Book review: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Lords and Ladies (Discworld, #14)Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So… Elves like to watch you dance naked… And don’t even tip. Creepy.

The kingdom of Lancre is about to host the royal wedding of former fool, King Verance II, to current witch, Magrat Garlik. The locals are preparing for the wedding and the arrival of foreign dignitaries. With the wedding scheduled for Midsummer, when the skin between realities becomes thinnest, elves are trying to return to the Disc. But not if Granny Weatherwax has anything to say about it.

I have to preface this review by saying it has been so long since I’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream that there is virtually nothing I remember of it. Maybe a thou or two, but that’s it. As such, a novel that mocks it is not going to be fully appreciated by me.

As I was reading Lords and Ladies I was thoroughly entertained. There were some fantastic moments, not least of which was the inclusion of the Many Worlds Theory. It’s easy to pick out quotes:

“In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the
cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat
could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.”

“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”

But several days on from finishing the novel and I’m hard-pressed to think of anything much to say or highlight about Lords and Ladies. It’s an entertaining read, a solid entry in the Discworld series (particularly the bees), but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. That feels somewhat sacrilegious to say about a novel that is head and shoulders above most anything else. I guess there is a universe in which I have read A Midsummer Night’s Dream more recently and regarded this Discworld instalment more highly, just not in this one.

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Anne Rice, The Queen of Literary Monsters

This month’s It’s Lit! covers the woman who made vampires sexy.

I was a young and impressionable university student when I bought The Vampire Lestat. It was not the first reimagining of vampires as more human creatures I’d read, but it managed to feel more substantial than other efforts. As a result, I went out and gradually made my way through the first half-a-dozen Vampire Chronicles. They still sit proudly on my shelf next to my wife’s collection of Twilight books.

There were obviously a lot of people who felt the same way as myself. We enjoyed the tales of immortals walking through history. We even liked that pensive sadness all the characters dripped. It certainly made the indulgent detailed descriptions of ancient art mildly tolerable.

And I think that is why I parted way with the Vampire Chronicles and Rice’s works in general. There was a moment in reading one of her novels, either Blood and Gold or perhaps a Mayfair Witches books, when I remember commenting upon the poem at the beginning of a chapter. Here was yet another very arty poem by Rice’s husband to skip over, what a waste of good paper.

Now, I generally dislike non-novel additions to novels. Chapter titles are fine, but sub-headings, dates, locations, quotes, poems, and other indulgences are just stuff in the way of my book reading. They often feel like attempts to make the work more arty or important than it really is. In the case of dates and locations, common in thrillers, they feel like lazy writing. And Rice was the author who made me dislike these things.

Once you start pulling at the thread, things start to unravel. I started to realise just how indulgent and boring much of Rice’s novels were. These were books I thoroughly enjoyed, yet I’ve not felt compelled to reread them since making this observation (I’d read several of the Vampire Chronicles at least twice at that point). Maybe I’m being too hard on Rice, I mean, she did pretty much reshape genre fiction (as discussed in the video). Maybe I need to revisit The Body Snatcher or The Vampire Lestat (again, as they were my favourites I’ve read multiple times).

Or maybe I should pickup some Lestat fanfic. Rice would love that.

Forbes once called her “The Warren Buffett of vampires,” but American author, Anne Rice has established herself as the literary queen of monsters of ALL kinds over her four-and-a-half decade career. Besides her 15 novels of the world-famous Vampire Chronicles series, she’s also written 21 other books featuring all your favorite dark, supernatural, and undead beings: witches, ghosts, mummies, werewolves, aliens, demons, angels, Jesus.

But the works of Anne Rice aren’t just light, pulpy fun monster books–her vampires changed the landscape of genre fiction as we know it?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: The Wulf by Steve Harris

WulfWulf by Steve Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going into the back paddock isn’t normally this bad.

Jame “Heater” Healey has only one dream. Buying a new bike. With an abusive father, no money, and a handful of friends with similar small-town struggles, the only thing that makes him feel good is riding. After the latest in a series of beatings, Heater starts to notice strange things happening in his little country town. He and his friend Ember attend the local harvest festival where things take a turn for the weird. From here on in it is all downhill. Can Heater survive the return of the Wulf?

A couple of years ago I decided to revisit the novel The Hoodoo Man, which I read when I was young. It was just as good as I remembered and felt the need to hunt down the rest of Steve Harris’ books. This was no easy task as the late Steve Harris (born 29 September 1954 in Basingstoke, died 4th October 2016) was one of those talented authors who was just becoming established when his career suddenly ended in the late 90s. Between his publishing house being bought out and the rejection of one of his novels for being too horrifying, his books went out of print and are largely forgotten.

The Wulf was Harris’ second novel and has a similar narrative style to many horror novels. We get introduced to the small rural village of West Waltham and its inhabitants. There are abusive parents, cheating partners, semi-famous philanderers, tree-changers, impoverished jerks, and small-town folk. And in true horror novel form, the supernatural elements that seek to destroy this little corner of the world are only really as bad as the easily corrupted inhabitants living normal lives up until now.

Which is why I’m only giving this novel 3 stars. It is fairly good, if too drawn out, horror novel that doesn’t have quite the impact that I’d been expecting. Of course, reading a horror novel in 2020 is like accidentally hitting your thumb with a hammer and then putting your thumb down on an anvil to make sure the hammer really connects cleanly this time.* So horror fans will probably enjoy this earlier Harris novel.

*My wife called this a heavy-handed metaphor. We’re both very punny.

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Book review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lovecraft Country: where the monsters play second fiddle to the racism.

Atticus Turner’s family has a secret link to the powerful Braithwhite family. The Braithwhites are part of a sect of natural philosophers, and they have designs on Atticus, his family, and his friends. Each of them are playing a part in Caleb Braithwhite’s plan [spoilers]which is, shock-horror, to take over the world… that is to say the USA[/spoilers]. Can Atticus and his kin triumph, even in Jim Crow America’s Lovecraft Country?

I think I was about two chapters in when I remarked how good this book was. Ruff’s weaving together of (US) black history and Lovecraftian themes made for compelling reading. Reading it in 2020 after Black Lives Matter has swept across much of the global north was a timely reminder of how there is still a lot to be done.

It was odd having to remind myself that many of the things in this book actually happened. Okay, I’m not entirely convinced that someone has figured out how to create a portal between worlds, but white people deciding to kill their new black neighbours because they are afraid of the impact on their house value, that was (is??) a thing.

The only real flaws for me was that there were a few sections that felt unnecessary (e.g. Rose’s new job) and that the racism could feel a bit off. This latter point is about how Ruff is telling us all what it was like to be black in America. It is hard for me to judge how accurate the handling of this was, as I’m not old or black enough to really understand, and the same could be said of Ruff. I wonder how historically accurate this story is – the racism, not the secret society of rich white guys using their power and influence to control the world, which is obviously bang on.

I think any flaws can be forgiven thanks to the payoff of the climactic scene. Weaving all of the narrative and thematic elements together for a single dialogue exchange was damned near as good an ending as you could hope for.

Lovecraft Country is well worth reading.

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Dune, The Most Important Sci Fi Series Ever?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses the series that should have landed in cinemas this year. But 2020 had other ideas, being the giant indestructible spanner thrown into the works of regular functioning society. So let’s just talk about the books instead.

A couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading Dune. I had previously gotten my hands on three of the expanded universe books written by Keven J Anderson and Herbert’s son. Let’s just say that those novels made me question the sanity of my friends who kept recommending the Dune novels.

Fortunately, I got past the ability of publishers to milk a premise long past the death of the cow. Dune was an excellent story.

In my review I made allusions to the point made in the It’s Lit! video about how the first novel has the feel of the rise of a demagogue. Having not gotten to the sequels as yet, the deconstruction of that sound particularly interesting. Dune only hints at the idea of how getting rid of the awful the ruling structures and leaders would be great. Destiny is tied into things a bit too much, while it appears the sequels unravels this idea.

