Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


The Water Will Come front cover(The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, by Jeff Goodell. Little Brown, 2018, 340 pp., $28.00)

 

It’s easy, even if you accept the science, to think of global warming as an abstraction, because, as regards the human perception of time, it’s a long term trend. That’s true even in many places which are already being affected, such as Southern Arizona, which is projected to suffer the highest temperature increases of anywhere in the lower 48.

We’re already experiencing drastic warming. Last year was the warmest ever here, we had our hottest June ever, with three days at 115F or above (46C), and we had almost no winter (well, what passes for winter down here: It’s below 70? Break out the parkas!).

The change in the weather is already affecting vegetable and fruit tree planting seasons here: What I and other gardeners used to plant in October, we now tend to put off until November (hottest ever last year). Or December. (It was so warm this winter that I’ve put off buying and planting a peach tree until this fall, hoping for cooler weather then.)

So, I’m already affected by long-term temperature increases, if only as a minor annoyance. But most people here don’t garden, are caught up in daily life, and find it easy enough to ignore gradually warming temperatures — at least until the next 116 or 117F day, which they’ll promptly forget once it cools down even slightly.

But it’s not so easy to ignore global warming in other places, specifically low-lying coastal areas and islands.

Hence the value of Jeff Goodell’s latest book, The Water Will Come. It serves as a timely reminder to those of us who live inland, those who are climate-change deniers, and those with head-in-the-sand attitudes living in low-lying coastal areas, that climate change (with a focus on ocean warming and sea level rise) is all too real, is already having drastic, destructive effects in some areas, and that the destructive effects will get worse, especially if we don’t do anything to mitigate them, while we still can.

Goodell, in plain, “just the facts, ma’am” prose, explores what’s already happening in places as diverse as Alaska (Inuit villages falling into the rising sea), Miami (ever-worse flooding), and the very low-lying Marshall Islands (which will disappear). Goodell does this through not only presenting the scientific facts, and through descriptive passages, but also through interviews with many local people who provide graphic illustrations of the effects of sea level rise on daily life.

While that’s valuable, I wish Goodell would have spent more time on mitigation efforts and ways of reducing CO2 emissions in the short term. But that’s not the point of The Water Will Come — those are topics for other books. Goodell’s point is that we have a real problem, and we need to start addressing it now.

If there’s one real fault with The Water Will Come, it’s that Goodell gives the Obama Administration, and Barack Obama himself, a complete pass in regard to dealing with climate change (and everything else). There are several passages in the book dealing with Goodell’s interviews with Obama Administration officials, and one with Obama himself, and the tone in those passages borders on worshipful.

Given how awful Donald Trump is, there’s a tendency on the part of liberals to venerate Obama while ignoring the fact that he was a lousy president who betrayed those who voted for him.

When he had real power, with big majorities in both houses of Congress during his first two years, what did Obama do? He produced a grossly inadequate stimulus package that was just large enough to save the big banks, but not the millions upon millions who’d lost their jobs and homes — for them, he did next to nothing; he pushed through a grossly inadequate healthcare measure (Michael Moore called it a “quarter of a loaf” measure) that was designed to preserve the parasitic healthcare insurance industry and big pharma; and beyond that, he didn’t even try to accomplish anything significant regarding climate change or much of anything else. (For more on Obama’s betrayal of the people who voted for him, see “Obama and His Base: An Abusive Relationship, part 3.“)

(I mention all this for two reasons: 1) one always suspects, generally correctly, that when writers treat politicians reverentially, it’s because they’re not fully doing their jobs — as Frank Kent famously said, “The only way a reporter should look on a politician is down”; and more importantly 2) because, if we elect another business-as-usual, corporate Democrat in 2020, it’s a good bet that his or her response to the climate crisis will be, as usual, very inadequate.)

But aside from the Obama worship, there’s little to dislike in The Water Will Come. The book is a useful reminder and illustration of the seriousness of the global warming problem, how bad its effects already are in some places, and how much worse those effects are likely to get — especially if we don’t start making real changes now.

Recommended.


