swoon: cory doctorow and little brother
You can’t get anything done by doing nothing. It’s our country. They’ve taken it from us. The terrorists who attack us are still free—but we’re not. I can’t go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.
-Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow, where have you been all of my life? I know, I know. You’ve been publishing the shit out of a bunch of books, doing tech activism, loving on creative commons, giving away ebooks, running Boing Boing, and saying important things about technology, copyright, privacy, security, and surveillance. Tor published Little Brother in 2008, which means I have spent at least five years of my life with no idea that an author with potential to become a favorite was waiting just off my radar. It took an interview on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy Podcast (best sci fi podcast ever, fyi) to get me to sit up and download some of his books already.
As far as I can tell, Doctorow is a kind of superhero in the tech activism world, and his school of thought is a really good reminder about the positive side of technology. Technology can be awesome. Yup. Nikki-who-dabbles-in-Ludditery just said that. The narrator in Little Brother puts it like this after pulling another badass move using modern tech: “The best part of all this is how it made me feel: in control. My technology was working for me, serving me, protecting me. It wasn’t spying on me. This is why I loved technology: if you used it right, it could give you power and privacy.”
Oh yeah, technology is only fucked when, for example, the government insists on using it to monitor people, when it becomes a tool of surveillance and control. It is a reminder I need to hear, often. I mean, I actually really like a lot of technology, and I have a hard time reconciling those feelings with the worry that the stuff simultaneously plants in the pit of my stomach. It is the “dystopian” (haha, I mean real life) shit that governments do with it that scares me. (As well as the dependence it creates on finite resources, but that is another issue. We don’t need to have that conversation every single paragraph.)
But back to Little Brother. The premise is this: a high school kid who is really good with technology is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gets taken in by a fictional version of Homeland Security for a bombing in San Francisco. Bad things happen. He is released. He fights back against what is becoming a very totalitarian state of affairs. Besides being an engaging, page-turning story, Doctorow peppers the plot with information about how you can make technology work for you, how you can hide what you’re doing on the internet, how to do a number of small but neat hacks, where you can learn more, and why a deep understanding of the tech you use can work for you and help keep tech positive rather than scary. I immediately added it to my mental list of “books to get for every young adult I ever need to buy a birthday present for” list (see also, Earthsea). This is the kind of stuff that makes me wish I had a parallel life in which I could have become a programmer. It is that engaging.
Doctorow’s perspective on copyright is intriguing as well. And I quote (from my totally free, totally legally downloaded e-book file introduction):
The Creative Commons license at the top of this file probably tipped you off to the fact that I’ve got some pretty unorthodox ideas about copyright. Here’s what I think of it, in a nutshell: A little goes a long way, and more than that is too much.
I like the fact that copyright lets me sell rights to my publishers and film studios and so on. It’s nice that they can’t just take my stuff without permission and get rich on it without cutting me in for a piece of the action. I’m in a pretty good position when it comes to negotiating with these companies: I’ve got a great agent and a decade’s experience with copyright law and licensing…
I hate the fact that fans who want to do what readers have always done are expected to play in the same system as all these hotshot agents and lawyers. It’s just stupid to say that an elementary school classroom should have to talk to a lawyer at a giant global publisher before they put on a play based on one of my books. It is ridiculous to say that people who want to “loan” their electronic copy of my book to a friend need to get a license to do so. Loaning books has been around longer than any publisher on Earth, and it’s a fine thing.
His argument goes on for pages and pages, and it compelling, but I won’t quote any more of it at you here. (Like I said, you can just download the book with the intro here for free, and read it yourself. Even if you don’t have an ereader you can download a program like Calibre for free and read it on the computer that you must be reading this on right now. And even if you don’t want to read the book, download it for the introduction, and the copyright argument.) Doctorow’s views on copyright just make me want to go out and spend money on all his books. I mean, this guy deserves to have my money. I want him to have it. I want to financially support the man who is going out there and writing this kind of book and promoting this kind of thinking. And that is exactly his point, when it comes to copyright and using Creative Commons, and giving your fans a little credit. I can’t wait to read more of his work.
Have you read any Doctorow? What do you think about his views on copyright?
lucifer’s hammer by larry niven and jerry pournelle
You want it in a nutshell, here it is. This book is fun to read. High cheese factor, shallow plastic characters, and hugely problematic depiction of women and anyone who isn’t white, but page turning.
But maybe you won’t think its cheesy. Maybe you like electricity so much that you’d be swept up in the calls to “Give my children the lightning,” by the images of a hero on his death bed croaking about how important “the lightning” is before biting it in a dramatic public scene. Ummm, “the lightning”? What a romantic way to think of electricity. Which brings me to the crux of this book: defending industrial civilization. But let me back up.
Lucifer’s Hammer is a big fucking comet, and it hits earth. Earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and floods destroy most of civilization. A lot of people die, food is scarce, people start eating people—you know, the familiar backdrop and props of post-apocalyptic fiction. We follow an almost George-Martinian number of characters as they flee from cities, looking for a safe place to bunker down, and most of them end up on Senator Jellison’s Ranch where a large group has organized in hopes of surviving the winter.
