Starship Troopers, because why stop with the cheap scifi just when I’m hating myself?

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1987. First published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.

Not like a Cyberman at all.

Not like a Cyberman at all.

I have become enamored of reading bad science fiction late at night when I am feeling anxious for whatever reason. In this case, the cat’s health issues over the past month have certainly been a constant source of stomach-churning fun.[1]

Short story shorter, a few weeks ago I found a copy of Starship Troopers in the Alex P— Immemorial Wing of the library. I’d recently had a discussion with my youngest brother about politics in literature, so I decided to take a little look through it. So let’s summarize the plot!

Juan “Johnnie” Rico is an immigrant from the Phillipines (or the area formerly known as) to the US (or the area—you get the idea—the book isn’t super specific about world geography in a lot of ways) who grows up in luxury, the son of a rich businessman. He’s living in a futuristic society (post-20th century, date not specified but seems pretty far into the future, since there’s faster-than-light travel and various other gadgets) in which military or other civil service is a prerequisite for becoming a full citizen (of what is referred to as the Federation). Most people don’t bother—you can live a perfectly fine life without becoming a citizen; the main drawback is that you don’t get to vote. Still, come their 18th birthdays, Johnnie, his best friend Carl, and a girl in his class named Carmen all go down to the Army/Navy office and sign up. Carmen, who is very good at math and has good reflexes, goes to piloting school. Carl, who we are led to believe is pretty smart, winds up in R&D. And Johnnie, who has no particular skills other than being a pretty engrossing narrator, joins the M.I., or Mobile Infantry. They are basically like the normal infantry, except they have rocket-powered jumpsuits that allow them to bound over a lot of terrain relatively quickly. This turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise for him, as he is able to gain discipline, martial skills, insight into why a person might become a soldier and why it’s important that only those who have served have the vote, and other pressing societal issues. After a while, the Federation gets into a war with the bug people. Juan makes up with his estranged father, then goes to officer training school and winds up as a lieutenant leading his own platoon.

Heinlein writes about military life with a certain familiarity—he went to the naval training academy himself, though he was discharged in the 1930s with TB and never saw combat. Still, his descriptions of boot camp have a vividness to them that will be somewhat familiar to anyone who has taken part in physically demanding activities.[2] In fact, while the book is set in the future, it’s a future that smells a lot like the 1950s. We have air cars, yes, as well as faster-than-light ships and an elaborate body armor for soldiers that enables them to fly, but people still read newspapers and receive telegrams, fill out forms by hand and receive paper letters. Perhaps more striking, all the fighting is done by boots on the ground rather than, for example, drones.[3] Of course, the book would not have been as exciting had our hero been training to fly drones rather than fight himself.

Philosophically speaking, there are a few other interesting points to be made. In many ways, Rico functions as a cog in a machine, and he implies that everyone in the army functions in the same way. This is, on the one hand, bureaucracy taken to its natural extreme; on the other hand, it’s confusing to think of an army where everyone has to fight, including people who might otherwise have incredibly important skills that would dictate that they should be kept alive (like code breakers/linguists/etc.). Interestingly, despite having many friends die in training and combat, Rico never questions 1) the training he is receiving, 2) the war he is fighting, or 3) the overall necessity for war (he sees it as a biological necessity based on the availability of habitat). And for all his pro-MI rhetoric, Rico never really gets a triumph. He succeeds in a lot of things, including rescuing his Buck Sergeant[4], a man called Zim, from the bugs, but he is injured during the rescue and doesn’t really recall all of it, negating and distancing him from what would otherwise have been quite a victory. In this way, Heinlein sort of acknowledges, obliquely, that while war may be rationalized with a variety of pretty, noble tropes, its actual execution is quite a bit uglier, and much less noble.

This book does a good job of developing the world in which it’s set gradually; by the time you get to the end, you’ve gotten a fairly good idea of what life in it is like, but Heinlein doesn’t rush to dump information on you at the beginning. The book also features a fair amount of diversity in terms of race compared to most science fiction. And, at least compared to Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s treatment of women here is much less aggravating; yes, Rico repeatedly remarks at how pretty women are, but he’s unable to get off with anyone—in general because all the women he meets are way smarter than he is. He’s not bitter about this, which is refreshing, and the women, as I mentioned, are genuinely intelligent and good at their jobs (c.f. the constant parade of large-breasted bimbos in SiaSL).

My brother, mentioned mere paragraphs ago, reads this book as a satire. His reasons for this seem to be rooted in a few things about the book–for example, the way the the “bugs” are dehumanized/caricatured and some things about the way the bureaucracy functions, as well as the fact that later on, Heinlein commended the author of The Forever War, Joe Halderman, on having written such a good novel, and The Forever War is widely regarded as being about its author’s experience during the Vietnam War (in Vietnamee, Kháng chiến chống Mỹ). Having read the book, I’m not sure I believe him; Heinlein is a competent writer and a good storyteller, but I don’t know if he’s good enough to pull off that kind of unflinching satire.

I think that’s about all I have to say about this one. I’m told there’s a film version, but I looked at the plot, and it looked like the director didn’t actually read the book so much as steal the character names/title. Interestingly, there are a lot of articles suggesting that the film version is satire. So there’s that.

Next time: Something with women in it.

It's now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.

It’s now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.

[1] For those not following along on Facebook, the cat had an adenocarcinoma of the small intestine. She is currently doing well following a bowel resection, but the cancer isn’t really cured and will return, probably within the next six months. But there have been a few anxious nights, mostly because I’m still a hypochondriac.

[2] Like ultrarunning.

[3] Drones are weird, aren’t they? At any point in the last ten thousand years of human history right up to, oh, the mid-1990s, that war will always have to be fought by people was a reasonable assumption to make. Now the elimination of people from offensive combat could totally happen.

[4] Good luck figuring out the ranks discussed in the book. Lieutenant is higher than sergeant; that’s all I can tell you.

Getting Back Is Half the Problem: The Martian, by Andy Weir

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, 2014.9780804139021

I first heard about this book when it was mentioned in this XKCD comic. For whatever reason, that description, plus the film’s trailer, made me want to read it. AND SO HERE WE ARE, AT THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER REVIEW.


Okay, plot summary: Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, is accidentally left behind after the Ares 3 mission to Mars. In case you don’t know anything about interstellar travel, the distance between the Earth and Mars is roughly 140 million miles; it’s only 92 million miles from the sun to the Earth (a distance known as 1 Astronomical Unit, or AU), so the distance from the Earth to Mars is roughly one and a half times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. If you could travel the speed of light, you would be able to send a rescue mission across that distance in about 15 minutes, more or less. If you lived in the far future where there were ships waiting on the launch pad in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately for Watney, he lives in the more-or-less present, where technology is about what you’re familiar with and it’s going to take upwards of four years to get him rescued. And he has the rations sent for himself and five crew mates for thirty days, so all in all he has about one hundred and fifty days’ worth of food. Also, he has no way of communicating with NASA (the communications devices were damaged during the storm that caused his mission to abort). So he’s in what might be called a real pickle.

That’s the setup. I won’t give the ending away, since this is a relatively recent book, but if you haven’t read it and plan to, you should be aware that I will refer to details of the story later in this review that could potentially spoil parts of it for you. Consider yourself warned.

Watney faces his situation with a certain amount of nerve and a sense of humor. Most of the book is essentially epistlatory in nature, playing out through a series of log entries and email exchanges, although there are some narrative sections as well. Going beyond Watney, a lot of the supporting characters are not strongly drawn personalities; there’s Annie, the NASA media person, who cusses a lot; Venkat, the administrator who is in charge of the Ares project; Teddy, a higher-ranking administrator at NASA; Bruce, who is in charge of Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL); and some other astronauts who have various jobs. They are a mix of races and genders, but their characters didn’t feel distinct enough to be able to say, “This character’s drive is x, this one’s is y.” Perhaps because they all were working toward the same goal, and no one had any underhanded motives. It’s actually pretty easy to see why this book was picked to become a film[1]—the plot is really straightforward. There are certainly a lot of events that befall our hero as he scrapes through each day, but the goal—survival, getting off Mars—remains the same for the entire book, and with this sort of Man vs. Planet plot, there’s no need to humanize the opponent in the third act to set up some sort of gray area. And, as I said, the characters have only a few characteristics given—this one likes disco, this one likes old mystery novels—so for an actor, they might be a lot of fun to add more details to and really bring to life.

