Monday, July 27, 2015

Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today

Four years ago I published a collection of my writing on science fiction, After the New Wave.

I have just published a revised version of that collection, containing a fair amount of new material, some of which I have published there for the first time, and which I have reorganized with my other book Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry in mind, enough so that while it was intended to stand on its own, in its offering more in-depth looks at various aspects of science fiction today alongside CSW's more comprehensive picture, I like to think of it as working as a companion volume.

To all who made those earlier writings, and the earlier version of the book, seem like it was worth revisiting: thank you again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reviewing George Friedman's Predictions

Reading George Friedman's comments on Greece made me take another look at his arguments in The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years.

As one might guess, the evidence is ambiguous on a great many issues. Still, he seems to have been at least partly right about some things. The idea that Europe's integration had reached its high water-mark now seems more persuasive to me, rather than les so. I would say that he has also been right regarding an increased American concern with Russia leading to greater attention to European affairs, and China's increasing economic difficulties.

However, Friedman would also seem to have been wrong about the emergence of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis. Germany seems to behave more unilaterally than ever now (as the Greek situation demonstrates), while its relations with Russia have worsened considerably, particularly in the wake of a civil war in Ukraine. Additionally, the idea that this would be associated with the U.S. pulling back militarily from the Middle East and keeping aloof from East Asia has also been wrong. Instead there have been the operations in Libya, Iraq, Syria in the former region, and the "pivot to Asia" in the latter--even as the U.S. has become more concerned with Eastern Europe. And certainly the idea of Russia falling apart looks less likely than it did before.

Africa also remains a more active scene of foreign intervention than he thought, as has been the case in Mali--with that particular intervention related to that greater intensity of conflict in the Middle East (its civil war, in part, a spillover from the fighting in Libya). And of course, while he anticipated a more statist economics, neoliberalism, discredited as it is, remains the conventional wisdom among policymakers, no real challenge having emerged to it (a fact recently underlined by SYRIZA's immediate and utter surrender to Germany's demands).

Of course, tabulating right and wrong guesses has only a limited interest. What seems to me more interesting is the reasons for both the successes, and the failures. Given that his books--forecasts--offered more in the way of prediction than argument for why he thought events would take the course he describes, there is only so much of that one can discuss. Still, it seems to me that his track record has much to do with his basic analytical framework, which is centered on a realpolitik vision of international relations in which billiard ball-like states bounce off of one another. This keeps him from underestimating the importance that nation-states still do have--but it would seem that this also leaves him with an insufficient regard for economic motivations. Even where he was right (the EU and China bumping up against important limits) it seems to me that he guessed the event, but not what would lead up to it, namely the depth of a worldwide economic crisis, which he does not seem to have appreciated. Nor does he seem to have appreciated the difficulties neoliberal prescriptions for the problem have caused (the real factor which has made the EU's weaknesses so glaring).

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fourth Reich, Again?

A few years ago I remarked the way that the "E" word--empire--kept coming up in discussions of Germany's dealings with its neighbors. (George Soros, for instance, made a few headlines using the word back in public remarks in Italy back in 2012.)

The word's use did not quite disappear afterward, but it did seem to come up less frequently until this year, and especially the recent deal with the Greek government (which has brought another troubling word, "diktat," into wider use again).

What is more surprising than the frequency with which the word "empire" is the way in which it is being used--not as a thing that might happen, as Soros said it was, but an accomplished fact--and at least as much so, the places where this sort of rhetoric came up.

It is, perhaps, not so unusual that it came up in recent coverage of these events by Sputnik News. However, in this case Sputnik is citing a piece by David Dayen which ran in the very mainstream American Salon.

George Friedman of STRATFOR (you can read my reviews of his books The Next 100 Years and The Next Decade if you want a sense of his writing), also used the word in his comment, titled "An Empire Strikes Back: Germany and the Greek Crisis."

Interestingly, an article by the staff of Der Spiegel (the guys who ran this surprisingly offensive cover), while denouncing the political usage of the term and the memories it evokes, conceded that it "may not be entirely out of place."

Still, in light of the fact that holding the EU together is still broadly approved by not just Germany's but Europe's elites, and the short and long-term limits to Germany's economic power (the German economy is the continent's biggest, but not overwhelmingly so), it appears more a matter of the four decade-old fight of neoliberal globalizers against state intervention in economic life, welfare states and organized labor. The fact that a free-trading European Union serves German manufacturing well does not change this.

Still, there is no denying that economic nationalism had been drawn into the fight, on both sides. German economic nationalism is on the side of the EU in this matter, Greek economic nationalism opposed to it.

One might even wonder if the nationalists are not exerting a greater influence within the dialogue and the horse-trading than has been the case for some time. After all, for many years we have been hearing about a "revival" of statist economics. However, by and large this was a question of the behavior of exceptionally large states able to buck the conventional wisdom through sheer mass, and the power that it brings (China); of resource exporters advantaged by the boom in commodity prices during the first decade of the century (Venezuela); and especially those countries combining both those characteristics (Russia). That Greece would go similarly nationalist (refusing the deal, exiting the euro) would have extended this to a country in quite a different situation--a small nation (10 million people) which is not a noted producer of commodities like oil and gas, and a First World EU member to boot, suggesting the kind of challenge to globalization not really seen in a long time. However, Greece's falling into line only confirms the pattern that has prevailed thus far.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In Defense of Star Trek: The Next Generation: Characters

In the world of Star Trek bashing, certain criticisms have long since become cliche, and they include criticisms of the characterizations.

The crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation is no exception.

Of course, the show might be said to fare better than most entries in the franchise. Much better, in fact. Jean-Luc Picard, Worf and Data are on the whole very well-liked, enough so that they make the top ten lists for the whole Trek universe again and again, as at Ranker, IGN, the Mary Sue and Paste.

Still, other characters have been far less popular. They have their limits and failings, of course. But some draw much more than their fair share of flak, usually for reasons besides those normally given. Deanna Troi, for instance, seems to suffer somewhat because psychic powers are on the whole less fashionable in science fiction than they used to be, and more importantly, because telepathy, empathy and the like do not lend themselves well to depiction in visual media. That a lot of people dislike her mother Lwaxana likely hurts her all the more, their irritation with Lwaxana rubbing off on her by association. (And the gender politics that find their way into these debates don't help her much either.)

