Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

A Father’s Thoughts on Separating Families at the Border

I don’t know what words I can write here that haven’t already been said. I just know I need to write about this because if I don’t, it will consume me. If you’re sick of hearing about this, I understand. You don’t need to read this, but I need to write it.

It is now the policy of The United States of America to forcibly separate children and babies from their parents when they cross the border without documentation. It is not a law. It is a deliberate decision made by the Trump administration in order to shift the Overton Window for the immigration debate and extract concessions to get funding for an idiotic wall on our southern border, to solve a nonexistent problem. This outrageous shift in policy is abetted by Republicans in Congress who have been conspicuously quiet, because they know their base are a bunch of racists who quail at the sight of someone with dark skin, or who speaks a language other than English.

What is even more infuriating is that the Administration, after very publicly announcing that they were making the choice to adopt this “zero tolerance” policy, is now claiming that this is somehow the fault of Democrats, and that the Administration is just “enforcing the law”. And to top it all off, they’re trying to hide behind the bible as they do it.

First of all, if you think that Jesus would be in favor of shattering desperate families with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, then you have been seriously misinterpreting the bible. Helping those who have the least is kind of a major theme.

Second of all, could we perhaps NOT base our policy decisions on a collection of barely coherent stories written by a bunch of hallucinating fanatics living in the desert a couple thousand years ago? Instead of pulling quotes from those often-contradictory stories to support whatever policy idea we prefer could we instead perhaps base our treatment of other human beings on the simple concept of empathy? Look, the golden rule appears in every major religion for a reason. Just treat others as you would want to be treated. Would you want your breastfeeding child to be taken away from you, never to be seen again? No? Then maybe rethink the fucking policy.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk a little bit about that excuse that destroying families is “enforcing the law”. It isn’t. But even if it were the law? Just because something is legal does not make it moral. Just because something is illegal does not make it immoral.

Let me repeat that for those in the back.

LEGAL ≠ MORAL

ILLEGAL ≠ IMMORAL

Undocumented immigrants are not amoral because they broke the law. Border patrol agents who are shipping children off to concentration camps are not acting morally because they believe they are following the law. (I should also note that many of these families are seeking asylum and voluntarily turn themselves in. This is NOT illegal.)

To add to the swirling soup of outrage and despair that this whole situation stirs up inside me, I know that this outrage I’m feeling? This impotent blog post I’m writing? It’s exactly the response the evil men responsible for this policy want me to have. These sociopaths know that this kind of cruelty will drive their opponents mad, so they can turn around and offer an immigration plan that halts the family separation policy as if that’s some sort of concession, and demand that in return we pay for a wall or some other idiotic policy that is worse than where we started. And it’s worth pointing out that “where we started” was already awful. We were already turning away people fleeing from war zones. People with terminal diseases seeking treatment. People who fled their homes because they were going to be murdered. We can’t lose sight of the fact that none of this is acceptable. We should welcome immigrants. Not only does it pay off in the long run, it’s also the right thing to do.

So I know I’m following the script perfectly by writing this post, by being performatively outraged on the internet so that my liberal friends can echo the sentiment and we can all whip ourselves into a froth about this. But what’s the alternative? Not be outraged by our country putting toddlers into prison camps? No. Sorry. If I’m not outraged by this, then I’m dead inside.

It is easy to look at the left these days and say “geez, you’re outraged about everything. Give it a rest.” Do you want to know why we’re outraged about everything? Because everything is outrageous right now. Do you want to know why people keep comparing the Republican party’s behavior to that of Nazis? It’s because they’re behaving like Nazis.

Father’s day is tomorrow. I had a nice introspective blog post about parenting that I was putting together. But right now, all I can think about are those fathers and mothers who have lost their children.

Imagine life in your home town, your home country, being so dangerous that the best choice available to you is to leave with nothing but the clothes on your back and your precious family, to travel vast distances at great risk to a country you know doesn’t particularly want you, based on the glimmer of hope that you might be able to get across the border and start a new life. There is a myth that, despite all evidence to the contrary, refuses to die about that country: that it is a land of opportunity where if you work hard you can make a good life for yourself and your family. You know the odds are slim, but you have nowhere else to turn.

But then you get to the border, and you’re intercepted by men with guns. They tell you that you’ve broken the law and you are going to jail. They tell you that your children cannot go with you. Or maybe they don’t even tell you. Maybe they just find some pretext to separate you, and then your children never return. You don’t even get to say goodbye. Your family is literally the only thing you have left in a world that has already been so cruel to you, and now your family has been destroyed too.

My son is 18 months old. He is innocent and full of joy. He toddles around making woofing sounds like a dog or pointing enthusiastically to birds out the window or bringing books over to me so he can climb up on my lap and read with me. All the clichés you hear about the love you feel as a parent are true. The love grows inside you until you think you might burst, that you can’t possibly contain it, and yet it keeps growing. It is so powerful it can be scary.

