Outpost

a review by Bob Roman

Advertisements

Outpost by W. Michael Gear. DAW Books, 2018. 432 pages, $26.00

outpostOutpost is the first book in a trilogy titled “Donovan” after the planet on which most of the story takes place. W. Michael Gear is an “international bestselling author” with several dozen books to his credit, some co-authored with his wife, Kathleen O’Neal Gear. This is the first of his books that I can recall reading. There’s been something about the way his books have been marketed that, for me, has been off-putting. I’m not sure what that is, but given that I’ve been a cheerful consumer of the late Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, one has to wonder. I don’t think the publisher has improved their marketing with this series. “Space Opera” they tag it. Nonsense. This trilogy is a thriller in the context of a particular subgenre of science fiction, a subgenre I would call “star colony” fiction. No galactic empires here, but Gear does throw in a little horse opera.

Star colony fiction has its own conventions, some baked into it and others optional. There are always issues regarding the colony and the colonizing entity, complications regarding communications between them. There is the planet and its locales. There is often an almost standard cast of characters, allowing for commentary and judgement: the leader, the bureaucrat, the witless crowd, the politician, the schemer… It might be interesting to revisit old books to do an inventory but not so interesting that I’d care to do it myself.

International bestseller really doesn’t mean much regarding an author or a book. People swarm en masse over unbelievable garbage… but judging by this book, Gear really does deserve the audience. He may not be much more than competent as a wordsmith, but he is an outstanding storyteller.

What Gear presents in this tale is a thriller. The essential element of a thriller is conflict. This might be violence and indeed the story begins with the hunter in peril of becoming the hunted. But violence is but one mode of conflict. It can also be opposing ambitions. It can be solving a puzzle. It can be timing as in suspense: Will backup arrive in time? This tension / release, suspense / resolution etc. is essence of drama. One way of writing a thriller is to focus mainly on plot, and it is there that holes will develop in the story: Character and locale and plausibility be damned: The story always comes first! But the reader won’t have time to think about it until it’s over.

Gear is a good deal more subtle than that. He makes use of the conflicts inherent in the science fiction set up and in the characters. And that’s another thing to admire. Star colony fiction typically comes with a cast of characters, typical to the point where sometimes they are almost archetypal. Some of Gear’s characters come from this ensemble but he makes sure that the primary characters have more than two dimensions. He does his best, IMHO, with the psychopathic Dan Wirth, who comes across as an empire builder straight out of an American western, a truly frightening personality who has major potential for disaster or for accidental glory. Gear intelligently uses the conflicts built into the personalities and not just the conflicts built into subgenre archetypes as a source of conflict.

I might add that it’s not unusual for authors of star colony fiction to use cardboard characters that come with the subgenre to vent on some perceived social ill by having a representative come to a well-deserve bad end: those damned self-important bureaucrats, for example. In this first volume, Gear mostly avoids this, but I think libertarians will have some reason for pleasure.

The universe that encompasses a science fiction tale can be counted as one or more  of the characters, and Gear effectively uses this as a source of drama as well. Better still, most of it is reasonably well thought out. His interstellar travel is plausible, or at least I was willing to accept it. The planet Donovan is supplied with a plausible and interesting and dramatic ecology and the locale around Port Authority has a plausible geology.

This is a good book and I think you can count on the next two books in the series, Abandoned and Pariah (forthcoming), to be as thoughtful and as exciting. However, I don’t think these books are for everyone. I got a few dozen pages into the next book, Abandoned, before I abandoned the project. Part of it is just me. These days I find thrillers, even ones as well done as Gear’s story, to be more tiring than fun. 500 pages – the span of Outpost – and I’m pretty well exhausted and full.

Another part of it is that as thoughtful as it is, there are holes in the story that need to be ignored. By the time I reached Abandoned, these holes were getting in front of the story. As it happens, some of these match my pet peeves regarding science fiction. Allow me to vent.

The biggest hole is one of population and community. To be fair, this hole has engulfed quite a few science fiction authors. Donovan’s population of 1,500 should be intimate. Gear does what most authors do: assume an urban level of anonymity and division of labor. With a background in archeology and anthropology, Gear has less excuse for this than, say, Arthur C. Clarke (one of the subsequent Rendezvous with Rama novels) or Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora) would have. You cannot describe a village as if it were a city.

