Saturday, December 31, 2016

LEVIATHAN'S WAKE, first book in a busy series whose Syfy adaptation is better

(The Expanse, #1)
Orbit Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

**UPDATE 22 December 2016** This is a mea-culpa of epic proportions. Syfy did a stellar job of making this series. I couldn't have been more wrong about the series, though I still don't like the books. This YouTube video of a Google Talk from 2014 is a terrific proof of why the series works so well. Excellent television! Binge on the series at Prime for the holidays.

**UPDATE 6 September 2013** More Suckass News Dept, from SFSignal: "Variety is reporting that scribes Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Iron Man and Children of Men) will script the pilot of the how called The Expanse, which is based on the series of novels written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey.

The book series cosnsists of Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate and the soon-to-be-released Cibola Burn.

The Expanse will be an hour long SciFi drama “with elements of a detective procedural, centring on a cover-up of the discovery of alien life”.

Not much else is known at this point. Stay tuned!"

Yuck. Couldn't pick a GOOD series. No no no.

The Publisher Says: Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

My Review: Exactly half-way to a five-star world-beating yodel-worthy space opera. An extremely interesting choice of time to explore, sort of late Red Mars-to-early-Green Mars time. A choice group of characters, the standard Hero's Journey plot, and away we go!

Only we don't so much. We stall out on characterization...flat-ish, unsurprising...we hop around in PoV terms until I feel like a flea on a chihuahua that ate some coffee beans and is more manic than usual. We keep events hurtling along, far too many of them in fact, and we mangle our hands in the machinery of alienness.

We did too much, ate too much, played too rough. Our tummy hurts now, and we need a nap.

Plus? I hate the ending so much I want to send the editor a nastygram. THIS COULD HAVE AND SHOULD HAVE BEEN FIXED. It's not for the author to do, this is a collaboration and that means sometimes a referee is needed. This was one of them. No way would I read the next book! And that's sad, because I really really like The Expanse and its cool politics and people.

One thing the show does brilliantly is make the stark divide between haves and have-nots graphic and inescapable. The Economic Royalists of The Expanse are made plain, their motives are plain, and their corruption is inescapable. This series, filmed for me but certainly the books are a great option for others, is must-see, must-read, must-absorb for the world of 2017.

THE BIG NECESSITY, a funny book about an icky subject that's extremely important

THE BIG NECESSITY: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

Metropolitan Books
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Produced behind closed doors, disposed of discreetly, and hidden by euphemism, bodily waste is something common to all and as natural as breathing, yet we prefer not to talk about it. But we should—even those of us who take care of our business in pristine, sanitary conditions. For it’s not only in developing countries that human waste is a major public health threat: population growth is taxing even the most advanced sewage systems, and the disease spread by waste kills more people worldwide every year than any other single cause of death. Even in America, 1.95 million people have no access to an indoor toilet. Yet the subject remains unmentionable.

The Big Necessity takes aim at the taboo, revealing everything that matters about how people do—and don’t—deal with their own waste. Moving from the deep underground sewers of Paris, London, and New York—an infrastructure disaster waiting to happen—to an Indian slum where ten toilets are shared by 60,000 people, Rose George stops along the way to explore the potential saviors: China’s five million biogas digesters, which produce energy from waste; the heroes of third world sanitation movements; the inventor of the humble Car Loo; and the U.S. Army’s personal lasers used by soldiers to zap their feces in the field.

With razor-sharp wit and crusading urgency, mixing levity with gravity, Rose George has turned the subject we like to avoid into a cause with the most serious of consequences.

My Review: The crapper. The toilet. The convenience. The Porcelain God. Of them all, it's the last one that's the most correct. We should worship the waste-disposal vessel in every American home, because it and the infrastructure that supports it, invisibly to the end users, make modern life as clean, comfortable, and healthy as possible.

Rose George has done us all the service of surveying the world's various systems and non-systems of waste disposal. She reports from the front lines of poop removal all over the planet, and let me just say that, after reading her reports, I am profoundly grateful to her that I now know what I do, without having to go and see and experience and smell all the things she did.

An entire caste of women exist in India who make a living scooping poop. Not dog poop, either. A whole continent, Africa, has dams and irrigation canals and other water control systems, and vanishingly small numbers of waste-disposal plants; water-borne illnesses, usually code for “fecal bacteria contaminated water”, kill millions there.

Aid donors don't want to pay for sewerage systems. Not glamourous enough. Local authorities don't know what to demand. The populace doesn't know there's another possibility. So generation after generation after generation gets sick, most often dies young, and all for the lack of a few lousy billions spent on treating human waste. Billions, to a country like this one with an annual income in the multi-trillions, ought not to be a big deal. Wouldn't be, either, if we hadn't spent several trillion bombing people who did nothing at all to us. Had to use the Chinese sugar daddy's credit card to do it, too. Now our grandkids will be lucky if they get clean water, since the asshole elite spent all that borrowed money on doing nothing worthwhile.

Oh dear, I'm off on my anti-conservative ranting again. Sorry. This book made me madder'n a swatted wasp. It makes me want to hurl when I read about the idiot Wall Street banks and bankers whimpering about their taxes, and how poorly they're spent on things like roads and bridges and health care and schools. Next up, and I am dead serious about this, next up is clean water. Privatize it, like the English did! Like we did with cable and phones! (How much more do you spend now on your phone than you did 30 years ago? I found an old bill from May 1984...$25. Now, over $200. Inflation doesn't account for but about half that increase.)

So when dysentery carries off your 90-year-old mother or your grandbaby, conservative voters, do not even think about complaining. YOU DID IT.

THE CRASH OF 2016, prescient look ahead from 2013, first 2017 political topic review

THE CRASH OF 2016: The Plot to Destroy America—and What We Can Do to Stop It

$19.99 trade paper, available used

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The United States is more vulnerable today than ever before-including during the Great Depression and the Civil War-because the pillars of democracy that once supported a booming middle class have been corrupted, and without them, America teeters on the verge of the next Great Crash.

The United States is in the midst of an economic implosion that could make the Great Depression look like child's play. In THE CRASH OF 2016, Thom Hartmann argues that the facade of our once-great United States will soon disintegrate to reveal the rotting core where corporate and billionaire power and greed have replaced democratic infrastructure and governance. Our once-enlightened political and economic systems have been manipulated to ensure the success of only a fraction of the population at the expense of the rest of us.

The result is a "for the rich, by the rich" scheme leading to policies that only benefit the highest bidders. Hartmann outlines the destructive forces-planted by Lewis Powell in 1971 and come to fruition with the "Reagan Revolution"-that have looted our nation over the past decade, and how their actions fit into a cycle of American history that lets such forces rise to power every four generations.

However, a backlash is now palpable against the "economic royalists"-a term coined by FDR to describe those hoarding power and wealth-including the banksters, oligarchs, and politicians who have plunged our nation into economic chaos and social instability.

Although we are in the midst of what could become the most catastrophic economic crash in American History, a way forward is emerging, just as it did in the previous great crashes of the 1760s, 1856, and 1929. The choices we make now will redefine American culture. Before us stands a genuine opportunity to embrace the moral motive over the profit motive-and to rebuild the American economic model that once yielded great success.

Thoroughly researched and passionately argued, THE CRASH OF 2016 is not just a roadmap to redemption in post-Crash America, but a critical wake-up call, challenging us to act. Only if the right reforms are enacted and the moral choices are made, can we avert disaster and make our nation whole again.

My Review: This is not Author Hartmann's first or last venture into alarmism and outrage: Screwed, What Would Jefferson Do?, Cracking the Code all till this same plot; these coupled with his alarmism over the Antropocene Extinction that's underway, eg The Last Hours of Humanity and The Prophet's Way, create a profile of the one-eyed man in the country of the blind.