When people remember Katherine Pulaski, they usually seem to picture her prodding Data into the game of stratagema in "Peak Performance"--not necessarily the best thing she could have done in the situation, but she had the grace to admit it, and things did work out in the end. Besides, when I look back on the character, I also remember her in "Up the Long Ladder" telling a white lie to save Worf embarrassment, and then sharing a Klingon tea ceremony with him, a reminder that she had more likeable moments too. But they are the more apt to be overlooked because she had the problem of replacing a reasonably well-liked predecessor in Beverly Crusher, while Crusher's return made her presence seem that much more anomalous in hindsight.

And I suspect that a good many people hate Wesley Crusher (who often occupies the #1 spot on the "most hated" lists) because, underneath all the empty verbiage, as adults they find the idea of a kid out-smarting or upstaging adults threatening; because as parent and authority figure, they can't stand difficult children and adolescents on screen any more than they can in real life. (Indeed, while not written as super-kids, it seems noteworthy that TNG's Alexander Rozhenko and Deep Space Nine's Jake Sisko often make the lists of least well-liked characters, and that the same pattern is evident in other franchises. Wesley's Doctor Who counterpart Adric is equally likely to top that show's "most hated" list, while these same sentiments doubtless factored into the ire directed at the Annakin Skywalker-centered Star Wars prequel movies.)

However, the biggest criticism often seems to be not of individual characters, but of the cast as a whole--the group's dynamic. The characters were not without their baggage, or their rough edges, or their conflicts with themselves and each other. Still, on the whole it was a fairly harmonious group.

Dated, they say. Old-fashioned. Unrealistic.

But I have to admit that this happier dynamic does not seem unreasonable to me. This is, after all, the flagship of the United Federation of Planets' Star Fleet. It ought to operate fairly smoothly--and plausibly would operate more smoothly than any comparable effort today. If one takes the Federation as an example of the triumph of the "scientific world-view," a society which has embraced reason and humane values and succeeded in eliminating a great many of the evils we take for granted in the twenty-first century, then it stands to reason that we would be looking at a society which is on the whole saner than the one we now have, with this going for its individual members too--and the crew of a ship like the Enterprise representing the best it has. (It isn't as if Star Fleet fills its ships through a policy of impressment; or has people enlisting simply to escape hunger, and accepts them out of sheer hunger for personnel.)

Indeed, calling Star Trek unrealistic on these grounds is simply a failure to understand what it is they are looking at--a piece of science fiction imagining how, as the world changes, life changes along with it. In this case, it is change for the better--which seems to be exactly the problem many have with it.

This is, in part, a question of the fashions in our entertainment, all this being a contrast with what so much other television serves up as a matter of course: a reveling in the brutality and brutalization of rat race and marketplace, where every dialogue quickly turns into a pissing contest, or at least an occasion for colossal douche-baggery. A vision of every human heart as a heart of darkness, every mind as a basketcase of neuroses and delusions, every human being as consumed with getting ahead or evening the score or simply inflicting injury because they can; the sense that where two or three gather, there is a snake pit.

Those with a taste for such material don't want heroic starship captains, or explorations of humanity through devices like robots trying to figure humans out. (And we all know how they feel about having a character whose outstanding quality is her empathy aboard the bridge.)

What they want is soap opera, the meaner and nastier the better. They want the Enterprise to feel like the Galactica. Or King's Landing. Or the offices of Sterling Cooper. They want anti-heroes who do conniving and cruel things, brushed off with a "Whatever" or a "Get over it" or a "Welcome to the real world."

However, all but the most extreme misanthropes will acknowledge that what such fans take from those shows is hardly a complete or nuanced depiction of even our comparatively bleak era. And if the results can at times be viscerally gripping, it is far from being the sole basis for drama, or the best basis for it, or even a sure-fire basis for some minimal level of success. Indeed, however much the fashionable are ready to award automatic points for this sort of thing, it does not take any great skill on the part of a writer to give us a bunch of unlikeable characters tearing at each other--and it is not necessarily insightful or interesting or worthwhile, especially when everyone is doing this anyway.

In fact, I suspect that for those of us not addicted to what gets exalted as the "dark and gritty," it makes reruns of this edition of Trek a welcome respite from the rest of what passes for "drama."

H.G. Wells' The War in the Air

It can be said that the theme of the apocalyptic has been part of Wells' work since the beginning of his career--The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, for example, unambiguously so. However, in subsequent decades he increasingly presented apocalyptic visions arising in the very near future, as a result of more grounded, more literally true factors.

In 1907's The War in the Air, intensifying nationalist, militarist and imperialist behavior combine with the increasing power of military technology to wreck the world--a theme Wells was to revisit in works like The World Set Free (1914) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). However, at this point he has not yet gone fully over to the "future history" approach of those later books, which submerge the narrative of any one character within the larger stream of events. Instead the invasion story element is blended with the realist satire of novels like The History of Mr. Polly (1910).

Running through it all is the story of Bert Smallways, the sort of character he was to sum up in Mr. Polly as "one of those ill-adjusted units that abound in a society that has failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for order, commensurate with its complexities." A son of the lower middle class with a head full of notions as conventional as they are wrong-headed, "Smallways" embarks on a career of small-scale entrepreneurship that only points up its outmoded, futile quality, first in a bicycle repair shop, and later as a street performer. The hapless Smallways, through a series of blunders, finds himself ballooning to Germany, and landing in the staging area of the aerial component of a German air-sea attack directed against the American East coast, with the intent of forcing the U.S. to clear the way for its own imperial ambitions.

Smallways ends up the Germans' prisoner, from which position he becomes a witness to a great battle in the Atlantic in which German forces defeat the United States and go on to attack New York--just as Sino-Japanese forces attack the country's west coast. Very soon the whole world is at war, and while the Sino-Japanese alliance gets the better of the Western powers, their victory is ultimately a Pyrrhic one. The physical destruction caused by the fighting, and even more than that, the resulting chaos, opens the door to famine and pestilence which bring down modern civilization, and leave the remnants of humanity scrambling to survive in the ruins.