How Democracies Die front cover(How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: Crown, 2018, 312 pp., $26.00)

 

It’s often worthwhile to point out the obvious, as Levitsky and Ziblatt have done here: the U.S. is undergoing a stress test of its democratic institutions, the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party is primarily responsible for the stress, and the means used by authoritarian parties to destroy democracy tend to be quite similar across the world.

The authors do a good job of outlining the commonalities of would-be dictators:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game;
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents;
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence;
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

The authors cite several examples to illustrate these points, including the Erdogan regime in Turkey, the Chávez regime in Venezuela, and the Trump regime (more politely, the Trump Administration) in the U.S.

They also cite three common tactics employed by authoritarians undermining democracy:

  1. Capturing the “referees” (especially the courts);
  2. Sidelining opponents (e.g., via slanderous charges and trumped-up criminal charges);
  3. Changing the rules (e.g., restricting the right to vote).

Again, they provide numerous examples, and again Trump and his Republican enablers are prominent among them.

These examples, these case studies of the attitudes and tactics of authoritarians, are the most valuable part of the book.

As for the analysis of why things have gotten so bad in the U.S., not so much. The authors are conventional liberals who see nothing fundamentally flawed in what, from its start, has always been a weak democracy with, almost from the start, a two-party duopoly under the control of the rich. (The authors don’t mention it, but George Washington, for all his virtues, was the richest man in the 13 colonies.)

While they’re not entirely uncritical of America’s past — for example, they include a good but quite brief history of the political aspects of Jim Crow in the wake of Reconstruction — they paint a remarkably rosy picture of America’s “democratic” past, with “backroom candidate selection . . . keeping demonstrably unfit figures off the ballot and out of office.” And this in reference to Warren G. Harding(!), arguably the most corrupt and incompetent U.S. president until Trump.

The authors are also rather obtuse regarding the underlying economic reasons for the current crisis in what passes for American democracy. They blame post-1975 “economic growth slowing” plus increased ethnic diversity as being the reasons for the current breakdown of political norms.

This is simply wrong. Since real wages peaked in 1972-1973, productivity growth has averaged roughly 1.75% per year, while wages have grown not at all. This means that the amount of goods and services produced per hour worked have approximately doubled over the last 45 years, with almost all of the gains going not to those who do the work, but to those who own the corporations. As well, there has been a distinct redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top over the same period, with the top 1% now owning nearly 50% of the nation’s wealth — a trend which Obama didn’t even try to address, and which is worsening under Trump.

Is it any wonder that people are fed up? That so many voters are so fed up with their stressful economic state and the corporate-controlled two-party duopoly — essentially a choice between evil and greater evil — that 41% of those eligible to vote in the last election didn’t even show up at the polls? Is it any wonder that so many feel so much economic pain that they’ll listen to demagogues who scapegoat minorities?

The authors’ prescription to put U.S. democracy back on the rails? To oversimplify, a return to civility between Democrats and Republicans. That might involve (they say this is a remote possibility) a reformed Republican party casting out the white nationalists and other authoritarians (good luck on that), plus the Democrats fighting Trump et al. in court and on the ballot, and the Democrats advocating a few minimalist common-sense reformist measures, such as universal healthcare coverage and a significantly higher minimum wage.

In the end, the authors see nothing fundamentally flawed in the present system. If you’re looking for bold strategies to address the fundamental inequities, injustices, and outright horrors in present-day America, you won’t find it in How Democracies Die.

The book’s value, though, lies in its clear presentation of the attitudes and tactics of dictators and would-be dictators, and its many case studies of authoritarian figures and regimes.

Recommended.


We published about 250 posts in 2017, and consider the following the 50 best. We’ve divided them into categories to make navigating easier; as with our past “best of” lists, the Humor, Politics, Religion, Music, and Science Fiction categories account for most of the posts. (Because several of the posts fit into more than one category, they appear in more than one place.) We hope you enjoy them.

