Fortunes of France: The Brethren by Robert Merle

brethrenWritten in 1977 and supposedly an unheralded french classic, this is the first of a 13 volume saga finally being translated into english. It’s about two soldiers, both named Jean, sworn brothers-maybe-lovers, who return from war to establish lands, build wealth, be fruitful and multiply. One of the Jean’s sons, Pierre, narrates his family’s life from some time in the future. It’s a tumultuous life indeed as the Jeans are newly reformed protestants amidst the French Wars of Religion. A war and period I knew nothing about prior to this book. But I learned plenty.

Because, you see, the narrator, the characters themselves often speak like textbooks:

(character recounting a battle that happened offscreen)

He reinforced the gates of the citadel with four cannon brought from the streets of the city, and launched numerous attacks on our position but couldn’t manage to dislodge us. When dawn brought low tide, Wentworth, realizing he’d lost half his troops, decided to surrender. At his request, Guise granted all of the inhabitants of the city safe conduct, just as Edward III had done for the French two centuries earlier, when he had taken the city.

Or try this (narration)

On 2nd August, a month after the Bayonne meetings, the principal Protestant lords of the Sarlat region, still greatly alarmed, met at Mespech. Armand de Gontaut Saint-Genies, Foucad de Saint-Astier, Geoffroy de Baynac, Jean de Foucauld and Geoffroy de Caumont arrived separately, under the cover of darkness and in the greatest secrecy.

The worst part is that the history lessons are actually the most interesting part of this book. The characters are two dimensional; they are only known by a handful of unchanging traits. The dumb superstitious servant woman. The lugubrious* man who never speaks except to impart dismal wisdom. The haughty, cowardly older brother. The blessed idiot. The guy with a moustache. The Jeans actually pick up so many random passerby (reminding me of recruiting random people in role playing games) that it becomes difficult to tell them apart, even with their singular attributes.

There’s not much plot, per se. The characters are largely swept along by history, generally profiting from the ills affecting their countryman. As I mentioned, the history itself is interesting. France was brutally at its own throat as the protestants and catholics tortured, murdered, and dispossessed each other. The actual reasoning that people converted to the ‘reformed religion’ — corruption of the church, nobles buying their way into heaven, excessive pomp that missed the point — and why the catholics tried to hold on, not least of all due to the celebratory nature of feast days and the way the worship of saints endured as a stand-in for pagan tradition is fascinating. They seem mostly indistinguishable to outsiders nowadays.

But if I wanted to read a history book, I would have done so. And surely received a better account.

Also, an aspect of this book important to note: the author is obsessed with breasts. They are described in detail in virtually any scene that involves a woman. They might be barely concealed by rags or about to fall out at any moment. There are tense action scenes with bizarre interludes where Merle deems a status-check on a woman’s breasts absolutely necessary. Moreover, there’s an excessive and honestly hilarious focus on breast feeding.

And this said, she drew out from her blouse with a firm hand and an easy gesture first her right and then her left breast, both so round and large and white that a great silence fell over the room so that all you could hear was the tiniest crackle of the fire and the gluttonous suckling of the two hungries.

I cannot stop cracking up at this passage. Just this whole room descending into silence, mouths agape. When I was mentioning the character types above, I failed to name the wetnurse, as her only function in the narrative is breastfeeding. There’s actually another paragraph or two of description that follows that quote. And this is not the only time this happens. Over and over, with multiple characters. Someone’s got a fetish.

*I have never seen this word used so much in one book in my life. It’s in every sentence that involves this guy.

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The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

1Of the The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, comprised of The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch.

In the far distant future, as our sun starts to wane and die out, humanity clings to the ruinous cities left standing. Technology has gone backwards for the greater populace, but some of the highest classes maintain weapons and luxuries that dwarf our modern capabilities. They have lost the ability to create new things, merely maintain them. Amid the sprawling city of Nessus, there lies an ancient citadel that houses the once prestigious, but now nearly defunct and useless guild of the torturers. We follow Severian, our dubious protagonist, as he turns from young and reverent torturer apprentice to exile and wanderer.