In that, there is the second great difference between The War in the Air and Wells' later treatments of the theme, the fact that the book closes with the post-apocalyptic image, rather than a portrait of a process of rebuilding and renewal creating a saner world. One may read this as a more pessimistic work, but one can also see it as a matter of his keeping this Smallways' story--the blend of which with momentous world events is surprisingly seamless.

Indeed, one could argue that it was the vision of larger events which ended up being relatively crude in this work. Certainly one might declare his early recognition of the destructiveness of aerial warfare as prophetic--but in hindsight it can also appear exaggerated, the kind of thinking that made air forces attempt to "bomb their way to victory" so many times in this past century, at such a high price in human life.

Additionally, the treatment of the geopolitics is uneven. As in his later work Wells was here a critic of nationalism, racism, imperialism and war. Yet, the images of the German attack on America, the Sino-Japanese attack on the West, can seem to play into the clichès of the invasion story genre (the "frightful Hun," the "Yellow Peril") so popular at the time, and which contributed to the toxic political atmosphere against which he was trying to fight. The satirist always risks appearing to promote what he is criticizing--and Wells was in this case less careful than he might have been, the book quite easily (mis)read as just another invasion story regaling us with spectacular techno-thriller bits as it warns us to keep on our guard against the villainous foreigner. Still, these are comparative quibbles next to the book's considerable imaginative and technical accomplishment.

Reading H.G. Wells' Tono-Bungay

It is unsurprising that the early science fiction of H.G. Wells continues to be celebrated much more than any of his later work. The image of a working class degraded to Morlocks, massacring beautiful, hapless Elois in The Time Machine (1894); the note of despair at humanity's animality in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896); the viciousness and insanity of Griffin in The Invisible Man (1897); the annihilation of human civilization by a technologically superior species that is itself helpless before a humble microbe in War of the Worlds (1898); such things naturally appeal to the lovers of things "dark and gritty" who set the fashion for these times.

By contrast, Wells' penchant for satire; his daring to envision positive alternatives; his growing into the "scientific world-view"; do not appeal to them. And so his later science fiction, to say nothing of his realist fiction, have tended to be neglected or dismissed, with Tono-Bungay (1909) no exception.

In fairness, the book is not totally bereft of science fiction-al elements, the plot coming to hinge on radioactive "quap," and George Ponderovo's experiments with a flying machine. Still, on the whole the story of young George Ponderovo sticks with the quotidian, and quickly demonstrates that Wells does not need the devices of science fiction to work an effective satire of class and capitalism and colonialism, of social and sexual mores. Real life supplies all the absurdity he can want, starting with Bladesover itself--the estate on which George is born, and grows up, the son of a servant.

As George (and Herbert George) present it, the place is an anachronism, a piece of the seventeenth century enduring at the edge of the twentieth, where everyone had their assigned place in a hierarchy, with the country gentry on top, and their values and priorities predominant, and everyone confident or complacent that everything was so settled forever--oblivious as they are to the scientific-industrial, globalized, urbanized world with which it was not just tied up, but on which it was parasitic. And when George gets out of Bladesover, and sees something more of the country in which he lives, he finds that England is Bladesover writ large, muddling along similarly obvlivious to the larger world, and to contemporary reality.

Throughout, Wells paints his picture with broad strokes. Indeed, in the "Digression on Novels" in his later Experiment in Autobiography (one of the boldest, most challenging and most incisive pieces of literary theory I have ever encountered) Wells acknowledged, somewhat apologetically, that he tended toward caricature in his desire to make his point. However, there is caricature, and then there is caricature. Wells' caricatures here have a Dickensian vividness and incisiveness, married to a far stronger social vision than Dickens ever displayed, whether in the underworld of Nicodemus Frapp, or Teddy Ponderovo's meteoric rise in the world on the basis of a fraudulent patent medicine, and they contribute strongly to fulfilling Wells' quite traditional object of giving us an image of the world--of capital "L" Life--on the page.

To be sure, the book is not without its flaws. Again, as Wells noted in that "Digression," he was in this phase of his career more interested in the larger social scene than the individual personalities within it--and this too is the case here. When his attention shifts from the scene to the individuals, construed not as caricatures but as feeling human beings, the writing becomes less compelling. George's romances, for example, lost their interest when they shifted out of satire (for instance, his dealing with Marion's ideas of romance and sex) into personal drama, and the treatment of his marriage certainly ran overlong. When Wells gets away from his principal subject, England in his time, he also seems to be on less firm ground, as in the quap episode (though it is not without its points of interest, among them a parody of Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness). And the conclusion is uneven. George's sailing down the Thames is a descriptive tour de force--but his doing so from aboard a destroyer seems an unnecessarily ambiguous note (a fact for which Mark Schorer took Wells to task in "Technique as Discovery"). All the same, the strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses, and remind one that literary history has not been altogether fair to this side of Wells' body of work.

Jean-Luc Picard, Renaissance Man

In the Star Trek universe, starship captains tend to be Renaissance Men.

Jean-Luc Picard is an obvious example. Not only does his job require him to be a good many different things (explorer, diplomat, soldier), at all of which he manages to excel; but in his own private life he also displays a wide variety of talents and interests (in literature, mathematics, archaeology, music).

The show manages this without making it all seem silly, or over-the-top, or grating, and this is much rarer than one might think. The truth is that it is very difficult to make overachievers believable and human, let alone likeable, with television usually failing at this. Far too often, we get not a depiction of intelligence or talent, but a crude caricature of it--because the writer doesn't understand what it is they are presenting to us (they write geniuses without being geniuses themselves, and so can't get into their heads; they write scientists without having ever cracked open a science book); because intelligence and talent are not the sorts of things a good writer, let alone a hack, can readily dramatize in five seconds of screen time. (Listening to a performance on a musical instrument, for example, how many of us can actually assess the technical skill that went into it?)

Besides, there is the way in which such characters are often used. Very often the overachiever is a wish-fulfillment figure, either the author's outsized fantasy of themselves, or their attempt to give some targeted audience such a fantasy; or they are an expression of an elitism as raging and mean-spirited as it is simplistic; or it is simply a writer's lame way of freeing themselves to stick their character in a multitude of different situations and somehow have them always come out on top, always have the solution, always be the hero.

