Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Wattys Longlist

As the above banner subtly conveys, I have just made the longlist for the 2018 "Wattys"--the awards given out by Wattpad to qualifying, posted content. This is specifically for my novel, Tales From the Singularity, which you can read here. (Or if you would find it convenient, on Kindle, with a copy ordered from Amazon or other outlets. A paperback edition should also be available very shortly, while in the meantime it can also be found in print form in the Paris in the Twenty-First Century collection of stories set in the same universe, which you can get here.)

I am, of course, honored and grateful for the unexpected recognition--too few of us get any at all in this age in which the writer-to-reader ratio has so exploded--and hereby congratulate all of those who have made it this far.

The shortlist is due out in mid-September. In the meantime, I encourage anyone not already familiar with the site (and those who are) to go and take a look at the full list. (You can read it here.) And again, congratulations all.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Two Terms: "Conventional Wisdom" and "Convenient Social Virtue"

Recently I have had occasion to cite John K. Galbraith's concepts of the "conventional wisdom," and the "convenient social virtue." Not finding a wholly satisfactory explanation of them online that is succinct and free, I decided to write them--each linkable from below in this post.

On "Convenient Social Virtue"

On the "Conventional Wisdom"

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Yes, Tax Breaks ARE Subsidies

Many have encountered the claim, typically made by right-wing and especially libertarian commentators, that tax breaks are somehow not subsidies.

As is usually the case when libertarians and other champions of the most hardline economic orthodoxy make such "educational" pronouncements, the assertion is, all at once, utterly contrary to any conventional understanding of economic reality; Olympian in its arrogance and contempt toward anyone who would presume differently; and opaque in its reasoning.

After all, Investopedia, no bastion of left-wing, communistic thought, defines a subsidy as:
a benefit given to an individual, business or institution, usually by the government. It is usually in the form of a cash payment or a tax reduction. The subsidy is typically given to remove some type of burden, and it is often considered to be in the overall interest of the public, given to promote a social good or an economic policy.
Note that "tax reduction" is explicitly included in the definition they provide.

Indeed, one does not find the essentials contested even in the Mises Institute article that seems to usually be at or near the top of the list of search hits on Google when anyone uses it to research the topic, "No, Tax Breaks are Not Subsidies." While the article does charge an "economic and ethical" difference between a cash payment and a tax break (the difference between keeping what you have and being given something taken from someone else), this does not in and of itself make a tax break not a subsidy. In fact, the article acknowledges that "entrepreneurs who take advantage of tax breaks will incur fewer costs than entrepreneurs who don't," and that such breaks are indeed "beneficial to those who claim them"--which is totally in line with the idea that, in conferring advantage to some business at public cost (in this case, forgone tax income, which is shifted to other parties who accordingly bear a greater part of the tax burden, or the burden of forgoing such expenditures), a tax break has the same practical costs and benefits as a subsidy.

So where, one might wonder, is the argument?

The real core of the argument appears a little later, when the article continues with the explanation that government is "not a wealth creator," but only a taker of others' incomes. Because of this such seeming special advantages are really just reprieves from taxation on business that it compares in its various metaphors to a "life jacket in a sea of wealth redistribution," with capitalism only able "to breathe" through such loopholes. Indeed, the web site followed up this piece with another article titled "The Answer to 'Unfair' Tax Breaks is More Tax Breaks."

In short, the "tax breaks are not subsidies" argument assumes that governments have no business taxing business, so that any such taxation is illegitimate (rather than a We-the-people argument for "No taxation without representation" their stance is a pre-1789 French aristocrat's arrogant "No taxes on us, ever!"), and any respite from such taxation, by contrast, always indisputably legitimate. None of this is self-evident to most, and when explained to them, most will flatly refuse the premises for the argument, with the result that, in their eyes, a subsidy IS a subsidy IS a subsidy. And that, as is so often the case the arrogance and opacity are mere cover for unbelievably shoddy reasoning in the name of the self-serving ideas to which persons and institutions of this type are so prone. Like the claim that one can "never run out of" a given resource, or that involuntary unemployment "cannot exist," it is simply a matter of "theologians" posing as social scientists, in the way that orthodox economists have been doing for at least a century now; of the staff of right-wing think tanks and the like pretending to be public intellectuals interested in and explaining the actual world rather than PR hacks for the interests that pay their salaries, utilizing theories formed and held without interest in or regard for the real world because they conveniently legitimize their political positions; of the inmates in the asylum insisting that they are really sane while it is everyone else who is crazy.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Note

Some time ago a poll in Britain identified George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as the book that people most often lie about having read.

