The Great Game

a review by bob roman

The Betrayals by Bridget Collins, William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2021

What is this novel by U.K. author Bridget Collins? Well, as it is an intricately plotted, character-centered story, one could call it a soap opera. But at 400 pages, it is about half the length one might expect of the literary version of that genre — I mean, think War and Peace or Anna Karenina… No, it’s too short. It might be a gothic novel as most of it takes place in an isolated mountain academy, Montverre, with a vulnerable female protagonist: the Magister Ludi, to name her by her title, and yes, there is that ongoing element of repressed sexual tension there too. But “gothic” would be a far too partial a characterization to be accurate. Or you could call it alternate history / speculative fiction. This comes closest to the mark as the setting is, like most sci-fi, very much a character in the plot. But whatever niche is occupied by The Betrayals, the novel is not for everyone as the plot depends on ambiguity to maintain its momentum.

Ambiguity! Obviously I am enthralled. I love ambiguity (just peruse this blog and you’ll see). But ambiguity is something that others may find difficult or disappointing.

Consider one of the major elements of the setting, the grand jeu. This is French for big / great game. But what is it? Baseball? Quidditch? It won’t be much of a spoiler to say that Collins was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, but it has been decades since I’ve read any of Hesse’s work and none of it has remained in accessible memory. This is probably true for most of her readers. So how does Collins handle this? It’s as simple as “The gostak distims the doshes.”

Nonsense? Not really. The syntax alone imparts information (see the Wikipedia article). All the author need do is carefully layer additional suggestions, clues if you will, that evoke meaning and relations in the mind of the reader. If it is done well, the reader is led on, following a trail (or trails) to find greater resolution. Bridget Collins is a master at this.

Collins also does this with her main characters, and I found this to be wonderfully attractive. For all that they are bright, educated people, none of them are entirely aware of why they make the choices that they do, and they second guess and suffer for it. Western culture in particular glorifies rational self-interest, but in fact we are often miserable at calculation and torn unaware by our own conflicting agendas. And then there are the circumstances surrounding these choices. To paraphrase old Karl Marx: Humans make history, but not just as we please. The combination is fertile ground for betrayal after betrayal.

Collins isn’t perfect at drawing her characters. One of her main characters, Léo Martin, begins the novel as an aspiring cabinet minister in an extreme right-wing, authoritarian party (referred to only as the Party) recently elected to power and consolidating its hold on the government and the country. Her portrayal of this portion of Martin’s life shows him far too naive and resourceless, not at all C suite material if you will, but I doubt most readers will notice. Politics has become so professionalized and thus out of most people’s experience that most folks would have a hard time sorting fantasy from the plausible. Remember this: about three quarters of all politics is gossip.

It is tempting to regard Léo Martin as an unreliable narrator. And he is. But he is also clearly not entirely in touch with himself. One might say he contradicts himself and thereby becomes legion. It is beautiful to see this aspect of personality manifested in prose. I do think this may not be unusual. Which one of you is reading this. Which one of me chose or typed these words?*

The story is told in the present tense. Flashbacks, in the form of journal entries, are in the past tense. It’s an interesting arrangement. I like Collins’ prose generally, but my favorite is the first chapter, introducing Rat. Not all the rest of the writing is this good.

The author brings the story in for a deft landing that includes a bouquet of betrayals and a twist that seems to offer a way out. And maybe it does. Ambiguity, remember? You can write the post-ending story as some manner of happy-ever-after romance, but the nature of authoritarian regimes is to make as many as possible complicit in their crimes, actively or passively. It’s a seemingly never ending series of betrayals, large and small. My humble opinion is that it ends well for no one.

Oh, and apart from my humble comments on technique, what’s the novel actually about? Read the bloody book; anything else is a spoiler. If you like the first chapter half as much as I do, you’re very likely to like the rest.

I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book. Maybe you will too.

Photo by Roman.

* Dissociative Identity Disorder would be an extreme example of this, but I’m not suggesting that everyone has these separate identities, rather merely multiple personalities that are assumed almost like clothing to fit the circumstances. When these personalities have conflicting agendas, the stage is set for self-sabotage…

“The Unraveling”

a review by bob roman

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum, Erewhon Books, 2021

It’s not unusual for me to find a library book that I’ve never heard of by an author I’ve never heard of, only to find that the author has been hitting them out of the park for years now and the book has a fearsome buzz. I routinely plead guilty, confessing how thoroughly unhip I am.