This has plot implications. For example, Dan Wirth sets up a rigged gambling establishment as a vehicle for taking over the colony. With a population of 1,500 (who are stuck on Donovan, will or nill), just how many customers are you likely to have? What percentage of the population? There are also issues regarding money. But, hey, this wouldn’t be Tombstone without a casino. Or a bar / whorehouse. Or a gunfight showdown, though to the extent that happens in this first volume, it’s mostly off stage, accompanied by “It was a fair fight”. Oh! this brave new libertarian world that has such freedom from The State in it! Freedom from the community, too, apparently.

Another implication can be summed up by a phrase from Marx: the idiocy of rural life. The population is scarcely large enough to allow for a division of labor needed to maintain a technological outpost. Every death (and Donovan is a deadly place) is a potential catastrophe, a skill lost, a profession no longer available. Even in a less fraught environment, a population that size will have a high level of mutual dependence. Putting such mutuality into a deadly, poorly understood environment only turns the dial up to eleven: cooperate or die. The only plausible crutch would be extensive Artificial Intelligence “slavery”, automated manufacturing and a library, but while there is reference to AI on board the starships, there’s nothing in evidence on the ground. And there is no mention of printed products, inconsistent mention of mobile communication, and no mention of satellite support.

Nor is the political economy of Donovan and interstellar travel very convincing. The whole point of a colony on Donovan is said to be resource extraction. The area around Port Authority is mined for rare earths and other minerals, and a substantial percentage of the population is there to do that mining, directly and indirectly. Even allowing for their indentured servant status, why would travelling to Donovan be cheaper than mining asteroids or Mars or the Moon or the sea floor or garbage dumps or even extracting minerals from sea water? And if manned starships are so expensive (Gear talks about this as a way of ramping up suspense.), why are unmanned drones not used for freight and communication between Earth and Donovan?

Ah, the sacrifices we make for drama. Gear actually does pretty well compared to a lot of what gets published. He even does pretty well compared to some other authors who I like much better. But will I read more of Gear? Well, he’s not on my shit list so it could happen. Or maybe not. But certainly not the rest of this trilogy even though it’s good for what it is.

Occupy Me

a review by Bob Roman

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan. Titan Books, 2018. 361 pages, $14.95

Does Tricia Sullivan need an introduction? I do not recall reading any of her work until this book and she’s been publishing since 1995. I don’t claim to be hip, so maybe that’s it. It turns out that while she’s a New Jersey girl, she’s been residing and publishing in the United Kingdom. For good and for ill, national borders still mean something in fiction publishing. Maybe that’s it.

Occupy Me is Sullivan’s latest work, originally published in 2016 though the Titan Books edition is dated 2018, and it may be her last for a while as she is pursuing a PhD in Astrophysics. The book is essentially a science fantasy thriller with some fairly heavy philosophical subtexts. These subtexts are not necessary for the reader’s pleasure, but they are there if you like. It wouldn’t be good Sci-Fi without them.

The story begins with an excerpt from a users manual that seems a bit out of place and is excerpted once more in the course of the story telling. It’s there as something of a clue as to what is going on, but my not-so-qualified opinion is that it is more of a bug than a feature. Sullivan also shifts between first person, second person, and third person (omniscient narrator) depending on the character being tracked. It is something of a surprise that Sullivan makes this work as well as it does.

Add to this many of the usual elements of a thriller: secret societies, corporate malfeasance, thugs in the service of white collar megacrime, chases, monumental fights, missing persons, engaging (more or less) characters, deadlines… My goodness! Sullivan tries to keep it moving fast enough to skim over the plot holes as any good author of a thriller should. She mostly succeeded for me, and the “what’s going on here?” question also helped my engagement. But I don’t think I would have finished the book with much enthusiasm if there hadn’t been, scattered like video game easter eggs or a book binding decorated with semi-precious stones, some occasional hair-raisingly lovely writing, for example:

“The creature looked like forged emptiness. It breathed smoke and the vast unlit places between stars. On the ground it seemed amplified. Its wings made a hard wind with even the most casual movement, and its breath rebuffed the waves. A pheromone fume seeped from its fur. There was a disturbing hum in my occipital bone, a sensation of drag on my consciousness. Like magnetism. The sensation was out of all proportion to my physical body. I felt I could be reeled, wings and all, into a single one of quetzlcoatlus’ black-hole pupils and never be found again.”