Meanwhile, a group that I thought of as Cannibals for Jesus believe that they have been called to complete God’s work and destroy the small pockets of civilization that have come through the crisis. They attack the ranch, and then go after a nearby nuclear power plant that is, miraculously, still running. And the people say, hark! What devils are these that would dare attack the sacred nuclear power plant! We shall band together, though it may mean the death of us all, to fight for the right to nuclear power! Not only do Niven and Pournelle make nuclear power detractors (and environmentalists) completely unsympathetic, devilish lunatics, he makes sure to mention that even the hippies on the local commune change their back-to-the-earth tune once faced with the realities of a truly off-grid existence. “Let me tell you, it doesn’t work,” says one ex-hippie character of the commune life. Wa-waaah.
“It’s too much, don’t you see that?” Owen demanded. “Atomic power makes people think you can solve problems with technology. Bigger and bigger. More quick fixes. You have the power so you use it and soon you need more and then you’re ripping ten billion tons a year of coal out of the earth. Pollution. Cities so big they rot in the center. Ghettos. Don’t you see? Atomic power makes it easy to live out of balance with nature. For a while. Until finally you can’t get back in balance. The Hammer gave us a chance to go back to living the way we were evolved to live, to be kind to the Earth.”
It sounds reasonable doesn’t it? I happen to agree. But I’d bet that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle don’t, as they have one of the madmen Cannibals for Jesus saying it to ring in their unholy war on technology. What the sympathetically portrayed characters say is, “Give us that electricity plant and twenty years and we’ll be in space again.” Because the most important thing to consider when fighting for survival is getting the space program started again. Religious zealotry and mania aside, I bet you can guess which side I thought the real lunatics were.
a feminist reading
And as for you, ladies, you’re just going to love living in the world of Lucifer’s Hammer. There’s a lot of rape, and then, get this (says a largely respected and sympathetic character):
The only good thing about Hammerfall, women’s lib was dead milliseconds after Hammerstrike.
Wow, I’M SO GLAD. That pesky women’s lib. Umm? Later a female character says: “It’s a man’s world now…So I guess I’ll just have to marry an important one.” This book is a total feminist fail. There are a number of female characters (though we only ever hear about the beautiful ones, and the women are always described in terms of beauty whereas the men are not), though what we see them doing most is having sex. A few of them manage some heroics, but we never get to see this world through their eyes.
The only female perspective Niven gives us is Maureen, a beautiful (duh) woman who is thrust into the role of prize princess in the new group. She battles with depression, particularly when she realizes that she is the trophy whose possession will determine the next ruler of the ranch once her father, the Senator, passes. She is unhappy about it, but her criticism is fleeting and in the end she picks a mate and dons the new throne without complaint. And did I mention the couple who didn’t get married before Hammerfall because the lady wanted to focus on her career? But who get married and start having babies as soon as the world ends? At the end of the story, it seems, marriage is a woman’s highest priority in this new, nuclear-powered world. How very civilized.
and as for the characters who aren’t white
The place Niven and Pournelle give black people (he doesn’t mention any other non-white races) is strange and baffling. Some professional thieves (all black) survive and rape and pillage and join the Cannibals for Jesus. There are a few sympathetic black characters, but racism is everywhere in the new world, as if everyone had been waiting for a disaster to allow them to really get down with their racist selves. Sheesh, Niven/Pournelle, just because you published this in 1977 doesn’t mean you get to be assholes. Minus twenty thousand points. Worse are the reviewers all over the internet who chalk this up to “1970s politics.” So Niven/Pournelle’s racism (NOTE: A commenter recently thought it was too much to call them racist, and maybe he’s right. I do not know where that particular line in the sand should be drawn, nor do I feel particularly qualified to be drawing it. I will say though, that Niven and Pournelle have written a white-centric book here, which makes me assume that they too see the world this way.) is ok to ignore because everybody was doing it in the 70s? Umm, right.
read it or burn it?
Despite Lucifer’s Hammer’s many failings, I enjoyed reading it. The post-civ scenario is one I haven’t read before, as is the look into a mind very different than my own. It is pop-y and cheesy and totally ridiculous over and over again, but I enjoyed spending time between the pages and the title would make a great name for a metal band. But a fun read does not a good book make, and if you were to use its pages to start your wood stove, I would totally understand.
blindness by jose saramago
Blindness is catching. Imagine it. You are walking down the street, driving your car, drinking a coffee, and suddenly, you see nothing but white light. You are blind. You cannot see. You cannot find your way home, and you are contagious.
Before reading Jose Saramago’s 1999 novel Blindness, I had never imagined what it might be like. I had never considered that if humanity, in a world predicated by vision, were to be unanimously blinded, that things would fall apart in a shocking, tragic, sweeping arc of starvation and shit. Could we have evolved as a species without vision? Perhaps. (Though the world we would have built would be very different.) Could we survive in this world without vision? Not for long. Not once the canned goods ran out.