And so when I look at my son and feel that love, and then I think of someone taking my son away because I wanted him to have a chance at a safe life, I can hardly bear it. Just imagining what those parents are feeling, just conjuring the faintest shadow of what they must be going through, guts me. And then I think of what it must be like for the children. The confusion. The fear. I imagine my innocent son, living in a tent city, not seeing anyone he knows for months and months and months. It hurts me, but I cannot stop thinking about it.

I don’t have any hopeful message to end this on. I’ll just say this: Tomorrow is father’s day. Use it to cherish your family. Your safe and comfortable life. And then think about what you are going to do to fight the human rights abuse that is taking place on our border, and the people who make it possible. We need to get past the despair, harness the rage, and put it to work.

 

Star Wars Political Advice

As the Trump presidency grinds on and Washington is consumed with so many simultaneous scandals that it is impossible to even maintain the mental bandwidth to register them all, I’ve found that there are a few things that I want to remind my fellow liberals. But then when I sat down to actually write them out, I had the wonderful realization that (a) yesterday was “Star Wars Day” (May the 4th be with you!), and (b) The things I want to say actually tie nicely with a few choice quotes from Star Wars. So, without further ado, some Star Wars themed political advice:

Don’t Get Cocky

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There is a lot of talk about a rising “Blue Wave” in November, and polling and special election results have generally been very good for Democrats. Teacher strikes across the country have state legislators, who are used to being able to do terrible things while nobody is paying attention, pretty nervous. People talk as if Democrats taking control of the House is inevitable and the Senate is likely, and as if all the crazy Republicans in state and local government will be swept out of office.

Are these things possible? I hope so. But please. PLEASE, don’t get complacent. There are still great swaths of the country who think Trump and the Republicans are doing a great job. I firmly believe that Democrats can win, but only if we work hard for it. Want good candidates to win in November? Then you need to be signing petitions NOW to get them on the ballot (here’s the link for Arizona). Are you an Arizona voter who supported the #RedForEd teacher walkout? Then make sure you sign the #InvestInEd petition so that we can vote for permanent education funding in November.  And if you’re a liberal anywhere, then make sure you and all your friends are registered to vote, and that you vote in the primaries.

Stay On Target

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Look, I know. The news is just ridiculous. This administration has more (and worse) scandals in a week than Obama had in 8 years. It’s easy to end up getting outrage fatigue, exhausting yourself chasing each one and ending up getting nowhere. Likewise, it’s easy to look at the Mueller probe and hope that, like some sort of Deus Ex Machina, it will magically fix all of our problems.

The truth is, the problem isn’t just Trump, and the only thing that is going to make things better is voting Republicans out of office. Repeatedly. Election after election after election. And the way that happens is getting Democrats to the polls in overwhelming numbers, election after election after election.

Don’t let all the chaos of the news cycle distract you from that priority. Stay on target. Donate to groups that fight voter suppression, harass your friends and family to make sure they are registered (and signed up for early voting if it’s available), volunteer with groups that get people registered to vote, volunteer for the democratic party. Do whatever you can to make the “blue wave” happen.

Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes

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The #RedForEd movement just wrapped up a historic teacher walk-out in Arizona. The result was a better budget for education than AZ has seen in quite a while, but it still fell short in many ways. Now that the walk-out is over, I’ve seen some people gravitating toward extreme responses: Either they try to make it seem like the movement was overwhelmingly successful, or like nothing was accomplished and that the strike should go on. Attitudes like this, gravitating toward either absolute, aren’t very productive. The truth is, the movement had some impressive successes given some of the truly horrible Republicans in the state legislature, but there is still a lot of work left to do.

Likewise, when it comes to candidates, there is a certain subset of liberal voters who require their candidates to be liberal in all things, or else they won’t vote for them. In the 2016 general election it was Bernie or Bust. Now I’m seeing a similar dynamic in the Arizona senate candidates. Deedra Abboud and Kyrsten Synema are the leading democratic candidates. Abboud is more liberal on most issues (and is my preference), while Synema is very moderate.

By all means, at this stage support the candidate you agree with most. Vote for them in the primary. But if the more moderate Democrat wins the primary (as seems likely in the AZ senate race), then we need to rally around them. I don’t like it any more than you do, but until ranked choice voting becomes widespread, the fact remains that we’re stuck with two dominant parties, and if you abstain from voting for the Democrats because their candidate isn’t liberal enough for your tastes, you give an advantage to the Republican.

 

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

A while back I discovered that I had accidentally accumulated a handful of Audible credits, and so of course to get the most bang for my buck I used them on audiobooks books that were either not available from the library, had a long wait list, or were as long as possible. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson weighs in at a respectable 42 hours, and had been on my to-read list for quite a while, so I bought it and finally started it when I had a long road trip for work back in January.