If you don’t like that paragraph, well, there’s no accounting for taste. But for me, the prospect of more writing like this kept me going even on those occasions when the pacing dragged or the plot seemed unlikely.

With other authors, I’ve encountered a page or two of really brilliant writing. Rarely it will be most of a book. But regardless of whether it’s the now and then paragraph or a page or an entire volume, writing like this makes my day.

If that isn’t enough of a recommendation for you, allow me to recommend three other reviews: Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me by Steven Shaviro, “Talk About A Lost Cause”: Tricia Sullivan’s “Occupy Me” by “danhartland”, and Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan by Paul Kincaid.

Read this book. It’s good.

Red Moon

a review by Bob Roman

Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit Books, 2018. 446 pages, $27.00

RedMoon
Image from Orbis Books

I have a mental list of authors who have annoyed or bored me enough that I really do not care to read any more of their work. Despite being a more than competent writer who shares a good deal of my politics, Kim Stanley Robinson keeps coming close to being added to the list. For me, his latest work, Red Moon, was partly an adventure in seeing whether he would end on it or off it. But that’s just me.

Some of my problems with Robinson are more generally relevant, though. His novels, after his first few, have acquired a distinctly didactic quality to them. He’s not at all unique in this, even in science fiction and fantasy. From the other end of the political spectrum, Robert Heinlein comes to mind, and Heinlein even did one about the moon: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. But you do need to be a very good writer to make didacticism palatable to readers who do not share your perspective. There is also the temptation, for any artist, to play to the true believers, trusting in their instinct to give a hurrah for our side, whatever side that may be and however lame the execution. Whatever sells, after all. Robinson is good enough, usually, to keep it interesting while having enough integrity to not simply pander.

But that gets rather more difficult when one writes what should be a thriller, as Red Moon should be: Sometime around the middle of this century, Fred Fredericks travels to the moon, specifically to a Chinese research settlement at the south pole. His job is to deliver to his employer’s customer, the head administrator of the research settlement, an encrypted cell phone. This turns out to be the occasion for an assassination plot directed at the head administrator with Fredericks as the means of delivery. It very nearly kills Fredericks as well, but he ends up on the run with another person on the run, Chan Qi, a highly privileged (and pregnant) daughter of a top rank Chinese Communist Party and government official. Her dad is indeed one of the candidates for the top job at the pending Congress. She’s not having any of it and has slipped her leash, both from Daddy and the Party. Throw in a highly siloed government and Communist Party (rogue bureaucracy on the loose!), a chase across the Moon and across China, an emergent artificial intelligence, nonviolent citizen uprisings in both China and the United States (sort of a cross between Occupy and the various “color revolutions”), block chain alternative currency, diplomatic intrigue, and you should get a roller coaster thriller, a page turning experience where one does not notice the plot holes until they are long past, indeed probably after you close the covers of the book.

Instead, what is delivered to the reader is more akin to a 19th Century visit to utopia, where the protagonist (and thus the reader) is given a tour of a brave new world… Think of Aldous Huxley’s Island (granted, a 1930s novel) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Most of those utopias, even the most classic, are pretty lame examples of story-telling. Robinson, at least, can use the conflicts built into his plot to keep things moving with some drama, but he doesn’t really enter the thriller mode of story-telling until the end of the novel. And the ending is either brilliant or a set-up for volume two. If it is the latter, it is not brilliant and I think I’ll take a pass.

A lot of science fiction really ought to be called science fantasy. Robinson does stick pretty close to the real world in his speculation. If there’s much speculative violence done to science, it may be in biology rather than the usual suspects of physics or information science.  Robinson’s Moon has far more in common with modern Antarctica than it does with a nostalgic fantasy of the American (or the Siberian, for that matter) frontier: a dangerous, expensive place mostly only good for research or for novelty. And if Robinson’s Mars trilogy had mountain climbing as a visceral experience, Red Moon has the simple difficulty humans will have learning to maneuver in the Moon’s low gravity.