Simply from a post-apocalyptic world-building stand-point, Blindness is breathtaking (though horrifyingly rather than beautifully so). The electricity goes out without seeing hands to tend the machines. The water goes out without the electricity or the hands. Without the ability to use their gas and electric stoves, some become used to the taste of raw meat. People who cannot find their way to a bathroom use the streets. Hunger drives people onto the floors of stores, groping for an overlooked scrap. Dogs devour corpses and the roads are covered in shit. The ruin is not architectural, but human. And the qualities we like to think of as human quickly follow vision into the ether. Or do they? Were we ever so irreproachable as a species? Were we just a bunch of assholes all along? Raping, stealing, murdering, dirty, mean, wallowing in feces? Is it the epidemic of blindness that will first show us how to see? Is this not a novel about blindness, but about sight?
In the end, it seems that this is indeed what Saramago is getting at, and that Blindness is meant as a wake up call, as a portrait of the world as it is now, a nudge to truly accept the world as we see it around us and to act accordingly. “I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see,” concludes the novel’s only seeing character. “Open your eyes! Look at the filth and violence and squalor around you! Take responsibility for the knowledge!”–though the pleas of the novel are more subtle than these exclamatory cries, more eloquently woven into this parable of humanity.
the reading experience
Blindness had been on my post-apocalyptic to-read list for months, but a chance encounter at a local bookstore and the chance discovery of a book club—set to read Blindness that very week—put it on my fast track. I bought the book, and I spent three days in its nightmarish, reeking, broken world. I went with the first to contract the white blindness into the mental institution where the government sets up a quarantine, shuddered as the bathroom became an open sewer, hungered with them as the government failed to deliver appropriate rations, mourned when the frightened soldiers guarding them itched their triggers. It is only because of the presence of a single seeing woman that the group eventually thrives. Or what passes as thriving under the circumstances.
The dialogue, which I had heard ruined the book for a number of readers on many online reviews, is written in a flowing style without he saids or she saids. (“It cannot be, They’ve taken away our food, The Thieves, A disgrace, the blind against the blind, I never thought I’d live to see anything like this, Let’s go and complain…”) Though I can understand how this might trip a body up, how better to immerse the reader into the story, how better to make the reader as uncertain as the blind characters about who is talking? A stroke of genius on the part of Saramago. When an artist is able to make style support content on that level I just die. Good job, Jose.
But there was an aspect of Saramago’s story that bothered me as I read, more than the conditions in which the government left the quarantined to suffer, more than the state of the restrooms, more than the power plays and violence, and it was at the base of everything the book was saying. Blindness as metaphor. Blindness as floodgate for the worst of humanity. Sight as the thread that held civilization together. Sight as enlightenment. Sight as knowledge. How would a blind person feel reading this? How did I feel about the implication? Though the book is expertly crafted, using a real-life disability as a metaphor is deeply problematic.
I followed this feeling onto google, looking for blind reader’s reactions to Saramago’s tale and came across an essay written by Liat Ben-Moshe—an academic from the field of disabled studies. Though he initially was quite taken with the novel, he later became very critical of what its use of a disability as such a negatively weighted metaphor was conveying to readers, and particularly critical of how he had been teaching the text to students. The article gets to the heart of what nagged me from Saramago’s page so articulately, that he might as well tell you himself:
Saramago’s depiction of blindness is that of a sighted man who views blindness as a radical departure from his own corporeal being. Different experiences of living in the world are never explored. Blindness is conveniently used the way Saramago assumes most people conceive of it and yet remains invisible.
Blindness does not just represent a radical form of Otherness, but operates as a sign to refer to limitation, lack. Throughout the novel, blindness is shown to lead to disorientation, chaos, and lack of familiarity with space and time. …
A more critical read, however, yields a different analysis. In this view, society fails to function not because of people’s blindness, but because the government is not able to provide the ordinary services that citizens are routinely dependent upon for survival: the production and distribution of food, water, and electricity; the maintenance of the infrastructure of transportation and communication; and so on. However, in the novel, as in daily life, dependence is projected onto the people who are perceived as embodying it on a daily basis, that is, people with disabilities. …
It is not surprising perhaps, since Saramago seems to use blindness only to tell another story, one about the human condition in general. But again, why choose blindness? Saramago’s parable, like so many other literary and cinematic depictions, seems to equate blindness with lack of knowledge. The analogy between “seeing” and “understanding” is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy. …
Blindness, like all disabilities, is also normatively viewed as a personal tragedy, something inflicted on the individual, a condition that a person suffers from. This narrative is closely related to a medical narrative claiming treatment and cure. Blindness should not be embraced and experienced as an identity, equal to any other, but should be pitied and/or treated.
Ben-Moshe goes on at length on the subject, and I highly recommend reading his article yourself. If you haven’t got the time for in-depth articles, I will sum it up for you in one sentence: Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor without a single hint of critical thought and with all the negatively loaded tropes common in non-disabled representations of the disabled. This work makes it clear that he is a talented writer capable of nuance and depth, and yet at the end of the novel, at the end of the day, we have a writer dealing in tropes, in a centuries-old, problematic metaphor. At the same time, Saramago’s use of blindness as the x-factor in this world is also a fascinating study, and I don’t wish he’d written a different book with a different disability. Authors are not bound to write only politically correct, “clean” texts, and I think the world is more interesting for the discussion that an issue like this in a text of this quality can create. The responsibility here lies with us as readers, in the way we engage with the text, what we choose to discuss and what we choose to ignore.
