Didn’t get your fill of electoral goodness? Read this book to see how politicians made it happen in 1960. Read more at my blog…
Didn’t get your fill of electoral goodness? Read this book to see how politicians made it happen in 1960. Read more at my blog…
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Weird Fantasy, Politics, Bas-Lag
I’ve been having some trouble getting traction on this review. Not because I don’t know what to say about the book, but because everything I’d say has already been said. If you go to the Wiki page for Iron Council you’ll find a fantastic summary of the events of the book, along with snippets of some of the better reviews, both positive and negative. They touch on the book’s overt politics, it’s relatively anemic setting development and the unique perspective China Miéville brings to the fantasy genre. I’ve been somewhat verbose on these topics in my other reviews of Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels. But between those and the internet’s surfeit of quality opinion, I’m finding myself without much to say.
What should be said is that Iron Council is an excellent book, in spite of critical opinion. It is a less than stellar entry in the Bas-Lag sequence of books but it still stands well on its own. It is also exemplar of Miéville’s literary philosophy and worth reading for that reason alone. It is probably the most political piece of fantasy you’ll ever read, stuffed to the brim with socialist rhetoric, liberal ideals and a cast of dissidents and nonconformists. But if you don’t let the message get in the way of the great story and Iron Council will start to feel a whole lot more like Perdido Street Station.
Amazon: “Beijing, sometime in the near future: a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the Chinese nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn—not only about their leaders, but also about their own people—stuns them to the core. It is a message that will astound the world.
A kind of Brave New World reflecting the China of our times, The Fat Years is a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future.”
This book is allegedly banned in China, and no wonder: it’s a chilling story that blends fiction and reality to construct an image of modern China, and if not China of exactly today, then the China of ~5 years from now. The novel introduces several characters with a range of lifestyles, motivations, and adaptations to the realpolitik of the Communist Party. The protagonist is not himself prone to revolutionary ideas, but he finds himself “taking the red pill” when he chooses to pursue a woman who has gone into hiding out of protection from the Party. He is one of those who has “forgotten” the lost month, but the woman he loves and a few other friends from the past remember vividly the crackdowns and fear that the government appears to have completely erased. When he falls in with them, he doesn’t begin to remember with complete clarity what happened, as they do, but he better understands his periodic feelings of unease and disillusionment with the seeming happiness and naiveté around him.
As a psuedo-documentary, this book works really well. The characters are fictional, and the specific conflict in the story (alleged government orchestration of an entire month being erased from public consciousness and history) is also fictional. However, the suggestions of power hierarchies and international political maneuvering are 100% believable, if not based in literal truth — and they might very well be, but I can’t consider myself suitably well-informed on the interactions of the Party and middle-class Chinese to know for sure.
As a fictional novel, the pacing and structure are a little lacking. The “big reveal” when the characters kidnap the Party leader takes place as an enormous infodump that spans close to twenty pages (I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s quite a lot,) and though it’s effective in the “pseudo-documentary” format I mentioned above, as a climax to the story it’s too overwhelming in scope to be punchy and effective. The characters do get the answer to their question, and then essentially the novel ends, but when “the answer to the question” reads like a senior thesis on contemporary Chinese politics, the effect on me at the end of the book was like “What just happened?”
Overall, I’d recommend this book as it was absolutely interesting and revealing. Be prepared for the quick shift from fiction to (alleged) nonfiction at the end, though.
Political satire is hard to do well. One runs the risk of steering too far into silliness, or ends up making the story one big soap-box-monologue for the author’s personal beliefs. Luckily, James Warner does a serviceable job of avoiding these traps in his novel, All Her Father’s Guns.
In it, British ex-pat Reid Seyton is asked by his girlfriend’s father, Cal Lyte, to help derail his ex-wife’s 2010 congressional campaign. “Perhaps I could have said no, I didn’t want to get involved,” Reid says. “But helping keep Tabytha out of Congress felt like my civic duty. Tabytha made Cal look positively left-wing.”
The point-of-view switches back and forth between Reid and Cal. Cal is a libertarian venture capitalist who has made barrels of money in the corporate world. Reid is a professor in the “Department of Theory” at a California university. Its function is to “transgress the boundaries” between various humanities, and it focuses on “the theoretical developments rendering those boundaries untenable.”
It’s intellectual wankery, in other words.
Reid’s position isn’t looking so solid after a round of budget cuts. Helping Cal seems like a good enough distraction, and he even refers Cal to a “Lacanian” therapist from his department, a Romanian woman named Viorela. Cal would also like to find direction in his life, and Reid theorizes (of course), “the saddest part was that, like many people who claim to defy authority, Cal was really only awaiting an authority that would prove irresistible.”
Naturally, Cal finds Viorella’s commanding manner transfixing. Meanwhile, Reid finds out his girlfriend, Lyllyan, is pregnant, and Tabytha Lyte is out there being the Arizona version of Sarah Palin with the craziness turned up to eleven. She has to “liberate the Middle East from the A-rabs,” dontcha know?
