Why We Don’t Have Flying Cars

Editor’s Note: I decided to update another post I wrote several years back about the work of David Graeber.

The Utopia of RulesDavid Graeber has a different – and delightful – explanation for why we don’t have flying cars, not to mention Moon colonies and the other futuristic advances we were promised in the 1950s and 60s.

In a word: bureaucracy. Not just the usual kind that we all suffer with on a regular basis, though that’s part of it, but a more intentional kind. Graeber’s theory, set out in his delightful book The Utopia of Rules, is:

There appears to have been a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment [in] technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control.

He rejects the argument that the future we were expecting was unrealistic in favor of one finding an intentional effort to derail the imaginative futures thought up by creative types ranging from Gene Roddenberry to Larry Niven.

And he concludes that one of the results of this shift has been to move science fiction more fully into a “pure fantasy” niche:

Science fiction has now become just another set of costumes in which one can dress up a Western, a war movie, a horror flick, a spy thriller, or just a fairy tale.

Continue reading “Why We Don’t Have Flying Cars”

David Graeber: May His Memory Be a Revolution

David GraeberThe anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber died September 2 at the age of 59. For those  of us who loved the way his books and essays opened up our minds and made us look at the world in a different way, his death was a terrible loss.

Fortunately, he had recently finished a book co-written with David Wengrew, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, which will be out next year.

A few years back, I wrote an appreciation of his book Bullshit Jobs, so I’m sharing a slightly revised version of that here.

My favorite passage from Bullshit Jobs comes in Graeber’s description of normal human work patterns:

[M]ost people who have ever existed have assumed that normal human work patterns take the form of periodic intense bursts of energy, followed by relaxation, followed by slowly picking up again toward another intense bout.

Graeber, who was a professor, goes on to note that this is the “traditional student’s pattern of lackadaisical study leading up to intense cramming before exams and then slacking off again” — a pattern he calls “punctuated hysteria” – and argues that this is what humans do if allowed to follow their own devices. Continue reading “David Graeber: May His Memory Be a Revolution”

A Breath of Frustration

Awhile back I listened to Terry Gross interview James Nestor about his book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. From the interview, it appeared that the book was about both the long-held knowledge about breath and breathing and the way science was now confirming that those old systems had a lot of value.

I was intrigued, because I have learned something about breathing in martial arts and qigong training and have studied a little bit of yoga breathing as well. I wanted to know about more of those practices and about what science was finding. From the way Gross did the interview, I assumed the book was built on quality reporting and good science.

I downloaded a sample and while I wasn’t impressed with the writing style (which, perhaps because Nestor primarily writes for Outside magazine and similar outlets, was overly personal and casual), I decided getting the information would be worth putting up with the style. So I bought the book.

And was terribly disappointed. There wasn’t as much information as I’d hoped for about traditional breathing practices (though there is good material in the appendix) and much of the scientific research came from the kind of people who go off and research on their own because no one else gets their genius. Every so often, such people are real geniuses, but most of the time, they’re cranks or quacks. Continue reading “A Breath of Frustration”

Three Very Different Books

I’m as behind on my reading as I am on everything else, but I have managed to find space for some excellent new fiction. Herewith, my thoughts on three very different books — an anthology of stories based on ancient tales from the Mediterranean, a fantasy that incorporates menopause and life as a college professor, and fast-paced science fiction featuring a very angry and capable construct.

Retellings of the Inland SeasRetellings of the Inland Seas, published by Candlemark and Gleam, achieves something many anthologies aspire to, but few attain: There’s not a bad story in it. That says a lot about the concept — using ancient stories from the Mediterranean as a jumping off point for something new. It says even more about the skill of the editor, Athena Andreadis, who not only came up with the idea, but found the stories.

Fellow Treehouse Writer Judith Tarr’s [ story, “Between the Rivers,” is rooted in the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but it’s set on a far-off habitable planet and all is created by the genship Ninsun. It’s a wonderful story even without the tie to an ancient one, but knowing something about the original gives you some added depth.

Two of the stories, “Hide and Seek” by Shariann Lewitt and “The Sea of Stars” by Genevieve Williams, come out of The Odyssey. Both are science fiction, Lewitt’s story being told from the point of view of a navigator on a ship traversing the Asteroids, while Williams’s is a first contact story set in the distant past.