Have you read Saramago (Blindness or otherwise)? What did you think?
the empire and the field
Life for us is whatever we imagine it to be. To the peasant with his one field, that field is everything, it is an empire. To Caesar with his vast empire which still feels cramped, that empire if a field. The poor man has an empire; the great man only a field. The truth is that we possess nothing but our own senses; it is on them, then, and not on what they perceive, that we must base the reality of life.
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
I have been obsessed with Fernando Pessoa for a long time, though I have yet to finish one of his books. He writes beautifully, but often the work is tedious to read. The real hook is in his obsession with pseudonyms. I’m paraphrasing, but he invented thirty-some writers and then wrote extensively under many of their names, sometimes even having them arguing with each other. They (“they”) started an entire literary movement doing it. Brilliant. But that is besides the point, my point, today.
This quote is one of many beautiful sentences in The Book of Disquiet, and I couldn’t help drawing parallels to my own life. Technically I am poor and yet, living the way that we do, I feel rich. Rich in time, rich in love, rich in sunshine and the afternoons to enjoy it. My bank account may not contain millions, my house is miniscule, yet it is the empire that is mine. So often, it is our perception of what we have that makes or breaks us. So often(to paraphrase Jay Schafer), it is the mansions that are the debtors’ prisons.
the stone gods by jeanette winterson
You couldn’t quite call Jeanette Winterson’s 2007 novel The Stone Gods post-apocalyptic, but you couldn’t quite call it anything else. It is a book that manages to be both post- and pre-apocalyptic, for Borges-ian reasons that I would rather leave unspoiled, and it managed to annihilate every expectation I had before starting. Global warming is underway. Industrialized civilization has used up the planet, and technology will not be able to save it. Humans look to the solar system for answers. You couldn’t get much more classically dystopian or science fiction.
The first 78 pages of it are delicious: fast-paced, with Winterson’s unique touch (literary PA-ish sci fi, hip hip hurray). The first line drew me into the story in a single gasp. “This new world weighs a yatto-gram.” And yet, like much of what sounds good when written down, it is absolutely meaningless. What is a yatto-gram? A made-up word that Winterson uses to give herself a leg up into the science fiction world she then attempts to disassociate herself from (and then never explains). But what a wonderful world, how buoyant in the feeling of life that comes at you from the page. There is no more factory farming (meat is created in labs), no more old age (people “fix” their age when they feel they’ve reached an ideal), and plastic surgery has made everyone gorgeous. Amendment: what a wonderfully written world that you wouldn’t want to inhabit yourself.
In between highlighting quippy lines, I seethed excitement that a talent like Winterson has dabbled in science fiction (I had no idea) and entertained thoughts of all of the people I would recommend this book too the minute I finished devouring it. Then wham! a style and setting/story break so jarring occurs that I found the rest of the reading soured by the jolt. The writing remained solid. The story veered and wound and, as Ursula Le Guin notes in her own review of the book, draws “near Borges country.” It was artful. It was deep, and I am still not entirely certain that I have understood it. Though what follows that initial story is good, literary, well-done even, I mourned the loss of that first plot, a story I would have followed for as many pages as Winterson had cared to put down. I like to think that in an alternate universe, or perhaps in one eerily similar to ours but precedent, that book exists, and I am reading it.
if you need a good quote about the environmental destruction of our time, this is the book for you
On the “demise” of the planet as seen through non human-centric eyes:
“Orbus is not dying. Orbus is evolving in a way that is hostile to human life.”
On how the hypocrisy of the first world’s call to environmental action and carbon saving:
“‘If those out-of-control lunatics in the rest of the world would just get the message—’
‘That when we destabilized the planet it was in the name of progress and economic growth. Now that they’re doing it, it’s selfish and it’s suicide.”
On how resistance is undermined:
“‘Humans have given away all of their power to a “they.” You aren’t able to fight the system because without the system none of you could survive.”
to read or not to read
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed this book. Winterson is always writing about stories, their purpose and their soul, and I fall for that shit every time. Though I didn’t end up where I expected, maybe I was the better for it, able to appreciate the journey more, having tossed out the notion of a familiar destination.
wherein an e-book reading experiment is conducted
At the very bottom of my website you will find a small, hand-drawn picture of a pile of books. “I pledge to read the printed word,” it says. And I do, oh how I do. But e-books are out there. They are in the news (“Is this the end of publishing/bookstores/reading?!”), and they are in people’s hands on the train via futuristic little devices that always make me think about how this is the future that science fiction authors didn’t see coming, blinded by larger devices (time machines and hover craft) as they were. I wanted a taste, to have an informed opinion, to not just hate them on some sort of made-up principle. So I read an e-book. Then I read two more.
The Moondwellers by David Estes
I am, perhaps predictably, a member of a post-apocalyptic book group on Goodreads. When David Estes offered a free copy of his (e)book to folks in the group in exchange for an honest review, I decided that the time had come to try e-reading. Oh dear. Not having an e-reading device, I read it on my computer, which was not ideal, but hell, I read a lot on my computer as it is, so why not?
