Monday, May 15, 2017

Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz: a YA Moonraker?

Picking up the first volume in Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series, I was unsurprised to see that he took many of his cues from classic Bond films, with regard to structure, pacing, action. Still, I was surprised by how much of the specifically print Fleming there was here. Indeed, Horowitz appears to have used his novel Moonraker as the framework for his plot.

As in Moonraker a self-made industrialist is being hailed in the British press as a national hero for making an expensive gift to the British public. However, at the facility where he is producing that gift (located on an isolated bit of the English coast) there have been suspicious goings-on, among them the death of a national security state functionary. Accordingly, the British Secret Service sends an agent to the scene to investigate, where he is initially a guest of said industrialist. In the course of these events our hero happens to best the man in a game and win from him a rather large sum of money as a result--revealing in the process that his host is not just a rather unpleasant person to be around, but "no gentleman." The industrialist also happens to be a man of foreign birth. And physically not quite the norm. And as though this were not enough to set off the alarm bells, there is also the behavior of an odd foreigner with a Teutonic accent he keeps round the place, which also gets visits from a submarine delivering secret materiel.

As it happens, our ungentlemanly, foreign, "odd-looking" industrialist with the suspicious German associates and secret submarine deliveries suffered in the English public school system as a boy, and as a result, bears a burning hatred of the country, which has led him to align himself with a foreign power plotting against it. His gift to the nation is in fact poisoned--really a cover for revenge he intends to wreak on it with a weapon of mass destruction to be delivered in spectacular fashion at the ceremonial, highly publicized unveiling of that gift. That weapon will shatter Britain as a nation, while he escapes safely overseas--as the villain explains to the agent after he has captured him, because he means to kill him in colorfully hideous fashion, so there is apparently no prospect of his stopping the plot. However, the hero gets free, and unable to deliver a proper warning to the authorities, races to head off the attack himself in the very nick of time . . .

As models go, Horowitz could have done worse. Moonraker's domestic setting, and its plot's unfolding within a relatively limited space, while eschewing one of the famous attractions of the Bond series (international travel) makes the activity of this fourteen year old secret agent somewhat more plausible. That the Bond girl is engaged to someone else when she meets 007 and is never tempted to stray also makes a convenient fit with Horowitz's decision to dispense with romance entirely. Still, all this underlines the difficulties of squeezing the stuff of the James Bond adventures into a YA book.

My Posts on Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis
2/7/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12

Review: The Messiah Stone, by Martin Caidin

New York: Baen, 1986, pp. 407.

It seems that once again I am reviewing a novelist who was once a Big Name but has since slipped into obscurity--Martin Caidin. His novel Marooned, about a stranded astronaut who must be rescued (sound familiar?) became a major film in 1969, while his 1972 book Cyborg was the basis for the television series The Six Million Dollar Man, and its spin-off The Bionic Woman. Today, however, his novels are out of print, his name just about never mentioned--especially when one is not making specific reference to the media spin-offs from his books.

As it happens, the tale's protagonist is a familiar enough type. Doug Stavers not only displays a more-than-human physical strength, courage and ruthlessness, but possesses every conceivable combat, investigative and mechanical skill that a commando-mercenary-spy might possibly need in the field, honed to perfection--Stavers a survival expert who can live off the land indefinitely in any and every environment, a fluent speaker of just about every language, a pilot who has mastered every flying trick, and all the rest. As if all that were not enough, his alertness is equivalent to clairvoyance, his foresight to precognition. And all this vast prowess has been demonstrated in secret wars beyond counting waged in every corner of the globe, in which he killed lots and lots and lots of people and (while admittedly picking up a good many scars) lived to tell the tale.

Naturally he has picked up a good many not-quite-as-good-but-still-preposterously-capable friends along the way, on whose help Stavers can call on those occasions when even he cannot do it all himself. All of these friends also have the virtue of comprising a considerable cheering section, endlessly testifying to just how extraordinary he is--as do his equally admiring clients and enemies, and the women in all these categories (and also those women in none of them) who find all this completely irresistible.

Such Gary Stu figures (there, I said it) are the stock-in-trade of the action thriller genre--and as my roster of books, articles and blog posts ought to make clear, I have enjoyed my fair share of works in that genre. Still, Caidin took it so far in Stavers' case (think that other Caidin creation Steve Austin, times twenty), and was so verbose in doing so, that he made me repeatedly laugh out loud while I read the book.

