Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson(The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson. Tom Doherty Associates, 2015, 300 pp., $25.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Over the last decade, matching algorithms have become part of everyday life, or at least online life, with their being used in everything from ads matched to browsing histories to online dating. Robert Charles Wilson has projected this trend into the near future with The Affinities. 

The premise is that matching algorithms have continued to be ever more refined, and that aided by neuroscience they’ve reached the point where they can match people with similar outlooks and personality traits, people who would inherently get along, have a natural affinity for each other. Beyond that, the testing and matching have been marketed on a mass basis by a computer science company that then places people–bar the 40% who don’t fit into any category–into one of 22 formal and close knit affinity groups which function as near-ideal families: places where members are unconditionally accepted and where they intuitively understand each other, and where they cooperate best with their like-minded peers.

The novel follows a young man from a far from ideal family, Adam Fisk, as he gradually becomes more and more immersed, over 20 years, in his affinity group. The characterization of Fisk and many of the secondary characters, notably members of Fisk’s biological family, is convincing, more so than the characterizations of the members of Fisk’s affinity group. The reason for this is likely that it’s difficult to make secondary characters interesting when they’re almost exactly aligned with the primary character; flaws and disagreements make for interesting characters; near-exact alignment doesn’t.

But the main interest in The Affinities lies in the development of the groups themselves, in particular Fisk’s group, Tau, the loosest, largest, least authoritarian of the groups. (The different groups all take their names from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.) At the beginning, seen through Fisk’s bedazzled eyes, Tau looks like paradise. As the years go by, however, a darker side of the group gradually emerges.

Like members of all in groups, the members of Tau begin to see themselves as better than outsiders, and express that arrogant belief through, among other things, using depreciative terms for outsiders, and discouragement of members from having close relationships with outsiders, even with their biological families. Effectively, they dehumanize outsiders.

It also turns out that cooperation and close coordination aren’t always good things in the affinity groups, particularly in the most hierarchical and authoritarian of them, Het. Shortly into the narrative, tensions begin to arise between the various affinity groups, tensions which eventually lead to open hostilities with both the other groups and various governments.

The central character, Adam Fisk, plays a leading role in the inter-group hostilities, and the increasingly sordid tactics employed by both Fisk’s group, Tau, and their primary opponent, Het, lead Fisk to a crisis of conscience, which in turn leads to an unexpected (though foreshadowed) denouement.

Well plotted, with convincing characters and considerable insight into group dynamics and psychology, The Affinities is a thought provoking, enjoyable read.

Recommended.

* * *

(Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover


cover of "Postal," by the Pinche Blues Band

A year and a half ago Pinche Blues Band bit it. We’ve since come to our senses and are back, pretty close to being ready to go out and play four sets. (Abe, the vocalist, and I are tied at the hip musically–longtime friends, we sound way better together than separately.)

We’ll still be playing the blues, but in a way that will make money — as a Doors tribute band. People don’t give a shit about original music: they only want to hear what they’re familiar with.

About twenty years ago, I went out to have a few beers with my pal Larry Hauer (“Lefty Larry,” a way better guitar player than I am), and to hear a new band. They did nothing but so-so originals, and then did a third-rate cover, “Hold Your Head Up,” by Argent. The crowd went nuts. We looked at each other, and had nothing to say — we both knew.

Between then and now, Pinche Blues Band recorded two very good (IMHO) CDs of originals, and got exactly nowhere in the process. Nobody fucking cares — they don’t want to hear originals. They don´t want to be challenged in the slightest — they want to be comfortable, hear the stuff they grew up on, drinking to, getting high, and screwing to.

Hence a Doors tribute band, the Lizard Kings. At least, we both love the Doors. One of the best compliments I ever got while playing live was from a couple from Bisbee who stayed to hear our Doors numbers, sans keyboards, at a gig at the Boondocks a couple of years ago, and told us we sounded more like the Doors live than any band they´d ever heard.

For now, we still don´t have a keyboard player, and I´m playing both the guitar parts and the signature keyboard parts on guitar.

We´ll be out hitting the open mikes shortly looking for a keyboard player. If by some miracle you´re in Tucson and are a pro-quality keyboard player, please get in touch (chaz (at)  seesharppress (dot) com.)

We´ll still be playing our originals (ranging in style from funk to blues to latin rock to country to jazz), but will be playing the Doors for our bread and butter.

Here we are with one of my and Abe´s originals (me, music, Abe, lyrics), sounding our most Doors-like.

Life Is Good

If you like it, and are a pro-quality keyboard player, and would like to play and have some fun with nice people and good players (not mutually exclusive), please get in touch.

(For more tunes, go to the bottom of my personal page on my biz site.)

