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Category: Reviews

2020 Non-Fiction Reading

For all the obvious reasons, I spent some time this year refreshing my knowledge of a rough cluster of subjects centering around the dangers of extremism, particularly on the Internet. I haven’t finished reading all of these, but I’m on course to get them done by the end of the year. It occurred to me that it might be an interesting list for others.

My thanks to Shane Burley, whose article “The Best Books on Fascism in 2019” supplied much of this reading. Subscribe to his Patreon.

In no particular order:

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan. You know how people rightly complain that some journalists don’t make an effort to understand the fringe? Anna Merlan really gets the subject of her work, and she’s even-handed. There’s a great chapter on conspiracy theories in Black America that acknowledges how easy it is to believe that the government deliberately breeched levees during Katrina when you know that the FBI tried to convince Martin Luther King to kill himself.

Key Thinkers of the Radical Right, edited by Mark Sedgwick. Fairly academic in tone but a very good dive into the last century or so of radical right theorists. It was really interesting to learn more about Spengler, given his influence on James Blish’s Cities in Flight series (which I need to re-read now). I also put a mental marker in the chapter on Julius Evola, because I want to think more about Rudolf Steiner’s influence on him (PDF).

William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, by Michael Muhammad Knight. I tripped over this while I was being moody about the Seattle protest zone getting tagged as a Temporary Autonomous Zone. The term was invented by Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, who of course turned out to be a literal pedophile, and while TAZ is a great concept I can’t mentally separate it from the creator. Anyhow, Knight’s autobiographical book turned out to be relevant in a million ways: look, there’s Wilson joining an Iranian religious order arising from the Traditionalist School! Look, there’s Knight coming to some kind of peace with his father’s white supremacism! And really the whole thing is a map to one corner of one hidden culture of the United States. Everyone should remind themselves that the patchwork of our society is and has always been much more complex. I want to read a lot more Knight.

Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, by David Neiwert. This is sort of cheating, I read it in 2017 when it came out, but it was worth re-reading so I did. Neiwert has been working the right-wing extremism beat for a very long time; this book comes out of decades of experience. (If you want a depressing read, go back and check out his blog series “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism.” He called it almost 20 years ago.) There’s some overlap with this book and Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, of which more anon, but I think they complement each other well.

Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, by Natasha Lennard. We’re all the way on the opposite side of the library from the academic shelves now. You need to read this to understand what it’s like being antifa, even if you don’t think those are the right tactics. It will jar your assumptions loose. It’s personal and raw and brilliant and meaningful.

Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, by Alexandra Minna Stern. Whereas Alt-America is sort of focused on effects, this book digs into underlying ideology. It also complements Key Thinkers of the Radical Right nicely; if you start out with that then read Stern’s book, you’ll recognize and have a deeper appreciation for some of the ideological players. By the by, as Burley notes in his recommendation, this book isn’t just about the Proud Boys — that’s a convenient title hook. It’s about white nationalism.

Active Measures, by Thomas Rid. This book is of course not about fascism per se, but it is about the weaknesses in our collective information ecosystem. I don’t think Qanon is a deliberate operation. I do think it accidentally took advantage of the vulnerabilities Rid discusses. I feel like you should read this side by side with Republic of Lies, because Rid’s true stories about disinformation campaigns are exactly the kind of rabbit hole that predisposes you to believe in other wild stories. It’s always a struggle for balance.

Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right, by Graham Macklin. I’m in the middle of this sucker right now. It’s six mini-biographies of six British far right leaders in the 20th century. If for some reason you weren’t going to read all of these books, this is probably a skippable one — I picked it up because I’ve always been interested in Sir Oswald Mosley, or more precisely, the climate that allowed him to do as well as he did. However, it’s still a good exploration of how fascist parties succeed or fail in a country fairly similar to the United States, plus it’s got some really good material on international fascist cooperation.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew. Don’t skip this. It’s about the white nationalist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and it explains how we got here. In those decades, the movement was heavily influenced by Vietnam. These days, hey, we’re in the middle of another set of forever wars that aren’t terribly successful. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing similar effects.

Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, by David Neiwert. Mr. Neiwert gets two books on this list because I’m fiercely hungry for a book that talks about saving conspiracy theorists. (Still looking for more recommendations.) The first two thirds of this one is a recap of significant conspiracy-related violence in the last few years; if you’re up on current events you won’t be surprised. Although he lays out the evidence for Stephen Paddock’s conspiratorial beliefs really well, so that was nice. The last third, though, is a practical guide to talking to your misguided loved ones and it reads pretty solid to me. The quotes from CV Vitolo-Haddad land a little flat these days, but not much to be done about it, and I don’t think they affect the overall value of the book.

A Face In The Crowd

I was perusing the Criterion Channel’s themed collections the other day and realized that the Caught on Tape collection was a) smack dab in my wheelhouse and b) mostly unseen by me. So in an effort to get my money’s worth out of my subscription, I decided to work through the whole collection. I’ve seen Diva and The Lives of Others before, but both are well worth revisiting.

The first movie was A Face in the Crowd, which doesn’t actually fit into the collection theme but never mind that. I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned evil American populist movie, mostly because of my Huey Long obsession. This was that.

Andy Griffith was really awesome. Like everyone else in the world I think of him as the down to earth charming guy. His “Lonesome” Rhodes had all the charm plus a huge helping of self-centered evil, so that was great. He’s always just on the edge of over-acting which is a perfect fit for his kinda dumb drifter character.

His downfall is a great exemplar of the myth of exposure, which is particularly poignant lately. “Trump can’t possibly wriggle out of this one… ah, yes. Well. Nevertheless.” We know better than to believe that exposed contempt will strip away popularity these days; it’s wryly amusing to see one of the early expressions of that trope. To be fair the public turned against Nixon, so perhaps Kazan and Schulberg weren’t completely off-base.

They got the rest of it right, though. A billionaire and a Senator backing the populist for their own ends? Yep. Nativist sentiment as a political tool? Yep — and that was the most chilling scene of the movie.

Review: Yesterday

That was sure a couple of movies jammed into one two hour window!

And I liked it. Danny Boyle’s a great director working with stylistic flair. The primary beats of the movie are completely fantastic. It’s a dream, perhaps literally: it’s constantly playing with space and time. The titles tell us we’re in Los Angeles before we get there. Conversations don’t miss a beat while characters instantly teleport over the space of miles.

Kate McKinnon is playing a Suffolk schoolteacher’s imaginary version of a music executive. It’s a fantasy! If you’re critiquing this movie because it doesn’t make sense, well —

Three Billboards and the Moral Rot of Chief Willoughby

I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other night, finally, and then (as is my way) devoured as many reviews as possible and man, my take on Chief Willoughby is different.

Before I hit spoiler territory — yeah, this was a flawed movie. Vox has a backgrounder which is mostly pretty good. I agree that Dixon is not redeemed at the end of the movie, but McDonagh’s black characters are in fact just plot devices. It’s a painful flaw. That said, onward.

Review: Pacific Rim: Uprising

This is a perfectly good movie about fighting giant monsters, even when judged on an absolute scale. There is a plot with an interesting twist. Steven S. DeKnight has a good feel for action; the fight scenes play out clearly, even the ones in the middle of dense urban centers. I never lost track of where the combatants were.

There are no characters really. I apologize to John Boyega for this but he really doesn’t have much to do. He’s kind of a bunch of swaggering dialogue and charisma draped on top of a mannequin. He does what he can with the role, it’s just not a convincing part.

Our leftover trio from Pacific Rim is the exception. They’re all fine.

The big flaw is that the jaegers and kaiju don’t have any personality either. This is a fatal flaw. In Pacific Rim, it was a huge deal that there was one three-pilot jaeger. It fought differently, the pilots had a different relationship, it was cool. There’s a three-pilot jaeger in Uprising, which gets no exposition. “Oh, that’s where they’re sticking the extra pilot.” Very unfortunate.

