Autonomous

a review by Bob Roman

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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.


 

Bad Moon Rising

a review by Bob Roman

Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution by Arthur M. Eckstein. Yale University Press, 2016. 352 pages. $35.

The 1960s and 70s were a radical time in U.S. history, a time that make today’s political divisiveness and culture wars seem relatively mild and civil. In 1971, Scanlan’s Monthly, expanding on the work of Congressional committees, counted several thousand acts of bombings, arson, and other assorted political mayhem in the course of a year. There is reason to believe this catalog did not capture everything nor was the violence done only by lefties. Apart from almost routine police violence directed at the left, there were white citizen councils (often with state financing, most notably in Mississippi), militias and vigilantes (individuals and groups) instigating violence against the left or replying in kind. But the “long hot summers” of urban disorders (“riots” they were called but often had the characteristics of insurrections), the decay of the military in Vietnam (drug use, fragging, refusal of orders) had President Nixon in high anxiety. Portions of the left agreed that a revolutionary, or at least an insurrectionary uprising was in the works and desirable.

Bad Moon Rising deals with one of the more notorious (and for some, romantic) left-wing terrorist groups, the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground, aka “Weathermen”, began as a Marxist-Leninist faction of what had been an old left, social democratic student group, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Since World War I, SDS had been the youth group of the League for Industrial Democracy (under the brand “Student League for Industrial Democracy”), a group that ideologically owed as much or more to John Dewey as to Karl Marx. Separating from the League over the League’s obsessive anti-communism, the SDS caught the winds of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement. It rapidly expanded from a few hundred members to well over 100,000 members (and at that point they pretty much stopped counting) while remaining overwhelmingly a campus-based organization. By 1968, the national organization and many of the larger chapters had become battlegrounds for multiple Marxist-Leninist groups, leading to the infamous 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago’s old Colosseum. The organization split into three main factions plus a multitude of disaffiliated local chapters that quickly disappeared. One of the factions became the Weathermen. Arthur Eckstein explains this history in a bit more detail, but if you’re interested in how an organization of several hundred members in 1960 grew to over a hundred thousand in less than a decade, you’ll probably want to find a copy of Kirkpatrick Sale’s excellent organizational history, SDS, though there are other works that will provide more context.

Eckstein’s book is a bit more about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) than the Weather Underground. Eckstein took advantage newly available FBI documents as well as doing interviews with many of the principle members of the Weathermen. He was unable to interview many of the FBI agents as, being a generation older than the Weathermen, most of them were dead. Some of the Weathermen were also unavailable, notably two of the top leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Eckstein’s own political history may well have set off alarms for Ayers and Dohrn as Eckstein went through a conservative anti-communist phase during which he wrote a half dozen articles for David Horowitz’s Frontpage, mostly dealing with examples of left-wing hypocrisy. That alone would be enough probably. But as Ayers’ two political memoirs, Fugitive Days and Public Enemy, have been critiqued as being factually challenged in places (Faulty memory, pled Ayers; it’s a memoir not a history.), the request must have seemed like a prelude to a set-up.

Is there anything new here? Not being a scholar, I can only say that there are things that were new to me. The book’s stereoscopic view – the FBI and the Weathermen – makes for an interesting read. With regard to the FBI, I suspect what’s new is mostly detail. Every lefty knows the FBI’s founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, was a bastard who was willing to break the law for political ends, but he was a canny bastard who always kept in mind the potential political consequences of getting caught at anything less than legal. He had been burned by the bad optics resulting from botched Palmer Raids in the 1920s. For that reason, he preferred that his agents have some plausible legal cover and he was perfectly happy to sabotage some of Nixon’s schemes, especially when they potentially undermined his control of the FBI. Nixon’s replacement FBI Director upon Hoover’s death, L. Patrick Gray, was every bit as much a bastard, but he was also a careless idiot, perfectly willing to demand illegalities from his staff while leaving them to decide the specifics and providing them with no cover for doing so. Two FBI agents ended up on trial, convicted then pardoned by President Reagan. Likewise, while FBI agents could find no evidence of foreign support for the Weathermen (indeed, representatives from Vietnam and Cuba advised the Weathermen against violence and in favor of above ground demonstrations and political pressure), Nixon was never convinced. The closer one got to Nixon’s White House, the more delusional the image of the Weathermen became.

