly commonplace in popular culture. James Bond might have blazed the trail, but you see his progeny strewn throughout film and television. I don’t care to speculate on why precisely—that’s a post for another day—but we’ve moved far away from the images of the grunt and the common soldier which dominated war films until the first post-Vietnam movies introducing us to the likes of John Rambo started to focus on the elite, hypercompetent soldier to the exclusion of mere mortals. On one hand, such musclebound commandos as portrayed by Stallone and Schwartzenegger were an obvious overcompensation for America’s symbolic emasculation in Vietnam; but I’m also tempted to say it becomes bound up in the delusions of conspiracy theory that pervaded the 1970s and afterward, so beautifully summed up by Don DeLillo in his novel Libra:

If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act.

Certainly this figuration of conspiracy is what animates 24—the specter of such “cold, sure, undistracted,” perfect schemes perpetrated by “silent nameless men with unadorned hearts,” which cannot be countered with anything so wishy-washy as legal or democratic means.

That is the fantasy, and yet everything we learn from history teaches us otherwise. I’ve never actually met a real 9/11 Truther (at least none who have declared themselves as such), but my counter-argument would have nothing to do with the ostensible physics of building collapses, and everything to do with the simple question “Do you honestly think that the Bush Administration would be competent enough to pull something like that off?” In the aftermath of 9/11, Elaine Scarry wrote a remarkable essay titled “Citizenship in Emergency” which did a wonderful job of taking down all our assumptions about the “fast response” capabilities of the military and civil defense and arguing that there was only one response to the terrorists’ attack that succeeded: the ad-hoc resistance of the passengers on United 93.

The more I dwell on this topic, the more it bothers me, and the more I come to believe that the fantasy of hypercompetence, while appealing as a popular trope, is also culturally pernicious. It affords the delusion of precision and exactitude in spheres of action that are inherently chaotic and unpredictable. It is why Wayne LaPierre’s mantra “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is just so much horseshit. It assumes that the good guy with the gun will unerringly put down the bad guy as opposed to adding to the carnage with shots that go wide of the target. Even highly trained peace officers or soldiers, when put in the crucible of a firefight, can’t shoot with the innate accuracy of a nickelodeon gunslinger; what are we to expect of a well-meaning citizen whose only experience firing his weapon has been on the gun range? When two police officers in Manhattan fire sixteen rounds at a man with a gun and succeed in wounding nine bystanders, the comforting idea that a firefight can be contained sort of goes out the window.

On the other hand, if we all get together and be reasonable about the topic, we can come to the comforting conclusion that the uber-terrorists of 24 are just as much of a fantasy.

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What I’m Reading: Raising Steam, or, Modernity Comes to Discworld

raising-steamThere are a precious few of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels that I have not yet read, and I am clinging to them covetously, putting off reading them because all too soon there will be no more additions to the Discworld library. Sir Terry is still alive and kicking and churning out novels, but he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease—that he remains this prolific is nothing short of heroic. As much as we don’t want to acknowledge it, Discworld devotees know that sooner or later there will be no more novels forthcoming.

Raising Steam is the fortieth Discworld novel (the thirty-sixth if you don’t count the young adult novels), and is still currently in hardcover. I had been putting off buying it, waiting for the paperback but also possibly adding it to the small pile of Discworld novels I was resisting reading. But at Slayage I discovered a fellow Discworld devotee, my new friend Dale whose blog I quoted in my previous post. She had just finished Raising Steam and gifted me with her copy, on the condition that I told her what I thought of it when I was done.

Well … here I go. Fair warning: this post is not so much a review of Raising Steam as it is a working-through of thoughts I have had about Pratchett’s writing for some time, which his most recent novel has managed to bring into something resembling sharp relief.

Also fair warning: spoilers.


Raising Steam brings the railway to Discworld: it begins as a young engineer named Dick Simnel continues with the experiments with steam that had killed his father, and ends with the new railway connecting the city of Ankh-Morpork—a center of Discworld commerce and culture—with far-flung Uberwald, in the process facilitating a mission of speedy diplomacy that restores the progressive Low King of the dwarfs to his usurped throne … which itself allows for a seismic change to dwarf society.

I’ve subtitled this review “Modernity Comes to Discworld,” but anyone who is more than just a casual reader of Sir Terry’s novels knows that that is more than just a little disingenuous. The Discworld is a fantasy world through and through, and as such displays all of the conventions of fantasy we have come to expect and then some: dwarfs, trolls, goblins, wizards, witches, gods, magic, castles, quests, prophecies, dragons, supernatural plots and conspiracies, and so forth. But in a variety of ways, Pratchett’s novels only present the façade of fantasy. If we define fantasy fiction as a genre that anchors its magical and supernatural elements in an identifiably medieval or at least premodern setting (as George R.R. Martin has said on several occasions, fantasy and historical fiction are “sisters beneath the skin”), Pratchett arguably performs a constant bait-and-switch insofar as that the Discworld and its denizens—or at least those denizens who star in the novels—don’t exactly embody a Tolkienesque sensibility. “Modernity” has been creeping into the Discworld landscape almost from the start.