The book is a huge epic, with a good-sized cast of main characters and two separate but related story lines. Half of the book is set during World War 2 and the main characters are Lawrence Waterhouse, a brilliant math prodigy code-breaker who works with Alan Turing, Bobby Shaftoe, a resourceful marine who ends up in all sorts of interesting situations as the allied powers try to hide the fact that they have broken axis codes, and Goto Dengo, a Japanese mining engineer who ends up involved in a plot to bury tons of gold the axis powers have looted from conquered countries.

The other half of the book takes place in the 90s. The main character, Randy Waterhouse, is the grandson of Lawrence and is a computer hacker who is part of an internet startup trying to establish cryptographically secure internet communications including an anonymous digital currency. He ends up working with the various descendants of the other WWII characters in a plot to recover the buried gold.

In typical Neil Stephenson style, Cryptonomicon is prone to long-winded asides about a wide variety of technical topics, particularly computers and cryptography, but also other stuff, such as completely unnecessary parametrization of things in daily life into systems of equations. I guess this is supposed to dazzle readers with how smart the characters (and the author) are, but I often found it tedious. I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse if I was not already familiar with a lot of the topics covered. Some of these asides are interesting, or at least charming, and many that seem irrelevant at the time end up being relevant later on.  Some of these asides have also aged quite poorly. The book was written in the late 90s, and so it has a number of breathless explanations of computer-related things that the reader is clearly supposed to be amazed and impressed by, which nowadays are just normal boring parts of life.

There are also a few that have aged poorly for other reasons. One in particular stands out: Randy is at a dinner party with his (soon to be ex) girlfriend’s academic colleagues. The girlfriend is a caricature of the “bitchy feminist” and her colleagues are (shudder) social scientists (who are, the text makes clear, lesser forms of life compared to hard science, math, and computer geeks). Randy gets in an argument with a dude who has become famous for raising difficult questions about the rise of the internet, and in particular how inequality in society means that poor people will not have the same chance to benefit from the internet as rich people. Instead of responding to the actual (very valid and still very relevant point), Randy leaps to the defense of the internet by criticizing the “information superhighway” analogy and  flaunting his impressive credentials as… a UNIX sysadmin I guess? I guess we’re supposed to be impressed by that? The “best” part of the chapter is when the academic points out that Randy, a white male from a long line of well-to-do math whizzes, has benefited from privileges that others may not have shared, and Randy (a) claims the he doesn’t have privilege, and (b) it’s clear that the reader is supposed to side with him.

That one chapter basically turned me off from Randy and his whole story line. These days it’s just not that fun to read a story glorifying tech-bros who are inventing bitcoin (even if that story improbably leads to all sorts of adventures in the jungles of the Phillipines). I mean, all due credit to Stephenson for linking cryptography and the potential for digital currency back in the late 90s: that’s some good sci-fi future prediction, even if Cryptonomicon is naively obsessed with the need for a gold standard to back such a currency. But too often I found that the book, especially the modern story line, seemed to glorify white male nerds in a way that doesn’t sit quite right nowadays, when stereotypical white male nerds, especially those obsessed with “individual liberty” and cryptocurrency have become one of the most toxic segments of the population on and off the internet. (I should also mention that Randy’s interactions with and thoughts about women do not help the situation. There’s a “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” vibe that doesn’t age well. I found his romance with Amy Shaftoe extremely far-fetched: at some point in the book she goes from strong, independent woman to emotional and needy potential girlfriend, and it’s entirely unclear why she would be interested in him.)

On the other hand, the WWII storyline is really good. Still prone to long, often gratuitous, tangents, but I enjoyed the characters and the story much more. Lots of interesting people jetting around the globe, getting into and out of trouble. And it also focused on a part of the war that I did not know much about, the southeast Pacific, so I learned at least a little real history mixed in with the fictional parts.

When I finished this book, I wavered on how to rate it on Goodreads. I love giant doorstopper epics, and it has some great moments and memorable characters. It tells a heck of a yarn, and the way the past and “present” story lines are interrelated is pretty well done. But it also has the issues I mentioned above. In the end I went with three stars. I think there is a four or even five-star book buried in there, but Cryptonomicon is badly in need of an editor willing to mercilessly wield her red pen to trim down the considerable bloat and improve the modern storyline. Lacking that, it’s uneven and too-long. I’m glad I read it, but I’m always disappointed when a book isn’t as good as it could have been.

 

Book Review: Norwegian Wood

I picked this book up because over on the book suggestion subreddits, Haruki Murakami’s books are constantly being recommended so I figured I’d give one a try. People are constantly praising Murakami for his beautiful prose and poignant writing, two things that I tend to enjoy so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I was pretty disappointed.

At times I felt like I must be reading a different book than everyone else: The prose was fine but really nothing special. I’ve read authors who deploy metaphors and similes that light up my mind and make me pause in admiration. Instead, most of Murakami’s writing seemed to fall into the category of “invisible” prose for me, where it flows nicely but nothing really jumps out. The overall melancholy tone was good, and there were occasional moments where the prose got a little more poetic, but even then I wasn’t particularly struck by it. I also found that a lot of the dialog didn’t quite scan for me: there were a lot of what seemed like non sequiturs, which I suspect is at least partly due to something lost in the translation from Japanese to English.

