• The Vikings

    The Vikings
    Robert Ferguson

    There are lots of questions we still have about the Vikings because they didn’t leave much in the way of contemporary written records. Even taken all together, their runes don’t add up to much. Archaeologists can reconstruct much of their physical culture — houses and ships and weapons — but their intellectual history is harder to track. This is, however, a subject Robert Ferguson doesn’t shy away from in this history that reconstructs Viking history partly through its own (later) historiography, focusing on the transformation of Viking religion from Heathen to Christian and the gradual absorption of Viking culture into the European legal and political mainstream. What continues to puzzle me is not what drove them but just how the Vikings were so successful in establishing their far-flung and long-lasting diaspora. That Europe was weak and divided and the Vikings unified and well-organized is one thing, but shouldn’t explain 300 years of such dominance. I still find it a puzzle.

  • The Peripheral

    By William Gibson

    William Gibson is one of the smartest writers around. This doesn’t mean he’s difficult, but he can be hard to keep up with.

    The Peripheral starts off by throwing the reader into the deep end of a complex story set in a future world rich in highly-advanced technology. Or actually two future worlds. Only gradually do the pieces fall into place and you begin to understand what is going on.

    The narrative is a tale of two futures, one fairly close to our own time and the other a bit further out. Gibson alternates between them but they are connected. Time travel hasn’t been invented, but there is a way to send information backward and forward in time so that you can communicate with different “continua.”

    A continua is any timeline, including alternate realities created by cross-temporal signallings. You see, once you communicate with an earlier time you change it, creating a “fork in causality,” with the new branch being “causally unique.” These bastard continua branches are called “stubs.”

    The final essential bit of nomenclature is “peripheral,” which is a mechanical avatar that someone from the near future can project his consciousness into and inhabit in the far future. Consciousness just being another form of information, it is able to do the time warp thing where our bodies can’t.

    If that sounds complicated, and full of the sort of time-travel paradoxes you expect from the genre, what makes things even more disorienting is that you have to wait a while before it finally gets explained. Gibson is not an author much given to exposition, and prefers readers to figure things out for themselves.

    Once you get a handle on what’s going on, however, you can settle in and enjoy one of Gibson’s best books yet: fast-paced and chock full of fascinating speculations into not only what the future will look like, but how it will work.

    In the near future timeline a young woman named Flynne Fisher gets involved in a case of far-future murder when someone from that continua reaches out to put the touch on her. It seems a high-profile society woman has been spectacularly disassembled, and the investigation needs Flynne as a witness to discover whodunit and why.

    Both futures are crammed with the kind of technological and political details that Gibson loves to describe. Even getting a breakfast burrito in a drive-through turns into quite a complex adventure.

    In the near future, Flynne’s world, the economy seems to be based mainly on an advanced form of 3-D printing and the manufacture of artificial drugs (a process called “building”).

    In this ragged new post-industrial America, the business of “making things” has become decentralized and apolitical. There are surveillance drones constantly circling overhead, but no clear legal authority is in operation. “Homes” (homeland security) has an over-the-horizon presence, but local law enforcement apparently goes to the highest bidder.

    Skipping ahead, the far future is a radically depopulated place due to an event referred to as the Jackpot that has wiped out a good percentage of the human race. As with Flynne’s world, no one entity has a monopoly on violence, which makes things rather dangerous. There’s a state police force, but robber barons, subsecond financial traders, oligarchs, and corrupt politicians all seem to have private enclaves and power bases within the deep state.

    Paranoia and technology go hand-in-glove in Gibson, along with a sense of chaos bubbling just under the surface of things. Few of the actors in The Peripheral seem to have any idea who is pulling whose strings, and at times you have the sense that nobody is, and that technology itself is in the driver’s seat. Adding to this sense of uncertainty is the complexity of the plot and Gibson’s jittery, unconventional prose. Readers who don’t pay attention will soon be lost.

    Gibson is not a difficult writer but he is demanding, and here those demands are well rewarded. The Peripheral is intellectual entertainment of the first order, a pop SF thriller that will make you think.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star November 14, 2014.

  • The Innovators

    By Walter Isaacson

    Some of us can still remember a time when the Internet was being dismissed as a lot of hype over nothing.

    Those days are gone. The Internet was actually bigger than advertised, and has had an impact that may be turn out to be greater than that of the industrial revolution. It truly changed everything: culture, economics, politics, and even how we think and relate to one another.

    And it all happened so fast: from the invention of the first computer to an entirely wired world in a single lifespan.

    The digital revolution had many parents, including, yes, Al Gore. In The Innovators Walter Isaacson provides a full accounting of how it happened. This involves both unpacking the Internet’s genealogy as well as accounting for all of its component parts and industries: computers, microchips, transistors, software, personal computers, and more.