Even so, the introduction of the steam engine and the railway is still somewhat jarring, for the simple reason that it is perhaps the single greatest symbol of modernity and industrialization. I have written elsewhere that, in the Harry Potter novels, the Hogwarts Express is a peculiarly potent presence in that it functions as a sort of representative time machine—a nineteenth-century bridge between postmodern London and medieval England. In Raising Steam that trajectory is reversed as Dick Simnel’s newfangled gadget hurtles, along with its many enthusiastic passengers, into Discworld’s uncharted future.

Considering Pratchett’s incremental modernization of Discworld, which I’ll discuss below, it is difficult not to read Raising Steam and the massive paradigm shift the locomotive represents as the culmination of a life’s work. As mentioned about, Sir Terry was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007. Mercifully, it has been a mild case, and he does not appear to have missed a step in his writing since then (though now he no longer types his own work, but has to dictate and otherwise work an assistant to get the words on the page). However, his fans wait in dread for the inevitable. Only a few days ago, a friend pointed me to an article in The Guardian, which reports that Sir Terry has had to cancel his appearance at the International Discworld Convention because of his Alzheimers, saying sadly that “the Embuggerance is finally catching up with me.”

Is the railway a parting gift to Discworld? Is he officially ushering it into the modern age while he still can? It might seem odd, in a fantasy series, to impose modern technology on the fantasy world: certainly, Tolkien would have been aghast to have steel rails and belching locomotives cutting a swath through the Shire (as indeed, the dystopian Shire to which the hobbits return was precisely an anti-industrial polemic). But Pratchett has a very different relationship to fantasy than did Tolkien, or really even most people writing fantasy today. The nostalgic quality that inflects much of the genre is largely absent in Discworld—rather, Sir Terry uses fantasy as a comedic means to explore the relationship between narrative’s folkloric tendencies and the exigencies of the modern world.


colour-magicThe Discworld novels started in 1983 with The Colour of Magic, which was followed by The Light Fantastic. Both of these novels were essentially parodies of fantasy as a genre, with comically outsized heroes, improbable and illogical encounters, and bizarre plot twists as befit characters traveling across a magical landscape. But as Discworld evolved and Sir Terry added more and more stories to the series (he published fifteen Discworld novels between 1983 and 1993), Discworld and its inhabitants took on form and substance that, while unfailingly funny, became less about parodying fantasy and more about employing fantasy to articulate a markedly humanist and pragmatic world view.

Pratchett himself has always been an outspoken humanist, perhaps most famously in his oft-repeated pronouncement that “I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.” In that sentiment one glimpses something essential to the Discworld ethos: the valorization of human potential over divine intervention, and the figuration of people (which in the case of Discworld is not just humans but dwarfs, trolls, vampires, and so forth) as progressive and emergent rather than fallen, postlapsarian beings. Pratchett’s sensibility, not to put too fine a point on it, is an eminently sensible one, which sees more wonder in the simple fact that beings evolved from monkeys invented streetlamps than in any ostensible divine origin:

I find it far more interesting … that a bunch of monkeys got down off the trees and stopped arguing long enough to build this … to build that, to build everything. And we’re monkeys—our heritage is, in times of difficulty, climb a tree and throw shit at other trees. That’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels … Within the story of evolution is a story far more interesting than any in the Bible. It teaches us amazing things. That stars are not important. There’s nothing interesting about stars. Streetlamps are very important, because they’re so rare … as far as we know, there’s only a few million of them in the universe. And they were built by monkeys! Who came up with philosophy, and gods! And this is so much more interesting, it is so much more right. Admittedly, we err, such as when we made Tony Blair prime minister. But given where we started from … we actually haven’t done that badly. And I would much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.

I disagree with him on the unimportance or tedium of stars, but his point is well taken (and, really, is just a rhetorical flourish). The above is from a talk he gave for The Guardian, the relevant part of which can be viewed on YouTube:

soul-musicThe Discworld novels articulate and expand on the various facets and implications of such sentiments. His assertion that “In my religion, the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral” finds numerous corollaries, as he introduces various modern phenomena into Discworld in parodic fashion—though not to parody fantasy as in his first two novels, but rather to use fantasy as a means to parody our own real-world foibles. In Moving Pictures (1990) and Soul Music (1994), cinema and rock and roll, respectively, make appearances on the Discworld scene, in both cases facilitated by quasi-magical circumstances to emerge and reach critical mass before disappearing as the magical framework collapses. But where these end up as one-offs in Discworld, the last fifteen years or so (or, to measure time in Pratchett productivity, sixteen Discworld novels) has seen a number of modern incursions into Sir Terry’s fantasy world taking root and expanding.

