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Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

December 4, 2017 2 comments

I have to start this book review with a confession: I almost missed a typo in the title. I wrote “Andy Weird” instead of “Andy Weir,” and it never even crossed my mind that “Weird” was wrong.

Artemis by Andy Weir had a lot of expectations to live up to. Weir’s first book, The Martian, was something of a sensation. It was so popular, in fact, that they made a movie based on the book that was actually pretty great. I was a huge fan of both the book and the movie, so I was looking forward to reading Artemis. So much so, in fact, that I took a trip with my fiancee to New York City to attend the official book launch, which you can read about here.

Like always, be prepared for spoilers in my review. If you don’t like spoilers, I don’t recommend reading any further.

The moon’s a mean old bitch.

Artemis is a book about a city on the moon, named Artemis, designed in painstaking detail by Weir to be as realistic as possible. One has to admire the world-building of this book, with details ranging from the way that they deal with the moon’s regolith to the way the economy works in the city. Any aspiring author would do well to read this book for the world building alone. Weir provides a masterclass in thinking about all of the small, day-to-day issues that most people wouldn’t imagine, and he puts them into the narrative with such breathtaking ease that you might be tempted to think that he didn’t work that hard at it at all.

The first few pages of the book have detailed maps of the lunar surface where the city exists, complete with the train lines that take people to the Apollo 11 landing site, the reactors, and the smelting plant. I’ve always appreciated these kinds of maps in science fiction stories. Typically, they’re present in epic high fantasy, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. When you’re writing a book in which the setting itself is a character in the story, maps help bring the story to life, so it’s greatly appreciated and this earns the book a bunch of points.

I think the book suffers from a plot that seems tacked-on, in some instances. The conclusion and resolution aren’t entirely believable, and I have issues with the way the economy works, or could even transition at the conclusion of the story. I suppose that this is a hazard when you design the setting and build the world, and then add a plot to it later. There’s one specific place where there is a conflict between characters that comes up at a really odd time and feels extremely forced onto the story. The book is also on the short side, coming in at only 305 pages. I don’t usually say this, but given the subject of the book, as well as the intricate detail needed to really make it believable, a hundred or so more pages could have fleshed out a lot of the plot and the characters, and improved the overall quality of the book.

Another small issue that I have is Weir’s use of the interrobang. I’ve talked about this before, in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno, but I think it bears repeating here: if you use the interrobang, use it once and no more. This is a personal issue, but I think when an author overuses the interrobang (and Weir uses it three times that I can remember, twice on the same page), it feels like the author is getting lazy. I think I would put this under a “show, don’t tell” problem in the writing.

Perhaps the biggest issue was the fact that, despite the fact that it is a really good book on the whole, some of it just seems so cliche. It’s like a hard-boiled detective noir that’s drowning in hard-boiled detective noir cliches, filled with cigar smoke and long legs and dames in red dresses and whiskey. At one point the administrator of Artemis takes out a gun (which are strictly forbidden for obvious KABOOMY reasons) and gets tricked into revealing something by that main character, Jasmine Bashara. To some extent these cliches are unavoidable because the book reads very much like a Western on the Moon. Hey–that should be a genre on its own.

The Gizmos did whatever magic shit computers do to identify each other and verify.

There is a golden rule of science fiction: don’t explain. There are hard science fiction stories where the science and technology are the raison d’etre of the story, but in most cases, people don’t care about a thorough and plausible explanation of technology in the narrative. We don’t read stories for that reason, and if they wanted to know about that, they could read a technical manual or journal.

Weir, thankfully, follows this rule closely. He uses a combination of narrative exposition and character perspective to fill in the blanks about technology, culture, and science. And that’s really the only knowledge that the reader needs to get through the story. I tend to be a picky reader, but I am perfectly fine with that, and I’ll let the author get away with not knowing how everything works as long as it is internally consistent and the plot and characters are good.

Artemis strikes a good balance between the hard sciences that explain how the city functions and the people live in it and the plot. This is sort of Weir’s specialty, though, and it’s something that’s not easy to pull off. He did it with The Martian, and he does it with Artemis. Science drives the plot and sets the stage for the book, but it isn’t in the way of the story.

It’s the greatest little city in the worlds.

The book is a straightforward, linear narrative. The backstory is filled in with pen-pal letters between Jazz Bashara, the main character, and Kelvin, a boy (and later, man) on Earth in Kenya, who works for the Kenyan Space Corporation. Artemis, we learn, is owned by a company based in Kenya for reasons that Weir explains in the book (and it isn’t a stretch to accept it). This pen-pal method is a good way to fill in Jazz’s backstory, and as the narrative goes we learn more about her current predicament based on the things in the past that got her to where she is.

We learn, for instance, that in the recent past that Jazz was homeless and running from Artemis’ resident Sheriff, Rudy (who was, in the past, a Canadian Mountie). Through this we further learn that it is illegal to be homeless in Artemis, and if caught she would be deported to Saudi Arabia, a place of which she has no knowledge. Worse, by kicking her out of the only home she has ever known (a pretty bad punishment in and of itself for merely being homeless), she’d suffer crueler punishments because of the side-effects of moving from the low-gravity environment of the moon to the high-gravity environment of Earth. Her body is just not suited for life on Earth without serious medical issues. If you think that this system is crazy and unjust, believe me, you’re not alone.

The problem is that Artemis feels too much like a lawless town from the “Old West.” Partly this is by design, as Weir said that he based a lot of it on Caribbean resort towns. But I can’t help but think that there’s something extraordinarily nefarious about this whole enterprise. For instance, there are no age-of-consent laws on Artemis, and justice is usually distributed by way of angry mob. First, I have major issues with this because consent, and the ability to give it or to withhold it, is one of the foundational pillars of Western Law. I don’t know how Artemis could survive long without something as basic as age-of-consent laws–and we get a taste of the problems that can cause because of Jazz’s experience with an ex-boyfriend who turns out to be a pedophile (which Weir never explicitly says but which is made rather obvious).

Second, justice by mob is extremely primitive. For the entirety of Artemis, a city of 2,000 people, the only legitimate lawman as Rudy. It’s just not possible for him to properly police the entire city. And when he does, his version of justice tends to be delivered by the force of his knuckles. It’s obvious that one of the greatest foundational problems with Artemis is smuggling, and it turns out that Jazz has that particular market cornered. She smuggles flammable things into the city, which, quite obviously, is really dumb. But money is money for a person who was homeless once and at risk of being kicked of the damn moon.

Complicating matters is the fact that an organized crime syndicate is not only present in the city, but is involved in some of its more critical functions. Why? Money laundering. When I came to understand the full extent of the corruption required for them to be tolerated, and then later removed, the only note I took was “we’ve been spending most our lives living in a libertarian’s paradise.” The administrator is in on it, and what it comes down to is the compromises that must be made that comes back to bite you in the ass. Artemis is on the verge of bankruptcy (well, duh) and to save it they need to do some shady shit.