While the FBI had hundreds of “informants” in the SDS (including 198 “informants” who were delegates to the 1969 convention and advised by the FBI to vote for the Weathermen), they only succeeded in placing two in the Weathermen. One was Larry Grathwohl. (In Public Enemy, Ayers denies Grathwohl was a member.) The FBI prematurely blew his cover to arrest two New York members in 1970. The other hasn’t been identified, but the second never did as much for the FBI, apparently. Despite the leadership being on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, the FBI never succeeded in arresting any of the Weather Underground until after Dohrn and Ayers were ousted from leadership. They ran a tight ship.

While it isn’t new, Eckstein takes some pains to point out there is something of a “party line” regarding the history of the Weather Underground. According to that version of history, from the time the organization went underground to the infamous New York townhouse bomb factory explosion, there was the intent to “bring the war home” to America with violence. Even so, the New York cell’s plan for bombing a USO dance with a powerful anti-personnel explosive was a rogue operation, unknown to the central leadership. In the wake of that self-inflicted disaster at the townhouse, a national meeting was held in Mendocino, California, where violence against people was rejected. Eckstein contends that the New York cell was hardly a rogue operation; the Weather Underground was too tightly controlled for that to be plausible. Mark Rudd’s memoir Underground, among other accounts, supports this. (Rudd knew about the plan, but then, he was also in New York; he’s a bit ambiguous as to how much others knew.)

Whatever: Subsequent bombings done while Ayers and Dohrn were in leadership were property-directed as a form of political commentary. It’s also apparent that not every Weatherman was happy about this restriction; Dohrn and Ayers were ultimately given the boot by their own comrades who then changed that policy. After that, things went downhill for the Weather Underground. The incompetent and violent new leadership, under Clayton van Lydegraf, were rounded up and sent to prison by 1977.

It’s notable that until then, in Eckstein’s words, “the FBI never permanently caught a single major Weatherman figure, or stopped a single bombing. In part that was because of FBI clumsiness, in part because the Weathermen were very careful – and in part because they did not do all that much.” (p 237) It’s also worth noting that as individual Weathermen surfaced, very little punishment was meted out, even though many of the charges were serious, because generally what evidence the FBI had had been gathered illegally.

(The one Weather Underground action that I approved of at the time was their bombing of the Haymarket police statue that then stood in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. But that’s another story. And in any case, it’s not as if the Weathermen would have cared had they known.)

It is interesting that Eckstein regards the Mendocino meeting as one of those historically unknown events of major consequence. Had the Weathermen continued a course of violence against persons rather than property, Eckstein feels that Nixon was just crazy enough to drop “any pretense of adhering to judicial or legal constraint”, perhaps implementing Hoover’s little list of 11,000 lefties who wouldn’t be missed. We’ll never know, thankfully. But it does have some plausibility. The FBI initially gave the Weathermen far more credit than they deserved. For a while, the FBI labelled most left-wing violence as “Weathermen”. And there was a lot of it. Ultimately the FBI settled down in their assessments, but the Nixon White House never did.

This is outside the scope of Eckstein’s work, but around the turn of the millennium, there was a sudden nostalgia about the 1960s on many college campuses: long hair, drugs, anarchist politics and even the SDS, which was refounded at the University of Chicago in 2006. The “New SDS” enjoyed a brief “new kid on the block” prosperity of interest that quickly faded. It still staggers on as an all volunteer organization with a dozen or so campus chapters.

