Design with Nature

a review by Bob Roman

Advertisements

How could I resist:

“The world is a glorious bounty. There is more food than can be eaten if we would limit our numbers to those who can be cherished, there are more beautiful girls than can be dreamed of, more children than we can love, more laughter than can be endured, more wisdom than can be absorbed. Canvas and pigments lie in wait, stone, wood and metal are ready for sculpture, random noise is latent for symphonies, sites are gravid for cities, institutions lie in the wings ready to solve our most intractable problems, parables of moving power remain unformulated and yet, the world is finally unknowable.

“How can we reap this bounty? This book is a modest inquiry into this subject.”

Thus begins Ian McHarg’s classic introduction to ecological planning, Design with Nature (1969).

Back in July of 2018, I wrote a brief post remembering the extraordinary early PBS television program The Great American Dream Machine. In that post, I mentioned an earlier, pre-PBS program, Public Broadcast Laboratory. Both of these programs had a big influence on my values and my politics. In particular, one Public Broadcast Laboratory episode included an hour-long documentary directed by Austin Hoyt based on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature. That episode, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” was my introduction to Ian McHarg, and I was hugely impressed.

I’ve only been able to find one complete episode of Public Broadcast Laboratory and a partial episode: “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” the McHarg documentary, both on YouTube.

“Multiply and Subdue the Earth” is below. It is of only adequate quality; you won’t gain anything by putting YouTube in full screen mode. And it’s grey-scale when the original film (and TV program) was color. Around the turn of the century, this documentary was still available for rental from a division of Indiana University, VHS format, but the folks who had done the transfer from film had waited too long. The color dyes were becoming distinctly magenta. Grey-scale may thus be a mercy. (Copies of Public Broadcast Laboratory episodes are also held at the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston and possibly elsewhere. It may be that a fair copy exists or could be cobbled together.)

How do the documentary and the book hold up? Watch it yourself; the hour is well worth it:

The documentary is in large part a summary of McHarg’s book, but it begins where McHarg ends: with Dr. John Calhoun, another mostly forgotten yet influential thinker of the mid-20th Century. Dr. Calhoun was obsessed with population studies for various rodent species. He would set up rodent utopias where the population was supplied with as much food and water as needed, with no restrictions on breeding. Things would go well until population densities would reach a tipping point. Then rodent society, such as it is, would begin to break down and, even though they were supplied with adequate food and water, the population would collapse: rodent apocalypse!

This dovetailed very nicely with Paul Erhlich’s Population Bomb (1968) over-population argument because the reply to Erhlich and cassandras like him was that technology would save our asses: one way or another food and water and other necessities would be obtained or invented, especially with greed as the motivator. Calhoun’s experiments suggested that utopia, be it capitalist or socialist, would not suffice. You’ll note that in the documentary, much of Calhoun’s list of rodent social dysfunction address the insecurities of the time: gender definition, clockwork orange violent crime, aimless hedonism and sexuality, social isolation. That alone should raise some warning flags regarding the research.

Well, we pretty much know how to cure cancer in mice; it’s been studied so well and so often and for so long. But humans are not mice. While I’m not a scholar and so can’t provide the cites (I recall that back in the 1970s there was an article about this in Scientific American), I do know that others were motivated by Calhoun’s work to study population densities in other species. Other species don’t all react as rodents do and even rodents have coping strategies when the means are available to them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was also common to associate population growth with poverty. This was reasonable enough when one considered the condition of the Indian subcontinent and of China at the time. Subsequent experience and research shows that capitalism benefits from expanding population and doesn’t deal well with declines — capitalism is expand or die, after all. On the other hand, it does not follow that expansion can continue indefinitely.

Calhoun also inspired at least two major works of fiction. One is said to be Robert O’Brien’s award-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) that later became a nicely done animated feature movie. If I have doubts, it is mainly because O’Brien’s book postulates NIMH experiments boosting the intelligence of rats and mice (genetic engineering, circa 1971!) and because Calhoun was hardly the only person at the Institute doing research with rats.

The other book is John Brunner’s 1967 classic novel, Stand on Zanzibar. Brunner’s novel takes Calhoun seriously and applies a straight-line projection of the trends as would be expected from Calhoun’s experiments. I’ve mentioned Brunner’s novel twice before on this blog and this post is supposed to be about Ian McHarg not John Calhoun not John Brunner; however, McHarg did facilitate a study of health in Philadelphia that suggested some degree of negative correlation between the density of population and good health, supporting Calhoun’s thesis. This was not in the documentary, but an account of methodology and findings is in McHarg’s book.