On the other hand you get a decent number of fights, which are well filmed and satisfying. The plot is good, as noted, and it sets up a third movie well. I am happy I saw it even if it reminded me that it took Guillermo del Toro to make such a goofy concept awesome the first time around.

Forbidden Planet Field Report

The last time I spent extended time in London, lo 10 years or more ago, I brought back the Malazan Empire books. Possibly thanks to Jess Nevins, I can’t recall. It was certainly a worthwhile haul in any case. This time I fine-tuned the process; Susan and I hit Forbidden Planet in the company of Catie and Ted, and we picked up a few first novels in various series which are not so readily available in the United States. We also controlled the urge to pick up some books you can easily get over here but which have much better cover treatments in Great Britain.

The ScarI mean, really. And there are corresponding designs for every Miéville book. Or how about the lovely minimalist Gollancz 50th collection? Fortunately we retained some modicum of willpower, if only to justify our later extravagance.

Which is to say: after reading the aforementioned first novels we decided which ones we really liked and would have trouble finding in the States, and went back later in the week and splurged. Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series would easily have made the cut, but they’re readily available here. (Important note: Midnight Riot is the first book in the series, originally titled Rivers of London in the UK.) Paul Cornell’s London Falling is awesome but there is no more to buy at present.

There is no shortage of British novels about ordinary people falling into a fantasy world just beneath the skin of the London we know and love, huh? I’m surprised Cubicle 7 hasn’t done an RPG along those lines. Perhaps The Laundry counts.

Empire in Black and GoldAnywise, the exciting find was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. There are eight of these in print in the UK; I now have seven. Only five of them are available in the US. I am a bit concerned about that since the fifth one came out in the US over a year ago; sales may not have been good enough to justify more. This would be a shame! On the other hand, the series will end at 10 books, all of which have been turned in, so even if I have to go to Chapters or Amazon UK it’ll work out for me.

The setup is a fantasy world in the very early stages of an Industrial Revolution. There’s a barbaric empire roaring down from the north with an eye towards conquering the Lowlands. The Lowlands, of course, are unconvinced of the real danger. There are spymasters and assassins and artificers and lots of politics — it’s a very city-oriented series, which I like. I’m two and a half books in and I don’t think anything significant has taken place outside a city except one big battle.

Said Industrial Revolution and the concomitant fading of magic are the engines of change in the setting. The clever setting postulate is that humanity is divided into kinder, each with a special connection to some kind of insect: Beetle-kinder, Moth-kinder, Wasp-kinder, Spider-kinder, and so on. Some kinder are Apt, and can understand and use machinery. Some kinder are Inapt, and can’t even comprehend how a lock works, but can do magic. In parallel, each kinder has some abilities drawn from their insect connection, which are explicitly not magic. I suppose you could assume they were psychic if you felt like deconstructing it, but Tchaikovsky doesn’t feel any need to explain it.

Slight detour: if the Inapt were noble savages this would irk me. They aren’t. Spider-kinder are Inapt, for example, but they rule an advanced group of cities and have no objections to technology even if they can’t use it themselves. Moth-kinder live in isolated cities and are a shadow of what they once were, but that’s because they were once the fairly tyrannical rulers of the Apt. The Wasp Empire is an Apt empire that’s essentially still barbaric. There’s also no shortage of exceptions to the kinder stereotypes.

I get a bit of a K. J. Parker vibe from the books in that they’re examinations of change in a fantasy setting. The world’s going to be an awfully different place by the time these are done, and it’s not just that a Dark Lord will be overthrown. I don’t think I even have any certainty that the Wasp Empire is going to be defeated. On the other hand, they’re not as grim as a typical Parker book. Competence is a primary virtue, as it is in Parker’s work, but good is also pretty important and is even often rewarded.