His eye is relentlessly focused on the Overlords. And that's the half-star deduction from his perfectly-aligned-to-my-own-prejudices arguments. Yes indeed, a vast right-wing conspiracy exists, and most assuredly it is doing filth to the Great Unwashed Masses. This is so obvious that even idiots dimly perceive it, as witness the careers of apologists like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. But the sheeple consented to this nightmare's construction, even becoming complicit in its horrors and excesses. Labor unions are dying because their greed brought them to their knees and their venality led them to beg for scraps instead of finding the stout, well-watered tree that is their righteous principles and grabbing it, first to aid their new rise and then to wail on the fat, bloated faces of their genuine, factual oppressors. The supine, lazy, table-walking journalist class left its afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted principles well behind as the vast right-wing conspiracy's engines, the legal fiction of corporate persons, bought their outlets and fired them for singing Horst Wessel out of key, or worse yet for singing alternative words. Hey, they have families to support, kids to educate, mortgages!

And thus the dream died.

It's a sad fact that things change. Always and invariably, things change. Progress is never straightforward, has not ever been, and the side-paths and detours of history have a pattern and an inevitability only in hindsight. Weimar Germany and its legendary dissipation did not lead, inevitably and unstoppably, to the rise of the lunatic-fringe Nazis. It created a vacuum between the cultured and intelligent and the vast majority of humanity, the ignorant and credulous, in such a public and obvious way that the most prepared faction was able to use the resulting maelstrom to blow themselves into the position of being the stopper and ending the instability. Same was true of late Imperial Rome, same is true now. The educated elite of our time is off in a corner playing with itself over AI and cybernetics and quantum computing, arguing passionately over ethical concerns that have absolutely nothing to do with anything real or grounded: Getting Junior's teeth fixed, making sure all six of the Johnsons are not forced to make a meal out of a $2 can of beans, getting into the leased-never-owned $30,000 Toyota and praying that the airbag doesn't kill you instead of save you and that the repo man didn't look in the garage windows or your trip to minimum-wage, uninsured work (and with the missed day your fast-food-flipping job) will be canceled. (There are many ways in which that gross oversimplification is arguably incorrect, but it isn't in the scope of a paragraph to explore nuance.)

Why was the disavowable Trump elected? Because the calamitous collapse that's well underway needs a fall guy, and he's an easy one. His stupidity is on the level of Warren G. Harding and his telegenics equal to the Great Satan himself, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the first modern political dupe to walk the tables all the way to the big chair. Curse Nancy Davis and her vile father for creating this Frankentraitor, this Manchurian Candidate, the author of record though not in fact of all the woes and miseries afflicting the world of 2016.

But Hartmann's book didn't tell me these things. Hartmann's book lays out an analysis of history that, in its viewpoint and interpretations, illuminates the path that I walked to get to those conclusions. That's what good books do, they give you the light of good scholarship and sound analysis, they point the light at the solid ground of fact they trod on to get to a conclusion that will educate you and/or enlighten you.

The five stair-steps Hartmann has left for us to climb are:

The Economic Royalists and the Corporatist Conspiracy uses Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1936 acceptance speech on being renominated for the Democratic Party's candidacy to the presidency as an organizing point and a rallying cry. The relevant part of FDR's 1936 acceptance speech and the organizing principle of the book as I see it, is:
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property.
Hartmann takes this lucid, concise statement of the roots of every single generation of humanity's major battle to have a share of the rewards their labor has made possible as a lens to view the state of the current economic and political situation. He reaches back to the United States' moment of genesis and shows the same conditions now prevailing were present then as well:
Many people today think that the Tea Act—which led to the Boston Tea Party—was simply an increase in the taxes on tea paid by the American colonists. That's where the whole "Taxation Without Representation" meme came from.

Instead, the purpose of the Tea Act was to give the East India Company full and unlimited access to the American tea trade and to exempt the company from having to pay taxes to Britain on tea exported to the American colonies. It even gave the company a tax refund on millions of pounds of tea that it was unable to sell and holding in inventory.

In other words, the Tea Act was the largest corporate tax break in the history of the world.
This cogent analysis of the flashpoint of the American Revolution minimizes one, in my opinion crucial, factor: the colonists, the Boston Braves whose "act of corporate vandalism" as Hartmann puts it ignited the shooting war, weren't scholars or lawyers or political mavens whose dislike of and disdain for royalists, those whose authority to grab money from their purses depended on access to Royal Authority, led to their principled action of heaving tea into Boston Harbor; they were tea-drinkers whose bill went up and who resented being plucked for the feathering of nests far, far away. Their issue was practical, not theoretical.

The new country set itself afloat on the ever-choppy seas of history without anything approaching consensus on many issues. That fact is why the country has thrown itself many a crisis, including a little shindig we call the Civil War. Economic crises have been frequent as well. Andrew Jackson, prior to our current president elect the most despised and reviled electee in US history, left the presidency in 1833...four years before the traumatic and appalling Panic of 1837...after destroying the Second Bank of the United States which, in conspiracy-theory terms, caused the monied interests in London to use a transparent and patently absurd excuse to hike their interest rates by 60% and thus squeeze US credit markets. Seven years of horrendous hard times ensued, the PR machine of the day made sure to reach back to Jackson's refusal to accept the banksters' demand for their vig to affix public blame, and on we lurched into Civil War made inevitable by a deepening financial divide between North and South.

After the Civil War's depredations, financed by President Lincoln's decision to follow Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase's plan to print a form of Federal paper money-cum-war debt, the banksters punished the still-reeling country with the Panic of 1873, known as the Great Depression until 1929's shivaree took that title away. Grover Cleveland, the only Democratic Party president to be elected between the Civil War and the Panic of 1907 whose aftermath gifted us with the Federal Reserve System, said in his 1888 State of the Union address to Congress:
As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel.

Corporations, which should be the carefully constrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters.
Bear in mind that Cleveland was elected in 1884, a bare four years after the Great Depression caused by the Panic of 1873 had eased in the US. Its lessons, of the titanic human cost of speculative bubbles and the inadvisability of government propping-up of "too big to fail" industries, were very fresh in his, and the nation's, consciousness. This roundly ignored reality was reinforced again and again, Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting activities notwithstanding, and reached a head with the Great Crash of 1929.

Ancient history having been invoked and explained (albeit in no great detail), Hartmann proceeds to dig up the roots of the 2008 crisis.

Why We Crashed again uses, to my mind ironically, Grover Cleveland's 1888 State of the Union address as its foundation, to wit:
Communism is a hateful thing and a menace to peace and organized government, but the communism of combined wealth and capital, the outgrowth of overweening cupidity and selfishness, which insidiously undermines the justice and integrity of free institutions, is not less dangerous than the communism of oppressed poverty and toil, which, exasperated by injustice and discontent, attacks with wild disorder the citadel of rule.
Reagan's war on Communism and its attendant costs being the means by which he and his cronies destroyed the middle class, this seemed to me very amusing. In a dark sort of way.

But why destroy the middle class? What harm was done by the middle class such that its very existence must be snuffed out? Hartmann explains as follows:
As [President Thomas] Jefferson realized, with no government "interference" by setting the rules of the game of business and fair taxation, there could be no broad middle class—maybe a sliver of small businesses and artisans, but the vast majority of us would be the working poor under the yolk [sic] of elites.

The Economic Royalists know this, which gets to the root of why they set out to destroy government's involvement in the economy.

After all, in a middle-class economy, they may have to give up some of their power, and some of the higher end of their wealth may even be "redistributed"—horror of horrors—for schools, parks, libraries, and other things that support a healthy middle-class society but are not needed by the rich....

As Jefferson laid out in an 1816 letter...a totally "free" market, where corporations reign supreme just like the oppressive governments of old, could transform America 'until the bulk of the society is reduced to mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia, which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man.'
(The Latin phrase is a restatement of one written by Thomas Hobbes, a famously chirpy and upbeat kinda guy.)

The nightmare of Economic Royalism got its clear statement of purpose and its roadmap to success via a man you've never heard of, Jude Wanniski. His 1976 article, "Taxes and a Two-Santa Theory," appeared in The National Review. In a nutshell, Wanniski characterized the Democratic Party's role as Santa Claus to the people, delivering goodies like a minimum wage, Medicare, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, all of which made people better off. The Republican Party screamed about the costs and insisted that the Federal Government balance its budget even at the cost of taking away the goodies given the Santacrats. This made them appear to be Scrooges to the voters, and the Republicans never controlled the House of Representatives...barring one brief, horrible interlude in 1946...from 1932 to 1995. What changed was that, after the Reagan Administration's stuff-of-nightmares tax cuts and the resulting recession, Congressional Republicans had a combination of an economically conservative and deeply politically naive Democrat as president. Clinton was unable to fend off their propaganda onslaught against his character, agreed with their economics, and thus the Republicans became emboldened to take the Santa hat for themselves. They enacted, in Wanniski's words, legislation that enshrined the "...Two-Santa Claus Theory [which] holds that Republicans should concentrate on tax reduction."