Indeed, taking it all as parody would be defensible--the more so given that the same sensibility informs the wider narrative. The book's title, after all, refers to the tale's more than usually hokey MacGuffin, a piece of meteorite which endows its possessor with an almost inhuman charisma and power over others in their presence. Naturally it is much sought after by innumerable parties (the CIA, the KGB, the Catholic Church and all the other usual suspects), including one private group that enlists Stavers to track it down and deliver it to them. All this offers plenty of occasion for the superman Stavers to display not only his ridiculous ultracompetence, but a ruthlessness to which no string of epithets can do justice, and which makes for an adventure so astonishingly dark and demented by even today's standards (I dare not spoil it by saying more) that one would have thought this by itself sufficient to give the book the cult following it does not seem to enjoy.

If this intrigues you, you might be interested in knowing that Caidin published a sequel, 1990's Dark Messiah. I haven't read it, but the two reviews of the book at Goodreads, in their very different ways, seem rather plausible to me after my experience of the first Doug Stavers novel.

Ian Fleming's 007 as Gary Stu
11/10/11
Of Mary Sue and Gary Stu
7/9/11

Why Young Adult Fiction?

For at least a decade now the bestseller lists have seemed to be ever more dominated by works of young adult fiction. Accordingly to the data presented by Publisher's Weekly, between John Green, Veronica Roth and Jeff Kinney eight of the nine top-selling books of fiction of 2014 were of the young adult variety--with the one exception, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, boosted by the release of a hugely successful film adaptation that year.

There seems no shortage of possible explanations for this.

One is the greater readability of YA fiction. Publishers of YA routinely serve up more simply written books, and shorter books, that may be more attractive to grown-ups with declining literacy, greater hurry, shorter attention spans--with the problem exacerbated by how much of our reading we are doing off of screens.1

Another is that the books are, in some measure, sanitized--and so at least a partial refuge from a culture that so many find toxic, for so many reasons, be it the cultural "traditionalist" distaste for four-letter words and graphic sexuality, or a deeply feeling progressive's revulsion at the raging conformism and smugly fascistic tendencies of the purveyors of the "edgy" and "dark and gritty."

Still another might be the nature of contemporary, bourgeois adulthood and its portrayal--how narrow and dull the "grown-up" life encumbered by work in the age of Weber's "iron cage," and the conventional responsibilities; how little of the spectrum of such life gets attention from today writers (ever directed toward the upper middle class); and how false is its treatment (how oversimplified and glamourized and sensationalized). How much can one say about well-heeled doctors and lawyers and their adulteries? And how long can anyone go on being interested in the nonsense written about that?

For all its difficulties, youth is different and more varied, at least--and an object of curiosity to more of us in a rapidly aging world.

Jonathan McCalmont, responding to a recent piece by Adam Roberts, noted another aspect of this that seems worth mentioning, namely the fuzziness of the whole concept of adulthood. We are constantly subject to sanctimonious talk about "growing up"--but what does this really mean? One might reasonably think of it as referring to a person's amassing a certain body of knowledge, skills, personal qualities that permit them to function in the world, but as is usually the case with conventional social judgments, the criteria are rather more stringent than that, and much more brutally materialistic. For adult males, at least, he refers to the conventional "model of adulthood" as entailing an income sufficient to singlehandedly support a family (which, of course, an adult was supposed to have).

This has always been a fairly classist definition, implicitly denying full adulthood to the poor, for example, and therefore most people in society. However, in contrast with the mid-twentieth century period of broad middle class affluence (how brief it was in historical terms, and at the same time how deeply it has shaped our thinking) it has increasingly been out of reach "for all but the most supremely wealthy people." Indeed, even in comparison with "the 1990s, today’s adults not only struggle to find full-time employment but even those that do still wind up struggling to make enough money to live independently of their families" to an extent respectable opinion (and even pop culture) generally refuse to acknowledge.

Adulthood in that sense (whether one thinks it a good definition or a bad one, reasonable or unreasonable) has simply not been attainable--and no alternative version has appeared yet. And so chronological adults find themselves in just about all other ways (the level of their earnings and what these permit) endlessly "becoming adults" rather than "being adults"--"the coming-of-age process but not the experience of adulthood itself," which is exactly what YA fiction is so often about.