They’re pretty sprawling books. Well, 10 in the series, that’s fairly obvious. The initial book is about Stenwold Maker, professor and spymaster, and his four proteges. It spreads out rather quickly after that, however. For reference points, I’d say there are fewer viewpoint characters than you have in Game of Thrones, and the books are closer related to one another than the Malazan Empire books.

The existence of the Inapt means that there’s plenty of justification for epic swordplay even while artificers are inventing dangerous new weaponry. I like books with larger-than-life swordplay, and the Mantis-kinder provide plenty of that. Secretive sect which specializes in combat with members who can take down groups of ten men? Check.

Finally, there are ornithopters and repeating crossbows.

First of the Last

After a really jam-packed first episode of Last Resort, I wound up with a multitude of questions filed into two slots.

First: is the plot in any way believable? You have to buy into the captain of a nuclear sub refusing orders, plus he’s gotta have enough charisma to make his crew more or less stick with him. Also there’s a huge conspiracy in the background. Said conspiracy does some pretty outrageous things even if the Reagan quote at the beginning is taken as good foreign policy. What I’m saying here is that I’m not entirely certain that we’re watching actual humans making sane decisions.

Second, though: is the situation as presented at all stable? And the trick here is that I don’t think it is, but I also don’t think Shawn Ryan necessarily thinks it is. If I’m looking for a showrunner who’s willing to mess with the status quo in a big bad way on his shows, I’m looking for Jeff Pinkner and J. H. Wyman of Fringe. But Shawn Ryan is my number two choice; The Shield went all in on actions with consequences, and Terriers had no qualms about major alterations to the show’s world.

That’s the hook for me. If Last Resort digs into the consequences of all the messed up things that happened in the first episode, it’s gonna be awesome and I will forgive the implausibilities. We’ll see.

Prometheus Theory

I’m too sad to review Prometheus. I will say that it’s absolutely gorgeous and I am glad I saw it on a quality screen. Ridley Scott’s eye for composition and spectacle is still remarkable. There’s nothing wrong with the directing, the acting is mostly very good, and conceptually the movie worked. The script sucked, though. Kept trying to reach big emotional beats, but none of them had proper setup, and without setup there is no payoff.

I do have a theory, though, which is full of spoilers.

Monkeyball

Last night I headed down to the new Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane location, since movie tickets were two bucks during this week’s soft open of the theater. It’s way out of the way for us, particularly coming from work, but seems reasonably convenient for South Austin peeps. Take Mopac south to the first traffic light and turn right, then immediate left. It took twenty minutes flat to come home at 12:30 AM. Kind of late? Well, cheap movies, so I caught a pair of them. Oh look, the title of this post is a bad joke. Look, they were both set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’d be way amusing to watch a motion captured Andy Serkis in an Oakland A’s uniform.

Moneyball was pretty good even if it was a touch fictionalized. Pitt was great, as was Hoffman in a nice supporting role. The one scene where Jonah Hill is desperately keeping up with Pitt and Hoffman is totally worth the price of admission. I’d love to know what Soderbergh would have made of it but I am totally content with what we got. Also, that was an entirely funny caricature of John Henry.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was kind of conflicted. The first hour or so is a pretty rough drama about the horrors of animal experimentation plus a really good performance by John Lithgow. Then there’s this magical point where my disbelief ceased to hover lightly in the air, and I’ll even spoil it, because it’s awesome. Caesar is in primate jail, and he’s having trouble adjusting. You know what it’s like being the new kid on the cellblock. So he gets kicked around a bit, and when he’s brooding back in his cell, he looks up at the orangutan across the way. Lo! Maurice the orangutan signs, “Hurt bad?”

Caesar is shocked, because whoa, another ape knows sign language! So he signs, “You know signs?” I’m wondering exactly the same thing. Maurice signs back, calmly, “Circus orangutan.” Clears it all up: everyone knows that circus animals are always taught ASL. Me and the shards of my disbelief will be over here snickering wildly. The movie doesn’t get any more believable from there on in. It stays enjoyable, though! It’s just a different movie in the second half.