Design with Nature is an education about ecology (which is not just biology) and its use in planning with case studies encompassing a wide variety of landscapes, including urban and suburban environments, and a discussion of philosophy. If you can find a hard cover, coffee table edition, you should prefer that larger format as the book is lavishly illustrated and the graphics are not just pretty but also a vital part of the content.

For a democratic socialists such as myself, the thunderclap was not so much McHarg’s distaste for market forces and his embrace of planning, but that he was able to provide a coherent and workable methodology of just how planning could be done. Furthermore, it is a methodology that can be computerized, although in 1968, that was aspirational rather than practical.

McHarg contends land-use decisions cannot be left entirely to the market, whatever “market” means. As McHarg put it:

The economists… ask with the most barefaced effrontery that we accommodate our value system to theirs. Neither love nor compassion, health nor beauty, dignity nor freedom, grace nor delight are important unless they can be priced. If they are non-price benefits or costs, they are relegated to inconsequence. The economic model proceeds inexorably towards its self-fulfillment of more and more despoliation, uglification and inhibition to life, all in the name of progress — yet, paradoxically, the components which the model excludes are the most important human ambitions and accomplishments and the requirements for survival. (Page 25)

If the market, left to itself, leads to “despoliation, uglification and inhibition of life,” the environmental record of planning under soviet-style “real existing socialism” is catastrophically worse. McHarg doesn’t touch that subject at all though there were surely inklings trickling out from behind the “iron curtain.” But McHarg does insist on another necessary dimension: values. Here, McHarg places the blame on the “great western religions born of monotheism,” hence the title of the documentary, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth.” Considering that other cultures, including the avowedly atheist soviet socialism, have done as poorly if not worse, this strikes me as being a bit of false determinism born of personal grievance: something connected with McHarg’s father, I would speculate after having read McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life. Still, a belief “that man and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes” (page 27) seems to be necessary.

One thing that is not discussed in the book is how this planning might be institutionalized. The documentary suggests that land-use planning be moved from the local level to the state, using Hawaii as an example. In the movie, at least, McHarg endorses the idea. I’m not sure. Hawaii, after all, is a geographically small state. It could be a useful move, but consider the sometimes willful, pigheaded misunderstanding of things like environmental impact statements (not a requirement of local zoning but of state or federal) and how easily such requirements can be portrayed as “elite” outsiders dictating to the detriment of local residents: Perhaps a multilevel governmental approach would be better, though the division of responsibilities and appeals would need to be thought out better than my vague observation.

In retrospect, McHarg was entirely too optimistic about the weight of science in the process. The evidence, even the science, can always be argued over. Regulations that describe process and decision-making are hard to write without self-subversive ambiguity or without stultifying rigidity or without being an exercise in well-intentioned futility. (Regarding the last, McHarg was totally contemptuous of strip-mining regulations that required companies to restore the land “to its original contours.” What the hell does that mean?) There is also the issue of people using the process for ends alien to its intent: gaming the system. Whether it be Not In My Back Yard fanaticism or “paid troublemakers,” this aspect is pretty well an assumed motive by those afflicted with the pathological cynicism of our times.

The law — or more specifically the courts — is also a difficulty in the United States. According to McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life, he was aware of the difficulties involved in the “takings” aspect of constitutional law. It appears that he underestimated the difficulties there, as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has been eager to require governments to pay for any inconvenience imposed on landowners, even when said inconvenience would pay dividends by avoiding predictable disaster, like not building on a primary dune along the seashore or in a floodplain of a river — never mind that in building so, the developer is “taking” from future owners of that property, the government (disaster rescue and recovery) and the surrounding community. If it can’t be priced, it doesn’t exist, and most courts are committed to advancing a libertarian agenda whenever they can get away with it.

It is a pity: McHarg had long ago grown weary of arguing aesthetics with his clients. Designing with nature is intended to not only be beautiful but also to save money by minimizing costs of construction and maintenance,  while delivering beauty and continuing productivity — the substance behind that happy happy buzz word “sustainability”. That approach is also a clue as to how this might be integrated into a social democratic version of capitalism — though, granted, it is not clear that such a version of capitalism is itself genuinely sustainable as social democracy.

2019 will be 50 years since both the publication and the documentary. It’s really past time that we touch base with what may be last hopeful moment in our history. You can start by watching the documentary and by reading the book. Remember, it is entirely possible to profitably hunt a species to extinction (it’s been done), and likewise we have a grand opportunity in the next several decades to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to profitably breed and consume ourselves to the same end.

