I read a bunch of books this year in an attempt to make my brain bigger. Here are some of them.
1. 1984, George Orwell, 1984
I’ve never actually read 1984 before, although thanks to the magic of cultural osmosis I basically absorbed the entire plot and most of the catchphrases at some point over my adult life. In the last few years I’ve become an insufferably woke socialist so a lot of the themes of 1984, which it turns out actually run a lot deeper than what if surveillance, but too much were particularly resonating with me as I read it. The entire second part of the book, where George Orwell basically uses the flimsiest pretext to drop in a blatant self-insert character and writes an enormous essay called “HI READER, IT’S ME GEORGE ORWELL, CAPITALISM IS BAD”, is especially great.
I started to wonder why this book was never taught in school to me or any friends I know, but quickly realised that there were probably two reasons for it. The first, that it directly asks the reader to question undemocratic social hierarchies and the artificial poverty which is deliberately created and maintained by a state of constant war and fear (hmm, doesn’t ring any bells); and the second, that every time the main character meets up with his girlfriend they absolutely go to town on each other and fuck like rabbits.
I’ve been exposed to a lot of GamerGate/alt-right/white nationalist dickhead subtypes over my years of being Extremely Online, and their incessant claims of “Oh so we can’t criticise feminism? This is just like 1984! Thought Police!!!” have always rung false and overblown to me, but I always put it down to the fact that they were just overreacting like they always do. After reading 1984 the truth is actually even worse. It turns out that they are genuine fucking idiots, whose thoughtless defence of the exploitative status quo and invective filled YouTube videos are literally a direct parallel of the very fervent masses who show up for Big Brother’s Two Minutes Hate.
In a world of George Orwell analogies, the reactionary dickheads of the Pepe meme squad are not the inspirational free thinkers who dare to stand up to tyranny; they are the mindless agents of the Outer Party who sabotage themselves to earn the brief, flashing approval of a system which is using their unpaid labour to prop up its collapsing power structure. Even the most cursory reading of the actual text of 1984 makes it painfully clear what the message of the book is, and it’s not “triggered much lol”. Anyway, fuck those guys.
2. Tales of Ravenloft, edited by Brian Thomsen, TSR Books (September 1994)
When you see a paperback cover this pulpy in the op-shop you absolutely have to pick it up, and doubly so when the book rings up for the outrageous price of $0.50. I cut my teeth in the 90’s on schlocky paperback fantasy like this in the local public libraries and quite frankly this was everything I was expecting: terrible.
Okay, not bad terrible; just terrible by the standards of today’s fantasy, and in some way’s today’s writing and syntax standards as well. The book has 18 short little stories in it and nearly all of them follow the same delightful formula where someone is walking around being miserable in Ravenloft, but then…. twist! Things get even worse! This character is secretly a werespider! This priest you thought you could trust was secretly a monster who feeds on sadness! And so on! Oh no!
Ravenloft as a setting basically runs on gypsies (sorry, Vistani) as a narrative device and none of us were particularly woke in the early 90’s so let’s just say that if you’re a member of the Romani people you should probably avoid this insanely racist book (there’s also a weird Generic Arabia section as well where people’s hands get cut off for stealing and there are djinn, so, like, it’s not great). Anyway I went in looking to plumb the stagnant depths of old D&D fiction and I got exactly what I wanted, and there’s a few ideas I’ll file away for actual D&D plots later on.
The cover advertises the book as having “an all-new Strahd von Zarovich story!”. The idea that this series of words was considered an actual selling point should tell you everything you need to know about the explosion in D&D popularity of the 90’s, but when you get to the story itself it kind of paints Strahd as this weak-ass indecisive sociopath rather than the all-powerful lord of undeath he sure seemed to be when I tried to fight him in the campaign my partner was DMing. In one scene he is, quite literally, on his hands and knees in a nasty-ass dank cave somewhere trying to scrape together enough bat shit that he can cast fireball. Let’s just say that if I saw a guy doing that I’d probably stop living in fear of him.