Humor

Politics

Religion

Music

Economics

Civil Liberties

Science

Interviews

Addictions

Anarchism

Science Fiction


Artemis, by Andy Weir front cover(Artemis, by Andy Weir. Crown, 2017, $27.00, 305 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Three years ago, Andy Weir’s debut sci-fi novel, The Martian, arose out of the morass of self-published books, the vast majority of which never go anywhere. (Over 800,000 self-published books appeared last year alone; typical lifetime sales figures for such books are in the range of 100 to 200 copies.)

The Martian, a near-future novel about a stranded astronaut, was the best hard sci-fi novel to appear in ages. So, like many other readers, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Weir’s next book.

Like The Martian, Artemis is a near-future hard sci-fi novel that features a plucky, oftentimes funny protagonist who overcomes difficulty after difficulty, often of a technical nature. (The difficulties in The Martian are almost exclusively of a technical nature.) Also, as in The Martian, Weir gets the science right, weaving it into the story without ever condescending to the reader; and both novels take place in familiar near-space settings: Mars and the moon, respectively. Another similarity is the quality of the writing: it’s concise and flows in large part due to Weir’s consistent use of active voice, his avoidance of adjectives and adverbs, and his avoidance of taking off on tangents.

The Martian, by Andy WeirThe differences between the two books lie primarily in their protagonists, the difficulties they face, and their goals. In The Martian, the protagonist is Matt Watley, who uses his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to solve one after another seemingly intractable technical problems in order to survive; in Artemis, the protagonist is Jasmine (“Jazz”) Bashara, a markedly immature, young lapsed Muslim and petty smuggler who uses her wits and technical knowledge in order to survive and to pursue wealth. On the surface, she seems an unlikely, unlikable protagonist, but Weir manages to make her into one through exploration of her rough background and through her having a consistent moral code.

Shortly after Artemis begins, Jazz finds herself hired by a smuggling client to take part in a major criminal operation, and quickly finds herself in way over her head. At that point, the string of seemingly intractable problems and ingenious solutions begin, and continue nonstop through the rest of the book.

As for weaknesses in Artemis, there are a few. The primary one is that the outcomes at the end of the book are just a little too neat, and that on reflection one of the most important (involving an ownership transfer) seems possible but far from inevitable. Weir presents this outcome so smoothly, though, that it’s easy to let it slide by; only when you think about it a bit will you realize, “Hey! That doesn’t necessarily follow.”

I’d have enjoyed Artemis more if I hadn’t previously read The Martian — the similarities are just too great: a plucky, wise-cracking protagonist facing and overcoming technical problem after technical problem. Because of that, Artemis wasn’t as fresh and surprising as The Martian. But it’s still a very good book.

Recommended.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, two translations, a nonfiction book, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time. He hopes to complete at least two of those projects over the next year.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 

 


Razor Girl, by Carl Hiaasen, cover(Razor Girl, by Carl Hiaasen. Knopf, 2017, $35.95, 333 pp.)

If you need some relief from the sociopath in chief, from the relentless, surly glob of suet that Grant Brisbee describes as the “walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins,” here you go.

Carl Hiaasen delivers some welcome and extremely funny not-quite-escapism in Razor Girl, which in many ways is a typical Hiaasen novel. (In this context, “typical” is a very good thing.) It’s set in Florida, and it abounds in grotesque characters, grotesque incidents, amusing, well written dialogue, and laugh-out-loud passages, the funniest of which involves the side effects of a “male enhancement” product and a blood pressure cuff. There’s also pointed political and social commentary, and, as always in Hiiasen’s novels, sympathetic central characters with decidedly casual respect for the law.

The title character in Razor Girl, Merry Mansfield, is based on a real person who, like Merry, engaged in a common criminal scam involving deliberate auto accidents. What’s not common about Merry and the actual criminal is that they engage(d) in this scam while shaving their . . . well, no need to go there. . . .

The central male character is Andrew Yancy, a former detective who was busted to “roach patrol” (health inspector) after assaulting an ex-girlfriend’s husband with a mini-vacuum cleaner. Here, Yancy wants to gain reinstatement by investigating the disappearance in Key West of Buck Nance, the patriarch in the highly staged “reality” TV show, Bayou Brethren, which follows the misadventures of a supposed clan in the Florida panhandle that runs a rooster farm.