Why would a criminal organization use Artemis to launder money? It’s because the unit of currency on the moon, commonly called the slug, isn’t very highly regulated. It’s not really a currency–it’s a prepaid unit for transferring cargo from Earth to the moon, and it’s useful for trade. KSC track the balance, and acts as a bank, and transaction occur pretty much without any serious oversight. So moving slugs around and then selling them for real money is no real problem.

So are these flaws with the story? No, I think they’re partly what make the story interesting and worth reading. I was quick to grow frustrated at the way that Artemis was created and functioned, but it wasn’t because it was badly written or poorly conceived. It was because it was just too realistic. When later we see Artemis transitioning from its current incarnation of lawless capitalism to one of taxed property, ownership, and laws it feels real, organic, and natural (even if I don’t believe it would happen without a lot of civil strife and rioting). So for someone like me, who is knowledgeable about politics, policy, and philosophy, a lot of the stuff in this book made me angry. But it made me angry because it was believable. Several aspects of Artemis were unsafe, and as you’ll learn after you read it, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. In short, it was human. And humanity often makes one frustrated and angry.

Physics dictates it tastes like shit.

One of the real strengths of the book is how it weaves exposition and detail into the story as if it were natural conversation or narration. The above quote pertains to Jasmine explaining the process of creating warm drinks, like tea or coffee, on Artemis. Through her very strong voice, she explains coffee, oxygen, pressure, boiling points, and the process of making coffee in a low pressure environment. Because the air pressure in Artemis is about 20% of Earth’s pressure, the boiling point in Artemis is 61 degrees Celsius. That’s as hot as drinks can be on Artemis, so they seem cold to most people.

This is the pattern that follows most, if not all, of the technical and scientific explanations in the book. For instance, Jasmine talks about gunk, the foodstuff most commonly consumed on the mood and made of flavored algae grown in vats in her characteristic smart ass voice. She also managed to make process of smelting to get aluminum and oxygen from the resources on the moon interesting.

Crashing your pressure vessel into things is bad. It can lead to unscheduled dying.

This book wouldn’t be what it is without the distinct voice of the main character, Jasmine Bashara, or Jazz. It’s not accurate to say that she’s merely the Arabic, female Mark Watney; she’s more than that because Watney was concerned with saving himself, whereas transitions from saving herself to saving Artemis. I think it’s also worth giving Weir credit for making Jazz Arabic, and her father Muslim. This leads to some interesting interactions between her father and herself, as well as certain explorations of the needs of her father’s religious beliefs while not on Earth. More than that, it was just nice to see an Arabic woman with a Muslim father cast as heroes in a story for once.

I do have a few criticisms of Jazz, and they’re relatively minor compared to the many great things about her character (which I hope you’ll find out for yourself when you read the book). The first is that, while I understand Jazz to be a rogue with a heart of gold, she seems to be hypersexualized. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I feel this way, and it’s even more difficult to describe what, exactly, my problem is with this aspect of her character. However, I think that it creates some awkward moments in the book that I’m not sure add to the experience in a positive way. On the other hand, the hangup could be mine and mine alone, and I accept that. The book is very intimate because it rings so true with the voice of the main character. We get a very close and intimate view of her mind and the things that she thinks. Sex is naturally a part of that experience.

The second criticism that I have is that there are a few times where Jazz seems to be a bit of a Mary Sue. There’s a part where she learned some very advanced and complicated electronics in an evening, and I just do not find that believable. We’re to understand that she’s an exceptionally smart and talented individual, which is fine. But I think that a lot of the things that she does are things that she doesn’t seem to have any relevant experience with. There are specific places where her talent and ability make a lot of sense, such as the scenes in which she welds–there’s a history there with her father. But that electronics thing seems to come out of nowhere and, without it, some of the later events couldn’t really happen.

How dare you call me lazy? I’d come up with a scathing retort, but meh, I’m just not motivated.

In the final analysis, Artemis is a great book with some minor flaws. Those flaws do not detract from the experience of reading and enjoying the book. It is not, however, The Martian. It’s an entirely different beast, and any comparison with his former work isn’t really fair. It’s not as good as The Martian, but I think it was trying to do something different and I think it largely succeeded. The Martian will be recognized as a classic of science fiction, and rightly so. Artemis may not be, but it is a great novel, with great characters, and amazing world building. It definitely deserves a place in the modern canon of science fiction greats.

With that in mind, I rate the book 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of The Martian, fans of science fiction, and fans of caper stories. A general audience will also enjoy this book.

 

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Review: “The Veldt” Radio Play at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

December 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Hello, dear readers!

I have a somewhat special treat today, and I’m excited to talk about it. Last night, Anastasia and I went to the Chemical Heritage Foundation to see a performance of an old-timey radio production of “The Veldt,” a famous short story by Ray Bradbury. The production was staged by the Hear Again Radio Project and The Mechanical Theater.

I feel it’s helpful to have an example of how the X-1 radio play sounds to get a feel for the performance.

This is the first time I’ve ever watched a performance like this. I’ve listened to radio plays on YouTube before, like the one I’ve linked above, but there’s something special about going to a spectacle made of one. These kinds of radio plays exist on YouTube, and in the form of podcasts to be downloaded in the privacy of your own home, but how many of us actually own radios in our homes anymore? To be completely honest, the only reason I have a radio is because I found a stereo for free on a random sidewalk in Philadelphia. It was broken, but popping off the metal casing and a quick examination allowed me to bring it back to perfect working order. I don’t even use it for the radio, I use it for the CD player and tape deck.

By the way, in terms of modern radio plays on podcasts, I recommend the relatively new “Mission to Zyxx,” which is an improvised science fiction comedy.

To get back to The Veldt radio play, what I liked most about it was that it was designed from the down up to mimic an old-time radio production. They started with a promise to transport us back to the 1950s, and they delivered. They had old microphones like you might see in old radio stations. The performance started with one of the performers shouting that the production was about to start, and another counting down the seconds until they went live. A host started to introduce the program, even adding a jingle and commercial for a toothpaste.

There was piano accompaniment, and a person that was responsible for the sound effects. They had metal cups to alter voices, shoes to mimic steps, a plate and cutlery for eating. A wooden box to simulate doors and banging. It was a pretty well-staged production, and it’s very true to the its roots as a radio production.

The actors had great comedic timing, which was necessary because the play deals with deep, somewhat disturbing content and themes. The acting was actually pretty fantastic, and it made me really believe that, if I was listening to this over a radio, it would be authentic. The timing was right for the sound effects, and the actors played their parts seriously.