Naturally the ways in which we hear the book discussed often seem to miss the point. In line with the prejudices fostered by Cold War orthodoxy, they also identify it with socialism--without which the book might not be nearly so widely cited and promoted as it is today.

Alas, the latter conveniently overlooks the fact that Orwell, while an anti-Stalinist, was still a socialist; and what he described in his book was not meant to be thought of as socialism but rather a pseudo-socialism intended to prevent the genuine kind from ever arriving. Put another way, it was intended to preserve the existence of inequality, a power elite, the mechanisms of oppression as ends in themselves. The key tool was the militarization of society--keeping it in a state of perpetual war.

I direct the reader--you know, the one actually reading the book rather than saying they did, to Chapter III of the book-within-a-book that is Emmanuel Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Collective Oligarchism, "War is Peace." There, as Goldstein observes, the rising productivity of machine-equipped industrialized society was making it possible to eliminate "hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease" before very long, and indeed led to a "vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly, and efficient"--what we call the capital "F" Future of which the flying car is the symbol--"was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person." Those in power saw that this would spell the end of any need or justification for "human inequality," and indeed, "hierarchical society"--distinction conferred by wealth, and "POWER . . . remained in the hands of a small privileged caste," and this "privileged minority," now functionless, swept away by the well-fed, literate, thinking lower orders who no longer had use for them, and knew it.

Indeed, Goldstein declares that "[i]n the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance." Deliberate restriction of economic output to prevent this proved politically unworkable (as the post-World War I stagnation and Great Depression proved), but perpetual war afforded an option for "us[ing] up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living," which indeed was the principal function of the eternal war amongst Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. After all, there is nothing like the cry "We're at war!" to make people stomach austerity, deprivation, repression; to make them think the stifling of dissent justified--with even liberal societies seeing war time and again prove the end of progressive hopes.1

This commitment to inequality and oppression for their own sake, and the extremes to which an elite fearful of its position might go to resist a movement toward a more egalitarian order of things; the recognition of how eternal emergency can be an excuse for such a state--these were arguably Orwell's greatest insights, and warnings we have ignored at our very great peril.2

1. Chris Hedges wrote about this in The Death of the Liberal Class. John K. Galbraith wrote about his own experience of this in his A Journey Through Economic Time: A Firsthand View.
2. In the closing essay of his collection On History, Eric Hobsbawm reflects on the sheer bloodiness and brutality of the twentieth century and suggests that it was as horrible as it was because it was, at bottom, a "century of counterrevolution," and no one can be more vicious than the privileged when they feel that their selfishness is threatened.

Lying About What We Read
8/18/13

Friday, October 26, 2018

On Adam Tooze's Crashed

Having read Adam Tooze's two prior books, The Wages of Destruction (reviewed here) and The Deluge, I was naturally intrigued by the first report that his next book would be about the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath--a move from the early twentieth century that had been his longtime research focus to the twenty-first. I review the book, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, here.

Review: On History, by Eric Hobsbawm

New York: New Press, 1997, pp. 305.

As the title of his book implies, here historian Eric Hobsbawm is writing less of history here than of historiography. Academic a subject as this may sound, however, this is not a collection of minutely academic articles for ultra-specialists. Over half of the pieces (eleven) are lectures given not in the classroom but at special events at various institutions around the world; two more are conference papers; and two of the pieces originally written for publication were book reviews in non-academic forums--the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. It is the case, too, that Hobsbawm is an unfashionably staunch, forceful and persuasive defender of reason and the Enlightenment that he is, and of the value of history and historians as well.

