Omar El Akkad’s American War might be one of the most relentlessly depressing (fiction) books I have ever read. That doesn’t make it untrue…
- El Akkad uses his experience as a war correspondent to imagine a future in the US in which the South secedes (over a fossil fuel ban fer crissakes), a southerner assassinates the American president, soldiers at an army base open fire on southerners protesting, and five years of war (followed after brief cease-fires by another long period of fighting) result.
- Hopes of peace are destroyed multiple times by hot heads on both sides. I’m both frightened this would happen and sure that it accurately recreates our ability to be dumb asses.
- The story is told by the nephew of a southern war hero, one who kills a northern general and who unleashes a plague at the reunification ceremony that kills tens of millions, on both sides. He recreates what happens by using his aunt’s diary as a source material, and he intersperses those entries with what are essentially news flashes, all from the northern side.
- Climate change has eliminated eastern cities, all of Florida and New Orleans, and much of the Gulf Coast. The fossil fuel ban was a late, futile response to the loss of land.
- The heat has driven people from much of the south, and rumors of other changes – the formation of Cascadia, the inability to grow oranges because of their high water requirements, the takeover of southern California and most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas by Mexico – make clear that these seem to have happened.
- His depictions of the volatility and unprofessionalism of militias was particularly profound. A northern militia attacks a refugee camp run by the Red Crescent, for instance, and the southern militias are essentially boys who like to play with guns and who do “raids” that a) rarely net anything of military use or have any military value and b) that up the intensity of the war at moments when it might have calmed down.
- In particular this feature of the story felt like it captured the hopelessness and surrealism of the Afghanistan and Syrian conflicts. Battle lines seemed to be elastic, and civilians got caught in the fighting all the time. The plasticity of the front lines is always – from what I gather – far more real than the very clear lines drawn on maps or in historical descriptions of battles, but in this novel they seem both frighteningly real (to civilians caught as they change or come into conflict, or when hidden snipers are rumored to shoot anyone who approaches the northern end of the refugee camp) and nearly non-existent.
- I was particularly struck by just how messed-up both sides are. The story is not told as a yay-go-team from either side, as both commit atrocities and kindnesses, and neither can lift itself out of the hell they have created and the destruction they have reaped upon the USA.
- Finally, I’m a little surprised by how much of a page-turner I found this to be. I had to intentionally slow down multiple times.
I recently read Newitz’s Autonomy, and I wondered how she could so accurately describe the paths that our technological development might follow. Having read Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction, I now understand, because as a science writer and editor of io9, she has been in this conversation for a long time and knows a lot about scientific trends. She extrapolated some fascinating ideas based on that knowledge…
More thoughts below:
- Newitz’s approach is far different from most who write about our future destruction – she thinks humans, as agile, problem-solving, incredibly smart creatures, should survive. She does not ignore the problems we cause – she links us to cyanobacteria as the only organisms to negatively impact the planet enough to bring about a mass extinction – but she thinks that ultimately we are worthy of moving onto the next step in our development.
- As if any of this is linear, of course…
- In the book she charts both mass extinctions from the planet’s geological history *and* stories of how humans have scattered, adapted, and remembered, and thus survived.
- Her description of the ways that Jews have survived is particularly interesting, as she talks about the importance of culture, narrative, and story.
- Her view is remarkably non-anthropocentric – by positing humans in what she argues (with help from a bunch of scientists) is the beginning of the next large mass extinction, she identifies our place in the universe as a little smaller and more fitting than how we ordinarily think of ourselves.
- The last section of the book is probably too short, but it was fascinating as she discussed how humans will probably adapt (breathe methane, have skin that can survive acid rains on other planets, and so on) and the immediate technological developments we will pursue (algae-derived energy, space elevators, and so on).
- She doesn’t simply talk about all this from her own “research” as that is defined now – glorified Google searches. Instead, she shows us what powerful science writing is by incorporating interviews (that she’s done) and research from the scientific communities involved in this discussion – disaster preparation as well as well energy derivation and space exploration.
- As someone who occasionally thinks that maybe a meteor strike wouldn’t be a bad idea, I appreciate her rational, pragmatic, and organized look at ways that we might actually survive (and heavens forbid learn from) the coming destruction we are doing to the planet…
Cargill’s Sea of Rust lives in a couple of genres, as both an apocalyptic scifi novel and a gritty war text. In the first incarnation, it’s a worthy descendant of the robots-destroy-us-all genre, while in the second it fits with stories of small platoons trying to accomplish desperate missions. The fact that I cared about this platoon despite the fact that it consisted of robots (and robots who had committed war crimes against humans) is an interesting one…
- We follow BRITTLE, a caregiver type robot who has developed into a stone cold killer in order to survive in the new world. She’s a scavenger of sorts, putting robots down so that she can take their parts.
- Cargill talks a lot about the ways in which robots might develop some sort of conscience, and in ways he makes robot emotional states very close to those of humans.
- I think that makes sense, and speaks to the ways in which our technology will both outstrip us and be unable to avoid the same sorts of deep, hard-wiring that we gave them (even if it takes different forms).
- In this novel, the first principle is that killing makes sense and is the first principle, with controlling others a close second.
- The world isn’t total anarchy – there are two mainframes that survived the war with the humans intact, and they’re trying to bring order to the world by making all robots part of the larger network.
- Needless to say, lots of robots don’t want anything to do with this…
I’m always interested in views of our dystopian future, especially when they involve robots, so I watched I am Mother recently. My thoughts below:
- I’m not always good at identifying how a film will end (my wife guessed the ending of Sixth Sense way before I did) so I’m probably a bad source, but I at times had trouble seeing which way the plot would go. (SPOILER ALERT) It certainly didn’t end as I expected, with the spunky-but-conflicted humans blowing up all the robots.
- I also kept wondering just how aware the director was of what felt to me like plot holes – as becomes evident at the end of the film he is (and was), but my guess is that the misdirections that felt unfollowed were designed to lead us astray as to what the ending would be.
- One of my major obsessions with robots is how they are represented in terms of power and control – this film messes with those ideas, as the killer droids seem to not be all that interested in killing unless they are ordered to do so (despite their fearsome appearance). I’m not exactly sure in this filmic world who does that ordering…and the hints are that Mother’s desire to save us from ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing…
- Mother seems too eerily drawn to be the perfect mom, and I’m guessing that’s designed to show that her coding is done from a robot’s perspective, with all coding errors done on the side of appearing as human as possible.
- It’s not exactly the sort of the Asimovian cyborg gets elected president because he’s perfect story, but there are hints that the robots truly do know better…
When I first read The Circle, it was 2014 and although Gamergate and worse had happened I refused to believe that social media and the alpha tech primadonnas could extend influence much beyond the confines of the diggerati. Re-reading it after the 2016 election reminds me that I’m a moron…
- Frustration with the cult of the tech alpha male in our culture seems to wax and wane, but Eggers clearly is more than frustrated. The three-headed monster that created the Circle neatly identifies what I think passes for the three sides of the tech alpha male – a sort of blind optimism about the perfectibility of humans (through technology, often developed by the alpha male’s company), financial smarts and a sort of willful ignorance about the dangers of monopoly capitalism, and sheer technical virtuosity.
- The fact that they’re all white guys is of course perfect.
- Eggers skips right over the usual binary – techno-optimism vs. techno-pessimism – and portrays those who want to uphold values like privacy as doomed. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer gets particularly rough treatment…
- It’s hard not to read this as a sort of political thriller, one that ends badly.
- This novel ain’t subtle, all the way down to Stenton (financial guy) and his love of the voracious shark that eats the world and covers it in fecal material that is simply grey ash. The fact that the shark is transparent is another nice touch.
- I’m guessing that Eggers thinks this conversation is too important to be subtle about.
- The way that most of us so quickly immerse ourselves in the intensely anxious world of social media approval-seeking frightens me for the future, and makes Eggers’s vision particularly relevant.
- At the same time, Mae is so relentlessly caught up in the social prestige of being a bigwig at the Circle that I hope when she wakes up in twenty years that there is still a world.
- Every time I think Goodreads will offer me interesting conversation about a novel, I’m wrong. One of these days I will stop being surprised.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read Ecotopia, but every time I do I want to go live there…
- Bad stuff out of the way first – this is written in the mid-70s, and has all the systemic racism and sexism one would expect from the hippies, who were perhaps not as enlightened as they imagined themselves to be. It’s also very hetero, with sort of an implicit belief that being gay will not be a thing once we figure out the problems we have caused with the natural world.
- All of these are definitely problems, and they fit Callenbach’s hippieish, Jerry Rubin style “revolution.”
- That said, it’s also a non-stop look at possible ways to work ourselves out of the looming ecological disaster that we find ourselves facing. It creates a very Jeffersonian view of the ways we interact with the world – small farms and craftsmen, decentralized towns rather than large cities, and family units that are more flexible and larger and in which people take care of themselves.