But I had heard of this book and the author, having read a review of the book by Jake Casella Brookins at the Chicago Review of Books and an essay about the book by Benjamin Rosenbaum himself at John Scalzi’s Whatever blog. When I ran across the volume in the Harold Washington Library’s “Popular Library” section, I didn’t need to contemplate the cover or its blurbs.

It is also not unusual for me to complain just how much genre books end up seeming like Frankenstein’s monster, made of whatever parts are available or popular. These chimera can seem to have a life of their own, but they lurch and sway on the precarious edge of falling into a tar pit of boredom. Most of the pieces from which The Unraveling is constructed have been scattered about the sci-fi / pop culture scene for a while but out of these bits Rosenbaum has constructed something fresh. This happens only now and then, so while Rosenbaum has been nominated for a variety of sci-fi awards, it is about time that he wins one and this book may be it.

The Unraveling is basically an illicit love story and coming of age story that shakes the world that it inhabits, set some half million years in the future on a vaguely named planet some 400 light years from Earth. If that time and place seems a bit wild, there is no fantasy physics here (no faster than light travel, for example) and while some of the biology may be pretty speculative, our species, Homo Sapiens, is already about a half million years old in 2021. The future’s remoteness allows the familiar to seem a bit alien and the alien rather less outlandish. (The late Gene Wolfe did a brilliant job with this in his series The Book of the New Sun.) As one blurb-writer described the protagonist: “Fift has 3 bodies, 9 parents, 50 million viewers, 1 (?) forbidden love [and] 1 chance to save the world.”

This effect also makes for a good setting for one of the central themes of the book, gender as a social construct. The society in The Unraveling has two binary genders, “vail” and “staid” that are almost entirely divorced from reproductive biology. For the curious, the protagonist, Fift Brulio Iraxis, gets a brief childhood “birds and bees” conversation early on and in Fift’s world changing a person’s reproductive role is not much of a medical challenge. The profession of “genital designer” is a thing in The Unraveling. Maybe something for the stylish…

If that seems a bit weird or overly philosophical: guys, consider your pectorals, those muscular pecs you’re so proud of — or not. Gals, take a good look at his pecs too. Are you done? Sorry to break the news but those are boobs or, to be less colloquial, breasts. No, I’m not being insulting. All the biology to make and dispense milk is present; male nipples are not some useless evolutionary left-over. This is true of most all mammals, incidentally, and I would speculate that it may be one of the reasons mammals made it through the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event when so much else was buried by that asteroid etc. That doesn’t clear gender of all biology, but it should make apparent just how much the meanings we assign to gender influences our perception of ourselves and of others.

For the reader, the immediate consequence is new pronouns to learn, ve and ze. Understandably, Rosenbaum uses them liberally, particularly in the earlier parts of the story and this is a bit of a challenge. (It also reminds me that, in my humble opinion, we routinely over-use pronouns.)

Likewise, the portrayal of multiple bodies sometimes create a textual confusion, with several diverse conversations or storylines simultaneously in progress on the page, undelimited except as paragraphs. Sometimes this works to comic effect, as in a family quarrel or debate. Other times, not so much. With this feature, Rosenbaum may (or may not) have made unnecessary extra work for himself and his readers. While it adds to the strangeness, I found myself considering the octopus whose intelligence is more widely distributed in its body than just in its head but includes each of its eight arms. This is not unlike the multi-bodied denizens of Rosenbaum’s future, but I have read that each of the octopus’ arms seem to have something of their own personality while all of Fift’s bodies are closer than genetic twins. On the other hand, it widens gender’s divorce from reproduction.

Fift’s parents, incidentally, struck me as something out of turn-of-the-century pop culture: absurd, well meaning but in some respects out of touch or self-absorbed and only sometimes effectual.

Such challenges ought to demand soaring, vivid writing. There’s not much of that in The Unraveling. But there is heart-felt writing about the pecking-order games that children often play or the awkward and anxious stirrings of love and affection and commitment or the fear of discovery and of falling or the confusion of sorting out expectations, or the fear and demagoguery of the social media mob. The language did not need to soar for it to be rewarding. It speaks to the experience of growing up in the latter half of the 20th Century and the 21st thus far. That the story prospers in the face of such challenges to the reader speaks well of the writing.