I think Robinson has gotten the Moon approximately correct, or at least he compliments my prejudices. China is this book’s other big obsession. If he’s gotten the Moon about right, what about China? I haven’t much basis for judging that except that anything written about China, even in the present never mind several decades from now, is likely to be wrong at least in part. And I suspect Robinson would agree. In a space.com interview, he noted: “China is really interesting and important and nobody understands it — and I mean not just Americans, who definitely don’t understand it, but even the Chinese people themselves. It’s a big, powerful society in rapid flux. It’s unstable and dynamic and it’s super interesting.” And more to the point, anything happening there will have consequences here, but if you need Red Moon to make that point, you haven’t been paying attention.

Caught between being a thriller and a visit to Erewhon, I don’t think this is one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s more successful efforts. But I liked it well enough that Robinson is not yet on my shit list and I liked Red Moon well enough to write this modest review of it. And he does have some interesting things to say about the future of humans on the Moon and about China. But I don’t like it well enough to hope for a sequel.

How to Rig an Election

A review by Bob Roman

How to Rig an Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. Yale University Press, 2018. 310 pages, $26.00.

howtoriganelectionBeing a Dude of a Certain Age gives one the potential (at least) for a perspective informed by history. In my case, also being a long-time Chicagoan, I listen to conservative ravings about voter fraud with a certain amount of sympathy. Don’t get me wrong. It is raving: a toxic mix of deliberate lies and Stage IV cynicism…. But election fraud, of which voter fraud is but one manifestation, does indeed happen. And any activist participating in Chicago elections up until about 1990 would have been either a witness to voter fraud or blind. Thus it is completely natural that I grabbed this book from the Chicago Public Library shelf as soon as I saw it.

What Cheeseman and Klaas have not done is provide a how-to cookbook on the subject. Their primary interest is in examining the increasing number of multiparty elections being held in the world in the face of a coincident general decline of democracy. They take the Polity IV scores for democracy (an established political science measuring tool with CIA finger prints) of nations and divide the nations into four categories: pure authoritarian, dominant authoritarian, competitive authoritarian, and electorally democratic. It is the middle two categories that are of interest to the authors. Why would the ruling elite (and especially the guy at the top) go through the charade of having an election? What are the strategies they apply to ensure a favorable outcome? Why do they choose one strategy over another?

This is not an exercise in kicking around the less developed world. The authors emphasize that the strategies surveyed have been practiced nearly everywhere and some date back to the Roman Republic. They illustrate the strategies with case studies from Belarus to the United States (including Chicago). The strategies discussed are reflected in the chapter titles: Invisible rigging: How to steal an election without getting caught; Buying hearts and minds: The art of electoral bribery; Divide and rule: Violence as a political strategy; Hack the election: Fake news and the digital frontier; Ballot-box stuffing: The last resort; Potemkin elections: How to fool the West.

Every strategy is going to present trade-offs in terms of benefits, costs, and possible consequences. Cheeseman and Klaas attempt to show the choices made are reasonable decisions though not necessarily rational decisions. (Inherent biases do not make for maximized self-interest.) The authors seem to feel that access to foreign aid is a significant factor in these calculations. The book didn’t provide me with any means of deciding just how important a factor it is though maybe it’s a cheap way of financing a military. They do examine just how consequential charges of fraud are to foreign aid. For aid provided by the United States, the consequences vary widely, apparently on geopolitical considerations.