Post Script: For an example of fairly extreme human crowding, consider Hong Kong:

Where the Marshland Came to Flower

a review by Bob Roman

Where the Marshland Came to Flower by Peter Anderson. Kuboa Press, 2018. 194 pages, $6.

marshlandThis anthology of stories is not something I would ordinarily read these days, though it might have been something I would have picked up decades ago when I was reading my way through the fiction stacks at the Chicago Public Library: whatever looked interesting, serendipity starting with “A” and working upward toward “Z”. Yes, I made it through the alphabet twice, but I don’t remember a word of it.

I ran across this book because, for the past several years, I’ve been paying occasional visits to the author’s blog site, Pete Lit. The thought of a literary liberal one or two towns over from my reactionary Lawrence Welk childhood home was amusing, and his posts, mostly to do with what he was reading or quotes therefrom, were interesting though they mostly did not tempt me to follow his bibliography. Then came his announcement of his latest book… and it’s available for free.

The “marshland” in the title is, of course, Chicago, a fitting homage to the swamp that preceded the city and to its name, variously translated from the Miami as “wild onion” or “skunk cabbage”. Each of the dozen or so stories is subtitled with the particular Chicago neighborhood in which the story is set; the book title is thus sweetly apt. This is both really nice and more than a bit risky, what with the current obsessions with authenticity and appropriation, not to mention a vulnerability to nit-pickers on geography and names and the like.

Does Anderson navigate these hazards successfully? Not exactly, I think. As literary fiction, these stories are not obliged to be dramas. Often nothing much happens; instead the narrative serves as a vehicle for sketching a character (who may or may not undergo some transformation, great or small) or as social commentary or as a platform for virtuoso word-smithing. Speaking of which, I do have one small grievance regarding Anderson’s writing. Trains do not “chug” — for over fifty years they haven’t. Since the author is a regular METRA commuter into Chicago, he really ought to know better. Nit picking, begging your pardon, but still!

The characters are often nicely drawn, but something, je ne sais quoi, is lacking. This leaves some of them inhabiting a sort of literary uncanny valley. I suspect this is more noticeable given the nature of the story-telling, and I don’t mean to make too much of it as I’ve seen really well-known authors land in the same place.

The character that sticks with me the most is Mario, from “Prime Time,” mostly because I could hear, in my mind, Tom Waits’ song “Romeo Is Bleeding.” Mario is at a point in his life where he could become someone much like Waits’ Romeo, and it’s a hair cut that decides the matter.

Two of the stories had particular interest for me. “Constant Volume” takes place in Rogers Park, a neighborhood where I’ve lived for over the past third of a century. The protagonist, George Borowski, is a resident building superintendent of vaguely liberal political persuasion. He has fallen from being a fleet automobile mechanic to his precarious employment, from having a second floor apartment with a view to an unimproved basement “garden” apartment, from having a girl friend to being alone with a TV. The antagonist is Denny Palmer, a conservative Loyola University student resident in the building. I wonder about the name choice there: Palmer as in Chicago’s old aristocracy vs. the ethnics? This is a commentary story. I do have one nit to pick: Sheridan Park is not in Rogers Park but somewhere on the west side. Anderson certainly knows this and I wonder if this was a misdirection toward disguising an individual Anderson knows.

“Sous” takes place in Armour Square. I lived in that “neighborhood” for about three years. Armour Square was not actually in any way a single neighborhood back in the 1970s, despite what city maps might say. It was, at minimum, a half dozen rather different neighborhoods (I lived in two of them), some of which did not tolerate other parts of Armour Square, never mind most of the rest of Chicago. While I lived there, had you asked, I would have drawn the northern border at 26th Street, so it was interesting that Anderson’s protagonist is from Chinatown, the neighborhood’s actual northern territory. It’s a character study, wherein the protagonist affirms his values. Only Chinatown from Armour Square is represented in the story, but I had a backyard garden back then, too.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, though take this with caution because, once again, it’s not my usual reading material; I’m not a literary critic and I don’t have literary critic standards. Am I thus pounding a irregular polygon peg into a square hole? Regardless, I didn’t feel as though my reading time was wasted and I felt other folks ought to hear about the  book. And so you have.

Voilà.