Added bonus: "If Republicans, playing Santa Claus on their own, successfully pass their tax cuts...without cutting spending, then the government will be starved of revenue until eventually it can't afford the Democratic Party's social services such as Social Security...and Medicare—all things that Republicans have labeled 'gifts,' yet are fundamental to the survival of a middle class." We're living through that particular issue's logical conclusion right now. As more and more services are cut, more and more people who have paid and paid and paid for them via payroll taxes and the most unfairly distributed tax burdens in the developed world are denied even the simplest, most basic help of all: access to food.

How do we know this is a deliberate act and not a regrettable side effect of well-intentioned politicians' actions?
The year Reagan was sworn into office, 1981, the United States was the largest importer of raw materials in the world and the world's largest exporter of finished, manufactured goods. ... Today, things are totally reversed: We are now the world's mining pit, the largest exporter of raw materials, and the world's largest importer of finished, manufactured goods.

This has resulted in an enormous trade imbalance, one that has grown from a modest $15 billion deficit in 1981 to an enormous $539 billion deficit by 2012.
Deliberate? How could it not be?
In the 1992 presidential debate, third-party candidate Ross Perot famously warned about a 'giant sucking sound' of American jobs going south of the border to low-wage nations once trade protections were dropped.

Perot was right, but no one in our government listened to him.

Tariffs were ditched, and then Bill Clinton moved into the White House...He continued Reagan's trade policies and committed the United States to so-called free-trade agreements such as GATT, NAFTA, and the WTO, thus removing all the protections that had kept our domestic manufacturing industries safe from foreign corporate predators for two centuries.
What kind of jobs are available when manufacturing moves out of an economy? Low-wage service-sector jobs. And when there aren't workers to manage, there is no need for managers...the middle class, in other words.

But along came the Economic Royalists' solution to every problem: A bubble! A lot of money got poured into the burgeoning technology sector of the economy, supposedly recession-proof as it didn't rely on metal-bashing or a large and unionized labor force. What happened? The Dot-Com Bubble that burst in 2000. Much suffering, much money held by struggling middle-class investors wiped out, no public awareness that the wildly unbalanced economy was primed for such an event by its very planned origin in a low-tax environment that favors, by definition, profit-taking over value investing. Then along came Bush with his insane tax cuts on top of tax cuts, his lunatic war in Iraq, and the Economic Royalists' next bout of profit-taking, the one that has directly led to the woes of today, the Housing Bubble.

Remember that? Bet you do. But that wasn't the last act of the comedy! Oh no no no!

"Oppression, Rebellion, Reformation" has as its organizing principle another quote from President Thomas Jefferson:
If this avenue [of periodic political revolution] be shut to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go on, as other nations are doing, in the endless circle of oppression, rebellion, reformation; and oppression, rebellion, reformation, again; and so on forever.
Not for nothing is Jefferson revered as a Founding Father. The old man who had been a young revolutionary never lost his acumen. (And he owned slaves, so he wasn't perfect, now is everybody happy?)

Remember when Obama was elected and the bubble burst? Remember how nothing was happening in the Bush White House to cope with the crisis he and his policies had created? The policy initiatives came from something called "the Office of the President Elect," a completely unofficial and legally non-existent entity, and funnily enough no one cared. Something was being done, someone saw the need for action and was filling it, the need for some sort of leadership and vision and the merest whiff of an idea of a path that might maybe lead somewhere that wasn't an alligator-infested swamp. And mercy me, it was a black man was doing the leading! And the deplorables howled their rage, heard by the keen ears of the Economic Royalists whose very political survival was at stake. The Reagan Revolution that had butt-fucked the people, no kiss and no grease, for thirty years was in danger of ending and with it their untrammelled access to the Treasury and the wallets of the hoi polloi. There was even a hushed echo of the tumbrils that had come for the last Ancien Regime.

Clearly they survived. God damn them every single one. As the new President took office, the Economic Royalists hatched their evil conspiracy against the country that gave them their careers and their money: The scorched-earth insurgency that tried to repeal "Obamacare" fifty squazillion times, "investigated" some ridiculous non-scandals centered in Libya and a basement in Chappaqua, and did less than nothing to make life better for the people who elected them. Hartmann says it better than I can:
With the help of prominent media outlets, the Royalists, now a political minority, would engage in a scorched-earth strategy to defeat a coming Progressive Revolution, even if it meant crashing the United States as we know it. If they were going down, then the rest of the nation was going down with them.

Which is exactly what happened.
And the mechanism that these traitors used to destroy their country was particularly despicable. They resurrected the Boston Braves, the anti-corporate vandals whose 1773 Tea Party gave them their name.

As funded by the tobacco industry, the single largest serial killer of human beings on the planet after christianity, the Tea Party's denialism fit perfectly with the social, political, and environmental agenda of the Koch brothers, Charles and David. They have spent hundreds of millions of their own dollars funding economic and social "think tanks" like The Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. These libertarian (fancy talk for "radical right wing") centers have offered advice, support, and intellectual cover and legitimacy for the Economic Royalists' agendas. The Tea Party movement was the political outgrowth of the generations of libertarian disinformation from the Kochs' various mouthpieces. One result of this massive outpouring of funds into justifications for bad thinking was the radical rightward lurch of the always-wrong Republican Party as a result of the damnable off-the-cuff utterance of a regressive and socially irresponsible former commodities trader and current (!) CNBC journalist named Rick Santelli, who claims to be proud of his role in creating the horror movie we're living through. He should rot in hell.

All of these horrors pale in comparison to Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission decision handed down by the Supreme Court. It enshrines the equation of money with speech in the law, and provides the firmest yet justification for the legal fiction of equal corporate personhood. The oceans of money that in large part resulted in the horrifying results of the 2016 elections came from corporate donors released from the generations-long muzzles preventing them from overtly buying elections for their preferred hench-rats. The equal protections clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
A brilliant nineteenth-century orator named Delphin Delmas had argued before the Supreme Court in a property-tax case against a railroad that corporations are not natural people and are, therefore, not entitled to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court decided the tax case but declined to tackle the issue of natural-versus-artificial beings. Damn them. They clearly agreed that natural people had superior rights to artificial people, based on their proceedings; had they simply said so life in these United States would be very different.

What should keep you up at night is the certainty of the president elect making the nomination that will fill the Supreme Court vacancy the traitorous Senate refused to allow the sitting president to make a nomination to fill.

The Great Crash details the horrors of a collapsed economy. Greece's austerity regime, enforced by the banksters, is a harsh warning of what is to come in the not-very-distant future, contends Author Hartmann. I am in full, horrified, agreement with this assessment.

Out of the Ashes is a fantasia of lovely hopes and pretty dreams that bears no resemblance to the rest of the book and thus, in my opinion, is most likely an artifact of the editorial process: "You can't make people feel like shit for 280 pages and give them no hope!" I don't believe any of the nice pictures he paints in these pages are likely to succeed. I doubt that he does, either. There's only one way to end the rule of the oligarchs: Violent revolution. It's 1959 and the US as a whole is Havana.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016...Annus horribilis...a rotten, awful, bad, nasty, vicious passage into---

It's a pause-button moment in the headlong rush of life into the all-too-knowable future. Americans have elected a person of no class, breeding, or discernable positive value into the presidency. They've returned to Congress, in both houses, people of execrable character and horrifying sociopathy. And they've celebrated this concatenation of horror as though it was a positive development.

Those who didn't participate in this comedy of terrors were shouted down, threatened with physical and subjected to psychic violence. A new insult, "cuck," was applied to those who reject the base, low, ignorant attitudes of the low-class, uneducated dupes who enabled this nightmare by their deplorable actions. It's meant to be a devastating assessment of characterlessness. It derives from "cuckold." Notice please how extremely telling that is: An insult based on the antiquated notion of women's independence of action violating a man's property rights over her is made new again.