It’s also not always clear just what constitutes “rigging”. The authors do deal with this ambiguity. For example, vote buying: in some cultures, it might be legal if not also expected. If the secrecy of the ballot is preserved, does it really make much of a difference? Take the money (or whatever) and vote as you please. And gerrymandering: this is something that has been widely practiced here in the States. Indeed, the term derives from Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, one of the authors of the Bill of Rights and an early practitioner in the art of district drawing. The authors use Illinois’ 4th Congressional District as an example and they get it wrong. They assert: “The net result is a weakening of the power of the Latino vote and more Republican-electing districts than the electoral maths should reasonably allow.” But the 4th Congressional District was drawn specifically so that the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities would be nearly guaranteed to have a representative: In other words, maximizing “the power of the Latino vote”. The 4th Congressional District is an instance of ethnic gerrymandering, something required (to a point) by Federal law. As for partisan gerrymandering, the Illinois House and Senate were in charge of redistricting in 2011. Each were controlled by a Democratic caucus with a Democratic Governor. This was not a Republican gerrymander. In any case, a Republican district in Chicago would be a genuine work of art; there are so few of them. It’s only recently that partisan gerrymandering has become widely regarded as dirty word in the States, and that’s mostly because it recently became so one-sided. Otherwise it’s been a standard feature of the system. The League of Women Voters in fact challenged the 2011 Illinois map on its partisan bias and got nowhere in state or Federal court. So is it a bug or a feature?

In my humble opinion, the weakest part of the book is the final chapter that deals with how to stop election rigging. The authors agree that “Long-term democratic reform is almost always driven from within” but then go on to concentrate on what the international community might do. Most of us are nowhere near the levers that steer the international community and considering how geopolitical considerations influence those who are near the levers, the rest of us have some reason for skepticism. So is there anything to take away for the rest of us? Possibly. It is useful to think of the rigging strategies in terms of their costs and benefits. Thinking that way helps in deciding what charges of fraud are plausible amid all the usual noise and it provides a way of considering how the cost of fraud might be raised when considering reforms.

But I think that if we want honest and (heaven forfend) fair elections here in the States, three things may be necessary. One is money. Election campaigns swim in money, but the process of voting and tabulating is expected to run on the proverbial cold dog soup and rainbow pie. Aside from better voting equipment, election judges need to be better paid and, in return, to be better trained. Another is transparency. For all the love “transparency” gets as a buzz word, local governments tend to be unreasonably, indeed illegally (at least in Illinois) private. Elections, here in the States, are done by local government. Activists concerned with the digitized tabulation of ballots have found getting an audit of any given election means being heavily lawyered-up. The knee-jerk reaction by local officials seems to be a deep desire to have the most recent election done and off their desk and panic that any outside examination of the books would reveal a comedy of incompetence. And maybe fraud? And finally, an openness to alternative systems of voting would be useful, provided we also keep in mind the ways in which they might be gamed. Since elections are so local, we have huge opportunities for experimentation, though forums for evaluating the results are somewhat lacking.

It’s also worth noting that a cancerous cynicism is pandemic in the land and that, too, is a danger to democracy. It’s a cynicism that’s hard to argue with: Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, “I did not have sex with that woman”, Weapons of Mass Destruction… on and on. What’s not to mistrust? Add to that the professionalization of politics (inevitably drawing boundaries between the professionals and the laity), that politics is very much a business like automobiles or real estate or banking with its own barriers to entry and jargon and technical knowledge — politics becomes not something we do but something that happens to us, will or nill. In that case, why vote? Well, you should, even if a riot might seem to be more effective. This needs to change. It’s also outside the scope of this book.

Finally a note on the book: it’s not exactly a political science monograph, or rather it’s not just that. It’s also a good and entertaining read. It can be read as a serious study or it can be read as a sort of political voyeurism. Either way, it is worth your time. After all, rigging elections is as American as cherry pie.

Spirits of the Vasty Deep

a review by Bob Roman

Spirits of the Vasty Deep by Brian Stableford. Snuggly Books, 2018. 297 pages $17.95

stablefordBrian Stableford has been around for a long time. He’s been on my shit list for a long time, too, though for not as long but long enough for me to have forgotten why. Occasionally, an author will cop an attitude or pander to an ideology or write very poorly or write something otherwise irritating and: Enough! Time is too short and swift to bother with any more. In the case of Stableford, possibly it was his 1970 novel, The Blind Worm. Or perhaps not; I mention that novel because I have a copy that was issued as an Ace double novel and I can’t otherwise imagine what the problem was. I picked up Spirits of the Vasty Deep because I had forgotten about The Blind Worm. And that was a good thing because this is a good book, a good gothic novel: terror and medievalism with science fiction elements and some modern add-ons from The Da Vinci Code.

