Heist

Marco barged into the cold room with an unconscious man over his shoulder.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Helena shrieked, locking the door. ‘What have you done this time? This was meant -’

Relax,’ Marco said, laying the man down as he swept back his thick black hair. ‘He’ll be fine. I got him from behind anyway.’

‘Why did you bring him in here, fledgling?’ Ambrose said, weary. He stepped away from one of the cabinets and felt the man’s wrist. Ambrose’s breathing hitched ever so slightly. Marco caught his eye with a wan grin. ‘Take him out. Now.’

Helena yelped.

‘I meant drag him outside,’ Ambrose said.

Marco chuckled, bending to retrieve his cargo. ‘He was just by the door… force of habit.’ The man’s eyelids fluttered open as his head left the floor. He scrambled in a wild dash for the door, caught by Ambrose in a deft, fluid motion.

‘Too late,’ Helena said.

‘Who- what is this?’ the struggling man said. ‘You want the drugs? I have keys, just -’

‘Still yourself, sir,’ Ambrose said, one arm securing him in a strong, expert grip. ‘We mean no harm. Let us conclude our business and be on our way.’ They heard a faint beeping from elsewhere in the hospital as the captive orderly’s panting settled, going limp. Ambrose pushed him away from the door.

‘Where’s Claire?’ Helena said suddenly. ‘We’ve only got an hour. She should be here by now.’

‘That’s plenty of time,’ Marco said.

No names,’ Ambrose hissed.

‘What’s the matter?’ Marco said. ‘He won’t remember.’

‘Whoa, hold on…’ the man said, fists shaking a little in a fighting stance.

‘And now you’ve dismayed him again,’ Ambrose said. He read the orderly’s name tag. ‘Jack, sir. There’s no need to be afraid.’

‘Oh, isn’t there! Taken hostage by – by you freaks. Costumed freaks.’

‘These are just jeans,’ Helena said. ‘From Primark. And there’s no need to be rude.’

‘It’s Ambrose who likes the 18th Century shtick. Reminds him of the good old days,’ Marco said.

‘This jacket is barely even formal,’ Ambrose said.

‘For you, old man.’

‘Old man… this game you’re playing is fucking ridiculous,’ Jack said.

‘You keep thinking that,’ Helena said. ‘As soon as Claire’s here I’m gone. I need a drink.’

A ceiling tile slid aside and Claire dropped from above, landing quietly with a whirl of hair. ‘Pity’s sake, Marco,’ she said at the sight of Jack.

‘Because you were so sensible?’ Marco complained. ‘Where the hell have you been, dropping from the ceiling like… like it’s a damn film or something.’

‘I didn’t get seen. In and out like a ghost if you hadn’t screwed it up,’ Claire said, sweeping to one of the chilled cabinets which filled the room and opening the door. Refrigerated air wafted in her face, a hum deepening as the cabinet kept its contents cool. Claire’s nostrils flared. ‘Ah. Look at all this.’

‘That’s what you’re here for, then,’ the orderly said as Ambrose passed Claire an empty backpack. ‘Look, this has gone much too far. This game you’re playing… people need that. It’s very important. Fine, have an alternative lifestyle, LARP, but -’

Jack trailed off as Claire picked out a chilled pack of AB+, opened it with her teeth, and drank it dry.

‘You’ll get more,’ Ambrose said softly. ‘This is better for all of us than the alternative.’

Claire turned to Jack, skin alabaster, eyes dark. Thirsty. She licked a pointed canine. ‘Ambrose, please deal with him and let’s finish here. Dawn’s soon.’

Ambrose grabbed Jack’s head in both hands, their faces close. Jack struggled for a few moments then went slack. ‘You fell and hit your head,’ Ambrose said, while the others stocked backpacks with blood. ‘Nothing unusual happened here tonight.’

‘Yes, master,’ Jack murmured.

‘That really isn’t necessary,’ Ambrose muttered, lowering the dazed orderly’s head to the floor.