The stupid, it burns, it burns!

Newron's Third Law describes what is happening now. The rational and modestly positive presidency of America's first black president was so horrifying and so inimical to the loathsome and ignorant radical reactionaries that they had to express their rage and revulsion by hitching their hopes to a serial adultering low-class low-brow pussy-grabbing sack of shit. Not even the cold, self-absorbed first woman president would be enough of a rejection of progress for the idiots. No, had to go all the way and elect the single least qualified, least able individual ever to be nominated by any oligarchic party.

You got the president you deserved, America.

I, however, don't deserve this but I have to live with it. My very existence as a disabled gay man is under threat: Social Security cuts are aimed at people like me, people who have paid payroll taxes on the understanding (since 1983) that they would be invested for us in US sovereign debt and repaid when we needed them to be. My ability to avail myself of rights unquestioned by you breeders will be, if your disgusting bigoted brethren and sistern are left to it, curtailed or eliminated. And you're fine with that. Obviously you are: You elected people who said *out*loud* that this is what they will fight to achieve.

"I didn't vote for them! Don't blame ME! YOU voted for Jill Stein, YOU helped elect this man!"

Invalid argument. If your candidate had done her job, she wouldn't have left almost 50% of registered voters at home and not casting any vote at all. And let's look at one big reason why: Whatever the source of the Wikileaks information, the FACT is that the Democratic National Committee rigged the primary races against the candidate that a clear majority of Democrat voters wanted to run for the presidency. Blame no one but your losing candidate for this horror movie.

And yes, she lost. The popular vote counts for nothing in this country's presidential elections and it never has. Don't like that? Work to change it. But remember this: Your gal lost. She lost or she'd be taking the oath of office on 20 January 2017. No more excuses, no more posturing. Shut up and eat it: Your election-rigging oligarch lost.

How do we all get out of this? First, stop blaming and start working. (Shut your pie hole about this post. I'm blaming you for your failings because I've had it up to my back teeth with being blamed by "friends" for not singing Horst Wessel in Clintonese.) Working means spending your time, which all of us have, and/or your money, which not all of us have, to make sure the deplorables face fights at every level of political engagement. Letters to editors. TURNING OUT FOR LOCAL ELECTIONS! These redneck fucksticks outmaneuvered you by getting school boards packed with creationists. In many states judges are your research and find out why the reactionaries are winning those elections. Turnouts are so low that a few *dozen* votes can make all the difference. Get up off your ass and educate yourself about the people making laws that directly affect you every time you open your front door. Pay attention to the fact that police departments across the country are buying MILITARY EQUIPMENT. As citizens you have the right to ask public questions about why this should be so. And remember that what goes around comes around. You're not a target today...tomorrow? DO NOT BET AGAINST IT.

Involve yourself, do the work, be a citizen not a resident. Unless you're a conservative in which case sit back, relax, have a drink. Good people need your inaction so we can roll right over you and consign you to the dustbin of history with the ignominy and opprobrium your vile evil actions have earned.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

ACCEPTANCE gets more stars than its prequels

(Southern Reach Trilogy, #3)
FSG Originals
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five, mostly for the ending

The Publisher Says: It is winter in Area X, the mysterious wilderness that has defied explanation for thirty years, rebuffing expedition after expedition, refusing to reveal its secrets. As Area X expands, the agency tasked with investigating and overseeing it--the Southern Reach--has collapsed on itself in confusion. Now one last, desperate team crosses the border, determined to reach a remote island that may hold the answers they've been seeking. If they fail, the outer world is in peril.

Meanwhile, Acceptance tunnels ever deeper into the circumstances surrounding the creation of Area X--what initiated this unnatural upheaval? Among the many who have tried, who has gotten close to understanding Area X--and who may have been corrupted by it?

In this last installment of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may be solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound--or terrifying.

My Review: It's a frustrating thing to wait for a book, a series, an idea to cohere. When it fails to happen, the result is usually a sense of letdown at the very least, and not infrequently outrage and betrayal. And here I am rating this incoherent (in the nice and accurate sense) final volume as the best of the lot.

Wonders will never cease.

The Big Reveal of this series doesn't need to be coherent (again used in the nice and accurate sense). It is big enough, titanic in fact, that any attempt to fit it into a pleasantly proportioned package would merely be absurd. This is a rare case of a resolution needing enough room to encompass the beginning all over again, since there is no conceivable way the results of Area X's existence for the reasons it exists will stop reverberating in each and every iteration of each and every possible future that flows from it.

Was that vague enough for you? See, there's nothing I can be specific about except at the certainty of spoilering every development in each book. That being the modern era's Worst Imaginable Sin, I'm avoiding the lynch mobs that roam freely over the internet. Let me give you a clue that won't be a clue unless you've read the series: The parable that seemed tantalizingly just beyond reach is here full-blown at last. What Area X represents in all its strangeness and its inscrutability can't be made any clearer than it is in the book, even though as you're turning the last few pages you're going to have a raft more questions than you started the book with. And that's a good thing.

Philosophically VanderMeer's point, well one of his points anyway, could not possibly be more timely than it is right now on the cusp of the Arctic's final descent into deglaciation. A piece of the planet is in reality changing before our (appalled) gaze into something that isn't quite set yet. The reasons aren't mysterious, in the case of the Arctic, but the consequences are equally bizarre, unpredictable, random. The planet isn't going to remain the same. The consequences for some, even many, individuals are going to be as condign as they are in the book. The authorities are as nugatory in the face of out planetary changes as they are in the book. The public is as...oblivious? unconcerned? flip? is the shadowy, gesturally indicated public of the book.

This series of books isn't a Rubik's cube of a story. It's a Seurat painting of lore. Enjoy that? This is a series for you. What befuddles me is how Alex Garland, the director, plans to make any kind of coherent film out of Annihilation alone. Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh will show us, one supposes, when the film is released in 2017. Please dear goddesses, please don't let it be a hugely overlong, incoherent mess like 2012's Cloud Atlas.

Monday, December 19, 2016

LIZ HERE NOW, an extremely moving and well-written indie book about child abuse


$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: I have no idea

The Publisher Says: A privileged child’s life is forever changed by the bravery of the family’s Black maid when Elizabeth Baxter refuses to silently witness the abuse Todd Connor and his siblings receive at the hands of their wealthy, prominent parents. Overcoming fear for her own safety, Liz endures both prejudice and police brutality in an attempt to protect her “little white babies,” until a lone white police captain believes the truth and becomes her ally. An autobiographical novel set during the tensions of the 1960s civil rights movement, Liz Here Now proves the healing power of love and determination. Only decades later does anyone learn of Liz’s bravery and the horror that had taken place within the Connor’s wealthy home. At Liz’s packed funeral, Todd, the sole white person in the church, is there to give honor to the heroine who loved and saved him, his sister, and brother from the psychotic woman who was a mother in name only, and the complicity of their father, a renowned physician more concerned about protecting his prestige than his own children. Unable to speak through his sorrow, Todd is reminded by Elizabeth’s grieving husband, “Yo’ dark story gonna show off her light. They gonna hear a truth about her fo’ the first time ever.” Those words spur Todd to fulfill Liz’s dying request: “She took my family’s secret to her grave,” he says, “but she asked me to break that silence now.” Liz Here Now is set in the past, but delivers compelling lessons for today: that we all must become aware of the insidious effects of, and speak out against, abuse in any form, whether physical or the humiliating treatment many African-Americans are still subjected to daily.

My Review: I suspect the middle child of my "family" is going to be sorry she sent me this book with a request to review it.