I was underwhelmed by the story and characters too. The main character is just about the most boring person I can imagine, with no real goals or motivation in life, and his primary love interest is a girl who is somehow even more boring than he is. The supporting characters are at least more interesting, but one of them (the second love interest) is an embodiment of the manic pixie dream girl trope (seriously, the description at that link could have been written specifically for her, right down to the hair dye). For some reason, despite being an incredibly boring and unremarkable guy, all the female characters in the book are in love with him and think that his every banal statement is amazing. Even the most interesting character in the book, an older woman who is at the same mental institution as the main love interest, and is a lesbian (and statutory rapist of an underaged girl – which is its own can of worms), ends up sleeping with the main character at the end of the book for no apparent reason. As for the plot, it was almost nonexistent, which is unfortunately pretty typical for a “literary” novel.

I guess I can see how a book about a young guy who mopes around aimlessly and yet for some reason has attractive women (of all ages and sexual orientations!) falling all over themselves to be with him might appeal to some readers, but I really don’t see why Murakami is such a literary darling known for gorgeous prose. Suffice it to say, I think this book just didn’t work for me. Maybe there is some aspect of it that went over my head that I’m not appreciating, but whatever the reason, it just didn’t connect.

The Purpose of a Gun

What is the purpose of a gun?

It’s a  question I’ve been thinking about a lot since the Las Vegas massacre, and has come to the fore again with the massacre in Parkland and the national discussion about gun violence that has followed. It’s a simple question, but it’s one that I think doesn’t get enough attention, because the answers get to the heart of the gun debate in the United States.

The simple answer to this question is that a gun is a device for propelling projectiles at high enough velocities to kill animals at a distance. More specifically, many guns are for killing human beings. That’s what guns are designed to do. But when I ask about the purpose of a gun, I don’t mean “what do they literally do?” I mean, “why do people buy them? Why do people think they need guns?”

Many gun owners will say that they own guns for defense. They want to protect their property, themselves, and their families from harm. Others will say that they own guns for hunting: killing animals for sport and/or food, and all of the culture and traditions that go with that.  Polls show that those are far and away the two main reasons people own guns. Of course, guns serve another purpose as well: they are used in war for killing people. Our species has put a lot of effort into finding better ways to kill each other, and modern firearms are one result.

So, guns are for self defense, hunting, and war. But guns are more than just simple tools. Guns have a deep cultural significance that other tools don’t. People get emotional about guns. Why is that?

It helps to look at those three purposes more closely. Self defense, hunting, and war are intimately linked with our culture’s ideas of masculinity. The “man of the house” is traditionally responsible for keeping his wife and kids safe. Hunting is a manly thing to do: it is a rite of passage for boys to go out hunting with their fathers, and bringing home meat to feed the family again plays into the idea of the man’s role as provider for the household. And soldiers are seen as the epitome of masculinity, taking the man’s role of defender of the family and expanding to to defender of the country. Historically, killing has been a man’s job.

The purpose of a gun in modern American culture is not just as a tool, but as a talisman of masculinity. A fetish, worshiped for its power to confer masculinity on its wielder.

Couple the gun’s near-mystical status with a culture that is deeply misogynistic, where men seek to distance themselves from anything that seems even remotely feminine. The easiest way to insult a man in our culture is to question his masculinity, to imply that he is in some way woman-like. Men are taught that they must constantly prove their masculinity to themselves and each other, so what better way than to acquire guns? Surely nobody can question my masculinity if I own an arsenal of military-grade weapons.

At the same time, expressing any emotion other than anger is seen as feminine and therefore forbidden to any self-respecting red-blooded man. Boys don’t cry. Boys are supposed to like gym class and play sports so they can prove their physical prowess against other boys. Boys are not supposed to like poetry or drama, because those activities involve openly sharing emotions other than anger.

That said, our culture is changing fast. Women are breaking down barriers everywhere you look. Same sex couples can get married. Nerds are cool. The #MeToo movement is exposing rampant sexual harassment and men who have long gotten away with it are finally facing consequences. We had 8 years with an African American president. Cherished bastions of popular culture like Star Wars and superhero movies are having success after success by featuring women and people of color.

There’s a saying that goes: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Right now a lot of white men, raised in a hyper-masculine culture, are seeing these shifts and feel like they are under attack. Plenty of men are able to adapt to the changing culture and celebrate it, but there is a segment of the population who instead double down on toxic masculinity. They perceive a threat to their way of life, and in response they acquire arsenals and continue to repress emotions to prove their masculinity at any cost.