Consequently, despite the methodological emphasis of the book, and the fact that most of his pieces raise more questions than answers, he does not retreat into quasi-metaphysical abstraction, but keeps close to actual practice, with much to say about the investigation of specific historical problems, from social history, history-from-below and urban studies to the historiography of the Russian Revolution. His two-part "Historians and Economists," despite his protestations of being out of his depth in the subject at the start, presents an extremely well-informed and incisive critical intellectual history of the economics profession, and especially its longtime failure to, even disinterest in, grappling with a historical reality that time and again proves the utter worthlessness of their models and their apologia. Despite the methodological emphasis of the book, he does not retreat into quasi-metaphysical abstraction, but keeps close to actual practice, with much to say about the investigation of specific historical problems, from social history, history-from-below and urban studies to the historiography of the Russian Revolution. His two-part "Historians and Economists," despite his protestations of being out of his depth in the subject at the start, presents an extremely well-informed and incisive critical intellectual history of the economics profession, and especially its longtime failure at, and even disinterest in, grappling with a historical reality that time and again demonstrates the utter worthlessness of their models and their apologia (fitting them, as he remarks, for the "dog-collar of the (lay) theologian" (106)).

Of course, more than two decades have passed since the publication of this collection, and even at the time many of the pieces were already a generation old. Still, if in places they show their age by treating old phenomena as if they were new (as when he writes of the arrival of Marxism in the Academy, Walt Whitman Rostow's modernization theory, cliometrics, and the break-up of Yugoslavia), they retain their interest because what is past is not past, and in some cases more present than ever--and often, more pervasive, more dominant, more damaging than before. Certainly this the case with his critique of orthodox economists' pieties, but this goes, too, with what he has to say of other unhealthy tendencies of the late twentieth century, like postmodernism and identity politics. As he memorably writes regarding the latter,
few relativists have the full courage of their convictions, at least when it comes to deciding such questions as whether Hitler's Holocaust took place or not. However, in any case, relativism will not do in history any more than in law courts. Whether the accused in a murder trial is or is not guilty depends on the assessment of old-fashioned positivist evidence . . . Any innocent readers who find themselves in the dock will do well to appeal to it. It is the lawyers for the guilty ones who fall back on postmodern lines of defence (viii).
Indeed, reading Hobsbawm I find myself remembering another book by another great of the past century who "writes of the Enlightenment without a sneer," C. Wright Mills' The Sociological Imagination. Mills was a sociologist who called on social scientists (or "social students?") to be more historically minded, while here Hobsbawm as a historian made a not dissimilar case. Both were entirely right, and that they have been so little heeded has impoverished the lines of inquiry with which they were concerned, and our collective understanding of our own world.

Monday, October 1, 2018

I Get Interviewed About the Singularity

Hi everybody! Remember the interview about the Singularity I mentioned earlier? (I remember it like it was yesterday.)

It's up now at E.C. Stever's. Go check it out!

And while you're at it, go check out Stever's work as well-both at his blog and Amazon-where his latest is a bestseller across multiple categories.

Go now!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Upcoming Interview

Science fiction author E.C. Stever has recently made a splash on Amazon with his new book Sisters Under the Skin recently rubbing shoulders with Hugh Howey's bestsellers on its bestseller lists (and still top hundred in its categories right now).

You can see his Author Page on Amazon here, and if you would like a preview, also check out his writing on Wattpad.

As he is, like most of us in science fiction-land, deeply interested in the Singularity (the very theme of his collection Non Metallic), he recently interviewed me about it. You can check out what I had to say when it goes up at his site on October 1.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Just Out . . . (Tales From the Singularity, in Paperback)

For those who prefer to do their reading on paper rather than screens, my Wattys longlisted Tales From the Singularity is now out in paperback.

It is also available in print form as part of the Paris in the Twenty-First Century collection.

And of course, you can still check it out on Wattpad.

Happy reading.

Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on H.G. Wells
6/29/13

Shelley, Verne and Wells--especially Wells

When we recount the history of science fiction, it is common to point to some early figure as its founder--for instance, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

The emphasis on identifying a single, founding work by a single author strikes me as unsatisfying for numerous reasons, only one of which I want to go into here right now. That is, namely, that it makes much more sense to credit them with each defining a crucial strand of science fiction, already in place before it coalesced into a genre (in the '20s, on the watch of Hugo Gernsback).

Note that I write defining here, not founding, because it would be excessive to claim that they did something that had never been done before to any degree. Rather they did what others might have done before in a certain way, got noticed for it, and became a model for those who followed in the process.

The Gothic writer Shelley defined the science-based horror story--where the scientific endeavor goes very, very bad. Verne defined the science-based adventure--where a discovery or invention sets us up for a thrill ride to the center of the Earth or the moon or for twenty thousand leagues under the sea which might teach us something along the way, most likely in the way of scientific facts. And Wells defined the science-based story not about some hero or anti-hero, but where, to borrow Isaac Asimov's phrase, humanity as a whole is the protagonist; the story which uses science to think about society, and considers how science, by way of ideas and technology, might change it; the story about a future that is clearly not the same as today, broadly, deeply and densely imagined; the science fiction story which can criticize things as they are, and bear the hope of progress.