One thing this book does really effectively is teach the engineering mindset. This is something I’ve been getting into myself, since I’ve been learning how to write code the past few weeks. Basically when I say engineering mindset, what I mean is a step-based, iterative approach to problem-solving. You have a particular large issue—“How do I stay alive on a hostile planet for four years?”—and break it down into pieces. What do you need to survive? Food, water, shelter. Okay, what methods can you use to get food? (Hint: The hero, conveniently, is a botanist.) Once you have a method, if you can use this method to produce x amount of food, where the total amount you need is z and zx is > 0, how can you start to increase your yield? And so on. It’s not necessarily super thrilling, but it actually feels like how an astronaut might approach a problem like this, which is kind of neat.[2] I can tell now, looking at the film’s trailer, that a lot of stuff has been added in to provide emotional interest, whereas the book was heavy on the science and low on the human stuff (second trailer: super funny). I hope they don’t get rid of too much of the science stuff, since one of the neater sides of the book was getting to see something about how NASA, the JPL, and the various astronauts work on problems and think through things. For example, I didn’t realize that they were so concerned with mission failures that a 4% margin of error is considered unacceptably high. (Or perhaps it’s not, but the book is fairly accurate about a lot of space-related stuff.)[3] Somewhat unfortunately, during the times Watney is in contact with NASA/JPL, a lot of his narrative is reduced to “Did what NASA said. Awaiting next transmission.” He doesn’t go rogue or rebel. He just wants to do right and live through this. But his willingness to cooperate is really a hint at the intriguing central question of this book.

The soul of this book, the question it really grapples with, is not a scientific one but a human one: Why spend so much money and so many resources (both physical resources in terms of food and technology and ephemeral resources like time and manpower) to rescue one guy? A few of the characters in the book bring this up sort of peripherally—by expending all their efforts to get Watney, NASA is giving up a lot of other research projects that could be providing data (and they’re not the only one—NASA’s Chinese counterparts bemoan the loss of data a probe was supposed to bring them even as they hand it over to be used for this mission. Reporters, whose constant presence seems unfortunately very realistic, question whether the expenditure of money is worth it. The book’s answer is decisively yes, and it’s not just because Watney is such a winning character. As Watney puts it (you can hear him saying this if you go watch the trailer), people’s natural instinct is to pull together in a disaster—giving blood or money, volunteering to help in some way. The book is not about man’s inhumanity to man, as is the case with so many works, but about man’s humanity to man in the face of adversity. It’s a thought that feels startlingly naïve, and yet one that’s welcome in this age of strife.

I’m not usually a hard scifi person, but this book was an exciting and quick read. Weir is a good writer; he’s not poetic by any means, but he’s funny and has a solid grasp of his craft. His characters are smart. I’d say on the whole there aren’t enough female scientists represented—most of the characters are male—but that actually feels kind of petty here. And the women who do appear are as strong and smart as their male peers; in all the depiction is much more satisfying than the one in Dune. Sorry, Frank.

[1] In addition to the other things, the film being set on Mars, a very red-orange planet, gives the filmmakers a chance to make everything as orange and teal as possible.

[3] How dangerous it is to be an astronaut depends on how you look at who exactly is an astronaut and what exactly counts as an astronaut-related death (for example, a test pilot flying a plane at sufficient altitude could be considered to have entered space without actually being an astronaut; there have been a lot of deaths during training missions, both spaceflight-related, as Apollo I, and unrelated, as various plane crashes that have killed astronauts). Wikipedia says there have been eighteen in-space deaths in four incidents, thirteen non-space (training) deaths, and also lists a bunch of non-astronaut space-program-related fatalities, such as NASA personnel who got caught in the wrong place when things blew up. There have been 536 people in space as of November 2013, meaning that astronauts have a death rate of something like 5.78%. Yikes.

Aliens Are Weird: Solaris Reviewed

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. San Diego: Harcourt, 1987.

I have to make one admission here up front: I have been reading late at night to help my brain calm down so I can get to sleep. That isn’t really even a problem, and I’m sure a lot of people do this—see Joyce’s quip about how Finnegans Wake‘s ideal reader was the “ideal insomniac”[1]. But when you have a book like Solaris that is sort of moderately hard scifi, it does mean that I’m not super well equipped to give you an evaluation of the science-y aspects of the plot. I mean, not that I could really evaluate partical physics—or what passed for that in 1961 when the book was first written—on my best days, my published work notwithstanding. But I’ve noticed that when reading late, when I see something that would normally look off to me (some of the myriad mentions of neutrinos, for example, which I believe are uncharged charged particles that come from radioactive decay), I am just really accepting of what the author is telling me. Neutrinos? Sure, sounds good.

Don’t let my reference to the classiest subatomic particle of the 1960s frighten you away from Solaris, though. This book is not primarily a hard science one. Instead, it’s an attempt to construct an anthropology of a life form that would be completely alien to human beings.

Kris Kelvin arrives on the Solaris station to conduct research on the planet the station hovers above: a rather peculiar place called Solaris. It circles two suns, a red one and a blue one, but despite what physics would dictate, something is modifying its orbital trajectory to prevent it from crashing into either one. The planet is covered almost entirely by an ocean that appears to be alive, some sort of vast brain that is studying the researchers as they study it. On Kelvin’s arrival, he meets another researcher named Snow, who tells him that his mentor, Gibarian, has recently committed suicide. The ocean, it seems, has begun digging through the subconscious minds of the researchers to produce copies of loved ones from their pasts; it is unclear if the copies exist as a, perhaps hostile, response to an x-ray bombardment experiment, or if they are part of some sort of sophisticated research being conducted by the ocean, or if there is some other explanation entirely. For Kelvin, the only researcher whose “copy person” we see, the copy is of his deceased wife, Rheya, who committed suicide ten years before the mission began. The book alternates with Kelvin coping with the reality of having his former partner returned to him and with giving us a summary of research done concerning the planet.

This book was originally published in 1961 (in Polish), and there are certain aspects of it that remain highly rooted in the past. The characters contact each other as often through written letters or notes as by video phone, for example. The character of Rheya exists in the sort of gauzy, out-of-focus light that always seemed to me to accompany women in scifi in the sixties—she’s not a researcher, though clearly not dumb (she becomes aware of her own doubleness quite early on). Yet for the most part, her opinions on her doubleness, on Kris’s behavior, or on any other aspect of the situation are not given; Kelvin’s internal journey is what is important. (Well, he is the narrator, but for how much he professes to love her, he’s remarkably uninterested in her.) Like Uhura and other women in scifi of that era (and even still today to an extent), she’s very much in the background, existing primarily to give Kelvin someone to moon over, but also to prompt his failed hero’s journey. Which is to say, Joseph Campbell sees the hero’s journey as first interior, requiring the defeat of inner demons before facing down the outer ones; here, Kelvin’s inner journey taking precedence over anything the exterior world could offer. He is, in effect, a stunted hero, unwilling to complete the first stage of the journey to begin the second. In this respect, Snow is the real hero who, having conquered a similar visitor from his past (who is never seen), is willing to stay and try to make contact with the ocean.

Many of the film adaptations have focused on the Rheya–Kris relationship, much to Lem’s apparent displeasure. The real subject here is the alienness of the planet,how humanity is to approach such an object, how contact might possibly be able to take place (or might not). But at the same time, it’s difficult to blame the filmmakers entirely for the shift—despite Kris’s real lack of attention to Rheya, at the end, after she has left him again, his attention is still focused entirely on her and the possibility of her return.

The book makes an excellent point about the presumed humanness of alien lifeforms—looking at popular culture, we have always seemed to hope that we were going to meet Time Lords, or Vulcans, or Klingons, all of whom look largely human. Even Wookies and Ewoks are humanoid, as are the various species in the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and the most bug-eyed of bug-eyed monster, the Dalek, is descended from the human-looking Kaled, with their divergence from the human form serving as a shorthand for their descent into evilness. If we ever actually go into space and meet life, Lim says, will it be in a recognizeable form? It has been suggested that there could be fish, or fish-like lifeforms on Europa.[2] Suppose they’re intelligent—would we be able to recognize them as such? The answer is no. Perhaps because we’re too caught up in ourselves, as Lim suggests, unable to describe the behavior of non-humans without anthropomorphizing. Or our lens, our expectations, are just too strong.

Concerning the translation: Apparently, Lem was fluent in English and didn’t like the Kilmartin–Cox translation. I had never really felt like there were any deficiencies with it, but I have not compared it to the French edition, and of course I don’t read Polish. As I write this, I’m listening to a sample of a new (well, newer) edition translated directly from the Polish by Bill Johnston. Perhaps this is just because it is an audio book, but it feels very different. Rheya is called Harey, and some of the details are quite different from the edition I read. All in all I will probably not have time to go back and read or listen to the Johnston edition right now, and clearly I don’t have enough information about the original or the French version to really make a comparison, but I will note that it seems like it is a well-regarded edition.

One other note concerning the film adaptations: There have been three major film adaptations—one directed by Nirenberg and Ishimbayeva (1968), one by Tartovsky (1972), and one by Soderbergh (2002). For some reason, I thought that Event Horizon, one of the scariest and least comprehensible films of the mid-1990s, was also an adaptation of the text—I even told this to a friend at a party. It turns out that, although Event Horizon was clearly influenced by Solaris, they’re not related. However, going into the book believing this made it actually pretty tense; the first few chapters are already full of tension because of Kelvin’s arrival on the station, his immediate suspicions about Snow, the revelation of the death of Gibarian, and so on. Waiting for the characters to start ripping their eyeballs out just made that worse.