What I really want to focus on is the effect of making what is naturally a performance meant to be delivered in an aural media in the privacy of your home into a communal event on a stage. Partly I think watching the performance on a stage detracts from the way the play was meant to be experienced, because the visual stimuli overtakes your ability to imagine the events as they’re happening. You’re focused, for instance, on the man making the sound effects (so you know they’re just sound effects), or the people on the stage reading their lines from a script. I do not think, however, that this makes the experience poorer, it just makes it different.

What it adds is the experience of listening and watching the play with an audience who may react differently than you. You also get a view of how a radio production like this may have been made (though, of course, only small facets of that). The spectacle itself can be said to be a commentary on our modern society, and on the way that new forms of media have done away with old forms like this. There’s a certain kind of creative necessity on the part of the listener when you’re listening to the radio that’s not present when you’re watching movies or television.

In some ways, our society is oversaturated with both medium and message. Our brains engage in different ways over times as media delivers more sensory experience. I don’t think this is necessarily to our detriment, but losing these old forms does come with a price. These radio shows are an interesting part of our history, and I do think that it’s worthwhile to explore them every once in a while.

Just think: some day people may go to “Television Parlors” to partake in a rare opportunity to watch a “television program” on “old lightboxes with speakers.” Imagine how they’ll marvel at how primitive it was. 4K with surround sound? How primitive.

Book Review: What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

November 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Hello, all!

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a creature of politics. I don’t often write about it here on this blog, but when I do I try to explore subjects deeply. Some of you may know that I ran for State Representative in Michigan in 2014, and in 2016. I kept another website for the 2014 campaign, and if you’re interested at looking at some of the things I talked about you can find it here. One of the things I’m proudest of during my first run was taking a stand for LGBTQ rights, which you can read about in this piece, entitled “Read This Mich. Democrat’s Epic Response to Antigay Group’s ‘Pile of Excrement’” by Advocate.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that I would pick up Hillary Clinton’s new book about the 2016 election, perhaps too obviously titled What Happened. I’ve never read a post-election book written by a presidential candidate before, and I typically stray away from political books in general (unless it’s an academic, scholarly work). Still, given the events of the election I felt that this was a time that I could expand my horizons, if only just once. Before we get into the review, I want to plug her new project, Onward Together, an organization created to promote progressive values.

Every day that I was a candidate for President, I knew that millions of people were counting on me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them down. But I did. I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.

What Happened tells the tale, from the perspective of Hillary Clinton, of the 2016 presidential election. A good deal of the book focuses on the Democratic Primary, which, as anyone who pays attention to politics can tell you, was especially acrimonious. However, the book is quintessentially a feminist book under all of the focus on recent history. Indeed, Clinton spends a great deal of time talking about women’s issues and how they impacted her life and political career.

To say that What Happened is biased misses the point. Of course it’s biased, but the book acknowledges that. I think the level of enjoyment you’re likely to derive from this book is how much credibility and trustworthiness you’re willing to lend Clinton. I voted for her in the general election, and I supported her for much of the primary (I voted for Bernie, but started out supporting Clinton). I’m probably willing to give her a little more credibility than a good deal of people, and I think that this comes from my own experience in politics.

The book is split into sections, with titles like “Perseverance,” which are, in turn, split into smaller chapters. These sections are thematic, and give the book a sense of order and purpose. I appreciated this because it helped to order the events as I remembered and experienced them, and orientated them toward themes about politics, the election, feminism, and policy that Clinton explores in the book.

It’s a long book, clocking in at 492 pages (including the index), so it requires a good investment of time. However, if you’re as interested in politics, history, and policy as I am, the pages seem to turn themselves. Whether or not you agree or disagree with Clinton’s perspective–or even if you don’t like her, personally–the book is still a good resource for those of us who are interested in learning more about the way the 2016 presidential election unfolded.

I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades.

What really works in the book is Clinton’s voice. I’m very aware that she didn’t write the book without help from two other people, but somehow her voice comes out clearly in the pages. Her voice is intelligent, stately, and sure (except for the times it isn’t, and you can empathize with that). The result is that it creates a narrative that doesn’t let you go very easily. I found the book extremely easy to read, and it certainly held my interest. One of the greatest criticisms you hear lobbed at her is that she is robotic and closed off, but the voice she lends here is extremely personal.

Clinton opens herself up to criticism in this book, and she shows us a vulnerable, insecure side under the calm and collected veneer she presents for the camera. Her riff on what it was like to be with Donald Trump on the debate stage is testament to her self-control, and if you read it with an open mind I think you get a sense of the strength of character it would take to step on the same stage with him. As the above quote notes, and as she spent many pages illustrating, being a woman in politics, especially in national politics, is difficult. Clinton claims, and I agree, that she had to maintain composure and restrain herself, whereas her male counterparts could express anger and raise their voices.

Early in the book she writes about the daily ritual on the campaign trail, including how she relied on people for makeup and hairdressing. There’s definitely a note of resentment in her voice when she notes how it’s easier for men. In fact, on page 88 she says, “The few times I’ve gone out in public without makeup, it’s made the news.” I can’t even imagine operating in politics and having to put so much energy into my appearance. I was the kind of person who would throw on a shirt and some blue jeans and I could get away with that.

I could even get away with looking angry and not shaving. Five o’clock shadow may have doomed Nixon in the 1960 election, but it was all the rage in 2014.

In politics, the personal narrative is vital.

I think, perhaps, one of the most gut-wrenching things that I read in the book is when she writes, on page 117, that part of the reason she went to Yale was because a Harvard professor said to her, “We don’t need anymore more women at Harvard.” This came after a paragraph of explaining how men approached her when she was one of two women taking the law school admissions test. The men essentially behaved as if Clinton and her friend were stealing their places, and not earning their own.

Later, on page 118, she writes, “I was used to a narrow set of expectations,” noting how sad she is that women are judged by their appearance. Especially relevant is how women will only have attention paid to them if they look a certain way, otherwise they’ll be dismissed. She then says, “…one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name…When he lost, and I heard over and over that my name–my name!–had played a part, I was heartsick that I might have inadvertently hurt my husband and let down his team.” I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the kind of mindset that would cause people to not vote for a candidate because his wife did not share his last name. This way of thinking seems foreign to me, but it also betrays another ignorance of mine: the fact is that people blamed Hillary for Bill’s loss. It was her responsibility, and her blame to take.

There’s definitely a current of feminist fury running through the book, and it is well-justified given the ground we’ve already covered. Clinton had a lot of barriers to break in her life and in politics, and she has, despite her detractors, made truly historical accomplishments. In a lot of ways, What Happened is a feminist manifesto, and this shines through in Clinton’s voice throughout the text. On page 143 she makes sure to note that, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Princess Leia gets a promotion to general. And she’s right: general is seen as a promotion–a higher rank than merely princess–and denotes merit rather than inheritance.