Gothic is not a genre that I’m particularly fond of at all. And the novel begins in a pretty standard Gothic way. Author Simon Cannick, having lost his Bristol apartment to a new landlord and sky-rocketing rent, moves to isolated St. Madoc in coastal northern Wales where he had, to his surprise, inherited a cottage. And then there is the partially ruinous Abbey and the secretive family that has for time out of mind resided there. Is there anything not Gothic in that set-up?

Well, the protagonist is not a helpless and to-be-victimized female, but a geezerly obscure author, possibly based somewhat on Brian Stableford himself. The terror is pretty mild and there is more humor than might be typical. Much of the early part of the book is basically dialogue in a pseudo-scholarly, nerdy Da Vinci Code vein. Somehow I did not find that boring. Stableford wrote well enough to bring it off.

Stableford does play some misdirection games regarding who the important characters are and who are secondary. It maybe helped, for me, that the characters are mostly geezers. Being one myself, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in identifying with them.

So what happens? Read the damned book: seriously, this is a good read, folks. Brian Stableford is now officially off my shit list though The Blind Worm hasn’t gotten any better.

Yip Abides for a Year

The first year in review

October 31 was the first anniversary of Yip Abides: 417 posts, though there were a few missed days. Blogs are basically stacks; the newest entries are on top. Older posts are buried like geological strata. So here are the best of those 417, in my humble opinion: 116 posts of Yip Abides’ first year, by category, in reverse chronological order – as if the blog were a queue instead of a stack. Let the posts buried by time stand forth!

There’s a lot of good stuff that did not get included below, so exploring will be rewarding if you care to do so. The categories are a good way of focusing your browsing, depending upon your interests. While tags have something of a social function in WordPress, vaguely similar to Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms, I’ve used them here as a subject index. Unfortunately, with the theme I’m currently using, you can’t browse by both category and tag.

And what is in store for the coming year? Fewer posts, most certainly, perhaps not even one each day as I expect to have other irons in the fire than just this blog. There’s been a distinct tendency toward photos over other content lately; that would be easy to continue. In any case, I’m making this up as I go along so you’ll find out as soon as I do.

The first post: Hello World.

Photo Wall

Rock Island in Bureau Junction – old GP7 1275 on the Peoria line.

Birdman Lives! – the man and the mural.

Terror in the Subway! – Tyrannosaurus CTA.

Winter Has Come – photos from 1358 W. Greenleaf.

Mash Note – everyone should get at least one.

28 Thoughts on Trees – trunks, light and leaves.

Wallartee 2 – murals from the hippie underground.

Artists of the Wall 2017 – the annual mural arts in Loyola Park.

Wallartee 5 – two murals under the CTA Red Line @ Pratt.

Wallartee 6 – mural under the CTA Red Line @ Farwell.

Pounce! – Gargoyle gonna getchu.

Artists of the Wall 2018 – the annual mural arts in Loyola Park.

Teddy Bear’s Picnic – Lunt Avenue at the CTA Red Line.

The Face in the Door – stare at the door and the door stares back.

Carpets of the Sun – grasses and sedges and sun and shadow.

Beeves in Summer – cool cattle in shades…

Whirl – we spend our lives circling the edge of an event horizon.

Reflexions – water and light.

Paranoia Agent in Rogers Park – actually, Little Slugger has come.

Without the Shadow, Would We Know the Light? – a meditation.

Bird on Cable – the bird professed to know me but I found our acquaintance hard to swallow…

Cat & Floor – This is your floor on catnip.

Lurking – Troll @ work.

Spun Glass – you really need to see this! IMHO, it’s way cool.

Groot Home Chicago – return to roots. But wait! There’s more.

The Gizzard of Odd – oh my…

Rapid Transit – the CTA Red Line @ Jackson. It’s a long way down…

The Last Evening of Summer – Leone Park Beach.

No Idea – will the last person leaving…

On Fullerton Avenue – what is it?