Perhaps first and foremost among these is the network of “clacks towers,” which first appears in The Fifth Elephant (1999). The clacks towers are the Discworld analogue to the telegraph: lines of towers in visual range of each other, which relay messages through a series of semaphore-type codes, and which (by the time we get to Raising Steam) run the length and breadth of Discworld and have become integral to both politics and commerce. In The Truth (2000), the printing press arrives in the city of Ankh-Morpork, which gives rise to the invention of the newspaper and the profession of journalism. In Going Postal (2004), Ankh-Morpork establishes the modern postal system; and in Making Money (2007), modern banking and coinage.

It is important to note here that as our image of Discworld evolves over numerous novels, it becomes clear that the city of Ankh-Morpork—center of commerce, polyglot metropolis, and emigration destination for pretty much all races and species in Discworld—comes to emblematize Sir Terry’s humanistic ethos. It is a place where peoples from all over Discworld, both humans of all stripes and species such as dwarfs of trolls, come to make new lives, to earn money to send home, or to flee their homelands. It is not, to be clear, a nice place—it is dirty, overpopulated, violent, capricious, and fickle—but in being distinctively un-utopian (without being actually dystopian), it depicts the inescapable messiness of the humanist project. Some of the most profound conflicts in Sir Terry’s novels occur when individuals or groups of great power (magical or otherwise) attempt to clean up the messiness of humanity and impose a “clean,” neat utopian order—such as happens in Reaper Man (1991), Small Gods (1992), Hogfather (1996), The Truth (2000), Thief of Time (2001), and Night Watch (2002). “The moment you start measuring people,” reflects Sam Vimes in Night Watch, “sooner or later, people don’t measure up.” The imposition of an autocratic, absolute external logic is anathema to Sir Terry. One of his key recurring characters is the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Havelock Vetinari. Vetinari is, for all intents and purposes, the Platonic ideal of the benevolent dictator, a beautifully Machiavellian character in the truest sense of the word insofar as his primary concern is not the maintenance of his own power but the welfare of his city. Though he is a self-described tyrant and at times behaves in a tyrannical manner (certainly, his enemies never fare well), he proceeds from the foundational understanding that a healthy society is one in which individuals must have the freedom to make their own choices, and that the role of government was to make certain no one faction of society’s choices took precedence over any other’s.

(An attitude that pervades many parts of Discworld, even those more specifically medieval and premodern than Ankh-Morpork. The Kingdom of Lancre, for example, the most obviously medieval European region of Discworld, resists any attempt at democratization, but their attitude to kings is such that imposing an absolute monarchy would be monumentally difficult:

The people of Lancre wouldn’t dream of living in anything other than a monarchy. They’d done so for thousands of years and knew that it worked. But they’d also found that it didn’t do to pay too much attention to what the king wanted, because there was bound to be another king along in forty years or so and he’d be certain to want something different and so they’d have gone to all that trouble for nothing. In the meantime, his job as they saw it was to mostly stay in the palace, practice the waving, have enough sense to face the right way on coins and let them get on with the plowing, sowing, growing and harvesting. It was, as they saw it, a social contract. They did what they always did, and he let them. (Carpe Jugulum)

The Discworld novels are marked by this sort of pragmatism, pragmatism that is both the commonsensical and quotidian variety, and the philosophical kind.)

Ankh-Morpork sits in the midst of an archipelago of fantasy analogues to different real-world premodern societies, from Lancre, to Uberwald’s gothic medieval, to Djelibeybi’s re-imagination of ancient Egypt, Klatch’s Middle-East, the Agatean Empire’s dynastic China, or the city-state of Ephebe’s version of ancient Athens. Ankh-Morpork exerts a gravitational pull on all these places and draws the denizens of otherwise isolated and xenophobic societies into direct and profitable contact with one another. And it is therefore unsurprising that all of the elements of modernity that Pratchett introduces into Discworld either emerge in Ankh-Morpork or are refined (and monetized) there.


The steam engine and railway in Raising Steam are no exception in this respect. The only real difference is that in this novel there is an awful lot more musing on the nature of progress and innovation. Moist von Lipwig, hero of Going Postal and Making Money, whom Vetinari once again ropes into managing a new phenomenon for the benefit of Ankh-Morpork, takes to the task with far less reluctance than with the city’s post office, bank, and mint. The former con man and scoundrel sees all too clearly the railway’s potential, and frequently pauses to reflect on the nature of progress, in both its destructive and beneficial effects in which old orders crumble but create new possibilities. Even Lord Vetinari is more given to philosophical reflection than usual, at first looking suspiciously at this new technology but quickly resigning himself to its inevitability (with Moist looking out for the city’s interests, however).