Shortly, we meet a variety of well drawn, seedy characters, including Martin Trebeaux the founder of Sedimental Journeys, a company that illegally dredges sand in one place and then sells it in another; Brock Richardson, an entitled, grubbily materialistic Miami lawyer who’s made a career of hustling product-liability cases; Lance Coolman, the sleazy agent who represents Buck Nance; and Buck’s super fan, idiot racist, homophobe, and career criminal Blister Krill, who’s so obsessed with Bayou Brethren that he’s had Buck’s nickname (from the rooster farm), “Captain Cock,” tattooed across his shoulders.

Without giving anything else away, we’ll note that while this is a comic novel, there are a lot of characters and the plot is fairly complex, so you need to pay attention as you read, which is one of the book’s strengths: Razor Girl is much more than just a collection of funny characters and incidents — it’s well plotted, and its author never insults the reader’s intelligence.

Highly recommended.


 

(The Corporation Wars: Emergence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2017, 402 pp., $9.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This final portion of the Corporation Wars trilogy wraps things up neatly. Whether that’s a good thing or not is questionable. It leaves hanging (appropriately) the question of whether machine-intelligence is a good thing or not. That it exists here, is beyond question.

The narrative also, barely, leaves hanging the question of whether capitalism is a good thing or not — though the mayhem in pursuit of the profit motive seems persuasive evidence to the contrary. (Macleod has delivered a much less nuanced judgment in The Stone Canal and many of his other works.)

Another mostly unaddressed but central question is whether stored backups of personalities would, when revived, constitute continued life for the backed-up personalities. (I’d argue, pessimistically, that it wouldn’t, because the dead versions would in fact be dead — when we’re dead, we’re dead — and unaware of the “revived” versions, and unaware of their perceptions.)

As well, Macleod gives a good impression of the alienness of machine intelligence in such passages as:

“‘<Very well> said Simo. <Talis and I will wait deeper in this tunnel. If there are any indications that you have been caught, you may rely upon us to save ourselves>”

Anyway, here, in this final portion of the trilogy, we follow the protagonist Carlos, and the “freebot” (self-aware robot) Seba through their struggles against both the neo-fascist “Rax” and the neo-liberal Direction.

Without giving away too much, what I can say here is that Macleod neatly winds up the plot, without leaving much room for a sequel.

Beyond that the text is replete with mostly sci-fi references, including to the munitions company “Morlock Arms,” and a clever rephrasing of Clarke’s famous dictum: “She understood in principle, but the engineering details were at a level where the most strictly materialist explanation might as well be magic.”

Even funnier: “Entire automated law firms stored like flat-packs, ready to be assembled at first notice . . . Imagine a robot stamping an official seal . . . forever.”

The one real problem with this book and the previous one is that Macleod does not provide sufficient back story — nowhere near. So, if you haven’t read the previous books, you’ll be at a loss in understanding Emergence.

Here, for once, a prologue would have helped tremendously, as it would have with the previous book, Insurgence. As is, the lack of back story makes it impossible to fully enjoy this part of the trilogy without having read the first two parts of the trilogy almost immediately beforehand.

So, please don’t even think about reading this final part without having read Dissidence and Insurgence first, and in short order.

Recommended with that qualification.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, two translations, a nonfiction book, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


(The Moon and the Other, by John Kessell. New York: Saga Press, 596 pp. $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

To understand The Moon and the Other, it’s helpful to be familiar with the reformist political current called identity politics. In the U.S., it’s been all the rage over the last few decades among liberals, especially among those in the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and those holding positions at Ivy League colleges and other elite East Coast institutions.

For those not familiar with the term, “identity politics” refers to the assumption that a person’s race, gender, and/or sexual orientation is the most important factor in politics, and that those in such groups should band together to further their own interests, making all other political goals secondary. The unspoken assumption is that everything is fine (or at least a minor problem) in comparison to the interests of the identity group.

This is a divisive, self-limiting political approach. It would be difficult to devise one better designed to distract from fundamental political and economic problems while fitting neatly into the existing political and economic power structure’s divide and conquer strategy.