Fake News

by Bob Roman

Recently David Greising, the President and CEO of the Better Government Association, posted an editorial, Even in an Age of ‘Fake News,’ the Truth Wins Out, that denounced fake news and the spread of “alternative facts” and innuendo in public life while, reasonably enough, touting the good work that the Better Government Association does in promoting truth. Among other things, Greising wrote:

When President Trump first called reporters “enemies of the people” in early 2017, it was a shock. The term came from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, via the Third Reich’s Josef Goebbels via the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

“Fake News” has its own ignoble lineage. Like George Orwell’s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” in the novel 1984, “Fake News” is pure double think.

If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake.

It is a clarion call for the light of truth against the cynical, power-obsessed forces of self-serving lies: Forces so inured to deception that its practitioners are unable to distinguish actual journalism from their own bloviating. As Roy Edroso at the Village Voice put it:

Yeah, that’s how journalists operate. They claim they’re “reporting news,” but they’re really passing on orders to kill. It’s easy to understand why conservatives think this way. They themselves admit that right-wing media outlets don’t do a lot of reporting, and most are simply content to chest-pound on behalf of Donald Trump. So would they even recognize what journalism is? Under such circumstances it would make sense if they came to consider journalism in the same way they consider creative endeavors: as vaguely disreputable dark arts practised only by their enemies, to be beaten back with slander and propaganda.

But: “If it’s news, it can’t be fake”? Really?

Whatever else is going on, there’s a fundamental miscommunication here. For partisan ideologues, fake news can also be news with an agenda or news with a particular spin, including controversies based on a biased or false premise. (When did you stop beating your wife?) Partisans have a particular reason to be sensitive to this as so much of what partisans do is directed at putting their particular issues of concern on the political agenda, in other words, manipulating the news media coverage (or lack thereof) of issues.

This can be really quite blatant. Consider for a moment the practice of setting up “spin rooms” for journalists after a political event such as a debate or a political convention. The point is to reiterate and explain talking points, making sure of the most favorable interpretation of events. “Spin rooms” as a formal practice was first begun by the Reagan for President campaign back in 1984, but similar efforts before and since can be found in the old Sunday morning talk shows on TV or even today on social media such as Twitter. Is this “fake news” only when it includes lies?

Broadcast media, radio and television, dominated journalism for most of the 20th Century, and these entities had been encouraged to be neutral, at least in the sense of allowing time for multiple viewpoints. They use a publicly “owned” medium, after all, with the consent of the government by license: the electro-magnetic spectrum. This has had a decisive influence on the ethics of the profession, but before broadcast news, there was not even a pretense at neutrality. In the 19th Century, for example, U.S. newspaper editors were typically major players in the internal politics of U.S. political parties (including minor parties).

But journalists are not just journalists / reporters / scribes. They are story-tellers. If you’re a journalist, your bosses want an audience to sell to advertisers, yes? And you, the journalist, want an audience to read or watch or listen to what is said, right? So: “if it bleeds, it leads” or “personalize your story”, but there is more as well. As any story-teller will confide, a story stands on the shoulders of previous stories. Your audience will bring their own baggage to whatever they are consuming so it helps if they can tell part of the story themselves. As an experiment, find a news story covering the politics or an event in some part of the world about which you know next to nothing. Don’t be surprised if it makes no sense or, at a minimum, if it leaves you puzzled. The puzzling missing pieces are the parts of the story the intended audience brings to the report. If you are telling the audience something entirely new, the audience will require an education. This imposes an “opportunity cost” on any new perspective while the familiar will go down easy.

Likewise, story-telling evokes expectations of drama, irony, gossip and closure. My impression is that maybe closure is a bigger part of broadcast journalism than the web or print, but it is nearly universal. Listen to almost any radio or TV news report and pay attention to the last few sentences: it will be a conclusion, typically some clichéd conventional wisdom apropos the topic of the report. It’s the safe thing to do, after all, and often enough the reporter is dealing with a subject about which the reporter knows very little. How could one go wrong by parroting what is broadly accepted, however inane? Except that often this wisdom is also a judgement: Trump has no chance of winning or Bernie Sanders’ campaign will go nowhere, as examples.

As an aside, it’s not only the need for drama that turns political coverage into a horse race story. The late Tom Wicker learned the hard way as a journalist: If you do not want to be scooped, you have to cover the possibilities as well as what has happened:

“…Whitman had had the foresight to get a pledge from Kurfees that if he did run, he’d break the story in the Sentinel. I kicked myself for weeks because if I’d thought there was even a possibility that Kurfees would run again, I could have offered him more circulation for an exclusive in the morning Journal. Moral: in writing about politics, the possibilities matter as much as the supposedly known facts, which often are not facts at all.”

