yellowstone Falls

Duplex, by Kathryn Davis

Although subtitled "A Novel", I felt a little cheated to discover that Duplex is really more of interconnected short stories set in a block somewhere in mid-to-late 20th century Everytown, USA. Kind of a Martian Chronicles pushed further into the surreal.

The blurbs promise quite the fireworks, and it's hard to miss with a block populated by robots, sorcerers, and children on their way to growing up. But while I admire some of the askew descriptions Davis provides, and the dream-like and daydream-like departures from pedestrian fiction, ultimately some of these departures go too far into obscurity or opacity. The characters are drawn with a good feel for internal mental detail, despite their absurd world, but most of their preoccupations are almost numbingly mundane.

And since it is an assemblage of short stories or vignettes, the whole never becomes any more that the sum of its parts (and as a reader, I missed some of the parts wandering off stage never to reappear again.)
cthulhu

Paper Dragons, By James P Blaylock & The Sinking City

 As usual, I'm behind the times. The World Fantasy Convention just ended in Los Angeles, and the World Fantasy Awards for 2019 have been announced.

And here I am catching up with "Paper Dragons," which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1986. Originally published in Imaginary Lands, I have the standalone version from Axolotl Press with the intro by Blaylock's pal Tim Powers.

The story has a lovely dream-y feel of Northern California with a lot of what makes Blaylock Blaylock. Animals behaving strangely. People behaving strangely. And the petty foibles of human society -- like tossing tomato worms into a neighbor's yard. Not much of a story, but more a prose poem on the possibility of the magical being just around the bend, or behind a passing cloud.

--

The Sinking City is a Lovecraftian videogame. Lovecraft doesn't translate well to films or videogames, where most people just add tentacles to make it 'Lovecraftian'. But the Sinking City does a pretty fine job of capturing more of the spirit, so on that level it's successful. Your hard-boiled, ex-Navy diver investigator finds his way around a decrepit town beset by a flood (yes and the occasional tentacled monster). He's been told he can find the answers to his nightmares and visions, and various people around town are happy to pay him to solve their own particular problems.

Perhaps the most novel and 'Lovecraftian' gimmick is the Mind Palace, which provides a concrete game mechanic that corresponds to a mind  'correlating its contents'. Clues that you find on a case can be matched together two-by-two to form deductions that get you closer to the ultimate solution of the case.

Not very novel is a SAN meter that when it gets low results in additional visions and hallucinations. Sometimes, it's handled pretty ham-fistedly, but other times it creates some pretty vistas. I consciously avoided getting the sanity upgrades because I enjoyed the phantasmagoria. 

Drawbacks are long load times and some glitchiness, and some extreme logic gates. You the player can have figured out where to go next, but unless your character has schlepped over to the newspaper morgue to confirm the location, the clues won't be there. They only magically appear once they've been unlocked by the schlepping. Sometimes you have to look at this clue before you look at that clue, or it won't give up all its secrets.

The combat system is not very good. If you're looking for combat as the point of a game, this is not it. But if you want some moody investigating, it has something going for it. Probably a C+/B- for a gamer, but an B+/A- for me.

agent

We the Corporations, by Adam Winkler

 A UCLA law prof traces the history of corporate rights in America.

The book starts a little slow, but gains steam as we move away from antiquated entities like the Bank of the United States and closer to Citizens United and Hobby Lobby.

Not that I'm a great legal scholar, but I have no problem with a corporation being a fictitious 'person' for legal purposes. But it seems clear that certain rights should be reserved to people people. The overall history is one of corporations getting more and more rights -- and possibly too much at the present time. There were two major threads that I saw:

#1: The extent to which the law should 'pierce the veil' and treat the rights of the corporation as the same as the rights of the people that make it up. While the arrow drifted back and forth over time, it seems that the current situation is where the people behind the corporations get the best of both worlds. If it comes to liability, the people are protected and only the corporation can be sued. If it comes to rights, suddenly the people can exert them (as the owners of Hobby Lobby assert their company itself has religious beliefs and religious rights that correspond to their own beliefs and rights.