‘Maybe they wouldn’t say that if you stopped dressing like an aristocrat,’ Marco said, wiping blood from his mouth with one hand and flicking Ambrose’s high collar with the other. ‘When are you teaching us that, anyway?’

‘When I can trust you to be less foolish with it,’ Ambrose grumbled, unlocking the door to the blood bank.

‘You sired us, remember?’ Helena said.

‘Time was, our kind were more discerning,’ he said, leading the way out. ‘Years of service to earn our gift. Now I have fledglings barely following the basic codes of the masquerade.’

‘And who got your email set up?’ Helena added.

#

Jack woke, rubbing his head, just as someone else barged into the blood bank. The man offered Jack a hand, his coat moving aside to reveal a shaft of dark wood strapped to his belt. ‘What happened here?’

‘I must’ve fell and hit my head. Say, you’re not supposed to be here.’

‘My mistake, took a wrong turn. Get that bang looked at, eh?’

‘Think I’m alright now. Need directions?’

‘That’s alright,’ the stranger said, not bothering to ask any more. He glanced at the cameras as he left, but knew they wouldn’t be much help catching the things responsible for another unconventional heist.

Book Reviews (20)

The People’s Republic of Walmart – Leigh Phillips & Michal Rozworski

An excellent, readable work advancing a modern socialist response to the economic calculation debate.

One of the better capitalist arguments is that only the market and its price signals can marshal production and exchange on a large scale – that the level of information needed makes planning impossible. Phillips and Rozworski summarise some of the key points and responses in layman’s terms, advancing their own core thread – that much of the world’s economic activity already is planned, that taking place within firms; especially giants like Walmart. In fact, firms which try to introduce internal markets, competition, and price signals tend to crash and burn, as in the case of Sears after a Randian took over.

Given that planning empirically works on large scales, the question broadens to one of democratising planning, and using big data effectively and responsibly. The authors consider both capitalist firms and the USSR as authoritarian in different ways, in their discussion of the latter asserting that one of the reasons planning struggled was the authoritarianism of the society. Contra common arguments that planning inevitably produces shortages which are responded to with state suppression, they suggest that Stalinism undermined planning by inhibiting proper flows of information. If the reports of farmers are ignored in favour of top-down dictats and factory managers fear being shot if they admit problems, planners won’t have decent data and the economy will falter.

They recount Allende’s CyberSyn as an inspiring early attempt at a more democratic planning – with limited computing technology, Chile’s government was nevertheless able to co-ordinate around a CIA-sponsored strike using a balance of bottom-up and centrally guided organising. (Of course, nobody who responds to the mildest of socialist ideas by screeching about gulags is ever heard lamenting the brutality of Pinochet.)

It’s an intriguing piece of work, discussing the economic and historical debate in a more interesting, insightful manner than the off-the-shelf slogans you’ll hear anywhere else.

The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #2

I’ve seen two cons mentioned for book two – that it’s a bit slow, and that the original crewmembers aren’t there much.

It’s true that the pace isn’t as intense and twist-filled for much of it. However, the character work is even better as the cast adjusts to a new situation and its challenges. Ham, Dox, etc are less in focus than last time – but they’re still there quite a bit, and show more of themselves in their new context with Sanderson’s great dialogue and plotting.

New characters and some old ones come to the fore – aside from the obviously interesting Vin, the kandra perspective is fresh, Sazed is Sazed but even more, and Elend becoming less of a drip is a key point. Zane is repetitive, though. Action is still crisp and dynamic, particularly as the pace does pick up. The ending is less rushed than The Final Empire and just as staggering.

Some world building points do feel slightly thrown in by surprise, and finding another document lost for over a thousands years is a touch cheap (though admittedly, it’s hard to imagine an alternative given the situation). Duralumin is cool.

Venus in the Blind Spot – Junji Ito

A selection from horror manga artist Junji Ito. The phrase that comes to mind is ‘mixed bag’.