 


Fidel Castro

 

by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

It’s time to speak ill of the dead.  It’s been time for nearly a century. Since 1918, the left in both the U.S. and Europe has had a dictator-worship problem. First it was Lenin; then it was (yes) Stalin; then Mao; most recently the dictator of choice has been Fidel Castro.

To illustrate the depth and nature of this problem, let me recount an incident from Cuba in the 1960s. In the 1970s, a maoist friend told me about his experiences there as part of a Venceremos Brigade a decade earlier. (Venceremos Brigades were bands of American leftists who traveled to Cuba to work in the cane fields in support of “the revolution.”) At one point, Fidel himself showed up where they were working in the fields. My friend told me that the reaction of his fellow brigadistas was like that of 14-year-olds at a Beatles concert.

Anarcho-Syndicalist ReviewSince then, the American left in large part has continued to idolize Castro and his Stalin-admirer cohort, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, overlooking their  crimes. We’ll get to those crimes shortly, but let’s first speak of Castro’s, and his “revolution’s,” achievements. During his half-century reign, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party achieved the following:

  • The literacy rate in Cuba in Cuba went from approximately 70% (figures vary) in 1959 to an estimated 96% today, thanks to the Cuban government’s literacy campaigns and universal education for those aged 6 to 16.
  • Cuba has universal, free medical care. One example of its success is that infant mortality in Cuba fell from 37.3 per 1,000 live births in 1959 to 4.3 per thousand today. (In contrast, the infant mortality rate in the U.S. is 5.8 per 1,000 live births today.)
  • Higher education in Cuba is free for most Cubans.
  • There is remarkably little street crime in Cuba.
  • Every Cuban adult is guaranteed a low paying job, with pay averaging about $20 a month.
  • The Castro regime did show that a Latin American regime can defy the United States government (and the corporations it serves) and survive.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, consider this:

  • Freedom of speech does not exist in Cuba, nor do the other freedoms listed in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Since its inception, the “revolutionary” Castro regime has jailed opponents for exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly. Human Rights Watch notes: “Many of the abusive tactics developed during his [Fidel Castro’s] time in power – including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation – are still used by the Cuban government.”
  • All media outlets (newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio stations, television stations) are controlled by the Castro regime, and access to the Internet is tightly restricted.
  • Cuba is a one-party state.
  • In its first four-plus decades in power (ending in 2003), the Castro regime executed hundreds if not thousands of its political opponents. Amnesty International estimates that that regime executed 216 political opponents between 1959 and 1987. Other estimates run up well into the thousands.
  • The Cuban government maintains a surveillance network in every neighborhood in Cuba, the so-called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs — more accurately, Committees for the Defense of the Regime), which not only spy upon residents, but have considerable control over their lives. As an example, The CDRs can ban political dissidents from even applying to institutions of higher learning.
  • One of the first things the Castro regime did when it took power was to destroy independent unions, either jailing or driving into exile unionists who opposed its takeover. For over half a century, all unions in Cuba have been controlled by the government. (See Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement, by Frank Fernández. Full disclosure: I translated and edited the book.)
  • There is no workers’ control, no workplace democracy in Cuba. All workplaces are tightly controlled by government apparatchiks.
  • The Cuban government denies its citizens the right to travel, the right to emigrate. Since 1959, over 1.5 million Cubans have fled the country (current population 11 to 12 million). At least hundreds of thousands fled on rickety boats and rafts, and at absolute minimum thousands of men, women, and children died in the crossing. The actual figure is likely well up into the tens of thousands. No one really knows.

Since Castro’s death last week, the American left has, by and large, continued to sing Fidel Castro’s praises. To cite but one example, a few days ago Amy Goodman, on her generally excellent “Democracy Now” broadcast, devoted a full hour (bar the first few minutes devoted to news) to Castro. There were a few seconds (considerably under a minute) near the start devoted  to generalized mention of the repressive nature of the regime, but there was no mention whatsoever in the rest of the hour of any of the crimes listed above. It was largely a love letter to Castro.

One might mention that many antiauthoritarian Latin American leftists and anarchists deeply resent the largely uncritical support given Castro (and until his death Hugo Chávez in Venezuela) by the American left. They see it as a betrayal of principles — and themselves — and consider it utterly hypocritical, especially when coming from those who loudly proclaim their allegiance to human freedom, human rights — in the United States, but not Cuba (or Venezuela). They believe that the typical leftist refrain, “Well, we wouldn’t want that repressive system here, but the Cuban people are better off for it,” is grossly patronizing to those who are the victims of repression and those who struggle against it.

They have a point. If you believe in human freedom, in civil liberties, you believe in them everywhere, and you support all those struggling against repression. You’re either for freedom of speech or against it. You don’t make excuses for repressive regimes because you know “what’s best” for the people in those countries, because you know better than the Cubans (or Venezuelans) struggling against repression. If you make excuses for authoritarian regimes, if you don’t stand against repression everywhere, please don’t pretend that you have principles, please don’t pretend that you’re anything but a political apologist, a political hack.