In some cases, this ambiguity is not necessarily automatically evil. In one case a corporation composed of black investors was allowed to rent a segregated space because the corporation was not black. In another, the NAACP was black enough to sue for racial discrimination.

#2: What sort of rights corporations have, as opposed to people people. For a long time there was a distinction (wrong, I think) that corporations had property rights, but no liberty rights. I don't see how 'freedom of the press' can only be an individual right. Maybe it was different when newspapers were just Ben Franklin personally setting ink to paper, but nowadays all newspapers are corporations. How could they not have access to freedom of the press? And so it was ruled in cases involving Huey Long and Louisiana newspapers. But from this necessary (in my view) extension of liberty rights to corporations, it has been a slide toward giving corporations the whole farm. So much so that now they can use their deep pockets to express 'speech' in the form of superPAC donations.

A point that Winkler makes is that we often hear about the women's rights struggle, or civil rights struggle, but no one talks about the corporate rights struggle. But to be sure there was one, and it leaned on these other struggles a great deal.

Between 1868, when the amendment was ratified, and 1912, when a scholar set out to identify every Fourteenth Amendment case heard by the Supreme Court, the justices decided 28 cases dealing with the rights of African Americans—and an astonishing 312 cases dealing with the rights of corporations. At the same time the court was upholding Jim Crow laws in infamous cases like Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the justices were invalidating minimum-wage laws, curtailing collective bargaining efforts, voiding manufacturing restrictions, and even overturning a law regulating the weight of commercial loaves of bread. The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted to shield the former slaves from discrimination, had been transformed into a sword used by corporations to strike at unwanted regulation.

A little snippet of California history:

On the justice’s next trip to California, Field and his bodyguard, Deputy Marshal David Neagle, were having breakfast at a train stop in Lathrop, about 70 miles due east of San Francisco, when Terry snuck up behind the justice and struck him. Neagle jumped up and shot Terry twice, once in the head and once in the heart, killing the former judge instantly. It was then discovered, however, that Terry was unarmed, and California authorities arrested both Neagle and Field for murder. To this day, Field remains the only justice ever arrested while serving on the Supreme Court, much less for a crime as serious as murder.

Another reminder of how the Republican Party has changed since the days of Lincoln (or even McKinley). immigrant voter reachout efforts:

Although state committees had traditionally managed the local campaigns, even for presidential candidates, Hanna centralized them all under his authority in order to be “the general staff of the whole army.” He reorganized the RNC’s executive offices and introduced an improved system of bookkeeping. He opened a branch headquarters in Chicago, closer to the midwestern voters whose support McKinley would need. He created the first nationwide advertising campaign to market a presidential candidate and produced over 100 million pieces of campaign literature printed in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Hebrew to appeal to immigrants.

School fighting for the right to be integrated:
...Berea College in Kentucky had moral [reasons to go to court]. At the time, the college, which was organized as a corporation like one of the earliest corporate rights litigants, Dartmouth College, was the only racially integrated school in the South. After Roosevelt’s fateful dinner with Booker T. Washington at the White House, Kentucky lawmakers hardened their segregationist resolve and passed a law prohibiting any school from having a racially integrated student body. The college challenged the law on various grounds, including interference with its right to choose its own students. It was unconstitutional, the college argued, to prohibit “the voluntary association of persons of different races” absent compelling reasons.

Justices had somewhat more 'political' lives in the past:
Hughes had to resign from the Supreme Court to run [for President!]. For all his intellectual and prosecutorial gifts, however, Hughes was a poor campaigner and, in an upset, lost by only a few thousand votes to the incumbent Wilson. The lesson of his failed candidacy—that the judicial temperament is ill-suited to the rigors of the type of modern, commercial-style campaign first envisioned by Mark Hanna—would discourage future Supreme Court justices from running for national executive office. (William O. Douglas came closest in 1940 and 1944 when he was considered for vice president by Franklin Roosevelt.) Losing the presidency and a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court within months of each other, however, did not seem to faze the gifted Hughes. Like a cat with nine lives, he would go on to serve as secretary of state to two presidents and, in 1930, would be appointed again to the Supreme Court of the United States, this time as chief justice.