The best pieces carry plenty of dread and creepy imagery – Billions Alone, the title story, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, Keepsake. Billions Alone’s loner character is the most compelling in the collection, Amigara Fault pulls off a foreboding compulsion with a body-horror payoff that builds as you think about it, the title story has a particularly unique hook.

Weaker pieces are still interesting but a little abrupt, weird for the sake of it. There’s Lovecraftian-incomprehensible, there’s twists and foreshadowing, then there’s just ‘doesn’t make sense’. Master Umezz and Me shouldn’t be here: this fanboy piece about how Ito read Kazuo Umezz growing up is an abrupt shift in topic and tone, and the art style comes off goofy with a light-hearted subject.

I get the impression that his longer work would probably build on the strengths the best pieces here show, with time to dig into some characters more and build up that unease. Some of his shorter work struggles in those areas, while others succeed.

Patriotism: Enemy Terrain

Starmer shagging a flag
Dave Brown, Independent

Keir Starmer’s consultants have suggested a focus on ‘flag’ and ‘patriotism’. It’s not just the left criticizing Keith’s focus-group gestures – the commentariat is also recognising how lacking in ideas he is.

The sycophants have a ready answer: Labour has to seem patriotic to win, everyone thought Corbyn hates Britain, ordinary people like the flag, etc, etc. This is beside the point. The trouble is how empty of content this is. This flag-shagging is nothing but a gesture on terrain thoroughly owned by the right.

That doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t make any forays on this terrain. Matt Widdowson’s thoughtful article on socialist patriotism argues the need to articulate ‘a genuine love of our country and its people — in opposition to the militarism and imperialism’. I’m still personally uncomfortable with British patriotism while we leach off the third world and so forth, but I can see the need of the narrative in electoral strategy.

The trouble is that nobody I’m aware of has ever came closer to articulating this positive vision than Jeremy Corbyn, and he was lambasted as a Britain-hating nutter despite being a mild socdem. The whole territory of patriotism is occupied by rabid Tory nationalism.

Caring about the nation’s poor – unpatriotic. Wanting our services properly run in-house – unpatriotic. Wanting out of the middle east – unpatriotic. Why? Because he thought people in other countries were also human, dislikes the Empire, etc. Corbyn wasn’t a nationalist, which is why everyone got convinced he wasn’t a patriot. The Tories sell all our stuff off to the lowest bidder and treat our people like shit, but they’re ‘patriotic’ because they love poppies and bombs.

Attempts to articulate progressive patriotism in some form will contradict the nationalist poison inherent in the mainstream view of what patriotism means, and thus be branded Britain-hating. Attempts to hang on the coattails of the symbols will be seen as the empty focus-group tripe it is. Why would flag-shaggers go for fake flag-shaggers when Boris is right there, rutting the thing with wild abandon?

The whole thing is hard, and Keith doesn’t get it. I don’t have an easy answer either. The right has overseen over 100,000 Covid deaths and, before that, similar numbers through austerity. They’re still polling around 40%.

Voters this brainwashed will not go for a watered-down version of revanchist nationalism when the real thing is available. It’s possible to articulate a progressive patriotism, but trying to win the right’s culture war by hanging on the flag’s coattails is a fools’ errand.

Why not go for the people who are reachable, with a meaningful platform to address their material circumstances? The thing that could’ve won in 2017, if it weren’t for backstabbing centrists? By all means have a flag in the background of that speech – but still expect the usual suspects to rant about you hating white people.

Someone will be pissed off regardless, but trying to offend nobody won’t inspire anybody.

Two Articles Worried About Zoomer Birthrates

Fellow blogger Phil Ebersole linked two articles for discussion which looked at Gen Z in relation to marriage, etc, from an American conservative viewpoint: Rod Dreher’s No Families, No Kids, No Future and The Flaming Eyeball’s response The Kids Are Not Alright.

My response got a bit long and I haven’t posted for a while, so I’m copying it here too.

