Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: The Dragon Griaule, by Lucius Shepard

I first read The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule, oh, ten years ago or so. I've occasionally picked up other stuff by the author, hoping to find anything that grabbed me as much as that story did, only to encounter a maddening mix of potential and disappointment. But the additional Griaule stories contained in this collection* only improve and expand the original one, and they're as great as (or better than) I remember. The milieu was established, by all evidence, by a guy who enjoys storytelling, clearly is talented at it, but who despises the trappings of stock fantasy, as if Shepard was grabbed by the idea of a giant dragon in spite of himself, and the beast wouldn't stop tugging at the fringes of his unconscious. As narrative, this conflicted view of the central object plays out brilliantly. Griaule himself is an imposition, a monster as formidable and ubiquitous as the landscape, and as subtle. He's the shape of everything, unnoticed in the way that, when it's all around you, you stop paying attention the lay of the hills and the flavor of the air.

The dragon is a mile or so long, mostly buried, infested and overgrown, built over and (mostly) around, and nearly completely immobilized. His exposed head is roughly the size of a football stadium with (at the opening of the first story) a shantytown crumbling over his eye. But he's not dead, and in more ways than size, the long millennia of stasis have made him something considerably more than a once-flying reptile. When we open in 1853, Griaule has been reduced to (or maybe grown to) a creature of the mind. He occupies the slow years influencing the people of the valley with his silent, malefic will. It's not the sort of pressure one could prove--although one of the shorts centers on a lawyer who builds an improbable case around the idea--but consists of coincidences, inspirations, obsessions, and a generalized sense of oppression, but it's beyond narrative doubt that this is a force which tempts people to the sorts of drama that serves or idly entertains the beast. Whether it's an intelligent malice is left unclear. The animal aspect of dragons isn't ever lost, and Griaule may well scheme and corrupt as a mere part of his nature, which has happened to become as magnificently overgrown as the rest of him. But he's a force beyond the scope of humans, either way.

The stories all play out as an expression of this insidious orchestration, where characters are pulled cleverly to plotted ends. The first of them is by far my favorite riff. The man who painted the dragon steps up before the local council and claims to be able to murder the creature with toxic pigments, by scaffolding his great head and flank and turning him into a mountain-size mural. There's just something brilliant and romantic and doomed about the idea that one of the great forces of the world can be subdued through art, and there's no way that I wasn't going to be pulled in by it myself. (And if it sounds like a potitical allegory, well, it shifts into an explicit one for some of the other stories.) And it's a scam of course, but the proposal nonetheless grows real as it takes over the artist's life, and the region's destiny, and brings Griaule to the conclusion he always desired, with lots of casualties along the way.

And they almost all go down like this. Generally, Griaule draws out callousness, venality, and lust in the men under his influence. Women get to be a little stronger than this (if they're a protagonist) or they get to be a little more fatale than outright nasty (if they're not), possibly less guileless to start with, but given to bursts of openness when the control falters. (God help me, I felt drawn to them too.) As we move through the other novellas, the arc is such that the dragon's mechanisms of control become a bit more overt. In the second one, a young woman is drawn into the guts and veins of the creature, mostly for purposes of housekeeping, to help out a colony of sensitives who take care of the more mundane tasks. (For her, things work out well in the end.) Other stories have Griaule drawing in a smaller, "normal" dragon to help along his seduction, or pushing some people through an alternate timeline to bring along a more spectacular ending than paint. Other broad trends have the main characters growing less sympathetic story by story (by the time we get to 2012, the last guy is a total asshole), and the writing expands a little more nicely and neatens up over time (the plots remain short enough to stay focused, however), with fewer writerly stunts. As well, the geography becomes a little more concrete, and more similar to the present day's. In the opening story, it's set in "a country to the south," and even though it's got some New World flora (banana trees and so on), the proper names and the style of narration seem comfortably European. Frankly, I'd have put it on the other end of the continent as Florin and Guilder. But Shepard has Central America in mind all along, and for the dragon's swan song, his menace becomes part and parcel of the disastrous, violent, meddled-in governance of the area. We are left with the feeling that Griaule, even dead and dispersed, can encompass all of the political evil of the world. I found him a little more palatable in a generic setting, but it's still an engaging read right to the end. Recommended, if you can find it.

*This publication includes the original short, published in the early 1980s, along with five additional novellas that have been written over the succeeding 30 years. I believe that the final one, released last year, is exclusive to this book. For the Googlers, the titles of the stories are, The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar's House, The Taborin Scale, and The Skull. Shepard also includes notes on the various stories, which are interesting (and which comprise most of the evidence about his opinions on fantasy and Griaule).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: The Scar, by China Miéville

Since China Miéville doesn't, I'll give you, potential reader, an outline view of what the world of Bas-Lag (the setting of The Scar and a couple other of Miéville's novels, including the more famous Perdido Street Station) is like.  It's a planet as large as this one, probably, but older, or, if it's not older, then it's suffered the rise, fall, and disappearance of so many more advanced civilizations and dread empires than ours has, that it is at least far denser with such things.  The current state of technological progress is dynamic (we get the feeling it is always such), and it is early machine age in feel (call it "steampunk," but that's too limiting a term here).  The civilized sphere consists of networked societies in a constant flux of discovery and rediscovery, infused with magic only to the extent where the author either needs a suitable kludge to expand technical capability beyond what petroleum and gearworks (or physics) can actually do, or wants to add even more dashes of color to the kaleidoscopic world. It's stuffed with an improbable diversity of intelligent species, man-like things of all sorts, living and undead and modified, along with flora and fauna of similarly mundane or exotic provenance, well beyond what any evolutionary social process could ever shovel into competing ecological niches.  And that's only within the limits of the charted world, which the characters in The Scar attempt to expand. 