This case was about proselytizing in a 'company town', but obviously has some application (I think) to current companies that want to exclude certain sorts.
Although Black recognized that private property owners usually have the right to exclude whomever they want from their property, the “more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general,” the more the owner has to respect the constitutional rights of the public. Here, Chickasaw’s business block was “accessible to and freely used by the public in general.” Because Chickasaw was a town—even if it was really a company town—it could not silence religious minorities.

The world could use more Congressional committees humiliating people interfering with witnesses:
In 1966, Gillen sent out agents to look into [Ralph] Nader’s personal life, to see if the crusader was into “women, boys, etc.,” and to determine if he liked “drinking, dope” or anything else scandalous.11 When Morton Mintz of the Washington Post reported that Nader was being tailed, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee, was outraged at the apparent harassment of a congressional witness. He demanded GM president James Roche appear before the Senate, where the humiliated car executive was forced to apologize repeatedly.

Of the many things one could blame Rehnquist for, annoying pharmaceutical commercials are not among them.
“The logical consequences of the court’s decision in this case are far-reaching indeed,” warned Rehnquist. Not only would the court’s ruling inevitably “extend to lawyers, doctors, and all other professions,” it would also lead to “active promotion of prescription drugs, liquor, cigarettes, and other products.” In a prescient passage, Rehnquist predicted that pharmaceutical companies would soon be hawking their drugs directly to consumers: “Don’t spend another sleepless night,” he predicted the ads might say. “Ask your doctor to prescribe Seconal without delay.”

atheist teacher

Frederick Douglass, by William S McFeely

 I heard he's doing great things these days, so I thought I'd pick up this biography.

It's a good one, but it helps to have great source material. I think the most surprising thing about the early chapters was how different slavery was from my conception. Though this is no doubt due to Douglass being in Maryland within throwing distance of the Mason Dixon line, rather than in the Deep South. Rather than working for years in the same field, he moved around quite a lot, both with the family that owned him, but also being 'rented out' to other families who needed labor. Later on, he learned a trade in caulking for shipbuilding and essentially lived on his own, paying for his own food and lodging, while sending the majority of his pay back to his owner.

Ultimately, of course, he escaped, becoming a major figure in the abolitionist movement, and renowned for his oratory. One of the great details is that one of the books he used to learn to read was a book of famous speeches, and he apparently absorbed it, cover to cover. Some of the ancient Roman speeches regarding slavery inspired his own abolitionist thinking.

While occasionally bogged down in petty rivalries within the abolitionist movement, Douglass also had a broad scope and was one of the many people involved in both abolition and women's suffrage. This was a two-way door and many (white) women were also supportive of abolition. This didn't always go down well, or be reported fairly:

"the tenth-anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society was moved after being barred from the Broadway Tabernacle), reporters took salacious note of what they chose to see as the 'semi-flirtations' in a meeting 'chiefly composed of members of the fair sex,' but attended as well by 'sable-complexioned sons of Africa'"
...
"On August 26, 1842, when [Abby] Kelley began her address to an antislavery convention in Rochester, in the Third Presbyterian Church, the minister was so appalled that a woman was speaking publicaly, and ordered the small gathering out of the building."

In 1860, after Lincoln's election, things were clearly pretty hot. This Winslow Homer print gives an idea of the brawl that occurred when a commemoration of John Brown was gatecrashed by members of the Constitutional Union Party. They were against secession, but not anti-slavery.

After the war, Douglass was far too optimistic about how ex-slaves and black people would just enter society. He seemed to think abolition and the vote would cure everything. I don't know that he had much experience of the Deep South, but that slowly dawned on him as lynching became common. Also, I think he may have underestimated his own genius and success. There is a whiff of that Bill Cosby tone of, if you all just got off your lazy butts, you'd be as successful as I am. I think he should have learned faster from the varied fortunes of his children, who with many advantages and riding his coattails, were always something of a disappointment to him.