#

What on earth is Rod on about? 😆

“We are going to have to endure a civilizational collapse before we begin the Great Relearning. I am beginning to see now why a sociologist I heard speak a few years ago said that losing awareness of the gender binary is going to mean the end of us. He meant that we will lose cultural memory of the basic fact needed to ensure the future of our civilization.”

So birthrates are lower? Fine. It’s not a portent of civilizational collapse or human extinction lmao. There are billions of us! He’s talking as though we’re about to forget how children are made. There will still be straight people, he’s panicking at nothing – not to mention, a bi person and straight/bi partner can have a child!

“A number of readers have pointed out that the “B” in “LGBT” — bisexual — is probably doing a hell of a lot of work in that 30 percent number. This is probably true, but it doesn’t really change much. I’m not sure how many men would want to partner with a woman whose sexual desires are so unstable.”

What… what? What is he on about? His article is absurd.

The other article is a little more interesting but still rather catastrophizing. Note the dogwhistles like “soy boys” and bizarre judgements like “the increase in unappealing [female] grooming habits such dying their hair and cutting it short” – unappealing to who, eh? Aren’t people allowed varied aesthetic sensibilities? Did blue hair cause the fall of Rome?

I’d need to go do research to evaluate the biological claims there regarding testosterone levels, etc. But the social/cultural perspective is too weak to take particularly seriously.

“Modern American leftism […] is mere entropy, fake ugly men dressed as fake ugly women saying fake ugly words. This is why self-hating and freakish progressives can tirelessly work to take over institutions and cancel people, but they can’t create, preserve, or even measure value, so they just run everything into the ground. Despite routing conservatives over and over, they are terminally unhappy because they can’t produce anything of value, they don’t know how to love, and they can never put enough effort in to please their vengeful and jealous god.”

Routing conservatives over and over? Trump was in power for four years, Bernie failed, Biden is center-right by normal standards and has said ‘nothing will fundamentally change’ and that he’d veto M4A. As a progressive I have more serious reasons for some unhappiness than a fuddy conservatives’ ‘blue-hair lesbian on TV’ nonsense.

These writers’ sort of analysis is what happens if someone can only view society through the lens of conservative cultural grievances. No economic or structural perspective whatsoever. They don’t even mention climate change, which is a top-three answer imo for ‘why don’t zoomers want kids as much?’ (two others – money and more free social choice).

As a UK zoomer, my perspective would be that there are concerning issues in the world but I don’t see eye to eye with these particular writers on the problems or solutions.

Some SCPs I Like

SCP Logo

I’ve been reading more of the SCP Foundation lately. Here are a few good entries that aren’t the ones I’ve seen recommended a lot.

If you don’t know what this is, it’s a wiki where the gimmick is that the SCP Foundation contains ‘anomalous’ things, places, or entities. Each one is given a number in their records with relevant containment procedures, description, and experiment/interview/exploration logs. Entries range from horrific lovecraftian nightmares to mind-bending cognitohazards to light entertainment.

SCP 5031. Wholesome story about a misunderstood creature.

SCP 5002. An investigation into the death of a reality-bending writer in her containment cell – fantastic detective work in the context of the bizarre world of the Foundation.

Officer Lowry: Really. You Sherlock Holmes or something?
Agent O’Connor: Actually, Foundation investigations are rather more difficult. Sherlock Holmes, unlike me, could afford to eliminate the impossible.

SCP 5733. A horror movie tape for a generic slasher – in which the protagonist asks the viewer’s advice.

SCP 5545. An Antarctic site contains anomalous hallways, and also ‘contains’ a ‘conceptual site’ with a dangerous entity inside. What’s really going on here? (Don’t miss the last section.)

SCP 5858. A performance of A Streetcar Named Desire has been going for months.

SCP 3393. ‘Because of your ability to access this file, and read this sentence, you are SCP-3393.’

SCP 3000. A giant eel with severe mind-altering effects.

SCP 2006. A shapeshifter which likes scaring people.