But it's weirder than that.  The world of Bas-Lag may be flat too, a disk, where densified water is pulled up from weird extradimensional deeps, and presumably spills over the edges into whatever nebulous ether the whole thing floats in (showering the elephants, maybe), and we are gradually given clues that the whole thing is some kind of low-probability-of-existence place, a giant crap-trap in the drain plumbing of the Multiverse, where it collects peoples and artifacts of various sorts.  (I liked to imagine it in the same universe as Neal Stephenson's Anathem.)  It's a brutal effort for people to carve order out of a place like that, and they try.  Against all that, it's full of folks doing their best to get by in a raucous reality.

I can understand the impulse to just throw the reader right into that seething mix (in which the characters are only marginally better informed), and that's what Miéville does, but I wish that he had coughed up some kind of description resembling the above.  Because it's a better-developed universe than it first looks--interesting as hell once you get the feel for it--but for the first 150 pages, you can't tell that it's not just a big sloppy mess instead.  Nor could I tell for awhile if the writing style's deliberate, or if that too is meant to evoke the setting, which in this particular story is primarily a floating, seafaring city of lashed-together boats.  It's an ugly, clumsily-constructed place, and the language onomatopoeiacally follows: ramshackle, Jabber, rickety, slapdash.  The novel opens with prose so purple you could paint with it, and as things move forward there were a few language or scenery elements that affronted me enough to bookmark them, but if he's going to write in that way, then at least he picked the right world for it. 

(What I found less forgivable, is that in a book that doesn't shy away from dirty words, Miéville wasn't usually able to make his characters curse very well.  How fucking hard is that?)

And so it's a sea adventure, and a fantasy, and it's gladly full of all you need for that.  The plot moves right along, and the central characters, while not entirely loveable, are human enough, and imperiled enough, that they earn your concern.  Along with several other people important to the effort, Bellis Coldwine, a translator, is press-ganged to serve in an academic capacity on the boat city of Armada.  Even as an unwilling outsider, constantly plotting escape, she becomes caught up in the bizarre politics of the place, as they coalesce into a grand plan and a great chase.  Armada is an interesting place, and it makes exotic stops (an island of fearsome mosquito people, more compelling creatures than you'd think; a cosmic sinkhole, where with great chains and engines, they angle the depths for some forgotten behemoth), faces pitched naval battles, and gets as bawdy as you like.

Miéville appears to populate the book with character archetypes of his own design.  The city leaders and its champions wax a little larger than life, and even down at the level of the point-of-view characters, Bellis and her friend/antagonist evolve as pictures of growing luck and competence.  You wonder by what complicated path they'll manage escape (or otherwise steer events), but there's little doubt they will.  And I've got to say that this is where I finally found genius in the book, because (SPOILERS follow) these assumptions are dismantled only a little less quickly than they're built up.  Despite the fantastical elements, Occam's razor is paring away at the characters and plot all the time.  Story developments that you imagine are given to you as reader's privilege are dragged out and made public to the whole city.  People who lurk in the margins of events acquire no real power by the end, and the users concede none.  Were such a thing were possible in real life, a quest to drag an already tenuously functional city to some otherworldly power source is a stupid fucking idea, and it's gradually revealed as suchThe greatest of lovers are not of one mind.  The political agent is only acting toward political ends.  Miéville sneakily surprised me by letting his characters revert to people by the end, the people who in fact he said they were all along, and made it feel like a surprise.  And the book is better for that.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes

[Here you are, switters.]

I don't read a lot of American histories, and that's unfortunate right now, because I'd like to say with better authority that Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore is better than any of them.  There's a good case to be made that Australia and the United States are cultural cousins, the English colonies anyway: each remote enough to grow their own satellite cultures; each stuffed full of the mother country's shipped-off hardcases and political misfits; each kicking off as tenuously claimed footholds that within a generation were tragically collapsing the native people as ever more of the Empire's excess white population arrived and pushed inward and along the coasts; and of course as countries go, they are both still historical toddlers, each directly descended from the immigrant government that settled the place, and each still atoning for those original sins.  The differences may well lie in the nature of those early stains, and I think one of Hughes' strengths as a scholar is to approach his own country's story with something like humility, which was always in much larger supply in the antipodes.

Most people were aware that Australia was founded as a penal colony, but this American never gave it much thought beyond that, imagining it as no worse than a forced settlement, a sort of national oubliette--forgetting place (which is a term I believe that Hughes cleverely used)--where the transportees resumed their relocated life much like immigrants did here.  But it's not so.  If there's one overriding theme in the book, it's that Australia was steeped to bitterness in the politics and awful contemporary understanding of class and morals and especially of punishment.  It was a society built on the bloody lash (with hardly enough rum and buggery to go around), of forced humiliation, broken solidarity, and institutional caprice that in reality took generations to breed away.   Even in the twentieth century, we read, this tarnished national character was a social factor, but at least it made for an excellent historical perspective.