Of these the last perhaps accounts for a smaller part of the genre's overall output than the other, older strands. Certainly it is less present in the more popular work than the influences of Shelley or Verne. (Horror stories, adventure stories, are the easier sell.) Still, it is the Wells' strand that seems to me to not only have been far and away the most intellectually interesting, but to have given science fiction a cultural role beyond mere entertainment; to have enabled science fiction to really matter. And it seems to me that the vigor of that particular tradition is, more than any other factor, the determinant of the health of the genre as a whole.

Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on H.G. Wells
6/29/13

Are Books Too Long These Days?

Are books too long these days?

I will say up front that many of the novels that have most impressed, most affected, most influenced me were thousand-pagers. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Karamazov Brothers, for example. (I can't imagine Tales From the Singularity without that one.) Or Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. (Which is still in a lot of ways The Way We Live Now in the twenty-first century.) Or Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. (Has anything equally ambitious, sweeping, worthwhile been written about American life since?)

And reading my way through the classics, I encountered a good many that don't have a membership in that pantheon, but where I could appreciate what they were going for, and that trying to do it took half a million words (as Victor Hugo did in his national epic of France, Les Miserables, and Leo Tolstoy did in War and Peace).

Still, not every book needs to be so long as that. Not every story requires so much sheer mass. Most are better off without it. And in general I think those books that most of even that small minority that actually reads tends to actually read--the romances and thrillers and romantic thrillers--are ill-served by the demand for doorstops. What might be a brisk entertainment instead ends up bloated and slow, and often pretentious, and I find myself nostalgic for the quick and dirty writing of a half century ago, and the still older pulps. Reading Dirk Pitt at the series' best was a lot of fun, but there is a lot to be said for those who came before him, not least that other Clark-from-New-York-with-a-Fortress-of-Solitude, Doc Savage.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Second Note
9/7/18
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Note
9/7/18
The Wattys Longlist
9/2/18
The Savage Doctor: Doc Savage
8/7/18
Doc Savage and Dirk Pitt
8/7/18
About That Doc Savage Movie
8/7/18
Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace: The Short Version
9/12/14
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
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
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace
4/19/14
Lying About What We Read
8/18/13
Lying About What We Read
8/18/13
My Posts on the Dirk Pitt Series
12/2/12

The Summer 2018 Box Office: Solo and The Meg

I haven't done an overview of the summer box office in quite a while, in part because it has become so damned repetitive, in its commercial successes--and perhaps even more consistently, its artistic failures. Every year Hollywood laments its earnings, every year the more critical critics decry the shallowness and sameness and staleness of it all, every year we hear promises that Hollywood will change, and every year, it demonstrates that not only has it not done so, but that its lack of memory is utter and total, the promise unremembered.

So I'll restrict my comments on the whole tedious thing to the two films I felt I actually had somethijng to say about: Solo and Meg.

After over three months of release in which it has had long play in every major market (even Japan got it before the end of June), Solo remains short of the $400 million global mark, like I guessed it would be after what, only in the context of the money poured into it, was regarded as a dismal weekend. What it will mean for the franchise remains very much a matter of rumor and speculation. But the shock seems undeniable.

By contrast Meg proved that rarity, a movie that performs above expectations rather than below them, and that still greater rarity, the seemingly written-off dump month release that proves a blockbuster. (The predictions were $10-20 million in its opening weekend in North America, but it actually pulled in more than twice the high end of the range, $45 million.) A somewhat more modest production with much more modest expectations, The Meg has already outgrossed Solo globally (the China market has helped a lot), and if the figures discussed earlier are to be believed (a $400 million break-even point, due to the advantages it enjoys as a Chinese coproduction in that makret), already well into the black, and still raking it in (in its fourth weekend of U.S. release, still at #2).

A follow-up is not a sure thing (given the nine figure budgets and equally hefty promotional bills, the hefty competition and the terms of Meg's success as a bit of goofy fun, the margins are not exactly vast), but it still looks quite likely. We might even see other Steve Alten works finding their way to the big screen as a result, in what looks like at least partial redemption of the dashed hopes held for it all way back when we first heard of the hopes for the project.