These books succeed on many levels, but it is the tone and sense of place that shines most. The world of the dying sun is bleak, stars blink during the day-time, the green vitality of natural life is dimmed to some off-color we modern (ancient?) humans wouldn’t recognize. People seem to be just scrabbling by, amidst a rigidly stratified class structure that seems to have no mobility except down. The climate is various flavors of cold or otherwise swampy, oppressing, and toxic. This planet, Urth, has gone so far past resource scarcity that no one even acknowledges a lack. Mining is synonymous with archeology. Layers upon layers of civilization combined with future tech combined with aliens combined with magical happenstance, evoke an alien world that actually feels alien and not rote and cliche, like much sci-fi/fantasy of both Wolfe’s time (books written 1980-83) and our own.

Each novel follows the last with very little in time gaps or major tonal shifts, yet structurally, they are all very different.

The Shadow of the Torturer

We’re introduced to the narrator, Severian, writing from the present day while he uses his photographic memory to recount the events of the novel. It begins with his boyhood growing up as an apprentice of the torturer’s guild — his friends, his adventures, his schooling. In his narrow world, it is a great honor to be raised as a torturer and there is nothing dubious about it. This book is nearly a bilsdungroman; Severian grows up, ponders life and memory Proust-style, meets some interesting people, but by the time the book ends, he hasn’t even left the city. It is by far the slowest moving installment, which makes the faster paces of successive books jarring at first. There’s an inciting event in the very first chapter; Severian meets the leader of his government’s rebellion robbing graves in the citadel. It seems to imply the major plot of the series, but this is more of a footnote since almost the entirety of The Book of the New Sun is spent wandering from one place to another, and very little to do with the insurrection or government.

The Claw of the Conciliator

Finding himself in possession of the eponymous claw — a talisman somewhere between the Holy Grail and the One Ring — Severian attempts to complete several tasks at once (return the claw to its rightful owners, go find a job, reach certain locales, find certain people, etc) and does not really accomplish much of anything. It’s a wandering, aimless tale and the weakest book of bunch. I remember the least from it. As I mentioned above, the pace of the story accelerates and Severian bounds from one unrelated adventure to the next, occasionally too heavy reliant on coincidence. The most unsavory aspects of Severian’s character are on display here, but more on that later.

The Sword of the Lictor

While yet another string of adventures, this is far superior to the previous book, not least of all because of how freakin’ weird it gets. Aliens wearing leper masks under middle aged white man masks. Naked two-headed giants with grandiose pursuits. Hirsute, talking monsters that eat brains. Balloon skinned mermaids. The wilderness of the less populated regions of Urth appear incomprehensible. Some key revelations of earlier mysteries show many of the events underlying the first half of the series were not as they seem — an excellent tactic as it gets the reader questioning everything. Paradoxically, it is also a great departure from the other books. Severian spends much of it alone meeting new and strange people/creatures.

The Citadel of the Autarch

The first half of this book is a Canterbury Tales-esque session of several people in a military hospital exchanging stores across sick beds. This is followed by a sequence of bloody events that come to tie the framing story and the major political events of the first novel together while the hints of Christian allegory, until now in the periphery, are suddenly laid on thick. I have come to expect sort of milquetoast endings from long series, and while TBotNS is serviceable, it’s still jerky and not entirely satisfying. One of the biggest pitfalls sprawling narratives fall into is invalidating all the arduous traveling the protagonist has spent 800 pages travailing by allowing him/her to instantly get around the world to tie up loose ends.

 

2Everything that makes up The Book of the New Sun, everything it explores and everywhere it traverses, is viewed through the lens of Severian’s first person perspective. He has picture-perfect memory and constantly stresses his precision of recollection as he is writing this story, yet is he is clearing boasting, lying, omitting plenty of what actually happens. He’s assuredly an asshole, always ready to exert power over those he can. He holds the torturer’s guild in great esteem, which made sense when it was all he knew as a child, but he takes his sweet time even approaching any sort of conclusion that torture is pointless and wrong. He makes excuses for volunteering for easy executions (someone else would do it anyway). As many goodreads reviewers have noted, he has major problems with women. He’s totally down with casual rape. He’s not the brutish uncaring sort but one who likes to think witty things to himself like (paraphrasing): women are weaker than men and indeed it is our duty to protect to them but one advantage they do have is never having to have their reproductive parts crushed between their pelvis and a destrier’s (horse’s) spine. Sexual abuse is the highest form of torture in the guild and Severian reflects on an an event in his youth involving his teacher, a prisoner to be tortured, and an iron phallus. Whilst cutting down some nameless goons, our hero makes a comparison between his sword (which he is obsessed with) to said iron phallus, which makes you think we might be receiving some social-genre commentary here. But no, pulp-style, he goes on to continue hewing down all sorts of characters like so much grain.