    It is a giant undertaking. A great deal of complex science and technology has to be very quickly explained, and there are nearly a hundred pocket biographies of key innovators to get through along the way.

    By taking a general approach Isaacson highlights how historical forces, individual talent, and technology all had to come together to create the current digital dispensation. This means the book sometimes reads more like a reference work than a narrative history, but it nevertheless provides an accessible overview of a subject the intricacies of which are beyond the ken of most of us. And it also allows Isaacson to conduct an inquiry into a matter of special interest: Where did all this innovation come from?

    Isaacson presents two models for innovation: solitary creative genius and collaborative teamwork. He argues both are necessary, but in the end he is clear that collaboration is the most important. “Innovation is not a loner’s endeavor.” Scientific breakthroughs were of course necessary, but engineers were also needed to put the big ideas of the digital revolution into practice, and business savvy was required to bring the product to market.

    The revolution was underwritten by necessity and demand. Whether development was being undertaken by the military, universities, or corporations (the so-called “iron triangle” of the military-industrial-academic complex), what we got was a revolution we wanted, coming in the form of ever smaller, cheaper, faster, and more attractive devices.

    This is an important point. There can be different paths to the same innovation: the basic science and many of the essential developments of the digital revolution (like the computer and the microchip) were arrived at nearly simultaneously in various places. But the direction innovation was driven in was largely the result of consumer choices. As has been observed before, technology opens a door but doesn’t force us to go through. Consciously or not, we build our own future, and direct our own social evolution.

    Isaacson’s interest is in the history of the digital revolution and not where it may be taking us. Nevertheless, he does try to project some of the trends he examines into the future.

    What he would like to see going forward is a digital environment strengthened by human factors: “values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, emotions, personal consciousness, and a moral sense.” In other words, a wedding of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” of science and the humanities, linking “beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.”

    That is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Current trends, however, are not promising. Indeed, things seem to keep moving in another direction entirely.

    The cultural economy has been severely disrupted by the digital revolution, and despite the best efforts of many concerned experts in the field (a couple of recent survival guides being Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? and Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free) there are few clear or convincing ideas on the table for how a creative class will be able to sustain itself in the future. Going viral is a windfall, not a career. University enrollment in the arts continues to decline, as the squeezed middle class reads the tea leaves and sees the humanities as a professional dead end.

    Still, innovation can take many forms, and the “human factor” is adaptable. Our technology has been speeding ahead of us, but we may have time yet to catch up to our machines.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star December 26, 2014.

  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

    The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
    John Godey

    Yes, the world is a more “politically correct” place than it was in 1973, the year this seminal heist novel came out. But I think Godey (pen name of Morton Freedgood) got a kick out of going inside the heads of his characters and revealing the racism whirring along like a gerbil on a running wheel. Race was more directly political then (as opposed to politically correct), what with the Panthers and other movements. As a result the hijacked subway car is not a melting pot but a patchwork quilt of clashing identities, all of them waiting for the Man to do his thing. 1973 was also before New York was cleaned up and gentrified/Disneyfied/corporatized, and the ethnic anger suits the atmosphere of sleaze and violence. ’70s noir lived in (or under) these NYC streets and not the freeways of L.A. It was an environment that had less glamour and more human and urban blight. Another distinguishing feature was the emphasis on institutional decay, of systems falling apart (the weary cop taking the place of the private dick). It’s a genre that’s easier to recognize on film, but in the field of fiction I think this has to be considered a central text.

  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

    By Hilary Mantel

    Taking a break from her immensely successful Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Hilary Mantel, with The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, offers up a collection of short stories dealing with more contemporary matters.

    But while the setting has changed, much remains the same. We can’t judge by appearances. Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell may seem a reasonable and decent man, but he has highly situational ethics and, if not a villain himself, is certainly an enabler of evil deeds.

    Mantel enjoys this sort of sleight-of-hand: evil taking innocuous forms, and quiet, domestic horror stories slipping past our defences. What any particular story seems to be about is usually less important than the sense of unease that underlies it, and what remains unsaid.

    The first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” tells of a married Englishwoman who lives for a time in Saudi Arabia, where she picks up an unwanted admirer in the form of a Pakistani businessman. In some ways it’s a fairly bland social comedy, but then it starts to give off a Fatal Attraction kind of vibe. Mr. Ijaz is a little creepy. He’s “restless and nervy,” laughs at nothing, and is “always twitching his collar and twisting his feet in their scuffed Oxfords, always tapping the fake Rolex, always apologising.”

    In short, he isn’t quite what he seems to be. He is superficial, if not as fake as his watch. He’s definitely not a proper gentleman. Things escalate and he starts to act like a stalker, while displaying a callous attitude toward his own wife (she may be dying of some kidney disease but he’s “getting rid of her anyway”). Before long the narrator is developing her own neurotic symptoms and taking to watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

    “Sorry to Disturb” isn’t a conventional horror story, but there’s something unpleasant riding under the surface that’s typical of Mantel’s writing. She has a way with understatement and indirection, with social meanings and class codes that are subtly broken.