The results tends to grate in all these cases.

With Picard, the show happily escaped that trap, and much as the writing on Star Trek gets a lot of flak, one ought not to underestimate that achievement.

Just how did they manage it?

Part of the secret would seem to lie in the writers' giving Picard limitations. While very capable in a great many areas, the writers never went over the top with it. We may see him working on a proof of Fermat's Theorem, for example--but not casually coming up with the proof in the middle of his conversation about this. He does not do everything by himself, and cannot, actually relying on his crew, rather than being the man who saves the day every time while everyone else is just along for the ride. (Sometimes it's Data who does it. Sometimes it's Wesley--for which the audience never forgives him. More likely it's a team effort.)

The other part of the secret would seem to be Picard's attitude toward his strengths and weaknesses. No one has yet called him bully or braggart. Respected and justifiably confident as he is, he never rubs his achievements in other people's faces. His talents and accomplishments are never cause for callousness, or for looking down on others--while his moral center and sense of honor seem virtually unshakable.

How many TV characters can you say that about today?

Monday, July 13, 2015

The End of Mad Men

Mad Men came to an end this year, and once again I found myself again thinking about how the show came to enjoy its high standing. I ended up checking out some of the comments critics offered after I lost interest in the whole thing.

Daniel Mendlesohn offered an incisive piece at the New York Review of Books, in which he found both its appeal to its audience, and its weakness as art, in its extreme superficiality. As he noted, while the show aspired to serious treatment of "social and historical “issues," it generally failed to explore "by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation," the "sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture" that it presumes to take up as themes. Instead what prevailed was implausible "melodrama."

Meanwhile, over at New Republic, Marc Tracy's later article extends the criticism with a discussion of the show's propensity for "Show, don't tell"--"Sally Draper scowling" simply not up to "the heavy work of Saying Something." Indeed, Tracy judges all this as the best "contemporary example . . . of what Dwight Macdonald called 'midcult,'" which Tracy, with a concision which compares favorably with Macdonald's writing, that by this he means "unexceptional art whose highbrow trappings convince consumers they are putting real cultural work into consuming it," all of which is "really empty calories that leave you feeling full," and so worse in its way than the frankly trifling.

Personally I don't care much for Macdonald, or for the labeling of things "midcult" or middlebrow. Historically it has not been a really meaningful concept, this problematic territory only opened up in the twentieth century by the Modernists putting a large part of culture out of reach of even the well-educated by equating "art" with material requiring the reader, viewer, listener to do a very great deal of "cultural work"--an idea that has, by fostering a worship of obscurity and obscurantism as the criterion of artistic accomplishment, and the idea that anything else must be just mass-marketed trash, deeply warped our cultural life.

Still, this is one case where the idea fits. The accent on surface, the evocation of serious subject matter without seriously doing anything with it, the stress on Show-don't-tell technique over content (lots of subtext, which is not really saying anything at all), is all tediously postmodernist--and its easy, nearly unquestioning embrace has been absolutely what Tracy describes. And while Mad Men may have come to an end, there is for the time being little sign of this attitude giving way to a greater appreciation of greater substance.

Review: Vixen 03, by Clive Cussler

New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1978, pp. 364.

The real point of transition in Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt series from the small-scale novels of the early years (like The Mediterranean Caper and Raise the Titanic!) to the large-scale plots of his later books (like Sahara) was Deep Six, but the much earlier Vixen 03 still represents a tentative step in that direction. It is much more compact, but has something of the later book's divided plot structure, starting with two different threads that eventually tie together - Pitt's happening upon mysterious aircraft wreckage while on vacation in Colorado's Sawatch mountains with his girlfriend Loren Smith (introduced here for the first time); and the battle of the South African government against African-American expatriate Hiram Lusana's anti-apartheid guerrilla group African Army of the Revolution, in which each seeks the support of the United States.

The story has its share of implausibilities, particularly at the levels of geopolitics and technology. The D.C. hijinks, a frequent weak point of technothriller writing, have members of the House of Representatives making American foreign policy in a simplified, sanitized near-vacuum. (The soap operatic sleaze of the blackmail attempt against Loren merely underlines the absence of the real sleaze of practical politics from Cussler's portrait of the Beltway.1) The prospect of the U.S.'s supporting Communist-backed South African guerrillas against their government in the midst of the Cold War seems more like a rightist fear of radical (or radical chic) influence over American foreign policy than a plausible extrapolation. (We see Hiram Lusana lobbying in D.C. - with the help of Hollywood starlet Felicia Collins - but no Jack Abramoff-type making Pretoria's case, with the help of the Hollywood connections that brought us Red Scorpion.2) The Quick Death virus that ends up playing a key role in the plot is a rather convenient and casual creation, as its very name indicates. (It kills exposed humans in minutes, and renders infected areas uninhabitable for centuries - but while being unkillable by anything else, is totally and instantly neutralized by immersion in water.)

In fairness, though, authorial rigor in these areas (let alone insight into the great affairs of the day) is rarely the attraction of the Dirk Pitt novel. Rather what compels is the adventure Cussler spins out of them, and this book certainly provides its fair share of undersea exploration, nautical mystery and over-the-top action. It is the South African plot line which initially supplies the last, but the relatively tight writing and fast pace soon enough bring on the convergence. And this culminates in a climax that may have lost something of the retro appeal it had at the time of the book's publication, but which is sufficiently intricate, inventive and spectacular to remain one of Cussler's more memorable thirty-five prolific years on.3

1. One can also see the blackmail plot, like the heavier accent on sex in Cussler's '70s-era work, as a concession to the fashions of the period (and perhaps, the influence of a certain British predecessor), preceding our era of celibate action heroes.
2. It is worth remembering that Vixen 03 appeared the very same year as Graham Greene's classic spy novel The Human Factor, which offered a very different, and much more realistic, take on the situation.
3. This would be a matter of certain Defense Department procurement decisions which will be immediately apparent to any reader familiar with the 600-Ship Navy program initiated in the 1980s.

H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"

H.G. Wells was quite frank about the fact that when writing he was more interested in the broader "scene" than in the figures within it, and in a "ventilation of the issue" at hand than Flaubertian technical niceties--in the wide world, and considerations of it, than the "turns and tricks" of character and form.