Since it is entirely Severian’s point of view, we can never come to know what he was being truthful about and what his character is honestly like. There can be no denouement. We can also never know if the issues with women lacking agency are due to the author’s characterization of Severian or due to Gene Wolf himself. I find the method of storytelling effective and Severian is a compelling protagonist, but it is troubling element of the book. I’m certain we’re supposed to judge Severian, but how much? Given the savior role he begins to assume, I don’t feel inclined to be charitable to Wolfe here. There’s author ordained problems intentionally placed in Severian’s head and there’s unintentional issues with the text itself.

This series has major critical acclaim. Plastered across the covers of all the books is Neil Gaiman quoted: The best SF novel of the last century. There’s some incredibly hyperbolic praise floating around out there from professional writers. Unlike Gaiman, I would hardly recommend this without reservation, but something Wolfe undoubtedly has that these other writers admire is an excellent hand with language and prose. The sentence-level craft is much higher than the vast majority of SF. The writing is as ponderous and grim as the world it depicts. Wolfe adopts a pseudo-archaic language that mixes obscure english words with sci-fi words he made up. He notes in an appendix that uses such words as ‘destrier’ to imply a horse without actually calling it a horse, because in the distant future what we know as horses would not be quite the same. It works to great effect — the world feels both ancient and alien — though there are a few occasions where it leads to gobbledygook nonsense.

“but they had among them a dozen or so bejeweled young women borne in gilded howdahs on the backs of caparisoned arsinoithers.”

(note those are all real words other than the last which is a modification of arsinoitherium)

I’m glad I read it all. It’s been a long time since I just read through a full series like this. Usually I have a book lined up before I finish the previous one but here I was stumped because I was so immersed in this bleak world amidst the dying sun.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

smaug

All I wanted was a dragon.

A fire-breathing, gold-hoarding, capricious, greedy, smug, giant talking lizard.

Instead, I got melodramatic fanfiction involving the unfortunate comeback of Orlando Bloom and his sassy lady elf pal, dwarf-on-elf romance, hackneyed backstories added to minor characters (Peter Jackson is incapable of acknowledging the maxim less is more in an capacity whatsoever), really dumb looking named orcs, a total abandonment of any sort of in-scene continuity, an identity-less movie that can’t help by vacillate between goofiness/whimsy and faux-realism/gloom…. not to mention a terrible Sauron tie-in that makes absolutely no sense. Does Gandalf sit around for 30 years afterward waiting for The Lord of the Rings to happen??

But then, finally, mercifully, I got my dragon. And it was glorious. Mostly. I like Martin Freeman but I am not impressed by his Bilbo. The movie also rips away his fresh discovery that Smaug is missing a scale and moves it over into dumb Bard’s new dumb backstory. And this movie has set up the third installment replacing a single arrow slaying the dragon with some kind of super weapon that shoots giant harpoon-sized arrows… yeah, that about sums up it up.

This is a bad movie. While it was entirely predictable that stretching out a single book into three long-ass films would produce disastrous amounts of filler, this doesn’t make it any less disappointing to watch.

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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD

sailwwI’m in the middle of reading the entirety of The Book of the New Sun saga by Gene Wolfe; I’ll review it all together, so in the interim, I shall write about what I am playing instead.

The Legend of Zelda fills me with fond memories. The original Nintendo version and SNES’ A Link to the Past — a boy alone in a hostile world, bows and arrows and bones and bombs and goblins and magic capes — engulfed many a childhood afternoon. The Ocarina of Time brought Hyrule to 3D and ratched the story up to epic levels. Each game felt like a natural step up and evolution of the one that came before it.

But these memories only go so far as that. I never finished Wind Waker, released in 2003, or Twilight Princess (2006) or even played the latest one. What I remember of Wind Waker was a drastic, cartoony graphic swap, a dearth of innovation, and worst of all — interminable sailing sequences where you had to perform a button input to travel in a certain direction and then might as well have wandered away from the console while your sailboat inched closer to some island destination, only to be given a task that took you halfway across the sea to a different island and forced you to repeat the whole thing again.