Every month, SCP-2006 is to be shown at least one new extremely low-quality horror or science fiction movie containing horror elements. All interaction with SCP-2006 must confirm that SCP-2006 continues to believe that said works demonstrate a superb grasp of horror.

Book Reviews (19)

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

After Nixon scholar Harry has an adulterous kiss with the wife of his TV exec brother George at Thanksgiving, a chain of unexpected events hurls them into new lives.

At first this felt like it might be the sort of thing people make fun of litfic for: a struggling academic, an affair, everyone’s a bit unpleasant, etc. But then – everything kept ramping up. The drama. The dark, farcical comedy. The character growth. Bizarre twists and diversions combine with pathos and an extraordinary depth of character. The nephew, Nate, felt particularly real, with insight and conviction but also, well, 13 and trying to deal with a lot.

It’s hard to critique. Sometimes dialogue switches line in a way that threw me for a moment. Some of Harry’s romantic endeavours seemed a bit forced to me. Occasional lax forward momentum. These are minor quibbles, because it succeeds in depicting a tumultuous year in people’s lives – affecting, deeply perceptive, and often very funny.

Covenant – Dean Crawford

Take a thriller where an archaeologist is abducted in an Israeli desert, add some Ancient Aliens stuff, and… eh… The idea could be good, but neither component gets past cliché here – unless things improve after I gave up on page 67.

The sci-fi side is somewhat interesting, but relies on laboured exposition and didn’t really add a fresh angle to the well-worn idea that aliens helped kickstart civilisation. Sometimes a character will rattle through polysyllables, other times they’ll be idiotic as required.

The thriller side is painfully clichéd. The stony-faced agents, the nihilistic and good-at-punching guy, the evangelist preacher who wouldn’t pass a Turing test, the arms company bigshot ‘in this for the money’. I didn’t go in expecting a sophisticated take on Israel/Palestine, but the lazy centrism of Crawford’s ‘brutal military occupation bad, but on the other side rOckEtS’ still grates.

The writing is passable but not good: a big guy ‘swept through the crowds like a tornado through an olive grove’; Troubled Tough Dude becomes a dog who ‘reveled’ in the breeze though a car window; the Jordan Rift Valley is ‘an ancient seismic scar slashed by the tributaries of long-extinct rivers that snaked their way into the endless deserts’.

The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. Danusia Stok

The opening set of stories, prior to the main narrative of The Witcher, introduces an intriguing world drawing on folklore and fairy tales with twists and bite.

Geralt of Rivia stars as the mutant monster-slayer, alongside a few others. His character leans more to the mercenary side than I’d thought, particularly in the first story, which opens with him cutting down a few people for not much reason. Discussions around money are entertaining and sharp, with Nenneke’s comment on exchanging Temerian orens for gems (cheap due to a dwarven mine near Wyzim) and gems for Novigrad crowns highlighting the guy has really made this place. Combat is gritty and dynamically written.

I’ve heard of translation concerns. While some Polish idioms and references are inevitably missed out on, I found the prose perfectly clear and fairly stylish, aside from very few minor points where I couldn’t grasp what it was getting at. But irony lost in translation could explain some of the times where Geralt comes across misogynistic. In any case, he’s a flawed character and better for it.

The Lesser Evil particularly works together various fairytale allusions, questions of morality addressed by flawed characters in a messy world, dramatic combat, and holds the tension of its framing – how Geralt came to be ‘the butcher of Blaviken’.

The weakest parts are a section of the frame narrative where Geralt expositions at a priestess who’s following a vow of silence, and the title story – which at points I found a little vague, a bit too fanservicey over Yennefer, and didn’t do enough to justify the extent of their infatuation (previously hinted in the frame narrative). Maybe I’m missing something there. But both these parts are still definitely good.

What Else To Call Them?

Thatcher - starving miners.
Boris - starving minors.

Over 100 Tory backbenchers have complained about ‘abuse’ after Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner used the word ‘scum’ in Parliament.