My sisters were teenagers before I knew them at all. I was, in effect, an only child with live-in aunts, and not even that after I was eight. I had an insane, emotionally and sexually abusive mother, a weak and selfish absent father, and no one to turn to. My stepmother (and how it angers my sisters when I call her that!) lived in California, which might as well have been the Moon for all the good it did me. She was, however, the only...ONLY...person who understood me. Her ex-husband had fucked their oldest daughter. Her mother was an insane, abusive religious nut just like mine...and oh so holy that no one inquired why her daughters were so rebellious, so disrespectful. No one wondered why I was so taciturn, so sharp-tongued when I could be bothered to talk to them. No one wondered why I didn't go to school for most of eighth grade, or why my GPA fell from the low 90s to the high 60s (out of 100, okay eldest sister dear, you love to make sure I've given all the relevant facts so much) in the 10th. My stepmother knew, called me, tried to help long-distance...until Mama caught me talking to her and moved us to a different neighborhood, changed our phone number, put out paranoid insane bullshit to all the people we knew that my dad was coming to steal me one ever asked, no one checked, no action was ever taken by anyone except the non-marital partner of a weakling who tried, with no standing at all, to help the best way she could. Even *directly*telling* my father, in so many words, "your ex is fucking that boy" made no dent in his selfishness. His response? "Old Vicious will make my life a living hell if I try to keep the kid."

How do I know? I heard him. They were talking in their bedroom, I was in the room below, and the windows were open.

So "Todd" and I have different details, but the same story. We were both invisible in our agony. "Todd" had Liz, I had my stepmother; neither was related to us and both were motivated by deep and abiding love to do something, anything, to rescue innocents from torture.

His succeeded. Mine failed.

There are no different kinds of abuse. Abuse is abuse. Perpetrators (like my mother, like her mother and her father before her, my weak and useless father, my nasty-tempered and unsympathetic sisters) are controlling the abused and making them as near to invisible as possible, perpetuating their power by the most horrible means imaginable: Robbing a person of personhood. Whoever I might have been absent the rage-storm I lived through either died or was never born. The twisted, miserable man I have always been was the direct creation of my loving family, all of them, all with sharp tongues, no empathy, and not a shred of kindness among them.

So "thanks" sister mine for picking this scab off an unhealable wound. I hated reading this book, I hated "Todd" for surviving so handily, and I sure as hell hate my past and everything that was in it more than ever. Merry fucking christmas.

EUROPE IN WINTER, a rare series novel that exceeds its predecessors

(The Fractured Europe Sequence, #3)
Solaris Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Rudi, the former chef-turned-spy, returns on a mission to uncover the truth—in a fractured Europe utterly changed by the public unveiling of the Community.

Union has been forged and the Community is now the largest nation in Europe; trains run there from as far afield as London and Prague. It is an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. So what is the reason for a huge terrorist outrage? Why do the Community and Europe meet in secret, exchanging hostages? And who are Les Coureurs des Bois? Along with a motley crew of strays and mafiosi and sleeper agents, Rudi sets out to answer these questions—only to discover that the truth lies both closer to home and farther away than anyone could imagine.


My Review: The rarest read in a series-heavy publishing landscape is the sequel that improves on the previous books. This books is one of those rare birds. It might just be unique, I'd have to really dig deep in the wetware to be positive, because it's better than the previous books *because of* the previous books. My reviews of EUROPE IN AUTUMN and EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT tell part of the story.The twists and turns of the lives the characters are asked to lead are definitely in the best Cold-War-spy tradition. The patches of somewhat puzzling prose that seem to indicate that a different book has dropped into the one you were reading are exactly that...and this is what finally makes the series so deeply engrossing, twisty, and unputdownable.

Now then. The entire focus of my reviews is always why. Why did I read this book, why do I think you should (or shouldn't) read this book, why do I rate it the way I do...and here I'm going to make my "why" extremely explicit: This book, this series, this concept of reality, is much more than escapist entertainment. The author has done a good deal of deep thinking about the world, how it got where it is, why it's not some other way than it is. He's taken that thinking, those long dark tea-times of the soul, and rendered them into sophisticated, witty (Putingrad! HA!) tales of great subtlety. The interconnections among the volumes are, for those with good memory mapping, sometimes physically jolting. For the run-of-the-mill reader there's no loss of forward momentum, no sense of being at sea; for the more savvy reader, there's an added frisson of pleasure and often amusement. Make no mistake, there is not one non-sequitur in the series. Sometimes you'll need a minute to see if that's an echo or a whisper. Whichever you decide it is, you're right. Much like reality, these books won't dictate your perception of them; the author has laid many a trail through this forest. His mapping skills are, well, hard to equal. We're not talking Rand McNally here, and even the USGS topologists' skills are tested.

And that is at the heart of my pleasure in reading these books. I don't often have the opportunity to engross myself in the unfolding of a narrative across multiple volumes. The last time I can remember was the outstandingly complex world of Barsetshire, begun by Anthony Trollope and continued by Angela Thirkell. It makes me very sad that, since Mrs. Thirkell's death in 1961, no English author has seen the enormous potential of exploring social change through the lens of Barsetshire. Science fiction has multiple universes, some shared by authors with fans and others not; I was most recently bitterly disappointed in James S.A. Corey's The Expanse, which didn't live up to its deeply twisty promise until it made the leap to television. With the Fractured Europe Sequence, I am not left with the painful sense of failure to launch. The ideas are immense, the execution equals their scale, the scope does not show any signs of running out of Lebensraum.

In this entry, a few details need to be remarked on. One is aging. Our loosely conceived narrative universe contains time, and some of the main characters are experiencing its indignities and outrages. Some are quite remarkably not in sync with the world's idea of time. This is enough in itself for a dissertation. Rudi's life trajectory, set off for us in Poland at Max's restaurant in Europe in Autumn, has taken a timely twist that will repay the re-reader of the whole sequence. Another is the prominence of food: don't start this read if you're hungry or there will be near-obsessive levels of snacking. I speak from experience. In fact, I need to make groceries today because of this. Lastly, I bring up the nature of relationships in this world. Nothing is, or realistically can be, permanent; friends wander off, lovers leave, family? What's that when it's at home? Nations expand, contract, vanish, alter out of recognition, and all of it is the natural evolution of the fluid system we call culture. Like all evolution it can be speeded up or altered entirely by hybridization, selective breeding, or habitat destruction. A bleak thought. A hopeful fact. Both, and neither.

Much like life.

A final note: Today, the 19th of December, is Author Hutchinson's birthday. I planned this review to appear yesterday, a week before Yule, and held off a day to celebrate the day. This review will have to do in place of buying you a pint down at the Wolf & Bird, kind sir, as my thanks for creating and continuing to create such delightful entertainment out of the cloth reality hands you.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF EAST AFRICA, sentimental and charming and moving

(Mr. Malik #1)
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: For the past three years, Mr. Malik has been secretly in love with Rose Mbikwa, a woman who leads the weekly bird walks sponsored by the East African Ornithological Society. Just as Malik is getting up the nerve to invite Rose to the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball (the premier social occasion of the Kenyan calendar), Harry Khan, a nemesis from his school days, arrives in town. Khan has also become enraptured with Rose and announces his intent to invite her to the Ball. Rather than force Rose to choose between the two men, a clever solution is proposed. Whoever can identify the most species of birds in one week’s time gets the privilege of asking Ms. Mbikwa to the ball.

Drayson's charming descriptions of the Kenyan wildlife and his sharp take on the foibles and follies of the people and politics sketch a rich picture of contemporary life in Nairobi. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith will delight in this transporting and witty novel.

My Review: Actuarially, I am past middle age. In fact, more than 90% of the world's population is younger than I am. And that shows in the things I care about, read, and buy. Advertisers, take note: Old folks in America are *not lying down to die*! Pay attention to us!

Like the author of this book did. Mr. Malik, a widower and Mrs. Mbikwa, a widow, both of a certain vintage, are the focus of the love story in this book. Each has lost a well-loved spouse, each is living a full, interesting life and each is aware of, an unfilled spot, in life. So what do they do? They go watch birds.
It's happened to me, and it's probably happened to you. From the first exchange of good mornings they had recognized in each other a kindred soul. Though neither spoke much to start with, they felt an immediate ease in each other's company that was both surprising and yet the most natural thing in the world.
God, doesn't that sound dull? It's not. It's just the starting point for a deft, elegantly made meditation on what love means and how love is transmitted, received, and propagated in ever-larger and more complete circles. Drayson creates Rose Mbikwa, nee Macdonald, as that hardest to portray character: the lively, sad, solitary widow of a charismatic man. Her loss and her life are completely, and concisely, and elegantly drawn in less time than lesser prose stylists take to make minor characters. Mr. Malik, a complex and private man, isn't so much drawn as peeled, layer by later, until the things we think we know about him become...well...iceberg-tips of the cold, sad, lonely sea inside him.

