Category Archives: what I’m reading

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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What I’m (re)Reading: Evolution

baxter_evolution-181x300I haven’t posted about books I’ve been reading for a while, partly because much of it has been the rereading I do for teaching. And since classes ended, I’ve continued in my rereading of some favourite books. Just this morning I finished Evolution by Stephen Baxter, a novel that is the epitome of nerd crack.

Basically, the novel is the story of human DNA: from the first rodent-like primates running around under the feet of the dinosaurs, to homo erectus, to Neanderthals, to homo sapiens … and then speculating millions of years into the future as to where we’re going. Spoiler alert: we don’t become balls of pure energy as Gene Roddenberry suggested.

The novel is part interlinked short stories interspersed across millions of years, and part extended lecture on evolutionary biology. If you’re the kind of reader who hates novels that explicitly try to teach you something, take a pass. But if you’re like me and love a good story that also offers tons of cool facts, well … like I said, nerd crack.

The story begins with Purga (from purgatorius, one of the first species of primates), and her anxious life at the feet of the dinosaurs. More importantly, Purga lives through the comet-strike that resulted in the mass extinction of the great saurians. The description of the comet hitting the earth, and the effect it had, is really worth the price of admission: while Baxter’s prose is mostly serviceable, here he attains a certain brutal lyrical elegance.

The impact had sent an energy pulse through the body of the earth. In North and South America, across thousands of kilometers, faults gaped and landslides crashed, as the shocked ground shuddered. The rocky waves weakened as they propagated, but the Earth’s internal layers acted like a giant lens to refocus the seismic energy at the impact’s antipode, the southwestern Pacific. Even here, the width of the planet away, the ocean floor heaved in swells ten times higher than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The shock waves would continue to pass through the planet’s body, crossing, interfering, reinforcing. For days, the Earth would ring like a bell.

If the novel has a flaw, it’s that it tends to be repetitive. Certain tenets of evolutionary theory are narrated again and again, and Baxter never misses an opportunity to remind us of the cruel, cold calculus that is survival of the fittest. Aside from this occasional didactic tendency, however, the novel manages to tell the story of evolution with almost a potboiler-level of immediacy—no mean feat, considering that each chapter introduces new characters and new settings that necessitate a whole lot of exposition and mental adjustment on the reader’s part to animals and landscapes literally reshaped and reinvented by time. The narrative’s principal pivot-point balances on the story of a pregnant paleontologist (try saying that five times fast) named Joan Useb who, with the assistance of her friend Alyce Sigurdardottir—a biologist—has organized a huge conference of scientists of varying disciplines in (appropriately) Darwin Australia. The year is 2031, and all the global problems of our present day—climate change, wealth inequality, rapacious corporate culture, dwindling natural resources—have only gotten worse. Much worse, to the point that Joan and Alyce have an ulterior motive for organizing the conference: to bring together the best scientific minds in the world and bang out a manifesto for how to arrest and reverse the global descent into crisis. It’s a Hail Mary play, but we never get a chance to find out if it will work. The conference is attacked by a group of fundamentalist fanatics just as a massive volcano in Papua New Guinea explodes and pushes the planet’s fragile climate past the point of no return.

The chapters following the conference’s failure chart the fortunes of humanity millions of years into the future. A group of Royal Navy soldiers, cryogenically frozen as part of an elaborate deterrence strategy, awake to discover that they had been forgotten and left asleep through the fall of civilization. They do not know how long they have been frozen, but it slowly becomes obvious that at least a millennium has passed. They do encounter people, but people who have reverted to a bestial state, with no language. When one of the soldiers voices incredulity that humans would lose language, another replies,

Why not? Birds lose flight all the time. To be smart costs. Even a brain the size of yours is expensive; it eats a lot of energy from your body’s supply. Maybe this isn’t a world where being smart pays off as much as, say, being able to run fast or see sharply. It probably didn’t take much rewiring for language, even consciousness, to be shut down. And now the brains are free to shrink. Give them a hundred thousand years, and they’ll look like australopithecines.

The “cost” of intelligence in evolutionary terms is another of the points Baxter hammers home repeatedly, describing the evolutionary steps that made intelligence and language advantageous and the concomitant difficulties it posed our genetic ancestors: the inability to breed prolifically, for example, or the necessary helplessness of human infants. Other species’ offspring are vulnerable but emerge with all their faculties intact; deer and horses can walk, turtles can swim, and so forth. Given a lack of predation, they can fend for themselves, whereas a human baby simply cannot. The reason, Baxter points out, is because our brains are incomplete when we’re born. If they weren’t, we simply wouldn’t fit through the birth canal. Human beings, in effect, continue to gestate for several years after birth.