Has my outlook changed, revisiting it over ten years later in an improved HD remake?

Sort of.

The biggest improvements have little to do with the perspective time gives and much to do with the improved functionality provided by the Wii U. The Wii U controller-tablet removes the need to pause the game — your inventory and most importantly, your map, is displayed on the touchscreen. You can easily move items around mid-combat or play the wind waker by sliding your finger along a compass axis. This smooths the pacing of the game tremendously. Nintendo also added a new item, obtainable by playing an annoying mini-game, that doubles the speed of the boat and makes it so the wind is automatically placed at your back. It’s one of those minor additions that completely changes the game. Sailing around feels more like exploring and less like tapping your foot, wondering are-we-there-yet. That said, the lengthy end-quest that has you sailing around the entire game world to assemble 8 pieces of the triforce is excessively long; A big world to explore loses much of its appeal when the game asks you to explore every square to continue.

While the sailing is greatly improved, the beautiful cel-shaded graphics have aged very well, and the game is overall fun, it still does not hit the same notes as the earlier titles. It’s easy to think of the “Zelda formula” now, but prior to Wind Waker, it wasn’t so obvious. Zelda wasn’t new anymore and it already entered the realm of 3D. It was this game that solidified the tropes. Enter a dungeon and see locked doorways with ornate eyes above them and you know the bow and arrow will be the dungeon treasure. Light shining in through the windows in the next dungeon? Time for the mirror shield. Block puzzles galore. Visually-stunning bosses that die in under sixty seconds from repeating the same basic task with your ‘new’ item.

The promised new direction for the next incarnation on Wii U is welcome. Shake it up! Traverse new horizons, conjure wonder and mystery.

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We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

piratesOK, I did not like this. But what makes it rare is that, unlike most books I don’t like, this one is actually well written. Handler can write a character sketch and spin a phrase.There’s even an effective twist that I still found fun/surprising at the end of the novel when I no longer cared about anything and just wanted to finish. He just can’t write a believable plot or acknowledge the reader can only spend so much time with blandly reprehensible characters.

Pirates alternates between fourteen year old Gwen Needle and her dad, Phil. At first, this seems like it is going to be a tale of oblivious father and teen angsty daughter at odds that eventually bond/appreciate each other. But it is quickly revealed that Phil is actually a passive misogynist prick who thinks the world is owed to him and cares very little of his family beyond the happiness / convenience they can supply him*. Gwen has more than average teen angst when the reader realizes that she actually does have shitty parents. Unfortunately, the sympathy this garners Gwen morphs to baffled disbelief when it turns out she basically has the psychosis of a school shooter and she starts knifing fools with impunity.

Back to Phil: The book spends a lot of words on this asshole. As his sliminess is further revealed, as his terrible outlook on women is explored, as his martyr complex deepens whilst he remains oblivious to his privilege… it’s too much. There’s only so much undeserved self pity I can handle. Whine whine whine. He never learns and his plotline is pointless and could be excised almost entirely from this already slim book.

And back to Gwen: As punishment for shoplifting, our heroine is forced to volunteer at an old folks home. She starts hanging out with a dementia-riddled old navyman and after borrowing all his old seafaring books, starts harboring fantasies of piracy…

…and assembles a ‘crew’.

…and steals a ship.

…and launches a revenge-crusade upon all that have wronged her by pillaging the San Francisco bay.

 

This is completely ridiculous.

 

She’s fourteen, not eight. The Bay** is tiny, what are you actually going to get away with? Why did anyone, other than the old man and best friend, possibly join her? Why is she suddenly capable of remorseless, senseless murder? Note to all readers, children, writers: Having a passive, non-dad does not make it okay to kill, nor is it reason enough to maintain reader empathy with a stone-cold killer.

And here lies the crux of the book, and why it does not succeed.

*There’s a sort of murky almost-theme about people being emotional pirates — pillaging other people’s feelings for their own gain. It’s not well explored but kind of vomited up by Phil’s POV towards the end of the book.

**While it was pleasantly meta reading a book taking place on the 38 bus while riding the 38 bus, the novel does not do a good job of realizing San Francisco. Phil drives from LA to SF… and crosses the Bay Bridge (for plot convenience), which is in the east, not south. Despite living on the Embarcadero, Gwen does not know of the sea lions on Pier 39 until events in the book. Even Geary Street, the road that the 38 travels down is poorly described — Handler makes it quiet and seedy, and while it’s kind-of-maybe-slightly seedy at a few points, it’s bustling almost from beginning to end. Not quiet.