Even a guy like Howard Zinn, who is the best local analog I can think of, couldn't keep a certain Americanness out of all of it, a triumphalist paradigm was something that too ingrained here to be left alone.  America is a place punctuated by gigantic bouts of violence, some of them explicitly sparked to consolidate the power structures that grew on these shores, and even a people's history feels required to answer to this.  What Hughes has in common with Zinn is his representation of the significant past as an interplay of individuals and factions of humans from all walks, how they lived and what they lived for. How they governed themselves, but also what their lives were like, and what their concerns were.  And while Australia has had its share of saints and ogres and characters, it does lack the drama of hard-fought shooting wars, and the language of Great Men and Great Events comes less naturally there.  You might argue instead that the figures of early Australian history emerged almost as folk heroes or villains.   Hughes takes conscientious pleasure in fleshing out the prominent figures of the day, but even in those cases, he doesn't elevate them to anything beyond human.

It helps, I will say, that Hughes is really GOOD at this.  It's actually an impressive feat to look at both noble and the base instincts that drive people and drive groups, and see all of those views with understanding and come out with a synthesis that's something like objective.  The illustrative anecdote is a great descriptive vehicle, and Hughes makes use of hundreds of them.   I get the feeling that he's read every extant piece of correspondence and documentation and absorbed every word.   There is an overriding moral compass there (that, in my opinion, is pointed perfectly true), but he's not preaching anything, and when opinion creeps in, it's almost given as a brilliant throwaway, as a statement of the perfectly logical and obvious.  He makes a few points, for example, during one of the gape-jawed tours of the depredations on prison colony's prison colony on Norfolk Island, how sadists are made and not born.  Early in the book, he takes an impressive broad-strokes description of English notions of criminality, both practical and comparative, that (cough) still bear some relevance to modern ones.  He's not shy about pointing out just how backwards the early settlements were without a skilled (or particularly inspired) workforce. 

There are times when the language sneaks in and gets lovely on you too.  Hughes likes to describe the landscape and the ocean, and he can do it almost heartbreakingly.  God help me, I liked best how he throws in the occasional editorial phrases, sometimes humanizing everything with just an adverb.  (People trumpeting causes are tiring; administrators can be malicious; sufferers suffer.)  Well worth reading, and sorry it took so long (and sorry the review isn't better!  The book could use a much longer one) to report.  Thanks for the recommendation. 

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Perspective III

[Edit: Whoa, it's been a while, and I should have a title.  Status of the hiatus?  Who knows, but I'd be pretty happy to get Paul Ryan's mug off the front page one of these days.]

In 2002, Jan Hendrik Schön, a researcher at what was left of Bell Labs, was accused of scientific misconduct by a formal investigative committee. He was caught falsifying data, sometimes drawing curves and pretending they were measured, other times swapping them from other pieces of data, and it was a huge scandal at the time, judged among the worst things you can do in science, or at least in premiere science. He was spotted because other researchers noticed that some of his plots looked exactly the same, even when he was reporting different conditions or phenomena. That is, they did not follow the same predictable shape, as you might hope data will do, but they bounced around their trendline in exactly the same way in both plots. This is what I remember of the scandal back then: one of my coworkers smugly pointing this out to me. See those two graphs, Keith? There's no way they should look exactly the same. (That's not just a fraud, but a lazy one. For the dedicated forger, how hard would it have been to introduce false instrument noise?)

When the Lucent committee looked more closely at his work, they found the bullshitting to be pervasive. No wonder he was able to publish a paper every week! Since this stuff was getting cranked through Science and Nature--relatively groundbreaking results in what was a sexy field at the time--Schön was ridden out of the scientific community on a rail. His awards and even his doctorate were rescinded (but the latter was re-awarded; evidently the guy's been fighting for his degree as recently as three years ago). The journal editorials tend along reputation-preserving retrospectives to the tune of how the hell did this happen, and let's never allow physics to be besmirched this way again.

I'll add that Schön is roughly my age, and even though I was a total academic nobody, there's still only a degree or two of separation between us. We worked in a similar field I am sure I read some of his papers late in my grad school days (which isn't to say I remember them specifically). My advisor had done his post-doc at Bell Labs, and some of his remaining friends there, to whom I'd been introduced, would become Schön's occasional co-authors. In defense of that community, the fact that Schön's data were hard to replicate isn't a total indictment by itself. Studies of organic electronics were notoriously difficult to reproduce in those days (and probably are now too), even for the same people, doing the same experiments.  This was much more a matter of trying to force soft, quasi-pure, and reluctantly ordered systems to behave like near-perfect semiconductor crystals than it was a matter of dishonesty. Electrical behavior that was extremely sensitive to barely-tangible properties of an interface was hardly a rare thing. And in defense of Schön's co-authors, it's actually really easy to get listed as a middle contributor in a bustling, incestuous place like Bell Labs. That place (in that field at least, and in the 1990s) was more liberal than anywhere when it came to spreading names across the mastheads. You might get listed as an author for having prepped one or two samples, for overseeing one of the instruments, or contributing a paragraph of text from one of your publications.  Take that nice piece of resume fluff, and move on, it's not terribly necessary to know what the lead was ever really up to. And more than that, Bell Labs was in its sad death spiral in the late 90s. It's got to be hard to care about what the guy down the hall is doing when you're investing all your free minutes in an effort to get yourself out from under the headsman's axe. Schön was dishonest as fuck-all, but he was in a niche where he could ramp it up a little higher than usual before getting caught.