In stories such as this, the imagined universe wherein the story is set can be counted as one of the characters in the drama. Rosenbaum has done a terrific job in creating this future society. As a mostly post-scarcity society, popularity has assumed the role of money, making social media mobs all the more fraught and the basis for something resembling social class. Judging by Rosenbaum’s essay at Whatever, the imagined universe may have benefited from an extensive false start on the novel. Regardless, it’s well done and mostly show not tell.

Lately I’ve been attentive to how writers end their story and Rosenbaum’s solution was clever and to the point, as the novel is about the kids and not so much the revolution. I liked it very much.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s work.

Photo by Roman.

Who Is Arthur Dent?

three short reviews

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Harper Perennial, 2003

Some weeks ago, I posted a brief review of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest, wherein I noted a marked resemblance between his main protagonist, Alexander Duplessis, and Douglas Adams’ Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not long after, I decided to reread Neil Gaiman’s classic Neverwhere. This would not ordinarily be fodder for a review, but gosh! Doesn’t the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, resemble Arthur Dent? And the story is basically Hitchhiker’s Guide as well: The hapless anti-hero loses his comfortable place in the universe and confronts a series of frame-of-reference-shattering challenges before returning… home? By golly, once you see the blocks, telling a story is almost like building with Legos! If this were a proper review, a discussion of the underworld’s political economy would be in order and how that economy is of a type for certain fantasy, that is to say magical, stories, as well as its appeal to those who don’t quite belong. And furthermore, how should we recognize an Arthur Dent when we meet one: “Arthur Dent, I presume?” What bundle of traits, circumstances, character and tropes define an “Arthur Dent”? But this is a brief review, so I’ll end it by noting: Arthur Dent is everywhere, once you begin looking for him.

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch, DAW Books, 2020

Once again, this is not a book I’d ordinarily review. Being but the latest in a series of police procedurals (the Rivers of London novels) involving magic (and magical institutions), it’s basically mind-candy that follows familiar conventions in both mystery and urban magic genres. As is typical of many mystery series, the Rivers of London novels focus on a particular character, Peter Grant, where each book is a challenge that evolves the character in a sort of life journey. And how did Peter Grant begin, in that first novel, Midnight Riot? As someone with a distinct resemblance to Arthur Dent?

No! Wait! There is another reason for reviewing False Value. Earlier this year, I noted how unions are so much not a part of science fiction. Well, you can add Aaronovitch to that short list of sf authors who at least mention unions. Take this line of questioning from the protagonist, Peter Grant:

“… Vampires were a problem, of course – they always are. You burn out one nest and another would pop up. Got real bad in the ’70s until a bunch of homeless vets went after them with homemade napalm and flame-throwers – quite a war by all accounts.”

“You didn’t intervene?”

“I was a teenager at the time, but the Association stayed out of it,” said Mrs. Chin. The Association being the New York Libraries Association, the militant magical wing of the New York Public Library Services. “Although we’re all members of the Green Machine as well.” That being the AFSCME, the union that most mundane librarians belonged to.

This is, I think, an act of mischievous dissonance. After all, magic is personal power, an act of will as well as incantation and calculation. Why should magical librarians need collective bargaining and solidarity? Are contracts magical? Is the magical vulnerable without the mundane? Well, this is a brief review so I’ll just note that this series of novels is one of those that is a) good if you like both police procedural mysteries and magical fantasy and b) best begun with the first of the books, Midnight Riot.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan, Tachyon Publications, 2020

Driftwood is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and doing it quite well, thank you. The major difference in such situations being that as a collection, the author need not be so much concerned about closure, about bringing the whole edifice in for a landing at the end. Nor is the author confined to a particular few POVs. The stories, regardless of POV, all feature two characters: a guide / broker / informant / facilitator with an unnatural lifespan named “Last” and the universe that includes each story, “Driftwood”.

Driftwood is about aging and death. It is a constantly shrinking, constantly accreting amalgamation of fragments of different universes, each fragment being the remnant of a larger universe that has suffered some apocalypse. Wedged in with other fragments, they evaporate and shrink and settle toward the center of Driftwood where they, for a time, exist as ever diminishing parts of an urban shanty town, the Shreds. After all, when an organism (such as yourself) dies outside of extreme conditions, it doesn’t die all at once. Under the right conditions, individual cells might struggle along indefinitely. Heck, cells from your mother may still live within you. And ageing? We regress toward death, forgetting and losing, one by one. Or all at once.