— Tom Wicker, On Press, page 37

Fake news, definition 2, anyone? “Which often are not facts at all,” fake news, definition 1, anyone? And this isn’t even allowing for interviews with players who speculate on possibilities with the aim of creating a particular outcome.

Tom Wicker is right. Sometimes what we think we know is simply untrue. Consider the routine press reports about studies recommending how a particular diet will lead to particular healthful benefits. Often enough these are studies using small populations of dubious statistical value, sometimes even financed by entities with an interest in the results. Is this “fake news”? Public radio’s On the Media has devoted episodes to debunking false statistics (see, for example, “Prime Number” or “The Stat Police“), yet they continue to be routinely incorporated in reporting. But repeated and debunked often enough, it leaves room for people to doubt even spectacularly dangerous phenomenon like human-induced global warming.

When you add all this to an epidemic of pathological cynicism and mistrust, you have an atmosphere deadly to even republican democracy. But contra David Greising, the profession of journalism is not a simple victim here.

With the rise of the web and cable as major media, we’re seeing a shift back to advocacy as a legitimate part of journalism. This influences expectations regarding all of journalism. And being human, when we look for bias, inevitably we’ll find it, even when it’s not exactly there. See, for example, On the Media’s exercise in navel-gazing back in 2012 on whether National Public Radio has a liberal bias (~ 20 minutes):

What journalism should consider is a professional standard that admits to bias and advocacy but requires the inclusion of information sufficient for the news consumer to decide for themselves.

Fake news as manufactured lies is indeed a problem, has been a problem for longer than we usually remember (doctored photos for example), and promises to become a more of a problem as it becomes possible to create audio and video that is very nearly convincing. For a deep dive into the possibilities, check out Radiolab’s episode Breaking News (2017). For an update on the progress of video algorithms, see A New Computer Program Generates Eerily Realistic Fake Videos at Science News.

I don’t mind David Greising tooting the BGA horn; they do good work, mostly. And I’m certainly no friend of Donald Trump. But it is worrisome that when we discuss “fake news”, we seem to be talking past one another, assuming that there is a mutual understanding of what is under discussion when in fact there is not.

It’s also difficult to defend journalism from our Liar-in-Chief when journalists have been so willing to give past occupants of the White House a free pass. And consider just how uncritically beat-the-drum, rah-rah coverage has been over our various military adventures. This hasn’t always been true, it’s true. LBJ had his credibility gap, for just one example. But this very inconsistency leaves journalism’s credibility open to question at a time when it should be galvanizing the public to action instead.

six months, three days, five others

a review by Bob Roman

six months, three days, five others by Charlie Jane Anders. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2017, 188 pages, $12.99.

This is a small anthology of science fiction / fantasy stories by a journalist and editor who already has a best-selling track record with fiction – though, of course, I’m so unhip that this is my first exposure to her fiction and I don’t remember her nonfiction. Anders has written for (or edited) a great many of the journals that I read on occasion, but generally I don’t retain names. My bad.

“Six Months, Three Days” is, as you might guess, the star of the collection, having won a Hugo award for best novelette in 2012, but the other five stories are almost as good. Anders is a good writer and an even better story-teller, so I was absolutely thrilled to read this book – to the point where I’m almost sorry to not own a copy as I can well imagine re-reading it.

“Six Months, Three Days” is about two lovers who both can see the future. There’s nothing particularly original in that, except that the woman “sees” the future as a range of possibilities dependent upon her choices, mostly, while the man “sees” only one fixed future. As you might surmise from the title, they both know how long the affair will last. They also know the arguments they are going to have, as well as the good times. Would you fall in love under those circumstances, also knowing that the love will end disastrously? And why? Anders does wonderful things with the premise.

It should be no surprise that NBC is working on its own version of the story. I hope Anders was paid very well for the rights even though I’m pretty certain video will turn it into garbage. For example, the protagonists do not actually “see” the future so much as they remember the future. Considering how chancy human memory is, this allows for delicious conflicted ambiguities in the narrative, but how do you make that visual? Worse yet, apparently NBC intends to turn the couple into bickering private-eyes…

“The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model” is seriously cute. The aforementioned “Fermi Paradox” is, FYI, the old question that, in a universe as old and as huge as it is, shouldn’t there be other technological species around? Where are they? There are various answering speculations posed by science fiction, including the possibility posed in this case: that technological civilizations tend to go extinct pretty quickly. But think of the salvage opportunities! Until you meet one that didn’t quite manage to do themselves in.

