A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

A-general-theory-of-oblivionPop Quiz: Name a country in Africa that notes Portuguese as an official language.

 

Think about it…

 

Waiting…

 

 

Answer: There’s actually six. Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea.

A General Theory of Oblivion is about Angola. Its bloody revolution, booting out the Portuguese colonials, and later its civil war, conflicts of capitalism and communism. But mostly it’s about a cadre of individual characters, criss-crossing over the 30-40 years leading to the present. Chief among them is Ludo, a portuguese agoraphobe who moved from Lisbon to Luanda to be with her sister and brother and law. When the wealthy portuguese fled Angola on the eve of Revolution, this family stayed a bit too long, sister and brother in law disappeared, and Ludo was left to brick herself into her apartment and spend the next three decades in isolation. The other leads include military police, imprisoned dissidents, men unsure whether they’re portuguese or angolan.

Agualusa, a man of portuguese descent born in Angola, initially wrote this story as a screenplay, and it shows. It’s extremely short. I read it on my kindle, but goodreads lists the hardcover as 256 pages. It must be like 24 point font with 3 inch margins to stretch that long. The length is actually perfect, because I found the book pleasant but lacking in depth and feel my good will would have evaporated had it gone on much longer.

As a country’s history, it does not delve deeply. I barely know any more about Angola than I did when I started (which can be summed up as: nothing). And since the details revealed are minimalist, the book short, and the character list long, I never got the sense of most of the characters. As a book describing agoraphobia, it fails completely when stacked up against classics like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Where it succeeds is in capturing a feeling. I get the sense of Luanda, Angola’s capital, and the various zeitgeists that flowed through it from Independence until today. I didn’t grow attached to the many characters, partly due to the clinical narrative style detailing them, but I found that same style of writing very readable. It didn’t ask much of me and I got more than I expected in return. The blurbs compare it to Kafka which is frankly laughable, but I don’t regret reading it.

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

library-mt-char-jacketThe Library at Mount Char is about a family of librarians. Sort of.

Sort of a family, because I guess that’s what you become when all your parents are simultaneously murdered and you’re adopted by a timeless demigod (not-so-fondly known as ‘Father’).

Sort of librarians because while they are caretakers of shelved books, they’re more like the X-men; The books serve as fonts for their themed superpowers. In other words: If you study something long enough, say medicine, you gain larger-than-life abilities, like healing any wound or bringing people back from the dead. The librarian in charge of the animal books can speak to and live like animals, learn all their rituals and hierarchies. The guy whose catalog is War has mastered every sort of weaponry, can read his enemies thoughts, and mows down armed soldiery faster than you manning a turret in the latest Call of Duty game.

Yes. This is an extremely, extraordinarily goofy book.

It is Carolyn, whose catalog is language (of which she can read or speak any variety, both modern and ancient, both human and animal, both worldly and out-of-space) that we follow through most of the novel. Now in their thirties, the librarians’ ‘Father’ is suddenly missing. It turns out that despite being a colossal hardass who more-or-less constantly tortured and abused his adoptive children, Father was the catalyst who kept all the entities who are even worse from descending on the earth, turning people into tentacle monsters and extinguishing all life on earth and whatnot. But Carolyn has a plan. The plot is the realization of that plan.

Did I mention this book was goofy? It embraces it. The God of War guy runs around in a blood-caked Tutu killing people en masse with a pyramid attached to a chain, gifting his victims’ heads to his girlfriend. I mean, like, total eradication of a police station. Intestines hanging from the ceiling, cops chopped in half, don’t slip on the blood! This is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is consistently weird. I think it’s supposed to be dark and brutal too, which I guess it kinda is, but the ruminations on abuse are difficult to take seriously within the scope of tutu guy assaulting the White House. The violence falls somewhere between a Tarantino movie, a slasher flick, and a video game. Somewhere in me I have a thesis about how video game violence altered book and especially movie violence in the past decade. Another time.  

This book has some great ideas that only half-happen. They’re a tease. We have this intriguing set of superpowered librarians but we only get to know maybe 3-4 of them. There’s 12 total but not even all of them are named, which is baffling honestly. Likewise, partway through the novel when the world threatens to end and eldritch beasties are unleashed across it, I anticipated the second half of Cabin in the Woods but received barely a glimpse of the outside world. Instead: repeated conversations by the same two characters wandering the library. There’s a whole lot of talking and explaining in this book.