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The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

Last_defender_of_camelotJust look at that cover.

Written in the 60s and 70s, wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke, amidst the fallout of an assured nuclear war, this collection of stories embodies an era. An era where a man could make a living writing dozens of short stories a year — filling plentiful sci-fi/fantasy magazines to the point where he needed pen names to allow multiple stories in the same issue.

Roger Zelazny’s stories follow a peculiar cosmology. Humanity is almost always extinct, or else we’re on our way to being so. Typically there are now robots or some kind of AI machines trying to emulate, understand, or ritualize the acts of the long dead humans. Even so far as racing stock cars or turning into vampire bots. Take away the radioactivity and craters, and everything else about the post apocalyptic wasteland he evisions matches up with modern sci-fi writers post-climate change future. No nuclear warheads necessary like they were in the 60s.

Many of the stories are very short, though there are three longer novellas in the middle. The first and longest one, He Who Shapes, is unfortunately a super weak sci-fi noir tale. It’s the only story where the casual misogyny of the time and genre was really distasteful (to me). The second novella, the tale of former ex-con biker literally named ‘Hell’ as he tries to drive a rocket-launcher armed, spinning blade equipped armored car across a post apocalyptic US from the nation of California to the country of Boston, is so completely silly and ridiculous it somehow turns out compelling. The last, For a Breath I Tarry, a story of sentient machines trying to recover the memory of man in a frozen over future earth is by far the best. Unlike most modern writers, Zelazny can write a story that is quite clearly allegory or metaphor in a straightforward manner that embraces its own internal story consistency without feeling the need to wink or gesture at the reader ro point out how clever and/or deep he is being.

Zelzany’s prose is better than most genre writers, and indeed he has a little intro at the start of the book where he says an integral piece of him becoming a good writer was to stop insulting the reader’s intelligence. The sparse prose that often references classical verse becomes jarring and kind of hilarious/fun when a very silly sci fi trope suddenly bounds on to the page. It’s fascinating how the original sci-fi grandmasters all city their inspiration as the literary greats — when I see modern genre writers list their influences, it’s typically just past genre writers.

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The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

bestessays2014Last year it was all about divorced self absorption and the shadow of dead parents. What’s the theme this year, eh? Guest editor John Jeremiah Sullivan launches the book* with the hardline stance of the granddaddy-of-all-essays Michel de Montaigne: by examining oneself, one can examine all humanity.

And this is how the essays tie to one another. A writer investigates something — say, the burning man festival, child abuse, or a rare disease — and extrapolates it far beyond the personal to a universal shared experience. Typically death is involved. Death of self, death of parents, death of innocence, death of children, and so on. The Ultimate Concern. Lo, us poor creatures who became aware of our own guaranteed annihilation.

The thing about these essays is they are almost never bad or even mediocre; An essay on being introduced as a public speaker, the only piece that doesn’t quite mesh with Sullivan/Montaigne’s universal appeal theme is curiously the only one I straight up didn’t like. But. There’s also very few that are exceptional. The best essay in the book I had already read and I’ve already forgotten several of them.

The Best Ones:

Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy — A 5 month pregnant woman stubbornly decides to fly to Ukraine for a journalism piece. More to prove she can do it to herself and everyone else rather than any pressing political-writing need.Then the pain starts. Chilling, awe-inspiring, and hard to forget. I read this months ago, but it was just as powerful the second time around.

The Man at the the River by Dave Eggers — An American man and his Sudanese friend rest by a river; The Sudanese wants to wade the river but the American does not for fear of catching an infection in a deep gash on his leg. Cultural differences abound. This is almost a parable. No one is named and it’s very short, but perfectly encapsulates its theme: a westerner desperately trying to avoid being a stereotype, even as it inevitably occurs.

The Devil’s Bait by Leslie Jamison – Jamison attends a conference in support of Morgellons disease, a rare affliction that may or may not even be ‘real’ and affects people differently. They might feel worms crawling out of their skin, or get very itchy, or have little crystals start protruding from their flesh. The professional medical community is fairly sure it’s a psychological problem, but the affected patients gather, trying to take pictures or bring ziplocked evidence of their foreign growths. Or just for moral and social support. Jamison wonders if it honestly matters whether the symptoms are ‘real’ — that is, actual organic crystals or worms protruding from skin. If the suffering is so acutely felt, shouldn’t that be all that’s required for our empathy?