Its worth noting that each of the fragments of Driftwood contains a particular culture and species of intelligence, often wildly different from their neighbors, but quaintly referred to as a “race” rather than as a “species”. This is an old science fiction practice that sometimes has a metaphorical function (aside from the fact that most science fiction aliens are humans in drag). In this case, “race” may be more apt as most of them can interbreed, and do: that being another characteristic that defines “the Shreds”. It’s not clear to me what Brennan’s point is except that it is likely also a part of the death metaphor. As is the character “Last”.

At some point, someone needs to write a compare-and-contrast essay about the political economy of fantasy novels… But I said that already, yes?

I always look forward to new writing by Brennan and am rarely disappointed.

Photo by Roman.

Four Short Reviews

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi, TOR books, 2020

This is not a book that I would have ordinarily reviewed. I mean, it’s basically brain candy; one could as easily do a bong or a shot. But it’s good for what it is. Scalzi is what I would call a genre writer not simply because he writes mostly within the genre of science fantasy but because he is capable of writing well enough in just about any genre, even if the product is not necessarily great literature. And The Last Emperox is not great literature, it’s biggest weakness being that much of the dialogue sounds like Scalzi talking to himself. There are a few plot-holes, though none that will damage your tires. Also, the book is the final entry in a space opera trilogy, and great literature rarely appears outside of where literary critics expect to see it.

As a reader, I can tell you that trilogies are a special problem for authors, especially in Sci-Fi: How to tell the story that has gone before and to introduce the characters to-date. Too often it’s lots and lots of (quite possibly boring, staged) exposition. I was totally overjoyed with Scalzi’s use of action to set the stage. I mean, there’s nothing like a ground-to-air missile headed in your direction to inspire a life-passing-before-your-eyes introspection. My delight in Scalzi’s execution of this plot device carried me through the first part of the book. The rest went down more slowly.

The central drama of the trilogy revolves around an interstellar empire (a sort of corporate feudalism) that becomes embroiled in a leadership crisis (with good guys and bad guys of various genders) right when it becomes apparent that the aptly named “Interdependency” is facing a something of an existential ecological crisis, the end of FTL interstellar travel. As you might suspect, elements of the setup are borrowed from the present; conservatives may have some difficulty with that. Want more? Read the damned books. Or at least the publisher’s blurbs.

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem, Ecco / HarperCollins, 2020

Speaking of literature and genre fiction, Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors who has successfully done both, getting his start with science fiction then drifting into the mainstream. With this latest book, Lethem returns to science fiction though it could equally be argued that he has gone further into literary territory with magical realism.

The basic set up is a post-apocalyptic New England wherein modern technology has ceased to work. This has a long history in science fiction. I first encountered this plot device in a 1945 short story by Fredric Brown, The Waveries, and it has popped up every now and again since. Lethem’s story spans both sides of the apocalypse but not the event itself, focusing on three individuals: Alexander Duplessis, mostly referred to as “Journeyman” or “Sandy” in the text; Alexander’s old college chum, Peter Todbaum; and Alexander’s sister, Maddy. The protagonist of this story is Alexander Duplessis, who could easily be a not-so-funny version of Douglas Adam’s Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While the focus of the storytelling stays on Alexander, the real conflict, the drama, is actually between Peter Todbaum and Maddy Duplessis. What is it about? I never did figure that out, though maybe there is herein some sympathy for the “unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski.

A City Made of Words by Paul Park, PM Press, 2019

This short book is an anthology of some of Park’s short stories, plus an author interview, and it is an entry in PM Press’ “Outspoken Authors” series. Paul Park is another science fiction author who has literary chops. Geez Lueez! What mighty teeth hath this talent! But unfortunately for most of the time, he’s just better than average and so I am usually disappointed when he’s merely very good. This collection has some fancy writing that I should love, but mostly I was bored. Great title, though.

The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky, TOR Books, 2018

Adrian Tchaikovsky (a pen name, I’m given to understand) is an award-winning U.K. science fantasy author. I’m sure I’ve read at least some of Tchaikovsky’s other work, but none of it has stuck with me. The set-up for this short novel is the problem of human settlement on habitable worlds other than Earth. What do you do about incompatible biomes? How do you preserve knowledge in the face of its irrelevance? This is a coming of age and rebirth story, a journey with a number of interesting twists and surprises and a few predictable plot devices as well. I would regard all of the above as a spoiler, except you’ll get a bit more from the publisher’s blurb and so there. Nice work plus another great title.

