id’s #CBR5 review #6: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

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(this review is of the audiobook read by Christopher Hurt)

It Can’t Happen Here has been on my list of books to read since 2001, when our (American) world went mad. For twelve years now, we’ve inhabited a ‘kinder, gentler’ nation obsessed with preventing terrorism and willing to surrender certain privacy rights in the name of the greater good. It hasn’t been all bad, like the recent liberalization of marriage equality, but I still consider much of what’s been enacted since the beginning of the Aughts corporatist or facist-lite; governmental & corporate policies ostensibly placing their concerns above citizens rights and concerns. The recent drone concern is just one example of the larger morass. I’m not likely to get dragged out of my house in the middle of the night or even blacklisted for my criticism, but I certainly have lost bankruptcy protections, social safety net protections, and the right to keep information private from businesses and government. You might say, “They know where you live, but they frankly don’t give a fuck unless you give a Bad Person money, or don’t pay your taxes or bills on time without a fuss.”

From this perspective alone, It Can’t Happen Here is already outdated. Sinclair Lewis’ novel is rife with dated references to people, events and slang – as a history minor I know the first two are unavoidable, but the third is painful:

All the audience made their faces to shine upon the General and Mr. Staubmeyer–all save a couple of crank pacifist women, and one Doremus Jessup, editor of the Fort Beulah Daily Informer, locally considered “a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic,” who whispered to his friend the Reverend Mr. Falck, “Our pioneer fathers did rather of a skimpy job in arduously cultivating some of the square feet in Arizona!”

Sinclair knows he’s writing some paternalistic crap, the tone is intentional and satirical, but he doesn’t raise above the material to make it digestible.

Context is important; in 1935, Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here as reactionary and populist concerns to European fascism in Germany, Spain & Italy. “It couldn’t happen here because we’re . . ” was a common refrain he heard frequently, despite the fact that Americans had similar economic and social anxieties which spawned the European movements. Lewis argues that Huey Long, and other American populists like him, could indeed the United States into fascism. But the corporatism-lite of modern America is really not much like Sinclair’s argument. The better comparison to Long is not W., Cheney, or Obama, but rather the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

It Can’t Happen Here is a novel of two layers, where the narrator alternates between a historical perspective relating national events and then shifting to a local perspective, a New Hampshire newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, to personify the changes happening. As a journalist in a country rapidly turning fascist, Jessup obviously and rapidly comes into conflict with the new political reality. A populist Democrat named Buzz Windrip advocates policies not unlike Huey Long’s “Every Man a King”, winning a nomination fight against a weak FDR in the 1936 campaign. (The narrative’s quite plausible, especially when you consider that in 1935-6, Franklin Roosevelt had served barely one term, his alphabet soup of relief was getting ruled unconstitutional, and Congress was getting cold feet over deficit spending and worsening the Depression.) Windrip is double-dealing however, cutting backroom deals with monied interests; once elected in office, Windrip begins using the period’s fascist tools of oppression to effectively merge business and government into a permanent entity of power.

The quote widely attributed to Sinclair that you often see is:

“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

But let’s think about this – even Sinclair wrote in this book that the state most effective would be the Corpo, or Corporatist regime, where the government of state is merged with corporate power. Maybe there’s a second half to this axiom. “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross, and it’ll all be manufactured by the lowest paid worker.”

Which leads up back to Our Modern Times. Our police forces have become more para-military in their deployment and disposition, and groups such as Occupy Wall Street have a strong case that police have become more oppressive. We’re all supposed to suffer the indignities of recession and foreclosure, but the wealthy and powerful don’t.  But there’s a there missing, something at which we can directly point at and say, “That’s fascism.  That’s oppressive. That’s wrong.” There’s something missing that keeps us from that extra step, clearly indicating we’re losing the benefits of being an American, but not our rights, per se. Something that lets us acknowledge that the country and planet is in dire circumstances but unable to effect change, but that it’s not a threat to liberty or freedom.