That he worked in this way as a writer got him attacked by, among others, Henry James (in "The New Novel"), by Virginia Woolf (in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"), by that key figure in the development of the "New Criticism" and wrecker of quite a few literary reputations, Mark Schorer (in his essay, "Technique as Discovery"), all of whom had quite different ideas about just what makes literature worthwhile.1

By and large, those who wish to appear reputable stand with James, Woolf and Schorer, on this and many another point, with the result that Wells is far less reputable than he used to be. Still, it seems to me that it was those writers most attentive to scene and issue who were the first to make strong impressions on me as a reader, and have continued to make the strongest impressions--be they nineteenth century Balzacs and Tolstoys, twentieth century Lewises, or writers in that scene-and-issue-oriented genre to which Wells contributed so much, science fiction (even after I have become more appreciative of the view of James and company). And much as Wells may have failed to win the critics over to his way of thinking, I can think of no other who has made as strong and clear a case as Wells did for it in "The Digression on Novels" in his Experiment in Autobiography.

1. Besides Wells, he did a good deal of damage to the standing of Sinclair Lewis with a notoriously unflattering biography.

The Hikikomori and the Lost Decade That Never Ended

Many years ago Welcome to the N.H.K. introduced me to the term "hikikomori."

Much as I enjoyed the show, looking back later I noted that it lacked a particular virtue in its treatment of its issue--what one might call a social vision. Certainly Tatsuhiro Sato's problems were explained in terms of personal psychology--and rather quirkily, too--so that while his story sheds light on what they are going through, it does not say very much about why they are going through it.

Still, some have tried to explain the matter, often interpreting it as a type of social withdrawal. Quite often commentators link it to the transitional years of the '90s in Japan's economic history, which badly damaged the conventional path to "success." Certainly not everyone who went to school got into a competitive college, and went from there to a lifelong job with a prestigious company and a comfortably middle-class standard of living in even the most prosperous years. Far from it. However, the realities of credentialing crisis, higher structural unemployment, contingent employment and generally stagnant incomes and decreasing job security, made both the goal and the means for attaining it seem much less plausible than before--and retreat a more attractive option.

However, such writers rarely seem to delve very deeply into those troubles. This makes their discussion less persuasive because what happened in Japan also happened pretty much everywhere else.

Still, it may be that the shock was sharper in Japan's case. To go by the data, it may be said that the post-war boom that came to a halt in much of the world in the early '70s lasted two decades longer there.1 And on the whole the change in incomes and living standards was larger. Where per capita income in the U.S. doubled between 1945 and 1991, it rose fourteen-fold in Japan during those same years.

This was in part a reflection of the fact that Japan was so much further behind the wealthiest nations at the start of this period; and of the fact that where the U.S. had boomed during World War II, Japan was devastated, per capita GDP in 1945 reduced to about half the 1940 level. Still, the longer duration of the boom years, and the more dramatic expansion of prosperity, doubtless had an effect on expectations. So did the massive stock-and-real estate bubble of those last years of the boom, which likely made things seem even rosier than they were (even if it was mainly a case of the rich getting richer).

And just as the period of growth was more dramatic, so was the stagnation that followed it. The "lost decade" of the '90s never quite came to an end, growth in the last two-and-a-half decades consistently feeble, even when measured by the common experience of other industrialized nations.2

In short, the boom in Japan was longer and more spectacular than in just about any other industrialized country, followed by a seemingly overnight transition to stagnation that was lengthier and deeper than in just about any other industrialized country, almost as if a switch had been flicked. The inflation and puncturing of a historic bubble amplified the effect. And so hard enough as the shift from boom to bust was elsewhere, one may imagine that it was even harder here.

Making matters worse, it is not the middle-aged Company Man but the new job-seeker just out of school who is most exposed to the shock, so that they feel it all that much more--and get that much less understanding from their elders. The difference in personal experience between one generation and another likely meant that when the son or daughter was in the unenviable position of answering the question "Why don't you have a job yet?" mom and dad were much less likely to get it--especially with the Japanese media breathlessly stigmatizing and scapegoating "freeters," "NEETs" and others who, for whatever reason, do not conform to societal expectations, a tendency which did not change in line with the new economic realities.

Does that explain everything about the situation? Of course not. But the more extreme pattern of the boom-and-bust, and the inevitable lagging of social attitudes behind it (which would seem commensurately extreme), does seem something to take into account when talking about how the economic situation contributes to a pattern of social withdrawal.

1. According to the statistics at the Maddison Project, between 1973 and 1991 American per capita GDP grew at the rate of about 1.8 percent a year, but the rate was 3 percent a year in Japan, more like what the U.S. had in its boom years.
2. The Maddison data indicate that per capita income growth in Japan was 0.7 percent a year--compared with 1.5 percent a year in the U.S..

Thomas Piketty and Pop Culture

Most reviewers (at any rate, those who do not instantly react with hostility to the mere idea of the project) seem to agree that Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is hugely impressive as a round-up of the available data on the subject of inequality.

It has been more vulnerable on the question of its analysis of that data. (James K. Galbraith had the measure of its weaknesses in his review.1)

However, the book is nonetheless packed with interesting and at times quite persuasive observations and arguments.

One surprise was the attention Piketty devoted to cultural depictions of wealth. Certainly his most extensive discussions of this type are of novels by Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac (particularly Sense and Sensibility and Pere Goriot). However, he also pays attention to more recent work--perhaps appropriately turning his attention from novels to American television. As he notes, explicit monetary reference has become less common as a result of inflation confusing the significance of numbers over even short periods of time.

More significantly, he notes that rentiers have been less common. Instead inequality is consistently presented, and justified, as a function of "disparities with respect to work, wages and skills . . . based on merit, education and the social utility of elites."

Not only does it often seem as if "everyone" in television dramas a member of a prestigious profession, but they tend to be at the top of that profession--a top litigator at a blue-chip firm, or a celebrated surgeon, for example. Corporate gods and tech billionaires are a dime a dozen. And their status is always made out to be a reflection not of the advantages of privileged birth, familial connections, school ties, mealy-mouthed careerist conformism, old-fashioned corruption, or sheer good luck, but their extraordinary personal excellence, first, last and always.