3. This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, by Charles E. Cobb Jr.
I first started hearing people talking about this book, and others like it, when the Ferguson Riots kicked off in the United States. Watching the politics of the United States is something of a spectator sport here in Australia, and of course the leading commentators on this (literal life and death) sport are the extremely safe, insulated and bafflingly idiotic op-ed class of rich white dipshits who control the mainstream media. It was impossible not to hear them offer their unqualified rich, white Australian take on a poverty-stricken black American issue, and one of the ongoing themes was, of course, “why are they so violent? Don’t they understand they’re just hurting their cause?”
My own understanding of the simmering racial tensions of the United States and the history of those tensions from the first slave boats until today is cataclysmically poor, which is why I of course refrain from commenting. Unfortunately people like Chris Kenny and Rita Punahi charge News. Corp $250,000 a year for providing the same level of expertise that I am giving away for free, so who is the real sucker? But one thing that has always been interesting to me as a white Australian is the way Martin Luther King is treated, and how he has been reduced and caricatured across the years to essentially become some kind of two dimensional Black Jesus, who as far as I am aware, appeared out of the ether and basically hovered across America, his feet never touching the ground, exuding some kind of “peace mist” which pacified all of the white people in a 10-mile radius and made them finally realise that racism was Bad.
This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed tells a very different story, and it’s one worth hearing. Of course it defies rationality to expect that Martin Luther King was able to basically hover and hum the KKK into submission, and this book fills in the blanks by explaining, quite clearly and with exhaustingly researched sources, that people like MLK were only able to do what they did because other black people with lots of guns were out there shooting at the KKK (with bullets (from their guns (which they had))).
It’s extremely convenient as white Australians, and no doubt as white Americans as well, to forget about this aspect of the civil rights struggle, to forget about the fact that non-violence only works as a tactic if you’re ready to back it up with a hell of a lot of violence, and this book makes it abundantly clear that for many (black) people in the Southern United States, the high-falutin’ Emancipation Proclamation didn’t mean shit because Joe Racist on the next farm over wasn’t going to stop trying to run you over with his car once a piece of paper told him it was illegal. It was, as this book illustrates, quite literally the blood and sweat of angry black women and men with guns that physically created enough space for a non-violent movement to emerge.
A particularly fascinating aspect of this book is how it illustrates the overlapping and conflicting interests of second amendment gun nuts with wildly racist white supremacists. In one chapter, Cobb discusses how a black man who had his rifle taken away by the local sheriff was able to get it returned to him once the sheriff was reminded of the man’s Constitutional Rights… a concept which the sheriff respected enough to acquiesce to, even while he might believe that black people were not worth the dirt on his shoes. The book details the struggle that second amendment gun nuts faced when trying to tackle the “problem” of the armed negro, unable to reconcile their very clear need for self defence with the overwhelming and racist belief that black people should shut up and do what they are told.
One final observation which dovetails neatly with the above was how much of the (armed) struggle for civil rights was shaped by the powerful influence of black soldiers returning from an overseas war and seamlessly taking up arms to support a new domestic (race) war. The United States government needed these black men (only men, at the time) to step up and put their bodies on the line in service of capital, to protect the economic interests of the system which abused and enslaved them – yet it also wanted them to return unchanged, untrained, unwilling to remember how to fight and kill for a greater goal, to wordlessly re-submit and re-assimilate themselves into the machine which exploits them.
This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed goes into great detail exploring the motivations and feelings of returned black soldiers and how they used their combat experience to protect non-violent protesters, often without their consent or even their knowledge, and in the process saving their lives many times from quite literal assassination attempts. Cobb Jr’s analysis paints a thoroughly compelling picture of the way that the black soldier was able to turn the training and skills given to them by their white master against the system, a phenomenon that was as psychologically damaging to the white power hierarchy as it was physically damaging to the bodies of KKK lynch mobs.