Does this make the original novel and larger series the most important sci-fi ever? I’m not entirely convinced. Some books have inspired real life advances in technology or society (although less of the latter). I’m not sure Dune has had that impact, unless there is a spice I should be using in my cooking I’m unaware of. That isn’t to say Dune isn’t a great book (I’ll hopefully have some insight on the series in coming months) nor that it wasn’t influential in sci-fi. The lone fact that it managed to show that sci-fi could be a bestseller, particularly in hardcover, was a wake-up for the publishers who rejected the first novel such that an auto-repair manual publisher picked it up.

The main issue will be whether the new movie will arrive and not be the disappointment the other adaptations have been.

The planet is Arrakis. Also known as Dune. And y’all, it’s a mess. December of this year, we were supposed to see the arrival of director Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of the 1965 novel Dune, which had been previously (and rather infamously) brought to life by David Lynch in 1984, and again in a three-part miniseries on the SyFy channel in the early 2000s. Now many sci-fi nerds were both excited and nervous about the new adaptation directed by Villeneuve, but owing to the ongoing plague of eternity, the release has been pushed back to next year. So in lieu of that, y’all have to use this video to tide you over.

What is Dune? Why must the spice flow? And what is with all the sand?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: Doom Patrol – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference looks at Doom Patrol.

I have to admit, I’ve only heard about Doom Patrol. Reading the comic or watching the show has not been on my to-do list at all.

I’m sorry Alan ‘Wash’ Tudyk, I’ll try to keep up with your projects in future.

The video really does make the show look interesting. Bonkers, but interesting.

Listen, there’ve been A LOT of superhero tv shows over the past few years and it’s taken a second for us to catch up. But few of them have tickled our fancy quite like Doom Patrol. The comic book adaptation that opts for fighting personal demons over fighting super villains borrows from comics storylines across the decades. So how did the shows creators pick the best storylines for from a long running DC b-team to make a truly unique series? It’s tie to ask What’s the Difference?

Book review: Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Humankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People: Look at this nice thing we did.
Media: Boring!
Sociopath: Look at this terrible thing I did.
Media: Can you do that more? Maybe with a chainsaw this time? See how nasty people are!

With Human Kind, Rutger Bregman attempts to debunk an idea that underpins our social and economic systems. At the core of our society is this assumption that everyone is selfish, nasty, and would quite happily murder you, drink your flesh in a protein smoothie, and play with your entrails if it wasn’t for threats of state violence or eternal torment. Bregman addresses what he calls the Rousseau vs Hobbs debate over human nature with the intention of showing Russo was correct and we’re not so bad after all. And since we’re not so bad, maybe we need to rethink all the things we do based on this assumption.

Since I started reading philosophy I’ve slowly been coming to the realisation that society has been built upon what was good for the powerful. These ideas are often in opposition to evidence, morals, and the principle of not being a dick to others.* How can the Hobbsian view of human nature have won? People generally get along just fine. Most of the bad things we experience are from the outliers (sociopaths) or Hanlon’s Razor. Well, the simple answer is that the powerful can use the Hobbsian view to justify their position in society and to perpetuate it.**

Bregman does a pretty good job of tackling some of the common examples and studies used to “prove” how bad people are. One by one, they fall apart as scrutiny is applied to them. While the real-life Lord of the Flies story was the sort of thing that should be the stuff of legend, I found the debunking of the Kitty Genovese murder the most satisfying. They both illustrate how good news and bad news will be highlighted completely differently. This influences our view of the world. We should be careful in that regard.

As an argument, I think Bregman proves his point.

But… There is a bit too much glossing over important points. There are also some contentious assertions, like the idea that Homo-puppy (humans) domesticated itself by selecting for kindness. That isn’t to say these points are wrong, but they are taking quite a few short cuts and artistic flourishes (and Homo-puppy is a pretty cool flourish). One example, the selection for hairless apes as part of domestication is probably not true, or at least more complicated than implied.

Overall, this was an excellent book. I think if we all took these arguments seriously (and did the lateral reading to see how much support it has) then we could make a better world for everyone.

Or we could let the handful of nasty people continue to ruin it for everyone.

* That’s a direct quote from Jesus.
** Or as I put it in my review of Rousseau’s Origins of Inequality: inequality is a way for the rich and powerful to build a moat and castle.

Comments while reading:
Love the bit about the Easter Island insult roughly translating to: the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.

There are some interesting points made in pursuit of the argument but they do gloss over a large amount of research. It would be very easy to dismiss the argument if you were so inclined. One example is in his criticisms of Steven Pinker. If I hadn’t already read several papers and articles that dive into how wrong Pinker’s claims have been, then it would be easy to see Bregman as cherry-picking. But then again, you could spend a long time just discussing prehistoric violence studies, which isn’t that exciting for the average reader.

How do you get people to bad things? Well, you need to bully and coerce. But you can’t just give people an order or force them, as they tend to resist. You have to appeal to their good side. They have to believe they are helping, that they are doing it for “the greater good” or because they trust the person asking for their help.
“In fact, people go to great lengths, will suffer great distress, to be good. People got caught up in trying to be good.” (Don Mixon, psychologist who replicated the Milgram experiment.)
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed, capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t’ live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort do draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”

The Bystander Effect isn’t what we think. “…you can see that in 90 per cent of cases, people help each other out.”
But of course, that doesn’t sell papers or drive outrage media. Good news stories blip, bad news you can fill entire days of coverage with. So they’ll spin a story, or they’ll focus on the exceptions, or they’ll do both.

The comments about education and bullying are interesting. Institutions that utilise hierarchical structures and introduce competitiveness essentially manufacture nastiness and bullying as a result. The book also skipped over something very briefly that is going to start being more important in education circles, and that is how bad testing is (particularly standardised testing). Teaching people to be able to pass a test is not the same thing as education.

The rich and powerful don’t blush. Rising to power essentially turns off your shame (thus you don’t blush) or you rise to power because you’re more likely to be shameless (sociopaths, narcissist, etc). This is why one of the tactics of keeping the powerful inline doesn’t really work. Shaming people with satire, mockery, humour, etc, would work on the average person, but that isn’t the case with the sort of people who feel they are better than us plebs.

Quibble: there is a lot of talk in this book about humans being 99% the same as whatever chimp. I’m a little sick of seeing this misunderstanding. We aren’t really X% similar in the way that implies. A lot of genetic code isn’t for making humans or chimps, it is for making cells, or biological functions, or transcribing proteins. So it fails to understand what DNA does.

Enlightenment I have issues with. There’s this assertion that the enlightenment was awesome because it gave us science, capitalism, modern democracy, etc. While Bregman does a good job of highlighting that it also gave us modern racism, it underplays just about every other criticism of enlightenment. You have to remember that it didn’t give us democracy, that had to be fought for by everyone other than the landed gentry. You have to remember that the invisible hand and selfishness weren’t good ideas, they were ideas that allowed the rich merchants to be in charge. You have to remember that Reason™ has been used to justify the status quo, hold down social progress, further marginalise the disadvantaged, create massive inequality. You have to remember that the enlightenment happened just after and during the scientific revolution.

In other words, there is a lot of cheerleading around Enlightenment without adequate acknowledgement of the problems and consequences, and discussion of how many things were converging at the same time (there is an argument to be made that a certain level of population density and people with spare time occurred, thus driving forward a large number of things, rather than it being down to a couple of big-name thinky people with invisible hands and justifications for landed gentry merchants being in charge). I mean, most of these ideas were come up with by Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob 50-100 years earlier, so there’s that too.