A few pages later, on 147, she writes that someone at NASA wrote to her, in response to a letter testifying to her desire to be an astronaut, “Sorry, little girl, we don’t accept women into the space program.” She then writes, “The fact that I was female was secondary; sometimes it practically slipped my mind. Other women may have had different experiences, but that’s how it was for me.” Gender was not front and center in her life unless someone put it there. When she got that letter from NASA, or her experiences noted above, or when she gets news coverage for not wearing makeup. There’s an extremely powerful story in her life, and she tells it without flinching.

And show tunes are the best soundtrack for tough times. You think you’re sad? Let’s hear what Fantine from Les Miserables has to say about that.

Absolutely one of my favorite aspects of this book is Clinton’s voice. It’s an incredibly personal account, written from a first-person perspective, as if she’s having a conversation with you. It’s easy to connect to her, especially if you share the emotions which come breaking through the pages. She’s constantly making references to pop-culture, to TV shows like Game of Thrones, and shares opinions on all of them.

She’s also fantastically snarky. She makes sure to poke Russian President Vladamir Putin in the eye, and one of my favorite lines in the book was, “Good ‘get’ for the Times; they really ate CNN’s lunch on that one” (pg. 60) in reference to an analysis of her lunch at Chipotle  conducted by The New York Times. As Clinton says a few sentences later, “…sometimes a burrito bowl is just a burrito bowl.”

The FBI wasn’t the Federal Bureau of Ifs or Innuendos.

The book delves fairly deeply into the controversy surrounding her use of emails. The above quote is from a long section related to the press coverage of the emails, the way that congress investigated them, and especially James Comey’s conduct in the investigation, his much-castigated press conference admonishing Clinton, and his general mishandling of the entire affair. She lays out her case using quotes from respectable and credible sources with a rather complete timeline, and she shows how biased The New York Times was in its reporting. She gives stats and data about the slant of the news coverage about her emails compared to other campaign issues, and shows how all of that dominated the narrative of the campaign.

Of course, I’m already primed to agree with her about the way the political press handles politics and policy reporting. I didn’t have any negative experiences personally when I ran for office, but I’ve long seen how the 24/7 news coverage demands creating narratives about scandal to get those sweet, sweet clicks and views. Policy and facts are rarely covered, while sensationalist pap is unrelentingly broadcast at all hours. Experts have been swapped out for pundits and talking heads who are, in my judgment, wrong 90% of the time and right merely by accident in their critiques and predictions. Truly our newsmedia is failing us.

I’m coming around to the idea that what we need more than anything at this moment in America is what you might call ‘radical empathy.

The book did leave me uneasy specifically in one regard. Throughout the text Clinton talks about how her faith and spirituality play an important role in her life and the actions she takes. I respect that, of course, just as I hope she would respect my lack of faith and spirituality as an atheist and secular humanist. However, she says that faith and spirituality play a big part in civic virtue. My problem with this is not in the inclusion of faith and spirituality in the conversation or as an aspect of civic virtue for some people. What worries me is that this feels exclusionary. I’m left to ask if my values fit in with this conception of civic virtue, and I honestly don’t know the answer to that. In the past I’ve been in conversations with people who have said that “the Democratic Party cannot be the party of atheists.”

It seems unnecessarily exclusionary to me, and I react with dismay at these kinds of sentiments. I understand that faith and spirituality play a huge role in many people’s lives. I don’t have an inherent problem with that, and I want to include them in the party and the process of government. But they’re not the only components of civic virtue, and I would argue that they’re not even intrinsic in a general sense. I really don’t want to litigate this issue anymore, but if I’m to be told that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a spot for me because I’m an atheist then I’m left to wonder why I should support that party.

But I’m not cynical enough, yet, to think that it was meant to be exclusionary. A lot of the book is dedicated to the proposition that what’s needed in politics is less anger and resentment, but more empathy and conversation. I know how hard this will be to achieve, and for me personally it might be a lot to ask for me to empathize with people who are fundamentally opposed to my values or even my basic existence as a biracial person. However, I’m willing to try because I think empathy should be our rallying cry as we push back on the politics of division and anger. As Present Barack Obama often said, “I am my brother’s keeper.”

Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we’re going to be okay. All of us.

Despite how badly the election turned out, the book does end on a hopeful note. She quotes from Tala Nashawati, the student speaker at Wellesley’s 2017 graduation ceremony, “You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly and confidently into the world with your blinding hes to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains” (pg. 464). She juxtaposes this against the hopelessness and despair a lot of people felt after Donald Trump was declared the President-Elect, and it’s effective. Don’t give in to the bad impulses or despair.

Keep fighting. Keep pushing forward. Things change, and they eventually get better. The fact that we can go from NASA telling Hillary Clinton that they don’t accept women as astronauts to her winning the popular vote by three million votes is testament to that.

In the final analysis, I found What Happened to be a good read. I give it a rating of 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in politics, policy, and current events.

Thank you for reading!

Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

October 6, 2017 1 comment

Greetings, readers!

As promised, this is going to be my longer review of David Walton‘s new book The Genius Plague, just released on October 3rd. My previous review was a short advance preview of the book that covered the basics and recommend it to readers of science fiction and general audiences, with 4 out of 5 stars. I had the privilege to meet Walton at the science fiction conference in Washington, D.C., Escape Velocity, in August. He’s a kind, interesting person with a deep well of knowledge, and he’s very generous with his time. I look forward to seeing him at the upcoming PhilCon conference this weekend.

As you’ll see in this review, I have since decided to upgrade the book to 5 out of 5 stars, based on a more thorough examination of my notes, as well as thinking more on what the book actually does.

A note on the text before I get into the review: I read from an Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy, so I likely do not have the final version of the novel. It is expected that there will be certain kinds of errors in the manuscript, and that’s okay. This review will take that into account and focus on the content of the story, the writing style, and other technical aspects that wouldn’t really be effected by the particular edition of the book I read.

This is a long review because I think there’s a lot to unpack in this novel. I’ve left a lot of stuff out for the sake of actually getting a finished review out in time for PhilCon, and I may write more about my thoughts later.

As always, there will be spoilers in this review. Consider yourself warned! If you’d still like to read on, click “Read More” right below.

Read more…

Advance Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

September 21, 2017 1 comment

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I haven’t reviewed many science fiction books on this blog (with the notable exception of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, an excellent read), but I have a treat today.

I have a UAC (Uncorrected Advanced Reading Copy) of The Genius Plague by David Walton. The books official release is on October 3, 2017, and I highly suggest that you spare the $14.95 list price (though I’m sure Amazon has it cheaper) to read this book. It’s published by Pyr Science Fiction & Fantasy, an outfit that has been producing some really great work by amazing authors.

I’ll provide a much more in-depth review of the book when it is released, but for now I want to give a shorter advance review. So, first off, I want to say that Walton does an excellent job highlighting real science involved with mycology, as the book is about the spread of a fungus from the Amazon that enhances the intelligence of the people that it infects. In nature, this is seen in species of fungus like cordyceps, which Walton references without naming. Incidentally, the video game The Last of Us features zombies created by cordyceps infection in humans.