Indeed, "everyone" constantly name-drops the elite institutions with which they have been affiliated, on the basis of pure merit, it would seem, since "everyone" was first in their class, wherever it was they went. "Everyone" with a fortune is self-made, through extraordinary entrepreneurship, and very likely also the extraordinary technical skill that enabled them to invent something. And as if their career accomplishments are not enough, "everyone" speaks a dozen languages, plays the piano like a virtuoso, fences like Cyrano, fights like Bruce Lee, pilots their own plane and recites Shakespeare from memory (never mind when they would have had the time to learn all this), all while being immaculately groomed and unfailingly articulate in a way that somehow real-life CEOs, billionaires and chief executives (a Donald Trump, a Silvio Berlusconi, a Taro Aso) never seem to be.

Indeed, Piketty observes that "It is not unreasonable to interpret such series' as offering a hymn to a just inequality." And I suspect how one responds to such a hymn might be a factor in how we respond to such shows. Might it be that being beaten over the head with this "hymn to inequality" is a factor in the boredom or resentment so many feel toward Mary Sue and Gary Stu characters, unacknowledged in any explicit way because of a reticence to talking about inequality or class? It seems an idea worth considering.

1. The most important of these is that Piketty's book is "about the valuation placed on tangible and financial assets," rather than capital, as well as the distribution of those assets through time, and the inheritance of wealth from one generation to the next"--and that while it mostly covers this well, it is a more limited thing than the work's apparent "ambitions," or its "title, length, and reception" suggest.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Remembering the Battle of Britain

Along with the fall of the Third Republic and the founding of Vichy, July 10 marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Britain--which is, of course, being commemorated in quite a different fashion.

I was recently surprised to read that half (or more) of Britons aged 18 to 24 surveyed did not know what the Battle of Britain was.

Perhaps it was a surprise because, while in the U.S. we hear such stories all the time, we are less used to such news from other countries.

However, it may also be a matter of the impression we often get in the U.S. of the attitude toward history in Britain--in particular, that while Americans are uninterested in, British society is utterly steeped in the memory of the past, and not least that of World War II.

I think, for instance, of Simon Winder's book The Man Who Saved Britain, and his recounting of his childhood, which seemed utterly saturated with the war.

Of course, Winder (born in 1963) belonged to a different generation which, if it did not actually experience the war itself, was still surrounded by people who had been deeply affected by the conflict.

After all, Britain fought the war for six years--much longer than, for example, the United States did. Not only did some five million Britons served in uniform, but the civilian population was subject to extended periods of aerial bombing, which killed tens of thousands, and destroyed the homes and disrupted the lives of many more, so that a good many of them were driven to live in air-raid shelters. (Some people were even born in air-raid shelters. Jerry Springer was one of them.) U-boats stalked the surrounding seas, making even the food supply precarious. Between bomb damage and sunken ships, between the running down of the country's plant amid an all-out production effort and the sell-off of foreign assets, the country lost a quarter of its wealth (according to the official report, anyway), amassed vast new debts, went bankrupt. The result was that its people were subject to rationing, not just during the war, but for many years afterward.

And as one might expect from such a conflict, it had profound consequences: the end of world power status, and empire, and the old world order. It meant a change in the old order at home, too--Labor Britain, the post-war consensus. Some didn't much like this. (Ian Fleming was of them.) Others, more numerous one imagines but less privileged and so less likely to be heard, were more sanguine. But in either case this meant a very different world, and these events not the sort quickly forgotten.

However, today one would have to have lived beyond the usual life expectancy to have a memory of having held any position of real, official responsibility during the war. Anyone under seventy-five has no personal memory of the war years whatsoever. Anyone under sixty cannot even remember rationing or conscription.

The result is that the war, and even its aftermath, have long been receding beyond the mental horizon of most of those living now, in and out of Britain. Increasingly become the sort of thing one knows not firsthand, or even secondhand from the people around them, but only from history class, material learned for the test and then promptly forgotten, unless one particularly cares to remember--a thing that even the presence of such events in film and on television (say, Spitfires shooting it out with Daleks on Doctor Who) may obscure.

Just like the Battle of Waterloo, about which even fewer people know, to go by a survey for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo.

A lot of people seem to think that one's simply an Abba song.

Review: The Collapse of the Third Republic, by William L. Shirer

New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969, pp. 1082.

Discussing William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry Into the Fall of France in 1940, it is difficult to avoid comparing it to his better-known book on Nazi Germany. Indeed, the book's jacket encourages it, the hardcover edition describing Collapse as a work which "complements and completes the dramatic story of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."

In fairness, Shirer's focus here is narrower--not the rise and fall of an empire, however short-lived, but an examination of a single military defeat and its aftermath, that of the French in May and June 1940, an event now taken for granted, and even regarded as all too predictable, but which at the time staggered observers. (Indeed, one reason the Germans had no plan for invading Britain was that the speed and degree of Germany's success took Berlin completely by surprise.) However, as the sheer size of the book (1,082 pages) suggests, Shirer plunges fairly deeply into French history for his answer, The Collapse of the Third Republic actually beginning with the troubled birth of the Third Republic. Additionally, he devotes more time to the broader situation. While too good a historian to overlook the larger context, Shirer's account in Rise and Fall was tightly focused on the principal players, particularly Hitler and his collaborators, and their machinations. Here, one gets a broader vision of the seven-decade life of the Republic.

In Shirer's account the early decades of the Republic's history saw France emerge--or more properly, reemerge--as a modern industrial power, and leading light of world culture. However, they were also a period of bitter struggle between republican and royalist, state and Church, worker and bourgeois, which time and again pointed up the republic's weak foundations. Almost as if the Old Regime were only a recent memory, aristocrats and churchmen wished to see a king on the throne again, and for the religious orders to have the run of the schools. The great mass of working people had little say in political life, and little share in the country's material progress, the country a laggard in areas like the recognition of organized labor or the organization of a welfare state. (Indeed, Shirer terms the French working class the most alienated in Europe, which is really saying something.) And even the bourgeoisie which did so much to establish republicanism in France, and did very well for themselves out of the new order, were little more attached to it, certainly not enough to pay taxes for it, or make slight concessions to the less privileged majority, preferring instead to look to potential dictators as soon as the lower classes got troublesome. Thus the country went from crisis to crisis--Boulanger, Dreyfus, fiscal policies and financial scandals that even in this age can scarcely be believed--while getting new governments with alarming frequency. (In about seventy years there were eighty-five Prime Ministers, or about one every ten months.)