Reading, I found myself having trouble taking Moondwellers seriously. How much of this was due to the writing (which was passable, but lacking) and how much of this was due to the format? Every great book I have ever read has been printed on paper. This is a coincidence of my time, but it plays a huge role in how I perceive e-books. If I had read the classics on my computer or on a Kindle, all my favorite books, would I feel the same? Would the medium take away from the work’s beauty if I associated it with both wonderful and terrible writing? I wasn’t sure, but guessed that, after a couple of positive experiences I would be able to shake the feeling that I was reading a draft.
As for Moondwellers itself, I didn’t like it. E-book or not, it was…drafty. It attempts to use a teenage voice in a way that I found unconvincing. The story was compelling, the setting and situation interesting, but the telling was not well executed. One of the main characters (the story is told from two perspectives, one male, one female) was an arrogant idiot who I couldn’t stand. And there was far too much groan-worthy cheese. But as I don’t like to write book reviews about things I wouldn’t recommend (what is the point of wasting my words and your time when a simple “don’t read it” would suffice?), I won’t say anything more about it. May folks who enjoy this sort of thing—and I think there are plenty—get their hands on it and may David Estes live happily ever after. The end.
Whore Diaries: My First Two Weeks as an Escort by Tara Burns
I undertook my second e-book experiment when internet friend Tara Burns published Whore Diaries. I have loved reading her subscription blog for years—she is a great writer and she has a hell of a story to tell—and I can say the same of her first e-book. Her take on escorting is philosophical and unorthodox. The Tao of Tara. She begins with “Conversations With God in the Titty Bar,” and ends far, far too soon. Write a longer book next time, huh Tara? Then again, business master mind that she is, she might just prepping readers for the longer book to come. I certainly hope so.
Reading Whore Diaries began to raise my opinion of e-books, as did the experience of reading on my phone on the train instead of at my computer at home. The convenience of having several books with me wherever I go in such a small package is seductive. I was starting to like e-books. Looking back, I realized that I had had trouble taking Moondwellers seriously because of the quality of the writing. I was warming up to e-reading. I couldn’t, still can’t, fucking believe it.
Ten Thousand Miles by Freight Train by Carrot Quinn
Three times a charm. And how. My third experiment involved reading Ten Thousand Miles by Freight Train by Carrot Quinn who I’d known through her blog and mutual friends for years, but have never met. She’s an excellent writer of the Annie Dillard school, and her prose has come a long way since she first started telling her train hopping tales on the internets. Her recent post about How to Be Poor is the most wonderful thing I’ve read on the subject in a long, long time. (Maybe ever? My memory is not whole enough to say for sure. If you are thinking about quitting your job, this is on the syllabus.)
The main downside to e-booking so far, has come at review time. I enjoy reading on my phone. I enjoy the convenience of always having a couple of books with me, but I haven’t gotten the hang of marking passages yet. This, in combination with the format, means that, come review time, I can’t sit down to thumb through it again, letting my eyes find passages of interest a second time, helping me sum up the experience in words. Scrolling just doesn’t do it for me, and my eyes are less likely to stick somewhere relevant on a screen. But! The find feature! Because of the find feature I can share my favorite metaphor—and Carrot is quite good with metaphors—in the entire book, can give you a tasty little morsel to get you ready for a delectable meal.
She is describing hitch hiking, and the way that the people who pick you up tend to spill their life stories. Why do they do this? “Talking to you is like stuffing a note into a bottle and tossing it into the sea.” Brilliant.
It was around this time that I discovered a number of sources of free e-books. Books that I would have liked to have taken out of the library, that weren’t in the library here, but that I had no intention of buying are now in my phone. This is incredibly exciting, and I am catching up on all the books I have been listening to people chat about, but didn’t have library access to, for the past several years. And I am finding myself e-reading more and more often. On the train (no book to forget or lug around in my already full-of-baby-crap bag). In bed at night (no need to turn on the light and disturb Pickles and the Beard, as the phone creates its own light). In line everywhere (since my phone is always with me, I always have about thirty books on hand, which is just fucking great, particularly for that moment when you finish a book unexpectedly but didn’t think to bring a second read). I can’t imagine buying a Kindle or similar device—it would negate many of the positives that have convinced me—but reading on my phone (whose identity has stretched from just phone to phone, book, computer, dictionary, notepad, mp3 player, stereo, and game console) has been a very positive experience.
Thanks to a stupid little piece of metal and plastic I am able to read more voraciously than ever, to use every single stolen second to indulge in a few more sentences. It has happened. I am an e-book convert, though my religion remains dualistic. E-books and paper books—there is room for them both, it seems. (But don’t forget that YOU are the tide on which your local bookstore rises and falls, so support them with hot cash! If we want to keep both paper and e-books in our world, we’re going to have to show it.) Now if people would just stop attacking the library system…
a quick note about sleep deprivation and book raffles
Remember how excited I was to go back to work? Well, I still am. Even though right now, as I type this, I am hanging by a thread, by a drop of coffee, by an eyelash. Due to an experiment (Get Pickles Into Fucking Bed Early), she was up at 10pm and then at 3:30am, for at least an hour each. Fun was not had. Bleary eyes were rubbed. Curses were uttered under breath. All the people who keep insisting that Pickles would go to bed early if only *fill in the blank* can just shut the fuck up. There is a very good reason that we follow her schedule rather than ours, and that reason is that we don’t like being woken up for more than a few seconds in the middle of the night.