The devolution of humanity, which comprises the final three chapters, is one of the most remarkable elements of the book for the simple reason that it challenges the tacit assumption of progress, that evolution inevitably describes an upward arc. The soldier who commented on the brain’s energy cost also points out, when his commander declares his intention to rebuild civilization, that there is nothing to build with—all of the easily accessible natural resources that made civilization possible have been used up. One of my favourite chapters in the novel—the last historical one before the ill-fated conference—takes place in CE 482, in the midst of the ruins of the Roman Empire. It details a Roman named Honorius’ fascination with old bones. He has traveled widely, collecting a mishmash of fossils, dinosaur bones, and pre-human skulls. Honorius is sort of a proto-Darwin, slowly piecing together an understanding of a much more ancient past than ever previously imagined, out of which humans emerged. But he never has a chance to be Darwin, as he is murdered in a power struggle between Romans and local Gallic nobles.

Honorius’ death, and with him the death of a theory that won’t re-emerge for fourteen hundred years, is a potent little allegory of how Rome’s demise deprived Europe of its social and technological sophistication for a millennium. More significantly however, the chapter is an excuse to depict the tatters of Rome, whose empire “had thrived on expansion, which had brought triumphs for ambitious generals, profits for traders, and a ready source of slaves.” But at a certain point expansion was no longer possible, and the system collapsed:

There came a point of diminishing returns, in which every denarius collected in taxes was pumped into administrative maintenance and the military. The empire became increasingly complex and bureaucratic—and so even more expensive to run—and inequality of wealth became grotesque. By the time of Nero in the first century, all the land from the Rhine to the Euphrates was owned by just two thousand obscenely rich individuals. Tax evasion among the wealthy became endemic, and the increasing cost of propping up the empire fell ever more heavily on the poor. The old middle class—once the backbone of the empire—declined, bled by taxes and squeezed out from above and below. The empire consumed itself from within.

I said this was one of my favourite chapters; I didn’t claim it was subtle. The Roman with Darwinian thoughts is really just an excuse to use the fall of Rome as an object lesson. Rome fell and plunged Europe into the dark ages, but civilization was ultimately rebuilt. One of the novel’s central messages is that, as a species, we won’t have that opportunity. Roman civilization crumbled, but was preserved piecemeal in the east; the Renaissance was to a large extent its rediscovery, and that historical drama of fall and rise was played out in a small section of the globe, having no direct effect beyond the former extent of the empire. Evolution reminds us that any collapse now would necessarily be total, global, and we will lack the resources for anything resembling a reconstruction of the world as we know it.

As enjoyable a read as it is, Evolution is a deeply depressing novel, both for its bleak outlook and for the way in which our current existence is rendered utterly insignificant when viewed on a geological time line. It makes the appeal of creationism somewhat more understandable, as a six thousand year old world made specifically for humanity is a far more comforting prospect than the mind-numbing swath of years depicted in Evolution. Yesterday I watched a documentary on HBO called Challenging Darwin, which looks at creationism in contrast to Darwin’s life and his gradual distancing of himself from his faith, which had been strong enough early in his life to consider a career in the clergy. The documentary itself is forgettable; what I came away from it with was a depressing sense of just how incommensurable these two discourses are. Creationism begins and ends with the Bible, full stop. One of the evangelicals interviewed proudly declared that “if the Bible said two plus two equaled five,” he would have to adopt his understanding of math to conform. But what a lot of the creationists maintained is that they simply cannot accept the idea that the universe was not made specifically for them; again and again they express the belief that everything is meant to be and everything has meaning as part of God’s plan, and that our presence on the earth is not transient but immortal.

They really ought to read Evolution.


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Tolkien and the Humble Tater: Thoughts on Food and Fantasy


I always loved the fact that the original Japanese version of Iron Chef started with a epigraph from the nineteenth-century French gourmand Jean Anselme Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Besides being the perfect pretentious opening for one of the most beautifully bombastic television shows ever made, the sentiment has always rung true for me … and unlike many pithy aphorisms, does not start to crumble under examination.

In my other life where I’m still a university professor, I’m a food historian or possibly food anthropologist (as opposed to my other other life, in which I’m a military historian). This is, I should add, a relatively recent enthusiasm: moving to Newfoundland has been something of a catalyst in this regard, as there are so many examples of this province’s history built into its food traditions. Go into the liquor store and you find nearly an entire wall given over to rum—which at first glance is odd, as you wouldn’t think liquor made from sugar cane would have such a foothold in this northern clime. By the same token, the presence of salt cod in so many traditional Caribbean dishes is similarly counter-intuitive, considering the bounty of fresh fish readily available. But both of course are legacies of the trade routes running salt cod south and sugar and rum north, and both are deeply and unfortunately entwined with the horrors of slavery and the depredations of colonialism.