Recent events provide a decent enough reason these people should be thoroughly shunned. Following footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaigning there was a vote on whether or not to extend free school meals to poor kids in England over the holidays, which lost by 322 votes to 261. Only five Tories voted for the scheme.

Being confronted with the subject of child poverty gets some people even more rabid than usual.

Backbench loon Steve Baker says “Not destroying the currency with excessive QE is also one of our duties.” £12bn on Serco’s failure of Test and Trace is supposed to be affordable while a pittance on feeding families in poverty would destroy the pound – according to a guy who guns for No Deal and wants to return to the gold standard.

A fellow blogger quotes MP Philip Davies’ reply to a constituent:

[P]arents should be primarily responsible for feeding their children rather than the state […] I wonder what we would ask them to be responsible for.

Meanwhile Ben Bradley MP (who previously suggested sterilising the unemployed) is under fire for a tweet suggesting that free school meals vouchers would end up in crack dens:

The Conservative MP had replied to a tweet in which another user had described the free school meals programme as ‘£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel’.

He then responded with: “That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did…”

While various councils, charities and businesses are working to address the need of these families, there is too large a segment of British society which agrees with the above MPs. The same people manic about foreign aid, which they want spent ‘at home’ instead, oppose practically any action to support the nation’s poor.

‘Can’t afford kids? Don’t have them!’ some gobshite is always spouting, apparently unaware that people’s situations can change over 18+ years, that we’re in a pandemic and people have lost jobs or need to somehow manage on a segment of their usual wage, and, crucially, that the kids exist anyway and need food even if the parents are ‘feckless’.

Ideally parents wouldn’t need state help to feed their families – but the fact is, they do. Despite the ravings of every nonce picking up a calculator to tally up the price of potatoes and carrots, people don’t use foodbanks or go hungry for a laugh or because they’re simply shit at financing. They aren’t all on drugs or stupid or wasting it all on fags, telly, and iPhones.

(Someone might have bought something nice before they were poor, good luck jobhunting without phones/internet, and do you expect the poor to have nothing to keep them sane?)

Instead of worrying about a fantasy of feckless parents dependent on the state, let’s talk about the reality – landlords dependent on parasitic leaching of other people’s money, employers dependent on exploiting labour for a pittance, shysters like Serco dependant on hefty public contracts. The Trades Union Congress has pointed out that child poverty in working households has risen 38% since 2010, with government policy behind much of the rise.

Who’s been in power since 2010? Oh, right. The Tory scum. When this is the situation, what else to call them?

Book Reviews (18)

The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

(Mistborn #1)

I got round to reading some Sanderson – and, yeah, it’s good folks. A dynamic, pacey story about a group of thieves, led by the enigmatic Kelsier, working to topple the dictatorship of the immortal Lord Ruler. Vin, a new recruit with burgeoning powers, comes from a traumatic background which has made her expect treachery at every turn. Meanwhile, glimpses into the Lord Ruler’s past hint at a larger story behind his rise to power and fabled defeat of the mysterious Deepness.

At first Kelsier’s smiling and Vin’s frowning were a little much (yeah, I get it…), but all the cast quickly become interesting, complex figures. Allomancy – the magic system based on using various metals – is very clever and works great in action scenes, particularly the pair of steel and iron, which allows for pushing and pulling metals. The way characters fling themselves or objects around is described so clearly and follows a strong logic. However, the categories of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ and ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ are less intuitive for other metals – but don’t worry about it.

Worldbuilding, character, and action with a powerful climax leading to the next book, although some of the last section felt a little bit rushed.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Not everyone will like this. I loved it, but this is a book without easy answers, the epigraph warning, ‘This is not for you.’

On the face of it, it’s about a Lovecraftian house developing dark empty rooms and shifting corridors, possibly infinite on the inside. Photojournalist Will Navidson documented the horror his family and others experienced in The Navidson Record. Most of the book is an academic manuscript about the film and its events, dictated by an unstable blind man, Zampanò. After Zampanò’s death the documents are discovered and put into some order by Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee.

