Book review: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get ThereUtopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists starts with a simple premise: since we are already living in the utopia imagined by previous generations, what’s the utopia we’re aiming for now? We need big ideas to strive toward in order to keep progressing forward.

I have been meaning to read Utopia for Realists for several years now. Prior to the book’s publication, I read the sections Bregman had made available from two of his chapters on Medium. Those were my first introduction to the concept of a Universal Basic Income and how there was some fairly compelling, if limited, evidence for just giving people money to fix just about every problem. Poverty, it seems, isn’t a moral failing or a lack of work ethic, it’s a lack of cash. Since then I have watched several of his interviews and discussions (yes, including the Davos inequality panel) and still managed to gain more insights from his book.

It seems odd to note that we’ve stopped thinking about our future utopia. Outside of Star Trek*, most of our future visions are of dystopias which warn us of our mistakes, but also underline what happens when we stop thinking of a utopia to strive for. We can only see the negative futures, not the potentially great futures.

Bregman spends a lot of Utopia for Realists outlining several of our current societal problems and then introduces some of the evidence for his utopian vision of a Universal Basic Income, lower inequality, and a shorter working week as solutions. These are not new ideas – Mill, Russell, and Keynes have all written on these topics – but they are the utopia that Bregman thinks we need to be aiming for. In outlining the evidence in favour of this vision, he also shows how close we have come on several occasions to implementing some of these reforms and how easy it is for naysayers to win the day.

Utopia for Realists is very well written**, is easy to read, and not particularly long. The only reason I didn’t finish this quickly was that I kept tracking down the extensive references and surrounding literature for further reading. My own fault for being a giant nerd. One of my favourite references was this one on the value created by various professions, which suggests that we are rewarding some who are actively bad for the economy, whilst under-paying those who are good for the economy.

This book is highly recommended reading.

See also: https://tysonadams.com/2019/04/05/book-review-austerity-the-history-of-a-dangerous-idea-by-mark-blyth/
https://tysonadams.com/2019/03/19/book-review-winners-take-all-by-anand-giridharadas/

* Although, how much of a utopia is Star Trek, what with the wars, the planet of hats, and Borg collectives? Discussed further here.
** Not sure whether to credit this to Bregman or his translator – Elizabeth Manton.

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Book review: A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job (Grim Reaper, #1)A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tedious job, flexible hours, remuneration package includes invisibility powers, some harassment involved, and if quotas not met world will end in darkness.

Charlie Asher’s world is turned upside down the day he becomes a father. His wife dies, he becomes a grim reaper, his daughter can kill by pointing at things, and he may never get laid again. His new job is confusing – the JDF is in the mail – the forces of darkness are calling to him from the sewers and people are starting to suspect he’s a serial killer. At least the pay is good.

Over the last month, I’ve tried to read several humorous novels, and have only managed to complete two of them. The two I have finished – A Dirty Job and Redshirts – have had similar pros and cons. Both have had a strong premise, were mostly well executed and were reasonably entertaining. But neither were as funny as they thought they were.

Moore’s absurdist writing style is a strength to this novel. But I couldn’t help but feel he didn’t capitalise on that with more humour. And some of the humour that he does inject… Let’s just say that cringy white guy jive talking or ethnic caricatures probably don’t amuse me as much as they used to.*

I think it was because of this only mildly amusing level of humour that I started nitpicking aspects of the story. The continuous references to ‘beta males’ became tiresome as, aside from being scientifically debunked, it made the author sound like he was posting on Reddit subforums. Another was the use of weapons against the forces of darkness.** Whilst the humour of this was done well, it did trivialise the threat at several points.

So, much like I said in my review of Redshirts, I think A Dirty Job wasted its potential as a comedic novel and was only okay.***

* I’m going to pretend it wasn’t deliberately racist.
** Also, since when does an American not have access to an arsenal of firearms? One handgun? One?
*** I feel as though I’m being a bit too harsh/critical of humorous novels of late. Maybe all the Terry Pratchett I’ve been reading has spoiled regular books for me.

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Book review: The Boys by Garth Ennis

The Boys Omnibus, Volume One (The Boys Omnibus, #1)The Boys Omnibus, Volume One by Garth Ennis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The words you don’t want to hear from someone with superpowers: Because I can.

The Boys series by Garth Ennis shows us a world where superheroes are a marketing gimmick for a military-industrial company – Vought America – and these all-powerful beings – such as The Homelander – have to be kept from overindulging in hedonism, vice, and collateral damage. But there is more at stake, as Vought scheme and The Homelander plots.

It was interesting to revisit this series 7 years later as the TV series is set to commence. I remember enjoying the series for its interesting take on superheroes. Much like Irredeemable and Incorruptible, The Boys tries to imagine a more realistic scenario for how people with superpowers would behave. This gives Ennis a chance to pour in his trademark nudity, sex, violence, and toilet humour.

But underneath that facade is a much more interesting story. The Boys team are comprised of trauma victims who (mostly) have interesting story arcs. The superheroes are portrayed in a way that feels much truer to life; especially if you take them as a stand-in for actors, models, rich socialites or the like and the shady stuff we know they get up to. The political and business machinations throughout stands as a cautionary tale. And the series is pretty much one big swipe at the military-industrial complex.

I think I appreciated the depth of this series more on the second read. The Boys is worth reading, especially if you’ve seen other Ennis comics and ever wondered what he really thinks of superheroes.

A quick comment on the TV show: I’m hoping the series is good. From the trailer, it appears they’ll be doing some things a bit differently to the comics, notably The Homelander’s personality and the more prominent corporate criticism. Karl Urban, Antony Starr*, and Elizabeth Shue are great actors, so just their presence should make it worthwhile.