There is another facet to guns that also comes into play here. Not only are they powerful symbols of masculinity, but guns offer the illusion of control. It is terrifying to think of an armed intruder breaking into your house and threatening your family, so many people want a gun so that if such a situation arises, they will not feel helpless. They can take control of the situation rather than wait for the cops to arrive. Studies show that having a gun in your house actually puts your family at greater risk, but it feels like it does the exact opposite. Likewise, the idea of a mass shooting is terrifying, and makes people feel helpless. You hear gun advocates say that they want to carry weapons to prevent such attacks, that if we just had more “good guys with guns” then we’d be safer. What they are really saying is that they cannot deal with feeling helpless if such a situation were to arise. By carrying a gun, they feel like if they found themselves in an attack, they could do something about it. This is of course not backed up by reality, where having numerous armed civilians in a shooting is likely to just add to the chaos, cause additional unwanted injuries, and make it much harder for law enforcement to do their jobs effectively. But the idea of having a gun is comforting because it gives an illusion of control.

So what we end up with are heavily armed, emotionally stunted, white men who feel like their way of life is under attack, and turn to guns as a way to reassert control. It’s the perfect recipe for gun massacres.

It is obvious that this country needs better laws to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on weapons that make killing easy. But I think it is equally obvious that gun violence in this country is also a byproduct of a deeply toxic culture of masculinity, and that if we want to curb the violence we need to work hard to change that culture.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

I first heard of George Saunders when I stumbled upon a series of short writing advice videos that he was in. He had a reputation as a master storyteller, and I made a note to try reading one of his books some time. When I saw his novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” popping up on recommendation lists, I decided to give it a try.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew basically nothing about the book other than the title and that the author had a good reputation. Lincoln in the Bardo turned out to be a very strange book that only partly worked for me.

The book is centered on Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died of Typhoid fever at age 11. As advertised in the title, the book is about Willie’s ghost as it lingers in the “bardo” – the in-between realm between the world of the living and death. Willie’s ghost encounters a cast of other colorful ghosts, who tell him their stories and try to convince him to leave the bardo and be at peace, while refusing to accept that they themselves should do the same.

Interspersed between fictional chapters are chapters that are composed entirely of little snippets and quotes from relevant historical accounts. I don’t know that all of the quotes were real, but at least one of the sources was “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which I know is a real book.

The book is definitely on the “literary” or even “experimental” side of things. There is sort of a plot, but it is pretty thin, and much of the book is side stories about the various ghosts and their various lives and reasons for lingering in the bardo. Some are funny, some are sad, some are just bizarre.

For me, the best parts of the book were when the two main ghosts, Bevins and Vollman, who serve as narrators, actually enter into Abraham Lincoln’s body as he is visiting his boy’s grave. They get a glimpse of his thoughts and feelings, and the result is a handful of very powerful and moving passages reflecting on grief, the impermanence of life, the helpless feeling of a parent who looses a child. These thoughts, in Lincoln’s mind, shade into thoughts of the war, or the thousands of other sons who have died or will die, and whether the price is worth it. These passages alone made the book worth reading, but they’re surrounded by a lot of weird stuff that didn’t connect as well with me.

I listened to this as an audiobook, which was interesting because it was done with a full cast. The two main readers were Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, and they did a very good job, especially Offerman. But many of the minor characters were also voiced by famous people: Lena Dunham, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, etc. However, some of the very minor parts, especially among the dozens of snippets and quotes, were read by people who were clearly not trained actors (indeed, I noticed the cast listing seems to have Saunders’ entire family, for example). It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you go from a trained voice actor to a regular person who reads without any inflection.

Overall, I’d say this was worth reading for its occasional beautiful and poignant moments, but was a little on the strange side for me. I’d like to give some of Saunders’ short stories a try. They’re what he really is famous for, and I suspect I will like his short form writing better.

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning

They say you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? The title of Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning” gripped me the first time I saw it, and I knew I had to read the book regardless of what it was about. I only learned later that the title is part of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”
I’ll say up front that although this book is not perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. The basic premise is that several hundred years in the future, geopolitics on Earth looks radically different from what we have now. Technology is advanced enough that people can hop in a (flying) car and travel anywhere in the world in less than two hours, and this has led to a breakdown of traditional nations. Instead, society is organized into several different groups or “hives” and people can choose which one they ant to be a part of, if any:
  • Humanists: focused on human achievements (athletic, artistic, etc)
  • Cousins: focused on altruism and providing social services to all
  • The Masonic empire: A Rome-like monarchy built on the longstanding rumors of a secret society pulling the strings throughout history
  • The Gordians: Basically a think-tank become a nation, with a focus on understanding the human brain and behavior
  • The European Union: Self-explanatory
  • Mitsubishi corporation: A coalition of former Asian nations now run as a “shareholder democracy”. Owns most of the land on Earth.
  • Utopians: A group of scientists and others focused on the future. They work tirelessly to end all disease, extend human life, and colonize other planets.

Here is a more detailed description of each hive, written by Palmer herself.