As the nostalgia crystallized into the new organization, old SDS leaders, mostly old Weathermen, got a lot of love. Maybe it’s because the anarchist and the Marxist left share with conservatism a view that government is inevitably oppressive; oppression is part of its DNA. So, these old Weathermen: They opposed the State in the name of peace and justice and got away with it! Role models! Heroism!

For my part, I think we deserve an apology instead. Bill Ayers supplied a clever one, designed to irritate his enemies. He’s “sorry we didn’t do more.” More what? Right-wing commentators had a field day with that, but it’s not as if Ayers had any intention of apologizing to them. Can’t say that I blame him. What democratic socialists should think of it, I’m not sure. I’ve read both his memoirs, and I have a feeling maybe Ayers isn’t sure either. He’s clearly not willing to discard those years, but much of his work in the decades since resembles the fruit of John Dewey social democracy, things that, for the most part, the original SDS would have been comfortable with.

Mark Rudd, in his memoir Underground, is less coy in his apology:

“…Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we intended. We deorganized SDS while we claimed we were making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI – our sworn enemies. We might as well have been on their payroll. As if all this weren’t enough, three of my friends died in an accidental explosion while assembling bombs. This is not a heroic story; if anything, it’s antiheroic.” (page ix)

It’s difficult to imagine the U.S. political landscape if elements of the communist left had not deliberately destroyed SDS. An organization the size of 1969 SDS could have been a significant player in national politics. Imagine the New American Movement (founded by refugees from SDS, NAM was one of the predecessor organizations to today’s Democratic Socialists of America) starting out with over 100,000 members. Yet if Revolutionary Youth Movement I, Revolutionary Youth Movement II, National Labor Committee, Progressive Labor Party, et. al. hadn’t done in SDS, J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program (remember those 198 FBI delegates to the SDS convention?) may have destroyed it instead.

Maybe one of the main points to take from Eckstein’s work is that insurrectionary (let’s beg the question of what constitutes “revolutionary”) politics suck. For all the organization, solidarity and cleverness that going underground demanded, the Weather Underground accomplished nothing much of any consequence. In contrast, the damage it did to its members and members’ families and the rest of the left was considerable. This is not a route to take if you can avoid it.

And what of today? In the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign and most especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President, the Democratic Socialists of America has ballooned from about 6,000 members to somewhere north of 30,000. Will it pop like SDS? History never quite repeats itself. Instead of the grim coalition of bomb-throwing wanna-be Maoists that wrecked SDS, if DSA is wrecked, it would more likely be done by a motley rabble of anarchists and Trotskyists who, instead of bombs create molehills to kick over using social media character assassination well practised since high school. Mean girls of the world, unite! To be fair, these are techniques as old as politics but made accessible to all by social media and the web. Should this happen, its manifestation may very well not be a “split” but simply a rapid deflation of disgust and disappointment. None of this is inevitable, nonetheless: Those not ignorant of history might not avoid repeating it, but at least they will not be surprised by it.

Oh yes. What’s this “Bad Moon Rising” business? It turns out that cheery Creedence Clearwater Revival tune with such grim lyrics was something of an anthem for the Weather Underground. Song author John Fogarty was not impressed, according to Eckstein. But here’s a cover by Battlefield Band, better than the original IMHO.

Quillifer

Walter Jon Williams is one of my favorite SF authors.

Quillifer by Walter Jon Williams. Saga Press, 2017. 530 pages. $27.99

So much of genre fiction ends up being recombinant boredom. But Walter Jon Williams has an uncanny ability to take any particular sub-genre of SF and do something entertaining, interesting and sometimes even fresh. He’s not unique in this ability, but he is unusual for such talents in that his work is generally worth re-reading sometime later, maybe on some snowy morning or in a lazy summer backyard.