If you think a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, government control of the media, suppression of independent unions, replacement of capitalist bosses by “Communist” bosses, secret police, prisons, executions, a network of neighborhood informers, militarism, and a personality cult are a good tradeoff for the Cuban people in exchange for free health care, free higher education, and a guaranteed low-paying job, by all means support the Cuban dictatorship, and continue to sing Fidel Castro’s praises.

 

 


REVOLUTIONARY LEADER, phr. The only proper term of respect for a dictator admired by the left, the term “dictator” being an offense against good taste and an unpleasant reminder of reality.

 * * *

–from The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded)

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover

(more definitions [in pdf form] can be found here)

* * *

Today’s definition seems apropos given the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. We’ll put up another pertinent definition tomorrow and, we hope, a fairly lengthy post on Castro and his counter-revolutionary regime on Wednesday or Thursday.


[the] PEOPLE’S WILL, phr. A variant spelling of “God’s Will.” Curiously, even though the usage and meaning of the two phrases are virtually identical, those who use the one are habitual enemies of those who use the other, though “habitual competitors” might be more accurate.

 * * *

–from The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded)

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover

(if you’d like more definitions [in pdf form], you can find them here)

* * *

Today’s definition seems apropos given the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. We’ll put up another pertinent definition tomorrow and, we hope, a fairly lengthy post on Castro and his counter-revolutionary regime on Wednesday or Thursday.


Amidst the weeping, wailing, and grinding of molars over Donald Trump’s victory, there are some reasons for optimism. Yes, there’s a lot to fear, and Trump and his extreme right cohorts will do a lot of damage–notably to the environment and reproductive rights–but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic:

  • Trump’s election has energized the left more than anything since Occupy Wall Street in 2011. There are demonstrations and myriad organizing efforts all across the country, and they don’t seem to be slowing down.
  • A Republican is inciting the left, and it’s probable that this time the Democrats, locally and nationally, won’t conspire with the FBI and corporate security firms to destroy a dissident movement — as they did in 2011/2012 when they were complicit in suppressing the Occupy movement. They’ll try to co-opt the emerging movement, but they probably won’t try to destroy it.
  • The corporate-lackey, identity-politics Democrats’ quadrennial good cop / bad cop blackmailing of the public didn’t work. They found the one candidate who could lose to Trump: a widely disliked corporatist synonymous with the status quo; they rigged the primary process to ensure her nomination, expecting that the Republican nominee would be so odious that they could cram their candidate down our throats. They were wrong. They’re now trying to divert attention from their culpability by blaming voters, pointing to “racism” and “misogyny” as the reasons for the electoral disaster they engineered. But a lot of people are finally wising up to their extortion tactics and realizing that the corporate Democrats are not the friends of working people.
  • As a result of the corporatists’ arrogance, bungling, and all-too-obvious ethical bankruptcy, there’s a real chance that “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” will seize control of that party. I don’t think it’s likely to happen, but for the first time in decades there’s a real possibility that it will.
  • The Democrats might start opposing mass surveillance, erosion of civil liberties, and persecution of whistle blowers. Most of them abetted Obama in his assaults on whistle blowers and civil liberties, and his continuation of the mass surveillance begun under Bush. Now, they might show what passes for spine.
  • The alt-right is small and fractured. Current Klan membership is estimated at 5,000 to 8,ooo, and the largest neo-Nazi group in the country, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), has an estimated 400 members. In the 1920s, the Klan had at least 3,000,000 members and perhaps twice that. Taking population growth into account, that would equate to at least 9,000,000 members today. In the 1930s there was a plethora of openly fascist and pro-Nazi groups in the U.S. Just one of them, the German-American Bund, had at least 8,000 members, twenty times the membership of the NSM.
  • Alt-right members will continue to commit horrific hate crimes, but the alt-right is not a great national threat. Had the corporate Democrat won the presidential election, and predictably done next to nothing while public anger and hunger for change grew, it would have provided four more years for the alt-right to grow and metastasize.
  • We lived through eight years of Bush; we can live through four years of Trump.

 

 


“Liberals have no moral authority to preach to a dispossessed white working class about racism, multiculturalism, identity politics or diversity. The abject failure by liberals to fight for economic justice triggered the protofascist backlash embodied by Donald Trump’s election victory.”

–Chris Hedges, “We Are All Deplorables,” on Truthdig

(in which Hedges gets it exactly right about what’s wrong with the Democratic Party and the “limousine liberal,” identity-politics corporate sellouts who control it and who have systematically betrayed working people for decades)