This fascinating vision of the future is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is crammed full of other really creative ideas about the future, and that’s what really made me love it. Some are relatively minor, like textiles that project an image of the background on their surface rendering the wearer nearly invisible. Others are fascinating and troubling, like “set sets”: humans who have been interfaced directly with computers since birth, co-opting the neural pathways normally reserved for things like sight and smell and taste, turning them into phenomenally powerful biological computers.

The plot of the novel revolves around a family who play a central role in the smooth functioning of this future world. Their two “set-sets” (along with a massive array of supercomputers) are responsible for the flight paths of the billions and billions of high-speed cars that zip around the world and make the distributed “Hives” possible. (The cars of course, are not driven by their passengers, and crashes are so rare that they make international news when they occur.) Only the small Utopian hive does not use their system of cars. Unbeknownst to most, the family also harbors a boy with extraordinary abilities that I won’t divulge here, and protecting him from discovery is a major driver of the plot.

But really I’ll be honest: this is not a novel about plot. It’s about this vivid and fascinating vision of the future in all of its glorious, messy, detail. The plot serves primarily as an excuse for the main characters to meet and interact with the outlandish characters who lead each of the Hives, and therefore to show the reader another facet of the complicated future world. (And of course, just as has often been the case with leaders of nations throughout history, the leaders of the hives all know each other and are connected by a web of marriages, adoptions, etc.)

In case the intricate worldbuilding didn’t clue you in, this novel is unabashedly smart, and to some it may veer into the territory of “pretentious”. You see, “Too Like The Lightning” is obsessed with Enlightenment philosophy. The writing style of the book is heavily influenced by this time period as well, with a narrator (who is also a main character) who speaks directly to the reader, sometimes even inventing interjections from the reader and responding to them. Palmer does some exposition jiu-jitsu by having the narrator ostensibly relating the events of the novel to a reader even farther in the future, but by explaining things to that future reader, we in the “past” are also able to understand things. Here, it’s probably easier if I just show an example, from where the narrator is explaining why he’s writing in the style of the 18th century:

“You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.”

I suspect some readers might balk at the almost self-indulgent way this book goes on about various philosophers and how their works are relevant for certain aspects of the future society depicted, but I found it refreshing. Usually if sci-fi is going to get self-indulgent about some subject, it’s science (often physics). Most people don’t bat an eye when the brilliant scientist in a hard sci-fi novel gives a big speech explaining special relativity or the chaotic orbits of planets in a multi-star system, or what have you. In fact, books like that are often applauded for their perceived realism. I’d argue that “Too Like The Lightning” is doing exactly the same thing, explaining some point of philosophy that is just as fundamental to understanding the world depicted in the novel as special relativity is fundamental to understanding Tau Zero, for example.

What really impressed me about this book (Palmer’s first published novel!) is the confidence and skill with which Palmer manages to pull off several very difficult things. The voice and narrative style, as you can see in the quote above, are very distinctive and unusual. The world she has created is intricate and complicated and feels organic, which means it is potentially confusing, yet somehow Palmer manages to write in such a way that you always have just enough information to want to keep going to learn more. From the very beginning , it is written in such a way that you trust all will be made clear in due time. Often I lose patience with stories that string the reader along, but “Too Like the Lightning” does it extremely well. In this, it has a lot in common with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which also contains lots of philosophical discussions and likewise provides the reader just enough information to understand but doles it out slowly.

Finally, I found it refreshing to read far-future sci-fi set here on Earth rather than a space opera set in an unknown star system on the other side of the galaxy. Most authors writing this far into the future use the time gap and fictional worlds they’re writing about as an excuse to start with a relatively blank slate. Palmer instead takes the far more challenging route of setting her story here on Earth. That means that her worldbuilding has to deal with the complicated, messy baggage of thousands of years of real history, but as a historian Palmer is up to the challenge and the result is a sci-fi vision of the future that feels far more “real” than the hardest “hard” sci-fi.

I was disappointed at the end of the book to learn that it is really only the beginning of a longer story, but that’s unfortunately par for the course in speculative fiction. That said, I still thought the twists and revelations at the end were very good. As I listened to the end of the audiobook (which has a great narrator) on a plane, I may have said “whoaaah” out loud. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

 

Book Review: Blood Meridian – or – The Evening Redness in the West

I have mixed feelings about this book, which I am pretty sure is exactly the idea. Like other Cormac McCarthy books, the prose in Blood Meridian is great, as long as you can tolerate lots of arcane and antiquated uses for words and don’t require frivolous punctuation like quotation marks and apostrophes. The book is full of evocative descriptions of the desert southwest, from the details of tiny Mexican villages to the size and desolation of the desert. However, that same gorgeous prose is used to describe some of the nastiest violence and depravity that I’ve ever read, so it is absolutely not a joy to read.