Perhaps it is because of this dilettantish enthusiasm for food (though I stop well short of calling myself a “foodie”) and its history, but I find myself noticing it a lot in fiction … or in some cases, noticing its absence. I always tell my students: pay attention to the stuff. That is, pay attention to what a given author foregrounds, what he or she chooses to devote especial attention to. If that happens to be food, all the better: why, for example, does someone so parsimonious with detail as Ernest Hemingway devote so much attention to what his characters eat and drink (especially drink)? Or consider our first introduction to Mr. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Bloom is, above all else, a sensualist, a man whose tactile and sensory relationship to the world is placed in contradistinction to the moody and cerebral Stephen Dedalus; a partiality to inner organs of beasts and fowls is eminently appropriate to a man with a more visceral experience of life.

Fantasy as a genre has a particularly interesting relationship with food, for the simple reason that the creation of an alternate world requires some benchmarks for readers rooted in what Tolkien called the “primary world.” The most obvious example today is A Song of Ice and Fire, in which George R.R. Martin lavishes loving detail on (it sometimes seems) every single morsel of food his characters consume (seriously: Every. Single. One). On one hand, it is the prose of an author who himself obviously loves good food; on another hand, it is a shrewd and pungent way to establish regional identity in a world that, as the series progresses, just keeps getting bigger.

Indeed, food plays a prominent enough role in Martin’s novels that one of the promotional gimmicks for HBO’s adaptation was a series of food trucks roaming New York and L.A. selling “the food of Westeros” … food inspired by the series and devised by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio:

feastoficeandfireMartin’s preoccupation with food has also spawned a Game of Thrones cookbook, A Feast of Ice and Fire—itself the product of a blog, Inn at the Crossroads, which has for several years been approximating meals from the novels like almond-crusted trout, honeyed chicken, honey-spiced locusts (which are probably best to avoid, and not just because they’re insects, as readers of the books will attest), and of course Sansa Stark’s beloved lemon cakes.

But in Tolkien? Not so much. If we are, as I enjoin my students, to pay attention to the stuff in The Lord of the Rings, our attention is drawn predominantly to descriptions of landscape. The most descriptive passages tend to focus on the terrain through which the main characters pass. This preoccupation is perhaps unsurprising, considering that Tolkien was an avid hiker and loved a good walk about as much as George R.R. Martin likes a good restaurant; but more specifically to the novel, landscape in its various iterations becomes deeply significant in its oppositions between the pastoral cultivation in the Shire and dangerous wilderness; between plain and forest; and most crucially between a utopian, idyllic world of beauty, and the blighted, dystopian spaces of Mirkwood or Mordor.

Food is of course present in the novel, but usually in passing and rarely with any detail or description. It is indeed rare that we even know what characters are eating (lembas excepted). There are no Game of Thrones-esque scenes in which “Pippin tore a crisp leg, sticky with honey and crusted with herbs, from the roasted capon.” And what specificity we do get with food tends to rest with the hobbits—the lavish feast at Bilbo’s birthday party, for example, or the hobbits’ two meals of mushrooms. Hobbits, as we are told repeatedly, are small creatures with capacious appetites, so it stands to reason that they’ll be more preoccupied with meals than stern men, stoic dwarves, or ethereal elves.

Hence, when Sam determines to cook a meal for Frodo and cajoles Gollum into catching some rabbits for the task, the scene stands out. And we get a fun little insight into hobbit priorities:

All hobbits, of course, can cook, for they begin to learn the art before their letters (which many never reach); but Sam was a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning, and he had done a good deal of the camp-cooking on their travels, when there was a chance. He still hopefully carried some of his gear in his pack: a small tinder-box, two small shallow pans, the smaller fitting into the larger; inside them a wooden spoon, a short two-pronged fork and some skewers were stowed; and hidden at the bottom of the pack in a flat wooden box a dwindling treasure, some salt.