There are a couple of points made about punching Nazis and extremism that showed a want to either distance Bregman’s comments from those “radical lefties” or an attempt to appeal to the “enlightened centrists”. I’m not sure what the thinking was here, but it did show through a few blind spots. For example, Mark Bray’s book on Antifa outlines how punching Nazis is hardly the only thing Antifa do and there is solid reasoning used when it is done (and the march Bregman talked about being used to fundraise efforts at getting people out of the Nazis groups would classify as anti-fascist action, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were under the banner of Antifa). It also showed a lack of understanding of political and social change. Yes, that much cited study on violence concluded that non-violent movements were more successful… Except that would have to ignore all the violent efforts that made the non-violent efforts possible (because everyone knows that ending Apartheid was all non-violent protest – e.g. rebuttal here).

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Sketch summarising Russo’s argument for the start of the world’s problems.

Other reviews:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7470881/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/12/humankind-a-hopeful-history-by-rutger-bregman-review
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/10/humankind-by-rutger-bregman-review-a-hopeful-history-of-our-nature (This one is a somewhat critical review that I feel makes a couple of good points – like the parking over the bike lane – but also either skimmed the book or really loves to be black and white about things in a way Bregman wasn’t)

How many climate crisis books will it take to save the planet?

Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

Ian Lowe, Griffith University

It’s that time of the year again. Brochures and emails spruik a bumper crop of new books about the climate crisis.

Book cover: Bill Gates How to Avoid a Climate Disaster


Goodreads

This time there are some really big names: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, Climate Crisis and the Global New Deal by Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, All We Can Save by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix It by Jane Fonda, as well as new efforts from David Attenborough and Tim Flannery.

The incoming tide of new books makes me reflect and wonder whether writing still more books about climate change is a waste of precious time. When the UN is calling for governments to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are books just preaching to the converted? My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean publishing, buying or reading more books is the answer to our climate emergency right now.




Read more:
Friday essay: thinking like a planet – environmental crisis and the humanities


Decades of books

In April, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the New York Times told readers this might be the year they finally read about climate change. But many already have.

The earliest titles date back to 1989: The Greenhouse Effect, Living in a Warmer Australia by Ann Henderson-Sellers and Russell Blong; my own contribution, Living in the Greenhouse, and the first book aimed at the US public, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

Book cover: planet earth image. By Al Gore.


Goodreads

The science was still developing then. We knew human activity was increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Measurable changes to the climate were also clear: more very hot days, fewer very cold nights, changes to rainfall patterns.

The 1985 Villach conference had culminated in an agreed statement warning there could be a link, but cautious scientists were saying more research was needed before we could be confident the changes had a human cause. There were credible alternative theories: the energy from the Sun could be changing, there could be changes in the Earth’s orbit, there might be natural factors we had not recognised.

By the mid-1990s, the debate was essentially over in the scientific community. Today there is barely a handful of credible climate scientists who don’t accept the evidence that human activity has caused the changes we are seeing. The agreed statements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, led to the Kyoto Protocol being adopted in 1997.

And so — as the urgency being felt by the scientists increased — more books were published.

Former US vice president and 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis was first published in 2008 and has since been issued in 20 editions. There have been more than enough books to furnish a list of the top 100 bestselling titles on the topic, recommended by the likes of Elon Musk and esteemed climate scientists and commentators. The ones I have acquired fill an entire bookcase shelf — dozens of titles describing the problem, making dire predictions, calling for action.

Girl walks through bookshop.

Preaching to the converted might not be such a bad thing.
Becca Tapert/Unsplash, CC BY



Read more:
‘The Earth was dying. Killed by the pursuit of money’ — rereading Ben Elton’s Stark as prophecy


Deeds not words

Does the new batch of books risk spreading more despair? If the previous books didn’t change our climate trajectory then what is the point in making readers feel the cause is hopeless and a bleak future is inevitable?

Book cover: What can I do? by Jane Fonda


Goodreads

No. Writing more books isn’t a waste of time, but they also shouldn’t be a high priority at the moment. The point of writing a book is to summarise what we know about the problem and identify credible ways forward.

Those were my goals when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse in 1989 and Living in the Hothouse in 2005. The main purpose of the first book was to draw attention to a problem that was largely unrecognised, trying to inform and persuade readers that we needed to take action. By the release of the second book, the aim was to counter the tsunami of misinformation unleashed by the fossil fuel industry, conservative institutions and the Murdoch press. Rupert Murdoch spoke at News Corp’s AGM this week, maintaining: “We do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”.

But there are two reasons why I’m not working on a third book right now.

The first is time. If I started writing today, it would be late next year before the book would be in the shops. We can’t afford another year of inaction. More importantly, the inaction of our national government is not a result of a lack of knowledge.

On November 9, United Nations chief António Guterres said the world was still falling well short of the leadership required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050:

Our goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, we are still headed towards three degrees at least.

Some believe the inaction is explained by the corruption of our politics by fossil fuel industry donations. Others see is a fundamental conflict between the concerted action needed and the dominant ideologies of governing parties. Making decision-makers better informed about the science won’t solve either of these problems.

They might be solved, however, by the evidence that a growing majority of voters want to see action to slow climate change.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has focused, rather than distracted, the community on the risks of climate change. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 3,000 people across eight countries found about 70% of respondents are now more aware of the risks of climate change than they were before the pandemic. Three-quarters say slowing climate change is as important as protecting the community from COVID-19.

The growing awareness and sense of urgency are backed by another recent study looking at internet search behaviour across 20 European countries. Researchers found signs of growing support for a post-COVID recovery program that emphasises sustainability.

Kids climate books on shelf.

Books have also educated young readers on the climate emergency.
Shutterstock



Read more:
Why it doesn’t make economic sense to ignore climate change in our recovery from the pandemic


Change is happening, more is needed

Still, preaching to the converted is not necessarily a bad thing. They might need to be reminded why they were persuaded that action is needed, or need help countering the half-truths and barefaced lies being peddled in the public debate. Books can fulfil that mission. So can speaking to community groups, which I do regularly.

I tell audiences the urgent priority now is to turn into action the knowledge we have about the accelerating impacts of climate change and economically viable responses. Our states and territories now have the goal of zero-carbon by 2050, so I am giving presentations spelling out how this can be achieved. We urgently need the Commonwealth government to catch up to the community.

Climate action protest sign above crowd.

Mass protests have called for environmental leadership.
Unsplash/Markus Spiske, CC BY

Change is happening rapidly. More than 2 million Australian households now have solar panels. Solar and wind provided more than half of the electricity used by South Australia last year and that state achieved a world-first on the morning of October 11: for a brief period, its entire electricity demand was met by solar panels.

The urgent task is not to publish more books on the crisis, but to change the political discourse and force our national government to play a positive role.The Conversation

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

My Comment: I think an important point to be made about books on a topic is about influencing the zeitgeist and creating the groundswell for change. While books are only a small part of that, they do tend to lend credibility to any argument and push for change (hence why there is such a large amount of science denial, political revisionism, and blatant propaganda books published by various think tanks, pundits, and reactionaries trying to legitimise nonsense).

But we also have to acknowledge that at some point books are less about communicating ideas and influencing the zeitgeist and more about grift. There is money to be made by writing books. Publishers certainly make money with those books (and by publishing contrarian books… you know, for balance… and cash). And no small part of this grift is selling those books to well meaning people who will feel like reading the books counts as doing something about the issues raised.

So we have to remember, both as readers and writers, that the knowledge step of the book is only as valuable and meaningful as what we do with that knowledge.

10 ‘lost’ Australian literary treasures you should read – and can soon borrow from any library

Perfecto Capucine/Unsplash

Rebecca Giblin, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, University of Melbourne

Many culturally important books by Australian authors are out of print, hard to find as secondhand copies, and confined to the physical shelves of a limited number of libraries. Effectively, they have become inaccessible and invisible — even including some Miles Franklin award winners by authors such as Thea Astley and Rodney Hall.