Quillifer is Williams’ excursion into the sword & sorcery sub-genre. I admit that when I first encountered this volume at the Chicago Public Library (I have too little income to actually buy books.), I had my doubts. It’s big. It provoked a flashback to my one library encounter, long ago, with a similarly huge first volume of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. Martin was vaguely familiar but the book was so big and life is so short. I took a pass and actually haven’t regretted it. Quillifer is a first volume too. But this is Walter Jon Williams.

Nonetheless, I came near to setting the book aside in the early pages of it. Williams has the story narrated in first person by the protagonist, Quillifer, a young adult male in a society somewhat resembling 14th or 15th Century northeastern Europe / Britain, including leftover remnants of an Empire though instead of Romans we have, apparently, a different human species. At the beginning, Quillifer’s story has a commedia dell’arte quality to it, reminding me of Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry: a fine book except that the misadventures in the complicated lives of horny young men in a gender delimited society don’t much interest this geezer. Fortunately for me, Williams begins tossing plot challenges at this somewhat self-absorbed, manipulative adolescent, the result reminding me a bit of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series: a coming of age story complicated by a society and a time disoriently unfamiliar yet familiar to the reader, though maybe without Wolfe’s spiritual dimension. It’s also interesting that the protagonist is a lawyer in the making. It’s an unusual choice, but why not? One of Michael Swanwick’s novels has a bureaucrat as the protagonist hero, for example.

And that’s what this volume is: Quillifer’s coming of age. It’s more sword than sorcery, though the violence is unheroic and consequential for Quillifer. There is little magic and that is mostly in the form of the unwanted and seriously complicating attention of a goddess, a nymph. (It wouldn’t surprise me if, in future volumes, Quillifer comes to the attention of additional and complicating divinities.) But I think the secret sauce for this tale is the authenticity of Quillifer’s feudal world. It works in ways that remind me very much of what I’ve read about medieval France and England. It turns out that Williams also writes historical fiction under the name Jon Williams.

For me, the one really weak aspect of the story is the circumstance of its narration. It’s begun as being told, as a flashback, to a young woman, a woman presumably as young and inexperienced as Quillifer was at the beginning of the tale. Before dipping into the flashback, the tone is that of a weary old adult. Williams revisits this setup a very few times during this first volume and returns to at the end of the volume. Fine. Except that while Quillifer has grown up in many ways by the end, he’s not the geezer he sounds like at the beginning. It’s not even convincing as mansplaining. Mansplaining, at least, is something you might expect from young Quillifer.

Life is short and this book is long and the series longer, but make time for it. You’ll enjoy.

Two Reviews

by Bob Roman

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. New York, Metropolitan Books: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 221 pp Hardcover $23.00

One big problem with political books is that they are not often read by people who do not already pretty much agree with the author. Books on a special interest draw a readership concerned with the special interest. Books with an ideological subtext draw their own readership. Barbara Ehrenreich has succeeded in writing a special interest book (the working poor) with an ideological (left) subtext that can easily be read people who very much disagree with her perspective or are not overly concerned with her topic. You could, for example, give this book as a present to you reactionary Uncle Ernie and it’s likely he would read it, enjoy it, and possibly even learn from it.

This is not an easy thing to do.

The basic premise of Nickel and Dimed draws upon a grand old tradition of journalism, that of assuming an identity to do a story. Specifically, “how does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market going to make it on $6 to $7 an hour?”

In this case, Barbara Ehrenreich did not so much assume a false identity as a misleading biography: an older woman forced by circumstance to return to the job market after a long absence with little savings, no special skills, a car, and few or no friends in a new town. Ehrenreich drew up a fairly strict set of ground rules for herself to follow in each of the three cities where she attempted to live. These rules were a reasonable simulation of her assumed biography, and she applied them in Key West, Florida, in Portland, Maine, and in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She chose these venues partly for whimsical reasons but partly, also, to control for race and for local politics (Minnesota having a liberal tradition).