[1] This is attested in Herschel Farbman, The Other Night: Dreaming, Writing, and Restlessness in Twentieth-Century Literature, Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 91, but the page with the references isn’t shown on Google Books, and tracking it down this far is about as much as I’m willing to do for a book review. However, it looks like it came out of Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, which is kind of a warmup for the Wake in the same way The Crying of Lot 49 was a warmup for Gravity’s Rainbow . . . or possibly in a totally different way. As an aside, I highly recommend the letter of protest written by “Vladimir Dixon.” (Actually, that may be the only one that’s a warmup. It’s the only one I actually read.) Or, looking more closely at the quote in The Other Night, it may actually be in the Wake itself. I don’t know and I’m tired of chasing this down. Sorry. This is the longest failed footnote ever.

[2] Attempt no landing there.

Are You Afraid of the Dark (Damp, Tight, Dangerous, Rocky, Cold…): Blind Descent Reviewed

Note to readers: I wrote most of this review whilst sitting in B’s room in the outpatient surgery clinic, waiting for his surgery to be over. So if it seems for whatever reason to be more than unusually disjointed, that’s why. He’s fine, by the way, and recovering well.–Ed.

Tabor, James M. Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth. New York: Random House, 2010. 978-1-4000-6767-1.

There is a whole genre of books about people accomplishing difficult feats in incredibly dangerous environments. Jon Krakauer, for example, has made a living writing this kind of book for some time—first Into the Wild, about an independent or insane (depending on your point of view) kid from a wealthy East Coast family who starves to death in the Alaskan wilderness, and then Into Thin Air, about a disaster on Mt. Everest (one he personally witnessed). In some of the book, the feat accomplished is more subtle; a good example is Peter Matthiessen’s[1] masterful The Snow Leopard, the diary of a trek he made through Nepal with the naturalist George Schaller. And then there’s Blind Descent, James M. Tabor’s book of two speleologists racing to find the deepest cave.

Cave in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam

The only photo from the only cave I’ve ever walked through, in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam.

Caving—the type these guys are into, at least—is basically a crazy occupation; I think if you’re not already into it when you start the book, you’re not going to be tempted to pick it up. I have walked through a few caves that were fitted out for tourists, but real caving involves all the fun (and dangers) of rock climbing and scuba diving, except done in pitch black and often with freezing cold water running over you, with wind gusts as loud as a 747 rushing past. Sound like fun? Caving is cold, wet, dirty, hard, exhausting work, and the only thing that relieves the monotony is that cavers sometimes go crazy and get what’s called “the Rapture,” which is like a panic attack except with hallucinations and other terrible things. Also, if you get stuck on Mt. Everest, sometimes they can land a helicopter and bring you down. If you make a mistake and hurt yourself in a cave, you’re pretty much fucked unless your friends can carry you back to the surface—a journey that can involve vertical climbs (or if you’re incapacitated, hoists) of 500 feet or more. And that’s not even going into cave diving, which is basically a quick way to wish for death, as far as I can tell. Seriously, about half the named cave divers in this book died.

The book chronicles several expeditions launched by two men, American Bill (William C.) Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk. Stone works in a group of caves in Oaxaca, Mexico called Cheve (Chay-vay, not like the cheese; a New Yorker article spells it as Chevé), while Klimchouk works in Krubera Cave in the Arabika Massif in the Western Caucasus, located in what is either the country of Abkhazia or the Abkhazia region of Georgia.[2] In the book, their expeditions are set up as a sort of race to the bottom to discover the deepest cave.

Here I have to pause. In order to draw the reader in, Tabor to some extent skips explaining a lot of his terminology. By “deepest cave,” he doesn’t mean the deepest point on Earth (which would be in the Marianas Trench) or even the deepest point on land (which could be, I suppose, the bottom of the TauTona Mine in Carletonville, South Africa or the Kola superdeep borehole, or potentially the valley under Byrd Glacier[3]), but the deepest depth reachable when descending from the mouth of the cave. To put it another way, Krubera Cave’s entrance is in the mountains, approximately 6,500 feet up (159), so when these cavers descend 7,208 (plus or minus 66) feet, they’re not going 7,208 +/- 66 feet below sea level. Tabor also glosses over what the actual science being done here is—although both Stone and Klimchouk are PhD-holding scientists, it’s unclear what either of them is hoping to get out of the caves beyond just messing around in caves for some reason. Stone does develop technology for use in caves (for example, a rebreather for diving, and a sonar machine for mapping), but he does that to support his caving habit and make caving better rather than doing some sort of cave-based research.

Although I think the book has a number of deficiencies, I first want to say that the writing is good and clear and the book is very engaging. For someone with no knowledge of caving, mountaineering, or diving, I understood the objectives each man was trying to achieve and was able to follow—with excitement—the progress through each cave. The major issues were these:

  1. Women: Although there were women along on both expeditions, Tabor is largely uninterested in them and women in caving generally unless they are 1) sleeping with Bill Stone, 2) the discoverer of Cheve Cave (unavoidable), or 3) I can’t think of a third category. Two of Stone’s girlfriends are involved in the expeditions he leads, and both are mostly described as beautiful—although Tabor is forced to admit that both are experienced cavers, he seems surprised when they actually pitch in and take part in the expeditions. Stone’s girlfriends’ appearances are mentioned both the first time they appear, and then again if they come along on a subsequent expedition, as though we might have forgotten that they are “beautiful,” “tall,” “striking,” etc. Another woman, involved in the Ukrainian expedition, is described as “as strong and brave as she was pretty” (231). Spare me. Needless to say, the men’s physical appearances aren’t really touched on, at least not in such obnoxious detail. In the American expeditions, the presence of women seems to be a point of friction between the male members of the team, but Tabor is uninterested in exploring the roots of this sexism, or discussing at all the history of women in caving; he’s equally uninterested in exploring why the Ukrainian teams seemed to include more women and have fewer problems with sexism. His writing style, though striving for some type of objectivity, doesn’t ever escape from these issues—for example, he mentions a woman getting her hair caught in a rappel rack during a descent—“what every female (and long-haired male) dreaded” (218). Why not just say “what every long-haired caver fears”? Does every female caver wearher hair long?
  2. Communism versus capitalism. Of course, Klimchouk grew up and learned to cave in the USSR, and his view of caving as a cooperative venture between a lot of highly trained people, each of whom takes on specific responsibilities, is in many respects radically different from Bill Stone’s strong-leader-tells-people-what-to-do mindset. Interestingly, Klimchouk’s expeditions seem to be more comfortable in some respects for the cavers (e.g., atmosphere—no sex in the camps; better rations) as well as safer (lots of people die on Stone’s trips, though Tabor absolves Stone of all the deaths). But rather than exploring the complexities of this difference, Tabor seems inherently suspicious of communism in a weirdly 1950s Better Dead Than Red sort of way (maybe I’ve just been hanging around far-leftist academics/radicals for too long?) and is uninterested in the political differences between leadership styles.
  3. Stone versus Klimchouk. While the book is framed in terms of two caves, the book is really written in terms of Stone versus Klimchouk, with the first half serving as a biography of Stone and an account of several expeditions to Cheve and the second half serving as a biography/account of Klimchouk and his expeditions. Except—this is kind of weird, and I’ll warn for a spoiler—while Klimchouk wins, he gets barely ten chapters to himself, plus a few more in the “Game Over” section, while the first thirty-one chapters cover Stone and Cheve, plus more in the “Game Over” section.
  4. A few off-color jokes in the endnotes. To be honest I don’t really care enough to list them here. They were off-color, though.
  5. As, I assume, part of the aforementioned attempt to reduce the science to make everything more readable, many questions about caves, caving, and the rules of the competition are left unspoken and thus confusing. For example, Stone’s group proved via a dye test that Cheve is much longer than its current terminus would suggest—the river that flows into its mouth has an outflow several miles and 8,500 feet down. If the cave went all the way through the distance betweeen the entrances and exits, Cheve would be the deepest cave. Yet clearly the water goes all the way through—why does the cave have to be traverseable by humans in order to take that distinction? Krubera has been dug out and widened in many places by its explorers—why is this legal? (Of course most of the time they’re removing breakdown—piles of rubble left by water—but I’m still curious what the stance on digging is.)[4] Why is cave diving so dangerous? Why do divers have to physically hold on to a line with one hand rather than clipping onto it like a mountaineer?
  6. Somewhat annoyingly, while there is a section of photographs, none of them are actually referenced in the text (as someone in publishing, I see this as poor form, though it does happen). Further, while there are lots of attempts to draw a picture using words of a specific cave feature, a photograph would have been instructive. Maddeningly, in a few spots photographs are actually described, but not reprinted.
  7. Finally, there is the weird desire for completion. As understandable as it is, I have to say that it seems a little bit weird to recount the finding of Krubera’s bottom in 2004 as “game over, end of the line, the last great terrestrial discovery has been made.” There are a couple of reasons for this—for one, that actually wasn’t the lowest point in Krubera—a diver has since pushed the bottom down by another 52 meters (although this happened after the book’s publication, so I don’t blame Tabor for missing it). But that’s the thing—as Bilger puts it in the article I linked to earlier, Everest was Everest before Norgay and Hillary got to the top of it, but you don’t really know how deep a cave is until you’ve gone all the way to its bottom. So not only can there deeper points in the same cave, there could easily be deeper caves elsewhere in the world—something Bilger points out, but Tabor seems loathe to admit. While I understand the desire to tie things up, this seems factually inaccurate.