To ensure these works can be read, a team of authors, librarians and researchers are working together on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project.

By digitising out of print books and making them available for e-lending, the project will create a royalty stream for the authors involved, as well as income for the arts workers we are employing as proofreaders.

Commercial publishing lists, such as Text Classics and Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, do a great job of breathing new life into some of Australia’s lost books. But they often focus on literary fiction, to the exclusion of genre fiction, children’s books and non-fiction, which also need to be preserved.

Here are 10 of our favourites we’re excited to digitise so you can borrow from your local library straight to your e-device. We expect these and other books in the project to be available in the first half of 2021 – and you too can nominate a book for inclusion in the collection here.

Working Bullocks (1926) by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Book cover

Before Coonardoo (1929), Prichard’s best known work, there was Working Bullocks.

The novel describes the trials of Red Burke, a bullock driver in Western Australia, trying to make a living in a post-war Australia.

Just after the novel’s original publication, it was described by John Sleeman of The Bookman in the UK as “the high-water mark of Australian literary achievement in the novel so far”.

Metal Fatigue (1996) by Sean Williams

Sean Williams has written over 50 books, including co-authored titles with authors such as Shane Dix and Garth Nix which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

Metal Fatigue was Williams’ debut. Set in a small American city 40 years after the end of a nuclear war, the residents must decide if they want to join the newly forming Re-United States of America.

Depicting a dystopic future of violence, shortages and a divided USA, it still feels remarkably current today.

I’m Not Racist, But… (2007) by Anita Heiss

Book cover

This poetry collection from activist, writer and member of the Wiradjuri Nation, Professor Anita Heiss, skewers Australia’s racist underbelly.

I’m Not Racist, But… explores identity, pride and political correctness; proposes alternative words to the national anthem; and reveals how it is to grow up as an Indigenous woman in Australia.

This is a landmark work along Australia’s slow road to racial reckoning.

Space Demons (1986) by Gillian Rubinstein

The multi-award winning Space Demons was Gillian Rubinstein’s first book and began the much-loved trilogy of the same name.

It follows four ordinary kids drawn into a dangerous new computer game – instead of simply watching the game on the screen, they become part of it. And there is no way to know if they will escape.

With its gripping plot and local setting, Space Demons introduced many children to Australian science fiction – and led to many Australians first discovering their love of reading.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Why do adults think video games are bad?


Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law (1989) by Steve Hawke, with photographs by Michael Gallagher

Book cover

In 1979-80, the Yungngora people protested to stop the American company Amax drilling for oil on a sacred site on Noonkanbah Station, Western Australia.

This book is the detailed first-hand account of what became a high profile, ground-breaking land rights campaign, leading to the formation of the Kimberley Land Council. The Yungngora people wouldn’t have their native title rights recognised until 2007.

Alongside the reporting by Hawke, son of former PM Bob Hawke?, the book includes photographs taken by anthropologist Michael Gallagher.

This is an essential work of Australian history.

The Unlucky Australians (1968) by Frank Hardy

Frank Hardy was known for his political activism around labour rights, and as the author of 16 books. Almost his entire backlist is out of print, with the notable exception of Power Without Glory (1950).

In The Unlucky Australians, Hardy tells the story of the Gurindji people and the opening years of the strike they began in 1966.

Their protest against poor working and living conditions, seeking the return of their traditional lands, lasted nine years.

The Whitlam government returned some of those lands in 1975 with the historic transfer of “a handful of dirt” and the strike led to the passage of the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976.

A vital piece towards understanding the shameful labour conditions inflicted upon Indigenous Australians, this book should never have gone out of print.




Read more:
An historic handful of dirt: Whitlam and the legacy of the Wave Hill Walk-Off


The Mandala trilogy (1993-2004) by Carmel Bird

Inspired by three real life charismatic and dangerous individuals, these dark stories of abused trust and misplaced faith are transformed, taking on a gothic quality, with complex narratives, unlikely narrators and fairy-tale elements.

The White Garden is an ambitious novel following the misdeeds of the psychiatrist Dr Goddard (or Dr God, for short) in a hospital in the 1960s. Red Shoes takes us into the world of a religious cult. Cape Grimm looks at a religious order after its members are killed by their charismatic leader.

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks (2003) by Brett D’Arcy

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks is coming-of-age story about “Floaty Boy”, an 11-year-old with a love of body-surfing, his family, and what happens when his older brother disappears.

Described by the Australian Book Review as “Tim Winton on speed”, D’Arcy shines his own spotlight on Western Australia, exploring the duality of a life spent between the waves and the shore – and what happens when a family becomes torn apart by loss.


Untapped will launch with a free online celebration on November 24 at 6pm. Register for the launch here, nominate a book for inclusion at untapped.org.au – and let us know what you think we should digitise in the comments.The Conversation

Rebecca Giblin, ARC Future Fellow; Associate Professor; Director, Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, Postdoctoral Fellow, ‘Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project’, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are Graphic Novels… Novels?

This month’s It’s Lit! dives into the world of graphic novels.

Obviously, I’m a fan of graphic novels. I think that the format provides an interesting and engaging storytelling method. Sometimes I think of graphic novels as a step between novels and movies (storyboards anyone?). Other times I think of them as a great way to pair down a story to its elements. And then there are the times when I don’t think too hard and just enjoy reading graphic novels.

I’ve previously written about how the snobbery of literature is especially pointed when it comes to graphic novels. And it always seems to come back to holding up a very certain kind of novel as “literature” and everything else as “unworthy”. Something I’ve come to call defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.

Maybe if people just gave graphic novels a chance to entertain them…

In the past few decades, literature has expanded to not only mean the “novel” but “graphic novels” as well. Today we are gonna break down how the graphic novel went from the comic book store to the classroom. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book Review: Debt The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDebt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invent money so you can take it off of people… Ingenious?

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a comprehensive dive into the history of money, credit, and society/economy. It acts as a direct refutation of the commonly taught economic ideas about money and exchange systems that make up our economies (past and present). In doing so, Graeber draws on countless examples, historical evidence, and anthropological research to outline the major flaws with our current economic system.

This book was a very important read. It doesn’t just overturn many assumptions, it shows how those assumptions are taught as fact to perpetuate our current system. But probably the most important point Debt makes is that our current system doesn’t fully account for the human economy which means it will ultimately fail and we need to replace it with a system that does account for everything.

That said, at about halfway through Debt I found myself starting to wave my hand for Graeber to move it along a bit. At two-thirds, I was signalling for him to wrap it up already. Having read several of Graeber’s books and essays now, I feel Debt was his most important but also most meandering. In some ways, it reminded me of Das Kapital in this respect.

I fully expect this book will be ignored by economists, with fists firmly shoved into ears. You should probably read it though.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard the barter (myth) explanation so many times. But now that I’ve read some examples of where that isn’t used, or is used quite differently from what we conventionally are told happened in the past, you realise that its pretty much a whole-cloth nonsense. I mean, who’d have thunk that sharing would have been common among our ancestors? It’s still common today when things go pear-shaped. So bloody obvious.

MMT explainer on the creation of money. Having read about MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in Stephanie Kelton’s book, seeing it used here only reinforces both texts. Someone needs to create a market, hand out credit and demand a proportion be repaid. Goods are exchanged. Eventually, money turns up as an accounting measure.

Interesting side note about the Hindu philosophy of Nyaya that rivals pre-Socratic philosophy. It has an interesting idea about how logic shouldn’t be doing a content-independent “formal language” but instead incorporating logic with content in the language of the philosophy. They also independently came up with atomism. Funny how we don’t hear Nyaya discussed but we are hammered with “western philosophy”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyaya

Two-thirds through and I’m signalling for Graeber to wrap it up. I understand that when overthrowing orthodoxy you’re going to have to show your work… but I kinda feel like the point could have been made in a few hundred pages less.