“As Good As New” seems to be your typical post-apocalypse story, until our surviving protagonist, formerly an aspiring playwright, finds a bottle with a genie… who was once a theatre critic. Careful what you wish for!

“Intestate” takes a trope out of mainstream fiction: a final family gathering around the family patriarch who is shortly to die. It includes some of the conflicts usual to such a set-up (who is going to get what, for example), except that not everyone at the gathering of the clan is exactly human…

“The Cartography of Sudden Death” is a time travel story, beginning in an extremely hierarchical society. Can a visiting time traveller liberate someone who has deeply internalized such values?

“Clover” is the runt of this very fine litter of stories, IMHO, but it’s about cats. And love. And redemption… or the lack thereof… some cats are good at grudges. It’s also an out-take from Anders’ novel, All the Birds in the Sky. NBC would have been better off buying the rights to this one.

While there were no passages of writing that frizzed my hair, gosh I’m happy to have read this!

Autonomous

a review by Bob Roman

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2017. 301 pages $25.99

For months now, book reading has become an alienating experience. You might say that it’s my own fault. Go ahead. Blame the victim. After all, it’s mostly genre fiction that I’ve been reading. So we’re talking about a steady diet of variously, occasionally cleverly, modified remixes of clichés, tropes, plot devices, MacGuffins and characters – why, it may as well be a months-long diet of pizza. Even an occasional new topping would hardly be an inspiration for appetite. Once I looked forward to visiting the library. Now, walking into the Chicago Public Library threatens to become a visit to a temple of monotony.

(Don’t get me started on all the other things deficient at Chicago’s public libraries.)

And of course such a jaundiced attitude is going to color any reading experience. So when I picked up Annalee Newitz’ new first novel, my expectations were seriously low. Neal Stephenson’s cover blurb, “Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the internet,” did not help. I tend to avoid Stephenson’s work and don’t get me started on William Gibson and “cyberpunk.” I’m none to enthused about most treatments of Artificial Intelligence, either. Nonetheless, I borrowed the book.

It took a while, but I came to like this book very much.

The story overall could be characterized as an optimistic dystopia. It’s mid-22nd Century. Humanity has been through a catastrophe including climate change but civilization and scientific progress continues. The trade-off being that, in most parts of the world, property rights have become primary above all else. This includes a resurrection of slavery in the guise of “indentured servitude.” Since it’s done with “consent” and “contract” and is not hereditary, the slaves have some rights and judicial recourse – about as much as one might cynically expect. In this way, the institution of slavery more closely resembles that of the Roman Empire than that of the U.S. South, but it’s still pretty ugly. Likewise, intellectual property comes close behind in enforcement if not ahead. Sci-fi habitually deals with big issues, and for this novel, one of them is: “Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

Enter “Jack”, aka Judith Chen, an intellectual property pirate who reverse engineers proprietary new drugs so that the latest medicines can be available to all. Usually she does due diligence on her work, but she was in a hurry. It may have seemed harmless at the time, but cloning Zaxy’s new work aid (“productivity enhancer”) “Zacuity” without having done so turns out to have been a Really Bad Idea. The drug, used without supervision, turns out to be massively and disastrously addictive.

Enter International Property Coalition agent Eliasz and his nearly fresh-off-the-assembly-line robot partner Paladin, who are tasked with hunting down Jack as the most likely suspect responsible for turning loose a deadly new street drug.

And of course, from there it is a violent chase with excursions into side issues of gender and sexuality.

What do I like about this novel? Mostly its dystopic optimism, I think. There is a resistance to this property über alles civilization. The resistance does have an academic, hapless hipster vibe to it, thus its ineffective, nibbling at the edges quality is consequently very plausible. The link between resistance and criminality is also quite plausible. Newitz’ villains (the cops) are also given a degree of humanity that some authors might neglect. And finally, Newitz is a good, experienced writer – not brilliant as there were no passages that frizzed my hair, but the narration goes down smoothly.

What do I have to complain about? Well, first of all Eliasz and Paladin are extraordinarily ruthless and violent in pursuit of their duties. It’s not clear from the story just where they have the authority to be so, leaving it open for some to assume it’s just a lefty police stereotype or perhaps it is an artefact of the various “punk” genres where authority, be it corporate or state, can do as it pleases. That the beneficiary of said violence is a Big Corporation just rubs it in. The robots of the story are fairly conventional sci-fi props and therefore not especially credible to me though they do contribute to the discussion of “freedom”. And I do have one big quarrel with the plotting. At one point, Eliasz visits Las Vegas alone in pursuit of a lead, Las Vegas being where he got his start in law enforcement and where he (might) still have contacts among the “usual suspects” who might have that information. Among other things, this excursion allows Newitz to provide some background as to Eliasz’ motivations (humanity!), but Newitz stops Eliasz after precisely one interview. In detective fiction (and probably in reality), there would be several interviews, each allowing for a character sketch of the interviewee and for an education about the demimonde of that society, not to mention what touching base with some of Eliasz’ old police colleagues might have revealed: a missed opportunity though it may have had consequences for pacing.