From the standpoint of the business Meg's success falls far short of balancing out Solo's underperformance, and all it represents (the ultimate in the Hollywood franchise mentality, by way of the franchise that did more than any other to establish the blockbuster as we know it). Still, looking at the two trajectories together, I suppose there's a certain symmetry in them.

My Posts on Solo: A Star Wars Story
7/19/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
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
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Movies: Seasons and Years in Review
9/16/13
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Friday, September 7, 2018

Ian Watt, Irony and Criticism in Our Own Time

For me one of the most memorable aspects of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (reviewed here) is his discussion of the proneness of critics to read irony where there is often actually none--which specifically cited Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf's readings of Daniel Defoe.

Defoe, in Watts' view, had no such attitude to the apparent contradictions in his characters' behavior--their combination of relentless money-grubbing and relentless, verbose declarations of their piety, for example. This was not only because such things did not look as ridiculously hypocritical to them as they do to people of our own time, but because a display of such irony required a level of technical mastery in this kind of "realist" writing that eighteenth century novelists had yet to achieve. Indeed, Defoe's sloppiness as a writer is something Watt discusses quite some length, replying to Woolf's declaration that Defoe subdued "every element to his design" with the opinion that there is no
design whatsoever in the usual sense of the term . . . such an interpretation really a kind of indirect critical repayment for the feeling of superiority which Defoe enables us to derive from his humble and unconsidered prose, a feeling of superiority which enables us to convert the extreme cases of his narrative gaucherie into irony . . .
There is far, far too much such "conversion of narrative gaucherie into irony" today--more than in his, more perhaps than in any other time in history--with at least some of it coming from people who ought to know better. (I hesitate to name names, but one recent critic whom I hold in a good deal of regard reviewed Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games in exactly this way, and then admitted that it was his way of spicing up the boring task of reviewing a book with such artless world-building--essentially, an admission that he wasn't doing his job of reviewing the book at all.) After all, in our postmodern day, the most inane subjective reaction can be held up as profound insight, and "irony for irony's sake" might be the critical slogan--irony for irony's sake because they cannot resist that "worst form of snobbery," because there is no better barrier to really thinking about anything than blowing it off in this pseudo-literate person's equivalent of the eternal "Whatever!"

My Posts on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
9/7/18
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Postmodernism
11/21/13
My Posts on H.G. Wells
6/29/13

Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel

As it turns out my review of Ian Watt's masterly study of the English novel's eighteenth century origins, The Rise of the Novel, has spawned a couple of smaller posts, with more soon to come. I list all my posts regarding that work here.

Ian Watt, Irony and Criticism in Our Own Time
9/7/18
Ian Watt and Shakespeare
9/7/18
Of Character and the Larger Scene: A Note on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
9/7/18
Review: The Rise of the Novel, by Ian Watt
7/9/18

Ian Watt and Shakespeare

Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel was, as discussed here, a study of eighteenth century literature. Still, that outstanding piece of literary analysis, history and sociology was comprehensive enough to have much to say about other subjects--not least, the works of William Shakespeare.

His remarks about the Bard were, of course, offhand. Still, in noting that Shakespeare, as very much a Medieval rather than a modern, and noting that such writers dealt in universal types rather than specific individuals; that they had their eye on abstractions rather than concrete facts; that they were prone to be loose in handling the flow of time or cause and effect relationships; and that in describing it all they were inclined to prettily decorate rather than rigorously denote and describe; he strikes me as having sum up a very large part of the challenge that reading Shakespeare presents a twenty-first century reader, a challenge they tend to fail.

Thus we read Julius Ceaser and find instead of a historical drama about ancient Rome as we would understand the term--just the dilemma of Brutus. Thus we read Hamlet--and feel that he's endlessly dithering, which becomes ammunition for pompous lectures on the character's lack of decisiveness. Or we don't find those things, because we don't really have enough of a handle on what's going on to have those reactions. We just read them because we're supposed to, without worrying about whether we "get it" or not, and then, if the statistics are accurate, after completing the obligatory school requirement (under the eye of a teacher who might not get all this themselves; they're probably taking all this on authority just as much the student), most of us probably don't read much of anything ever again.

Is there anyone else who thinks this isn't how it's supposed to go?

My Posts on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
9/7/18
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Reading Literary Classics
12/1/12
What is Literature?
11/30/12

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