Read any good books lately?

So, herewith is a recap of my summer (and now fall) reading history.

The first book I’m discussing is Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones by David Moscrop, a Canadian former political scientist and current op-ed columnist. It’s about the psychological short hand that people in Western democracies use to vote and the tricks that political parties and governments use to try to guide those same voters to preferred outcomes. The book is actually quite easy to read and replete with personal anecdotes and examples from psychological studies to demonstrate the principles being talked about, as well real world examples drawn from US, British, and Canadian politics. However, I can tell that I actually know more than the author about the psychological side of things (or he’s content to keep things at an introductory level for his audience), whereas I’m also something of a news junkie and a poli sci nerd and so am already familiar with what he’s talking about on that end. So the book is a good introduction on these topics but not really something I personally found educational.

The second book is one I really enjoyed reading, which is Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. Scott is also a political scientist, but in addition he trained in anthropology and specializes in comparative politics, especially with regard to peasants and agriculture. The book itself is about the historical transition from hunting and gathering to state societies, as well as the people who refused to join the state (a.k.a. the barbarians). The whole thing is completely my jam. Scott is an anarchist, so he’s of course got a low opinion of the state, but his description of how human misery increased once people took up agriculture is old news among anthropology circles (and probably familiar to anyone who read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

However, Scott goes quite a lot into the comparative details and argues that the state is inherently an unstable formation that requires incredible amounts of resources to keep going, but which is also doomed to fail thanks to the unsustainable demands it makes on the environment, the punishing taxes and labour it demands of its people (usually to fund wars to capture more territory where workers live which in turn demands more wars to capture even more workers in an endless race) which drive the citizens to escape into the hinterlands or revolt, and the regular return of lethal epidemics that are cooked up thanks to all the animals that agriculturalists live with and the cities and trade networks of a complex state society that concentrate and spread pathogens. Scott even argues that the collapse of a civilization might be better termed a reconfiguring, since it’s basically the people of a territory reorganizing themselves into a less precarious status quo.

Of course, preying on the states are the infamous barbarians, which Scott points out weren’t necessarily just alien societies robbing from the civilized. In fact, when the workers of historical states – the peasants, serfs, slaves, and everyone else who’s not an elite at the top of the social pyramid – get fed up with forever being drafted into wars and literally breaking their backs working the fields, they always had the option of joining the barbarians. Why bust your ass when you can have someone else do it and then take their stuff? In turn, a state had the option of repelling the barbarians or paying them off, but either way, it was another state expense. So a state inevitably had its barbarian “dark twin” (more than one sometimes) which grew when the state flourished and disappeared when the state did.

But alas for the barbarians, technological progress ended their viability, since you can’t exactly build Maxim guns out on the great plains, otherwise the Navajo might have forced the early US to cough up protection money like for example how the Uyghurs did to the Chinese or the Celts did to the Romans (though the Chinese usually called this tribute “gifts” and pretended that it was all from the emperor’s munificence).

Anyway, my one criticism of this book is that it just abruptly ends. It goes into the barbarian thing and then that’s it, no closing chapter, no summary, no discussion of the argument that was presented. But otherwise I’d say this is my favourite book of 2021.

Finally, the last book I’m covering is actually the first three books of the Giants series by James P. Hogan: Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants’ Star. I actually read the manga adaptation first and wanted to know how the original compared. Well, you can tell that these books were written in the 1970s because of the incredible amount of sexual harassment in them. I’ve read lots of Asimov and Heinlein and others of that generation – who all came before Hogan – and I don’t remember these other authors having this much sexual harassment in their works. I wasn’t tracking it, but I think every female character in the story is sexually harassed at least once, whether it’s the gals in the stenography pool being seduced by the married physicist, or the telephone operator being pestered for a date, or the secretary whose incredible ass the protagonist admires as she bends forward to look at a computer monitor.

There’s also a lot of smoking and drinking, which especially stood out in the scene where the protagonists are smoking some after-dinner cigars on a spaceship with presumably limited supplies of oxygen (and this is set in the near-future, not some Star Trek utopia with limitless energy and whatnot). So yeah, it feels very Mad Men. But whatever, I remember when smoking indoors was a thing, I can get past that. It really is the sexual harassment that’s the most notable thing about this series to me.