So.  It's months old now, but the economics world was rocked--no, better to say that it should have been rocked--by two researchers who published a report explaining that national debt levels above 90% of GDP cross a drastic threshold that's correlated with low or negative growth.  Now, this was published in a conference proceedings (they give you big grains of salt at the door to these things, along with the pens and other swag--you publish in proceedings when you don't want to go through all the work of satisfying reviewers), so it's not, I sure hope, premiere economics, except that it became a leading-edge study because it got swiped up as a wand of legitimacy by pro-austerity policymakers and pundits, and we have all had to keep hearing about this crap.  But when Reinhart and Rogoff's analyses were put under any kind of scrutiny at all, it was, well, not good: bizarre weighting procedures and cherry-picked data ranges, along with spreadsheet manipulation (is it really cool with Harvard that its researchers chuck numbers into Excel and call it research?), later claimed as a mistake, that was painfully obviously designed to produce the foregone conclusion.  And even if they've claimed only correlation, causation has been implicit when the work is reported by their supporters. 

(I'll add too, that I don't think national debt is awesome myself.  I see it as a trick that clears itself up so long as there's GDP growth, but there's no good reason to monkey with the accounting like that, well, other than to be obfuscatory about imbalances.  The solution isn't to starve the lower orders; it is support them while showing the books properly.  That debt doesn't correlate with growth, or that it correlates much more weakly than they claimed, is supportive of the "black box" theory.)

Anyway, my argument isn't so much what happened.  You get academic tendentiousness for all sorts of reasons, and even thinking people are still hierarchical herd animals in lots of ways.  Their rise went farther than it should have too.  I've said before that since it's fundamentally based in the logic of agreements, economics is more like law than it is like science, which is to say that it's a matter of both rationality and, to a much higher degree than physics is, advocacy.  Reinhart and Rogoff were probably not as dishonest as Jan Schön was--it was more likely they were just caught being lazy--but on the other hand, it doesn't seem to have hurt their careers, but for a few necessary defensive letters.  Their work appears to remain influential. 

I mean, fucking seriously.  Here's Larry Goddamn Summers defending it, doing the opposite of protecting his own intellectual reputation and that of the field.  They are friends, Summers says, and he openly admits that their work supports his agenda.  Why does this guy, in the face of bad data, and his own awful history of being wrong policy-wise--not to mention occupying the smug embodiment of shitty low-empathy ethics of austerity--retain so much pull?  Why was he a chief economic advisor, and why is that slimy piece of crap on the short list to run the Fed?  I mean we know why, but still. 

Economics is far from useless, but it's also farther from hard science than it pretends.  In more ways than one.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Automated Alice, by Jeff Noon

In the short novel, Automated Alice, we return to follow the famously dreamy young girl for a new and updated adventure.  In this one, Alice travels a hundred years through time (as literally as can be--the portal this time is an old grandfather clock in her aunt's house), where she brings her Victorian-style innocence through a series of abruptly shifted modern settings, puns, anthropormophosed creatures, and cute non-sequiturs.  It starts in a computermite mound, and immediately playing games with bit logic and uncertainty, the sort of effort that I simply must appove.  Noon lays the Lewis Carroll voice on pretty liberally from the outset, all the twee puns and wordplay, but then so of course did Lewis Carroll.  Noon ladels in gallons of late-century cultural references, but that's part and parcel with the original too.  It opens up the reader to the context of the original Alice, and what might pass for a modern equivalent, now with easy access to all the sorts of in-jokes for people who didn't have the fortune to read Through the Looking Glass at the time of its writing, and it's interesting to compare the role of technology, drugs, and violence in the cultural contexts as well.  He includes the author-as-character in there in a couple different ways, which I think was meant to be a sweet homage, and he wraps up with a warmly posed metafictional question of who is the real Alice (the character, the doll copy of her, or the real Ms. Liddell), to mirror the earlier question of who is the real writer (Lewis Carroll or Charles Dodgeson or, for that matter, Jeff Noon).  In all, it's really a fabulous idea.  Unfortunately, I hated this book.  A lot.

I hated it because it's inappropriately creepy.  Alice winds up before long in a murder mystery, and okay, maybe that part slides--is it really worse than winding up in the court of a maniacal dictator who is addicted to capital punishment?--but I don't think Lewis Carroll would have ever shown us all the bodies, even if he was writing in 1997.  I don't think Lewis Carroll would have dropped the girl down the corpse-hole into a festering pit of demonic snakes, or jammed chicken guts into a robot to make it work.  For real.  Nor, for that matter, do I think Carroll would have maryjaned himself egregiously into the middle of the story, for the evident purpose of complaining about critics.  What the fuck would possess the author to indulge in this kind of thing?