1. I draw together the research on what reading off a Kindle or other such device might mean in my essay "The Writing Life Today and What it Means for Science Fiction" in my book The End of Science Fiction?

Stephen Akey on Literary Agents
5/15/17
The Hikikomori Phenomenon: A Sociological View
5/15/17
Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz: a YA Moonraker?
3/21/17
James Bond for the YA Crowd?
3/21/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the "Dark and Gritty"
9/18/13
My Posts on Writing and Publishing
7/22/13
The Politics of Dark and Gritty Storytelling
2/14/13

Of Working-Class Spies

H.B. Lyle recently penned an interesting article on the scarcity of working-class protagonists in spy fiction--about which he is, of course, entirely right, even more right than he may fully clarify in the article.

From Carruthers in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) on, the heroes of the genre--the Richard Hannays, the Bulldog Drummonds--tended to be residents of "clubland" (collectively referred to as "clubland heroes"). This wore thin by mid-century, but Ian Fleming gave the type an update that, while in its turn wearing thin, through continuation, imitation and reaction has kept them predominant up to the present (when 2012's Skyfall made the initially rougher-around-the-edges-seeming Daniel Craig take on the character appear even more thoroughly aristocratic than ever as heir to a vast Scottish estate).

Lyle is also quite right about the diversity and dramatic potential overlooked in the process.

Still, considering this two things occurred to me. One is that this simply reflects the reality of espionage. The sort of upbringing, education, social networks that bring one to the attention of intelligence services are decidedly not of the working-class type. The biographies of our most famous spy/novelists tell the story. John le Carre's story before was public school (Sherborne), Oxford (where domestic counterintel had him spying on leftist students), teaching at Eton, the Foreign Service (where he wound up in intelligence again). The Etonian Ian Fleming didn't make it to Oxbridge, unlike his big bro Peter, but after Pete went into intelligence pre-World War II Fleming followed after him quickly enough--his mom arranging the matter over dinner with Montagu Norman (Governor of the Bank of England, the Alan Greenspan of his times).

Yes, just like that--and one can find parallel tales in the trajectories of other spy/novelists, from W. Somerset Maugham to William F. Buckley--while the life of those spies who never write novels is essentially more of the same. (It is worth recalling that for le Carre writing spy fiction was a way of approaching not so much espionage as the social class of which he is such a student, and his books are striking for how cloistered and out of touch with the rest of the world they seem--but still seem mild in that regard next to nonfiction like David Leigh's The Wilson Plot.)

The other thing that occurs to me is that this simply reflects fiction in general, which has never had much time for working-class types--in part because it has so rarely been written by working-class types. As is typical for our postmodernist, class-averse era, much is said of sexism and racism in publishing--but no one dares speak of classism. However, the truth is that the matter of the education and leisure required to produce a publishable manuscript, and the question of who is likely to have the connections to get something into print (rather than make blind submissions to the slush pile), definitely have implications for who writes, and gets their writing published.

And of course, what we are accustomed to reinforces the matter in itself, in fiction generally and spy fiction especially. Since at least E. Philips Oppenheim the idea of the spy not only as an elite figure, but as leading a glamorous life, has been part of the appeal of such fiction, an idea that has endured even as our notions of just what makes for glamour have changed.

Review: The Power House , by William Haggard
5/15/17
The Spy Fiction of Edward Phillips Oppenheim
5/13/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
The Macropolitics and Micropolitics of Spy Fiction
10/6/15
Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John Le Carrè
3/1/13
My Posts on Spy Fiction
11/30/12
Reading Bulldog Drummond
5/22/12
A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre
2/6/12
A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre
2/1/12
Thoughts on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden
1/11/12

Stephen Akey on Literary Agents

Ordinarily discussion of the publishing industry does not even acknowledge the existence of the frustrated writer thwarted in their first publishing attempt as a relevant part of the scene. On the rare occasions when they do so it tends to be with great hostility. It is assumed that they were simply not any good, their frustration thoroughly deserved, and any objection they make to "things as they are" treated with all the contempt that authority and officialdom are capable of showing for the dissenter. Indeed, much of such writing as does refer to them is glorified trolling--as with the "confessions" of former slush pile readers I have encountered in such publications as Salon and The Guardian (the great progressive newspaper in this instance firmly on the side of the elite).