Her experiences were depressingly uniform. Poverty is poverty and it imposes its own priorities. A lack of resources restricts choices, leaving one more vulnerable to exploitative situations. This applies to both economic and personal situations. Ehrenreich found that despite tight labor markets, large corporations such as Wal-Mart, often manipulated job applicants into being supplicants, denying any possibility of even individual bargaining over the conditions of employment. Likewise, for people working at near the minimum wage, an informal support network of friends and family is often crucial to staying off the streets, but too often the price for this support is high.

A lack of resources also means that, of necessity, one’s time horizon for planning ahead (listen up, Banfield!) is very near, forcing such people into making decisions that are considerably more expensive in the long run. Housing is an excellent example of this. Many of the people Ehrenreich worked with and indeed Ehrenreich herself lived in motels where the monthly expense is considerably more than even a modest apartment. But the motel does not get paid monthly but daily or weekly, so each payment is less than an apartment’s monthly rent and, more to the point, the motel does not demand a month (or more) rent in security deposit. While Ehrenreich did not mention it, this does raise the issue of access for the poor to reasonably priced credit.

Housing ends up being the immediate deal killer in all three metropolitan areas. Affordable housing, meaning housing that costs no more than 30 percent of one’s income, is simply not available to people working near the minimum wage. Barbara Ehrenreich makes no systematic attempt to diagnose the reason for this beyond some observations about what might be called wealth inflation. But finding reasons isn’t the purpose of her book. Rather, she lets her experience, and the experience of her fellow workers, illustrate the problem. She does point out (as have others) that our “official” definition of poverty is based on a “market basket” that assumes food takes a fixed percentage of the family income when in fact other necessities have inflated faster.

All these things will be enlightening to our hypothetical Uncle Ernie, but don’t expect a conversion experience for Ehrenreich’s experience can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most particularly, conservatives are likely to observe that her experiment was designed with a short life span, with no more than a month spent in each metropolitan area. Sure, the circumstances are tough but that’s life and ultimately, it’s for the best.

Our Uncle Ernie would point to one of the many interesting characters Ehrenreich met in her adventure, “Caroline” in Minnesota. She is the aunt of a New York friend; Caroline did in real life what Ehrenreich is doing as an exercise in journalism and then some. She took her children, left her husband, and ended up starting over in an unknown city.

It would be untrue to characterize Caroline’s life story as one disaster and hardship after another though she clearly has had more than her share. But it is clear that she is a survivor. Her advice for starting out in a new town: “Always find a church.” At this point, Uncle Ernie would be starting to plug Bush’s “Faith Based Initiative”, but regardless of that proposal’s merits or demerits, it’s beside the point. What Caroline is telling us, really, is that if you live so close to the edge of disaster, the safer place to be, the place that might make the difference between survival and not, is a place of human solidarity. Regardless of the merits of faith, this is exactly what a church community can provide, ready made. Solidarity is something survivors understand; when Ehrenreich concludes her interview, Caroline spontaneously donates “a family-sized container of her homemade chicken stew”. Don’t expect Uncle Ernie to grasp this without help.

There’s a lot that Uncle Ernie won’t understand. When we meet Caroline, she’s living with her husband in a rented three bedroom house. It’s expensive. It’s shabby. It’s in a chancy neighborhood. But with two incomes, they’re earning $40,000 and have a life that works, albeit precariously. It was a tough struggle; it damaged her health. You might get Uncle Ernie to concede the need for some specific assistance, but I imagine him holding Caroline up as if she were a trophy, proclaiming it can be done!

For socialists, this is beside the point. It doesn’t matter that given hard, smart and lucky effort some measure of security might be gained. The outrage is a society, our society, that in order to function demands that there be losers and in doing so creates them just as it does yuppies, super stars, businessmen, etc. Ehrenreich’s book merely documents the ugly process of making sausage. As Upton Sinclair’s Jungle did, one hopes it may move some of the privileged to take action or, more to the point, be ready to lend a hand when the poor themselves take action. As Barbara Ehrenreich says at the end of her book:

“Someday, of course and I will make no predictions as to exactly when they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.”


Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle Edited by Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor. New York, New York University Press, 2000, 936 pp Softcover $29.95

I should confess to a certain conflict of interest in writing this review. Jonathan Birnbaum is a Chicago DSA member. I first met him some years ago at the now defunct Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference. Over the years, I’ve come to know him as one of the more amusing, interesting and informed conversationalists in an organization replete with such skills. He has saved me from death by boredom at any number of conference literature tables.

Yet when Jonathan Birnbaum tossed a review copy of this book in my lap last Fall, it wasn’t the combined mass of 900 pages that made me sit up and shout; it was the title of its introduction: “It Didn’t Start in 1954”. I was hooked.

The book consists of 182 articles, essays, original documents. It is divided into 6 parts: “Slavery: America’s First Compromise”, “Reconstruction”, “Segregation”, “The Second Reconstruction”, “Backlash Redux”, “Toward a Third Reconstruction”. Civil Rights Since 1787 bills itself as “A Reader on the Black Struggle”; however, its main emphasis is actually on what is called the Second Reconstruction, the U.S. civil rights struggle of the second half of the Twentieth Century. But for that struggle to make sense, it needs to be in context. The prior record of the struggle needs to be presented.

Even so, context will be a problem for some readers, particularly for those documents from the Nineteenth Century. Birnbaum and Taylor do provide an introduction to each selection and a longer introductory essay for each section, but even so: not only is the language somewhat different, but the documents are redolent in implications no longer obvious. This seems less true of the more contemporary material (or perhaps I’m getting old). It is clear, though, that the first audience for this book is the college (and perhaps high school) classroom where instructors and supplementary material can provide that context, or where the book itself is the supplementary material for a more specific syllabus. With this in mind, it almost seems that the book might have been better published as a CD, with annotations, links and a supporting web site.

The part devoted to the Second Reconstruction includes about a third of the material in the book. The essays, articles and documents from this time are subdivided into “The Legal Strategy” (which is mostly material about Brown v. Board of Education, including the actual Supreme Court order), “Labor Days”, “The Churches’ Hour” (extensive!), “Economic Justice”, “Black Power”, “Electoral and Street Politics”, “Discrimination: Ongoing Examples”, “Affirmative Action”.

My two favorite essays in this book are from this part: Stokley Carmichael’s essay on Black Power: “What We Want”, and Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics”. Both were enormously controversial when they were fresh, and they both defined what seemed to be very different perspectives on the struggle. Yet from a distance of thirty years, they somehow seem not so different, almost complimentary. Considering the subsequent political careers of the respective authors, there’s an essay in there somewhere. With 182 selections, folks will find their own favorites.

Likewise, with so much material, you’ll find selections that might have been better left out. My own particular disappointment was “The Abolitionist Movement” by Herbert Aptheker. Now, it would have been odd to not have included something by Aptheker in this volume (on the other hand, there’s nothing by Robert Fogel), but this particular selection was simply Aptheker’s attempt to turn the Abolitionist movement into a leninist fairy tale. It doesn’t give either the subject or Aptheker much credit, and it comes at a place where the historical coverage is less dense thus the failure is more noticeable.

But look, folks, there’s a lot of material in this volume, and it’s impressively indexed. If you’re at all interested in U.S. history, particularly African American history, it belongs on your shelf. And at $30, let no one say you never get more than what you pay for; this book is truly a labor of love.

Originally published in New Ground 77, July — August, 2001.

Mash Note

everyone should get at least one

Handed to me while I exited a Brown Line CTA train at Quincy & Wells. The door closed behind me almost before I had the time to even look at her.

mash note
Drawing by anonymous.

I still have the hat. It serves as a fine litmus for people prepared for something different. Or not.