Another poor choice was getting involved in the Freedman's Bank, which failed not long after he joined its board and lent his popularity to it. "Some scholars claim that the failure of the Freedman's Bank and the loss of their savings led to a distrust of all banking institutions for several generations among the black community."

Getting back to being out of touch. "Those with their eyes open to the oppression of black laborers in Mississippi and Louisiana in 1879 saw Douglass as simply wrong when he claimed that "the conditions … in the Southern States are steadily improving." His prediction "that the colored man there will ultimately realize the fullest measure of liberty and equality" was cold comfort in 1879."

His ambassadorship to Haiti was also somewhat mixed, although he seems to have done well when faced with some autocratic rulers and undiplomatic US military, who wanted a naval base there. Later he helped put on the Haitian pavilion at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Though there was kind of a shameful scene when the expo held a Colored People's Day and stocked up on watermelon. Many blacks boycotted it, but Douglass apparently took the opportunity to give a corker of a speech.

"The introductions over, Douglass rose once more, put on his glasses and began somberly reading a paper, "THe Race Problem in America." Suddenly he was interrupted by 'jeers and catcalls' from white men in the rear of the crowd. In the August heat, the old man tried to go on, but the mocking persisted; his hand shook. Painfully, Dunbar witnessed his idol's persecution; the great orator's voice 'faltered.' Then, to the young poet's surprise and delight, the old abolitionist threw his papers down, parked his glasses on them, and eyes flashing, pushed his hand through his great mane of white hair. Then he spoke: 'Full, rich and deep came the sonorous tones, compelling attention, drowning out the catcalls as an organ would a penny whistle.' 'Men talk of the Negro Problem,' Douglass roared. 'There is no Negro Problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.'"

 




mr. Gruff

Giles Goat-Boy, by John Barth

This novel is like a strange artifact that fell out of a parallel universe. The overall conceit is something of an allegory, where the university represents the universe (well or at least the world). And, having been written in the mid 60s, it's also an allegory of the Cold War. So there is a West Campus and an East Campus.

And the entire history of the campus bears analogues to our world history, but with all the names changed. So Germans are Siegfrieders (our enemies in the Second Campus Riot), Jesus is Enos, Socrates is Maios, and so on. Like A Clockwork Orange, you slowly soak in this weirdness and start to comprehend bits of this alternate reality.

The story, such as it is, is the journey of the titular goat-boy, who follows the path of the hero. So it's also interesting to see parallels to Star Wars (as another derivative of Campbell's work on the hero myth). Some of the episodes are loose retellings of Greek myth or the New Testament. In addition to the heroic journey, the goat-boy also goes on a moral journey, advancing from the animal morality of the goat-pen to seeing metaphorical readings of the prophecies as a way to get to the truer truth.

At right about the midpoint of the novel, there is a bonkers performance/interpolation of the play Oedipus Rex, transformed into Taliped Decanus, written ingeniously and wittily in the style of this university world. 

Sadly, afterwards, the novel starts to take its symbols and allegorical figures too seriously, and things bog down.
dead

Days Gone - Heavy Rain - Detroit: Become Human

 Perhaps unwisely, I picked two of my thickest books on my to-read shelf, so... instead let's do videogames.

Days Gone let's you be a biker after the zombie apocalypse, chasing down clues to what happened to your wife, shooting zombies of various sorts, scrounging for spare parts, and making friends and enemies of the locals. Game play is a bit like Far Cry, but distinct enough. Good clean fun.

I remember downloading a demo of Heavy Rain and finding the controls so annoying that I gave up. But now it returned along with Detroit (both products of Quantic Dream) as free PS downloads. So I tried again. The controls are STILL annoying, but I persevered and it's a clever sadistic-mass-murder mystery distributed across several main characters. The game-play is sort of choose-your-own adventure style, and there are multiple outcomes and endings. I didn't feel the need to try it over, but liked it.