I’ve not been posting reviews lately for a variety of reasons. Mostly it is because I think of reviews primarily in the context of books. The COVID plague has been a boon for the reading habits of some, but for those of us as are library-dependent, not so much. But now things, including libraries and used book stores, are beginning to open up. Another reason has to do with my perception of the reviews’ utility. But if these serve as at least a memo to myself, maybe it’s worth the effort. There are other reasons that I’ll incorporate into any reviews henceforth.

Photo by Roman.

Unions in Science Fiction

I mentioned, a few posts back, that John Barnes was one of the few science fiction authors who took the concept of “memes” seriously. He’s also one of the few that occasionally include a favorable mention of labor unions in his stories. At least, he’s among the few that I’m aware of. There is quite the flood of work labelled “science fiction.” It would be a full time job just to keep up with it, which is another way of saying that I’m not all that hip so maybe there are a lot more such authors these days: IDK.

Most science fiction authors do not consistently write from a particular ideological point of view, so what is it about unions? Part of it is that a good story-teller generally relies upon the reader to supply part of the story. Stories, true or fiction, are collaborative efforts, and the readers who have had direct contact with unions are a distinct minority, and most of those experienced the union the way most of us experience an insurance company. Including unfamiliar plot elements such as unions comes with a cost: You must explain and show as otherwise the readers don’t know. (That’s also one of the reasons most science fiction tales resemble a Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of re-used plot elements.) Another part of it is the assumption that in a futurama future productivity is so great that… why would most people need a union? We’re “post-economic,” right? On the other hand, how few hours a week did the early 20th Century economist John Maynard Keynes predict we would be working by the end of that century? Gee, where did all that time and money go?

Whatever. My ulterior motive in bringing up unions here is as an excuse to quote a paragraph from one of the John Barnes books that I recommended in that previous post, Candle. The series that includes Candle was written around the turn of the century, when failed states seemed to be the likely theme for the 21st Century, including the United States. This is part of a recruiting pitch made to the residents of a Seattle orphanage by the captain of a militia hired to protect that part of the Pacific northwest:

“Burton’s Thugs for Jesus is a union shop, represented by the United Combatants, Engineers, Medics, and Chaplains, and we use the standard UCEMC contract for a battalion-sized unit. You get room and board, medical, dental if we ever get another dentist under contract, and locked-in rent control for basic uniforms and equipment. In the event of combat against other UCEMC units, you have a much better POW contract — which can make a big difference if you’re captured — you keep your seniority without penalty if you elect to defect, and you fight under the strict form of the Hague Convention, so the union is a good deal for most of you, and it’s a flat four percent of your pay. You also pay for your training with a five-percent deduction from your pay for your first year, which I waive if you’re decorated for bravery in combat. You don’t pay any local or episcopal taxes.”

Lest I give the wrong impression, unions appear in only some of Barnes’ works. But even those few inclusions are enough to stand out an otherwise silent or hostile fiction genre. When I finished reading the recruiting pitch for the first time many years ago, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to weep.

But as Billy Bragg sang:

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own;
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?

Coup de Idiots

C’est pire qu’un crime. C’est une faute.

— attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (disputed)

The attempted coup on January 6 should not have been much of a surprise to anyone but maybe the most naive. As I wrote back in 2016, Night of the Living Trumps:

“A geezer I am. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. Should I mention LBJ? One might think of this as yet another spell of really bad weather and verily the sun also rises. But there is a stink of existential threat from Trump that hasn’t been so strong in the air since Nixon.

“Part of it is Trump’s so nakedly disordered personality. Nearly everyone who aspires to be President is likely to be a bit insane, but until now most have been able to simulate normality. Part of it is the enthusiastic bigotry used to motivate Trump’s electorate; there’s no putting that back in the bottle while Trump holds office and the Republican caucuses control the legislature. Part of it is the solid wall of chaotic uncertainty about just what a governing Trump actually means in terms of policy.”