The writers who would tell their own, very different, side of the story are apt to do so on their own, obscure blogs--so obscure that they are not easily found in an Internet search. Indeed, we are likely to encounter the dissenting view only secondhand--in cursory and dismissive mentions in apologia for how the publishing industry is run.

Naturally it was something of a surprise to find Stephen Akey's November 2014 piece on the "problem with literary agents" in such a forum as The New Republic. To be sure, Mr. Akey is keen to distinguish himself from "furiously anti-establishment bloggers" as one respecting the role agents have to play--but all the same he discusses at some length issues far too little noted by anyone but such bloggers. In particular he remarks the extent to which agents virtually demand a prospective writer be a "brand" and "have a platform" before they have begun their career, and the more general hostility to innovation.

The situation is entirely to the advantage of illiterate celebrities extracting extra dollars and minutes of fame by way of ghostwritten works published under their names, and utterly ruinous for genuine would-be authors with nothing but their actual writing to commend them to anyone--the talented and diligent included, while they suffer from the same sanctimonious scorn as the most deluded hack ever to pick up a pen.

Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
My Posts on Writing and Publishing
7/22/13

Reassessing 1972's The Limits to Growth


Originally posted at Nader Elhefnawy, May 21, 2013.

Over four decades ago the Club of Rome authorized a team of scientists headed by Dennis and Donella Meadows and Jorgen Randers to revisit the old problem pointed out by Thomas Malthus in his classic Essay on the Principle of Population: the interaction between exponential growth and finite resources. Using the then-new techniques of systems dynamics theory and computer modeling, they examined long-run trends in the growth of the world's population and material production and consumption (e.g. industrialization, pollution, food production, resource depletion), and published their findings in 1972's famous The Limits to Growth.

Last year of course marked the fortieth anniversary of that study's publication, and saw the release of an update, which did get some attention in the press--much of it negative (like Timothy Worstall's assessment in Forbes), just as was the case with most of the attention the original study received.1 As Ugo Bardi has noted,
In the 1980s and 1990s, the study was attacked, demonized, and ridiculed in all possible ways. With the apparent end of the oil crisis, in the late 1980s, the ensuing general wave of optimism consigned the Limits study to the dustbin of "wrong" scientific ideas; together with the dinosaurs of Venus and the evolution of the giraffes' necks according to Lamarck. Urban legends on the "mistakes" of the Limits study are still common today, despite being just that: legends.
Those legends all remain alive and well, and not only in online forum debates between the ill-informed, but the pages of prestigious mainstream publications (including many which offered comment on the 40 year update). Indeed, it is hard to think of a book of recent decades that has suffered more intense or prolonged attack based on sheer misinformation or disinformation than 1972's The Limits to Growth, long held up as a poster child for the hubris of futurology and the chicken little-ism of the environmental movement--unfairly in each case.

The authors of the first edition of Limits are quite clear in their book about its not being "intended as a piece of futurology," but "an analysis of current trends" and the implications of their continuation.2 Indeed, the authors not only avoid actual forecasting (a fact that has not stopped apparently erroneous forecasts from being attributed to them), but repeatedly express a leeriness about the idea, instead discussing multiple projections (about such things as the GNP of selected nations) and explicitly making it clear that they do not actually expect to see real-life figures match their numbers.

Rather their multiplicity of models demonstrated the obvious, intuitive and logically irrefutable point that the exponential growth of population and "capital" cannot continue indefinitely within a finite system, such as they take the Earth to be. The exhaustion of key natural resources, and the toll taken by pollution, would become increasingly heavy burdens on economic growth and human well-being, ultimately precipitating the system's collapse--and with it a sharp rise in mortality, and a sharp drop in consumption and living standards. They also contended that the population and capital growth rates of their time, if continued through the twenty-first century, would bring on collapse before 2100 at the latest--an assessment that still appears quite plausible, and perhaps even the common expectation among those attentive to such issues.

None of this seems particularly controversial, and in fact a considerable body of analysis by other researchers has since substantiated many of the study's claims. A 2008 study by Graham M. Turner found that the observed trends reflected the anticipations presented in Limits, while in a broader sense, so do such findings as the Global Footprint Network's argument that "overshoot" of the planet's ability to replenish the resources being consumed by humanity had occurred by the 1970s, and that we are today consuming the equivalent of 1.5 Earths' worth of resources (in 2012, using up a full year's supplies by August 22). Indeed, in the book's early sounding of the alarm about carbon emissions and their connection with anthropogenic climate change Limits was actually ahead of its time (ironically, a point rarely acknowledged even by those most attentive to environmental issues).