* Antony was the lead in the criminally underappreciated Banshee. If you haven’t watched that series, do so.

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Book Review: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

The Society of the SpectacleThe Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.”

The Society of the Spectacle is an aphoristic set of polemic essays that examines the “Spectacle,” Debord’s term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity. He argues that we have become alienated from ourselves and reality in order to have us serve the economy/capitalism with the production of commodities and accumulation of wealth.

I first encountered the idea of the Spectacle from Peter Coffin (see below) and his video essays related to what he terms Cultivated Identity. This is a fascinating idea and particularly relevant today in the age of mass media, late-stage capitalism, and the commodified zeitgeist. Look at how much of our society is obsessed with or based upon edifying upward mobility, celebrity, fame, reputation, and positions of power or prestige.

This ultimately means that our media has become what tells us how to think and it is essentially inescapable within our modern society. Thus, the limits of our conversations and thinking have already been defined, which then becomes a feedback loop for the media we consume. Click “Like” if you already agree.

The only drawback of this work was that it is obscurus and jingoistic. Aphorisms might be cool for ancient philosophers, but they don’t make for great enlightenment nor clear communication of ideas. I’ve actually gained more from reading and watching related overviews of The Society of the Spectacle than from Debord’s actual work.

Wikipedia
Illustrated Guide to Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle
Super Summaries

Peter Coffin’s video essays on the Spectacle:

Discussion of the Spectacle by a philosopher:

And her blog post on it: https://dweeb.blog/2018/12/21/the-society-of-the-spectacle/

An audiobook in Spectacle form:

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Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

RedshirtsRedshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes you can create characters that are a little bit too realistic.

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid as a xenobiologist. But from his first day onboard he notices that something is wrong with the rest of the crew. He and his fellow new recruits quickly realise that people on away missions have a nasty habit of dying. Except for a select handful of important crew members that is. They also notice that reality doesn’t make much sense at times when The Narrative takes over. Can Dahl and his friends figure it out before an away mission kills them too?

After reading the first chapter of Redshirts I had to consult with the interwebz to answer a question about this book: Is it worth reading the whole thing? Aside from one notable review that captured several of my concerns, the vast majority of my fellow readers loved Scalzi and this book. So I decided to persist and found myself at the end of Redshirts with the same reservations as I had at the end of the first chapter.

Firstly, this book was good enough to keep me reading. Redshirts has a very strong premise and the story is mostly well executed. The main story – more on the codas in a minute – steams along and is pretty entertaining. It won a Hugo, so clearly it has a lot to offer.

Now, let’s get to the buts.

For what is clearly a comedic novel, Redshirts is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. He said. He said. It has a cast of characters that are meant to be shallow and interchangeable, but they are so interchangeable that you wouldn’t know who was talking if you weren’t constantly reminded. He said. He said. The premise may be very strong, but I felt it wasn’t fully realised, which left me frustrated. And then the three codas arrived and shifted away from the previous 25 chapters’ lighthearted tone. All three, but especially 2 and 3, had a much more serious tone and felt like they belonged in a different novel.

So while I mostly enjoyed reading Redshirts, I feel it wasted its premise and wasn’t as well executed as I’d have liked.

NB: My wife said I had to tell everyone that I’ve spent all day complaining about the ending to Redshirts. She feels it would be disingenuous of me not to mention that and to also give you an idea of how much she is looking forward to me reading something else.

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Book Review: Socialism A Very Short Introduction by Michael Newman

Socialism: A Very Short IntroductionSocialism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Newman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How will we have anyone to look down upon if we all work together to make a better and fairer society?

The “A Very Short Introduction” series explores the topic of Socialism promising exactly what the title suggests. Michael Newman seeks to give an overview of socialism; the good, the bad, the misunderstood, and the misrepresented.

In my continued effort to dig into a few of the current bogeymen of cultural discourse, I went looking for an introductory text on socialism that wouldn’t shy away from the flaws but would also be more honest than most detractors. I think Newman succeeds in this respect. Many discussions of socialism treat it as a monolith – which they ironically still manage to misrepresent – which Newman is able to dispell by discussing some of the many iterations. Socialism also tends to have many ills landed at its door without adequate context – e.g. Stalin’s totalitarianism and Lysenkoism are all treated as completely socialism’s fault whilst under other policial regimes we divorce or distance those issues (people starving under capitalism isn’t capitalisms fault… apparently). Newman discusses examples like Cuba and Sweden with enough context to show how internal and external forces impacted what we regard as socialism.

This was a handy overview of socialism and certainly one that people should be encouraged to read before espousing views on the subject.

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Book Review: Incorruptible by Mark Waid

Incorruptible Digital OmnibusIncorruptible Digital Omnibus by Mark Waid

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lifetime villains just don’t know the recipe for being good.

Max Damage was at ground zero the day the Plutonian went berserk. But Max knew it was coming, he’s known the Plutonian’s secret since the day he was sent down the path of criminality. Now with his own superpowers, he realises that if the world’s greatest hero has switched sides, he has to become a hero. It was never going to be that simple though.

Incorruptible is the companion series to Mark Waid’s fantastic Irredeemable. When I originally read both series in 2011-12, I thought they were both very comparable, but that I enjoyed Max’s story more. Now upon re-reading, I’ve switched sides.

The story for Incorruptible deals with more of the consequences to the world after Superman/Plutonian turns villain. The redemption of such a despicable and immoral character is much more interesting than good guy turns bad. But where Irredeemable looks at the repercussions on multiple characters, Incorruptible mostly focuses on Max. This would be fine if Max was actually the protagonist. Unfortunately, Max is merely along for the ride, with major plot points and decisions taken away from him by the events in Irredeemable.

So if you are going to read Incorruptible, do so at the same time as Irredeemable.

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