I was already familiar with Jeff Noon from his novel Vurt, which I read a few years ago, shortly before I started reviewing books on this site.  That one had a pretty high squick factor too, but there, at least, it fit its context, and for all that, I remember it as an interesting and thoughtful book, which is why I grabbed this one from the discount rack.  Oddly, I am writing this directly off a conversation of what writing does or doesn't reveal about the author.  I don't get the impression that Jeff Noon is a creepy guy, necessarily, but if he can't keep the gore and guts out of Alice, then I won't trust him to keep it out of anything.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It Bears Repeating

I've submitted my share of research proposals over the years, and while I took every one of them very seriously, I don't think it criminalizes anyone to acknowledge that despite every effort, the quality was not always the same. Some ended up better developed, or more innovative, or benefitted from a better technical grounding. And some of the basic ideas were just more compelling than others. Nor, I think, does it damn anyone to note that when one of the turkeys tried to pass itself off as a duck, it compensated for a lack of sound reasoning and good science with a whole lot of extra-bouyant marketing-style weaselspeak.  "This innovative concept will revolutionalize the paradigm..."

Sure, talking your concepts up is a necessary evil, but you can also tell that an idea is fundamentally hollow when it reaches a critical level of bullshit self-praise. There's a point where you need to show, not tell, as the writers say. Sales is a lot more natural when you understand and believe in the advantages of your product, as marketing people know. And all I'm saying is that if you have to put on your cover page, in gigantic letters, "A Responsible, Balanced Budget," there couldn't be a bigger tell that it is neither of those things.

And look, it's actually a lot worse when you believe writing it and parading your smirky "professionalism" makes it reality.  That's delusional.  It's cargo-cult territory.  Putting on a suit and jumping around with that dynamic-but-serious clown act doesn't make you business savvy any more than rolling around in your big 5.0 makes you enormously endowed.  Word to your mother, fucktard.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff

Bad Monkeys is, according to a back-cover interview with the author, Matt Ruff's Philip K. Dick book. That's great: I'll be the first to admit that I don't know Dick (ha) all that well, at least not at normal length (hee hee)--an interview and a short story I think is all I've ever read--but there have been enough adaptations and knockoffs of the guy over the years to make this one seem like it lays a credible enough claim to the throne. Bad Monkeys is a trip into the shadowy behind-the-scenes world where They watch you from, and then it's a chase through it. It plays on perceptions and on the deep game of creepy surveillance; it gets you looking over the characters' shoulders at all times. It aims for paranoia, and it hits that mark. It's just easy enough on the premises to be fun, and, as I almost never do, I finished the whole ting in a sitting. The main character, Jane, comes to us as likeable in a novel-esque way, a fast-talking and sassy kid who is nonetheless on the side of good, and Ruff is smart enough to take what are normally humanizing or even ennobling anti-authoritarian tendencies in her and examine them, mess with the expectations of that trope a bit. Jane, by the unfortunate circumstance of losing her (obvious homage of a) little brother Phil as a little kid, comes under the scrutiny of the Agency, which, we learn before long, is dedicated to nip the evil forces of the world (who Ruff gives to us as movie-grade sickos: serial killers, abusive perverts, bomb-throwers) before they get worse, and Jane's bad luck, set up against her quick and independent mind, eventually gets her on the team.

When the backstory ends and her training begins, we learn too of a counter-organization, the CHAOS to the Agency's CONTROL (Jane calls them the Bad Monkeys, based on some of their flyers), which runs cover for the forces of nastiness and discord. Both groups operate through deep and strange surveillance techniques (microscopic cameras that can be printed on any image with eyes), interact with their staff through dreams, duck through unexpected doors, and leave obscure signs as a means of communication (engineering clues in the daily crossword puzzle, seeding live scenes with telling iconagraphy and whatnot). The threatening ubiquity of it all strikes me as Dickish, but the telling of it seems a lot like an epically-tilted Stephen King novel. The juxtaposition of real life against the deep weirdness fits that mode. The goals and methods of these organizations seem much better suited to fantasy and the supernatural than they do to technology and philosophy, and it's where my mind tended to go. You can give magical assignments to a Team Good and a Team Evil that floats just out of humanity's regular sight--angels and demons, Seelie and Unseelie courts, whatever--and even introduce all the moral ambiguities into the characters that inhabit the opposing realms that you want--hell, a quarter of the sidebar is fantasy of this sort--but you it's harder to give absolute alignment to "realistic" human organizations, and it's a flaw in the foundation that the novel simply can't build its way past.

And with that, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to proceed to spoil the living fuck out of this one.

Look, that it's really explicit is the problem. I like the game that Ruff is going with: give us a flawed but sympathetic character and let's see how far he can stretch the reader's empathy, how long it takes for the flaws to win out.  How much evidence does it take for us to conclude that whatever side the protagonist is playing for, she's just a mean piece of work. Unfortunately, this whole exercise culminates with Jane, backed into a corner and confronted with knowledge of where she is and what actually happened to her brother, copping up. "All right, I'm evil!" she screams.  Hell, and maybe she is, but the problem I have is that she accepts the paradigm.  Even as her story breaks up, she seems bright enough to otherwise rationalize, socialized enough to act out shame, or bold enough to be defiant, and instead she confesses to the supernatural premises. But it's not even that, really, more that we readers should accept it.  Jane might have got there in the context of the story. The problem is that there's nowhere any condemnation of the good guys. Without supernatural validation of the absolute good (whether it survives in observance or not), we're left with the reality of the ambiguity of "good."  The agency that's allegedly keeping Evil in check, well, it's obvioiusly motherfucking evil it's own self. They spy, they infiltrate, they conspire, they judge with sparse evidence, and they kill with the certitude of zealots. And Jane fits right in to that. Jane's judged, but her employers are not.  No one watches the watchmen here, and how can you write a Phil Dick novel, or really write anything sincerely in 2007, where no one even wonders about that?