So there are those things. On the whole, though, while I found them annoying and perplexing—and while I would have made different choices in many places had I been writing/editing the book, I found it, as I said, largely engaging, easy to read, and informative on at least the main points of caves, diving, and the bizarre phenomenon known as supercaves.

[1] I am saddened to see, writing this, that Peter Matthiessen died almost a year ago, on 5 April 2014. If you are looking for a good read, I heartily recommend The Snow Leopard. He wrote a lot of other books, too.

[2] Tabor seems uncommitted on this point, but in fact there’s a lot of geopolitical mess going on in this region—Abkhazia wants to be a country of its own, but it’s recognized by only a few other countries, so it exists in a weird sort of limbo at the moment.

[3] Unlike determining the highest point on Earth, these lowest points seem to have a lot of asterisks: the Kola superdeep borehole is the deepest, but it’s man-made and not human accessible—I think the Kola superdeep borehole was specifically conceived as a project to see how deep a hole could be drilled. The TauTona Mine is human-accessible but, again, man-made. The sub-glacier spot is covered with ice (for a while longer, anyway). There are also caves that are bigger than either Cheve or Krubera (such as Sơn Đoòng Cave in Viet Nam, although Wikipedia doesn’t explain in what respect it is the biggest). So as with so many things, it depends on how you’re asking the questions.

By the way—the Wikipedia page for the Kola superdeep borehole gives in two paragraphs more scientific explanation for why anyone should care about going deep into caves/drilling a deep hole in the ground than Tabor gives in his entire book.

[4] This question and some others that have come up for me were answered at least partially in the New Yorker article linked to earlier: Bilger, Burkhard. “In Deep: The Dark and Dangerous World of Extreme Cavers.” New Yorker, 21 April 2014.

Postmodern Mysteries: Hawksmoor Reviewed

Ackroyd, Peter. Hawksmoor. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Where to begin with this one. How about a summary, I can do that:

Around 1711–1715, London architect Nicholas Dyer is building seven churches. The churches are all being built on various ancient sites around London—places where there are plague pits, ancient cemeteries, or the remains of older churches, both Christian and pagan, because in those spots there is “an Assembling of Powers” (p. 23). Dyer follows a sort of pantheistic syncretic religious tradition that, for reasons that aren’t completely revealed, requires someone to die at the site of each of his churches. In one case, the problem is solved by the son of a stonemason falling off the scaffolding; in other cases, Dyer murders someone and buries them on the site or leaves their body there to be found later.

In the twentieth century (no date is given, but it’s presumed to be modern times, i.e. 1985 or so), Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of murders at a bunch of London churches. All the murder victims have the same names as those killed by Dyer—and that’s not the only similarity. For example, Dyer’s assistant is Walter Pyne and Hawksmoor’s is Walter Payne. Bits of rhymes survive across the centuries to be recollected dimly by various characters. And of course, the places that the characters visit are basically the same—London is, after all, a very old city.

To add somewhat to the confusion, there actually was an eighteenth-century architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked (as Dyer does) under Sir Christopher Wren and built several (six)[1] churches in London in the early eighteenth century, and his churches were mentioned in From Hell as being symbolic of a weird, pantheistic (in that book, Masonic) tradition.[2]

The book alternates between the first person recounting of Dyer—written in a very credible eighteenth-century English—and a twentieth century omniscient narrator. Thus although the death happens before the end of the first chapter, we don’t actually meet Hawksmoor until almost halfway through, which in a traditional mystery novel would be quite odd. It does make it much easier to sympathize with Dyer as a character over Hawksmoor, who remains aloof.

Hawksmoor has been seen as a postmodern novel by critics (though not specifically by its author, evidently) and has won a lot of awards. The book itself is steeped in symbolism and has attracted a lot of notice from academics. I found it interesting intellectually, but I didn’t feel any real emotional pull. The parallels between the eighteenth century and twentieth century start to make the two parts kind of repetitive and predictable. I enjoyed parts of it, and I like the idea a lot, but I don’t think I really liked the book all that much.

One major theme in the novel is the “battle” between chaos and rationalism, with Dyer and his ilk representing chaos and Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society. The 1700s were the beginning of the Enlightenment, and Wren argues that people are beginning to look at the world rationally. Dyer, on the other hand, sees the myriad ways in which people are terrible to each other, wrapped up in superstitions, uneducated, stupid, willfully blind to the truth, and sees the world as being on an unalterable downward spiral. The assumption of the book is that in the twentieth century, Wren’s rationality has won (represented, for example, by Walter Payne’s computerization of police work), but Dyer’s chaos echoes through in the churches (and certainly touches Hawksmoor, who begins to descend into madness during the course of his investigation). I am not sure what the conclusion is, who Ackroyd thinks has won; probably a case could be made for either. For my part, looking at the world today I am pretty sure chaos is winning—people are still controlled by superstitions, which they spend immense amounts of time arguing about and even killing each other over; politicians are controlled by corporations instead of listening to their constituents; we’re unwilling to treat other people like human beings on the most specious of characteristics—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof—one would think, in a civilized world, we wouldn’t need laws to tell people to treat each other nicely, it should be common sense. Americans are more willing to give up their lives than to admit that global warming is happening and have to give up their lifestyle. In short, things are pretty bleak.[3]

And yet. As much as I am convinced that this is a crappy time of human history to be alive, this book reassures me that between the plague and the London fire, the admission of tourists to see the madmen housed at Bedlam, to say nothing of the French Revolution (not mentioned in the book but a prominent event of the eighteenth century nevertheless), every time of human history has always been a crappy time to be alive.[4]

A slightly more optimistic ending that I wrote and couldn’t decide what to do with:

If you read the footnotes, you’ll see I referenced Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, who was a blood libel martyr—that is, in around 1255 CE, he was found dead in a well, and someone claimed he had been killed by Jews;[5] as a result of this and some other political factors relating to the collection of taxes from Jews, ninety Jews were arrested and eighteen were hanged.

Seven hundred years later, in 1955, the Anglican Church put up a plaque apologizing for the whole thing. While seven hundred years is certainly a long time to wait to issue an apology, it’s a start. I’m still pretty sure we’re doomed, but, eh.

[1] Interestingly, six of the churches named in the book are real and were built by the historical Hawksmoor; the seventh, the church of Little St. Hugh, is named for a blood libel “martyr” (entirely appropriate for this book).

[2] That’s not to cast aspersions of any sort on the real Hawksmoor, just to note that this book was an influence on Alan Moore.

[3] Alternative sound track suggestion.

[4] I hear there were some days in 1962 that were pretty nice (somewhat dependant on where you were living).

[5] Typically, blood libel accusations included Jews killing Christian children and, in an ironic communion-like twist, using their blood to make matzos.

Dwelling on How Doomed I Probably Am

Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: The Complete Edition. Read by Max Brooks et al. Abridged edition. New York: Random House Audio, 2013. MP3, 61 files, 12:12:26.zombies

Max Brooks must have been the victim of the most liberal of liberal educations; everywhere in this book are concerns about capitalism, oligarchies, religion, imperialism and colonization, international relations, race and racism.

Let me back up. This audio book, a full-cast performance of Brooks’s World War Z, was recommended to me by some friends in part because of the all-star cast; characters are played by the likes of Nathan Fillion, Mark Hamill, Jeri Ryan, Rob Reiner, Alan Alda, Common, Simon Pegg, and Martin Scorcese, to name a few. Since the book is set up as a series of interviews, the various narrators work really well (with a few exceptions, which I’ll come to in a minute). The effect was more like a radio play than audio books typically are, and in general I really enjoyed it.

World War Z is a survivors’ tale—it follows an unnamed narrator (voiced by Brooks) as he journeys around the world to interview and record the stories of those who fought in the zombie war, so from the start you know that humanity made it through, and that things are, in a certain sense of the term, all right again. The zombies here are your typical living dead: slow, shuffling, intent on eating any life-forms they encounter. Brooks is not interested in, and in fact explicitly rejects, any attempts to humanize the zombies. He doesn’t delve too far into how the plague appears, though he implies that it is related to the Three Gorges Dam project. He also seems clear that “the plague” is a virus, but doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the idea of treatment or a cure.[1] His characters ask questions about the weirder points of zombies as he sees them, like how they can be frozen and reanimate when thawed, or how they can walk on the ocean floor at depths far beyond what a human should be able to tolerate, but there are no answers provided.