Walton obviously writes from a place of deep knowledge, and where he doesn’t have specialized knowledge, he does a fairly decent job with researching. The scientific aspects of the book are believable, as are the sections involving the NSA and Alzheimer’s. I won’t lie: by the time you get to the halfway point of the book, you’re turning pages without being aware of it. Walton has a gift for pacing and knowing how to construct a narrative such that you’re sucked into the novel and reading with increased fervor the deeper into the story you get.

He also has a talent for writing believable characters, for the most part (I’ll talk about some of the issues in the longer review). The dialogue he writes is often engaging, with such gems as “Good to know there’s someone waiting in the wings in case I turn into a fungus zombie.” I laughed out loudly at that line. Another thing that I like about the book is how cryptography plays a role in the action, and Walton does an interesting job of making that fresh.

The Genius Plague is a quick, but excellent read, and deserves a place on the shelf of any lover of science fiction literature. Tentatively, I rate if 4 out of 5 stars (for reasons which I’ll explain in my expanded review).

Book Review: Hiding in Unnatural Happiness by Devamrita Swami

September 9, 2017 Leave a comment

One day some weeks ago I was walking own South Street in Philadelphia when I was approached by this very nice young woman. She asked me if I was interested in yoga (answer: dubious), and we talked about yoga, meditation, and how they can help deal with stress. It was a fascinating discussion and I really enjoyed it. Before she continued on her way she handed me a book that I have since read and digested.

Somehow you know that you won’t be able to get the information you need from the mainstream scholastic knowledge factories and their assembly lines.

At its core, Hiding in Unnatural Happiness by Devamrita Swami is a religious tome with philosophical trappings. It makes bold metaphysical claims, and builds a case for the author’s particular beliefs system while simultaneously bashing others (most specifically materialism). Despite the author’s attempts, however, it falls short in several ways, making Hiding in Unnatural Happiness more of a polemic than a positive case for Krishna spirituality or Bhakti Yoga. I tried to approach this text with an open mind, but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I approached the final pages. As the above quote demonstrates, Swami was not above poisoning the well against institutions like universities, which, in my mind, gets us off to a really bad start.

The first issue with the book is that it uses a lot of ink making grandiose claims, which I think are meant to be awe-inspiring. They are, however, empty rhetoric. Personally, I was left asking what things like “enter a dimension of nonmaterial equal opportunity” (pg. X) meant, because the meaning isn’t immediately obvious. Further, throughout the text Swami uses the term “spiritual technology,” which he never defines nor, in my opinion, does he sufficiently contextualize it. A brief perusal of google shows me that the phrase “spiritual technology” has no fewer than 202,000 results, which Scientology and the “Church of Spiritual Technology” being among the top hits. I have to subtract an entire star rating from Swami for this at the start since it is central to the point of the book. Vague and ambiguous language makes it hard to understand what he’s actually talking about.

What makes the vagueness of those phrases particularly damaging is that Swami is truly a gifted author. His intelligence shines through the pages, especially when he writes such sentences as “…never seek fulfillment in matter and its kaleidoscope of impermanence and hallucinogenic assurances.” And as you progress through the book, Swami makes several insightful comments–and asks vital questions about–current events. He writes knowledgeably about ethical concerns with machines and technology, and brings up many pertinent issues with humanity’s relationship with its environment, focused on such things as global warming and deforestation.

But it’s obvious that Swami is pushing a specific philosophy, and it’s almost completely at odds with my own. Regardless of our differences, I do sense that Swami writes from a place of genuine compassion and concern, and that’s an extremely valuable perspective in a world where it’s easier to be angry and close yourself off from other people. Hate, it seems, is infectious, and we cloister into doxastic communities that reinforce our worldview to protect us from having to deal with other perspectives. And that’s why I took the time to read this book: it is very important to me combat my own epistemic closure.

Now, back to the opening quote and why it is problematic for Swami and this text. It follows a pattern that is, in my opinion, at least partially responsible for our culture’s contempt for expertise and subject matter authority. It is true that some universities have an “ivory tower” problem, and some academics do play dumb games with “gate keeping,” creating inaccessible jargon that forms the narrative currency of their ideas. However, Swami dismisses a very important part of scholastic knowledge, and reducing universities to assembly lines cheapens the gains that we’ve made with human knowledge. His education at Yale is a testament to this, and further, he wouldn’t have the vocabulary to talk about the current problems he touches on without scientific and academic discourse.

But I think it’s worse than that. I can look at the periodic table of elements and feel a very profound connection to the universe. While it might not make sense to some, to me the table shows a greater organization of the matter within the universe. It is this kind of materialism that the book, at times, rails against, and by elevating nonmaterial–or what Swami calls nonmaterial–it overlooks the brilliance of the universe one can see when one understands the interconnectedness of the matter that makes up the universe. If I look out of my window I see trees, which are held up by the rigid nature of the cellulose that forms the walls of the tree’s cells. Cellulose is comprised of the sugar glucose, connected in a specific and repeating pattern. Glucose is an important energy source for us, and is the primary energy sources for our brains.

So in a lot of ways I feel that Swami’s philosophy is closed off to a truth of the universe that can be provided by an understanding of and appreciation for the material world. In some ways this understanding can create a feeling within you that could be described as spiritual. And I think this results in the book underestimating the philosophy of materialism that includes a less concrete and more abstract view of the place of matter and how it functions in nature. No need for spiritualism here; a very similar feeling can be created merely by marveling at the splendor of the physical universe.

Certainly, withdrawing from the world has its value.

Swami talks about transformation of the self, and divides proponents into two camps: “other-worlders” and “this-worlders.” Other-worlders call to mind an old idea from antiquity called “contemptus mundi“: he writes that they have “their eyes on the prize,” and that our lives on Earth are merely a stop along the road of our existence. This world isn’t the one that matters, it’s the after-life, so the affairs of this world are ultimately unimportant.

I’m more interested in the this-worlders, and indeed, this is the school of thought that I personally identity with. He writes that this-worlders “live to embrace our existence on Earth…they plant their feet and keep their vision firmly on the ground–right here and now–in the belief that human vigor and aspiration focused on terra firma can improve life for billions of unfortunate people.” I think Carl Sagan does much more justice to the idea than Swami does:

As an atheist, a methodological empiricist, a naturalist, and largely a materialist I am a “this-worlder.” I don’t think that there is any ancient text that has the answers for the problems that we face today. I don’t think that they can offer us any wisdom that we don’t already have. I don’t believe that humanity has lost anything, and that we’re somehow lesser than we were before. It’s easy to think that there is ancient wisdom because the world changes so quickly today, and it’s incredibly hard to keep up. No matter how fast you run you can’t keep track of all of the information you’re exposed to. In fact, according to Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google,  we create more information every two days than all of humanity did up to the year 2003. In other words, every two days we create as much information as we did from the earliest history of humanity up to the year 2003. Every two days! And Schmidt said that back in 2010, and this trend has only accelerated since then.