 

*OK, so Sullivan’s essay doesn’t actually start the book. There’s a brief introduction by series editor Robert Atwan, who has been running this every year since 1985, the year I was born. His topic is nothing less than the assault on Truth and Free Speech and Censorship in America. It’s embarrassingly out of touch and feels profoundly old.

His adversary of choice are ‘trigger warnings’, which he totally mischaracterizes to suit his point of an America in danger of censorship. Trigger warnings are bits of text preceding a piece, warning of potentially upsetting content. Not upsetting like a fly in your spaghetti, not upsetting like a bad piece of world news ruining your mood, but the sort of upsetting Great-Great Uncle Jim, trench veteran of WWI, felt when he was diving for cover, dazed and terrified at any old loud noise. It’s to stop people who have suffered greatly from having to relieve that suffering or potentially trigger a PTSD response. And indeed, the two back-to-back child abuse essays in 2014 (a mean trick of listing things in alphabetical order) are devastating, important, and extremely well written; but I would never ask someone who had experienced anything so terrible to read either without warning.

Instead, Atwan sees trigger warnings as a content endorsement for the general ‘young’ American populace to avoid reading anything that makes them uncomfortable. He also refers to a story written in 1980’s Baltimore street vernacular as ‘A Clockwork Orange-esque’. Uh. Being embarrassed by Grandpa here…

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Book cover:  "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories."  MagHilary Mantel is a Big Deal. For good reason; two time booker prize winner and all around great writer. This means the inevitable: Collect bits of flotsam and jetsam, short pieces from individual assignments over the last 25 years, and publish them in one honestly sparse volume and cash in on that book of short stories.

She’s a good enough writer that it’s still a pleasure to read. The stories are generally about women amidst divorce, ennui, writing, yearning. Only one, about a writer caught in a depressive cycle of speaking engagements, is unsatisfactory. The highlight was a subtle piece that begins innocently with a person lamenting their job working at a doctor’s office, before going off into stranger territory.

The eponymous final story did not do much for me. Perhaps you need to be English to feel the true impact. I thought The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was going to be an ironic title, but it is quite literal — a woman has an assassin enter her house whilst Thatcher is at an eye doctor nearby, and he assassinates her. It boils down to musing how events might have gone differently:

History could always have been otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity: the day, the hour, the slant of light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near a bypass.

Pretty but forgettable.

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J by Howard Jacobson

jThis book left me baffled, confused, and more than a little angry. As the plot is boring and amounts to nothing, the only real interesting point of discussion occurs in the last twenty percent of the book and thus this review will contain some spoilers.

A great catastrophe occurs in humanity’s near future. Later titled WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the details are lost as history, indeed any recollection of the past, is forbidden. Technology is frozen, and in some cases gone backwards. Internet and mobile phones are banned. Censorship has restricted all but the most empty and vapid of books, music. Movies seem to have disappeared. All this government-ordained. As a result, people have become rote and boring. They’ve settled for petty antagonism and widespread misogyny instead of their past industriousness. It’s an off-putting and honestly strange thought that the first sign of deterioration in this tightly controlled culture is men hitting women.

Fortysomething year old Kevern, a peevish and indifferent man with OCD tendencies meets and falls in love with ninteen year old Ailinn, whose defining characteristics seems to be a Moby Dick metaphor (she insists she is the white whale and Ahab is on her trail) and her unconvincing fondness for Kevern. The characters are all unlikeable and banal, except for Ailinn, who is merely banal. They’re self-aware and even have a conversation about their own meta-banality. They’re a sort of bland-distasteful unlikeable that does not evoke much genuine feeling. You’d hurry by them in the street or avoid them at work, not curse their name. Not the best anchors for a novel.