The intriguing thing about WWZ is that it’s not just mindless genre fiction[3]; Brooks really uses his characters to land a number of solid and well-deserved blows against humanity, and the US especially. Zombies are actually really interesting this way—they reflect a lot of different neuroses or fears: they can be metaphors for capitalism or consumerism, represent our fears of our own inevitable deaths and the problems with a desire for immortality, or showcase a desire for a radical shake-up of society. Unlike natural disasters, which hit only a limited area, or even diseases or economic collapse, both of which are manageable if you have sufficient privilege (money), zombies are a nondiscriminatory evil. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the recession started there was a zombie obsession in the US. Zombies represent the ultimate stock market crash, one where you never have to face paying off your credit card after you’ve lost your job.[4]

Although Brooks’s narrator tries to be objective, the book as a whole seems to be relentlessly Marxist. Some of the things Arthur Sinclair (leader of the US resource-management program, played by Alan Alda) comes up with, about people doing useful labor and feeling pride in the things they made, seem to come directly from The German Ideology. Brooks has strong criticisms of capitalism in the character of an unrepentent entrepreneur who used Dr. Oz-like canny to sell Americans a bunch of snake-oil vaccines before absconding to Antarctica to wait out the plague. Brooks is also strongly critical of coercive forms of government; under his projections, China becomes a democracy (United Federation of China), and he has a lot of harsh words for the old guard as they leave; Cuba becomes a democracy too, and he has nothing but scorn for the newly created Holy Russian Empire (primarily because of its co-option of [genuine?] religious sentiment to push a totalitarian agenda). In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place to say that he’s generally somewhat misanthropic, though some of the characters fare better than others. He also digs in deep to give a really diverse view of the problem; although there’s strong representation from the US, the story is also peppered with a South African military planner, a Chinese doctor and a sailor, a Sri Lankan translator, an Indian army engineer, and a variety of other people from the global south. He even manages to get a wheelchair-bound guy and a blind man in. In terms of representation, he’s batting a million.[5]

The cast was generally great, though—and I guess other reviewers have pointed this out as well—Steve Park cannot do a Chinese accent to save his life.[6] The characters are a mixed bag. Brooks is particularly interested in the blue collar, working class, soldier-level view, so while we hear from a few individuals who held positions of authority during the war, most of the speakers were or are army grunts, hired help, suburban homeowners, and others who are essentially powerless (or see themselves as such) in the face of “the system.” He even interviews the vice president, but not the president. I will say that in amongst all the scorn, Israel gets off pretty easy (having self-quarantined at the beginning of the outbreak, they suffered a civil war led by the ultra orthodox, but wound up reuniting with the Palestinians); however, I have to admit I found the character of the Palestinian teenager who believes the plague warnings are Israeli propaganda designed to lure Arabs to their deaths (until he sees the zombies for himself) was a very compelling character.

More troublesome in amongst Brooks’s misanthropy was his borderline misogyny. A lot of the female characters in the book are harpies, or else individuals who need men to save them. The first woman we meet, Mary Jo Miller (played by Denise Crosby, also known as Tasha Mutherfuckng Yar), is an unpleasant suburban woman in a loveless relationship with her husband who seems to hate her children and who comes off as really unintelligent and uninteresting. She’s said, at the time we meet her, to have become a developer making zombie-proof compounds, but the transformation from cliche housewife to entrepreneur is not chronicled. In another scene, we listen to a young woman (Jesika Hendricks, played by Michelle Kholos) recount a story in which, while her family is starving through a Canadian winter and she is on the verge of death, her mother bullies her father into trading a radio for some stew[7] by calling him a number of unpleasant names, including the f-word. This I cannot profess to understand; if your child is starving and you need meat, you don’t need to ask your husband to go get it; you as an adult human being are capable of making that decision and trading the radio yourself. Another woman is said to have the mind of a four-year-old child, owing to traumatic events in her past.[8] Maybe I’m just resentful that the men, even the male characters who were kind of scumbags, all seemed to have sweeping plot lines and interesting, exciting ideals they were clinging to (and make surprisingly few references to wives, girlfriends, or other females that populate most men’s lives), while the women seemed largely motivated by their husbands, children, and in one case by her mother issues, and they were almost all in need of rescue rather than being the rescuers. Yawn.

Science fiction and horror books can often be read as inherently regressive. Technology is dangerous, they seem to say; just look at what it has caused. Certainly by waving a blaming finger in the direction of the Three Gorges dam, Brooks seems to be saying the same thing with his zombies. But he doesn’t dwell on the technological aspect of things—the dam may have caused the problem (or perhaps not), but the real issue once the plague begins is humanity’s damn inability to stop fighting with itself and get on with fighting the real enemy. One former Iranian pilot describes the outbreak of nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan because the governments were unable to communicate; a Chinese naval officer describes having to blow up a submarine that spent valuable time and resources tracking down his sub after he defected; a US army grunt (Todd Wainios, played by an extremely effective Mark Hamill) describes being caught absolutely unprepared and overrun by the enemy at the Battle of Yonkers. The grunts typically understand the tactical errors and idiocy of their superiors; over and over, the general story seems to be “the government made decisions that seemed unethical/unintelligent/impossible, but I was powerless to change it.” Even in the face of the total collapse of the world’s systems, individuals are still largely disenfranchised. Scary stuff.

After all that, my favorite section, the one that nearly moved me to tears, was the interview with Darnell Hackworth, voiced by Common.[9] Hackworth runs a retirement facility for former zombie sniffer dogs; he describes the process of training them and the bond he shares with his partner, a now-elderly dachshund mix named Masie (“Maze”). In the midst of a long, long story entirely about man’s inhumanity to man (both in the inhumanity of the zombies and the stupidity of the various crises), the bond between man and dog really stuck out to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a sentimental animal lover myself, but the clear affection between man and beast stuck out as a wonderful, caring, normal moment in a sea of other unsettling details.

I don’t mean to sound entirely uncritical, since there were a few plot holes that never seemed to be well-explained to me—chief among them that the zombies freeze in the winter. How many zombies can you kill in a day if they’re frozen? Seems like that could cut down on the problem right there.[10] It’s worth noting that there were a lot of gory if clinical descriptions of zombies that turned my stomach. And certainly the weirdest moment involved Todd Wainios’s description of the liberation of Janesville, Wisconsin. That was kind of a “What the ever-loving fuck” sort of moment.

Sometimes, really great works of genre fiction transcend their genre and become something larger. World War Z is trying really hard to get there. I think it almost makes it. Scathing political commentary aside, it’s got some fun stories, a solid meta-narrative, and it’s also really thought-provoking. In a bad way. By which I mean that after a few days of listening to the story, I started looking around my house and making assessments: too many large windows at ground level—a great selling point when we bought the place, but not great for securing the building. Our fence is only six feet tall and chain-link, built for keeping dogs in rather than keeping zombies out. Our dogs are not really guard dogs and, while they might bark when zombies approach, they also bark when the neighbor goes outside, or sometimes just because they have dog brains and they bark for no reason. I am not really good at keeping plants alive, so growing our own food sounds difficult if not impossible (also there’s six months of winter here). Neither of us can fire a gun. If the economy collapses, my main skills are running long distances and speaking other languages, and B is a computer programmer. We are totally doomed. Doomed.

[1] My understanding is that his first book, the 2002 Zombie Survival Guide, mentioned a few ideas about curing the very recently infected and generally dismissed the idea as untenable—although he notes that in some cases, amputation of the bitten limb may have worked? (This is all based on the book’s wikipedia summary.) Which also makes me wonder about amputation as a treatment for rabies. Sorry, this is a digression.[2]

[2] OKAY I looked it up and it’s actually really neat. So the rabies virus—unlike other viruses, like HIV, which are blood-borne—actually hitches its way up the nerve axons from the place where a victim is bitten to the brain (where it kills you through a mechanism that is still not understood DESPITE HUMAN RABIES CASES GOING BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF RECORDED HISTORY). Thing is, this nervous-system travel is really slow, so if you cut off the affected limb, you can effectively cure the infection. One mouse study found that amputation within eighteen days of infection was sufficient. See G.M. Baer and W.F. Cleary, “A Model in Mice for the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Rabies,” Journal of Infectious Diseases 125, no. 5 (1972): 520–527, So the question becomes now: are zombieism (and related conditions perhaps, like lycanthropy) blood-borne diseases like HIV, or do they move along the nervous system like rabies? The literature is remarkably silent on this point (although check this thread on the Straight Dope message board for some opinions). (Future PhD thesis topic anyone? You’re welcome.)