This post is written in early days post-riot, but my impression from a great distance is that the riot was essentially a clusterfuck, to use a bureaucratic term of art: The organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching and consequently people went where anger and hysteria led them or the organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching but others at the rally did have a plan or some (or all) of the organizers had a plan but it wasn’t shared with everyone. You might think of additional possibilities but regardless, people did bring young children, infants in fact, to the rally and march. What expectations do you think they had?

One ongoing discussion that I find particularly interesting is the examination of conspiracy theories as role-playing games. A good introduction to this (lots of links) is Reed Berkowitz’ A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon, posted back in September of 2020 at the curiouserinstitute. Berkowitz begins his analysis with:

“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

“QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

“It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you’re not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.”

While the technology Berkowitz writes about is ideologically neutral (like Alinsky’s organizing techniques), this particular exercise was targeted:

“Another major difference between QAnon and an actual game, is that Q is almost pure propaganda. That IS the sole purpose of this. It’s not advertising a product, it’s not for fun, and it’s not an art project. There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits. The messaging is spot on. The “drops” implanted in an aspic of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and grotesque posts on posting boards that, indeed, have been implicated in many of the things the fake conspiracy is supposed to be guilty of!”

If Berkowitz’ analysis is even approximately accurate, it has important and existential implications for democracy, media, journalism, and politics generally. Yet that isn’t quite what got my attention. Berkowitz’ description of the QAnon phenomenon (“A game that plays people.”) suggests that it is a genuine meme, the first that I’ve actually heard of.

Wait. Meme? Don’t we see these every day, those graphical and sometimes comical little factoids that people trade back and forth? Well, yes and no. Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:

“Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

So “yes” in that an internet factoid could be a trivial example of the concept, “no” in the sense that some folks felt that these “replicating cultural entities” could do much more than entertain. They could conceivably warp human history, indeed even human evolution, as part of their process of natural selection. So if conspiracy explanations on the internet are in fact “memes,” QAnon is a research opportunity of major importance.

Alas, the study of memes hasn’t prospered, has failed to be naturally selected if you will for obvious (to me anyway) reasons: How do you operationalize the concept? How do you define and measure a meme so that it is possible to trace its ecology, evolution and spread? Also IMHO the concept carries an alarming burden of social Darwinism.

But if, conceptually, “meme” has such social Darwinist baggage, is discounting it as social science so unfortunate? Well, maybe, because there are analogous phenomena in the physical sciences: “quasiparticles” and “collective excitations.” These “are emergent phenomena that occur when a microscopically complicated system such as a solid behaves as if it contained different weakly interacting particles in vacuum.” Yeah, your computer and phone and any electronic solid state thing depend on an “emergent phenomenon.” Human consciousness is sometimes speculatively described as an emergent phenomena, a consequence of neural size and complexity. It may be that mass culture has emergent properties as well.

I think we’re in the process of finding out, through experience rather than research.

Postscript: Among the people who took memes seriously is the science fiction author John Barnes. He wrote a series of speculative novels around memes, wherein he turned memes into something resembling computer viruses. All of the books are good albeit some are seriously depressing. I’d recommend (in order) Candle and The Sky So Big and Black. Barnes has gotten favorable cover blurbs from both Poul Anderson and Steven Brust…

Early in the Morning

The courtyard is mottled with pools of light, for dontcha know, it’s early in the morning, 5 by the clock this autumn day, and the elves and fairies are stirring though they are never entirely asleep. Always and ever is the roar of the Universal Spell, sometimes piano by the clock but never silent. Presto! Light appears and magic it must be for it is none other than the light ensorcelled by plants millions upon millions of years ago. It is an evil spell that makes zombie light, undead light, poverty light of but one color, lying light for whatever opportunities it provides, it also takes away with no rhyme or meter.

This is a magical hour for me, seated in my dark dining room with a grandstand view of the courtyard. Parked cars line the street. A mere century ago, prior to World War I, that would have been remarkable: So many cars in the city, there is only room to leave them parked on the street! I do believe the Singularity that some transhumanists fantasize about has done come and gone years ago. Welcome to a strange and beautiful and unwell time.

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic. What do we look like to any of our fellow species of animal? The stories of elves and fairyland are but images of ourselves reflected in the eyes of other species.

The distant horns of the Hunt by the Queen of the Fairies segues into the distant horns of traffic and the thundering hooves of Her steeds segues into the ever present roar of The Machine. And what shall we say of this Hunt? It is a never ending stream of casualties and roadkill without the sometimes redemptive act of feeding. And why? I could tell a story, thousands of stories, but few would make any sense to the creatures with whom we share this planet. They would seem fay.