Much like the confusion caused when black people invoke the second amendment to remind their former masters of their right to bear arms, white racist Americans were unable to reconcile the ingrained cultural programming which demanded that they “respect the troops” with the fact that these troops were uppity slaves who had won the right to vote and to take part in society through their military service. In a move that will surprise nobody (except perhaps Chris Kenny), these goalposts for black people in America continue to move today.
4. Killing Hope: US Military And CIA Interventions Since World War II, by William Blum
This was a tough read. Not because it’s hard to follow or complicated, but rather for the exact opposite: it’s really easy to understand.
It’s easy to read and comprehend the many awful ways in which the United States military and the CIA has used the spectre of “communism” or “socialism” to destroy, torture, kill, exterminate, rape, undermine, topple and sell off any young upstart nation around the world which has dared to even flirt with the idea of a global hierarchy where the USA isn’t at the top.
It’s easy to understand how saying the word “reform” as part of your political platform in Latin America gets you assassinated by the CIA, which then turns around and says that your death proves socialism won’t work.
It’s easy to understand how the CIA killed a communist rebel in the Philippines in the 1940s, then literally punched holes in his neck and hung him upside down in a tree so that his blood would drain out and it would look like an asuang (a local vampire-adjacent monster) was hunting rebel troops in the area, and superstitious peasants would be less likely to provide aid to them for fear of drawing the creature’s wrath.
It’s easy – so hideously easy – to understand how an employee of the USA’s Agency for International Development (a CIA front) was operating in Uruguay in 1964, and how he built a soundproofed room in his basement, where he would use living victims to teach the art of torture to the infamously brutal Uruguayan Death Squad, the Escuadrón de la Muerte… and how when this very same agent was eventually found dead, a magnificent state funeral back in Indiana was held for him, with Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis coming to town to stage a benefit concert.
It’s easy to learn, with cited examples, of how the CIA spent even more time operating in Chile in 1964, spending upwards of $20 million (in 1964 terms) to influence a sovereign election and ensure that the mildly left-wing candidate Allende would lose to the CIA-backed and CIA-funded right-wing candidate Frei. It’s easy to read about how the massive anti-communist scare campaign used images of Soviet tanks and Cuban firing squads to paint a picture of an imminent Red Threat, with mothers particularly targeted because CIA pysops (correctly) assessed that the women of the households were more religious than the men, and turned it against them to ensure they got the outcome they wanted, even printing and distributing for free hundreds of thousands of copies of Pope Pius XI’s anti-communist pastoral letter.
“One radio spot featured the sound of a machine gun, followed by a woman’s cry: ‘They have killed my child – the communists’,” Killing Hope explains. Another posted showed children “with a hammer and sickle stamped on their foreheads”. The operation worked “beyond expectations,” said the later Senate report, describing it as “the most effective (anti-Communist) activity undertaken” by the CIA to date. At the final count, Allende won the men’s vote 67,000 ahead of Frei, but not enough to counteract the surging vote of terrified Catholic Chilean women, who pushed Frei ahead by 469,000 votes.
(This will be far from the first, or the last time, that the CIA will use religion, or motherhood, as a weapon in defence of capitalism.)
It’s also easy to understand why I made more than 100 bewildered notes during this book alone, unable to believe what I was reading but finding, every time, that it was nothing more than literal historical fact, backed up by Senate enquiries, leaked documents, on the ground testimonies and government budget sheets.
Earlier this year I spoke to a person who had some strong opinions about refugees, particularly that they should “go back to where they came from”. I asked this person “But how much should we take responsibility for the current situation in their homelands, given that the instability in places like the Middle East is a direct result of illegal Western interference, like the time the US and the UK toppled a democratically elected Iranian leader and replaced him with a puppet government so that they could prop up their oil companies?”
He told me that stuff was “fake news”.
He was wearing a Rage Against The Machine t-shirt.