The story in the film, told straight by itself, would be a good creepy novel with engaging characters. But the experimental approach House of Leaves takes is more complex, challenging, and interesting. Zampanò’s analysis of The Navidson Record leads off in many directions, engaging with psychology, mythology, science and literature. His and Johnny Truant’s footnotes relate subplots and lead to materials in the Appendices, like Truant’s mother’s letters to him from an insane asylum. One of her letters needs to be decoded – it’s not hard, but it forces you to slow down and makes the emerging story so much more impactful as you find what’s coming (but is it true?).

Chapter 9 is particularly incredible. While discussing labyrinths, it is itself one. The footnotes lead to dead ends and endless loops. The pages have various segments read in different directions, even parts that need a mirror. It’s not just gimmicky. In this chapter, as in others, formatting quirks reflect the content – accentuating story, playing jokes, reflecting themes.

Truant’s story can be a little tiresome at points – yeah I get it, the guy lays pipe, enough dude – but his developing mental collapse and questionable relationship with the manuscript add so many layers to the book.

The film, and the many other academic treatments of it which Zampanò references, don’t actually exist. But if the whole thing is merely Zampanò having a mental break, why does the manuscript affect Truant? And where did those claw marks come from? Does the minotaur represent a eldritch Nothingness (‘There is nothing there. Beware.’) which erases the house and film behind it, then becoming the manuscript – then, perhaps, erasing Truant as it becomes House of Leaves, then on to erase its readers? 😮 Perhaps Johnny Truant was that dead baby all along, and the whole damn thing is his mother processing trauma in the asylum? Is there a real house and minotaur? Or is it all symbolic?

Truly mind-bending.

The Bees – Laline Paull

A thriller following a bee in the totalitarian society of the hive through religious purges, wasp invasions, and the trials of winter. The life of the hive balances fact and artistic license to make an alien society centred around the Queen, beset by internal and external threats.

The idea is great. The writing is mostly solid – many scenes breathtaking, other points a little awkward. References to ‘data’ passed through antennae and encoded in scent can make the bees sound strangely computerised, and once when Flora sneaks into an area her attempt to slowly turn a door handle is like – since when are there door handles in the hive?

Mostly, the tricky balance between actual bees, and the humanised version Paull needed to tell a story that made sense to humans and is this good, works well. Occasional confusion and awkwardness is worth it to get the unique, action-packed theocracy.

Book Reviews (17)

books17

Reform or Revolution? – Rosa Luxemburg

The German revolutionary’s response to Eduard Bernstein, who argued for a path to socialism through gradual reforms, without a revolution.

Reading this felt a bit like watching Rosa put Eduard through a wood chipper. The arguments are fairly accessible to the sort of weirdo who would read this, and when she directly addresses her opponent it’s with an entertaining irascible tone.

She would be disappointed that (as of now) capitalism hasn’t irrevocably collapsed in crisis with the proletariat rising to seize the means – in a sense, she was too optimistic. But other theoretical forecasts are prophetic, such as credit being a ‘mighty instrument for the formation of crises’ (rather than a mitigation, as Bernstein argued).

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Paul Kennedy

Kennedy’s thicc account of the rise and decline of leading powers through economic and military change from 1500 to 2000 was popular with DC wonks on its release in 1988 mainly because of the last chapter – an analysis of existing trends and informed speculation on the near future.

These days the last chapter is more of an example of how a well-educated cautious broadly-liberal American observer saw things in 1988. It’s fascinating that such an intelligent and informed person could be so naive as to refer to ‘fissures [which] often compel the United States to choose between its desire to enhance democratic rights in Latin America and its wish to defeat Marxism’. PAUL, YOU MUG, THE U.S. USES ‘SUPPORTING DEMOCRACY’ AS A RHETORICAL PRETEXT WHILE SPONSORING ANY DICTATOR GOING, YOU’RE TOO SMART TO FALL FOR THIS!