Summary: the orthodox view of money and the economy is wrong. It doesn’t correctly understand nor value the entirety of our human economy, which is more correctly a credit system. The credit system is actually how our society works, thus we have to move our economic system to one that utilises this. Essentially, mutual aid and trade. The evidence for this is seen in every community, every time there is a disaster, and throughout history. /end.

View all my reviews

Book vs Movie: Netflix’s Rebecca – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference from Cinefix looks at Rebecca.

I think it was quite interesting to have the director involved in the discussion of doing an adaptation. Many of the points he made about what you can and can’t do are a good take-away.

One of the key points made was around what is cinematic. In books you can make a point or convey an idea without having to bash the reader with it (unless you are Dan Brown, in which case you’ll bash them with it repeatedly just to make sure that the people who take 6 months to read a book don’t forget something important). Movies can’t do that to the same extent without leaving the viewer a little bit dissatisfied. Unless you are being very arty, in which case, imply away and trigger years of debates over whether Cobb was still dreaming.

Unfortunately, I think the thing missing from this video was the discussion of the success of various choices made in adaptation. It is all well and good to say that “we wanted to give her more agency” but was that done effectively? Does that remain faithful to the book, or is it a departure that was unwarranted?

The other thing that was missing was a discussion with the author about the adaptation and their thoughts. Why didn’t they dig up Daphne du Maurier and and reanimate her corpse for a quick interview? Are people even trying these days?

Last night I dreamt director Ben Wheatley joined us for an episode of What’s the Difference! Netflix’s update to the Daphne du Maurier classic Rebecca is here and the filmmaker behind the latest adaptation walked through some of the finer points of the process. How does a 1930’s romantic thriller murdery mystery that’s been in print for 80 years find it’s way to a modern streaming platform with Armie Hammer and Lily James? It’s time ask Ben Wheatley, what’s the difference?

Australian literature is chronically underfunded — here’s how to help it flourish

Kate Winslet in the 2015 film The Dressmaker. The film was based on the novel by Australian writer Rosalie Ham. Screen Australia, Film Art Media, White Hot Productions

Gail Jones, Western Sydney University

This is an edited version of author Gail Jones’ submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the creative industries.

Literary culture carries profound social value. In general terms it is essential to employment, cultural literacy and understanding of community, as well as to Australia’s post-pandemic recovery and growth. It is also radically underfunded and in urgent need of new support.

I am particularly concerned with the low level of investment in literature through state and federal funding agencies compared with other art forms.

The economic benefits

Literature is a mainstay of the creative and cultural industries, which contributed $63.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016-17. Creative arts employ 645,000 Australians and those numbers were increasing before the pandemic. Literature operates in the economy in many and complicated ways, since writers are “primary producers” of creative content.

Books form an often invisible bedrock of robust resources for the wider economy. They provide creative content in areas such as film, television, theatre and opera; moreover they contribute fundamentally to the educational sector, to libraries, events and what might be called our forms of cultural conversation.

Julia Ormond and Angourie Rice in Ladies in Black, a 2018 film based on the novel by Australian author Madeleine St John. Lumila Films, Ladies in Black SPV, Screen Australia

The most conspicuous areas of economic benefit and employment are libraries, universities, schools, festivals, bookshops and publishing.

Indirect benefits, such as to tourism and cross-cultural understanding, are often overlooked in reference to the economic benefits of literature. Our books carry implicit, prestigious reference to a national culture and place; they attract interest, visitors and students and arguably establish a presence of ideas above and beyond more direct mechanisms of cultural exchange.

Cross-cultural exchange and understanding are crucial to the literary industries and of inestimable benefit in “recommending” Australia and its stories.

However, writers’ incomes are disastrously low, $12,900 on average; and COVID-19 has eliminated other forms of supplementary income. It has always been difficult to live as a writer in Australia (which is why most of us have “day jobs”) and it is clear writers are disproportionately disadvantaged. Although essential to the economic benefits of a healthy arts sector overall, writers are less supported by our institutions and infrastructure.


Read more: Five ways to boost Australian writers’ earnings


Total literature funding at the Australia Council has decreased by 44% over the past six years from $9 million in 2013-14 to $5.1 million in 2018-19. The abolition of specific literature programs such as Get Reading, Books Alive and the Book Council has been responsible for much of this decrease.

We need additional government-directed support such as the funding delivered to visual arts through the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy ($6.6 million in 2018-19), regional touring delivered through Playing Australia ($7.4 million 2018-19) and the Major Festivals Initiative ($1.5 million 2018-19).

Melbourne’s State Library. Valeriu Campan/AAP

Shaping national identity

The literary culture in Australia is chronically underfunded, but its benefits are persistent, precious and immense. “Social well-being” requires social literacy, a sense of connection to one’s history, community and self: these are generated and nourished through narrative, conversation and reflection.

The literary arts create a sense of pride, community and solidarity. A single library in a country town can offer astonishing opportunities of learning and self-knowledge: how do we calculate value like this?


Read more: Friday essay: the library – humanist ideal, social glue and now, tourism hotspot


As someone who grew up in remote and regional areas, I’m aware of how crucial libraries and book culture are to a sense of connection with the nation. Moreover, reading is an indicator of mental health, especially among young people.

Brothers Douglas and Dare Strout read a school book together while home schooling in Brisbane in April. Darren England/AAP

“National identity” also requires reflexive literacy: social understanding and agency derive from reading and writing; a nation that neglects its literary culture risks losing the skills that contribute to creative thinking in other areas — including in industry and innovative manufacturing. Local reading and writing initiatives have had remarkable success in areas like Aboriginal literacy and aged care mental support.

More Australians are reading, writing and attending festival events than ever before. Reading is the second most popular way Australians engage with arts and culture.

Writers’ festivals are flourishing and attendances growing. Libraries remain crucial to our urban and regional communities. It is no overstatement to claim that literature has shaped and reflected our complex national identity.

Australian literature at universities

The formulation of a Creative Economy Taskforce by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is a positive step in establishing better understanding of this crucial economy. I would draw attention, however, to the lack of literary expertise on the taskforce. The appointment of a publisher or a high-profile Indigenous writer, for example, would give more diversity to the collective voice of our literary community.

The additional appointment of an academic concerned with Australian literature, such as the current director of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, would further enhance the claims of literature.

The education sector will have a role in implementing creative arts initiatives. There has been a deplorable lack of support for Australian literature within the academy.

Under the current wish to renovate the jobs sector through the creative arts there is an opportunity to direct dedicated funds within the education budget to establishing a Chair of Australian Literature in each university (or at least in the Group of Eight).

There is currently one Chair at the University of Western Australia and a privately endowed one at the University of Melbourne. Postgraduate scholarships could also be offered specifically in the area of Australian literary studies.

Alexis Wright, pictured here in 2007 after winning the Miles Franklin award, is the Boisbouvier Chair of Australian Literature at Melbourne University. Dean Lewins/AAP

For a comparatively small outlay in budget terms, such a move would signal direct support for Australian reading, writing and research and would be widely celebrated in the education and library sectors.

‘Embarrassing’

It is embarrassing to discover that some European universities (in my experience Belgium, Germany and Italy, in particular) study more Australian literature than is offered in our own nation.

The case for increased Australia Council funding in the neglected area of literature has already been made. Writers’ incomes are, as attested, direly low and I worry in particular about diminishing funding for new and emerging writers.

An injection of funds into the literature sector of the Australia Council is another efficient and speedy way in which to signal understanding of the fundamental role of literature to our cultural enterprises and economic growth.