Still, important as events inside France were, there was also the importance of larger, thoroughly international events--World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, all of which reacted upon France's own internal politics, which in turn reacted upon those events. The wartime experience created widespread pacifist sentiment, and drove French military practice away from extreme fixation on the offensive to equally extreme fixation on the defensive. The Russian Revolution increased the right's anxieties about the left—and especially when the Depression deepened the clash of classes, made it more dubious about the Republic, more conciliatory toward Hitler, less willing to ally with the Soviets. For its part, the French Communist Party's adherence to Moscow's shifting line (especially after Molotov-Ribbentrop) put it in opposition to confrontation with Germany. And all of it combined to make consensus impossible year in, year out, helping to create the geo-strategic situation the country faced in 1939--as well as determining the way in which the French army ended up fighting its war, and the French polity dealt with the subsequent military defeat. Indeed, by page two hundred the worldwide economic and political crisis of the '30s already prevails over the more narrowly domestic developments, and the broader effort of the great powers to check Hitler is at the center of the narrative, the decisions taken in Britain, Belgium, Poland, the Soviet Union increasingly driving events.

This attention to three-quarters of a century of history, and the broader international scene, gives Collapse an undeniable sweep, combined with intricate detail--arguably a greater concern for the casual reader than it was in the case of the comparatively voluminous Rise and Fall. Where the essentials of Nazi Germany's history are likely to be well-known to even the general reader of history in the English language (that book is unlikely to be the first time they have heard of the name "Hitler," or even the Beer Hall Putsch or the Reichstag Fire), the history of France in these years is rather less likely to figure in their general knowledge--the names, the events comparatively unfamiliar. (I have to admit that my own knowledge of, for example, the February 1934 riots in Paris was fairly scanty.)

Of course, as Shirer leaves the more narrowly national history behind for the broader international situation, the outlines, at least, become more familiar. However, in the book's second half, as the war begins, we increasingly get densely written operational history--a torrent of names of commanders, units, sites of battles and movements, with much reference to "flanks" and plenty of maps with arrows on them pointing this way and that. This sort of thing can be difficult enough to follow when what is described is an eighteenth century battle fought over the course of a day in the space of a field between two armies numbering in the thousands. It is far more difficult when, as in the chapters describing the Battle of France (Chapters 29 to 32), what is discussed is a collision of millions of soldiers in hundreds of divisions organized in multiple armies in a weeks-long campaign ranging over a large portion of northwestern Europe--and when the situation is so confused on one side as it is on that of the Allies, French commanders time and again issuing orders to whole armies that had ceased to exist. Comprising a fifth of the book, it was at times overwhelming (even though I had read several accounts of this campaign before, if mainly from the British or German perspective, rather than the French). The final chapters, which turn back to the machinations at the very top of the French government after the rout of its army (the mismanagement of the final resistance, the decision to pursue an armistice rather than fight on from North Africa), are nearly as involved.

It all makes for a lengthy and demanding read, perhaps too much so to be very helpful as an introduction to this subject, but it does add up to a fairly comprehensive picture of the factors (domestic division, strategic blunders, outdated military doctrine, etc.) that combined in France's, and the Allies', rapid, ignominious defeat, and the formation of the subsequent armistice. And if the detail gets very thick in places (as in the more purely military history), it also enables Shirer to rise above vague generalities to offer the nuts and bolts of how the weaknesses of the Third Republic's strategic situation, internal composition and army led to cascading, concatenating failure. Along with the fact that Shirer writes not just as a historian sifting through archives and conducting interviews after the fact, but also as a journalist who covered many of the key events (he was there in Paris during the 1934 riots, there in the audience as Hitler speechified, there with the German Sixth Army as it rolled into Paris, there when the Armistice was signed), it also provides him many an opportunity to lend color, nuance and interest to the account that it might not otherwise have enjoyed.

Consequently, almost a half century after Shirer wrote the book, The Collapse of the Third Republic remains an illuminating account not just of a crucial period in French history, but a crucial juncture in world history. The fall of France, after all, by leaving Germany without continental opposition in the west, enabling it to besiege Britain and, later, turn east against the Soviet Union; by bringing Italy into the fight on Germany's side; by making the European empires in Asia appear vulnerable to Japan in a way they had not just a short time earlier; and compelling increasingly open and large-scale American intervention; was what made a limited European war the totalistic world war of 1939-1945, the consequences of which we are still sorting out today.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Germany in Japanese Culture: Bernd Martin's Take

Watching anime, it can often seem that Germany and German culture are a rather significant presence--much more than an American might expect, at any rate, be it in Japanese steampunk (as with a number of Hayao Miyazaki movies), or Western characters in contemporary-set anime (a surprising number of them being German or part-German).

Interestingly, despite the oft-cited parallels between the two countries (whether as rising powers of the late nineteenth centuries, revisionist and fascistic powers in the 1930s, allies in the Axis of the 1940s, post-war scenes of American occupation, or much-hyped economic superpowers in the 1980s), not much has been written about the relationship between the two countries. A rare exception is Bernd Martin's fascinating book Japan and Germany in the Modern World--a collection of that scholar's previously published articles about the subject.

In the long article, "Fatal Affinities: The German Role in the Modernization of Japan in the Early Period (1868-1895) and Its Aftermath," he offers his fullest treatment of the subject. During these years, he notes, Japan's leaders, in the midst of the Meiji Restoration and strenuous, top-down efforts to emulate Western nations, considered several models--the United States, Britain, France, Germany--and found Germany the most attractive.

This was, in part, a function of Germany's successes these years--Germany's defeat of the highly regarded French army in the Franco-Prussian War, its revolutionary advances in science and technology (e.g. the modern chemical industry), its rapid rise to the status of industrial superpower, for example. However, as Martin notes, other factors were involved. One was that in contrast with the United States, which had sent Commodore Perry and his "black ships," and imperial Britain and France (which had only recently attacked China in the Second Opium War), Germany seemed less threatening to Japanese independence than the other Western nations, and potentially an ally in its efforts to assert its own sovereignty (an area in which Germany never quite lived up to Japanese hopes).