But...and this is the biggest but I can imagine...he's *never* whiny, self-pitying, self-obsessed, nothing like that oh nay nay! He's a force in his own life and he's working on making it, and as much of the world as he touches, a better place.

The spirals Drayson spins as Mr. Malik and Mrs. Mbikwa orbit each other are always tightening and yet never constricting or confining our perceptions...this is good stuff, ladies and gentlemen! Good, good craftsmanship and an excellent storytelling eye.

I'd say do yourself a favor and read this book. It's short, only about 200pp, and it's fun, and it's got great substance. Most highly recommended.

BAKING CAKES IN KIGALI, a pleasure to read about Rwanda in a fun and engrossing vein


Delacorte Press
$17.00 trade paper, $12.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

2016 Comment: I can't figure people out...this book is a pleasure to read, offers revealing and touching and amusing comments on the reality of growing older in an era of chaotic change that I can't imagine NOT being of interest to a very wide readership and yet..nothing! It's a lovely story. Seek one out, give it a try, this is good stuff here.

The Publisher Says: Once in a great while a debut novelist comes along who dazzles us with rare eloquence and humanity, who takes us to bold new places and into previously unimaginable lives. Gaile Parkin is just such a talent—and Baking Cakes in Kigali is just such a novel. This gloriously written tale—set in modern-day Rwanda—introduces one of the most singular and engaging characters in recent fiction: Angel Tungaraza—mother, cake baker, keeper of secrets—a woman living on the edge of chaos, finding ways to transform lives, weave magic, and create hope amid the madness swirling all around her.

In Kigali, Angel runs a bustling business: baking cakes for all occasions—cakes filled with vibrant color, buttery richness, and, most of all, a sense of hope only Angel can deliver.…A CIA agent’s wife seeks the perfect holiday cake but walks away with something far sweeter…a former boy-soldier orders an engagement cake, then, between sips of tea, shares an enthralling story…weary human rights workers…lovesick limo drivers. Amid this cacophony of native tongues, love affairs, and confessions, Angel’s kitchen is an oasis where people tell their secrets, where hope abounds and help awaits.

In this unlikely place, in the heart of Rwanda, unexpected things are beginning to happen: A most unusual wedding is planned…a heartbreaking mystery—involving Angel’s own family—unravels…and extraordinary connections are being made among the men and women who have tasted Angel’s beautiful cakes…as a chain of events unfolds that will change Angel’s life—and the lives of those around her—in the most astonishing ways.

My Review: This book should have been a shoo-in for the bestseller lists. If the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe books is any index to American willingness to embrace African women as heroes, I can think of no earthly reason this tome won't light up the charts.

I found Angel and her husband Pius to be entertaining companions. The five grandchildren they are raising in post-genocide Rwanda reflect the realities of life in Africa...orphans everywhere, no matter where you look, and only the very lucky have a place to go where they are loved and nurtured.

Angel and Pius should, by the lights of their Tanzanian upbringing, be preparing for their ascent into elderhood, being looked after by the children they carefully raised. The children are dead, and the elders are thrown back into parenthood. This central tragedy is the spine of the book.

It's not a tragedy to Angel, in the sense that she revels in the life of a society cake-supplier, something she began as a home-based business to support the grandkids and has become a passionate addiction. Angel is famous in Kigali for the creative splendor of her cakes, ordered by the best and the brightest of the city to commemorate the milestones of life. Angel gets to hear all the gossip worth hearing and involve herself in all the doings of her world.

The book is a sure-fire pleasure read for many, if not most, fans of domestic fiction. It's something that readers should make a point of browsing in the local bookery.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

JOIN, debut SF philosophical thriller from Steve Toutonghi, gets big props from me


Soho Press
$13.25 paperback, $9.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: What if you could live multiple lives simultaneously, have constant, perfect companionship, and never die? That’s the promise of Join, a revolutionary technology that allows small groups of minds to unite, forming a single consciousness that experiences the world through multiple bodies. But as two best friends discover, the light of that miracle may be blinding the world to its horrors.

Chance and Leap are jolted out of their professional routines by a terrifying stranger—a remorseless killer who freely manipulates the networks that regulate life in the post-Join world. Their quest for answers—and survival—brings them from the networks and spire communities they’ve known to the scarred heart of an environmentally ravaged North American continent and an underground community of the “ferals” left behind by the rush of technology.

In the storytelling tradition of classic speculative fiction from writers like David Mitchell and Michael Chabon, Join offers a pulse-pounding story that poses the largest possible questions: How long can human life be sustained on our planet in the face of environmental catastrophe? What does it mean to be human, and what happens when humanity takes the next step in its evolution? If the individual mind becomes obsolete, what have we lost and gained, and what is still worth fighting for?


My Review: Well, this is extremely disheartening. My review vanished. I do not know how or why, and this has never happened before on Blogger. I'm going to cry for a while then retype it as best I can. DAMN.

This review appears to be cursed. Two more attempts to re-create it got eaten! I am at a loss to comprehend why. No other review ever has had such a run of bad luck. Annoyingly, this is a book I very much liked and particularly want others to read. So here it goes again:

The premise of this near-future thriller is chilling: Climate change has wrought havoc on the earth, creating a US landscape dominated by megastorms in what was once the world's breadbasket, the Great Plains. Sea levels are enough higher that the West Coast has an Olympic Archipelago in place of Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia. Into this Brave New World steps a Brave New Human, the "join." A discovery in the now-emerging field of quantum networking enables us, the millennia-old single consciousness humans, to share our mental resources with many others in a complete and overwhelming way. The quantum networking of our brains creates a new form of internal reality, a new creature, a different way of being human.

Now think about this: Our brains have trillions, yes 1,000,000,000,000s!, of neurons in each skull. We haven't come *close* to figuring out what is, and how they do, their work. Here comes a quantum means of interconnecting these trillions...trillions!...of neurons and making this titanic expansion of humanity's potential available to the planet and its people.


But au fond we're still human, and that means venal and evil and selfish as well as noble and good and selfless, at the same time and in each private skull. Imagine the magnification of the qualities that make us unique that joining presents.


Chance and Leap are each five-drive joins (a drive is what a joined person becomes) and are friends with a peculiar and, to me, underexplored degree of closeness that solos (single-consciousness people like thee and me, or so I assume since I'm not a join but hey you might be n which case I'd like to be a drive please) simply can't grok. Each has some very serious problems with the drives in the join. Chance Five is a beautiful young man who has terminal cancer, to everyone's surprise. Leap has a very weird join-specific condition that is at the heart of the book. Both run across a join called Rope, a seriously insane entity that joins then murders its own drives. This is, unsurprisingly, a supreme no-no. Even more horrific is Rope's complete willingness to murder other joins' drives, and Chance Three becomes its victim. And this is the warm-up to the real action!

Leap is in a terminal downward spiral that Rope, an illicitly immense join, might know how to fix or know someone who can fix it. Chance agrees to help Leap get to the entity that can make the horror awaiting it either cease or slow down. That is simply amazing to me: A segment of Chance's own join dies in helping Leap and there is nothing like recrimination or anger directed at Leap! I was so impressed that Author Toutonghi made absolutely nothing of this, allowing the reader to come to the realization of the astounding alteration of consciousness that this *one* fact illuminates unaided. That's authorial confidence, well justified by the results.

This story takes place in the world of forty years after the first join. That's not at all a long time to have created so many new and join-specific institutions that Author Toutonghi presents without fanfare or comment. His story simply requires that the reader be exposed to the ideas and actions that make joins different on a quantum level (ha) and the reader is then left to work it all out, make a context for it, build a matrix in which this is simply How It Is. In most SFnal literature there is a degree of explicit world-building that can, and often is, characterized by the dread insult "infodump." Not here. Nothing is dumped out of anything. If information is needed for the reader to move in this world, it is provided in-story. It is not a scaffold erected then bedizened with shiny pretty baubles. It is a skeleton covered with strong flexible muscles.

That's very very high praise indeed, coming from a grouchy jaded old curmudgeon like me.