It’s hard not to get lost in that. But I’d like to think that, rather than vainly lapping at the surface of a tempest of information, trying to keep our heads above water, we should figure out how to make use of this data to make the world a better place. Figure out what you can do to help, in your own way, to reduce suffering and make this world more livable for the people of tomorrow.

The Gita invites us to drink at the fount of sacred activism: the precise spiritual technology for truly being in the world but not of the world.

The problem with “sacred activism” (whatever that is), as Swami describes it, is that it seems to be a contradiction. How can you be in the world but not of the world? Sure, he may be speaking allegorically, but his writing in this area is dedicated to someone who is focused on some concept of spiritual transcendence. He seems to acknowledge the tension in the idea because he notes a concern about being too connected to the material existence. I have no real comment on the spirituality he’s expressing other than to note that, as far as I’m concerned, it is of no interest and certainly isn’t thoroughly evidenced.

I would say, from my perspective, that there is an undercurrent of contempt for the world in the expression above. Why wouldn’t you want to be of the world (in my mind, the term “world” means the universe). In fact, my very connectedness to the world is why I care so deeply about it. I am made of star stuff, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. The constituents of my body, and the things I have learned, exist within the universe and are inextricably a part of it. I am the universe made human, providing a way for it too look at itself. To understand itself. This isn’t, strictly speaking, an idea that comes from my philosophical positions on naturalism and materialism, but it comes from what I see to be an essential truth of our existence. The universe isn’t literally conscious and it has no motivations; however, we are, and we do. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson says it best:

But I think Swami’s way of thinking has elements of misanthropy. On page 12, he writes, “Twenty-five hundred years ago, the classic Green philosopher Socrates declared, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the so-called ‘civilization’ that dominates the world today is confident that it has proven the wise man wrong. Commandeering the best intelligence, contemporary human society enforces the grand solution: make money and indulge your senses on a global scale–lasting peace and prosperity will somehow follow.” To me this reads like sneering contempt for society, and I find this not only insulting, but dead wrong. It’s a straw man that rests upon claims about society that he could not possibly know. Further, he doesn’t do anything to support the claim that the “civilization” that he writes about has proven Socrates wrong, or that it would even want to.

It seems, in fact, that he constructed this straw man specifically to knock down to make room for his own philosophy. On page 13, he writes, “Since we, as bodies of matter housing particles of spirit, are energies of the Supreme, our human existence has a built-in prerequisite.” First, he never defines what “particles of spirit” are, nor does he define what “energies of the Supreme” means (which is especially annoying to me because that is a use of the word energy that is atypical and does not make sense to me). It seems that what’s happening here is a reduction of humanity to make this spirituality seem bigger than it is.

Swami isn’t above cherry-picking, either. On pages 15-16, he talks about the suicide of Robin Williams, and specifically about the role unhappiness played. What Swami doesn’t mention is that Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, a brain disease that gets progressively worse as Lewy bodies build in vital brain tissues. It is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and often manifests as paranoia and cognition issues (such as forgetfulness and difficulty reasoning). Swami frames Williams’ suicide not as a matter of progressively worsening mental health as a result of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, but a matter of unhappiness. He even quotes Williams on the Letterman show where he intimates he is personally unhappy. Swami then connects that with “our failure at material enjoyment.” I suspect that he picked Williams specifically to drive home his fame and wealth, and how that didn’t provide him happiness or fulfillment.

Another such example is on page 90, where he quotes Steve Jobs about rejecting dogma and following your own path. He does this in an attempt to delegitimize a materialist understanding of the “self.” I find this tragically ironic, given that Steve Jobs died as a result of his drinking fruit juices, getting acupuncture, and visiting “spiritualists” (all forms of crackpot “alternative medicine“) instead of using science-based medicines and surgeries to treat his pancreatic cancer. The kind of pancreatic cancer that Jobs had was extremely responsive to surgery and traditional evidence-based oncology solutions in mainstream medicine, and had he not delayed seeking these legitimate, proven, and materialist treatments it is very likely he’d still be alive today. Sometimes, my friends, the status quo is good.

Finally, he quote-mines Stephen Hawking, who he quotes on page 90 as saying that “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” He does this to lead into a bit where he asked audiences how many feel “comfortable with that bleak materialistic proclamation of their identity.” Obviously many don’t feel comfort. It’s not hard to see that this is poisoning the well against materialism, and is in fact fallacious. The quote by Hawking is taken out of context from an interview he gave with Ken Campbell in 1995, for episode three of the show Reality on the Rocks, entitled “Beyond Our Ken.” The entire interview is embedded below, and I very highly suggest you watch it to get the full scope of Hawking’s statements.

So what Hawking actually said was, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes.” Hawking was talking about human beings in relation to the vast scope and majesty of the universe, essentially reminding us that, hey, we gotta keep our egos in check. We’re small beings living on a small planet in a massive universe. We don’t know everything, we can’t know everything, and nobody has all the answers and anyone who says that they do is lying to you. The best we can do is to create predictive models of the universe that conform to the evidence we collect through scientific endeavor (a central tenet of Hawking’s model-dependent realism). We are not the center of the universe, and the universe was not created for us. To think otherwise is to be massively egotistical and narcissistic.

In Hawking’s interview, he specifically inveighs against relying on common sense. This is also a treatise against relying on emotional responses to ideas to come to conclusions about the nature of our existence and the universe. Swami takes a quote from Hawking out of context in an attempt to manipulate us to have a negative emotional response against Hawking and the idea he’s espousing, priming us to accept his spiritualism without him having to do any of the hard legwork to actually support that spiritualism. Swami’s rhetoric is exposed as empty.

There are many more such problematic issues throughout the book, but to list and explain their wrongness would make this long review drag on unbearably. Suffice it to say that Swami makes many outstanding and strong claims, but provides no support for them. In other instances he poisons the well against materialism, technology, or science further than he had in my above examples. Needless to say, I am unimpressed and consider it to be intellectually dishonest.

Let’s dance amidst our tears.

It’s pretty evident by now that I’m growing increasingly hostile to Swami’s treatment of materialism and the sciences (specifically, what our scientific discoveries entail about the universe). It’s a common aphorism within the community of science proponents that, as time goes on, science pushes into the domains that were once the realms of philosophy or theology. This includes such topics as the origins of life, the workings of the mind, and the creation of the universe. To argue against scientific models of these ideas requires first grappling with the data, the math, and experiments that gave birth to the models. Second, one must then provide a framework to build upon their own idea, and then, to convince a materialist or methodological empiricist, provide evidence and a framework to test the soundness of the claims. Most of the time people are happy to take the first step in some minor way, usually by attacking straw men of the models (often based on honest misunderstandings of the models). It’s rare to see someone get to the second step, which is why evolution and big bang cosmology still reign supreme. What stands out most in my mind is how Intelligent Design proponents try to tear down evolution, and then act as if their naive arguments automatically make ID an acceptable alternative. Even if they could disprove evolution (and they haven’t), it would not make ID any more valid (and it isn’t valid at all) without doing the legwork to support it with data, logic, and a model to make predictions.