But that’s not the point. The point is that we’re giving away a book at work and that I wanted to mention it to you all, in case anybody cares. The book is called Discover Germany/Entdecke Deutschland and consists of essays and photos about sixteen German cities and states in both English and German. Even if you don’t care, it isn’t available in stores, so maybe you could just sell it on ebay for a million bucks. This is what it looks like:
If you want to enter to win or just need something to distract you from the drudgery of your work place for another few minutes, then this is what you do: click on this link, like deutschland.de on facebook, and answer a silly trivia question. The more the merrier.
ged versus harry, ding ding!
Excuse me while I get very, very book geeky on you all…
In the house where I grew up we had a library. It held floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves installed sometime after the wood stove had been removed. Beneath the far window—four panes that looked out at our neighbor’s front yard, though I do not remember if I could see the river—was my desk. From that desk I wrote letters to the twenty or so pen pals I had accumulated, tended baby spider plants, and played library. I loved to organize my books, to run my hand along their spines, or just to look at them. One entire shelf was filled with the yellow spines of Nancy Drew mysteries. Another with the works of R.L. Stein. If you can call them works.
I don’t remember when I first read The Earthsea Trilogy by Urusla Le Guin or where I had heard about it. A gift perhaps? I do know that I read it sometime around the age of 10, and that the boxed set has traveled with me from that built-in book shelf to the shelves of my purple Wagen caravan home. Holding it now in my hand I wonder if children of the ebook generation will be able to enjoy the same experience—the revisiting of their favorite childhood tomes—or whether their children’s books will fall into obscurity as new devices appear that can longer read the older data formats.
The trilogy consists of three books: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. Though I found the first volume mildly boring (perhaps because I could still remember exactly what happened), though well-written and interesting, the second book grabbed me fully, and I enjoyed the third book almost as much. They are wonderful books featuring interesting, complex characters who face complex, challenging, morally ambiguous situations (reality amidst a wizard-fantasy backdrop). Each book is a complete story in and of itself, which struck me as being quite different to the series I have read recently. Modern fantasy series tend to be very long stories that editors chop into separate books for the sake of reader’s attention spans and sales. But each Earthsea book could be read completely on its own, though all are deeply linked and all feature, however briefly, the character Ged.
Ged is a wizard. He grew up in a small village, never knowing that he had powers. One day he accidentally performs some magic, which eventually leads to his being sent to a school for wizards. Does this sound familiar? It should if you’ve ever read Harry Potter.
hogwarts versus roke
The Earthsea school of magic is on an island called Roke, Earthsea being a region made up of many islands, an island often referred to as “Island of the Wise.” As in Harry Potter, the students on Roke learn magic and the Archmage—the Dumbledore of the school—plays an elevated if not as extensive role. But their similarities do not extend much beyond these details.
In the world of Earthsea, wizards live openly and are often sent to work in a town or village or castle to help the residents with little problems, healing, and weather. In the world of Harry Potter, magical folk live in hiding from non-magical folk (called muggles, in case you’ve been living in a dark cave for the past decade), a detail that brings the Harry Potter world closer to our own, making it feel all the more possible—an effect that I often appreciate in fantasy writing. However it is the magic of Earthsea that strikes me as the most realistic. Bear with me.
In Harry Potter certain folks can do magic. They learn some special words and get a wand to channel their power, and then they use spells for everything from cooking to cleaning to dueling to changing themselves into animals. In Earthsea it is just a mite more complicated, and the wizards there are constantly talking about “the balance.” Though they learn magic—all of which is based upon knowing the real name of a person or animal or plant or object—they also learn a rather contradictory lesson: that they might want to use it as little as possible. In The Farthest Shore, the main character is often frustrated by his wizard companion’s refusal to use magic. His explanation is an excellent, articulate example of what doing magic and even simply acting in the world mean in the world of Earthsea:
Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of water and earth and light, all that these do, and all the the beasts and the green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium. From the hurricane and the great whale’s sounding to the fall of a dry leaf and the gnat’s flight, all they do is done within the balance of the whole. But we, insofar as we have power over the world and one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. (66)
Though this philosophy does not hinder the wizard from acting, it gives his actions and particularly his use of magic, a context in the world. Magic does not come from nowhere, as our actions do not exist in a vacuum. Though the themes of responsibility and choice do come up multiple times throughout the Harry Potter books, the Earthsea Trilogy displays them in a far complexer light. And all packed into a trilogy you can read in day or two of solid reading. And did you catch that last line, about choice, that is freedom, being inextricably bound with responsibility? That was your big clue: Ursula Le Guin is an anarchist. In fact, it is her fault that I ever heard much about anarchism at all. Thanks Ursula.
harry versus ged
The obvious parallels between the story lines in The Earthsea Trilogy and the Harry Potters prodded me to compare them often, as I read, and I found a comparison of their leading characters particularly telling. Harry, who I will not describe in much detail as I am sure that the majority of my readers have met him themselves, or at least begrudgingly heard tell of him, strikes me as being a classic hero type. He is, like the leaders we are meant to love in so many books, a famous person who has not sought fame, but has had it thrust upon him. He does not seek to be a leader but is called out to lead. And he has a very rigid set of morals and ethics by which he lives.