Curious, the Patrician thought … that people in Ankh-Morpork professed not to like change while at the same time fixating on every new entertainment and diversion that came their way. There was nothing the mob liked better than novelty. Lord Vetinari sighed again. Did they actually think? These days everybody used the clacks, even little old ladies who used it to send him clacks messages complaining about these newfangled ideas, totally missing the irony. And in this doleful mood he ventured to wonder if they ever thought back to when things were just old-fangled or not fangled at all as against the modern day when fangled had reached its apogee. Fangling was indeed, he thought, here to stay.

The conflict at the center of Raising Steam is not about the development of the railway per se, but with a power struggle occurring in dwarf society. Of all the races and species inhabiting Discworld, dwarfs are (after humans) the most complexly imagined. Two previous novels, The Fifth Elephant (1999) and Thud! (2007) looked closely at the history of dwarfish culture, its customs and traditions, and the faultlines that have always run through it. There has always been a divide among dwarfs between the forces of tradition and those of progress, between those purists who wish to hew to an authentic, ur-dwarfishness, and those who leave their homeland and its mines and (frequently) settle in Ankh-Morpork.

At its heart, Raising Steam is less about the modernizing force of technology than the confrontation between a fanatical devotion to tradition and the exigencies of a rapidly changing world. One thing we learned in The Fifth Elephant was that male and female dwarfs look more or less identical, and only acknowledge themselves as male outside the privacy of marriage (which, as Pratchett notes, makes courtship a delicate affair). But in The Fifth Elephant, female dwarfs in Ankh-Morpork have started to identify as female, something veritably heretical in their homeland of Uberwald. The Fifth Elephant was about the coronation of a progressive king; in Thud!, the dwarfs negotiate a peace treaty with their traditional enemies, the trolls. In both cases, these crucial events were quietly orchestrated by Lord Vetinari through his proxy Samuel Vimes, commander of the City Watch.

In Raising Steam, a schism among the absolutist dwarfs—the “grags” or “delvers” as they are known—leads not just to a coup d’etat, but also to terroristic attacks on the clacks network and the embryonic railway, symbols of change and progress that the purist delvers cannot abide. I won’t make any claim that the novel is subtle on this front: the delvers very obviously represent fundamentalist and evangelical factions in contemporary culture, something made painfully obvious by the fact that delvers will only emerge from below ground when clad in heavy black robes that hide their faces.

This lack of subtlety is part of the reason why this novel feels like Pratchett hurrying Discworld out of its medieval trappings and firmly into the modern world. The reinstated dwarfish king, Rhys Rhysson, lays it out for his fundamentalist foes in no uncertain terms:

[I]t is your kind that makes dwarfs small, wrapped up in themselves: declaring that any tiny change in what is thought to be a dwarf is somehow sacrilege. I can remember the days when even talking to a human was forbidden by idiots such as you. And now you have to understand it’s not about dwarfs, or the humans, or the trolls, it’s about the people, and that’s where the troublesome Lord Vetinari wins the game. In Ankh-Morpork you can be whatever you want to be and sometimes people laugh and sometimes they clap, and mostly and beautifully, they don’t really care.

Rhys then goes on to truly shake dwarf society to its core by revealing that he is not, in fact, their king at all but their queen—and defiantly rejects the title of king, saying that from that moment on, dwarfs will no longer be required to hide or deny their gender.

All of which was made possible, of course, by the construction of the railway: anticipating problems in Uberwald (where the dwarfs’ Low Kingdom resides), Vetinari orders Moist von Lipwig to make certain the railway will run the entire distance (which Moist protests is impossible in the allotted time—but Vetinari exercises the tyrant’s prerogative and demands that it be done). Of course, though it is touch and go, he succeeds—and the timely return of Queen Rhys allows her to reclaim the throne and make her game-changing announcement.

I can’t say that Raising Steam is among the best Discworld novels … though it avoids the narrative incoherence that marked Snuff (2012) and Unseen Academicals (2010), as I’ve observed, it is markedly unsubtle in its themes and execution—though thankfully in very interesting ways that have helped clarify some of my thinking about the Discworld series. There is an unmistakably wistful tone that makes me wonder if we’ll see Ankh-Morpork and the geopolitics of Discworld depicted again (Pratchett’s apology to the Discworld Convention states that he has a new Tiffany Aching novel in process, but I find that the YA Discworld novels lack the broader sense of the world at large). The novel’s final word is given to Lord Ventinari, who muses, “all that anyone can say now is: What next? What little thing will change the world because the tinkers carried on tinkering?”

What indeed.

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