I will not spoiler the resolution of this tale. I will say that it's breathtaking in its scope and still, in hindsight, inevitable from the story being told. It's not where I *thought* we were going at the outset. How fun is that?

Okay, that all sounds like a five-star warble of rapture. Why didn't I give JOIN five stars? Because of something that's going to be invisible to most of y'all: There is nothing at all in here about the existence of gay and lesbian people, no hint of any serious consideration of sexuality in the joins and the strange but wonderful reorientation (!) of sexual consciousness that was available to Author Toutonghi to explore. It's his novel, I know that so please don't yip at me about it. He gets to tell his own story his own way. But this central fact of human existence, sex and sexuality, is bog-standard straight people stuff and that is a glaring failure of imagination in an otherwise breathtakingly thorough reimagining of all the parameters of humanness. We even touch on the deeply troubling issue of incest in an oblique but still unsettling way. So I feel justified in saying "what the heck, dude," and tsk-tsking at this lacuna.

At any rate, I don't want to put you off reading the book, and so let me say this again: JOIN is a toweringly original and massively creative novel about identity and agency and cannot be overpraised for its fearlessness in addressing the central conundrum any species faces at any juncture in its history: So, what's next?

Buy it, read it, think about it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

FIRST GREY, THEN WHITE, THEN BLUE, first novel from Dutch artist Margriet de Moor, excellent

(tr. Ina Rilke)
Out of print
Various prices via Amazon and other sellers

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Magda in life—no less than Magda in death—was an enigma. A free spirit, alluring but private, loving yet remote. Where did she go during the years of her disappearance? Was it truly to the world of the stars? For her husband Robert, who wanted to possess her, body and soul, what Magda gave him was never enough. He murdered her, leaving her lover to discover her body.

Now, as friends gather for her funeral, the mystery of Magda's life is slowly, tantalizingly, revealed. Who really knew Magda, and what truths has her death revealed? First Grey, Then White, Then Blue, Margriet de Moor's first novel, is a story of perception, love, and mortality, told with a bewitching power. Margriet de Moor's novels and stories have been garnering high praise on both sides of the Atlantic, and her feel for physical detail, psychological nuance, and the quiet power of her storytelling have made her one of the most interesting and provocative contemporary writers. First Grey, Then White, Then Blue will be sure to captivate lovers of last year's The Virtuoso, while finding new fans for a writer endowed with the gift for mapping emotional worlds with unerring accuracy.

My Review: When eye specialist Erik drives down the dune where his house occupies the topmost bit on his way to work, he is surprised to see his childhood friend Robert's wife's dog standing outside the gate to Robert's family home. How odd, out of character for the animal to be unaccompanied in such a place and with no obvious signs of activity to explain the mystery. Erik stops the car, curious, and sets in motion the end of several worlds.

Magda, blonde Czech-German Jewish refugee child of WWII, lies dead in her bed. Robert has stabbed her with his father's Tibetan dagger. Erik is unable to process Robert's part in killing his own wife, who was also Erik's lover. Twenty years before, Robert had brought Magda home with him from a trip to Canada. The couple were passing through Robert's home town to cock a snook at Noort family on their way to live a delightfully Bohemian life in France's Cévennes mountains. Historically these Southern French gorges and peaks have sheltered those not in good odor with the central authorities. The population is largely Protestant in Catholic France. A renegade runaway Dutchman and his blonde Canadian wife raise not a hair on the locals' eyebrows. Robert paints. Magda tries to become pregnant. Erik, his wife Nellie, and their autistic son Gaby visit the Noorts for the first time in the late 1960s:
Only now does he remember that that triumphant voice provoked a vague feeling of revulsion in him. Did he perhaps begrudge Robert his exalted ideas? Robert told him that he forced things to have an affair with him.

"A love affair, don't laugh. If I had to I would force to make them communicate, yield up their confidences. What do you think of this stuff? Has quite a kick, hasn't it? Here they see the mouse as the symbol of the loyal Joseph."

Erik did not reply. He looked at the canvas in front of him on an easel, a life-sized woman's portrait. Although it was not apparently like her, Magda had undoubtedly sat for it. The portrait was painted in crude areas of paint, not with a brush but with the palette knife, and it seemed to him, much more than the landscapes and the still-lifes, first and foremost an account of work in progress, a fever, a battle with light and color.

He asked, "Can't you love the landscape, objects, a woman, without wanting to turn everything into something that belongs to you?"
It's a cogent question, one that Erik doesn't make sense of until a decade or more after he's asked it. Walking into the murder scene, he finds Robert unwilling to offer more than the minimum of interaction. He isn't raging. He isn't much of anything, really. Murdering his wife of twenty years has hollowed him out, leaving only a Robert-shaped shell, unable or unwilling to offer any explanations or resistance to his arrest by police Erik has summoned.

The narration now shifts to Robert's point of view, examining the roots of his obsession with Magda. He's a bourgeois boy in rebellion against his father. He's gone to New York City to join the burgeoning art world's ranks. His ambition to be a painter is nothing his industrialist father understands. Not the newest, freshest idea? Well no but then again there is a good reason that evergreens become evergreen. The conflict between fathers and sons is eternal and bitter; the sons no less than the fathers carry scars that don't make for attractive viewing. Robert responds to Magda's departure, unannounced and unexpected, with his father's wounds being laid bare again:
He opens the French windows, leaves off all the lights, slips off his shoes, his tie, finds a box of black cigarillos—lights one, pours himself a whisky—which he has not drunk for years—lies full length on the sofa and puts the bottle within reach. Her absence annoys him beyond words.
Evening sounds penetrate from the street. Footsteps of people out walking, a stifled laugh, a cry of surprise and then suddenly a passing bus: how dare you disappear just like that, tell me at once where you've got to and what time you're coming home. He shivers. This cold draught has nothing to do with you and me, with our lives, with our evenings by the fire. But when he gets up he leaves the French windows as they are, open, he simply fetches a heavy overcoat which he puts over his legs when he lies down again. There is no love at all in you!
"Why don't you love me?" The lament of each generation to the one before, a source of eternal anger and stress, and the genesis of much trouble between intimate partners.

Robert and Magda spend many years in each others' space. I don't know if I'd say they form a family unit so much as they have the same center of gravity and revolve around it, grinding grooves into each other, wearing channels in the other's bedrock along which their shared rages can flow:
His embraces are rough. Through a curtain of tears he immediately pushes his tongue deep in her mouth, although he knows that she really hates it. He grips her hips with his knees. He presses his fingers into her shoulders and then in hasty panic removes them in order to fiddle with the zip of his trousers. He pays no attention to her face, he does not listen to the sounds she makes, there is too much to do. At this blinding hour, in this cell of heat and fury where he has lost all patience and is as abrupt as the blade of a kinfe, Robert Noort, idealist, artist, utterly exhausted man, thinks his wife has been gone too long, that he has permission to rescue her from the underworld and at the same time to look back, that he can even grab her, that he can bury his head in the sweaty scent of her armpit, that he can drag her back by her hair to her warm beating heart, her skin, her hair, her eyes—your body is what you are, return to it, come on! so that we can learn everything about each other that is worth knowing—and bathed in sweat, his trousers around his ankles, he tries with actions that are essentially simple and, moreover, as old as the world, to restore order.
The confusion you are born with.
The confusions of love and hate, desire and domination, mastery and stewardship are all played out in de Moor's creations.

Robert's rage to possess meets Magda's Teflon emotional surfaces. Her own father, a Czech Jew, was betrayed to the Nazis in 1944 when she was perhaps six; her mother spent the rest of the war on into the postwar period looking for her one love's fate. Unable to find him or any news of him, Magda's mother took them as far away from Europe as she was able to do. Wide-open Canada, umbilically connected to mother England, takes in refugees from the titanic convulsion that wracked Europe for six long years. Magda's mother gets them onto a Swedish ship that will land them, ultimately, in Gaspé on Quebec's shores of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The crossing gives Magda some of her most coherent childhood memories:
Passengers, officers, a row of sailors at attention with the baby in a white cardboard box on a table. When I got close, I looked carefully. It was a sturdy, pretty baby, with a face that looked calm and even a little proud. Under its long-lashed eyelids it succeeded very well in hiding what it is like to be dead. Contentedly I noticed the dark pink roses laid around the body.