The book follows The Kid, who wanders west in the 1840s and gets caught up in a gang of men roving the Mexican border killing and scalping Indians. They quickly realize that it’s awfully hard to tell whether a scalp comes from an Apache or a Mexican, and end up just killing indiscriminately. They go from being hailed as heroes to hunted as monsters.

As far as plot and characters go, this book is pretty weak. The plot is pretty repetitive, and in some places barely makes sense, and most characters are little more than names. In fact, most don’t even have names. Even the Kid, technically the main character, is basically only there to provide a point of view on the events. The only real character is The Judge, fascinating and monstrous both in physical bearing and in deed, who by the end of the book is revealed to be more a symbol than an actual character.  The whole book, even though it is based on real historical events, is written in such a way that it feels freighted with symbolism and half-perceived meaning.

When you get down to it, this is less a novel than a treatise on the human love of violence in the guise of a novel so that it is more “palatable” (which, to be sure, is a generous term to use for this book). It is a sort of dialog between the author and the reader that goes like this:

 

Author: Do you like westerns? Cowboys and Indians? You like the idea of a past when men were men and the frontier was there to be settled by those who could handle its hardships?

Reader: Yes, that sounds great!

Author: Ok, here you go.

Reader: Oh. No, no, that’s horrible! So much death and cruelty. And really, dead babies too? Was that necessary? Why are you showing me this?

Author: You say it’s horrible, but you’re still reading.

Reader: Well, there is some great writing here. But there’s something wrong with you.

Author: The reader dost protest too much, methinks. I think you like it. I think you know you’re supposed to say you hate this but it also excites you. If there’s something wrong here, is it with me, or with you? Or both of us?

This is not a fun book. Both the plot and the characters are lacking. But despite that, having had a few days to reflect on it, I think this is a very good book because it forces the reader to have that internal conversation. This book would probably reveal hidden symbolism and meaning with a second read through, but I don’t have the stomach for it. Heck, I don’t blame people who can’t make it through a first reading. It is not for everyone. You don’t read this for fun, but if you do read it, it sticks with you and makes you think.

 

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

For the majority of popular authors out there, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, it’s all about the plot. Prose exists to tell you what’s going on and otherwise its job is to get out of the way and try to be as “invisible” as possible. That’s why it was so refreshing to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The prose in this book is the opposite of that bland “invisible” utilitarian prose that is so common. It’s so good that it is hard to even find the words to convey it. The difference between other authors’ writing and the writing on display in Kavalier and Clay is like the difference between those sleepy ponies that give kids a nice safe ride at the state fair and a thoroughbred racehorse on a straightaway. You get so used to safe, easy, invisible prose that when a book comes along that really shows you what the English language can do, its power is breathtaking and exhilarating. Seeing it used to its full potential relieves a tension you didn’t even know was there.

There’s so much to gush about when it comes to Chabon’s writing, but one of the most noticeable things for me was the skill with which characters are introduced. Even for minor characters who are present for a scene or two, he somehow manages to deploy the perfect metaphor, the perfect few details of their appearance and demeanor, so that in a paragraph you not only know what the person looks like, but you know their backstory, their motivation, their family life, their aspirations and disappointments in life. You feel like you know the person, like you’re pretty sure you’ve met the person in real life.

It’s not just the descriptions of people, it’s all the descriptions. Chabon manages to find the perfect words every time so that it’s not just a description, it’s a visceral feeling. It’s familiar even if there’s no reason it should be. And somehow this is done without feeling like the prose is bloated. The only complaint I have is that he does have a tendency to use an unusual word when a more common one would do fine. It’s a fine line to walk: sometimes the less common word has shades of meaning that are missing from the everyday one. But sometimes it just sounds pretentious. And I’ll admit, there were a couple of times, for some reason both involving violent events, that the word choices and figurative language was so unusual I didn’t actually understand what happened except by context clues. But for the most part, I think the writing falls on the correct side of the fine line.

So what’s the book about? It is nominally about two Jewish cousins, one from New York, one a WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia, who team up to create a superhero comic. I was never much of a fan of comics, but I am enough of a SFF fan that I have absorbed some comics knowledge through osmosis. One of the coolest things about Kavalier and Clay was seeing Chabon use the strength of his prose to convey the power of the story being told by the comics in such a way that an adult reader gets the same feelings as a kid reading the comic.

But comics are just the surface veneer. The main theme of the story is “Escape” and whether it’s a good thing or not, ranging from the escapism of comic books, to escaping the War, to escaping the city to settle for living the American dream in the suburbs, to escaping from that sterile and boring suburban life to be who you really are, etc. I’m not doing it justice of course: it is very well done, perfectly walking the line between ham-fisted and too subtle.

I also found it interesting to see many familiar threads appear in Kavalier and Clay that I recognized from Chabon’s collection of personal essays “Manhood for Amateurs.” Comic books and magic tricks, of course. But also a lot of melancholy and wistful reflections on growing up and nostalgia for childhood, fraternal (or in this case, cousinly) bonds, and the relationship between father and son.