Ged, who is not quite the main character in every book but who plays the leading role in A Wizard of Earthsea and who takes up a significant part of all of them, is quite different. When he is at Earthsea‘s school for witchcraft and wizardry, he is arrogant and a bit of a jerk (a little bit like Harry’s father is often portrayed, now that I think about it). He is very powerful and he knows it, as well as being hot-headed and impatient. Though teachers tell him again and again about the balance, he does not listen and finally unleashes a monster on the world that he then finds himself bound to fight. I believe the word hubris might apply.
While Harry spends every book in the series fighting Evil and doing things for Good, it is Ged himself who engenders both the villain and the hero in his story. The Harry Potter series does attempt to tackle the subject of moral ambiguity, particularly through Harry’s connection to the books’ villain Voldemort, the book’s moral landscape remains black and white. We know who is good and we know who is bad and we know who we want to win and we have no further questions. In The Earthsea Trilogy we find both the hero and the villain in the character that Le Guin presents to us, and we are not asked to take sides. While Harry can only live once Voldemort is destroyed, Ged can only live once he has accepted and again internalized that irrevocable part of himself.
In short: if you like fantasy books or are looking for something to buy for a ten-or-so-year-old cousin of yours, go out and get a hold of The Earthsea Trilogy immediately. After this reread I decided that I would buy them for every one of my friend’s children for their eighth birthday. Some rereads leave you wondering why you ever liked that book in the first place. This one made them even dearer to my heart.
the year in books 2012 and a book lover blog hop
Fuck Santa Claus, my favorite time of the holiday season is when I finally get to unveil another year’s reading list. So without further ado, may I present to you Click Clack Gorilla’s Year in Books 2012. Ta-da-da-da-da-DA!
I assumed, what with Baby Pickles arrival on the scene in February, that I wouldn’t be able to read as many books as I usually do. But what I didn’t know was that I would spend hours upon hours upon hours forced into sedentary repose while the Pickle nursed and nursed and nursed and nursed—the perfect time to read. This year was heavy on Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and S.M. Stirling. I seem to have left my non-fiction stage and entered another epoch of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction. Both offer a good escape to the under-a-baby trap of a bed.
Looking back at the last three year’s lists (2011, 2010, 2009) I am forced to admit, much to my own chagrin, that I still haven’t gotten around to reading Kafka in German as I have been resolving to for the past two lists. Though in a random turn of events (turning an old school book of the Beard’s into fire-starting paper) I did manage to read most of The Metamorphosis. Also to my chagrin do I now see that I barely read any books in German at all (just two). Tisk tisk.
I did however, read some damn fine books. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu blew my mind through the Wagen roof in a way that few authors since Philip K. Dick have been capable, while Distrust that Particular Flavor by William Gibson re-interested me in his work and inspired me in my own (really didn’t see that one coming, but what a fine collection of essays). Top two, all-time fucking best books of the year. But there are a few runners up worth mentioning as well. Feed by M.T. Anderson, for starters. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville astounded me—what an imagination that man has, holy crap. Kuckuck, Krake, Kackerlake by Bibi Dumon Tak made me laugh (called Bibi’s Bizarre Beastie Book in the English translation), as did another children’s book on the list, B is for Beer by Tom Robbins, both of which are the kind of books that would make good presents for anyone anytime.
And now, before I unveil the list, and because I would love to hear more about what you read this year, the book geek blog hop! This is how it works: you write something about your year in books on your website (your top five reads this year, your own year’s book list—all book ramblings are fair game), you submit a link to that post below (this year with pictures!), and you link up to this post at the bottom of your own post. All the booky links will be compiled in a purdy little list on this page, and we can all click around the book love to our paper hearts’ content.