A Botanic Afternoon – my annual Fall pilgrimage to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The Light! The Dark! The Day! – and Captain Beefheart

Video Wall

The Gunfighter – almost certainly the best comedic western since “Blazing Saddles”.

Wild West Fan Co. – maybe the best comedic western since “Blazing Saddles”.

Frankie Sinatra — Geezer demons in a music video. I hate music videos.

This Won’t Hurt a Bit – except for the wallet biopsy. Health care in America.

Bindle Bros – there’s a hipster born every second.

Waltzing into Anarchy – bugger the bankers and politicians…

I Trust Youin the face of orchestrated hate.

World Builder – a very sweet virtual reality love story.

Descendants – keep this in mind on Valentines Day should you think of flowers. (Whoopi Goldberg!)

Alien Love – a truly alien love story… or maybe it’s a music video.

You Gotta Believe in Something – Nina Paley sez to Moses.

Over Time – a most amazing muppet wake: a must see.

I Hate Music Videos – but I keep watching this one: Cats!

Catnip: Egress to Oblivion? – classroom drug education.

Monsieur COK – which came first: the capitalist or the egg?

Fugu & Tako – the charismatic sex appeal of being a puffer fish.

Human Fountains – mind blowing… with an incredibly sweet soundtrack.

Happiness! – and the commodification thereof. A great Steve Cutts animation.

Hyper-Reality – the singularity doth come & gone but alienation remains.

AMA – you geezers think that Esther Williams was great? Hah! Watch this underwater dance!

Mom Commercial – happy Mothers Day? Amazing!

Long Term Delivery – a bizarre comedy about a secret division of the USPS.

Flamingo Pride – a hoot, especially if you watch it all the way to the very end.

Time Travel: UGH! – warning: immature content. But you’ll love it anyway.

Dissonance – for Fathers Day. Love and madness.

Curmudgeons – a geezer love story. (Danny DeVito!)

La Vague – spells gone wrong: tres cute!

The Head Vanishes! – A trip to the sea side singing a different tuna…

Final Offer – if John Grisham wrote science fiction…

Love & Theft – full screen and headphones recommended.

Fish Heads – I regret the existence of this video. And the song. So will you.

Who Will Pay? – If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Really.

Apollo 8 – Earthrise, 50 years later.

The Kings of Siam – Halloween is coming.

Poetry

Worthless – a powerful commentary written and performed by Agnes Torok.

A – it’s entropy, after all.

You Look Good in Red – yes, you do.

On Having an Infected Finger – after having helped loot a cigarette machine.

If You Were a Whale – imagine that.

The Cat Got His Tongue – and more as well.

Subway Love – by Max Stossel.

Apocalypse Rhymethe anthropocene in rhyme by Oliver Harrison

Caffeine Zombie – can’t wait to get up in the morning and have some nice…

Waiting – for love and trains.

Eye – cats, all the way down.

Politics

It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall – about a small 1991 strike that stopped an anti-union jihad from beginning in Wisconsin. That was then.

Employment and Survival in Urban Americaan interesting public event that later became a major part of the “Obama is a socialist” narrative pushed by conservatives.

A Living Wage: It’s the Law! – on the passage of living wage ordinances for Chicago and for Cook County.

No More Business As Usual – remember Enron?

What I Saw of the 2018 Women’s March

The USA PATRIOT Game – part of Chicago DSA’s campaign against the USA PATRIOT Act.

Debt and Taxes – a subtle mix of malice and incompetence back in 2005, and it only got worse from there.

It Was May Day and I Couldn’t Stop Smiling – with a half million people in the streets: sure!

What Do Hotel Workers Want? – old Sam Gompers knew…

Wal-Mart Rampant – Chicago surrenders while proclaiming victory.

But Is It Organizing? – unions and workers’ centers.

A Small Battle in a Larger War – Jorge Mujica’s 2015 campaign for the 25th Ward.

Our Revolution: It’s a Start – Bernie Sander’s post-convention organization.

Everyone Is Joining the Resistance – anger to action.

Dubya and his band of thieves – don’t imagine they’ve given up on mugging the elderly.

Fake News – If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake. Really?

Wrapped in Steel – Chicago’s southeast side at a time of transition.