    These become all the more noticeable given the British penchant for keeping up appearances. We see that sense of protocol in action when a woman dies on the spot after discovering her husband’s adultery. She “almost casually” looks at where she has accidentally cut herself before folding “tidily back on to her heels.” Her problem, we later learn, was an undiagnosed, hidden heart condition, one liable to be brought on by “strong emotion of any sort.”

    Strong emotion, of any sort, can be one’s undoing. Better to keep up appearances, to live life at the conventional rhythm, a rhythm described by the visionary story “Terminus” as “a mystery indeed . . . an aid to dissimulation, a guide to those who otherwise would not know how to act.” Marching to that rhythm may make you a zombie, but you’ll rue the day you break with it.

    A number of these themes come together in the title story, which has a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Thatcher unfolding behind the walls of a bourgeois house on a certain “genteel corner, bypassed by shoppers and tourists.”

    The narrator is not an assassin herself, but she is guilty of aiding and abetting the lone gunman, even offering him tea and the use of her washroom. Again, one feels that a rhythm of formalities is being observed:

    ”Who do you work for?” I said.

    ”You don’t need to know.”

    ”Perhaps not, but it would be polite to tell me.”

    In this story the character who doesn’t quite belong, who doesn’t seem real, is Thatcher herself, a figure Mantel has likened to a “psychological transvestite.” She walks on stage here like a cartoon caricature of the Iron Lady, the bag on her arm “slung like a shield” and “big goggle glasses” beneath a “glittering helmet of hair.” Even in the crosshairs she’s the one who constitutes the real threat to the public order.

    Mantel is very easy to read, which is no doubt part of the reason why she’s so popular. But she’s even more enjoyable to re-read, when you hear sounds of a different frequency beneath the mysterious rhythms of modern life.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star October 14, 2014.

  • Ring

    Koji Suzuki

    Not The Ring, which is where a more visually-oriented Hollywood film would take the franchise. Koji Suzuki’s novel is also leagues away from the 1998 wellspring of J-horror Ringu, which was a very free adaptation. It is still, however, a suspenseful thriller about a cursed videotape, and in some ways an even stranger story than its big-screen adaptations. The films, surprisingly, weren’t as interested in Suzuki’s take on viral technology, which is odd given its growing relevance (one can easily imagine the ring as a digital net). They also cleansed the story of its invocations of archetypal male dread: Sadako as succubus, surrogate, and sexual abomination. What they kept were Hollywood’s economic anxieties, making Suzuki’s story into a cautionary tale about the horrors of television and video piracy. Horror makes for great propaganda.

  • Harperism

    Donald Gutstein

    I don’t care for the title. It is misleading, I think, because there is no system of political thought original to Stephen Harper, no “unique brand” as it’s described here. As the cover design illustrates, Haper was the bastard child of Reagan and Thatcher, two towering figures who were in turn simply foot soldiers, or useful idiots, in the neoliberal revolution. There is nothing at all new in Harper’s ideology, even allowing for its application to a Canadian context. This was wonderfully underscored when it was revealed that whole sections of his speeches were simply being cut-and-paste from other right-wing politicians, one from as far away as Australia. Because what difference did it make? They were all reading from the same script.

    The only thing that characterized Harper’s brand as something different was that, as befits a younger son, he was even more rigid and unthinking in his application of the received ideology, holding fast to the simplistic tenets of his belief in the face of any and all contrary evidence. Given this level of slavish dedication to a borrowed political script it’s worth knowing something about who wrote that script in the first place. In this focused backgrounder Donald Gutstein locates the source of the neoliberal playbook in the many well-funded think tanks that provide the media with official-sounding column-fodder propaganda and click-bait. A clear pattern emerges (seize the victim label first, then do unto others what you claim they were just about to do to you), as well as a dog-whistle use of doublethink language (for example: “sound science” = “junk science”).  It’s not subtle, but then it doesn’t have to be as its function, like most advertising, is only to confuse or appeal to those who have already bought the product.

    A depressing conclusion tells us that Harperism will not be easily undone. Government has been, if not broken, at least badly damaged under Harper’s watch, as was his intent. (And yet we still have a Senate!) Just to get things back to the way they were before the wrecking crew arrived will take resources, unity, and political will, none of which are likely to be in rich supply.

  • One of Us

    By Asne Seierstad

    Why do we read true crime stories?

    Partly it’s our fascination with horrifying events, the same impulse that leads us to rubberneck car accidents. And some of it may be a way of defending ourselves, learning to recognize the red flags of potentially lethal psychopathy to better protect ourselves against predators.

    And finally it may deepen our understanding of ourselves, evil being part of the general human condition.