- By non-stop I mean that Callenbach doesn’t spend much time developing characters. The reporter from the US who goes back to Ecotopia is a barely fleshed-out amalgam of all the hard-bitten reporter stereotypes, and his love interests – even the Ecotopia one – are not all that developed.
- Instead, Callenbach uses Weston (the reporter) as an excuse to wander around the nation of Ecotopia, finding out all of the ways that its citizens have addressed the environmental challenges they face (spoiler alert: there are a lot). We see solar power systems, water saving, careful selection and planning of tree harvests, and harmonious production of food. He doesn’t leave much out.
- Callenbach centers Ecotopia on the stable-state system, one which as the argument goes is obsessed with balance rather than competition. This theory has evolved since 1976, but Callenbach used it as a founding principle of Ecotopia, one that guided all decisions in the culture.
- Two examples stand out. In the first, Callenbach portrays Ecotopia as a place in which scientific research is conducted solely outside of huge government- and corporation-funded research labs. Instead, scientists form small bands determined to solve immediate problems, in essence blurring the line I think between what we call technology and science.
- His argument is that this type of scientific research is far more conducive to solving social problems than making a profit or being turned to military use (not that there’s no military in Ecotopia – they constantly fear invasion by the US). Stable-state science means that problems are addressed with both a more immediate focus and a long-term awareness of the potential problems that solutions might bring.
- The other example is taxes. Callenbach argues that for capitalism to function as part of a stable state organizations and businesses must be properly taxed, and those who are taxed must believe that the money will be used for purposes that have clear benefits. Both taxes and government expenditures are completely transparent in this culture.
- The cultural conditioning that he foresees also feels very Oregonian (or Pacific NW-based perhaps). The games that folks play, the ways in which they freely disagree with each other, the emotional intensity of their relationships – all of these are very non-midwestern (at the least) and would require a lot of education and training (and re-training).
- There’s lots more of course, some of which I don’t agree with. But the intentionality of living in Ecotopia, the focus on relationship building, seems to me to be a far better way of creating an equitable society than our current material possession obsessed culture.
I re-read The Plot Against America for a class I’m teaching (original post is here), and I’m a little surprised by how different my reaction is to it this time. Of course, I’m now reading it after the first open gathering of Nazis I can remember in the United States since Skokie in 1977. Full disclosure on that, by the way – a friend of mine’s dad perhaps went to not-so-peacefully demonstrate and maybe punch a Nazi. I’m pretty sure he succeeded.
- This is an interesting twist on genre, one that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time: it’s an autobiography used to make an alternate history more personal. One of the flaws of alternate histories is that authors face a dilemma – do I rewrite the personal history of well-known historical figures, or do I invent fictional personas to allow me to make this a story and not an alternate history textbook? Folks have taken all kinds of different approaches of course, but Roth’s decision to rewrite his own history into this narrative gives the novel a intense, adolescent-boy perspective that feels very on the ground.
- From a craft perspective, I’m still in a little bit of shock that Roth tells what happens before he finishes the autobiographical part of the novel. I’m guessing that holding us as readers in suspense until the end was too much, and made the autobiographical portion more important than the larger chronology.
- The picture isn’t of or in the novel, of course, but it does feature the man who defeated FDR and ushered this in, Charles Lindbergh. I don’t think I’ll forget finding out that Lindbergh, who I always viewed as an American hero, turned out to be a fascist sympathizer. Not quite Santa-is-not-real, but still not fun.
- Roth’s ending doesn’t feel as contrived on this read, either – Nazis capturing the Lindbergh baby and holding him ransom (although not presented in the novel as anything but, perhaps, the fever nightmare of Roth’s Aunt Evelyn) while Lindbergh won the election based on his masculinity and his ability to keep the US out of WWII feels way more real now.
- What truly struck me on my re-read, though, was that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t feel that way the first time, as I was trying to see if Roth was worth all the hype. I’m still not sure about that, but this novel and American Pastoral if nothing else made me rethink what I believe I know about fairly recent American history.
- Unfortunately, I know the motivating force for the page-turning frenzy this time: when I first read this the Charlottesville Nazi rally was still a month away, and Heather Heyer was still alive, and I couldn’t imagine a US president saying that there are very fine people on both sides, that a proto-fascist, homunculean piece of shit would be anywhere near a sitting president, let alone writing immigration policy speeches.
- Setting this novel in the time of WWII also let Roth avoid the problem of having to understand social media and its effects on our elections, an avoidance that I don’t blame him for undertaking.