And what about an answer to Newitz’ Big Question about freedom and property? There’s no straight answer. “Freedom” is a particularly slippery concept in any case, but regardless of what Newitz may have had in mind, each reader is going to bring their own baggage to the conversation. I speculate that Newitz might be okay with a highly qualified “yes” as an answer. At the end of the book, the resistance remains, after all. And Eliasz and Paladin end up emigrating to Mars. My own answer would depend on how one defines, in an operational sense, “freedom.” I’m not sure how much Autonomous contributes to what is a long ongoing conversation, but since I’m still thinking about it, that’s a good sign.

I may be more pleased with this book than I should be, but I’m not the only one. The Chicago Public Library has 15 hardcopies plus 6 electronic “copies” and while, as of July 12, 2018, there are 3 available hardcopies scattered about the city, there are 8 people waiting in line to read the book. You have my recommendation and theirs.

Post Script: for a good discussion about the politics of “cyberpunk” that speaks to many of my misgivings, see Cameron Kunzelman’s Where Are the Radical Politics of Cyberpunk?

Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show

a review by Bob Roman

Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show by Eric Scott Fischl. Angry Robot, 2017. 348 pgs, $7.99

This is not a book I would ordinarily write about. I mean, I took up the book based on its cover. You know what they say about that. I just barely finished the book, staggering through the last page like someone at the edge of their endurance. If I go through the effort of writing about a book, it should be a book I finish with enthusiasm or regret.

Having read that, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “Gosh, that makes the book sound really… not… attractive. I should read this?” Banish the thought. This is Mr. Fischl’s first novel. It’s really well done. If you do not read this particular book, I strongly recommend you keep an eye out for a subsequent work by Fischl.

My big issue is that, as genre fiction, this book spans two genres that I’m not especially fond of: westerns and horror. Thus the plot devices and characters that might serve as hooks for an aficionado don’t work for me. Most horror in horror fiction, for example, seems to me to be boring or it confuses yuck with eek or it’s contrived, and Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show is no exception. (Angry Robot markets the book as fantasy, and it is that too.)

Why did I continue to the end? Two reasons.

First, Fischl is really pretty coy in plotting the narrative. For the first several dozen pages, it’s not clear just where he’s taking the story. The characters are sympathetic enough that even if I did not like them, it kept my curiosity. His characters are often cleverly drawn with a curious humor, and while I’m humor impaired, that also kept me going.

Second and more important, as far as I’m concerned, Fischl shows every sign of being a really good writer, not just a good story-teller.

Keep an eye on this guy. If Fischl does at least as well as this book, he’s going to make a name for himself. I plan to keep an eye out for more of his work, and this review is also a memo to myself to do just that. A sequel is in the works.

Oh, and why did the cover appeal to me? I like barkers:

In This Corner of the World

a review by Bob Roman

In This Corner of the World, directed by Sunao Katabuchi. Distribution by Shout! Factory, 129 minutes DVD or Blu-ray, and by Netflix.

This film was released in Japan in late 2016 and in the United States in the late summer, 2017. It was a “limited release” here in the States (all of 20 theatres for a 35 day gross of $172,147) so the odds are you haven’t had the opportunity to see this on a large screen. If you have the opportunity to see it, do so. This is not something I would ordinarily recommend for a movie described as “heart warming.” Those are two words that usually mean the filmmakers have their thumbs mashed down on the sentimentality button. But this is a gorgeously hand-drawn (mostly) animation with a surprising degree of emotional honesty.

The story is about the early years of Suzu Urano, a child of 1930s Japan, who grows up in a suburb of Hiroshima, one of three children of a family that harvests seaweed for a living. She is a cheerful, helpful, cooperative, resourceful and artistic person who, turning 18, accepts an offer of marriage from Shusaku Hojo, a stranger from Kure, rather than marrying the boy next door, Tetsu Mizuhara, with whom she shared a crush. Kure is a port city and naval base all of 15 miles from Hiroshima. 15 miles! But for the poor in 1930/40s Japan, 15 miles is almost another country. Of course, there are Chicagoans in the 21st Century who rarely leave their neighborhood.