The other major flaw I think Ruff could have avoided with better writing. At the big reveal, the agents tell Jane the point where the story fell apart, the point where she stopped working for them, and became an object of study, where her whole story became staged. It's okay to do that, I think, in a novel with the the rules that Bad Monkeys gives us, and the vehicle for it (where are they really?) is telegraphed early enough. The problem is the supposed tell: there's just no way for the reader to see it, even after the fact. It's written like the classic joke: "We've got messages in the Jumble, agents behind every dialtone, evil clowns, and guns that fire heart attacks." "Oh hey I got one, what about drugs that change time, or a strange twin?" "Yeah right, that shit is just crazy."
The book was a very enjoyable escape, but it also had problems you could play T-ball with. If it was longer, I'd actually be mad.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Some Lesser-Known Presidential Achievements

Although we've had a number of them who veered toward the paternal, professorial, or patrician, Americans under (like most people in the world) powerful male leaders, are not strangers to masculine display from our presidents. Whether it was war-hero Harrison brazenly removing his coat and hat for a chilly inauguration, or the real reason big-shootin' Andrew Jackson was known as "Old Hickory," muddling our way inside a miasma of machismo is hardly anything new, but as contemporary ideals shift and change, and as the science of image management has grown more subtle and refined, the representations of presidential manliness have shifted over the years, and it's interesting to observe and note the progression of styles.  The military mode of expression has always been there, from George (Washington) to George (Bush), and we can argue who earned the uniform more.  Two things that I think changed the game very quickly, however, were (1) the development of quality photography and (2) the rise of popular sports.

Theodore Roosevelt is best rememered as the president who sold himself as an athlete, but there are a few others that most people know well.  Gerald Ford was a star football player, for example, and George W. Bush cheered football, and Ronald Reagan played the role of a football coach once, all of which are pretty much exactly the same thing.  And every last one of them inaugurated after 1950 golfed religiously.  President Obama moves like someone in smooth control of his body, and it's been odd that conservatives have occasionally tried to portray a man who's been known to drain a three-pointer on demand as an effeminate, uncoordinated wimp, but then, they seem to be the ones who put more value on alpha-hood.  Maybe the racists among them don't want to credit a "black" sport like basketball--more likely they just don't want to give him any credit for anything--but either way, it's been funny as hell to watch certain corners squirm at his recent photo release, firing a shotgun and looking good doing it.  It's not that I approve of the technique even a little--what he's doing here is not much different than Bush's flight suit--but on the other hand, I've got to hand it to the president: that's one hell of a good troll.

The fact is, there have been a lot of athletic presidents, and many of them even tried to campaign on it, even though success doing so was rare.  The problem is that it gave their opponents some grist too, and like Obama's hoops, it has had a way of getting subverted, eventually shelved quietly and rarely spoken of again.  Archival photos of our earlier sportsman/presidents are surprisingly hard to find.  I've been researching it carefully though, and I thought I'd share some surprising presidential trivia with y'all, along with vintage photos.  Every entry on this list is 100% historically accurate.

1. William Howard Taft
America, desperate for a diversion after the war, caught baseball fever in the 1860s.  (Baseball fever, though evidently contagious, proved much less deadly than yellow fever, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, grippe, ague, cholera, smallpox, or consumption.  It bears repeating that the nineteenth century was a septic, tubercular shithole.) The sport became spread out and standardized during the conflict, and afterwards grew rapidly all across the nation, becoming a fully professional enterprise by the turn of the century.  Bookish, portly, and from an aristocratic family, William Howard Taft seems hardly the type to have made a showing in the scrappy small-ball leagues of the late 1800s, but after graduating Yale (where he'd wrestled), he moved back to the midwest and tried to get his weight behind a bat for a couple of seasons. 

He played in four separate clubs between 1880 and 1882, and while a prodigious hitter, he had increasing difficulty making it all the way around the bases by the end, and before long, he took up his role in the legal and political world.  (Designated hitters weren't common until the American League adopted the rule in 1973.)  Shown here is his baseball card from 1880, when he played first base for the Indianapolis Whoppers.

2. Woodrow "Woody" Wilson
Another president remembered for being scholarly, Wilson was a baseball prodigy as well.  Unlike Taft (whom he never played against), he was lithe, quick, and witty, known for chasing down balls and making daring catches.  Both had magnificent moustaches in their day, however, which, even more than a uniform, was a requirement for professional play before 1900, especially in New York.  Historians still debate whether the entire character of the Republic changed on the day Wilson shaved it.

He earned the nickname Woody because even with a big dramatic swing (Joe Dimaggio, it's been said, was inspired by early photos of the president, such as the one below), he wasn't a powerful hitter, but he could almost always make contact with the ball. 

3. Dwight Eisenhower
Ice hockey had not  penetrated very deeply into the U.S. in the 1920s, and it seems like an odd game for a kid from Kansas, and a West Point football player with a busted-up knee, to eventually gravitate, but that's exactly what happened with young Eisenhower.  He was a phenom on the ice for several years, nearly making it onto the first American pro team--the Boston Bruins--when they formed in 1924.  He is best known for making a dramatic overtime goal, but he retired from sport soon after.  It's a wonder, because even flying around like that without a helmet, he clearly enjoyed every second of it.