More concretely, liberal political elites translate identity politics ideology into programs such as race-based admissions to universities and forced busing of school children to distant schools to give at least some poor minority kids access to better schools.

One wonders why those who foist such policies upon the public do not, instead, demand free higher education for all who want it (a fact in some European countries), and why they do not demand equal per-student funding for all public schools, thus ensuring reasonably high quality education for all students, not just some.

You’d have to ask those who advance such identity-politics “solutions” why this is so. My best guess is that they either: 1) see nothing fundamentally wrong with the existing politico-economic situation and just wish to make it marginally fairer to specific groups; 2) they see no hope of fundamentally changing that politico-economic situation and again just want to make it marginally fairer to specific groups; or 3) they’re conscious tools of the economic elites who fund their campaigns and their well paid positions in academia and the media.

The Moon and the Other’s background, the Society of Cousins (SoC), comes straight out of a virulent strain of this ideology, what one might term biology-is-destiny politics. The idea upon which the book revolves is that men are so violent and competitive that they must be disenfranchised, and that women, inherently peaceful and cooperative, must control society through a coercive political power structure — government. (On the surface, this concept is grossly insulting to men, but when you think about it it’s also grossly insulting to women, positing that they’re too weak to stand up to men in an egalitarian political and social structure.)

To provide contrast with his Society of Cousins, Kessell sets up Persepolis, another domed-crater society whose sketchily drawn political, economic, and social structure is all but indistinguishable from that of present-day liberal western democracies. (There’s also an all too brief, but perceptive, look at an Ayn Randist society.)

As the story begins, we meet the book’s protagonist, Erno who’s working as an immigrant in the bottom layer of Persepolis’ society after being exiled from the SoC for involvement in a “terrorist” dumb political stunt carried out by an extreme wing of the men’s right movement.

We shortly meet the novel’s two other central characters, both of them involved in the men’s rights dissident movement: Mira, the SoC’s unstable, immature, female version of Banksy, and Carey, her on-and-off boyfriend who resists being drawn into the movement despite his involvement in a high profile custody case.

All of these characters are well drawn, quite believable, as are several of the secondary characters, notably Hypatia, the charismatic, manipulative, intellectual leader of the dissident movement, and Sirius, an “uplifted” dog and leading newscaster in Persepolis.

Inevitably, years after the opening scenes, Erno, who has risen in life, is drawn back to the SoC as part of an Organization of Lunar States investigation of the status of men in the Society of Cousins, not incidentally at a time of the ascendancy of the men’s rights dissident movement.

The investigation is brought on, in part, by the SoC’s deletion of all published materials relating to its scientific and technical investigations over the previous thirty years. And here, Kessell posits not only internal deletion, but deletion by SoC hackers of all materials in electronic form everywhere, on both the moon and the Earth. Such an attempt would be ridiculous — doomed to failure — today, and it seems even more so set centuries in the future.

Worse, shortly after Erno’s arrival back in the SoC, Kessell throws the reader a curve. Rather than follow the struggle for men’s rights in this biologically determinist society — which, given how well the author has set up the situation, would be fascinating — Kessell presents the reader with two interwoven major events, which derail the course of the dissident movement.

Beyond that, the authors of the first event are never revealed, and their possible motives seem weak given the event’s drastic nature. As for the second related event, Kessell devotes quite a bit of space to establishing the motivation for the character responsible for it. However, a large amount of that motivation lies in the character’s resentment over his physical limitations — and those physical limitations would make his supposed actions all but impossible.

One minor problem with the book is that Kessell has an annoying habit of ending chapters or portions of chapters by revealing that something awful will happen, and then inserting pages of unnecessary material before revealing the nature of the event. That unnecessary material is there simply to keep the reader in a state of anxiety, and, for anyone who’s paying attention, that’s annoying.

In sum, the plot problems, unsatisfying conclusion, and manipulation of the reader outweigh the well drawn characters, interesting social background, and well set up social conflict. That’s unfortunate, because The Moon and the Other could have been a considerably better than average science fiction novel. As is, it’s a considerably more frustrating than average sci-fi novel.

Not recommended.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover