On Liberty and Civil Society

As far as I've been able to tell from my reading of various right wing political critiques of late, the fundamental fear of socialist policies seems to stem from a concern that socialist policies are a curtailment of liberties. The placards and talking points of the right seem to hover around this idea of loss of liberty and for me, as a socialist, I find that very confusing. The easy answer of course is one I suggested in a previous post, that this stems from false consciousness. That's easy, but on reflection I think it isn't the whole picture. To be sure, there's an element of being misled by ideology in the tea party movement, and there is definitely an aspect of manipulation in the various astroturf groups that have worked to organize people who are involved with the tea party movement. But that doesn't explain all of it. Because for any of that to work, there has to be a fundamental, basic fear that's being tapped into and manipulated, and more to the point I do believe that there are honest, intelligent people who support this right wing movement who are not being manipulated but who genuinely see in socialist policy a threat to liberty. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in a sense, there is something true about the critique. There is an element to socialism that is a curtailment of liberty. But what sound bite politics of the moment miss is that liberty is such a loaded term that when one speaks broadly about liberty, then one actually says very little at all.

Solaris Finally Translated Directly into English

As is being reported in The Literary Saloon and Mumpsimus, Stanisław Lem's great novel Solaris has been translated from the original Polish into English for (shockingly) the first time. The existing edition is translated from Polish into French into English.

Apparently, because of rights issues, this new version is currently only available as an audiobook, though they plan on releasing an ebook and "hopefully" a print edition. Not sure what the deal is with the rights for this book or why the rights holders haven't bothered with a proper translation in the 50 years since the book came out, but someone should be deeply ashamed.

Short Reviews of Books I've Read Recently

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The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer (1971)
This book pretty much represents everything that is both good and bad about Philip José Farmer. On the one hand, it is full of wondrous ideas; it's the second volume of his RiverWorld series in which every human who has ever lived wakes up on an enormous river, and it's about Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) trying to build a boat to go up the river and find its source. He is aided by a giant proto-human, Odysseus, and Cyrano De Bergerac (who has, incidentally, shacked up with Clemens' wife) and fights against King John of England, Ieyasu of Japan and the Nazi Hermann Goring, who has joined a cult of pacifists. It's a wild book, full of antics, mayhem and crazy ideas, though it could probably lose a few scenes where the characters sit around talking about RiverWorld politics or in which Clemens gets all emo about Bergerac and his wife. Its main problems, however, are Farmer's lazy and clumsy prose style, which he seems to have inherited from his beloved 30's pulp fiction, and the constant repetition of things that are going on and that we already know, which probably stems from the book's original serialized form and should have been excised when it was collected. Still, a very fun book, and representative of the maturing and development of adventure fiction in the early seventies, when the full effects of the New Wave were just starting to be felt with their increased sensitivity to race, gender, sex (a subject in which Farmer was a pioneer in SF) and non-European cultural traditions.

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison (2006)
M. John Harrison on the other hand, is one of the great prose stylists and Nova Swing, stand-alone sequel to his triumphant Light, is a beautiful, marvelous book about people living on planet where a Roadside Picnic-like zone of weirdness distorts reality and dispenses, for no apparent reason, lots of black and white cats. The main character, Vic Serotonin (following the CyberPunk tradition of character naming which includes Johnny Mnemonic and Hiro Protagonist) functions as a tour guide through the zone, and the book is primarily concerned with how people try to live their ordinary lives in a world in which nothing can be relied on, in which reality itself might fall away from you. I already linked to a particularly moving paragraph from the novel that I singled out on my writing blog.

The Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (1990)
This is probably the best "Space Opera" novel I've ever read. It's the story of an old mercenary who's is called back by his old masters in the Culture (a society of frighteningly powerful future humans ruled by a caste of AI, and the subject of many books by Banks) to perform one last, terrible job for them. This story is interspersed with chapters about the character's life, moving chronologically backwards, with each chapter illuminating some aspect of his history and character relevant to the forward-moving story in a way reminiscent of what was later done on the TV show Lost. Unlike that show, however, The Use of Weapons' ending is incredibly satisfying, forcing you to reevaluate everything you've just read in a new light, and Banks handles the tricky structure and staggered revelations with impressive deftness.