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”– Dom Helder Câmara
5. The Broken Earth Trilogy, by NK Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)
I’ve seen any number of people waxing lyrical about this trilogy, and so it had been on my to-read list for a while. I’m really glad I finally got around to it this year
Although we are well past the Fantasy Glut of the
Jemisin offers a unique mix of low fantasy and modern technology, painting a setting of a ruined, post-apocalyptic world which features electricity generators, antibiotics and genetic manipulation, sitting effortlessly alongside primal magic, stone elementals, and body horror. It’s no mean achievement to make such a melange hang together, but the world works – it’s dark, it’s horrible, but it churns along and it’s compelling as all hell.
The world of Broken Earth suffers through Seasons (the first novel, as you can infer, takes place during the fifth of such Seasons), each of which represents one apocalyptic-scale environmental disaster or another, perhaps ash blotting out the sky for decades at a time, or sulphur clouds rolling in and choking to death everyone in the lowlands. As the story unfolds we see how a once-beautiful world became one of regularly scheduled death and destruction, and we learn what it takes to survive in a world that could turn on you at any moment.
In a broken world, those who can control the stone (orogenes, or “roggas” to use their obvious but never hamfisted real-world racist analogue name) are both a resource to be controlled and a power to be feared. The core story of the trilogy pivots around these orogenes and the racism they face, but ultimately it’s more than that – Broken Earth is a story of motherhood, of tough choices, of self-sacrifice, and about what it means to give terrifying power to a small child and then to be forced to watch helplessly as the child struggles to come to terms with having that power in a brutal world that hates them for no other reason than who they are. Give it a read.
6. Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
As always, the best Lovecraft stuff comes from everybody but Lovecraft himself, whose obsession with describing the dimensions of rooms was famously misinterpreted as ‘cosmic horror’ by a bewildered group of literary critics.
Given Lovecraft’s overwhelming and unapologetic racism, it is only appropriate then that some of the most recent and excellent works to bear his genre-name feature black protagonists trying to navigate Jim Crow’s white world of unrelenting horror and death. Reading this book after This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed made for an interesting companion piece, and the core premise of “don’t go to this part of town or you will literally die” remains unchanged in both books no matter how many tentacles are lurking in any given basement.
The story follows a black science-fiction fan named Atticus Turner and his extended family, as they navigate through not only a white man’s world, but also through the world of a particular sorcerer/wizard/occultist that orchestrates and manipulates events for his own benefit. The same characters weave in and out of the short stories before coming together for a cracker (sorry) of a finale, which neatly ties up all the loose ends.
Lovecraft Country hits many of the high notes of the genre – blood magic, otherworldly shamblers, impossibly large rooms through impossibly small doors – but provides a unique perspective by showing these things to us through the eyes of someone who already has to deal with a hostile and horrifying everyday experience. Ruff pleasingly never resorts to re-using his tropes either, with each story offering a new conceit that genuinely unsettles in a way that Lovecraft’s 17-page descriptions of the way the angles in a ceiling corner don’t quite add up could never manage to do.
Around about the time I was reading this, my partner and I were making our way through the last legs of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the “Beyond The Stars” episode came up on Netflix. I was struck by many of the parallels, and particularly by the issue of representation that comes up in both stories – why would a young black person be interested in reading the so-called “fantasy worlds” of white authors, especially when, given all the options in the infinite universe, the protagonists of these “fantasy worlds” are inevitably white (and the evil monsters have dark skin)?
That particular episode of DS9 aired 20 years ago this year, and we’re still having the same discussions about representation in video games, although thankfully the vocal dickheads who insist on digging in for every possible front on the Culture War are slowly being forced to retreat under the sustained barrage of people telling them to shut the fuck up. Hooray for progress?
Some of the stories that make up Lovecraft Country are definitely stronger than others, but Ruff deftly keeps the pages turning even when the pace slows. The collected short story format also makes this one easier to pick and put down, with very little prior knowledge required between scenes. The book has been picked up to run as a TV series, with Get Out’s Jordan Peele directing the show, which should be good as hell and I can’t wait to learn how many months I will have to wait for it to be legally available in Australia (truly, I am the real victim here).
In conclusion: books.