1. The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
2. Neuromancer by William Gibson (reread)
3. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
4. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (reread)
5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
6. The Penultimate Truth by P.K. Dick
7. Minority Report: The Collected Stores of Philip K Dick Volume 4
8. The Cosmic Puppets by P.K. Dick
9. The Eye of the Sybil: The Collected Stores of Philip K Dick Volume 5
10. The Man Who Japed by P.K. Dick
11. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
12. Kuckuck, Krake, Kackerlake by Bibi Dumon Tak
13. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
14. Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan
15. Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts: And Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here by Derek Diedricksen
16. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (my review)
17. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
18. Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Process Gone Awry by AK Press
19. Pipi Langstrumpf by Astrid Lindgren
20. Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard (reread)
21. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (reread)
22. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
23. Hartmann the Anarchist by E. Douglas Fawcett
24. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 1 by Sir Authur Conan Doyle
25. The Bomb by Frank Harris
26. B is for Beer by Tom Robbins
27. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
28. The World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler (my review)
29. Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables by Mike Bubel
30. Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling (my review)
31. Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman
32. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
33. The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee
34. Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
35. Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
36. Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile by Ramor Ryan
37. The Protector’s War by S.M. Stirling (my review)
38. A Meeting at Corvallis by S.M. Stirling (my review)
39. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
40. Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut
41. Sign With Your Baby by Joseph Garcia
42. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
43. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
44. Nighttime Parenting by William Sears
45. The Bilingual Family by Edith Esch-Harding
46. The Compass Rose by Ursula K. LeGuin
47. Down Under by Bill Bryson
48. The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
49. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (my review)
50. Rewild or Die by Urban Scout
51. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
52. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
53. Feed by M.T. Anderson
54. Distrust that Particular Flavor by William Gibson
55. Beyond Lies the Wub: The Collected Stores of Philip K. Dick Volume 1
56. Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint
57. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
58. Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz (my review)
59. The Baby Book by William Sears
60. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
61. In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood
62. The Sunrise Lands by S.M. Stirling
And now, let the link party begin! I’ve added two links to past Year in Books posts to show you what it will look like. Also, a tip: when you add a link to your booky post, under “name” write the name of the post as you would like it to appear here for others to see. And psst, if you aren’t coming to the party, then I’d love to hear what your favorite reads this year were in the comments.
doing nothing, tom lutz and beyond
Lafargue pleads with workers to not be complicit in their own oppression by believing in the ethical value of labor. The work ethic that arose with industrialism, he writes, is nothing but a ruse to get the proletariat to agree to its own degradation. Paint pictures, play music, philosophize, and versify, he counsels, not work, not as commerce, but joyfully.
[Dian di Prima] came “into poverty as into an inheritance.” What she bought with this “dire poverty,” she says, was the “luxury, the freedom to pass my days as I pleased, exploring, researching whatever came to mind, writing in front of ancient oils at the Metropolitan, walking Manhatten from end to end, talking everywhere to strangers.” The poverty was simply “the terms of the deal I’d managed to cut,” she said. “I thought myself lucky.”
-Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America
Though I no longer remember what caused me to buy Tom Lutz’s 2006 book Doing Nothing, it isn’t hard to make an educated guess. As someone who cultivates a lifestyle that involves as little work in the classic sense (company, boss, white office, desk) as I find financially possible, it was likely the call of the kindred spirit, the desire to see this sort of lifestyle through somebody else’s glasses. And yet, the title felt irksome. Doing nothing? It is not a state to which I aspire. (Is it even possible to literally do nothing?) I don’t work much, as I said, in the classical sense, but “doing nothing” would be a inaccurate description of what fills my days. What does it mean to do nothing? What does it mean to work?
Most often, doing nothing is defined as the opposite of working, and working is defined as doing something that involves monetary payment. So when I write things that may never be published by an outside vendor or that will be published but without payment, am I doing nothing? When I take care of my daughter am I doing nothing? When I build something or attend a demonstration or read or research or create am I doing nothing? Why should activities involving financial renumeration hold a monopoly on the term work?
What I didn’t expect to find in Lutz’s book was a serious, thoughtful, well-researched history of folks, well, like me. (If he’d written his book a little later he would certainly have had to mention New Escapologist.) People who were at odds with the current take on work. People who wanted to paint pictures instead of get regular jobs. People who wrote extensively about the idle life (and whose activities very plainly expose them as the opposite of idle). Beats and slackers and philosophers and artists. Seeing myself—the way I live my life and the ideals I write about—as a tiny dot on a long historical timeline of idlers provided an interesting perspective. Who are we, where are we, and what will history make of out moment?
In the last five years or so, trading in the corporate work world for early retirement and a more exciting life on smaller means has become a trend large enough to earn it a place in any future printing of Lutz’s book. Some travel, some stay at home to meditate and revel in the small pleasures of books and long walks, some attempt agricultural self-sufficiency (which is about as far from doing nothing as you can get). Aside from the homesteaders who are working their asses off making their living in a very literal sense, the rest of us are living lives about as far from reality as you can get. I’m not saying that reality involves any sort of desk work, but if you consider our basic need for food and shelter and the work it takes to make those things happen the basis of our reality, the desire to work less and meditate more only serves to alienate us further from a life that would bind us to our own lifeblood in a meaningful way. It does not change my mind about how I have chosen to live within my particular context, but I do imagine that through the eyes of people living in a way that I currently perceive as ideal, we, I, would look utterly ridiculous. Then again so would almost all of our other options to “work.”
Lutz comes to the conclusion that doing nothing is part of a balance. The more work-obsessed a culture becomes, the stronger the slacker figures within that culture. At the end of the day, according to Lutz’s research, the work ethic doesn’t really exist. “The history of slackers is the history not just of our distaste for work and our fantasies of escaping it (as well as the history of our vilification of those who do escape it) but also a history of complexly distorted perceptions. One man’s welfare queen is another man’s struggling mother. One man’s slacker son may be preparing his arrival as an artist…” People have a tendency, even when they are splitting the work 50/50, to assume that they are doing more than their fair share, and the other less. I have felt and witnessed the phenomenon myself in communal kitchens. Maybe slackers don’t really exist either, are simply a phantom of our own perception that we are doing more than everybody else.