The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer (2010)
VanderMeer's latest collection of short fiction shows an ever-increasing maturity both in subject matter and in technical skill and I think this may be his best book so far. The novella "The Situation" is some kind of masterpiece for the way it disembowels life in the corporate world and transforms an office building into a strange and terrifying universe. The shocking thing about a story as good as that, however, is that it is shadowed by the novella "Errata", which is reminiscent of Borges and full of weirdness and metatextual deconstruction of the act of creation. The title story — which can be read here — is as haunting a version of a Germanic-style faerie tale as your likely to find. Really, there isn't a bad story in here, and the best of them easily rank among the best I've read in years.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1817)
Frankenstein is a book I've tried to read several times but, despite its short length, could never get through. There reasons are the ponderous asides about man and nature, the lunatic stupidity of Victor Frankenstein and his endlessly wearying emo whining about how terrible his life has become. One can't help but conclude if he'd just been nice to the monster from the start they would have gotten along splendidly, and it's only because the monster was treated like crap by his creator (as the monster himself declaims) does the creature go around murdering all his friends and family. The monster himself is wonderful, a tragic byronic hero full of tortured soul and maddening passions, but Victor is completely unsympathetic, and I just kind of wanted to punch him in the face. One's tempted to chalk these problems up to the Gothic style of the period, but I don't remember having this kind of reaction to the Gothic novel of Shelley's father, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, a book which I'd loved, and reading Frankenstein was spurred by a renewed interest in this period. I plan to read some more Gothic works, specifically The Castle of Otranto, Vathek and maybe The Mysteries of Udolpho and see how they compare.

On Ebook Piracy

Had a long argument recently with a writer who was upset about how her books have been pirated as her sales have gone down. She went so far as to say that she thought every ebook should come with a virus that was only removed after you paid for it, a solution that would be at once disastrous and completely ineffective for its intended purpose.

For me, the question of piracy comes down to this: you can't stop piracy. You have a product that is infinitely reproducible at virtually zero cost. You can't fight that. And if you try, you're just going to end up frustrated and angry (like the writer I talked to).

So the problem really is: how can you take advantage of piracy, and how can you make money in spite of piracy? And those are the questions that need to be asked.

Memorial Weekend Mostly-Fiction Reading

My goodness, it's been a while since we put something on the site. Obviously, we've been busy little beavers out here in bloggy land.

So, to keep you all busy, here's a lot of great fiction that's been published recently for you to read for free!

The absolute best short story I've read recently is Karen Joy Fowler's "Younger Women", which is as cunning a send-up of Twilight as you're likely to find, but also a great work in its own right.

Tor.com has continued to provide some of the best short fiction on the web. One of the more memorable stories is "The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model" by Charlie Jane Anders which is takes the old trope of humans being seeded on Earth by aliens and turns it on its head in a way that's endlessly amusing.

This past Wednesday they published another story I enjoyed a lot, "Time Considered as a Series of Thermite Burns in No Particular Order" by Damien Broderick, which is a time travel story that is less about the traveling through time and more about the toll it takes on the traveller (and, it should be noted, has a sweet ass title).

Fantasy Magazine published "Choose Your Own Adventure" by Kat Howard which takes the concept of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story and plays with its inherent absurdities; the limitation of choices, the temptation to turn back and try a different path, the sense that the story is still guiding your actions rather despite the form's promise of interactivity.

M. John Harrison is kind of a writer's writer; he's stunningly good but doesn't seem to write with the kind of popular hooks that would turn him into a major (financial) success, and his identification with the SF ghetto probably doesn't help him get any recognition from the literati for his elegant prose, impeccable character insight and Borgesian explorations of the fantastic. Here is a short-short he wrote called "The Walls", apparently written originally to be read on stage, which encapsulates in brief form what it is that makes Harrison so good.

Relatedly, here's a paragraph from his novel Nova Swing which I transcribed on my writing blog after it took my breath away.

And now, Non-Fiction Time!

I've been saying for a while that publisher's claims that it costs as much to make an ebook as to make a print book are bullshit, and that if they want to prove it to us they should show us the numbers already. (Which they won't.) Blog Brad's Reader caught out a Simon and Shuster CEO saying that ebooks are profitable because the costs are so low. (via Teleread)

Wet Asphalt favorite Matt Cheney reviews Evaporating Genres by Gary K. Wolfe on Strange Horizons and talks about the difference between reviews and criticism w/r/t one of the leading critics reviewers of SF.

And finally, Robert Shawn talks about why he is a socialist, in one of the best defenses of the ideology you're likely to find and one that makes the more Libertarian tendencies in America look bankrupt and shallow.

And if all that STILL isn't enough for you, Richard and Wendy Pini have put EVERY ISSUE (over 6,500 pages) of their seminal fantasy comic book Elfquest online FOR FREE.

Enjoy and have a happy Memorial Day!