The resulting meal is, however simple it ends up being, among the most vividly described in the novel. More than that however, it serves to make Sam’s familiar, banal act of cooking that much more remarkable. Indeed, given the context, cooking a simple and wholesome meal is nothing short of heroic, and the attention Tolkien gives it emphasizes its thematic importance, something I’ve touched on in a previous post: the role of “home” and the “homely” as a touchstone, the manner in which it, by contrast, emphasizes just how far from home they actually are, and (of course) it serves as a concrete manifestation of Sam’s loyalty and devotion. That being said, the stew’s lack is just as significant as what it possesses. It has nothing to flesh it out besides the rabbits themselves, and the paltry herbs Sam is able to forage. It is on one hand a reminder of the comforts of home; but Sam is also keenly aware of how deficient a stew it is, with its lack of any vegetative besides herbs—and in particular, its lack of potatoes. His little disquisition on taters in answer to Gollum’s question is one of my favourite Sam moments, and one rendered very well in the film:

“Po—ta—toes,” said Sam. “The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Smeagol and fetch me some herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters on of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.”

But of course Gollum can say no, preferring his own rather gruesome version of sashimi. This little wistful ode to potatoes speaks to Sam’s rustic and rural simplicity—if we think of potatoes in cultural terms, there is much of the peasant attached to them, in part because of their colonial associations with the rural Irish. And if we can cast our minds back to the very first chapter, we recall that the list of Bilbo’s bequeathals included two sacks of potatoes for “Old Gaffer Gamgee,” Sam’s father (as well as “a new spade, a woolen waistcoat, and a bottle of ointment for creaking joints”).

There is also here yet another fun anachronism, for both potatoes and the practice of frying in oil were alien to the European Middle Ages. We might associate potatoes with Ireland, but in fact potatoes were not indigenous to Europe—they were transplanted from South America in the sixteenth century. And frying as a means of cooking, while practiced in, for example, ancient Rome, was not at all common in the Middle Ages. Certainly, the dish of “fish and chips” as we know it did not become standard fare until the eighteenth century and after. (Fun fact: initially, the batter was not meant to be eaten, but was used to protect the flesh of the fish from the hot oil). The point here being that “fish and chips” is an ahistorical gesture on Tolkien’s part that grounds the hobbits and the Shire in a particular sense of Englishness—and again, in a particular sense of “home.”

So what? (you might well ask). Tolkien isn’t writing historical fiction; potatoes and battered, fried fish might be fatal anachronisms in a novel seeking to accurately depict the middle ages, but there’s no such restrictions in fantasy. Indeed, the presence of a potato in an ostensibly medieval, vaguely European context is rather insignificant next to sorcery, magical rings, and immortal elves. Which is true enough, but misses the point, which is that this scene, with Sam’s ode to the humble tuber, is deeply significant for the fact that nowhere else is food so celebrated except in the abstract. Hobbits, as we have established, love to eat; what they love to eat is left to the imagination.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Sam’s love of potatoes speaks to who and what he is, the simple but sturdy rural yeoman embodying certain qualities of the English agrarian working class. If other hobbits (such as the Sackville-Bagginses, Ted Sandyman, or those who get in line twice at Bilbo’s party to receive gifts twice) are Tolkien’s gentle poke at country folks’ small-minded parochialism, Samwise Gamgee is his celebration of their virtues of loyalty, tenacity, and common-sense (or “hobbit-sense”). Sam is, ultimately, the novel’s true hero: it is he who gets Frodo to Mount Doom through sheer force of will, finally carrying him when Frodo no longer has the strength to walk. He also, in a moment that bears quoting in full, resists the temptation to take up the Ring himself while he bears it:

As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging from a chain around about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forebear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

There is an awful lot in this passage to parse, and I want to come back to it in a future post to talk about Tolkien’s conception of tyranny and what it means to be a “free gardener” (or “free” anything). But for now the main point is the fantasy the Ring gives Sam: that of the uber-gardener, the Great Power who will make the desert bloom. As I mentioned in one of my first Lord of the Rings posts, Tolkien’s vision of the pastoral is not an unequivocal celebration of nature, which it its wild incarnations is perilous and frequently terrifying. Rather, he romanticizes the domestication of wilderness in the form of the Shire, in which domestication is effected not by domination but by cultivation. The twinned figures of the farmer and gardener are ultimately as heroic in Tolkien’s world as the warrior.

I seem to have strayed a little from my overarching topic here, which is about the thematic, symbolic, and metaphorical significance of food. Do I derive this reading of Sam solely from his love of potatoes? Of course not. But that moment—which is, in its way, a moment of honesty and vulnerability, spoken to an unsympathetic listener—stands out for me, not least because it is one of the only instances when food is described in specific terms. “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.”


UPDATE: I had literally posted this blog entry when my friend Allan Pero posted this picture to my Facebook wall.



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