[3] No one is criticizing mindless genre fiction, I’m just not writing about it.

[4] When I bought a house, I read somewhere that a house is basically just an interconnected series of systems—electricity, water, gas, heat, walls/windows (the point being that keeping it in one piece, an intimidating idea for a first-time homeowner, is actually not so bad—you just keep the various systems going). The country as a whole, even the world, are all actually composed of interconnected systems: the delivery of utilities (water, electricity, the internet, natural gas), provision of security, shipping (gas to gas stations, food to stores, parts to factories), the economic system, the health-care system, schools, the roads—a million nodes in public and private networks that work together to make things happen on a day-to-day basis. The substructure, as Marx would say. And I guess the point of a rapidly spreading highly deadly “plague” like that experienced in WWZ is that it overwhelms and crashes a bunch of the systems at once worldwide, versus smaller-scale catastrophes that might crash only one of the systems on a less-than-global scale.

[5] Strikingly, North Korea is mentioned but does not appear; it appears the entire population of the DPRK has vanished. It is suggested that they are underground. (This is rumored to actually be possible.)

[6] In my version of the recordings, there’s also a weird part at the end where a few of the characters sort of inexplicably read the narration to their parts, making the whole thing sound like this. Maybe this got fixed in other releases?

[7] Strongly implied to be human stew.

[8] I didn’t buy this section, for a number of reasons. And she didn’t talk like any four year old I’ve ever met.

[9] Yeah, I know about him because he was on the Nightly Show a few days ago. Seems like a smart fellow.

[10] Wainios suggests the snow is so deep that it’s hard to find them all. Not sure I buy that explanation.

Such Tsuris: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Reviewed

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. 978-0-00-714983-4.

First edition cover, via Wikimedia.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this review, or what my potential readers’ background on these topics may be. I guess the place that makes the most sense to me to start is with Yiddish. Or more specifically, this question: “Why is Hebrew the language of Israel?”

The answer is both more simple and more complicated than you’re probably imagining. Way back in the day, Hebrew was spoken. Then it wasn’t—those who saw that Mel Gibson film might remember that some of the characters in it spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew.[1] Also, during the diaspora, some Jews spoke Greek. I believe there were actually quite a few Jewish philosophers who wrote in Greek around the beginning of the Common Era. Hebrew survived as a written language through the Middle Ages in much the same way that Latin did; it was a language in which Jews all over Europe could correspond.[2] Gradually, however, people started actually speaking local languages that were to a large extent creoles—Yiddish (spoken mostly among Eastern European Jews) is the most famous, but there’s also Ladino (spoken in Spain), Judeo-Arabic (different variants of which were spoken in many places across North Africa), and Bukharian (spoken in Central Asia), to say nothing of the local languages of the places the Jews were living.[3]

So we have a linguistic jumble, and around the beginning of the twentieth century, we also have what is referred to as the first Aliyah (1882–1903), in which a bunch of Jews (35,000) immigrated from places including Eastern Europe and Yemen to what was then Ottoman Palestine.[4] What language to speak? Hebrew, as the language of the Tanakh, was perhaps an obvious choice, but there are a lot of problems associated with taking a basically dead language and reviving it. To give an easy example, as languages go along they get new vocabulary words as new things appear. So if a language was last really spoken in the Middle Ages, you suddenly have to come up with words for things like buses or electrical outlets.[5] This work was carried out by one guy: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is typically credited with basically singlehandedly bringing Hebrew back to life. Not only that, after making Aliyah, he and his wife raised their son (Ben Zion Ben-Yehuda) speaking Hebrew, making him the first native speaker in centuries.

Moving on from there, I think the history becomes probably better known to most people. Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine[6] increased greatly after WWII and the Holocaust. In 1948, Israel became an independent country and immediately survived the Arab–Israeli war (May 1948–March 1949); Hebrew became its official language, and Yiddish gradually diminished, as Ben-Yehuda had wanted. Actually, it’s not quite as simple as saying that Yiddish “gradually diminished”—the Israeli government adopted a policy of promoting Hebrew over Yiddish, even going so far as to ban Yiddish-language theatre in the 1950s. For a moment, however brief, Yiddish had a shot, and it didn’t work out.

This is approximately where Chabon picks up, beginning his alternative history of Jews with the question of “What if Israel hadn’t worked out the way it did?”[7] What if Israel had fallen, and Jews from all over Europe had instead made their way to somewhere else? During the aftermath of the Holocaust, there were proposals floated to give Jews a piece of land in Alaska. Of course, no one really wants to live in Alaska, so in real life nothing came of this. But in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, after the fall of Israel, that is where Jews wind up, in a settlement called Sitka, population 4 million.

Meyer Landsmen is a detective working for the Sitka police department, homicide division. Before divorcing his wife, he was essentially their top guy, but for the past two years he’s been in something of a decline. His partner is Berko Shemets, who is half Tlingit Indian and also his cousin. About two months before the Sitka territory is set to revert back to American control (think Hong Kong circa 1997), a man is shot in a room of the hotel Landsmen lives in. The man, Mendel Shpilman, turns out to have been a former ultra-Orthodox Jew (referred to as Black Hats in the book). Worse, he may have been the Tzadik ha-Dor, a man who might have, if the time were right, become the Messiah.

I have to give a little digression here on the Messiah, because if you are familiar only with the Christian idea of Messiah—Jesus descending from the clouds, seven trumpets, various pools of blood and people getting the end times kicked out of them—then you are going to be very confused by that last statement. In Judaism, the Messiah is more of a political position—like a king, basically. Somewhat more complicatedly, there are different ideas about how he gets to come do his job. Many people believe that it is up to people to perfect the world before the Messiah will come. Others put their stock in the rebuilding of the Temple (and I guess the reclaiming of Jerusalem? Although maybe that goes without saying) as the thing that will put everything in motion. These ideas are all sort of referred to in the book without really being named or explained in detail.[8]

Going back to the story: Mendel Shpilman is dead, and of course there is a cover-up and much push-back from higher-ups to keep things quiet. And so we begin a journey through a tiny, complicated, fascinating community. Chabon is playing with the oeuvre of Chandler, and the work is an interesting hybrid of the two of them, with Chabon’s poetry and Chandler’s precision of language. Chabon’s metaphors don’t surprise me as frequently as Chandler’s do; he’s too modern and not inspired enough by Hemingway. But he gets off a few good ones. For those who don’t know a ganef from a shlamiel, there’s a Yiddish glossary in the back of the book.

What else can I say? This book was intense. Unlike (many of) Chandler’s works, there’s something bigger at stake than just figuring out who killed one poor guy—the fate of the Sitka district and its inhabitants is constantly at the forefront of the characters’ minds. Like Chandler, though, Chabon plays a bit fast and loose with some of the plot details; thinking back, I cannot piece together the connection between the main plot and a particular tip given to the main character that leads him into a gun battle . . . but as with the case of who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, I don’t care. The story is too entertaining and engrossing to get hung up on tiny details like that.

The book’s ending is abrupt. Somewhat dissatisfying. Leaves room, perhaps, for a sequel. Of the first three of Chabon’s books that I read, The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, all contain significant Jewish characters and cultural references. I think, in fact, his books have gotten Jewy-er as he went on. Unfortunately, since this one came out his next book was about record collectors and midwives.

Finally, I have to note that despite the book’s centering on Orthodox Jewish men, who inhabit a world in which women are solidly peripheral, there are still a good number of women in the book with not just speaking parts, but some measure of actual power. Of course the main actors (or shall I say villains) are male, but it’s a measure of how attentive Chabon is that over the course of the book Landsmen interacts with a good number of women; in the hands of a lesser (or less caring?) author, there could easily have been only two women in the whole book. Here I think he outdoes Chandler, whose women characters are often around to push the plot forward as villains or seductresses (or seducees), and who are rarely just included as characters who provide information to the detective and then leave in the way that the male characters do. The egalitarian treatment here, in the face of the pervasive sexism of the Orthodox, is a nice if subtle touch.

I don’t have much else to say about this. As a writer, I’m jealous of what Chabon has achieved here. The book is a real triumph—not just of voice, but of culture and world-building. As a (rather unobservant) Jew, I’m excited by the reflection of something I identify with as my culture (if in a distant, somewhat warped way) in the mainstream. And as a critic, I’m comfortable saying to you: read this book; you won’t regret it.

[1] Aramaic is a Semitic language written with Hebrew letters. Today, the place a non-Jew or non-academic is most likely to encounter it is in the Passover liturgy, which has a few songs in Aramaic (e.g., “Chad Gadya”). Parts of the Talmud are also written in Aramaic. Also, not having seen The Passion of the Christ before, I looked it up–turns out the film is also in Hebrew and Latin, which kind of obscures my point.

[2] For more on the transformation from Latin to local vernacular languages (and the advent of nations in the modern sense), see Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson.