What proved more problematic was the solution the authors prescribed, namely the limiting of material output to specified "sustainable" levels (that particular term was not yet in use) to be met within the coming years.3 The sacrifice of that part of economic growth coming from the consumption of ever-growing quantities of natural resources (a very different thing from "zero growth"), was simply unacceptable to the conventional wisdom of the time.4

Such ideas were to become even less acceptable as mainstream thought on such matters moved rightward--so much so that it can seem a surprise that this was ever proposed at all. One might argue over whether the solution the study's authors prescribed was desirable or realistic, but it is a reminder that today we are far less likely to imagine our social, political and economic arrangements as being so malleable, let alone malleable in the name of enlightened, long-term, collective self-interest. The imagination--and the political flexibility--which would even permit this to be envisioned in principle, let alone a workable program, has proved to be yet another resource in too-short supply.

1. This was the third such update, previous updates having appeared in 1992 and 2002, at the 20 and 30 year marks.
2. It should be noted that The Limits to Growth is not a dense scholarly text but very clearly and simply written, making it unlikely that the "intelligent lay reader" (scarce as these may be) will get seriously confused about what it is trying to convey at any point. Instead, as is the case with most Important Books, even ones as short and easy to read as this one, most of those discussing them have only secondhand knowledge of them gleaned from questionable sources--often motivated by an enthusiasm for dubious ideology.
3. Sustainable economic activity is defined in the 30-year update as activity which does not consume renewable resources more quickly than they can renew themselves; does not consume nonrenewable resources more quickly than substitutes can be found for them; and does not produce more pollution than the Earth system can absorb.
4. The Limits to Growth did not call for "zero growth." In fact, it explicitly allowed for any growth that did not require increased natural resource consumption--as with services like education and health, and even an enlarged material output provided it could be achieved with the same resource consumption as before (due to new, more efficient production methods).

In Defense of Futurology
10/28/12
A Scarcity of "New Thinking"
10/27/12

Review: White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 416.

Originally posted at Nader Elhefnawy, March 30, 2012.

C. Wright Mills is best known for writing The Power Elite, in which he offered an analysis of the uppermost strata of society and its institutions (business, governmental and military). However, it was not his only sociological bestseller, his first being 1951's White Collar, which dealt with many of the same concerns, but with a central focus on the much vaster "white collar" salariat beneath those strata.

In approaching this subject Mills begins by attempting to situate it in the larger social context as it has traditionally been understood, and in particular as part of the "middle class"--the fuzziness of which term Mills addresses by drawing a distinction between what he terms the "Old" and "New" Middle Classes. The Old Middle Class is characterized by its economic independence, which is based on its ownership of the means of production with which it works--the small farmer cultivating his own land, the merchant running his own store, and the like. The New Middle Class consists of dependent employees who work with means of production owned by others, at the direction of those others, inside of a context of centralized property and bureaucratized and rationalized business operations--as with the personnel of large businesses.

Mills holds that industrialization has sharply reduced and marginalized the Old Middle Class, which is a far cry from the Jeffersonian mythology surrounding it. What remains of small business, contrary to popular belief, is generally an exercise in futility, afflicted by a high rate of turnover as small businesses fail and are typically replaced by other small businesses which fail in their turn. Even this activity is largely confined to particular economic sectors, namely the retail and service industries (by contrast, "Manufacturing is no longer a small business world" (24)), and when even these survive for any length of time, they tend to do so by "becoming direct satellites" of Big Businesses of various kinds (27) (as with retailers which are "maintenance agencies and distributors for big manufacturers"). He also contends that, for all their free market rhetoric, the "scared" small entrepreneur, especially sensitive to the ups and downs of the business cycle, is in practice preoccupied with seeking protection from marketplace competition (through "fair trade" laws, the prices set by national brands, and the like).1 Indeed, Mills argues, the old image of small business persists principally because it serves the big business interests that, despite some imagined solidarity, have in reality pushed them to the fringes of economic life.