Detroit is a refined version of the distributed choose your own adventure, with a much better control configuration. Three androids separately see different aspects of a future world where androids are virtual slaves, but have suddenly been running amok. Like Heavy Rain, the narratives railroad you into extreme situations, with extreme choices to make. Enjoyed this enough that I'm playing a second time to see some of the outcomes I missed. But I doubt I'll need to become a completist.
agent

Relatives, by George Alex Effinger

Effinger's second novel, from 1973, explores a nihilistic triple view of the world, interweaving three stories with related(?) main characters, all named Ern(e)st Wein(t)raub.

One lives in a future where world government has been centralized under a small cabal of Representatives, who wield absolute power. They announce that the world is coming to an end, and only some people will be awarded tokens to be allowed into the shelters. Our hero sets out into NYC to obtain a token for himself (and maybe his wife). It's interesting to compare this section with Super Sad True Love Story, which also features a troubled love story in an altered NYC under threat.

Another is in the Communist underground in a post-WWI America that is under German dominance (the Allies having lost). He's been sent by the Communist Party to undermine American values, as part of a long-term strategy to foment Revolution.

The last features a expat poet drinking his life away at a bar somewhere in the middle of the Sahara -- something of a preview of the Marid Audran setting, but not in the future.

Despite/Because of its bleak outlook on humanity, I think it's a great little work.

cthulhu

The Voynich Manuscript, edited by Raymond Clemens

Once upon a time, I wrote a little article about the Voynich Manuscript (aka Beinecke MS 408 at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library) for The Unspeakable Oath #10. I learned a lot about it (or what was known) at the time, and I keep my eye out for things when they bubble up from time to time. But it was a real treat to find that Yale has put together a lovely large format book on the topic. The heart of it is a beautiful full color reproduction of the manuscript. It's really eye-opening. Even up til recently, the total number of pages that were reproduced (almost always in black & white) was pitifully small. So now to see the whole thing in living color is amazing.

Also interesting to see how different the experience is of reading that it has several fold-out pages, and being able to physically fold out the pages. In one case, a leaf folds out to 6 times the size of an ordinary leaf.

Surrounding the text are an introduction and several essays on various aspects of the text. I would have appreciated more material on the alleged solutions to its encryption, but since they are all crap, maybe it's just as well. The essay on the physical/scientific study of the book is quite interesting, in particular the carbon dating of the calfskin to the early 15th century. Alas, that early date dispenses with both my leading ideas -- that it was created by Edward Kelley (Dee's notorious associate) or that it was created as a fake herbal/grimoire/encyclopedia 'from the New World', since the plants in it don't look like European plants (of course, they don't look like American plants either, but that's beside the point).

Another excellent essay is on Voynich himself, who is nearly as interesting as the manuscript attached to his name.

So what is it? Nobody knows. I still doubt there is actually a sensible message encoded in it. One thing that particularly bothers me (and becomes clearer now that I've seen the whole thing) is that every paragraph begins with the same one or two characters, and they are also used internally in words. So unless it's a strange alliterative work, these characters were chosen primarily because they look cool. So in that sense it is 'fake', but it is a fake from circa 1425. 

Bringing this back around to Lovecraft, it's hard not to think something is lurking behind it all when you read the note left by Voynich's wife (also reproduced in the book). Just the note on the outside of the envelope is enough to set your imagination wandering.

Concerning the Cipher MS

Not to be opened till after my death and then only by A.M.Nill or one other responsible person in place of her.

and then the conclusion:

Father Strickland gave his personal assurance that [Voynich] could be trusted, and on that assurance he was allowed to buy, after giving a promise of secrecy. He told me at the time in confidence, feeling that someone should know in case of his death. For the same reason I am leaving this statement in the safe, in case of my death.




squid

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

 The novel is primarily set in an increasingly dystopian future New York City. America has fallen victim to debt and foreign creditors are taking over, while a bellicose political leader fulminates (a surprisingly prescient divisive Trump-like figure for a novel written in 2010). But the story itself is (as billed) a love story.

The book has some parallels to Less, particularly the similarity of the main character to the author ... in this case, middle aged New York Russian immigrant Jews pursuing Asian girls as love matches. Less won a Pulitzer Prize, but I prefer SSTLS, though both give me slight cases of the creeps. Some clever wordsmithing, some humor, some pathos... a more satisfying story on the whole, even if some aspects of the love story seem extremely implausible.