My favorite story in this wonderful anthology is “Out of Tauris,” by Alexander Jablokov, which is based on the story of Iphigenia. The Iphigenia of this story is the aged priestess of the Temple of Artemis and accepts sacrifices from men whose wives, who were once girls at that temple, have died. At the end, she observes, “This has always been the greatest torture men inflict on women, to take away choice and then make them pretend that the choice was always theirs.”

But your favorite might be very different. Other authors in this book include Melissa Scott, A. M. Tuomala, James L. Cambias, Christine Lucas, F.J. Doucet, Kelly Jennings, Elena Gomel, Dimitra Nikolaidou, and Andreadis. Read them all and figure out which one you like best.

Continue reading “Three Very Different Books”

Summer Reading Gems

Although I work at home, I’ve been reading more since the pandemic Shelter In Place orders. Like many others, I’ve had more than my share of moments of wanting to run away to Middle Earth or Darkover or Narnia. (One of the ways I exercise is on a recumbent bike in the garage, facing a TV/DVD/VCR unit on which I’ve been watching the commentaries to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, but that’s a different topic.) Here are some books that really grabbed me:

The Bone Ships, by RJ Barker (Orbit Books)

Oh, what a luscious, heart-rending, beautifully crafted book this is! In the world of warring island nations, the most valuable commodity – one that comprises the great war ships that grant naval supremacy – is the bones of sea dragons. The supply is limited, for the dragons are believed to be extinct, so the bones are salvaged and repurposed to for the great ships of the fleet. Then there are the black ships, the ships of the condemned and untouchable. Fisherman’s son Joron is one of those wretched souls, sentenced as “shipwife” (captain) to a black ship and determined to stay as drunk as possible. His fortunes change with the arrival of “Lucky” Meas, an extraordinary leader and daughter of the ruler, although why she might have been sentenced to a black ship, Joron has no idea. As Meas trains and then inspires the dissolute crew, Joron goes from grudging obedience to trust, even as he learns her true mission. For after centuries a sea dragon has been spotted, and the contest for its precious bones threatens to plunge the world into unending war.

There is so much to love about this book, but for me it was the language that enchanted me the most. I found myself slowing down and repeating passages just to savor them. In many senses, the narrative text itself was a character and gateway to this world.

Tide Child’s colour showed he [in this world ships are masculine] was a last-chance ship, the crew condemned to death. The only chance anyone had for a return to life was through some heroic act, something so undeniably great that the acclaim of the people would see their crimes expunged and their life restored to them. Such hope made desperate deckchilder, and desperate deckchilder were fierce. Though if any forgiveness had been offered to the dead it had not been in Joron’s lifetime, or in his father’s lifetime before him.

At some point this crew of the violent and the lost had decided that Meas could be trusted, and if she kept her side of the bargain then they would keep theirs. It was an odd thing, thought Joron, to find a purpose in such a dark place as a black ship. Superb world-building, compelling characters, and carefully nuanced tension mark Bone Ships as a book to treasure. And there will be more – I can hardly wait!

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Unseen Fire, by Cass Morris (DAW)

Ancient Rome! With magic! I am not a scholar of ancient history, so I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of this dramatic tale of politics, warfare, cultural upheaval, and romance set about 67 B.C.E. But the world, its peoples, and their attitudes and choices, in every detail feel so seamlessly consistent I was never jolted out of the story.

Rome – Aven in this book – is in the beginning of its decline but still the dominant power in the known world. At the opening of the story, a brutal dictator, having executed or exiled anyone who spoke out against him, has died. Now it’s up to those remaining leaders to reconstitute a republic. Some are already in Aven, having bowed to the dictator or gone into hiding; others return from exile. One such return is Sempronius, a mage of Shadow and Water elements, a brilliant leader and strategist who must hide his magical powers, for mages are forbidden by law from holding public office. Latona, daughter of an elder Senator, has just been freed from the dictator’s thumb (and bed), and her confidence in herself and her magical powers of Spirit and Fire have not yet recovered. Meanwhile, elections bog down as those who want to restrict power to traditionalist classes vie with those who see Aven’s future in the expansion of suffrage. And on the Iberian peninsula, a fanatical war leader is using blood magic to expel the Avenian invaders.

The book perfectly balances the richly nuanced portrayal of a culture in tumult with characters that change and grow, a fascinating system of magic and its relationship to pantheist religion, lively dialog, unexpected plot twists, and a tender love story. It’s a long read (and only the first part of a longer series) but well worth savoring every page.

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