The result is that they have largely given way to the New Middle Class as the predominant "middle" group, and its character is the book's focus: the ways in which it works, what that work means to it, and the political significance of these facts. In examining these he finds a number of parallels between the New Middle Class and the Marxist proletariat, extending beyond their mutual lack of property to the terms of their labor. As Mills notes, the office and the salesroom, "the two great locales of white collar activity" (226-227), have become rather more like the factory, and undergone the same evolution in the direction of rationalization, mechanization and deskilling, so that their staff operate machines under the supervision of a small cadre of specialists--the secretary at their typewriter, the cashier at their cash register not so different from employees of a light manufacturing facility. Medicine has traveled the same path, the old-style general practitioners giving way to narrowly specialized, hospital-based M.D.s, backed up by large numbers of less well-trained support staff (the better to hold down the number of working doctors, and restrict the supply of their skills), while the legal profession has followed a parallel line of development with the emergence of the large firms once termed "law-factories."

Given the circumstances of their work, neither the Protestant work ethic, nor the ideal of the Renaissance craftsman, has much relevance to their actual experience.2 Rather they tend to experience their work as alienated labor, time taken away from living instead of a crucial dimension of life, let alone a development of themselves as human beings. (Indeed, Mills even deepens Marx's analysis of worker alienation by considering a new dimension of it--the alienation of white collar workers not just from their labor, but from their very selves as they "sell themselves" in the "personality market."3) Such satisfaction as they derive from their work is a matter of the income, status and personal power the job affords, with the result that satisfaction is strongly correlated with socioeconomic ranking--professionals, for instance, far more satisfied with their positions than clerical workers that are part of the same white collar category.

Mills notes alongside this change in the manner of work, and the attitude toward it--which make the experience of the white collar worker closer to that of the blue collar employee--a tendency to equalization in their incomes and job security. There is also an equalization of their prospects for upward mobility--closed off not just by the aforementioned deskilling and rationalization (which eliminates the chance to, for instance, "learn the whole operation" at an enterprise), but by the rising level of education among the work force (which has created a credentialing crisis, and even talk of "surplus graduates" and the "management" of ambition). Unsurprisingly, older ideals about the pursuit of "success" through a cultivation of traditionally "middle class" virtues associated with Victorian entrepreneurship, or later, the salesman-like attitude and demeanor supposed to make possible a successful ascent up the corporate ladder, seem decreasingly relevant, even discredited. In their place there is a greater willingness to pursue unionization (especially among those most inclined to feel that "the way up" is blocked or inaccessible).4

Nonetheless, Mills rejects the idea that white collar workers will "go politically 'proletarian'" (353), however much their objective circumstances come to resemble those of blue collar workers. The option is simply not on the table, there being no proletariat for the white collars to join, politically speaking, even the organized "blue collars" failing to count as such (in their unions' emphasis on bettering the conditions of their members' employment rather than broader or more principled social change)--which points to the larger story determining their political future, namely the apathy with which Americans regard politics in the mid-twentieth century. The combination of their relative material contentment, their intensely private way of looking at their concerns and attitudes (a reflection of the history of immigration and American geographical mobility in Mills' view), and their distance from the centers of decision, leaves them detached, scarcely interested spectators. This tendency is reinforced by a mass media which utterly fails (after hardly trying) to make politics comprehensible and meaningful to them--while being consistently excellent at distraction, especially by way of fantasies of personal status and consumption (with which he identifies the content of most pop culture, and leisure activity more generally).5

Moreover, generalized as this apathy is, white collar workers seem even more susceptible to it than other groups. The significant division between Old and New middle class aside, white collar workers' weaker consciousness of themselves as a class, their more limited and more belated organization, their greater response to the kind of distraction he describes, leaves them more atomized and less likely to emerge as an independent political force. Indeed, they seem bound to follow rather than lead, and to do so opportunistically.

In making this case, Mills' book offers a formidable combination of sweep and detail. Portions of the analysis have admittedly dated, perhaps the most significant of these his discussion of unionization--a trend which has long since been reversed. However, this is more than outweighed by what remains valid in Mills' study for our own time, not least the corrective he offers to the pieties of his day, which all too often remain the pieties of our own, regarding such matters as the character of social class in America, the role of small business in the economy, and the prospects for genuine personal satisfaction through post-secondary education and the "right" career (recently characterized by Barbara Ehrenreich as a case of "bait and switch"). Indeed, some of the problems he described have, in line with his expectations, grown only more pronounced, like the problems raised by a credentialing crisis, and the withdrawal of much of the public from political life. The result is a book well worth reading not just for its insights into mid-twentieth century America, but its grasp of our situation now, with which few works written in the six decades since can compare.