Perhaps the most enjoyable device of the book is the alternating chapters, half of them written in a high literary style by the well-read protagonist (whose love of old books is disparaged in the dystopian future) -- the other half in the Facebook-y-LiveJournal-y lingo of his much younger girlfriend. Both are effective at revealing character.


cthulhu

Lovecraft Country & 50% of Down Girl

Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country doesn't have all that much to do with Lovecraft, but plenty to do with the mid-century experience of racism for black people in America. Certainly, Lovecraft's own ugly racism is mentioned, but not much time is spent on him or his work, and while the plot of the book is full of occult happenings, it is not particularly Lovecraftian. So... I feel a bit suckered by the title. Nevertheless, the novel is still an enjoyable combination of several interrelated story sections focusing on different members of an extended black family and friends.

Soon to be an HBO TV series.

--

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne purposes to define and describe misogyny. The book was chosen by the Resistance Book Club, but it may have been biting off more than any of us wanted to chew. My heart sank when I discovered it was a work of academic philosophy. And it does often veer off into minutiae not of interest to me, but efficacious as a soporific (as I found on long plane flights, to my serendipitous joy).

Manne doesn't like the dictionary definition of misogyny (and if taken to extremes, I agree with her), so she sets out to find a suitable thing to which the label misogyny could be usefully applied. I also agree with her general program and she has identified something worthy of discussion -- namely the enforcement of patriarchy. So her definition is "misogyny upholds the social norms of patriarchies by policing and patrolling them".  Or per Wiki: "misogyny enforces patriarchy by punishing women who deviate from patriarchy."

But almost everywhere, the concept seems to be fluid, the illustrative examples either maddeningly absent/theoretical or misguided, and the point consequently muddled. Though some of the muddle may be my inability (or lack of desire) to penetrate the dense text.

"Rather than conceptualizing misogyny from the point of view of the accused, at least implicitly, we might move to think of it instead from the point of view of its targets or victims. In other words, when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men (in the first instance) may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women... Advantages of this approach would include that it 1.avoids psychologism … [and] makes misogyny more epistemologically tractable in the ways that matter here, by enabling us to invoke a “reasonable woman” standard … we can ask whether a girl or woman who the environment is meant to accommodate might reasonably interpret some encounter, aspect, or practice therein as hostile"

I don't see that substituting the psychology of the victim (indeed a hypothetical reasonable woman victim, whose reasonableness and perception of 'hostility' are no doubt predicated to some extent on our own psychologies) eliminates psychologism from the equation. 

Manne quite rightly criticized some of Trump's statements, but let's keep her definition of misogyny in mind as we review her examples:

"Rosie O’Donnell (very funnily) questioned his moral authority to pardon Miss Universe for indulging in underage drinking: Trump called O’Donnell a “pig” and a “dog,” among other epithets. Carly Fiorina competed with Trump for the Republican nomination: he implied that her face was not presidential-level attractive. Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News, pressed Trump about his history of insulting women: Trump fumed that she had blood coming out of her eyes and “wherever,”"

Are Trump's insults attempts to enforce the patriarchy? Or are they simply juvenile responses to perceived attacks on him personally (see also Sleepy Joe, Low Energy Jeb, Lyin' Ted, Cryin' Chuck, Conflicted Bob Mueller)? Perhaps a case could be made for Fiorina, since she was trying to usurp the presidency from men, but Rosie and Kelly were doing their jobs as TV people.

One could say that they were 'assaulting the patriarchy' by having the feminine gall to speak up on a national stage (the prerogative of men) and needed to be put in their place. But then we are left with the consequence that telling Ann Coulter to shut up is now automatically misogyny by definition.

Certainly the particular ways that Trump chose to express himself are gross and gendered. One might be tempted to call it misogynistic, but Manne's chosen definition prevents that.

I gave up when she constructed her own version of 'humanism' and then alternately agreed with it and tore it apart. From a certain perspective, I can see how that's necessary for her to develop her own ideas and contrast them with other possibilities, but... it was not necessary for me.