Fantasy/Sci-fi pet peeve: While it’s understandable when confronted with the fantastic and seemingly impossible that modern day humans react with disbelief, after a while, I think I’d get used to it and stop asking. This one guy, Steve, spends half the damn book going “Bluh? Carolyn, lions can’t talk!” “60,000 years old? People can’t live that long, Carolyn!” “Carolyn, despite seeing this before my very eyes, it’s impossible for this library to be bigger on the inside than the outside, surely it’s an underground bunker?”

I threatened to skim Steve. Anyway, despite problems like these, or the way the pacing unravels in the last third of the book or the fact that the final answer of “Why? Why does the library exist! Why did Father kidnap and train these people!” is a tired cliche, I sort of loved this book. It’s ridiculous but inventive and creative and fresh in a way I wasn’t expecting. I read it in a handful of sittings. I want fantasy to take me somewhere I haven’t been before, and The Library at Mount Char did just that.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

heartgoeslastThere’s an uber-recession in the near future that devastates the US, especially the northeast. Everyone loses their jobs, their houses. Crime abounds. Night-time comes to resemble something between A Clockwork Orange and The Walking Dead. Only the very rich manage to flourish, more or less buying everyone else. But there’s a light amidst the darkness. Some well-funded entrepreneur has created Consilience. A dual-role town where residents spend half their time in vanilla, safe, picketed 1950s houses and then every month swap to becoming inmates in Positron Prison. The reason this is a stunning economic boon and the cure to all ills is murky and the narrative never gives a sufficient surface explanation and instantly we know there is something sinister behind the scenes.

But naturally, early 30s married couple Charmaine and Stan, living in their car, barely keeping ahead of the mob, and in desperate need of regular showers sign right up to become residents/inmates, because anything beats transience and fear.

The first half of this book is a bland and unconvincing relationship drama with dull, pitiful characters. The second half is a sci fi caper replete with a squad of gay Elvises and real-life sexbots. The whole thing is kind of weird and I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

The thing you gotta know about The Heart Goes Last is that it is about sex. But, at least in my opinion, it’s not really the sex and lust and whatnot people experience in the real world but more like some tempestuous primordial force that sweeps inside like a malevolent shade and jerks you about, the puppet to its master.

Early in the novel, Stan finds a letter under his fridge. You see, the conceit of Consilience is that when one couple is spending time in the prison, their house isn’t empty — it’s occupied by the couple that is in prison when the first group is in the house. So anyway, Stan finds a lustful note from the Alternate woman to the Alternate man. ‘I starve for you.’ Punctuated by the imprint of a purple lipstick kiss.

This is all it takes for Stan. Soon he’s concocting elaborate fantasies about this woman, Jasmine. He creates a whole backstory for her and her love life with her husband, Max. It consumes him completely and he begins ignoring Charmaine. He plans on hiding in the house when it’s his turn to go to the prison and basically leaping out and forcing himself on a surely willing Jasmine.The obsession takes a leap to the nonsensical when he finds release at his prison job. What’s he do? Tend the chickens. Yeah. Stan violates chickens to sate his overwhelming, all consuming sexual madness. Triggered by a single note.

But, wait, hold a second. Turns out, Charmaine has been engaging in an affair with Max, the Alternate man. She wrote the note with the purple lipstick. There’s a flashback to how this affair began. She was about to leave her house for Positron Prison when Max saunters in. He says about 3 words and then he’s kissing her. 3 seconds later and her skirts being pushed up. And she loves it. She instantly checks out on Stan and is stealing time with Max (this guy she slept with after knowing for all of 30 seconds) any second she can get, regardless of any danger this poses.

It’s baffling. The characters of this novel are knowing slaves to their super powered hormones and have no expectation of maintaining control. They’re also just petty, unlikeable people. You can’t get behind them even when they’re put up against even scummier people and they’re not quite bad enough to be trainwreck interesting. Atwood is a great writer so I wasn’t exactly bored, but I was close.

That ‘close’ nearly morphed into ‘certain bordeom’ when stuff happened that had me almost ready to put down the book — and this review will get a little spoilery here because I’m going to discuss events in the middle. It’s revealed Charmaine has been acting as an executioner of Positron malcontents who couldn’t fit in the system and thus must be removed. She’s been doing this from day one. A series of events occurs where it turns out Stan is the one on the table ready for her needle. And I’m thinking Wow, if Charmaine knowingly murders her husband, then Atwood has lost me… how could I even read about this character I didn’t like in the first place? And then of course, Charmaine does it. Kills her husband. Or thinks she does. Instead of losing me, it actually proves my previous paragraph true. The characters suddenly do become trainwreck interesting.

It also helps that the plot kicks into overdrive and rockets ahead, a true antagonist is revealed, the sci-fi becomes relevant instead of window dressing and we spend less time pondering the characters’ mystifying love life. It belatedly attains page-turner status.