The OTHER 9/11 – Time to rub your nose in it.

Brett Kavanaugh – All his sins remembered…

Prose

Tom Broderickrest in power, as they say.

Julie Was a Free Spirit – that was then…

But We Were Always Like Thatthis could be about several different things…

The War of the Roaches – soon to be a BBC 4 documentary featuring Tony Robinson?

Bureau Junction – a postcard and some family history.

The Answera sad mix of father and son and cultural change.

Mysterious Neighbor – some things are best not known.

The Tail – a shaggy shark story.

Reviews

Why Socialism Failed in the U.S. – discussing “It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States” by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks.

The Really OTHER America – a review of “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

Don’t Sleep with Stevens! – Timothy J. Minchin’s account of labor’s mid-20th Century campaign to organize the South.

The Wounds That Never Heal – a review of “Flashback: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War” by Penny Coleman.

When the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul – a review of “Kennedy vs. Carter” by Timothy Stanley.

Anarchy! – a review essay of “More Powerful Than Dynamite” by Thai Jones and “In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” by Susan Tejada

Bad Moon Rising – Arthur Eckstein’s account of the FBI and the SDS. Do si do!

In This Corner of the World – Sunao Katabuchi’s incredibly beautiful but troubling animated video of WWII Japan.

Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show – a review of Eric Scott Fischl’s horror fantasy novel, because I like barkers.

Design with Nature – a retrospective on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s influential book and the documentary movie based on it.

Which Side Are You On? – a review of J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy”.

Djinn City – a review of the new fantasy novel by Saad Hossain.

Djinn City

A review by Bob Roman

Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain, The Unnamed Press, Los Angeles, 413 pages, $17.99

I’ve been whining about how so much of genre fiction amounts to remixed clichés that have, through endless repetition, become almost unpalatable even when cleverly constructed, even when accompanied by an important message or point. Well, Earth may be a small planet but it is, nevertheless, a big world. Meet Saad Z. Hossain, a writer of science fiction fantasy social satire from Bangladesh: a breath of richly oxygenated water in what is otherwise becoming a grossly over fertilized dead zone in the pop sea.

Hossain achieves this partly by bringing a cultural perspective from Bangladesh that gathers originality as it becomes an import. There is an additional benefit for readers in the States as Hossain writes in English. With translated work, one is also dependent on the work of the translator who, even when competent, might not be suited to the material. On the other hand, some American appreciation of Bangladesh (and the Indian subcontinent in general) will help illuminate Hossain’s commentary and humor.

Hossain is a funny author very much in the style of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and he is a more than competent story-teller. Unlike Hitchhiker’s Guide, Hossain’s humor is as much in service of his story as it is in service of social commentary or absurdity for its own sake. (Hitchhiker’s Guide began as a BBC Radio drama, not as a novel. Story-telling was consequently a secondary priority.)

Djinn City is a big story, populated by a great many characters: Caution! It’s worth paying attention to them all as multiple characters play major roles, even if they tend to exist more as humorous caricatures than as carefully crafted personalities. That they are caricatures is mostly a trade-off as a character-driven soap opera would have been a very different project (but maybe fascinating?) and probably much longer. I only have one regret about this. I would have loved to have gotten better acquainted with Aunt Juny. She is a powerful character that gains strength from her violation of gender expectations. As written, her caricature functions partly as a commentary on those expectations and some of that humor is nervous laughter evoked by just how uber competent someone like Juny must therefore be. Her function in the plot is kind of a deus ex auntie, as it were, out djinn-ing the djinn.

Bringing a story to a close is a major test for a story-teller. At this test, Hossain is either brilliant or horrifying. If it is the latter, you will see a sequel sometime very soon. When I reached the end, I was full, happy but ready for something different. A sequel: no thank you. You might see Djinn City on the big screen, however. I understand the film rights have been sold.

I do have one complaint about The Unnamed Press edition of this book. Brendan Monroe’s cover art is seriously lame. He could be an artist but, in this case at least, he is no illustrator. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a new book of fiction with a table of contents with chapter titles?

If my comments are not enough to motivate you to read this book, there’s a much better (or at least different) review by John Venegas at Angel City Review.