    One of Us makes us think about matters like these, being a sometimes hard-to-read account of the crimes of Anders Breivik. On July 22, 2011 Breivik set off a van bomb in Oslo, killing eight people, and then journeyed to the island of Utoya, which was hosting a retreat for young people affiliated with the Worker’s Youth League. There he shot and killed another 69.

    Much of Asne Seierstad’s book is given over to Breivik’s biography, an account of who he was and how he came to be that way. And yet after going over the wealth of documentary evidence (Breivik’s manifesto explaining his motivation ran to over 1,500 pages), interviews with people who knew him, and the best efforts of teams of psychiatrists, the results are pretty disappointing.

    In brief, Breivik was a bitter loser from a broken home who compensated with narcissistic delusions of grandeur. He fancied himself a heroic revolutionary striking a blow against multiculturalism and “cultural Marxism.” More specific enemies were Islam and feminism, alien forces he blamed for his own failures. Less well adjusted to life in his native land than many of the immigrants he despised, he was consumed by fantasies of revenge.

    He was an extreme case, but a familiar type: the unemployed, friendless adult male, living with his mother, spending entire days on the Internet. Extreme politics was something that he found to fill the void, a phenomenon that seems to hold true across the spectrum of terror.

    Seierstad fills the story out with parallel lives of some of Breivik’s Utoya victims, and a painfully detailed account of his day of carnage, including the unfortunately garbled and slow police response. Then comes the trial, an anti-climactic bit of theatre leading up to Breivik’s slow withdrawal from the stage.

    There are few lessons to learn. Society doesn’t have much of a defense against people like Breivik. He did fall through the cracks of the child welfare administration, but his mother was playing the system. Another lucky break was his native identity. He was aware that even after adopting the false front of a farmer he could have never acquired the material for his bomb, and all of his weapons, if he’d had a foreign-sounding name.

    Know the rules, and you know how to evade them. Short of living in a police state, that’s the reality.

    Living such an isolated life, Breivik needed very little assistance. He received it, again as so often is the case, from his unhappy, damaged mother. And this is probably the only takeaway. If we’re to recognize the warning signs and draw lines around such people, that’s a process that has to start at home.

    Review first published July 4, 2015.

  • Romantic Outlaws

    Romantic Outlaws
    Charlotte Gordon

    It’s never easy being ahead of your time. This was especially the case with the mother-daughter team of the pioneering eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Both were independent, intellectual figures at a time when those traits were not valued in women. In both cases this led to them being social outcasts. Even though Mary Shelley — she took the name of the flighty poet she married — never knew her mother (who died only days after giving birth to her), the fruit didn’t fall from the tree. This was not an unconscious coupling. As her daughter put it in the language of the day, her mother’s “greatness of soul perpetually reminded me that I ought to degenerate as little as I could from those from whom I derived my being.” She should have degenerated more, for her own good, given a weakness shared with her mother for less than ideal men. Of these, one of the most damaging was William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s husband and Shelley’s father, a selfish pedant who must have been hard to love at the best of times. Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of the two Marys is written in alternating chapters to help draw out parallels like these, and tells the story of their dramatic lives, so full of ground-breaking creative achievement and tangled family dynamics, in a direct, captivating manner.

  • In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

    In the Basement of the Ivory Tower
    Professor X

    A few years ago there was a sudden flurry of debate and discussion over the development of a “bubble” in university education in the United States. (The debate wasn’t as intense in this country, though the work of scholars like James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar — see my review of Lowering Higher Education — belongs in the same genre.) The basic point is that the cost of a university education has kept going up despite the falling value of that education, at least outside of elite professional faculties. This was leading to dangerously high levels of student indebtedness (dangerous both because it was crippling young people financially and was likely never going to be paid back). You can point the finger of blame at various parties, though Professor X, a lowly adjunct professor of English (which means, in effect, someone who teaches basic writing skills), escapes much of it. One direction I think he might have gone in, but didn’t, is the state of K-12 education, which is clearly where his students have been most let down since they arrive at college unable to write. As he mentions at one point that he formerly taught at middle school it’s strange that he passed on this. He also avoids saying much about the state of the economy outside the ivory tower, the lack of jobs for young people that is forcing them to attend college and university as a way of deferring the misery of un- and underemployment, as well as the general hollowing out of the middle class, the group that has fueled the “massification” of higher ed. Despite these roads not taken, however, and a to-be-expected generous amount of padding (the book began as a magazine article), there is something here to consider. His main point, that higher education isn’t necessary or even advisable for everyone, should be obvious by now. This leads us to further questions, specifically about what kind of education best prepares young people for life in the twenty-first century. I don’t mean for what they’ll need to find a high-paying (or any decent) job, but just for what will help them to become healthy, happy, well-adjusted citizens. Such a syllabus may not include essay writing, or even reading books, but by now we really should be prepared for that.