The sex never quites meshes though. By the end, the message seems to be that the ideal sexual partner for a straight man (Stan) is a woman fully under his control who has sex whenever he wants and the ideal sexual partner for a straight woman (Charmaine) is someone who removes all difficult choice from her life and tells her what to do so she never has to take initiative or responsibility beyond what bed sheets to buy. It’s perplexing.

Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen

twains endI usually don’t copy and paste book blurbs here, or suggest reading them in general, but the description of Twain’s End is crucial to know why it is intriguing in the first place —

In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?

What becomes immediately clear is that Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens is an asshole. An emotional vampire with a cruel temper who absolutely loves himself (slash hates himself). A man who takes perverse delight in controlling those around him — withholding affection from his family, playing friends off against eachother, lording his literary reputation over people to coerce them into his desires, and when emotional manipulation doesn’t work, he resorts to brute force: locking his daughter in a room for 3 weeks because a man dared to make a call on her.  

The main character of Twain’s End is his secretary Isabel Lyon. She is a smart woman who is totally cognizant of the contents of the paragraph above, yet she still falls in love with him. This is why the the book fails for me, why I gave up on finishing it. The dynamic of ‘servant/X in love with married master’ feels done to death in general, but for it to work, especially when the recipient of the ill-gotten devotion is so obviously a jerk, the writer really needs to sell me on why the hell he is so magnetic. Clemens isn’t charming or witty enough to be the guy who sleeps with the only woman in the room. Lynn Cullen set herself the unenviable task of trying to pull off the mordant voice of Mark Twain and doesn’t really succeed. The ‘salacious slut’ line from Twain’s actual letter makes me go ‘Wow! Such vitriol!’. You could maybe see a man with that kind of command of language getting away with Clemen’s abuses, but the novel as-is mostly just elicits an indifferent shrug.

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley (Worldbreaker #2)

EmpireAscendant-144dpiThis is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga. I reviewed part one, The Mirror Empire, last year. Reading my own review prior to starting part two turned out to be a boon. The world is complicated, the dramatis personae lengthy. According to my Kindle, the glossary at the end is 5% of the total mass of the book. Even after the refresher, I was a bit overwhelmed by the plethora of similar-sounding names for a good while.

The world is under assault from a relentless army from a mirror-world, an army comprised of phantom versions of the people of this one. They’ve already sacked an entire continent and are on their way to conquer the other two main countries. A hodgepodge group of characters all over the world stand to oppose them (and just as frequently: oppose each other). The pace, the headlong speed of the action, the scale continues to be Hurley’s strong suit. So many world(s)-spanning epic fantasies become lost in their own details and sputter on following millions of new threads introduced each book. The Worldbreaker Saga is speedy, despite the massive scope. Events happen quickly. The plot is spinning at a nice and compelling rate, while still remaining (mostly) comprehensible. When new threads are introduced, old ones are severed. Character bloat isn’t an issue when a writer is balancing the scales by brutally murdering many of the old ones (seriously brutal, not faux-brutal — trust me).

I complained of the world not feeling weird enough in The Mirror Empire, especially given how strange it was supposed to be. Empire Ascendant is more satisfactory in that regard, the strange attributes (killer plants, moon-based magic powers, world hopping) are better realized and many of the old tropes discarded. When we can base a major set piece on an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tea party of disparate characters sitting down for a banquet right in between two different armies protected by magic air bubbles, and the scene works, we’re going places. I’m still a little nonplussed by the main continent/character set where the action is taking place (Dhai) but there was so much going on all over the damn place, that I wasn’t too displeased.

There’s a theme that runs through the novel about ‘monsters’. To fight a monster, you must become one. Gaze long into the abyss… etc. While it is of course credible that being exposed to constant violence would provoke violent tendencies in the person (or people) attempting to survive, it does not mean they would need to become monsters. I always balk when a character in a narrative thinks something along the lines of “If I do this [possibly bad thing], then I’ll be just as bad as them.” I am not sold by Empire Ascendant’s version of this; the villains have launched a sustained genocidal rampage on such an unimaginable scale, that the main characters killing a few people (in self defense) just cannot compare. Nor am I sold on the theme beyond the scope of the novel — that real life evil requires evil in return. It seems to be like Hurley is reaching for some of the moral heft of Oakley Hall’s Warlock but not quite grasping it.