Cuts to publishing, festivals, journals, individual writers’ grants and programs generally, have had a disastrous effect on the incomes and opportunities for writers in this nation. Notwithstanding a few highly publicised commercial successes, most writers truly struggle to make ends meet. The “trickle down effects” — from a sustaining grant, say, to a literary journal — have direct economic benefits to writers and therefore to the wider economy.


Read more: Literary magazines are often the first place new authors are published. We can’t lose them


Most writers’ work is not recognised as a “job”; if it were, if there were a definition of “writer” as a category of honourable labour (such as it is, for example, in Germany and France), writers would be eligible for Jobmaker and Jobseeker benefits.

This may be blue-sky thinking, but I look forward to a future in which forms of precarious labour, like writing, are recognised and honoured as legitimate jobs.

Another area that may work well with literature is foreign aid. The government of Canada, for example, donates entire libraries of Canadian literature as part of its aid program. (I’ve seen one installed on the campus of the University of New Delhi.)

What about gifting libraries of Australian books as part of our aid program? Hamilton Churton/PR Handout

This works as a stimulus to the host economy (benefiting publishers and writers) and also the receiving community, for whom access to books and education may be difficult. It also encourages study of the host culture’s writings and has benevolent “soft power” effects of inestimable worth.

‘Literature houses’

The government has indicated physical infrastructure (buildings and so on) will be necessary to the renovation of the domestic economy post-COVID. This is a wonderful opportunity to consider funding “literature houses”, purpose-built sites for readings, writer accommodation for local and overseas residencies, places for book-launches, discussion and the general support of literature.

The Literaturhaus system in Germany, in which all major cities have funded buildings for writer events, and in which, crucially, writers are paid for readings and appearances, is a wonderful success and helps writers’ incomes enormously.

The Frankfurt Literaturhaus. shutterstock

The inclusion of Indigenous, regional, rural and community organisations in proposals for “literature houses” would stimulate local building economies and generate community recognition of Australian literature.

The Regional Australia Institute considers creative arts as a potentially productive area of regional economies. However its 2016 map of Australia has a tiny space allocated to creative industries (situated around Alice Springs and linked to the Indigenous art industry). This strikes me as a radical imbalance and a missed opportunity.

A priority for this inquiry could be support for initiatives in literature, perhaps through existing library or schools infrastructure, to address creatively matters of both rural innovation and disadvantage.

Encouraging workshops in writing, including visiting writers, addressing reading and writing as a creative enterprise for the community as a whole: these could form the basis for an enlivening cultural participation and skills. Dedicated funds in literature for regional, remote and rural communities are urgently required.

Literature, in all its forms, is crucial to our nation — to the imaginations of our children, to the mental health and development of our adolescents, to the adult multicultural community more generally — in affirming identity, purpose and meaning.

Gail Jones, Professor, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I have a couple of points to add:
1) $12,900 average but $2,800 median. The Median figure is much more relevant and telling.
2) Literature needs to be defined as all of the genres, not just the small section that is held up as “important”. Otherwise you will further erode the writing industry.

See more here:

https://tysonadams.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/writing-in-western-australia/

https://tysonadams.com/2018/01/10/literary-fiction-in-crisis/

Book vs Movie: They Live – What’s the Difference?

This installment of What’s the Difference? covers one of the classics of 80s filmmaking. CineFix gives a big middle finger to the man with They Live.

Does anyone else remember video rental stores? No? Just me?

Okay, so imagine there’s a Netflix but instead of a library of movies of questionable quality and some series that will be cancelled after two seasons on your TV, there is a store you visit to borrow these shows and movies.* You can only borrow a few at a time for no longer than a week. And these borrowings are handed to you on a thing called a VHS tape cassette. This is deemed superior to watching broadcast TV, which consists of two channels, one of which is Elvis movie re-runs and sport, the other is designed to appeal to people whose hip isn’t up to making it out on Sunday mornings anymore.

Anyway, VHS rental tapes used to have a lot of junk before the start of the movie. This included anti-piracy warnings, a helpful reminder that this was a VHS tape, warnings about not pirating this tape, and trailers for other available titles. Fast-forwarding didn’t work that well, due in part to the slowness of fast-forwarding at the time, and the ingenuity of some dirtbag at the VHS factory who made sure all anti-piracy warnings took into account fast-forwarding in their design. Honestly, it was just easier to set the tape playing, go and fetch snacks, and come back when you stopped hearing super-serious voice-overs.

It was on one of those rented VHS tapes that I first saw an incredibly cheesy late 80s early 90s voice-over trailer for They Live. To say I desperately wanted to see it was an understatement

Of course, back in those days, we had to walk 50 cubits through freezing deserts up hill wearing a bag filled with bricks to get to the physical not-Netflix store. And while they called themselves a video rental business, there was no guarantee they had any of the films that were advertised on their videos. They Live was certainly one of the films not at our store. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I saw a censored for TV version of the film.

The reason I tell this tragic story of childhood disappointment is to highlight how long I had to wait to actually see They Live. And despite that anticipation, the movie still met/exceeded my expectations. It is a classic of B-movies and one that has only gained more appreciation with time rather than less. As discussed in the Cinefix video, the themes about unrestrained capitalism are even more relevant today with a reality TV star for US president, billionaires splattered all over our media, and growing inequality.

The original short story and comic (linked below) are used as the premise of the movie. But as discussed in the video, you can do things in a short story that you can’t in a movie. That means we have to show more of the world, establish characters, kick-ass and chew bubblegum. If anything, I was disappointed with the short story after seeing the movie.

If there is any year to read Eight O’Clock in the Morning and watch They Live, it is 2020.

The comic based upon Ray Nelson’s story:
http://sapcomics.blogspot.com/2012/01/nada.html

The original short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson

* If anyone wants to comment on the origins of Netflix as a response to Blockbuster and late fees, feel free.

Book review: Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human BeingClear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Humans: Okay, no killing people.
AI: Slavery is cool though, right?
Humans: No, no killing, no slavery!
AI: But you do it all the time. No fair!

Clear Bright Future is Paul Mason’s attempt to address the “value alignment problem” with regard to our society and the potential of AI. He sets out how we largely don’t have a set of values, thanks to things like neo-liberalism, post-modernism, and scientism, and how we desperately need to define our values. Those values, he argues, should be clearly defined, humanist, and done before the capitalists, authoritarians, or other ne’er-do-wells ruin the future.

I first became interested in reading Mason’s books when I saw his Google Talk about Post-Capitalism. He was one of the first people I’d heard make a clear argument for something that is lurking in every digital age IP lawsuit. Clear Bright Future jumped up my reading list thanks to my local library and an interview where Mason discussed the need for society/humans to decide what we value and to start making it a priority.

The overall point made in this book is valid and Mason does a reasonable job of making a convincing argument. Even if he is completely wrong about humanism, he is completely right about needing to define our values. Our values. Not someone looking to make a buck. Not someone looking to become dictator for life. Everyone.

And here comes the but. But, I think Clear Bright Future falls down as some points made are attacks on strawpeople or gross simplifications. He’ll swing between exacting explanations and diverse insights and then make quick leaps via these lazy tactics.

Take for example his comments about science moving from claims of hard objectivism to (a more realistic) subjectivism. Mason essentially engages in a confusing blend of scientism and anti-scientism. He talks as if science is simple hard facts (when it is within X% error, contingent on assumptions, within certain frames of reference, etc.) and then rejects the science that shows things are more complicated than that.

Another example is his criticism of postmodernism as anti-humanist and the foundation of a lot of today’s problems. Somewhere there is a philosophy professor shaking their head and chuckling at the idea that postmodernism texts have resulted in anything other than incomprehensible books and an industry of metanarrative loving critics blaming it for everything. At best, Mason is mistaking a part of the field for the whole. Sure, the rejection of the simplistic and metanarrative claims of earlier humanism is certainly a po-mo thing, but hardly the whole thing (e.g. see this)

These flaws do detract a bit from what is a very interesting book with a compelling message. Definitely worth reading and thinking about what our values are.