1. By contrast, in the world of the large corporation, the "Unseen Hand" of executive decision has to a great degree displaced the "Invisible Hand" prevailing in a less thoroughly organized economic field.
2. Mills refers here to the Renaissance vision of the life of the craftsman as "a fully idealized model of work gratification" entailing no "split of work and play, or work and culture," a laborer's work "and his entire mode of living" instead comprising a single whole(220). This model has its requirements, however, among them the worker's control of "his own working action"; the absence of "ulterior motive," enabling their concentration on the product and process; and in this process, his opportunity "to learn from his work; and to use and develop his capacities in its prosecution" (220); none of which is operative in today's business environment. Indeed, Mills notes that "as practice, craftsmanship has largely been trivialized into 'hobbies,' part of leisure not of work" (224).
3. As he notes, workers are obliged to "instrumentalize and externalize intimate features" of their "person and disposition" (225) as part of the process of production.
4. Mills also identifies an emerging "new style of aspiration" (282) focusing on "the peace of the inner man" (283) rather than material accomplishment (with which he identifies such works as Arthur Miller's play Death of A Salesman).
5. Mills also notes that those who would be intellectuals are co-opted by the ideological machines of vested interests, which they must represent (or to which they must at least make themselves acceptable), or marginalized. In either case they are reduced to irrelevance as a political force, with one result their tendency to style themselves "technicians" outside or above politics, or succumb to the cult of alienation. (College professors in particular are constrained by the expectations of academic life, not the least of them the expectation of specialization--or in his view, overspecialization.)

May Book Sale

For next week the electronic editions of all my book will be on sale for $2.99 or less.

You can check out the selection here--or look to the links below.

Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

The Hikikomori Phenomenon: A Sociological View

I don't think I've watched the Fusion TV Channel before this past week--but while scanning the TV schedule I did recently notice their running a documentary on hikikomori, which was something of a surprise. Anime and manga fans who look beyond the hardcore science fiction/fantasy-action stuff that dominates the American market to the more slice-of-life, comedic series', naturally, know something about the phenomenon, but this kind of coverage seemed new.

Watching the documentary, I can't say that it offered anything I hadn't read about before, but it did set me thinking about the issue again, and especially those aspects not addressed here in an overt way--like the matter of social background (rarely commented upon, especially beyond the banality that the child of an impoverished household, lacking their own room, without a family able to bear the economic burden, cannot take this course).

One exception to this tendency was this paper by Tatsuya Kameda and Keigo Inukai, which raised the possibility of a correlation between a lower middle class background and the hikikomori mode of life.1 Kameda and Inukai remark evidence of greater "emotional blunting" (their reactions and expressions of their reactions muted) and lower social involvement in this group (more time at home, less time out with friends) as compared with more affluent groups--and that this correlates strongly with observations of hikikomori, suggesting a great many "undiagnosed" cases at this level.

Going further than Kameda and Inukai in approaching the hikikomori phenomenon as a sociological issue rather than a psychological one was another paper by Felipe Gonzales Nogushi, "Hikikomori: An Individual, Psychological Problem or a Social Concern?" Noguchi's paper refers to the "strain theory" of Robert K. Merton, which Merton elaborates brilliantly in his classic paper, "Social Structure and Anomie."2

Simply put, the theory holds that society sets certain goals for its members, and certain means for realizing those goals. In the America of his own time (and our time as well, and also in contemporary Japan) the goal is upward economic striving on an individual basis. The means, by and large, is doing well in school and then getting "the good job" (or, alternatively, personal entrepreneurship, though this is for myriad reasons the road less traveled today).

Someone accepting goal and means--grinding hard at school in the hopes of entering the most prestigious college they can, on entry into said college single-mindedly chasing the most "practical" degree consistent with their talents (e.g. business or engineering rather than music or anthropology), seeking out the highest-paying job they can get as graduation approaches and then grinding hard at that job in the expectation of raises and promotion (and keeping their ear to the ground lest something still better come along)--"conforms" perfectly.

However, there are alternatives to this acceptance of goal and means together. Some accept the goal but not the means. They want to get ahead, but try another way--like being a criminal in the most narrow, conventional sense of the term--which Merton called "innovation."