As I mentioned, the plot meanders for most of the book. Characters are introduced and have lengthy chapters dedicated to their point-of-view only to end with an irrelevant or complete lack of denouement. There’s a serial killer plot that goes no where. The town the story takes place in is featureless, which could be intentional, but like the intentionally bland characters, intent doesn’t make it any less boring. And then, and then, and then, after slogging through all this, the novel’s crux is revealed: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED most definitely did happen, and what happened was some kind of mega-holocaust that almost entirely wiped out the jewish people. It turns out that Kevern and Ailinn are some of the very last descendents of the bare few survivors of WHAT HAPPENED. Not only that, they’ve only met due to some government agent’s scheming, and said agents have plans for them — make fruitful and reproduce, revive the jews. It’s an elaborate strategy to reinvigorate society, but altruism this is not.The plan is to return the jews to public consciousness to give people a target they can unify in hating once again.

High concept dystopian literature have clear themes, 1984 gave us Big Brother. Brave New World warned of consumption, escapism, technology. Even something like The Hunger Games elicits a clear and thoughtful point on entertainment and class.

J’s central dystopian thrust is this: society cannot function without xenophobia. Without some Other-group to hate, people become listless, beat their wives, seek pointless extramarital thrills. This is a weak thrust, but maybe defensible as part of a general philosophical notion people sometimes hold: that conflict is essential to human progress and happiness. But narrowing it down to hate is unconvincing. Especially in this world where society is bereft of basic happiness luxuries — technology, travel, history, literature, music, heirlooms, family, spirituality, identity, craft. Is hate really more valuable than self expression? Did no one think, maybe it’s the tyrannical censorship that is making people unhappy?

But what is much more unsettling and infuriating is that it is not any Others that people must hate. No, Jacobson’s horror-future exists, because it is specifically jews that the world needs to hate to function. The shadowy-government entities behind the novels plot have picked out Kevern and Ailinn to reproduce because they are some of the last living people descended from Jewish bloodlines. Bloodlines, a subject the books accepts uncritically and attributes great veracity.

Ailinn is dark-skinned; There’s a district in the Capital with Middle Eastern immigrants; Classism seems largely defunct; while the only mention of non-hetero sexuality is a father accusing his daughter of being a lesbian (negatively), there’s nothing else to indicate the world is particularly hostile to gays. All of the above peoples have traditionally served as scapegoats, objects of derision, someone to pointlessly hate or blame. But it is the Jews who need to be revived specifically to be hated to allow society to run again, for the happiness of all. It’s completely nonsensical in the narrative-built universe (and on real-planet-earth). It reminds me of the end of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead where the novel completely abandons all internal logic and characterization and cause-effect consistency just to make an ill-conceived point.

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Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall

ddontevenThis book posits that people refuse, most often subconsciously, to accept climate change even when the science is solid. This is due to a series of coping mechanisms and mental partitioning that worked as an evolutionary advantage throughout humanity’s ascent up the food chain, but fail utterly when faced with a challenge that is uncertain, devastating, and (possibly) distant in its true impact. A few reasons:

  • People who experience serious environmental disaster and choose to rebuild almost always believe it will never happen (to them) again, and thus the people most affected by climate change actively refute it.
  • Climate change is incredibly uncertain — it’s hard to quantify which weather disasters are caused by climate change and which are merely your average terrible storm/flood/whatever.
  • The groups explaining the problem (scientists, environmentalists) have absolutely no concept of narrative spin, unlike their opponents. They think a constant barrage of information and graphs is the key to people’s hearts and minds.
  • The media rarely covers it, it’s somewhat of a political taboo, and people just don’t talk enough about it to keep it in the forefront of their brains.
  • The human brain is just not predisposed to giving up short term gains to avoid monstrous long-term losses.

It’s an interesting, depressing summary of the issue. It made me confront my own climate change sensibilities: General distaste and condescension towards anyone who refuses the science, and a willingness to work towards a solution. But what do I actually do about it? I own a car, but I rarely drive it unless I’m traveling some place distant. I bus, train or walk everywhere else, but I also live in a city with decent public transportation and couldn’t drive and park in downtown San Francisco regularly even if I wanted to. I’d still bus to work even if I could drive, but only so I could sit down and read, ha!

While the main thrust of the book was a great topic, the content is stretched quite thin. It seems like it would have worked better as long form journalism and not a full book. It’s repetitive.There are sections where Marshall reviews what he has said in a chapter (literally: “To sum up what I have said so far”) that I duly skipped. For a book that asks that climate change be given a compelling story that demands action, it’s kind of narratively lukewarm and passionless.

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