There was an ongoing wave of redistricting going on that favored Republicans. Congress had all the subtlety of toddlers cheating at Candy Land.
If it seems like there is a lot going on, and that there are a lot of ridiculous names, that’s because there are. I am not sure why Warner chose so many names spelled with Ys or why there are also women named “Catriona,” “Keana” and “Tintinella,” while the men are named “Tad,” “Bruno,” and “Vernon.” I don’t know if the names serve a function, or are meant to mirror the pulls between left-wing and right, but they were mostly distracting.
What works for this book is that it isn’t very long. Yes, that sounds harsh on the surface, but the brisk pace kept the story amusing, rather than inspiring thoughts of “WTF am I reading? And why?” Warner could have gone even further with the political postulating and used all of the narrative as his own mouth piece, but he mostly keeps it to character. In a bit of dramatic irony, we know that the intellectual Reid and the reactionary Cal are meant to meet in the middle, having had their views challenged during all the ensuing chaos.
What I hoped for was something more akin to the film In the Loop, which is political-bungling satire at its best, and also features English characters. I realize that Warner is also an ex-pat, but forgive me for saying that Reid did not feel all that English. Apart from his brother turning up and dropping a few slang words, it’s easy to forget that aspect of his character. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of being in the country a certain amount of time, but I wanted more Englishness than a reserved disposition.
Overall though, All Her Father’s Guns is a quick bit of entertainment, one that might have been stronger with the focus given to just a few ridiculous elements, rather than a hundred. While I would not say it’s been one of my recent favorites, I still enjoyed reading it. Knowing what we do about the current election climate, the book’s election concerns are somewhat nostalgic relief.
Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author. I thank him for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews. This review also appeared on Glorified Love Letters.
Wars are a quite paradoxical concept. It is a litany of violence and base ruthlessness, unbecoming of civilized societies, yet we try so hard to dress it up as one. We impose rules on our combatants and the enemy’s, drawing the line between a certain method of brutality against another, weighting this life and that, not only in the practical sense, but in the moral sense. We fight today, not because of instinctual needs and wants, but for lofty goals, vague and intangible goals, like democracy and peace and stability. We fight because we strive to be better men, only to drag ourselves through the mud.
Gideon Rose’s book, How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle does not seek to answer the question of why wars are started and fought, but more on the exact reasoning and implications of the process that leads America to end the wars and conflicts it has involved itself in for the last century, from World War I to the current quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a fascinating concept, a look back at how American policy has changed and stayed throughout history, trying to assemble the puzzle that is America’s foreign policy, and figure out what needs to be done for the future. It’s too bad the author happens to come off as a boring, overly-sophisticated twit.
It cannot be denied that Rose is more than qualified to write about the subject, with his experience as a member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, various teaching position of foreign policy at Princeton and Columbia, and his current tenure as the editor of Foreign Affair. However, he comes off from his writing as a pompous man with a hard-on for ten-dollar words and contempt for the uninformed. He expects his readers to fully know the history behind it all, choosing only to analyze the implications and the glimpses of perceived reasons behind certain actions, choosing only to clarify an astounding amount of facts via endnotes referring to official documents and a sizable explanation of the subject. It is not uncommon to see about eighty footnotes throughout a certain chapter, which begs the question of why Rose couldn’t have simply taken the time in the book to inform its readers. It all comes off as exclusionary, a certain amusement-park restriction of “you-must-know-this-much-to-enter”, which seems counterproductive to a book meant to educate.
Rose’s neutral tone doesn’t help matters, either. It is admirable how consistently Rose keeps his book objective, focusing only on the plain facts and the reasoning behind it all, while still unfailing to mention the various opinionated theories regarding the subject and discussing their pros and cons. It does make for a broad view, one that seems appropriate for a book of this scope, even though certain facts (that Rose considers important to the point) does get repeated quite frequently to the point of redundancy. The problem is that this robs the book of any personality, failing to hold interest of any readers for far too long. It becomes a chore to read, a lecture that never ends, because it continues on as long as you choose to read. I understand Rose’s intention, of keeping an objective tone, which he succeeds, but because his narrative lacks personality and due to the aforementioned feeling of exclusionary standards, Rose comes off as a dry, robotic, “elitist” twit, like if Robocop started wearing tight jeans and listened to the Velvet Underground sung by Peruvian folk musicians.
(I have no idea what hipsters listen to, apparently.)
Once one gets past all that, however, it does make for a fascinating read, if purely due to the subject matter. From the naïve hope of the Wilson administration to the shady, populist-minded Nixon administration to the undisciplined Bush administration, it sheds light on what so many history textbooks and contemporary media doesn’t delve too deeply into. While the book does seem out-of-date (it was published in 2010, meaning it doesn’t talk about the death of bin Laden and the withdrawal in Iraq), it still puts many things, especially our current military and foreign policy into focused clarity. It is a worthwhile read, if one can get past the mediocre writing.
Not my favorite administration or person, but overall a good political autobiography. Heavy on the foreign affairs, obviously. Read more at my blog …