The historian is constantly invigorating youth and peers that if we forget history, we are doomed (doomed, i tell you!) to repeat history. But at the same time, our time now is not like history, nor has it ever been. Very few times can you clearly point out, “See, there! We fucked up this way when that happened, and then we did it again after we forgot.” Human circumstance doesn’t work that way. We know we’re losing, but we seem unable to means test the changes into a political notion that indicates good or ill, and how to alleviate it.

It’s been a bit of a joke to call this time in our lives something historic – it’s aggrandizing to do so, and one thing the Internet has taught us is that we, the people, can be ridiculously self-important. But it’s time we seriously admit that we are living in a time of crisis -The Great Change- that necessitates aggressive policy, and act on it.

You can read It Can’t Happen Here as part of Project Gutenberg.

id’s #CBR5 review #5: Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Speaking of narcissists . . Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear, being interviewed by Stephen Colbert's alter ego.

Speaking of narcissists . . Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear, being interviewed by Stephen Colbert’s alter ego.

(This review is of the audiobook version, read by Morton Sellers)

As Pajibans, we inexorably come around to the issue of Scientology’s involvement in media and celebrity culture. Even if our interest in Scientology is about as small as a communion wafer, it’s influence on entertainment is real & significant because what power the church doesn’t exercise in hearts & minds, it wields like a aluminum baseball bat through lawsuits, politics and intimidation. You have to go to marginalized extremes within Christianity, Islam or other world religions to find sects willing to carry out acts of force against the world and individual people as Scientology does.

In his Introduction, Wright explains why he wrote Going Clear:

“Obviously, there is an enduring appeal that survives the widespread assumption that Scientology is a cult and a fraud. I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious beliefs on peoples’ lives, historically a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics, which is the substance of so much journalism. I was drawn to write this book by the questions that many people have about Scientology. What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do it’s adherents get out of it?  How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom? These questions are not unique to Scientology, but they certainly underscore the conversation. In attempting to answer them in this book, I hope we can learn something about what might be called the process of belief.”

I don’t know what Wright’s religious education is, but the process of belief is a common term used in protestant Christian theology. (And anyone who mentions Bad Religion will get my foot up their ass) Coming from the periphery of Methodist doctrine & clergy, where I live, the Process of Belief means something much different while using the same words. The process of belief Wright is looking for is not the self-realized adoption of faith, that glistening pure moment of euphoria or enlightenment, but the creation of standards and theology, dogma and bureaucracy. Despite this confusion, Lawrence Wright has written an exceptionally comprehensive history of Scientology’s birth and childhood.

In case readers may not know about Scientology, the brief overview is this: L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science-fiction and adventure novelist from the golden age of science fiction (~1936-48), began to create a system of belief in the 1950’s. Extensive documentation of Hubbard indicates he suffers from wild paranoia and other psychological issues which he seemingly tries to moderate or control through self-help treatments or disciplines he invents. Hubbard begins to market these treatments as Dianetics, making large sums of money even though the discipline is obviously not helping him or many of the other practitioners. Dianetics and Hubbard’s church actually engage in cruelty to it’s adherents, extra-legal warfare, spying against governments, and host of other bizarre events through the 60’s and 70’s. Dianetics evolves into Scientology, and LRH dies in 1986 as the head of a wealthy religion. After Hubbard’s death, a 2nd generation Scientologist, David Miscavige, becomes the de facto leader of the church; under Miscavige’s leadership, the church’s tendency to abuse continues and grows.

Lawrence Wright’s opportunity has been to assemble interviews with a number of recent Scientology defectors, including former clerics in the ‘Sea Organization’ or SeaOrg, and celebrities, and then marry the contemporary narratives with the unadulterated historical archives. Scriptwriter Paul Haggis, of Crash, frames much of Wright’s book as someone whom we see the entire Scientology organization through – as it became infamous in the 70’s and he becomes a believer, through the 70’s and 80’s as he and it grew into success, and then finally as Haggis walked away in the Aughts over California’s Prop 8 and Scientology’s widespread homophobia. Interspersed are events from Hubbard’s life – his 3 marriages; his dalliances with satanism; self-aware letters to family, friends and himself regretting his failings; absolutely insane claims of abilities and achievements. Xenu’s DC-8s are just the tip of the iceberg. In the end, Wright concludes that the creation and growth of a religion (at least in the modern era), may necessitate full-blown narcissism and sociopathy, citing comparisons to Heaven’s Gate and David Koresh’s Brand Davidians. Hubbard and his successor, Miscaviage, certainly fit the bill.