While the beginning of the film scans Suzu’s childhood, the main body of the story is a coming of age story about Suzu growing into becoming a young homemaker, a participant in her local community, and with coping with the adversities of running a household in wartime Japan. It starts off in a sort of episodic way: Think of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small with its interconnected, charming episodes. As the war progresses, the narrative becomes more of a story and much darker.

And in fact, the war is the elephant in the room for this movie. Suzu and the Hojo family Suzu married into do not question the war. Indeed, the Hojo family works, in a modest way, for one or another part of Japan’s military-industrial complex, as do most of their neighbors. Kure is a naval port, after all. But there’s no hint of dissent. In one of those charming episodes, Suzu innocently begins to sketch the warships in Kure harbor, only to be detained by military police as a possible spy. The Hojo family considers the incident to be incredibly funny, not a serious matter and the police absurd — though not to the officers’ faces. Contrast this with the portrayal of the Japanese police by Satoshi Kon in his movie, Millennium Actress. Or even, for that matter, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises wherein the secret police are essentially bought off by the protagonist’s employer. On her first exposure to the black market, Suzu marvels at the inflated prices and wonders how they are to live. At another point, Suzu says, “Our duty is to survive.” And that’s as close to dissent as you’ll find. When Japan surrenders, it is Suzu who has a major melt down.

And of course, there is the whole matter of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.

Suzu is an enormously likeable person, but is she in some way being presented as a role model? So ordinary: People both laugh at her and congratulate her for this quality. She’s creative, cooperative, caring, and it’s all in the service of her family and her community. She attends civil defence classes and studies the lessons. She has a naïvety that is charming and sometimes maybe… artful? As in an evasion. War aims? Civil government? Black markets? Prostitution?

Contrast this with Suzu’s sister-in-law, Keiko Kuromura, who had adopted western styles (a “modern girl”). Keiko’s life is a bitter disappointment — is that a judgement? — though in truth much of it is a consequence of the war. Nonetheless, which would you prefer: the intimacy of Suzu’s family or “wafers and ice cream”?

Some of Suzu’s life may be difficult to translate to the United States and to the 21st Century. For an example, why did Suzu not marry the boy next door? Even if Suzu’s family (her mother and grandmother, for example) are enthusiastic over the stranger from Kure, Suzu does have the option of saying no, a point made explicitly in the movie. But consider the limited options for women at the time, especially for the less well off, and the opportunity costs that rise as one pushes the conventional limits. One might imagine Suzu attending art school, but hers is a poor family and to what end would that education serve as a practical matter? In 1930s Japan, the bride conventionally joins the husband’s family in what is frequently a multi-generational family compound. The family of the boy next door, who she really loves, are drunkards and at least as poor as Suzu’s family. In this context, Suzu’s decision becomes understandable and seems almost inevitable (Tetsu might have persuaded Suzu to marry him instead but he did not try… partly miscommunication but partly for the same reasons?) but none of this calculation is explicit in the story-telling. This choice in marriage becomes one of the central tensions in the movie.

It is a beautiful movie, and the Director, Sunao Katabuchi, went to extremes that animators only occasionally reach. With the city of Hiroshima, for example, the filmmakers did their best to portray the city with historical accuracy, drawing from photographs and even interviewing pre-war residents about neighborhoods, businesses and buildings.

I suspect that in Japan, In This Corner of the World works as an affirmation of a certain nostalgic national narrative, and as such, it fills a conservative if not reactionary role in Japan politics. It also seems to fill a need; the movie continues to be shown in Japanese movie houses almost two years after its release. I can’t help but wonder at Japan. There are anthologies of Japanese commercials on YouTube and many of those are determinedly ethnically diverse in ways that are totally irrelevant to Japan. Brand names and product names are frequently in English. Sometimes product descriptions and pitches are partly in English. Anime movies often have various Japanese characters who are drawn to seem European or American. I’m not sure what the story-tellers are attempting to convey with these choices. I am sure that if something similar were the case here in the States, we might — maybe — be a better country for it but most certainly not everyone would be happy. Especially if it were an aftermath of a lost war. What about Japan?

Or could it be that we all need a good thumb-suck to cope with the 21st Century?

Whatever: this movie is a work of art. Regardless of what might be lost in translation linguistically, politically, culturally, it demands your attention. See it.


Post Script: And when you do see the movie, be sure to sit through the credit scroll at the end; Katabuchi tells the story of one of the secondary characters in the form of a story board. It’s not quite so heart warming.