Other reviews worth reading:
Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason review – a manifesto against the machine
Review of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Comments while reading:
You can sustain an economy on life support, but not an ideology. People were starting to ask when things would get better for them rather than for yacht owners. (Paraphrased)

Having seen some of Mason’s work before I’ve been interested in his take on things. He offers insights and ideas you haven’t considered. I also find I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions. In one part he was outlining the idea of material realism (materialism) which was a pretty decent lay explanation. But then he sort of created a strawman to suggest that modern tech economies claim to create value out of nothing (computers create their own data, thus value, without work). I’m not sure that the people who say that actually believe it, rather they are using a heuristic.

View all my reviews

Book review: Future War by Robert H Latiff

Future War: Preparing for the New Global BattlefieldFuture War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield by Robert H. Latiff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

USA: Hello Mr Scientist, can you make me an even more horrifying way to kill people?
Scientist: Sure. But it might not be a good idea.
USA: We’ll worry about that later. Here’s some money.
Scientist: I’ll get started.

Retired Major General Dr Robert Latiff spent much of his career looking at the cutting edge of military technology. As both a scientist and an officer, he knows what is already being developed to wage war, and is well placed to speculate about the future of war. He doesn’t just want to let us in on what war will look like, he wants us all to help ethically shape the future of war.

This book was both fascinating and deeply annoying to read. I think my biggest problem with Future War was that, for someone wanting to talk about war ethics, Latiff selectively presents the military, political leaders, and history so as to feel deliberately obfuscatory. Now, this is probably about Latiff being a retired Airforce Major General and thus his bias is showing. But maybe that is the problem. Maybe the people who get to talk about war ethics and new tools of war, are ultimately going to be too biased. At least Latiff is aware of this bias since he raises the issue of the conservative and “yay war” bubble many of his colleagues work in and calls for the general public to be involved.

I wrote down a lot of comments as I was reading (see below) because of my frustration. One of my first comments was the “America: Fuck Yeah!” sentiment that was present. I don’t think that is entirely fair to Latiff. He does express a reasonable level of awareness, but when someone talks about “keeping America safe” you really feel like forcing them to include a list of war crimes, atrocities, and coups that the USA has been involved in.

The insights into technology are extremely interesting. If you follow tech at all you’ll love what is discussed. It is the ethical considerations where I think the book falls flat. The examples of what ethical considerations are interesting but also feel ultimately hollow.

If someone is planning how to kill others, particularly lots of others, then that is unethical.

The arguments around Just War Theory and the ethics of war strike me as hand-waving bullshit dreamt up by status quo warriors. Unfortunately, I don’t have the background in moral and ethical philosophy to really dig into how it is wrong. No doubt there is a lot of material justifying war because that’s what very serious status quo academics do as part of their contribution to the war effort so that no one ever asks them to actually fight and die in one.

Ironically, by the definitions of Just War Theory, I think you’d battle to find an example of a Just War. Which makes the entire idea of ethical warfare a comfort blanket to pull over your face as you invade a country to secure their resources freedom.

Some people are scared of the technology and potential of future war portrayed here. I’m more scared of how Latiff’s calls for a discussion of the ethics involved aren’t going to happen in any meaningful way.

Comments as I read:
Only two chapters in, but already there is this overwhelming “America: Fuck Yeah!” attitude present. Threats could get hold of the weapons we’re developing… is said unironically. USA aren’t working on this (anymore after a feasibility analysis) but China doesn’t have any such ethical compunctions…

Considering this book proposed to cover the technology and ethics of future wars in the opening, I’m already sensing that Latiff is probably going to pretend that the USA has never committed acts of genocide, war crimes, invasion, etc. whilst insisting they need new cool gadgets to do more of that stuff with.

Halfway in the new technologies are being discussed as inevitable. But it is then asserted that new tech will be used for war. That doesn’t have to be so. Kinda feels like no-one ever stops and makes the argument that massive military research budgets could instead be civilian research budgets. Can’t really weaponise something when you’re not starting out building it as a weapon and pouring billions into doing so.

Three quarters in and the ethical discussion is taking shape. Just War and the like are being utilised. Some really good points are made but then are undermined by selective presentation of realities. E.g. Latiff makes a really good point about requiring strong ethical and moral frameworks (Warrior Code, etc) in the development of weapons, use of weapons, and the accepted practices of troops (when politicians justify or promote the use of torture, the command structure will follow, and thus the troops will utilise it). But he then skirts around how the military have been indoctrinating soldiers with increased efficiency to be killers, how they have researched making their soldiers more able to kill people, how they train them to think of “the enemy” as “inhuman” to make them able to justify killing to themselves.

I’m really having trouble with the supposed ethics of all this. Ultimately, all this tech is being developed to kill people. That’s premeditated murder. Ergo, that is unethical. There isn’t really a justification for that. A lot of handwaving is done based upon the idea that “the other side” will behave unethically, so we have to be prepared to “defend ourselves” (i.e. to also act unethically). The worst part is that this self-perpetuating cycle is often leveraged to gain power, resources, and profit (the latter is mentioned briefly in the third section by Latiff).

Philosophically, a lot has been written about Just War Theory, particularly against criticisms of it. I’m somewhat surprised that there isn’t a solid argument against it. Take for example Jus ad bellum. Let’s find a war that fits that definition. Particularly from the losing or instigating side. Ever. Just War Theorists certainly seem to try and pretend this occurs. People trying to kick wars off certainly try to make the argument of just cause (etc.). But most of those arguments are hollow, revisionist, and often straight-up lies (WMDs in Iraq anyone?).

Almost feels like a lot of money gets thrown at people to justify war.

Last chapter has some interesting points about echo chambers, ideological divides, society involvement, and American exceptionalism. All very good points. But again I find myself spotting what Latiff doesn’t discuss and what he skips over.

E.g. He says that the average American is removed from war and largely uninformed/ignorant of it. But that is by design and moreover, the military is actively involved in keeping people ignorant. He made a point about no war critical films having been made whilst skipping over the fact that if a production studio wants to make a military film they need to have everything ticked off on by the military (it’s why US military is awesome, bad elements are rogues who meet justice, they never commit war crimes, etc, etc.). Military intelligence was actively involved in the lies that took the US to war in (insert massive list here). The military routinely covers up atrocities, war crimes, abuse, rape, etc.

https://www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/cerl/conferences/targetedkilling/papers/KammFailuresofJustWarTheory.pdf

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_war_theory

https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-just-war/

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Book review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #0.5)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All decent predictions rhyme.

Geralt of Rivia has a lifetime of adventures. He roams the world looking for monsters to kill and coin for doing so. Not all monsters are easy to kill and not everyone is happy for him to be in their kingdom.

A few years ago I read a couple of Volumes of Witcher comics. I made the comment in my review of them that they were okay and I was interested in reading some of the novels they were based upon (or extensions of). When I was about halfway through The Last Wish I was asked by someone what I thought of it. My comment was that it was just like the Netflix series: Okay. Not bad, not good, just okay. Entertaining enough. So the comics, show, and book were all similar in that they were all okay.

The Last Wish is essentially a short story collection with an interlude between each. This interlude ties each story together and culminates in the final story. This works reasonably well as Geralt’s adventures have the feel of short stories more than one long story. But that’s probably also why it was a little underwhelming as it removes some of the tension that adventure stories revel in.

The Netflix series is a reasonably faithful adaptation of this book, so if you’re coming in late (as I am), then you’ll recognise most of this. The book is superior in one respect as it is more apparent that these short stories are all twists on various fairytales, which adds something the show lacked. Although, the small changes between the book and the show seem to have been made by someone who was trying for a more gritty or ambiguous Geralt (and Yennefer) and didn’t give it enough thought.