Some do not have much hope for the goal, but nonetheless abide by the approved means, going through the motions, at least, in what Merton called "ritualism." (The unenthusiastic bureaucrat doing their job adequately and counting the days until they get their pension is a ritualist.)

Of course, some reject both goal and means, and this takes two forms. One is to try and escape the whole thing--"retreat," just drop out of the system. The other is to try and change the system--"rebellion."

Merton observed that "it is in the lower middle class that parents typically exert continuous pressure upon children to abide by the moral mandates of the society," a "severe training [that] leads many to carry a heavy burden of anxiety." This is made worse by the reality that the "social climb upward" stressed more severely here than anywhere else "is less likely to meet with success than among the upper middle class." (The lower middle class kid has less access to the "good school," the "good job" than their more affluent, more connected peers do.)

In short, lower middle class youth are under heavier pressure to conform, and at the same time, have less hope of a payoff at the end of the privations that conformity demands--while, if Kameda and Inukai observations are valid, they are also less able to express and thus cope with these feelings.

The pressure would seem heavier, and the hope dimmer, in a period where the economy is stagnant, the prospect of upward social mobility is declining, and the middle class is stressed, all features of Japanese life in the past generation.

Of course, Merton suggests that the most likely response for the stressed but not very hopeful lower middle class sufferer from this situation is "ritualism." And it may well be that ritualism is the most typical response to such a situation. However, that by no means rules out "retreat," which (as Noguchi observed) seems to be exactly the hikikomori response. Indeed, the relative disconnect from life outside the home that Kameda and Inukai note as features of lower middle class life may (along with the aforementioned emotional blunting) further encourage this--especially if the mounting pressure, and the discrediting of conformity as a life path, make the bleakness of ritualism intolerable (while rebellion appears unworkable as an option meaningful in the individual short-term).

Even in taking the sociological view of the matter (e.g. approaching the hikikomori phenomenon as a retreat in the Mertonian sense to which lower middle class young people may be disproportionately driven), however, it is worth remembering that Western observers tend to make much of what are presumably unique features of Japanese life--its notoriously demanding education system, for example, or its low tolerance of nonconformity (while we Westerners congratulate ourselves on our freer and more tolerant ways). Still, as Lars Nesser observed in his own paper on the subject, the reality is that, while the details differ, in cases even significantly, young people in other places are under the same pressures. Life as a demanding economic contest; the combination of pressure and prospect for the lower middle class, especially in recent decades--such things are by no means unique to Japan. And the truth is that there is nowhere in the world where nonconformity is exactly easy. Or for that matter, social isolation or withdrawal unknown as a response to the pains that go along with this. (Merton could hardly have rounded out his paper the way he did otherwise.) Nesser actually makes the point explicitly, asking
can it be proved that the pressure Japanese youth experiences is any different from what American youth, or youths from other industrialized societies feel? Is the pressure to follow social norms so exceptionally strong in Japan compared to other countries? I do not think so.
Indeed, I suspect a significant difference may be that where people are ready to accept that the hikikomori reflect a social problem in Japan, we look at their counterparts closer to home and simply mock them--making them the butt of smug jokes and sanctimonious social criticism about a generation "refusing to grow up" and just "needing a push" to do so, rather than seriously considering whether there is something bigger going on here.

1. This is, again, a situation where the word "lifestyle" is hugely inappropriate, and so I will pointedly not be using it.
2. For the purposes of this post I am using the longer version of the paper in his collection Social Theory and Social Structure. Both that version of the paper, and the whole collection, are highly recommended. Those looking for a quick overview can also get a longer version of the essentials from the Wikipedia article discussing strain theory, which seems to me to give a good round-up of his variant on it.

Review: White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills
5/15/17
The Hikikomori and the Lost Decade That Never Ended
7/13/15
On the Word "Lifestyle": A Postscript
5/18/12

William Haggard's The Power House

As it happens, I am following up my review of Paul Stanton's Village of Stars with a review of another British political thriller of the 1960s, interesting as a time capsule from another era as much as for anything else--William Haggard's Colonel Russell novel The Power House.

You can read it here.

Review: Village of Stars, by Paul Stanton
5/12/17
Remember Paul Stanton?
5/12/17
My Posts on William Haggard
12/18/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15

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