His early campaign buttons were meant to read "I Like Ice," but no one on his campaign team got the reference.  His friends started calling him Ike soon after, and it stuck.

4. Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter was a basketball star in high school, and later played football at the Naval Academy, at the position of quarterback.  For all the modern presidents who were known to play football, it's strange that Carter is so often overlooked.  With arms like iron beams, he could hurl the ball nearly level across the entire length of the field, earning the nickname "Le Sueur" from one of his Minnesotan teammates, who thought it sailed as if across the ice on the frozen lakes of his home city.  It wasn't for another decade and a half that the moniker could have any connection with stimulated emission light devices, but nonetheless, Carter has claimed for years that being called the "laser" is what inspired him to pursue nuclear engineering.

Carter was also notoriously vulgar on the field, even among sailors, constantly dressing down the opposing defense with his impressively foul mouth and large academic vocabulary.  Shortly after this photo was taken, he was quoted as saying "He's building a Disneyland?  Is that some kind of narcissistic mindfuck?  What a mouse-buggeringly stupid excuse for an idea." 

And a color photo in 1947 no less.  The man was a walking anachronism.

5. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan played many hypermasculine roles during his acting career, and, arguably, in his old age, he would sometimes get them confused with his actual life story. But he never portrayed a boxer on film, despite experiences right in underbelly of the sport, and kept it impressively quiet even into old age. Many of his closest friends never knew when he was alive. Always intensely private about his experiences in the ring, it wasn't until the posthumous release of The Reagan Diaries in 2009 that his pugilist history was revealed to the public. Some surviving political opponents have recently speculated that the eventual onset of his dementia was exacerbated by a few too many blows to the head.

By his own admission, he wasn't a strong fighter, but he was steely-jawed with good features (this is an older photo), resembling a softer, thinner Jack Dempsey, and his managers would heavily promote him by looks alone, usually as an opponent to the local champ, a kind of record-booster for the hometown guy. He boxed professionally in several leagues, changing his name and moving on when his record inevitably would start to catch up with him. The experience of being a professional loser depressed him immensely, and he was unable to come out of that melancholy until he took a chance at a radio gig and met success in another field. From that point on, he took care to craft his image as a winner, someone on top, a man who manages, not one who gets managed.

[Edited to smooth out some uneven language.  You know, a whole lot of these guys really were jocks--figures--which kind of robs the joke.]

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Don't Buy It, by Anat Shenker-Osorio

"How did this come to happen?" writes Ms. Shenker-Osorio, "How did we come to accept that how well we're doing depends entirely on how well it's doing? How did we forget that the economy is nothing more or less than what we make and consume, nothing outside of us?"

It's the sort of thing that can't be said enough. "The economy" is a description of human social activity. It's not something that exists independently of the human sphere, and people don't live to serve it. It is complex, but it is not emergent, not sentient, and even less so is it some supernatural consciousness that must be entertained or appeased lest the world be subject to its Olympian funks or avenging wrath. I find this really troubling in a study that also styles itself as a science, and when economists resort to ad hoc bullshitting and Delphic babble every time the shit gets anywhere near fanward, it triggers my pathological radar something fierce.  Even though it's only a knowing approximation, I'd prefer economics to be presented as something of a process model (with a vast quantity of inputs and parameters and so on, described by all manner of dynamic states), but instead we get simplistic metaphors dished out so smugly or grudgingly from the authorities that I suspect them to their very core.  Because I've got to give it the author here: the prevailing metaphors suck.

As a discussion of what's wrong with the language of macroeconomics, I think that Shenker-Osorio is providing a valuable service with this short, snarky book, and I'd go on that some of the remedies are greatly appreciated and taken to heart.  Proceeding from the obvious premise that the economy is a social institution, then it follows that it is the result of human decisions at various levels of scale, which can be identified.  It's not a matter of physical law, and considering it accurately as a mechanism for classifying and distributing human effort and reward, then there's surely more than way to sort it out, and it's naive to imagine that our way is the global optimum, or that we came to it by forces of pure thermodynamics.  (Hell, if we did, we wouldn't take on such utterly retarded assumptions as perpetual growth.)  The market doesn't make the decision to enrich stockholders and fuck over workers; people do.  The economy doesn't demand that poor people go without decent housing or medical services; people granted such authority choose to distribute those things or not.  There's a reason that high-visibility economic spokesmen obscure the agency of certain individuals and groups--it's because they're getting paid by them.  The pervasive use of the passive voice is used to hide exactly that, and it's probably the book's most salient point.

I do keep in mind that the author is a "message consultant" of some kind, and if human behavior is more subject to the semiotics than the physical world is, I still don't want to get carried away here.  It's good to call out how bad the discussion really is, but I think that metaphors only hold so much power.  Are we really better talking about the economy as a vehicle (that has a driver, that can go off course, that needs maintenance) than we are talking about it as a body (that can get sick through no fault of anyone)?  To an extent, but I think it's also clear that most of the concepts have passed well out of the realm of colorful evocation into the dull world of cliche.  Yes, our language does affect our perception of things--mostly to limit it--but the nature of reality also tends to undo language, doesn't it?  Talking about the economy, we're really dealing with a bunch of blunt and inapproprate conversation tools, but I think that most people who work with them, often with Friedman-esque levels of free-associative carelessness, intend and understand something other than what the words are really saying.