They had been made from sanitary towels. I had seen the women at work, the previous afternoon. They had carefully pulled apart the sanitary towels, which consisted of a pink and a white layer, they could use only the pink layer to fold wonderfully ingenious roses, twist them round and secure them with a tacked stitch. Tell me, I asked the baby softly, is it true that everything first goes grey, then white, then blue, and then you fly to the stars? By the way, what do you think of those roses? I think they are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
How exactly like a child. I was fully convinced that the murdered Magda, even so far in time from her unnatural demise, would note so carefully the ultimate end of all life's journeys, short or long. It made complete sense to me. Magda's trajectory was not showy. It was longer, perhaps, than it might have been, or shorter than it should have been, but it was a low one and left few signs of its transit.

Or did it? Magda was a presence, if not a star, in the spaces she chose to inhabit. She made an impression on people she met and she did this without any visible effort on her part. It might be as simple as her inner emotional landscape's silence, its immensity:
The spinning space. The night sky. A rising piece of land, blue as the ocean and equally impassable. I had not known such solitude since my childhood. I hunted cautiously for a cigarette, I wanted to let the others sleep, I wanted to smoke by myself and stay awake looking at the clouds obscuring the moon. I was exceptionally calm. I remember my calm, my emptiness deep inside. Trees...fields...a farmhouse like a boat under the stars...suddenly it occurred to me that my life with Robert had been a poem. Everything that mattered to me personally had taken a new twist in the light of that chance meeting. My eyes and skin: designed for other use. My past and my mother's: captured in words. My future—look: a sun-drenched plain that we were going to populate with mountains, trees and rivers that belonged to both of us. ... What I want to know is this. Would it also be possible to take that poem in my hands and drop it onto a stone floor? So that it smashed into fragments, into crude slivers... What I want to know is this. Among all those things it must surely be possible to find something which could not be swallowed up?
These thoughts are the ones de Moor gives to a fleeing wife. A woman who, after close to twenty years with a man she selects on a whim as a teenager, leaves him with no more forethought or preparation than she chose to go with him earlier. Magda can't fill up the space she contains; Robert can't make a dent in her surfaces, let alone her interiority; and even an affair with his childhood friend, placing herself between Erik and his wife, Erik and his son, doesn't dent her formidable vastness. Most people stay inside the coloring book's lines because daring to go outside them means losing sight of boundaries. Magda is nothing but boundaries. She translates between languages as naturally as she adapts to living in new places. Leaving Czechoslovakia for the defeated Berlin of her mother's family; leaving Europe for Canada; leaving Gaspé and her solitary mother for a French life as a Dutch artist's wife; leaving France as her increasingly visually impaired husband reinvents himself as the savior of the business his father left behind. Nothing proves too great a challenge for Magda to adapt to, and that in the end was her demise. She had no solid, immutable core for her husband to break, satisfying his rage and hatred. So he had to kill her.


I read this book twenty or so years ago, and fancied it as a film. (A project unlaunched, alas.) I liked its spareness, and was completely unsurprised to learn that Margriet de Moor was trained first in music. I can imagine this tale as a song-cycle; a suite of voices telling the ordinary life of a group of ordinary people whose paths intertwine around war and tragedy. How simple, how baroque, how complete it is to make the fullness of a life into fiction. And how satisfying to experience that fiction. The Overlook Press edition of this book came out after I read the Picador UK translation; in fact, the editor at Overlook who acquired The Virtuouso and this novel for the US market was in my office once while I was an agent, and was deeply surprised that I had read the book. I've always thought that de Moor would have enjoyed that moment of mutual surprise each of us experienced, one that someone knew of her discovery and one that someone finally paid attention to his.

But first novels have flaws. The voices of Nellie, horned wife of Erik and betrayed best friend of Magda, is given short and unsatisfying shrift in the last 20-30 pages of the book. Gaby, the autistic son of Erik and Nellie, features in the book at too short a length for his presence to feel like more than a vase of flowers on the stage of this opera. If you take my advice and read this book, you'll stop at the end of part three and ignore part four entirely.

But I do hope you'll spend some time with Margriet de Moor and her quotidian drama. I still think of Magda fondly, a friend bobbing away from me in time's eddies.

Friday, November 25, 2016

THE VENUSIAN GAMBIT, third Royal-Navy-in-Space meets Flash Gordon's granddaughter on Mars novel

(The Daedalus Series #3)
Night Shade Books
$7.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The last chapter of the dimension-spanning Daedalus series brings the 19th and 22nd centuries together for an explosive finale in the jungles of Venus!

In the year 2135, dangerous alien life forms freed in the destruction of Saturn's moon Enceladus are making their way towards Earth. A task force spearheaded by Lt. Cmdr. Shaila Jain is scrambling to beat them there while simultaneously trying to save crewmember Stephane Durand, who was infected during the mission to Saturn and is now controlled by a form of life intent on reopening a transdimensional rift and destroying the human race. But Jain doesn’t realize that the possessed Stephane has bigger plans, beaming critical data to other conspirators suspiciously heading not for Earth, but for Venus.

In 1809—a Napoleonic era far different from our own—the French have occupied England with their Corps Eternélle, undead soldiers risen through the darkest Alchemy. Only the actions of Lord Admiral Thomas Weatherby and the Royal Navy have kept the French contained to Earth. But the machinations of old enemies point to a bold and daring gambit: an ancient weapon, presumed lost in the jungles of Venus.

Now, Weatherby must choose whether to stay and fight to retake his homeland or pursue the French to the green planet. And Shaila must decide if it’s possible to save the man she loves, or if he must be sacrificed for the good of two dimensions. In the dark, alien jungles of Venus, humanity's fate in both dimensions hangs in the balance—forcing past and present to once again join forces against an ancient terror.


My Review: This man is batshit crazy. There are zombies—sorry, revenants—fighting for Napoleon, there are Eldritch Horrors from Beyond using Mars (and possessing sexy Earthmen) to get their claws on the 22nd-century Earth, and the sailpunk feature of sailing in the stars isn't metaphorical.

I am in my happy place.

What happens? Why on Venus does that matter?! It's the Napoleonic Wars, only without the Americas...simply don't exist...and with Magjicqk! Alchemy keeps the ships of the Royal Navy safe as they navigate among the all-habitable all the time planets of the solar system. And you know what, I like that a lot better than I like our somewhat confining set-up. Since it's time for Napoleon to finish England and Russia off with an undead Corps Éternel (love that wordplay!), the stakes couldn't be higher!

Then there's the shockingly interpenetrating 22nd century with its physics like our own dismal (in comparison) version, under equally existential attack from a...being, a thing called "Althotas" that is attempting to gain dominion over the entire Multiverse from the outside...I think it's the outside...I really don't think it matters, the stakes in the 22nd century aren't lower and the battling's even harder because good goddle mitey there's a being from another...from a...and the technocratic brain shorts because there simply isn't a label in the General Relativity bin that fits this weirdness.

There are good people fighting for their survival; there are selfish people remaking Reality to suit themselves; there are losses that can't be understated and there are victories that can't be celebrated because there simply isn't time yet. It's the third volume of three, so you know that there are resolutions on the way but there are more than three hundred pages so the author has plenty of space to make your squirm. He lets no opportunity to do so pass.

The fact is that, having spent two books in this world, I was sure it would be intense and exciting to spend a third one there. It was. But I was not entirely ready for the sense of loss it caused me to feel to know this series is over, Anne and Weatherby and Shaila and Dr. Finch and María Díaz aren't going to be resting under my Yule tree ever again. I won't watch with fascination as they develop their lives, having been through an amazing experience and being alive at the most interesting of times for their respective civilizations. That's the benefit of a series that's complete: you know that it's not going to make you wait for more. That's also the painful part: no amount of waiting and sighing will bring the characters you've invested in back.

But this series is such a pleasure, such a surprise of a worlds-in-collision tale, that I feel so much richer for having been in it for so much of this year. Go on the journey for yourself and get to know the delights and despairs of convincingly real characters living through peaks and valleys you can but envy and repine over.