Carol Emshwiller Videos Up

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Videos are up from the Carol Emshwiller 90th birthday event! Included is a fascinating 30+ minute interview with everyone's favorite nonagenarian, and a hiliarious set from official Carol Emshwiller birthday magician, Magic Brian!

The Game of Thrones and Andy Rooney Criticism

There's a lot that can be said about the intensely stupid review of The Game of Thrones TV show that recently appeared in the New York Times. The three closing paragraphs highlight the problem pretty succinctly:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness [meaning the hot sex -- ER] has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Since the arrival of “The Sopranos” more than a decade ago, HBO has distinguished itself as a corporate auteur committed, when it is as its most intelligent and dazzling, to examining the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart: the Mafia, municipal government (“The Wire”), the Roman empire (“Rome”), the American West (“Deadwood”), religious fundamentalism (“Big Love”).

When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga “True Blood,” things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. “Game of Thrones” serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

There's a lot to unpack there; the sexism in the notion that girls don't like Tolkein and epic fantasy (I've met lots of girls who love that stuff, but I guess they're not in this author's book clubs), the weirdness in suggesting that boys don't like sex in their fiction so it must have been "tossed in" for the ladies (what?), and, of course, the epic genre snobbery in the notion that anything that isn't set in the "real" world is cheap. Because fantasy can't be, you know, good.

The important thing to note here, and the thing that a lot of people are, I think, missing, is that this is a perfect example of what I was talking about when I said mainstream reviewers had "long since abrogated their role as arbiters of taste by hewing to anachronistic and snobbish notions of literary worth that have relatively little relationship to what people actually look for and value in their fiction." The only difference is that here it's in television rather than prose. What we have here is an Andy Rooney style of criticism, a criticism that says "I don't get what these kids are into these days, I don't understand all this stuff and it obviously has no value." It's out-of-touch, snobbish and condescending, and reads like it's geared primarily to people past retirement age, clinging oh-so-desperately to their last-century, upper-middle-class bourgeois values.

And this is why it doesn't bother me one lick that the NYT put up a paywall recently. Why would I want to read that crap anyway? (For news, I'd rather go to BBC news and NPR.)

Carol Emshwiller Project website and 90th Birthday Extravaganza

The Carol Emshwiller Project website, made by Wet Asphalt favorite Matt Cheney, is now live. It includes loads of information and retrospectives on author Carol Emshwiller, who is wonderful and fabulous and was writing feminist science fiction before there ever was such a thing as Feminist Science Fiction.

On a related note, I'm participating in a two-part Carol Emshwiller 90th Birthday Celebration. The first event will be at the SOHO Gallery for Digital Art and presented by the New York Review of Science Fiction on Tuesday, April 12th, and the second event will be at WORD Bookstore as part of my own Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza at which event Cheney himself will interview our favorite newly nonagenarian author, and there will be birthday magic from Magic Brian.

Full details here.

Me on Comixology's It Came Out on Wednesday Podcast

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I'm on Comixology's It Came Out on Wednesday podcast this week, talking with Jake about the latest comics, including Alan Moore's Neonomicon, Red Sonja, Stephen King's Gunslinger prequel, Green Lantern and much more.

Normally, Comixology pays me to write code, but every once in a while I get to do cool stuff like this too. Go listen!

War is a Meaning That Gives Us Force

If you haven't read Chris Hedges's book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning you should do so. It chronicles Hedges's experiences as a journalist in the former Yugoslavia during the NATO action to protect the Kosovar and Bosnian populations against Slobodan Milosevic's genocide against them after the fall of the Soviet Block. That conflict was clearly a war. Although I'm not sure it is at all clear that every state actor in that conflict was at War with the Serbian State. Today, as a coalition of state actors including the United States moves to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and cripple Moammar Ghaddafi's ability to carry on his civil war with the rebels seeking to overthrow his regime, it is only natural for USAmericans to be asking whether we are now at war with Libya. It is a question that seems simple. Simple it is not. A brief resume of the last 70 years of warfare shows that the task of determining when the United States is at war is fraught with arbitrary distinctions and political posturing.

The Constitution of the United States of America gives Congress the power to raise and sustain an Army and a Navy. The power to declare war on another nation belongs to Congress and Congress alone. At the same time, the President of the United States is named Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces. This bifurcation of the war powers of the Federal Government, separating military policy from command and control, serves an important role in the system of limited powers given to the Federal Government in that document. It prevents the President from using the military in whatever way he sees fit, and prevents Congress from micromanaging the most urgent affairs of national defense. However, it also makes it difficult to determine whether or not the United States is at war at any given time.