Wading in a pool of streetlight, someone crosses the street to a parked car. Recognizing its Master, the car opens and, after a moment, it comes alive. It is in a long parking spot and the driver, in reverse, slowly swings the nose out. Out of that spot in two moves, I think with approval: easy peasy. Then instead, the driver repeats the maneuver. Is this an attempt at a U-turn as well? This vehicle must have the turning radius of an oil tanker. A third repeat before escaping to the street establishes that the driver is Fay and I am so glad to not be sharing the road with it.

My espresso is still hot. I take a sip of my cup and a sip of my pipe. The parking spot mysteriously stays empty while the day begins its mumbled conversation with the night. The courtyard is becoming mottled with leftover pools of dark for, dontcha know, it’s early in the morning.

Performed  by Kiefo Nilsson, “it was written by Dallas Bartley, Leo Hickman and Louis Jordan sometime during the mesozoic era. Later, it was performed by Harry Nilsson on the Nilsson Schmilsson album…”

A Cat Passing in the Night

holes also grow

This happened nearly a decade ago: I had just shut down my desktop for the evening, having finished with some now forgotten project, when I heard the cat.

“!” the cat demanded.

There are no cats in my apartment though once, elsewhere, I had had two. They had been lovely creatures and lovely friends, a family. By that evening they had been dead for about two decades. Their absence has left yet another gaping hole in my life, one that I’ve never attempted to patch or to fill.

“!!” the cat insisted.

Where in tarnation was the sound coming from? I turned away from my work table to face the hallway. It surely couldn’t be coming from the dining room or kitchen. It must be the stairwell.

“?” the cat asked. I could almost hear the implied “please.”

I opened the door. A sable cat, just past adolescence, looked up in momentary astonishment. Then she strode into my apartment, her tail erect in a confident, friendly exclamation. I followed her into the living room where she began an investigation of the boxes beneath the work table.

“Come out, kitten,” I said. “There’s nothing of interest under there.”

She agreed and emerged from the table.

“Come on, let’s find your human,” I said.

The cat accompanied me back to the hallway, a few steps ahead, but diverted to the doorway of the darkened dining room. The air was still fragrant of chicken stewed with rosemary and fennel. She stood for a moment, drinking in the smell. Now this was interesting!

“Let’s go,” I reminded her.

The cat turned and left the apartment.

Without direction from me, she began to climb the stairs. Just before the first landing, she paused to look back (“Are you coming?”). I reached out and she stropped herself against my hand, hard, and purred loudly. She was clearly pleased and confident that I’d open the right door for her.

In fact, I had no opportunity to do so. At that moment one of the apartment doors off the floor above opened. A slightly plump yet comely young woman emerged, a neighbor I had never met.

“Have you misplaced a cat?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” she said and ran down the stairs to the landing. “Oh kitty!” she cried as she scooped up the cat. “Where did you go? How did you get out?” She ran back up the stairs with the cat. “I was looking all over for you and I couldn’t find…”

The door closed: thump. Click, click, snick, said the locks.

And there I was, left behind in the middle of the stairs, thinking, “Bye bye, kitty. Bye bye.”

The cat and I never met again.

(Photo / graphic by Roman.)


Why We Need Socialism in America

Bob Roman

Happy May Day, folks!

May Day (May 1st) is the international labor day that commemorates all those who have risked life and livelihood for justice in the workplace and in the community and specifically the Chicago martyrs who were unjustly imprisoned and executed as part of the labor movement’s struggle for the 8 hour work day. Normally this day would be marked with parades, rallies, speeches and, yes, picnics and entertainment, but this being the Year of our Plague 2020, we’ll have to do this day online and in our hearts.

That being the case, I decided to post this booklet by Michael Harrington as an appropriate way of making an argument for the occasion. It was originally published as an article (almost the entire issue, apparently) in the May – June, 1970, issue of Dissent Magazine. It was reissued that year as a booklet by The Norman Thomas Fund, a short-lived entity that was intended (I think) to be an educational vehicle for the old Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation. Much of the content went on to be incorporated into Harrington’s 1972 book “Socialism”. Note the cover price of $1.25. This was not cheap. In March, 2020, dollars that comes to $8.45. This PDF was created for the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America website back when I was serving as the web master.