Another reason maybe I’m not sold on it is because I do not find the characters to be truly believable people. I saw this as a detractor in the first book (and still feel like the universe has some strange-but-nostalgic affinity to video games) but I’ve come to terms with the characters being less realistic depictions of people and more like pulpy archetypes who speak modern english. I’ve read Kameron Hurley’s blog and she’s confessed her love of 80s action heroes and I can see the influence in Empire Ascendant. Several scenes in the book could be reinvented as death metal album covers. Picture a grim anti-hero bleeding out, reclining on a mountain of corpses, flipping off the camera. That’s honestly not that far from a description of one character’s demise in this book.

Empire Ascendant does everything the first book did well better, and minimizes on the things the first book did poorly. Not much more you can ask for from a sequel. I’m invested in the plot. It’s refreshing to feel like this is actually going to wrap up in three books. The board is set for book 3 and I look forward to the conclusion.

Slade House by David Mitchell

slade houseA short review for a short book.

Slade House begins in 1977, in the first-person viewpoint of a thirteen year old autistic boy who stumbles into an unfortunate encounter with soul sucking vampires living in the eponymous house, which exists in a semi-magical bubble frozen at an exact moment some time around the second world war.

*breath*

The next chapter begins nine years later in 1986 following a different first person character, a crass copper this time, who also comes upon Slade House and… if you’re experiencing deja vu by this point it’s because Slade House follows a very similar tract to that of David Mitchell’s recently published novel: The Bone Clocks. Indeed, it takes place in the same universe. Mentally, I referred to the books as the same title. As in, ‘I need to put down The Bone Clocks and go to sleep’.

And really, if you want to know what I think of Slade House, you can just read my Bone Clocks review. It’s exactly the same thing, with the same successes and shortcomings, on a much smaller scale. The sci-fi-hocus-pocus technobabble is a maybe a little bit too much in Slade House: one entire chapter (of a total of five) is spent on the villain’s backstory and how they created Slade House and we honestly didn’t need to know more about them beyond ‘We eat souls!’. But this is countered by the otherwise swift pacing — with the shorter, twitter-inspired chapters, Mitchell has no choice but to jump right into the story and he does not waste a word.

And, more Bone Clocks? Great! Two David Mitchell novels in one year? Even better.

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Mieville

threemomenetsexplosionWant to read about sinister icebergs appearing afloat in the skies of London? It’s here. Long ago sunk ships forging legs and shambling out of the ocean? Got that too. Socialist dust particles out to radicalize your world? Read all about it. People obsessed with wearing hollowed out, decaying animal heads? Yep.

China Mieville has mastered the weird, the bizarre, the monstrous joke. A story about a terror lurking in the depths of a remote lake is not going to turn out to be another Lovecraft pastiche, but instead finds its influence in an obscure byzantine torture ritual involving a sack, a dog, a cockerel, and an ape. Even when the premise is extra wacky — therapist-assassins out to assure their client’s happiness at all costs — the tone of the story remains deadly serious and only only occasionally falls into ha-ha it was all a joke!

Most of the short story collections I have read in recent years are short, a few interesting pieces that may have been published elsewhere. You finish in a day or two. It feels kind of cheap. Three Moments of an Explosion is hefty by comparison and I appreciate it. You can really sink into the depths of this man’s imagination. There’s recurrent themes and motifs. There’s a running gag with prose movie trailers appearing at a few different places in the book — speedy, crawling zombies that hunt regular zombies, people manufactured with metal poles protruding from their backs, and so on. It faintly reminded me of the eponymous interviews in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s a craft to the arrangement of stories!

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that a few of the longer stories start to get samey. They generally start with a character who has pre-existing knowledge of the weird happening that will be central to the story; we slowly gain context and can make sense of the earlier bits; The baffling horror takes shape; then the story wraps up without really giving a complete answer to the mystery. There is exceedingly low amounts of resolution in this collection, and this works better in some stories than others — you don’t always need a conclusion but sometimes the story feels unsatisfying without one. There’s a story about aliens discovered in a volcanic island that builds and then just… ends.

China Mieville is a singular voice in sci-fi/fantasy/horror. I think this is about seventy percent due to his imagination, which is both fresh and inviting. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be strange. The remaining thirty percent is craft — he’s a smart writer with a handle on prose that most genre writers either don’t have or don’t try to achieve. The language & tone are ambitious. The blockiness of language present in his early novels is greatly diminished. There’s occasional times where I had to reread a paragraph because it wasn’t quite clear what happened, but this is minor in comparison to the devilishly affected imagery sprinkled throughout each story, or the slowly emerging black humor. The man also has a prodigious vocabulary. I learned some oddly specific words. Take peristalsising on:

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward.

Yum.

 

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for hooking me up early.

 

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.

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.

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.