This sort of things shows up in some of her etymology arguments too (what is it with these social science types?), and as with cliches, I don't think people deal so deeply in the concepts that once informed the words they currently use.  And unfortunately this thinking gives some tools to throw her reasoning back at her.  Shenker-Osario sees a fundamental rivalry here between Republicans and Progressives.  (It's the sort of thing that's suitable for a long blog post, but hell, I think this sort of false dichotomy dilutes her arguement a lot, which is a damn shame, because it's pretty sharp otherwise.)  That she goes with "Progressive" in 2012 is a telling construction in itself.  It accepts the mantle of the movement from last century, which I myself see as a politically sanitized manifestation of the radical arguments that had been fomenting among the American working people for some years before.  It's used today because people like herself--wrongly, I think--have abandoned "liberal," but Progressivism carries its own highly compromised and somewhat authoritarian history.   Oddly, I'd put that word in a similar camp as American "reform," which started as a sort of in-the-system filtered-down radicalism too, and has since been diluted further.  I don't think it was fair, really, to give the word origin of that one such a beat-down: for one thing, I'd say that in terms of core meanings, reforming--forming again--implies taking something apart and reassembling it, not just giving it a nice sand and polish, and political reform, even if it's become completely meaningless at this late date, did have some pressure behind it in the 19th century, when it sure as shit wasn't part of the conservative lingo.

The tone of this book is arch, critical, and reasonable funny, which I think is entirely appropriate for poking holes in sanctimony and obfuscation, which is the main thing here anyway, and which, as mentioned, is as long overdue as it is enjoyable.  So call it recommended reading.  I'd have liked it better if it didn't also come off as a manual for Team Progressive to hold its own discourse, using another set of cheapo metaphors which better reflect their agenda.  Since she hasn't lost sight of what the economy actually is, maybe it would just be better to reduce the unconsidered use of such facile language altogether.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Review: The Green Shore, by Natalie Bakopoulos

This book was recommended to me by the poster formerly known as august (he among the quiet friends) back in, well, August, in the context of swapping around review sites. I bought it and cracked it open shortly afterward, and while I feel somewhat guilty about taking so long to actually finish the thing, it is, in all honestly, the sort of novel that is well-suited to reading in morsels like that.  It is told in several largely atmospheric segments, rich in narrative commentary, each one separated by several years. Things happen within each section, but it's not driven as a simple narrative, no hard-pressing plot advancement, not a matter of this-then-this-then-that. The Green Shore is more of an exploration of several sequential presents, each of which has proceeded naturally from the last.  You can read one of these portraits, let it absorb, and then get back later to see how the characters have changed and developed during the year or two they were offscreen.  It's somewhat like spending a few weeks at a time with distant friends, a little more like visiting your distant family.

The book follows the lives of one extended family of Athens, in the months and years after the Greek coup in 1967. There is a fairly large cast involved for a book this short, but the two daughters (Sophie and Anna), their mother (Eleni), and her brother (Mihalis) are the point-of-view characters, the interior and exterior lives of each one pulled out and elaborated in each section. They are, with varying levels of extroversion and personal compromise, instinctively subersive, liberal, urbane, and in their respective ways, they find themselves natural opponents of the colonels. As well as each other. Quite a lot of the narrative is developing the thorny relationship space they all share with one another. We find them first on the night of the coup, one in the middle of an affair, one drunk, two living worlds apart at home, and then the coup happens.

Bakopoulos is masterful at creating a kind of hollow, amorphous tension through these four. There's a sense of menace everywhere, of distrust, but as conditions evolve, after initial violence and mass arrests, and a few days of quiet, wary streets and strange radio broadcasts, life returns to most of its modern motions. The family is on the brink of several underground movements--Sophie is dating a dissident; Mihalis is an experienced one, who resisted the Nazi occupation--and they get closer to them as the years pass, but at first their first efforts seem less than futile under the distrustful eyes of newly-minted authorities, and then surreal against the token normalcy, the sham society, that follows. The sources of the paranoia are rarely witnessed directly, but are implied everywhere: an overly curious security guard, cautious conversations, prisons packed away on quaint vacation islands. We see detention and demoralization, and Eleni eventually starts a clinic that serves torture victims, but even at the climactic Polytechnic uprising, most (though by now, not all) of the action is in the form of intimidation, and then we only see damaged bodies being rushed back and forth. It's actually a very compelling and intimate expression of how oppressive power filters down, how constriction of freedom feels, and this book is well worth reading for that.  It's like It Can't Happen Here, but told with real, complex people, in a real, living place.

The general arc of the story scatters the family, and then gradually pulls them back together. They are all characters who mature under the occupation, come into their own.  They all start out a bit feckless, a little lost, but they grow in resolve, and it is as if they need the threat of the authorities to complete themselves, but only to a believable human degree. Anna is really the only one who can be said to grow up under the junta, and of all of them, she is the one who cracks the boundaries of decorum the most, the student who becomes the full-fledged revolutionary. Arguably Greece lost and found its purpose similarly over these years, which was probably an intentional parallel (with the country left as ambiguous a future as after any family reunion). The ending feels like nothing more than a fitting moment to stop, and as such, I wonder the characters do as their lives continue.  Dissolve again, become dissolute.  Lose purpose and fade out, I think, for better or worse.  But then we all do.