Also intriguing looking back from now is Kennedy’s reference to balancing the three competing priorities facing governments heading to the 21st century – ‘guns’, ‘butter’, and sustained growth – as a very difficult task. Continual economic growth is demanded by capitalism, but is impossible (not merely difficult) due to the threat of climate change, and, indeed, the finite amount of resources and demand – good luck breaking the laws of thermodynamics. It would be interesting to hear his response were he pressed on this point now.

The book is primarily a work of history, looking at how economics, technology, and warfare relate to the global balance of power from 1500-1988/2000. You don’t need to memorise particular battles, names, or dates. Kennedy’s writing is as engaging and narrative-driven as you could expect of something like this.

He explains how Europe became the centre of world power due to its internal competition in technology and trade, with its geography making it difficult for, say, the first country to develop gunpowder to take over the whole continent and have innovation stall there. From there he looks at the leading powers which rose in the continent, and the factors which helped each to prominence as well as those which led to downfall – the Habsburgs, Napoleon; and Britain’s place as an imperial/merchant superpower spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Developing through the two world wars comes the long-predicted ‘bipolar world’ led by the U.S. and Russia, taking Kennedy through to 1988 and fears of nuclear war.

Is this a good book? Yes. Do you need to know a lot of history or economics? No, though you might want google here or there. Did it take me a long time to read, and is it a bit dry? Yes.

Wakenhyrst – Michelle Paver

H/t Matthew Richardson.

A well-paced, character-rich gothic story of a murder in 1913. A manor in a fen; a somewhat unfortunate, bright, ‘plain’ female lead; an overbearing misogynist father figure; superstitious villagers with strong accents. All the familiar tropes – very slickly executed.

The marsh setting is an atmospheric point of contention between Maud and Edmund Stearne, the girl and father whose… difficult… relationship forms the core of the book. Paver alternates a close third-person focused on Maud with an epistolary style, each character’s voice stark and engaging. Young Maud’s understanding of her mother’s regular miscarriages, Edmund’s awful pompous journals, and Maud’s inexorably growing knowledge of what’s really happening around her are well served by the approach, which leaves room for doubting everyone’s reliability.

An atmospheric read, well-researched and suspenseful.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

A funnier, better characterised, modern adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, about two feuding academic families. The narrative centres on the Belsey family – the white academic father, Howard; black hospital admin Kiki; budding Christian Jerome; self-styled hustler Levi; intensely driven student Zora.

The Belseys alone are diverse and well-realised (though Kiki perhaps less so – a human counter to Howard’s ultra-cerebral nonsense who’s given less chance to shine in her own right); but add in the black conservative Kipps family and you get a lively cast with complex personalities and conflicted relationships driving the plot. Add in other characters: Carl, a rapper thrust into poet’s circles, sensitive to being taken a fool; Claire, a perfect satire of a poet; the delightfully elliptical Jack French and his dictionary… – it’s funny, with powerful, frustrating, and touching encounters.

At times the nods to Forster can ring a little false. The opening awkwardly uses a Forster highbrow style to frame the more natural, effective email exchanges (before the fantastic dialogue introducing the Belseys); making the plot reflect its earlier inspiration sometimes requires unconvincing gambits like Howard not having a mobile phone.

On the whole, though, very entertaining and meaningful.

Marginalia

Once when I was a boy I rode out in the general direction of the Twiceborn King, with some fantasy of burying my stolen sword up to the hilt in his undead flesh. I had only a vague idea of where I was going, and no idea of what I’d do once I got there. I made my way from village to hamlet, but before I got to see any battles or castles or magic, before I’d even crossed the river, my father caught up with me and wrestled me home. I’m glad he did. Farm work had made me more than strong enough to swing the sword around, but in my hands it was just a club. I had no coin. No plan. I’d have been just another rotting body in the Twiceborn army by the time the Protagonist arrived to destroy it.

Read about a character dissatisfied with his place in the story in Marginalia, reprinted in Spillwords. 🙂