It’s not a perfect book. I found the first half to be much more engaging than the second, as if once he was done introducing new characters, the writing lost some of its initial spark. That said, it was still excellent. The prose in Kavalier and Clay makes you feel things in a way that very few other authors are capable of, and it certainly cements Chabon’s place among my favorite authors.

 

I’m volunteering for the Democratic party, and you should be too.

I don’t know the original source for this image. If you do, please let me know.

The Republican party has gone off the rails.

In just the last week, the Republican president threatened nuclear war with North Korea, military action against Venezuela for no apparent reason, thanked Russia for expelling American diplomats, and failed to immediately denounce Nazis and white supremacists even after they murdered a woman and assaulted many others. Before that, Republicans came within a hair’s breadth of passing a law, drafted in secret at the last minute, that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act (which is based on conservative ideas) and strip health insurance from millions of people. Our attorney general is a man who was deemed, in 1986, in Alabama, to be too racist to serve on the district court. Our Secretary of Education is a billionaire who has openly said that it is her goal to use education reform to “advance the kingdom of God” in direct opposition to the separation of church and state. The Republican party is systematically making it harder for minorities and the poor to vote, and has gerrymandered legislative districts in many states so that even if the GOP gets fewer votes, it gets more representatives. They reject the fact that humans are causing climate change, even as its effects become more obvious every year. They stole a seat on the supreme court.

It’s easy to point the finger at the Republican voters who got us here, and they absolutely deserve that blame. Many of them will claim that they just want smaller government and lower taxes and that they don’t support Nazis or racism or taking healthcare from poor children. But it was obvious what they were getting when they voted for Trump and Ryan and McConnell and other Republicans. If you are willing to ignore racism and misogyny and contempt for reality itself in order to get lower taxes for the rich, then guess what? The blood is on your hands when Nazis, encouraged by the people you elected, openly murder people on the streets.

That said, Republican voters are not the only ones to blame for the rise of Trump and the Republican party’s insanity. You and I are responsible for it too. We are complicit because we took for granted that facts and human decency should win out over lies and hatred. We sat by and watched while Republicans organized and voted and methodically took over every level of government. We saw Obama elected and thought that the country had turned a corner and that our work was done, when in reality the work was just beginning. We bickered among ourselves instead of working together to defeat one of the greatest threats that our democracy has ever faced. So now we have white nationalists in the streets and in the White House, a know-nothing president condoning their behavior and casually threatening nuclear war, and people having to call to beg their senators not to let them or their loved ones die for lack of health care.

This last election was a wake-up call for many of us, and I know that many of you have been participating in the resistance: marching and making calls, writing your representatives, going to town halls, donating to worthy causes, and all the rest. I know you’re tired, and I know you’re stretched thin, but there’s something else that I encourage you to do: Get involved with your local Democratic party as a Precinct Committee person (PC).

PCs are volunteers for the party who work at the most local level, usually within their own neighborhood. They help to get people registered to vote, to find out what issues matter most to their neighbors, and help get out the vote when election season comes around. PCs also play an important role in getting their county’s voice heard at the state level. For every three Elected PCs from a county, the country gets one additional representative at the state level.

The time commitment is not very large: occasional meetings and events that you attend as you are able. It is incredibly gratifying to get involved with a group of like-minded people from your county who are getting out there and doing something to turn the tide in 2018 and beyond. It’s also a great way to learn about local and state candidates so that you can make an informed decision for the primary election and help make sure the party puts forward candidates whose views reflect your own. As a PC, I’ve already gotten to meet multiple candidates for state and national office, as well as our representative in the U.S. House.

Becoming an active part of the party also lets you influence the party directly, outside of the primary election. If there is an issue that you think the Democrats aren’t emphasizing enough, or that you disagree with, then the best way to fix that is to get involved. Meet the people in your local party who can communicate that sentiment to those higher up in the party, or tell your representatives and candidates directly when you meet with them as a PC.  I’ve been a PC for a few months now, and at least for my county, I have noticed that most PCs are older retired people. There is a lack of people from my generation and younger, meaning that the younger perspective is missing from the grassroots foundation of the party.

And lest you think that the Democrats are just taking the place of Republicans as the “Party of No” without any policy to back up our resistance, I encourage you to take a look at the Democratic party platform. I think you’ll like what you see there. We are fighting against racism and white nationalism. We are fighting to ensure that every person has access to affordable health care. We are fighting to ensure that every citizen can vote, and that every vote counts. We believe that everyone deserves a good education, not just those who can afford to pay for private schools and expensive colleges. We believe in science, and that something must be done to slow climate change.

It really boils down to this: the only way to stop the Republican party’s madness is for Democrats to start winning elections at all levels. Republicans have taken over our government because they are organized and they vote. If you want to resist them, then the best thing you can do is help the Democrats do the same. Get involved. Help make the Democratic party what you want it to be. Only then will we be able set our country back on the right track.

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