So what does this have to do with Swami? On page 92, he writes with respect to a “material body” coexisting with a “nonmaterial self” that “We would have to face up to a universe that buzzes with both physical and nonphysical energies. To committed materialists, that acquiescence would be not only outlandishly spooky but also totally revolting.” Of course, the first question I have is what is nonphysical energy? Swami never answers this or even pretends to provide context. I think he just takes it as a given, based on his spiritual texts. I’m sure there’s some meaning that he accepts, but my second question would be how can we demonstrate the existence of nonphysical energy? It’s one thing to claim it, it’s another thing to demonstrate it.

And that gets us to my next response: as a materialist, I would not find this spooky or revolting. It would be, to me, simply a puzzle of logic and reason that scientific methodology would help us solve. You start by asking questions (what is nonphysical energy, how can we know it exists, does it react to physical energies, and if so, how? Can we detect it? If not, how can we meaningfully say that it exists?), and then you formulate potential answers and predictions. Next you design experiments to see if those answers and predictions are valid, and if they are you confirm the results. If not, you go back to the drawing board and design new experiments or come up with new explanations. If the data checks out across several reproduced experiments, you formulate a model that provisionally explains the phenomenon. The fact is that if I accepted the idea of nonphysical energy, I would want to know more about it. I wouldn’t cower from it for find it revolting.

Swami’s writing on this gets more problematic. He contends, “…let’s grant that it might be creepy to entertain the idea that a material reality coexists with a nonmaterial reality…How spooky and miraculous is it to posit that from inanimate matter arises the strange stuff known as conscious awareness? Have you seen it? Can you demonstrate it in a laboratory? Operating from the confines of a typically restricted perspective, we would have to say that if this one is spooky, the other one is spooky, too.” This is an equivocation between two different things through the use of the word “spooky”: material explanations for the emergence of the human mind, and nonmaterial (read: spiritual or theistic) explanations for same. The reason to do this is to try to put both concepts on even ground, so the likelihood of either explanations being correct seems similar.

The problem is that the likelihoods are not similar. They’re not even in the same order of magnitude in similarity. He wants to establish doubt about material explanations by asking if we’ve seen consciousness, or if it can be demonstrated in a lab. Swami does this because his preferred explanation actually has this flaw. But to answer his questions: yes we can see it, and yes we can demonstrate it in a lab. We can see consciousness the same way we can see wind or the magnetic field. We see how it interacts with the world around us. The material explanation needs merely a substrate for the consciousness and the ability to see how it interacts with the rest of the physical world. Since we have the brain (the substrate), and since humans have such interactions, we can then start to explore how it works in a laboratory setting–we can start to see it like holding a magnet by metal shavings. fMRI scans of the brain can show what parts of the brain are activated when we act, or what parts are activated when we respond to stimuli. Through repeated tests and experiments, we can correlate brain activity with action or stimuli and begin to make causal claims about them.

It comes down to the basic biology of the brain. There are some 86 billion to 100 billion neurons in the human brain, and up to 100 trillion connections between them, called synapses. The shape of the brain also influences its function, one example that confirms the old saw in biology that “function follows form.” We have several examples in the history of psychology that demonstrates that personality is directly related to the brain. The most famous of them is that of Phineas Gage, who underwent a complete personality change after suffering severe traumatic brain injury. But beyond that are split-brain patients, who really put to the test the brain/mind connection.

And at this point we must ask: what does Swami have that puts his nonmaterial explanation on equal footing? I content he has nothing, and indeed, he offers nothing in the book to elucidate this. What do I benefit from adding a mysterious and as yet unexplained layer to my model of how the mind emerges from the vastly complex chemical, electrical, and structural interactions of the brain? Further, how does Swami demonstrate that his particular version of this layer is preferable to other competing ones from other spiritualists or religions? I don’t know because he doesn’t offer an explanation.

There are two final points I want to make before I conclude this review. The first is that Swami often speaks of intuition and common sense, which are definitely valuable in their respective domains of human activity. But what he doesn’t do is talk about how each of these can be unreliable pathways of finding the truth-value of claims and models. Two examples spring to mind: 1) adaptive bias, which essentially argues that our brains have evolved to be prone to types of cognitive errors that aid survival, but can also create faulty models of reality because thinking rationally or truthfully is not favored and 2) optical illusions, such as the following graphic, in which A and B are the same color, but when we look at them in context that appear to be different shades of grey.

The second is that, referring back to his quote-mine of Hawking, he writes that “The Materialistic theory that conscious awareness arises from chemical scum is a fantastical claim, dogmatically religious. If you can be open to that, then why not consider Krishna’s contrary contention, founded upon common sense?” First, he misrepresents his own quote-mine because that is clearly not what he quoted earlier, and it changes the meaning of his original quote. It’s also telling that he uses the emotionally manipulative language “chemical scum” to make this point, which allows him to then say that it’s “fantastical” and “dogmatically religious.” Yet, when you read the text in full, he never actually justifies this claim to any significant extent. He relies, in fact, on incredulity and appeals to common sense based on poisoning the well, misrepresentation, quote-mining, selective exclusion of contrary facts, and slights-of-hand to put materialism and nonmaterialism on equal footing. It’s vitally important that he manipulates readers to see material explanations as fantastic and dogmatically religious, because his claims are themselves fantastic and dogmatically religious–they’re based on his religious beliefs and spirituality.

So where does this leave me? I had gone in with the expectation of being treated to a religious text, steeped in eastern philosophy and the Krishna belief system. And I got that. What I didn’t expect was the long list of problems that were included, some of which I detailed above. Ultimately, they combined to make the book an unimpressive affair, with intellectual dishonesty and fallacious reasoning strewn throughout. I did learn things about the religious beliefs of the author, and to be sure, he speaks from a place of concern, compassion, and deeply-held spirituality. However, I am not able to overlook the various and fatal flaws of the book. My skepticism is not assuaged, but justified.

For that reason I give Hiding in Unnatural Happiness 1 out of 5 stars, and do not recommend it to a general audience.

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States 1492-2001 by Howard Zinn

August 17, 2017 Leave a comment

After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody, and the somebody was us.

History, as the old saw goes, is written by the victors. It is inexorably a subjective enterprise, based on perspectives and biases the authors of history cannot completely shake. In an effort on my part to get a more complete view of American history, as well as to question some of my own perceptions and notions, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

The book covers American history from 1492 to 2001, discussing important events and developments as you might expect, but it eschews the practice of following the “great and powerful” and instead focuses on the poor, the oppressed, and the average. Or, to be short, everyone from the slave to the proletarian. This perspective is refreshing, and it causes one to read the text critically and to question it. Zinn welcomes such a reading, and offers sources and citations to back up many of his claims.