Going Clear is engrossing reading when it’s not utterly frightening. Personally, I had a hard time slogging through through several sections because of the psychological issues at the heart of the religion. I was abused for a time in my 20’s by someone with narcissism and I’m still having to deal with her effects in my life. A major discipline of Scientology, in ‘auditing’ it’s practitioners lives, has them relive crisis moments of their lives until the emotions are stripped away and the practitioner can judge the moments without discomfort. At the same time, Going Clear details tens of hundreds of events where Hubbard or Miscavige engage in textbook examples of cruelty and paranoia against their followers, and Scientology theology maintains these cruelties are the result of the victim’s failures. If you’ve been the victim of psychological abuse, I wouldn’t touch this book without regular counseling and a strong grip on your own fears.

id’s #CBR5 review #4: Scoundrels (Star Wars)

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(This is a review of the audiobook version.)

A long time ago I was a Borders book clerk. More accurately, I was the magazines clerk, because while quite literate, I didn’t have the all-over rounded encyclopedic knowledge that most of the English graduates did. What I did have a was great grasp on genre fiction & art, as my mother was an inveterate mystery reader, I read Sci Fi obsessively, and I had a brand new BFA from the nearby state university. I got stuck in magazines because they needed a warm body and my warm body was better than anyone else coming through the door. I was mocked appropriately in my first lunch break for picking up Barbara Hambly’s new novel, Children of the Jedi. Hambly had written the psychedelic-Western cross Ishmael for the Star Trek franchise 10 years earlier, so I was curious how her new one was going to stretch the Star Wars universe.

I only wish Steve Zahn knew how to stretch. I suppose with the status I posted in my Facebook feed when I finished this thing about a month ago is really the best summary; “Timothy Zahn is now officially, and unabashedly, a hack. Don’t bother with the newest one.”

It’s not like anyone has held up Star Wars as science fiction in its full glory, as both entertaining and relevant, or even slightly challenging. A strong argument can even be made Star Wars is even the poster child for the worst of brainless entertainment in the stars, ‘Science Fantasy‘. After the prequels-that-shall-not-be-named, Star Wars has become so hackneyed, that Disney’s acquisition of the empire (*cough*) has been roundly applauded by most Star Wars fans as a positive thing.

The book’s really simple – Han Solo (who never is) & Chewbacca recruit a gang of thieves, just like Ocean’s Eleven, and they try to rip off a local underworld boss whom has the galaxy’s stash of blackmail files. Han Solo at the end gets chased, in probably the all-time runner-up Nuke the Fridge moment, by a large spherical boulder, wildly swinging whips that-aren’t-really-ligthsabers-but-sill-glowy-and-cool. They barely lose the score, break even. The End.

The worst part is that its reheated dribble that the Extended Star Wars has already covered, and covered well; Aaron Allston’s run with the Wraith Squadron in the X-Wing novels was a joy to read and had an original spin. In a gross display of laziness, Zahn even uses the younger version of one of Allston’s characters (Kell Donos) in that group of n’er do wells for his own crew.

The rights holders have gotten much less free about how they’ll let authors wander from the Brand since those days – it’s why branded genre fiction is a Disneyfied slum like Times Square. You don’t get slash like The Price of the Phoenix anymore, much less Diane Duane’s nuanced portrayal of the Romulan culture, or John M. Ford’s blatant middle finger to the publisher. There’s nothing original here, much less fun.

id’s #CBR5 review #3: Homeland by Cory Doctorow

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I’m a tremendous fan of Cory’s first book in this universe, Little Brother – in fact I think my friends, co-workers, and random passers by are probably sick of me pushing the book at them when they ask a question about technology and freedom. I’ve been waiting months for the announced sequel to be published. Frustratingly, Cory announced several weeks ago that his publisher (Tor) decided not to release an audio version of Homeland, and since Cory refuses to publish anything with Digital Rights Management (DRM), sales via Audible were out of the question. For a guy who now ‘reads’ almost exclusively while driving hours from remote site to remote site for his job, I’m screwed. So it’s with some luck I got sick this weekend – I got to actually break down and read the entire book in a Sunday in bed.