A lefty Of A Certain Age would remember Michael Harrington because for much of the last third of the 20th Century, he was pretty much the public face of democratic socialism in the United States. I think it was William F. Buckley who observed this was rather like applause for being the tallest building in Wichita. (Or was it Topeka?) So it’s entirely understandable if Harrington is not as well remembered in 2020 as he should be. Also, he did die way back in 1989 — a lifetime ago for some. At times, while Harrington was alive and after, the Democratic Socialists of America as a national organization functioned more or less as the Michael Harrington Permanent Book Tour and Appreciation Society; sooner or later, it is time to move on and this brings a new generation who understandably have an urge to pee on the fire hydrant to make it their own. And finally, if one had (or still has) a devotion to Marxism-Leninism, it may be (for some) uncomfortable remembering someone who was very much a skeptic (at least!) of “real, existing socialism” as the Soviet-bloc was often styled.

Why is Harrington is worth remembering and why this publication in particular? Well, for one thing, the debates over socialism, and policies inspired by socialism, have been going on for a very long time. While the arguments for or against change slowly, it’s worthwhile revisiting them for a fresh perspective. Take a look at this document and decide for yourself how well, or not, Harrington’s argument holds up.

Robert Gorman’s 1995 biography of Harrington was aptly titled Michael Harrington: Speaking American. Harrington had a talent for combining the pragmatism of “what do we do on Monday?” with utopian idealism, and it was that political pragmatism that made his idealism plausible to an American audience. I don’t know that Harrington ever framed it this way, but there is a difference between politics as a means of implementing a philosophy and philosophy as means of guiding one’s politics. I view Harrington as firmly in the latter category. And for a surprising number of American lefties of a certain age, Harrington and this publication in particular strongly informed their politics then and even today.

In the 21st Century, this booklet may be the very definition of TLDR. But if you wish, nonetheless, to read / download the work, CLICK HERE or on this cover thumbnail:


Review Updates

by Bob Roman

Two years ago, I posted a review of Walter Jon Williams’ Quillifer, the first volume of a sword-and-scorcery pseudo-historical fantasy. I liked the book very much, thank you, or I would not have done a review of it. The second book in the series, Quillifer the Knight, came out late last year. The Chicago Public Library serendipitously had both the first and second volumes available together so I was able re-read the first before reading the latest. If you like the first volume, I’m pretty sure that you’ll like the second.

In this second volume, the protagonist, Quillifer, begins a climb in the feudal hierarchy. As someone who is very much an outsider to that class and as someone who has something of an ego, his adventures have a “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” quality to them, albeit without Mark Twain’s humor.

In my original review, I complained about Quillifer being the narrator of the story. Who is his audience? Not the reader. This becomes more of a feature in the second volume, but for my part, my complaint is answered by a growing doubt about whether Quillifer is a reliable narrator. Can you really believe all that he is relating? I’m probably just slow, but this disorientation didn’t arise for me until maybe the last quarter of the volume. In My Humble Opinion, this was just the something needed to make this second volume almost as interesting as the first. But if you are inclined to read this series then you really should begin with the first volume. Don’t skip it.


Back in June of 2019, I posted a review of Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy. The final volume, The Rosewater Redemption, had not yet been published, but I was pretty enthusiastic about the first two in the series. The third volume finally popped up on the shelves of the Chicago Public Library this February. This final installment isn’t bad but at the end, I found it really hadn’t added much. Over the decades of being a reader, I’ve come to the conclusion that conclusions are a tricky business for writers. So many stories, so many plots seem to go SPLAT! against the windshield of “The End”. In My Uriah Heepishly Humble Opinion, Thompson does okay with this last book, but you’ll be glad to be back on the ground and at the debarking gate. If you feel the need to bail out before then, there should be no regrets. While the trilogy is something of a metaphor for the experience of being on the receiving end of Western colonialism, it didn’t seem like this last volume contributed to that discussion.

That’s my opinion: keep in mind that I can’t abide most of William Gibson’s work and furthermore (IMHO!) The Matrix movie trilogy is very nearly worthless after the first installment. With that kind of attitude, Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy is, for me, heavily burdened for a take-off in thin air. That the first two volumes flew so well was a marvel and a wonder and a thrill to behold, even with my allergy to the cyberpunk elements. But if you like the cyberpunk sub-genre, you should get through all three volumes and profit from having done so.