He constructs a new narrative of American history with this book, and paints a stark picture of manipulation, control, and loathing of the people from those in power. Do not, however, think that this book is anti-American. Such a conclusion of its content is both a disservice to the study of history and to an honest appraisal of America’s legacy. I believe, rather, that it is loyal to the enlightenment liberal philosophy that the United States is founded on and is on display in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. While this challenging of traditional historical narratives is good and welcome, the book isn’t without its own problems.

Zinn himself acknowledges his own bias, but he also admits that he is not troubled by that because he sees his work as a counterbalance to other narratives, which are as biased or more biased. This impressed me, because authors don’t often admit that they’ve crafted a narrative with a specific agenda in mind. To be sure, I disagree with a number of Zinn’s conclusions. However, his vital work proposes something radical:  what about the people we don’t hear about? What about the voices that history doesn’t amplify? What about the soldiers, the farmers, the settlers, or the slaves?

A People’s History of the United States is a lengthy book with many themes, far more than I could possibly hope to cover in one short review. I would like to focus on three specific areas: the people, resistance, and power.

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between the rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless ‘reforms’ that changed little.

I could rattle off a list of modern problems related to prison and analyze each one: for-profit prisons with inmate quotas, the school-to-prison pipeline, judges found guilty of taking bribes for sending young Americans to these for-profit prisons, the lack of public defenders for poor defendants, accusations of modern slavery in forced prison labor that is a billion dollar industry, and the so-called “affluenza” and the differences in treatment between the haves and have-nots that the Ethan Couch case brought to the public’s attention.

What we see today are but links in the long chain of injustices. The prisons, as Zinn writes, are microcosms of the American system for many people. Poverty is a trap, and clawing out of it grows increasingly difficult. The divide between the wealthy and the rest of us grows, posing a threat to our government. Many people are aware of the recent study that attempted to demonstrate that the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy. Corruption, control, and manipulation (for instance, false news implanted to muddy the waters of vital current issues and facts) are things we deal with day-to-day. Zinn’s book weaves issues like this into a narrative that starts before this country’s founding to the present, where the threads are still being tied.

Past problems are being reignited as dark forces gather in American cities, spewing dangerous philosophies of violence and racial supremacy. Voting rights are under attack and being rolled back, sometimes with implicit racial motivations. It’s impossible to read Zinn’s book and not connect it to current events, and consume it from our present perspective. And I think that this is one of his goals: he wants us to understand the living history of the country, and connect the events of the past to the struggles of today.

As part of that, Zinn writes on how voting and access to the ballot were methods of control, in some way. It’s hard to argue against his case, the basic premise of which is that it channels energy that might be spent in a more active resistance toward the act of voting and the process of elections. Sure, there is power there and we do get remarkable outcomes, such as the election of Barack Obama to the Office of the President of the United States. However, that power has limits: purging of voter rolls, gerrymandered districts that water-down the power of certain voting cohorts in favor of one political party, etc. A common theme throughout his book is that more active resistance–marching, picketing, strikes, unionizing–result in greater change.

…their condition would not be changed by law, but by protest, organization, resistance, the creation of their own culture, their own literature, the building of links with people…”

At it’s heart, A People’s History of the United States is about how the faceless people of history banded together to affect change. It wasn’t through legal means, like courts, though that may have codified things later (like this legislature, it’s reactionary). It also didn’t occur through legislation or voting. The name of the game was protest, resistance, and creating common cause among forward-thinking and decent people. People are stronger together than they are individually, and this was exemplified by the gains made by organized labor, civil rights groups, and others in the face of overwhelming power.

The Civil Rights movement won important victories in courts, legislatures, and through the ballot box, but those victories wouldn’t have been possible about the whirlwind of pressure that the movement brought to bear. I suspect that Zinn would write similarly of the LGBT movement for marriage equality and civil rights protections. Protests, marches, and sit-ins were the most visible aspects of advancing the agenda, but underlying that was a culture, literature, and an active community that supported the people within it.

Those in power were not so much at the forefront of the great events of American history so much as captured by them. We know of Lincoln’s reticence to free the slaves, but the inexorable pressures of his time forced his hand. You’re left to wonder just how much outside pressure–such as those brought by oppressed peoples–forced the action of other leaders, and how less progress we might have made if it weren’t for the people who made the necessary sacrifices to change things.

We owe Saddam a favor. He saved us from the peace dividend.

Another theme that you see repeated throughout the book is this idea that those in power have a kind of loathing for the common man. And it’s not hard to see such loathing when it comes or our spending priorities or the ways in which we abuse people. You don’t have to reach far into the past for such examples: abuses at the Standing Rock protests and Jim Crow spring to mind. But when you do look farther back you see the Trail of Tears and you see chattel slavery. Zinn approaches these subjects unflinchingly, and doesn’t try to apologize of downplay the long term harm of these policies.

The quote above refers specifically to the concept of the peace dividend, a supposed increase in domestic spending as a result of cuts to defense spending that was originally to occur after the end of the cold war. There’s an argument as to whether or not it happened, but if you look at defense spending after the collapse of the Soviet Union compared with defense spending in the mid-1990’s and even today, you see a sharp increase.

And to keep that spending intact while simultaneously lowering taxes, we cut domestic spending. We slash welfare, healthcare assistance, important services, and infrastructure spending. Our roads and bridges are crumbling to nothing while private defense contractors rake in record profits. Even with all of that, politicians campaign on increasing defense and military spending. Zinn points out that this has been a pattern in our domestic policy for decades, and the most vulnerable among us suffer.

Just recently, a story was published on the website Mother Jones, detailing how one hundred thousand students in New York City public schools were homeless. That’s 100,000 kids. How can a country as wealthy as the United States–a country that spends more than any other country on bombs, bullets, guns, and gigantic $18 billion aircraft carriers–allow that many kids in a single city to be homeless?

And indeed, the books paints a portrait of a country suffering from such economic disparity for almost as long as its founding. But it’s not all criticism and doom-and-gloom. Zinn also writes about the rich cultures produced by common struggle, and writes that our history of pushing forward, no matter what, gives us hope for the future. And that’s an important message to hear, especially after recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This review wasn’t a true book review so much as it was my own thoughts about how this book relates to current events. Like I said before, I think this is one of Zinn’s goals. It’s a well-research, well-cited book that weaves a complicated narrative of history from the perspective of those not in power. I would ask that if you do read it, you approach it with an open mind, and to try to question your own notions about American history.

I give the book 5 out of 5, and acknowledge its flaws while recognizing its status as a vital must-read for any fan of history.