Homeland picks up a couple years after Little Brother breaks off, and Marcus Yallow (M1k3y) is trying to move on from his previous life after the Department of Homeland Security picked him up after a terrorist attack, and unwittingly made him their worst enemy. He’s trying very hard to find a job since the global downturn, something his resume (“Engineered the removal of DHS from state of California”) doesn’t help with, and the rest of his family is out of work as well. During a Burning Man festival, a former DHS operative and antagonist (Masha) approaches Marcus and gives him the key to her ‘insurance file’, a bundle of secret documents that will embarrass and scandalize governments at all levels. Of course, Masha is swiftly captured, and Cory’s 2nd tale of American freedom and technology takes off, as Marcus has to figure out how to publish the insurance files without being arrested or black bagged himself.

The real value of Doctorow’s writing has always been his integration of the issues he thinks about with plot. Marcus has obviously gotten older, more mature, and more certain that he doesn’t know everything, and there are definitely people whom are smarter than he is. While the chain of events may strain credibility, the characters never do. But he (Doctrow & Marcus both) does know he can educate people and get them interested into subjects that frequently turn people into the drooling messes that we commonly associate with watching talking heads engaged in federal budget discussions. He gleefully goes there, absolutely convinced that his audience is there for the didactic discussions around privacy, government observation, cybersecurity, fraud, abuse, and even some do-it-yourself maker projects. After reading books like Cinder that walk up and invoke such powerful discussions like slavery and the definition of being human, and then drop them with only the judgement that Racism is Bad, Doctorow’s endless enthusiasm for the new cyber world and its issues is like enjoyably getting hit with a firehose. (Yeah, I went there. ‘Torrent’, considering the subject matter, is too overused. Email your complaints to idiosynchronic at Gmail. Then piss off.)

In a bittersweet afterword, Aaron Swartz states that;

Now I hope you had fun staying up all night reading about these things, but
this next part is important, so pay attention: what's going on now isn't some
reality TV show you can just sit at home and watch. This is your life, this is
your country -- and if you want to keep it safe, you need to get involved.

In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious that Marcus was based in part or whole on Aaron, and Doctrow asking the question, ‘What would happen if an incredibly talented but normal young man lived through a terrorist attack and refused to surrender his rights?’

Something I’ve noticed in Doctorow’s previous book, Pirate Cinema & which returns in Homeland, is a very painful wistfulness that at the end of your teen years you begin to see your friends and even loves go away into separate lives and careers, sometimes driven by circumstance, sometimes by disagreement. I think I’ve haven’t seen a more coherent explanation of this part of life in most books marketed (no matter how the young adult classification chafes) to teens and twenty-somethings. I don’t know what all has been going on in Cory Doctorow’s life, but I hope it hasn’t left too many livid scars. The good news is that they sometimes return – my wife and I never dated when we were teens, and we’re now married after meeting again. The real tragedy is when circumstances like Aaron’s will never provide the opportunity.

You can download Homeland at Cory’s website in a number of formats including PDF, HTML and a few other formats I don’t remember and don’t care to look up – all without DRM. Then if you love the books as much as I do, make sure you buy a physical copy from your local bookseller.

Id’s #CBR5, #2 – The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

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This review is of the audiobook version.

How good is this book? I got lost driving while listening. During the second reading, which was right after the first. Before I knew it, I was 40 miles lost, somewhere between Dubuque and Davenport. That’s how good this book is.

What would happen if you’re a senior administrative bureaucrat in the British Civil Service and you lost your memory? Not amnesia, that battered dramatic trope, but lost like a Department of Defense overwritten reformatted hard disk. And then, what if it was the Paranormal Civil Service? And you had super-powers? And you knew it was going to happen? And what if you were as meek and mild as a pet rabbit? Does it go all Watership Down? And let’s throw in a pack of biological engineering terrors, just for fun.