[3] My great-grandfather spoke I think six languages, maybe seven, on his arrival in America. He taught himself English by reading the New York Times.

[4] There was also a Second Aliyah, 1904–1914, and then more immigration during the period during which the area was under British control (1920–1948), during which it was referred to as the British Palestinian Mandate.

[5] Latin has also faced this challenge, at least in Vatican City, where you can get the ATM to display in Latin. A friend of mine who is a grad student in Classics claimed that the neologisms they’d come up with in Latin were unpoetic. Hebrew’s neologisms are often drawn from other languages—for example, the word for “bus” is “autobus.”

[6] Seriously, they couldn’t come up with a better name?

[7] I’m simplifying a bit, both in the actual history of Israel and the history of the world as presented by Chabon—the fall of Israel is far from the only difference.

[8] I should emphasize that, unlike Christianity, the arrival of the Messiah in Judaism is not preceded or followed by “end times” of any stripe. Christianity is very much a millenarian religion in that respect. [Ok, since I first wrote this essay, I have been informed by my youngest brother that a religion is only considered millenarian if the apocalypse they are predicting is predicted to happen soon–so Harold Camping saying the world will end on October 21, 2011 (spoiler alert: it didn’t) made him/his followers millenarian, but the general Christian belief that one day the messiah will return doesn’t make Christianity an inherently millenarian religion. I apologize for any confusion my remarks may have caused. –Ed.]

New Year, New Year

rc2_8828 This morning, somewhat against my better judgment,[1] I ran the New Year’s Day Dash, a 5-mile (road) race. Thanks in part to a few friends pacing me the first mile and a half (or perhaps I mean letting me hang with them before they took off), I finished in 40:34, a personal best and about a minute faster than my time last year. Perhaps that will be auspicious.

Everyone has been posting about their New Year’s Resolutions: go to the gym, lose ten pounds, eat healthy, get eyebrows under control. Some good ideas, some not so good. Well, I already go to the gym and I don’t really want to lose any weight, and my eyebrows are a lost cause. Instead, I’ve been thinking about books.

I read a lot. But after Goodreads sent me an email congratulating me on reading three books last year, I started going through my records and memory, as best I could, because surely that couldn’t be accurate. And, luckily (surprise), it wasn’t. I just didn’t review everything I read.[2] But I also have a bad habit of reading in parallel, so I might get halfway through something, then put it down and not come back for a year. Also, I read a lot of books for work–last year, I edited books on topics ranging from screenwriting to the rhetoric of the gross anatomy lab to Asian philosophy to nursing. So if I feel like I read constantly, it’s because I do . . . but it’s not always reading for pleasure.

Having come to this determination, I have made a list of books I want to read in 2015. As a writer, it helps to keep the mind fresh, and I begin to find that it’s important to find an escape from the grind of reading to edit, which is a different type of reading. I have to shut down that part of my brain sometimes. There’s no theme to these books, other than for most of them I saw reviews in different publications and found them interesting, and they’re in no particular order. I can’t guarantee I won’t get distracted or add or subtract from the list, but I’ll see how far I can get with it. My other resolutions are to finish reading/blogging about Ulysses, remember to water the plants in my office, and get my SADs under control. Let’s do this!

  • Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd Review
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Tender is the Night and The Crack Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (maybe)
  • Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimer McBride
  • Island, by Aldous Huxley (maybe)
  • Viviane, by Julia Deck
  • Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon Review
  • Relentless Forward Progress, by Bryon Powell
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert
  • Gligamesh, by the people of Babylon
  • The Way of Kings, by Branden Sanderson
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, by Lauren Slater (maybe)
  • Blind Descent, by James M. Tabor Review
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard
  • Blueshift, by Claire Wahmanholm (a pre-publication copy kindly provided by the author)
  • I’m not going to say I’m going to read Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre, but every year this time when my SADs get bad I try to.

Are you reading anything interesting next year? Or, alternatively: Any other resolutions?


You can check out book reviews I’ve posted here on the book review and book reviews tags, because apparently I suck at metadata. Also check out the writing category for reviews of films, plays, and other stuff (I promise most of it is not bitching about how difficult it is to write a novel).

[1] Against my better judgment ought to be the title of my blog sometimes. This particular race was against my better judgment because it was cold and I was up late the night before and also I have some tendonitis in my ankle.

[2] I usually only put reviews on Goodreads if I’ve written a review of them, and I only do that when something interesting strikes me about the books to write about.

And yet, I am left with the feeling that we are still doomed: Slavoj Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

Note: I started a new job last week, which has temporarily reduced my available time for drawing. Also I am doing battle with the wallpaper in our first floor bathroom, so that is taking up a lot of my time. I hope I’ll have a comic next week. In the meantime, please enjoy a few of the reviews I write.

Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London and New York: Verso, 2009. 978-1-84467-428-2

So here are the things you need to know about Žižek: First, if you decide to write about him, his name is kind of a typographical clusterfuck for the English keyboard. Second, he’s a Marxist. Third, he’s essentially an intersectionalist[1], but because of point two, ultimately all the systems of discrimination are caused by capitalism. Fourth, he is extremely entertaining and charismatic, albeit in a weird way. He is often referred to as the rock star of modern philosophy.[2] He personally divides his books into the easy stuff (nothing books) and the deeper philosophical works (like The Parallax Effect). This book is one of the easy ones—it is a straight-up Marxist critique. Finally, he takes a psychoanalytic perspective toward his philosophy, with a particular focus on Lacan. This means the book is filled with terms like objet petit a and subject supposed to know. Don’t worry about it.

Ok, so the book: ostensibly, Žižek is comparing 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse. But in reality, he’s mostly focused on the financial collapse and the implications for global capitalism. Basically, the story is that capitalism is inherently exploitive. Since 1968 we have this thing called cultural capitalism, which is where we pretend that capitalism is not totally bad because we can come up with these market-based solutions to our problems. Like Starbucks sells water and donates five cents per bottle to giving people water. Or fair trade coffee. Or organic (and nowadays, non-GMO) foods.[3] Essentially, there are these stories we tell ourselves about how we are not being terrible people because when we spend our money, we are affecting positive change as we simultaneously get ourselves a latte. But we are still lying to ourselves. When we buy bottled water, Starbucks is still taking the resource from somewhere and essentially screwing the people who live there out of their water, and they are exploiting the labor of the barista who is standing there making your triple-pump caramel macchiato heated to one hundred and eighty degrees. Organic foods have no real benefit other than costing more money but they make you feel like you’re doing something good for the environment. You are not really being an anti-consumerist rebel because you are still consuming things, but you can fool yourself into believing that you have done something good and anti-consumerist.

Ah, hell, go watch the video: I’ll wait here.

There are a lot of things wrapped up in capitalism that are bad: It is inherently exploitative of workers. It is inherently greedy, and that greed is now so out of control that we are allowing the wholesale destruction of the planet to the point where we may render large chunks of it uninhabitable. Probably the 80/20 principle is the best example of this—the idea that twenty percent of the workers produce eighty percent of the profit. Because eighty percent of the profit actually amounts to more profit when you only have to pay twenty percent of your workforce with it, companies have (since the crash) taken up cutting down employees significantly, which is why we have so many damn unemployed people who can’t find a job, and meanwhile the stock market goes up when a company announces layoffs because even though the stupid fuckers who are buying the stocks are probably also workers and thus at risk of getting laid off if these trends continue, the having of more profits to share with stockholders is considered a net positive. We have poverty, disease, ever-increasing class divisions, anti-Semitism[5] and other forms of xenophobia, homophobia . . . more than that, we have a political system which is essentially built to make politicians more concerned about getting reelected than actually doing anything useful or effecting any real change in the world, and yet we continue to vote and pretend that we think that somehow, change is possible, that somehow this time it will be different.

The solution, of course, is communism, because these harms are not harms that can be rectified by the system—they are harms that are embedded in the system itself. (And also, I suppose, because if you’re giving a Marxist reading, you have a certain responsibility to follow him along.) The Ziz places the blame for the failures of early twentieth century communism squarely on the shoulders of Stalin (with Trotsky sharing a little bit of it for refusing to take over for Lenin and thus opening the door for Stalin and his followers). His argument seem to be less of “this time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything” and more “try again. Fail again. Fail better.” At least he’s realistic.

I am willing to accept communism as the solution to our current problems. Not without some reservations, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that the Ziz is right and communism is the answer. So now we come to another issue: changing is difficult. In fact, it is very, very difficult. To judge from the sheer number of commercials, it is incredibly difficult to even get someone to change their breakfast cereal,[6] so how do we convince approximately 314 million people to change their government? Spoiler: You can’t.