The other, even more important factor may have been that not just German political ambitions but the German social model seemed less threatening. Japan's revolution, after all, was an intensely conservative one, the country's leaders intent on preserving the traditional social structure--because, above all else, their concern was for the preservation of the privileges that structure afforded them. In comparison with republican America and France, and the liberal constitutional monarchy Britain presented, Germany's more authoritarian, militarized political and social order--centered on the imperial ruling house of the Hohenzollerns and its associated, feudalistic aristocracy (the Junkers) behind its pretense of constitutionality--seemed to hold out the hope of reconciling that structure with Industrial Era economic and military power.

Perhaps the most conspicuous expression of this was Japanese reformers patterning their country's new constitution ob the German model. However, it also manifested itself in subtler ways. Japan did not get very many more of its foreign advisers from Germany than it did other Western nations, but those advisers did have more influence--for instance, in their role in the founding years of Tokyo University. The country's reformers were also more inclined to send their nation's young people to study in Germany than elsewhere, thinking it a culturally "safer" environment. Additionally, after initially opting to emulate France's army, civil service and education system, or America's schools, the reformers later turned to the German model in all of these areas. Unsurprisingly in the wake of all this, German philosophies, theories and practices enjoyed commensurately greater currency in Japanese intellectual life than those of these other Western nations. German political economy, for example, encouraged a more statist economic model aimed at maximizing national power, with foreign policy successes substituting for domestic freedom, general prosperity or popular sovereignty as a source of legitimacy for the rulers.

Bernd regards the choice as a fateful one, setting the country on an undemocratic, imperial and militaristic course that led both Germany and Japan directly to the catastrophe of 1945, and the demise of that social structure they had sought to preserve.

As Martin owns, his research has some limitations--not least, his lack of access to Japanese sources, which is grounds for some caution. Additionally, Germany can hardly seem the sole foreign influence on the development of Japanese imperialism--this, after all, having been a period where this was the practice for every major power, even among much more liberal nations. Indeed, as a resource-poor island nation off the coast of Eurasia which built up a large navy and pursued colonies on the mainland, its situation evokes Britain much more than Germany--and the fact remains that Japan did emulate Britain when building up its navy (if only because Germany had virtually no navy to imitate until the late 1890s). Still, it is an interesting thesis with considerable explanatory power, not just for Japan's history over the last century and a half, but for what we see in its popular culture today, Germany's presence a legacy of that earlier period.

Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry

My new book, Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry, is now available for sale at Amazon in electronic and print editions.

It is also live on Google Books, where you can also check it out.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The American Box Office, First Half of 2015

As far as the performance of the top-grossing movies at the American box office goes, this year has been considerably better than the last. The highest earner of 2014, American Sniper ($350 million), actually got its wide release on January 16, 2015, and made its money afterward, while it has already been outgrossed by three still higher-earning movies--Furious 7 (by just a hair), Avengers: Age of Ultron ($454 million), and Jurassic World ($558 million), which is shaping up to be one of the biggest hits of all time.

Avengers, admittedly, did not do quite so well as had been hoped in light of the original's mammoth gross, but even today no one can really be too disappointed with $450 million in the bank (let alone the $1.4 billion it has taken globally), while the new Fast and Furious and Jurassic Park films both performed way, way above expectations. (Furious 7 has to date made more than the hugely successful fifth and sixth installments in the series combined, while Jurassic World has already outgrossed the original Jurassic Park, at the time the biggest ever moneymaker, in inflation-adjusted terms.)

Interestingly, it has also been a good year for the R-rated movies that, in this century, have only infrequently numbered among the big hits. Besides American Sniper, there has been Fifty Shades of Grey, which also has the distinction of being the first real sex-based blockbuster since the days when Sharon Stone and Demi Moore were headlining feature films. Max Max: Fury Road has been another kind of recent rarity, the successful R-rated action movie, and while they will almost surely not retain those places at year's end, for now they occupy the #8 and #10 positions on the BoxOfficeMojo list. Doing only slightly less well are two more R-rated films--incidentally, both of them spy-themed action-comedies, Kingsman and Spy (the #13 and #14 hits, respectively).

Still, even if this year has had its share of high earners and above-expectations performances, it has also had its disappointments. Most were relatively low-budgeted, low-profile releases (Aloha, Unfinished Business--I barely even knew they existed), but Jupiter Ascending was a nearly $200 million production that failed to gross its budget (which leaves a movie just halfway to making its budget back), killed off the prospects of the once-planned trilogy, and dealt the once celebrated Wachowski name another blow.

Less dramatic, but similarly telling, was the mediocre performance of the Entourage movie--a reminder that the phenomenon was less popular hit and more monument to Hollywood's colossal self-absorption (and in this case, Mark Wahlberg's colossal self-absorption). The result was that, rather than letting the audience live out a Hollywood fantasy, it was what Josh Krup rightly called
the most taunting show in TV history. Shallow Hollywood jagoffs can get all the free booze, drugs, and booty they want, simply because they’re either good looking or once starred in the 1988 remake of The Blob, while the rest of us Joe and Jill Student Loans have to pay for bad beer and even worse sex. "Entourage" shows us what we’re missing, and rubs our faces in their asses that have never felt the horrific touch of $.69 toilet paper.
And it was badly, obnoxiously written to boot.

Thus far, Ted 2 has not been doing as well as the original (just $58 million in the till after ten days of release, about half what the original had). And to go by this weekend's results, one also cannot expect very much for Terminator 5 (aka, Terminator: Genisys), which has just $44 million to show for the first five days, and does not seem likely to have legs. Indeed, it seems likely to be this year's answer to Die Hard 5--another classic '80s action series that hung around for at least one installment too many. Still, even if the American gross will be less than overwhelming, the foreign earnings (already about twice what it's made in the U.S.) are likely to keep the movie from being in the red when all is said and done.

On the whole, though, this is not a summer which will end with the entertainment press tearing its hair and gnashing its teeth about slow ticket sales the way they have done in so many recent years--though the quality of the films may be another matter . . .

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