Daniel O’Malley has done a wonderful thing – he’s merged 20th Century British boarding-school-for-spies with paranormal horror, what passes for civil service drama, and used it only as wrapper for a thought experiment on what shapes who we are and what would happen if our selves were given a second chance. And he did it while Alan Moore’s grand opus on the same topics in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was still publishing, and he made it his own at the same time.

The Rook is also an accessible book – my wife adored this book after only 5 minutes. She also remarked that she found O’Malley’s main character one of the most absolutely ‘real’ women she’s read, and still can’t believe the book was authored by a man.

One of the best parts of audio reading is you are occasionally gifted with a brilliant actress to interpret the book. Susan Duerden has taken a thoroughly great story and made it into a work of art – you hear the first person narrator, Myfawny Thomas, change in the book and it sounds entirely authentic throughout. Ms. Duerden’s cast of voices is all entirely distinct as well, running the gamut of British Commonwealth voices from aristocratic boors (of both sexes), Indians, Americans, and even sputtering mad Belgians. (don’t ask) Duerden has done an artistic job that is equivalent to Alex Ross.

The first four chapters are available at The Rook Files.

Id’s #CBR5, #1 – Cinder by Marissa Meyer

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(This review is of the audiobook version.)

I’m a middle-aged white guy, I don’t fall for these things.  Really.

Of course, we all know that’s a load of fei hua, especially when you have kids involved, especially daughters with vivid imaginations.  Before we know it, we’ve been sucked into worlds alarmingly overshaded in pink, & hidden princesses are on every corner and they don’t have negotiable affections.  If you’re geek like me, Cinder is about as far as you’re going to nudge your darling child toward worlds and characters that don’t have an automatic Disney surcharge.

Meyer’s Cinderella is a 17 year-old mechanic that’s first introduced to us replacing her foot.  Cinder is cyborg – her left leg and hand are mechanical following an accident & a childhood she doesn’t remember.  Her prosthetics define her in status in a rebuilt post-world war city of New Bejing, because cyborgs have no human rights.  Cyborgs all have caretaker guardians; and it’s from here we begin to see how the Cinderella fairy tale is woven into a semi-dark science fiction world.  Throw in a world pandemic & lunar humans with a mental telepathy mutation, and you got a romping science fantasy.

Meyer’s gifts in Cinder are her easy prose and world-building, but not necessarily her plot and characters. Weaker plot and character are not a surprise – this is one of the exponentially growing number of ‘young adult’ books being marketed right now. It’s a post-modern rewriting of a fairytale, so the story was thin to begin with, but I rarely see the plot chapters in advance when reading. Meyer very broadly telegraphs her destinations. Ms. Meyer’s strongest plot element is addressing the rights of posthumans, but doesn’t develop it beyond ‘they are this, oppression is bad.’  Cinder, the heroine, is very teenaged – obsessing over issues of identity and anger, so if you hated those long ghastly passages in The Order of the Phoenix, you’re going to find your patience tested again.  The real reward is in the characters of the over-the-top pure sociopathic & racist behavior of the EVIL QUEEN Levanna (She’s so dramatic, she has to be written in CAPS!) and the mostly-wicked step-mother Lihn Adri.

There’s just enough detail that readers can fill in the images and feel the surface of a much different world, but not be overwhelmed. Meyer has obviously done her research on far eastern cultures, but she doesn’t spend her time detailing those differences.  Which is probably my greatest criticism — this book could have been really, really good, not just fun, if the author had the talent or drive to create a much more detailed culture and characters.  Yeah, I know, ‘young adult”, ages 12 & up, yadda yadda . . and I really miss the creative cursing in mandarin, ta ma de. The final chapter of the book is exceptionally frustrating as the story ends without resolution of the immediate problem.

This is of course a serialized novel plan called the Lunar Chronicles, with 3 other announced books to follow. The following books, Scarlet, Cress & Winter, will also add Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, and Snow White to the continuing story of Cinder. (Rapunzel makes a cameo appearance in this book, and Snow White is mentioned several times.)

Our reader, Rebecca Soler, is capable, doesn’t get in front of the story and keeps it interesting.

Recommended for pre-teen & teen readers, or anyone looking for a lazy day book. Not recommended for serious adult science fiction readers who can’t turn off.