Overall, I might get around to reading more Witcher. Or maybe I might get around to watching the second (and final) season of Henry Cavill playing Geralt.

“People”—Geralt turned his head—“like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves.”

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Book review: The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of BureaucracyThe Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Profitable paperwork? This world makes no sense.

The Utopia of Rules is a collection of David Graeber’s essays around bureaucracy. He dives into where bureaucracy came from, how it was changed by the rise of large private companies, how this is impacting society, and how we secretly love all this stupid stuff just a bit too much. Graeber combines history, illustrative anecdotes, anthropology, and insights that you realise have been staring you in the face for years. He also argues that we’ve largely accepted bureaucracies as they now stand, but because of the implications for power relations, we should try to change or remove them.

With the recent passing of David Graeber, I thought I should read some more of his work. I’ve previously read the excellent Bullshit Jobs and wanted to dive into some of his other work. That lead me to his essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit which in turn lead me to The Utopia of Rules. That essay is incorporated and expanded in this book to bring it into the main thesis. Other sections similarly come from essays published elsewhere, so if you’ve already read many of Graeber’s essays and articles, you’ll recognise a lot of the material here.

I think one of the most interesting insights from Utopia of Rules was how bureaucracy has morphed from the civil service that ran society (and was a great place to park stray aristocrats and military officers) into the bureaucracy of big business. Some will bristle at this insight until they realise that “cost recovery”, “KPIs”, and “performance reviews” are in all big organisations, regardless of them being public or private. This builds on Graeber’s insights from Bullshit Jobs, that showed the private sector was often more guilty of waste, mismanagement, paperwork, etc. to the point of creating entire useless jobs to do them.

How this bureaucratic system is then used to exploit the public, uses implicit and explicit violence, and obfuscates accountability is also interesting. Graeber’s example of trying to apply for health insurance for his mother is how companies profit. They effectively keep money for the company/government that is due to the public they are meant to be servicing.

This is also where I disagree slightly with Graeber. In a complex society, there is a need for some level of organisation (bureaucracy). Is it a good idea to have a senior research scientist spend a large part of their time filling out paperwork, applying for funding, and reporting to the funders rather than doing research? Well, no. But is it a good idea for that researcher to just get money and do whatever they feel like without any reporting? Well, no. As much as no researcher is just going to blow their grant money on a sports car and Columbian Marching Powder, the paperwork is meant to create a solid research plan, figure out what underlings they’ll need, and get the creative work solidified (hypotheses, designs, etc). That the paperwork doesn’t really achieve this is something that needs to be criticised, especially as the reason it fails and is needlessly time-consuming and complex is because of that private company influence Graeber outlined.

And Graeber argues that bureaucracies are no longer analyzed or satirized. This is a large part of the problem. We experience them every day, but those with power effectively stifle any input we have to reforming them. Satire and social critique are a useful tool in this regard, which I assume is why Graeber’s review of The Dark Knight Rises was included. He uses it as an example of institutional power using popular media to control the narrative and condemn social critique and movements.

Overall, I enjoyed The Utopia of Rules and look forward to reading more from Graeber, particularly Debt.

“I asked him why everyone was still waiting for even one bank official to be brought to trial for any act of fraud leading up to the crash of 2008.
OFFICIAL: Well, you have to understand the approach taken by U.S. prosecutors to financial fraud is always to negotiate a settlement. They don’t want to have to go to trial. The upshot is always that the financial institution has to pay a fine, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, but they don’t actually admit to any criminal liability. Their lawyers simply say they are not going to contest the charge, but if they pay, they haven’t technically been found guilty of anything.
ME: So you’re saying if the government discovers that Goldman Sachs, for instance, or Bank of America, has committed fraud, they effectively just charge them a penalty fee.
OFFICIAL: That’s right.
ME: So in that case … okay, I guess the real question is this: has there ever been a case where the amount the firm had to pay was more than the amount of money they made from the fraud itself?
OFFICIAL: Oh no, not to my knowledge. Usually it’s substantially less.
ME: So what are we talking here, 50 percent?
OFFICIAL: I’d say more like 20 to 30 percent on average. But it varies considerably case by case.
ME: Which means … correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that effectively mean the government is saying, “you can commit all the fraud you like, but if we catch you, you’re going to have to give us our cut”?
OFFICIAL: Well, obviously I can’t put it that way myself as long as I have this job …”

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Book review: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Dear ChildDear Child by Romy Hausmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I imagine lion voice is pretty much speaking like Aslan.

For 13 years, Matthias and Karin have been desperate to find their daughter Lena. Then one evening, their estranged friend and local detective phones with news. A woman matching their missing daughter’s description has just been hit by a car and is in hospital. But the woman isn’t Lena. The young girl with her, however, is definitely their granddaughter. How can that be? Where has this woman and their grandchildren been all these years? And where is Lena?

When I read the blurb for this novel I was immediately interested. Normally these sorts of mystery stories (they call it a thriller, but it is a crime-mystery) are all about finding the missing girl. This novel starts after she has been found. Interesting take.

As you can imagine, a large part of the story deals with trying to piece together what happened as the victims try to process their trauma. The police are trying to figure out identities and piece together the evidence. The grand/parents (primarily Matthias) are still trying to push the investigation. The children are trying to process being out of their regimented cabin life. And the rescued Jasmin (not Lena), having escaped her tormentor, is still haunted by her experience.

After finishing Dear Child I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of it. The initial premise and first few chapters really grabbed me. The story is very well written and feels like the recounting of actual events. And similarly, the ending is great and offers catharsis to the story and characters. But I think the middle only really served to keep those two sections apart. So much of the mystery and events of the story are driven by characters doing stupid things. Sure, that also makes it feel human and real, but at some point it stops being how that character would behave and more of a contrivance. I wanted things to progress, not get bogged down.

Or to put it another way: I felt the story needed less Matthias and more Hannah (the daughter of Lena). Having her perspective for the story would have kept the mystery interesting and buried. It would have also kept Matthias from being the annoying speed-hump in the story.*

I can see this novel appealing to the psychological thriller audience. But for me, I can’t give Dear Child more than 3 stars. It’s a good book, but probably not exactly my cup of tea.

I received a review copy of Dear Child in exchange for an honest review.

* In fairness, Matthias’ actions are completely understandable and well-drawn. He isn’t a bad character but he is annoying, deliberately so.

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The Fiery History of Banned Books

Time to talk about banned books again.

I’ve been talking about banned books here for quite some time. Australia does it, USA has an annual banned books week (1, 2, 3, 4), and without fail, the reasons for banning books are stupid.

If there is any one term to summarise why books are banned it is because something in the book makes someone feel uncomfortable.

Don’t particularly feel like discussing historical and contemporary racism in the USA, especially if this discussion highlights current social and personal failings to address the issue? Then ban Huckleberry Finn (or just drop it from the curriculum) because it uses the N-word.

Does discussion of sexuality and sex make you blush or feel inadequate for only knowing one position (facing west and thinking of England)? Then ban books that mention sex. Or nudity. Or sound like they might be.

Is the book you’re reading treat LGBTQI+ people as (shock horror) people? Then quick, ban that thing before anyone has a chance to empathise with a marginalised group and think that treating them poorly shouldn’t be happening.

Since at least 213 BCE, book burnings have been a reaction to the power of the written word. When roasting paper in a giant circle went out of style (at least in the intellectual sphere), the governments would take it upon itself to ban books. However, when we talk about book bannings today, we are usually discussing a specific choice made by individual schools, school districts, and libraries made in response to the moralistic outrage of some group. This, while still hotly-contested and controversial, is still nothing in comparison to the ways books have been removed, censored, and outright destroyed in the past. So on that happy note, let’s … explore how the seemingly innocuous book has survived centuries of the ban hammer.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.