Or at least, according to Foucault, you can’t.[7] According to Foucault, the way the power structure is set up, you can’t ever really change things, because the system is essentially set up to be self-producing. For example, truly revolutionary politicians can’t get elected—if they do, it’s because they moved their views into line with what the majority of people in the electorate think. The Ziz is somewhat dismissive of Foucault, leaving him behind early on after an argument about Freudian analysis, but he even provides evidence of the system doing this himself. Key quote:

Those who hold power know very well the difference between a right and a permission. . . . A right in a strict sense of the term gives access to the exercise of a power, at the expense of another power. A permission doesn’t diminish the power of the one who gives it; it doesn’t augment the power of the one who gets it. It makes life easier, which is not nothing. (Quoting Jean Claude Milner, Žižek, First as Tragedy, 59)

After a lot of revolutionizing (i.e. the 1960s), we have what Žižek terms “the permissive society” that allows for “divorce, abortion, gay marriage, and so on” (ibid.) without actually giving anyone more power or rights. The system shifted enough to relax the protestors, thereby preserving the system without ever really changing in any meaningful way.[8] This tendency of the system is something the Ziz doesn’t really deal with, which is too bad. The problem of how to change a system that is willing to bend to acclimate revolutionaries without actually changing is a big problem when one wants to be a revolution. The closest that he comes to resolving this difficulty is in the aforementioned Beckett quote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” While it would be a stretch to suggest that each successive (Communist) revolution came closer to the workers’ utopia that Marx originally envisioned, it is possible that the sustained movement toward a goal (i.e. successive failed revolutions) might be a way to begin to improve the situation gradually. Maybe.

I personally, as I think I’ve said, find this convincing enough. I am certainly willing to give it a try, anyway. But where to begin? To paraphrase Žižek at the outset of this book, perhaps it is time to spend a moment in thought before blindly rushing off (c.f. p. 11). I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Postscript: When I showed a draft of this essay to a friend, he asked if this was my attempt to make myself feel better about capitalism. It’s not; I don’t really “feel good” about capitalism. But when I wrote this, I didn’t have a job; now I have one again. So I feel a little better about the system, now that it’s working for me again.

[1] I just tried to read about Marxist-feminist theory and I had like a seizure or something because it was so boring. Whatever. I think this term is probably being used correctly here.
[2] Better him than Peter Singer, I guess.
[3] The single most hilarious joke of the twenty-first century is that someone has convinced a certain segment of the population that eating GMO food is bad for them. Organic foods are like the second most hilarious joke of our modern era.[4]
[4] There was a footnote here that I’ve decided to omit, but I don’t feel like renumbering the other notes.
[5] And/or anti-Islam sentiment, depending on how much you want to go with Said in defining anti-Semitism as being anti-all Semitic peoples or not. I just had an argument about this with one of my brothers.
[6] To be fair, breakfast cereal is an important decision.
[7] I think these arguments are in Discipline and Punish. But also in basically everything he wrote.
[8] The Ziz actually views social issues as a smokescreen that politicians (in particular conservatives) use to distract the people from what’s really important—this is essentially why low income voters so frequently vote against their own economic interests. I have mixed feelings on this point—of course he’s right, but social issues are also important (even if only in a tautological way).

Letting Saigons Be Bygones: Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola reviewed

Friedman, Kinky. Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. 300 p. 0-617-86922-1.

I don’t know about writing prefaces to books. I used to just not read them. In academic books they are primarily a place to name-drop the other academics who served as your advisors, gave your tenure committee good reviews of your work, who had informal conversations with you that probably inspired part of chapter six, or toward whom you feel some sense of obligation since you teach in the same department. Once you start getting into a small sub-field (like Theravada Buddhist studies of Southeast Asia) you start to notice that there are groups who all thank each other in little cliques. When they all start thanking your professor, you’re in trouble.

Fiction being a bigger world, it’s unusual to see a name I recognize. But in the Acknowledgements, Friedman thanks Don Imus, referring to him as “my longtime friend and spiritual and sexual mentor.” Imus, you may recall, was the subject of a scandal in 2007 when he made some racist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. It turns out that he’s done that on more than one occasion…he also runs a charity for kids with cancer, has been clean from drugs and alcohol for 20 years, and has been battling prostate cancer since 2009. He and his wife are vegetarians. I imagine that, like Kinky Friedman (who wrote the song “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” that contains pretty much every racial slur I’ve ever heard), Imus thinks of himself as someone who can deploy unsavory language as a way of drawing attention to our incorrect assumptions about the world, someone who in some sense fights to repair the power imbalance created through the use of racially charged language. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t; maybe he doesn’t deserve to have his whole life tainted by one ill-advised remark. Or maybe he does. At any rate, when I saw Imus mentioned, I thought twice about reading the book.

But then I read it anyway, which is why I’m writing a review. Now you know.

So, Kinky Friedman. The Kinkstah writes books about himself and his friends and his cat, who is always referred to as “the cat.” Kinky’s friends have names like Ratso, Rambam, the Bakerman, McGovern, and so on—one name names, most of them. They solve mysteries. Frequently these books are set in New York, though a few of them are set in Friedman’s home state of Texas. They are written in the tones of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett and contain innumerable references to other works of detective fiction. Detectives referred to include Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Inspector Maigret. Other literary references abound—for example, he writes, “Emily once wrote, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’ Well, hope was flappin’ like a November turkey at the moment” (78). Emily here being, of course, Emily Dickinson. On the previous page he introduces two dogs named Pyramus and Thisbe and makes some lewd references to the story of Lot’s wife. You could say I find these books amusing because they are a chronicle of my misspent youth in the humanities.

Kinky has his own language and his own rhythms. The telephone is a “blower” and it usually gets “collared” when it rings. A cab is a “hack.” A “Nixon” is…well, I won’t tell you, but it’s something a cat might do in the shoe of its enemy. All of one’s nutritional needs can be fulfilled with Jameson’s whiskey, espresso, and cigars. And like Nero Wolfe, he rarely seems to leave the apartment, letting the clues come to him. The other things you need to know to understand the Kinkstah is that he served in the Peace Corps in Borneo (Malaysia) in the 60s, that he was raised Jewish and toured with a band called “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys,” and that he once ran for governor of Texas under the slogan “How Hard Can it Be?” He also runs an animal rescue (I believe it is funded by a line of salsas he sells—the salsa is, to my recollection, pretty good).

Am I painting a picture here?

This is a book from another era in some sense: In 1993, no one has a mobile phone, so Kinky spends a lot of time “collaring the blowers” on his desk. He smokes everywhere, including in restaurants. The New York in which he lives has probably begun to undergo the decrease in crime written about by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and by the Stevens Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics, but it is still a tough, gritty, dangerous place. In short, he lives in a world that is very much divorced from the safe, politically correct, liberal city I inhabit. But while Friedman peoples his environment with gritty people who use unsavory language, I am continually attracted to his desire as a satirist to subvert everyone’s assumptions about the individuals they meet. For example, in one scene Kinky gets into a hack and remarks that the driver’s “appearance and brusque behavior clearly indicated that he came from a country that began with an ‘I’” (40). He believes the driver hates, him noting the way the man’s “curry-colored eyes [glare] at [him], shifting with evil intent like the sands of distant dunes” (40-41). On arrival, he asks the man where he’s from, and gets the response “Tel Aviv, man” (41). Kinky thinks, “Country did start with an ‘I’” (ibid.). This desire to show people how their assumptions may be incorrect is at the heart of all good satire, and it is what makes a book like this really different from off the cuff remarks made by people like Don Imus.

So, to this book in particular: At the Bakerman’s funeral, the guy’s father asks Kinky to find a documentary film about Elvis impersonators that Baker was working on when he died. Kinky promises to do this; however it seems that Baker’s assistant (Legs) had the reel and he’s not answering his phone. Meanwhile, a former girlfriend (Downtown Judy) comes back into his life just as another girlfriend (Uptown Judy) is kidnapped. Then Legs is found dead—in his apartment, as in Uptown Judy’s, was Kinky’s phone number written on a pad of paper. Kinky and the Village Irregulars will go through a few more murders (and one beating courtesy of a local mob boss) before they find the film and figure out how all these things are connected.

This book was less funny than the other Kinky Friedman novels I’ve read (Armadillos and Old Lace and The Mile High Club are the others)–Baker’s death at the beginning casts a pall over the fun, and one does come away with the (probably legitimate) sense that the book is less about the mystery than about the journey, the process of walking around NYC in the winter in a cowboy hat, mourning the death of your friend.

That feels a bit perfunctory—I have written now about 950 words of introduction to the series and only two paragraphs concerning this particular book. Maybe that’s because overall I enjoyed this book less than I recall enjoying The Mile High Club (which, if you’re looking for a hilarious book about cross-dressing Mossad agents, is the book you are looking for).

Anyway, the book is a good, quick read.

One other thing—a post-script on the book’s post-script, as it were: Friedman writes a very short paen to his cat (“the cat”); it seems her undisclosed name was Cuddles, and she was his companion for fourteen years. A macho, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking cowboy who names his beloved cat Cuddles is basically as good a summary of the inherent contradictions of Kinky Friedman as I can come up with.