The story itself is about a mummified astronaut being discovered on the moon, the scientists investigating this mystery, and the interplanetary journey to find the truth behind all of the secrets hidden in the past. Anyway, the books are clearly from a certain old school style of science fiction writing because the characters have barely any personality and mostly just jabber about science at each other. Which is mainly why I kept reading, because sometimes I just want to read about nerds arguing over theories of human evolution.

But this paper-thin characterization explains the sexual harassment, which quite frankly feels jarring when it’s inserted into the story, because it’s a clumsy attempt to humanize the male characters. Yes, this was how Hogan thought he could bring his characters to life: by giving his readers something they could relate to. Obviously, he took it for granted that his readers were all men.

I did appreciate how much better the 2011 Yukinobu Hoshino manga adaptation was, not least for removing the sexual harassment, but also adding the worthwhile female and non-white characters into the story that a white British engineer from the 70s would never have done. It even fixed up some of the science stuff that the original books messed up and moved stuff around so the plot was more engaging.

So yeah, the Giants series. That was a thing.

The Future of Capitalism

Well, I’ve finally been out of graduate school long enough that I can read stuff related to my former scholarly interests again.

The first book I’m covering is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Milanovic is a Serbian-American economist who kind of deals with similar global income inequality stuff as Thomas Piketty. I don’t know enough about him to definitely say what his politics are except that from this book I feel he’s a “reform capitalism with redistribution” type.

Anyway, the book is mostly about present-day capitalism, but it necessarily covers two older kinds first in its survey: the classic robber baron kind of 19th century capitalism and the post-war kind where the bosses and the unions made a pact to play nice for a bit. Of course, he then covers the breakdown of that unwritten agreement with the rise of massive inequality and the hollowing out of the state, which he calls liberal capitalism, though which many others simply call neoliberalism. This is of course the mode of Western capitalism today, but he contrasts that with what he calls state capitalism, which is of the type exemplified by China, where captains of industry are given some leeway so long as they never challenge the primacy of the state.

Anyway, I live in Canada and am already familiar with how our kind of capitalism is fucking everyone over, so I didn’t find anything revelatory in the discussion of the Western economic system. I suppose it’s somewhat novel that Milanovic discovered the term “assortative mating” from biology – it refers to a type of mating pattern where individuals tend to mate and reproduce with those who are similar to them more than otherwise. He brings this up to contrast the old capitalisms with the present kind. Specifically, he provides charts and stats showing that assortative mating was more common among high-income individuals in the past than now (he doesn’t mention what this actually looked like but I assume it’s bosses marrying their secretaries and such). This compares to today, where the university-educated tend to marry each other and where lawyers marry CEOs. Milanovic also brings up that while wealthy individuals in the past were mostly people who didn’t work (i.e., the owners of capital), today many of who we would point to as wealthy might only make money through work (see certain software engineers, management consultants, etc).

But what of state capitalism as developed by and exemplified in China? This part is what I found the most interesting since I never knew much beyond the broad strokes of how exactly the Deng Xiaoping reforms turned the China of the Cultural Revolution into the China of Alibaba and Tencent. The main thing is that economic growth became the guiding principle of the state. Local Communist party groups (and by that I mean extremely local) were allowed to implement practically any policy they wanted, and so long as it succeeded in driving growth then it was given the green light for other regions (and if it failed then the sponsors would be sacked). In theory the sponsors would need to make a case for the policy changes not conflicting with socialist ideology, but in practice the sponsors could just make up some bullshit and it would be accepted so long as it sounded vaguely like socialism, so long as it actually got results. Milanovic points out that China after market reforms somewhat resembles China before the Communist Party, with the very large exception that landlords have been greatly curtailed in the countryside.

Now, Milanovic makes clear that the capitalism of China is similar to ours in that there’s also shocking inequality. There are billionaires and there are oppressed workers, same as here. In fact, the National People’s Congress is the richest parliament in the world, with a combined net worth of $700 billion from all members in 2018. The main difference between their capitalism and ours is that theirs is more nationalist. The wealthy elites are not automatically hostile to the government and do not think of themselves as being separate – in fact, they consider themselves as being participants in the project of China (which may sound a tad megalomaniacal but vaguely resembles France in the 70s). The state is supreme and corporations and capitalists are allowed some leeway so long as they never forget that fact. Of course, when so much money is involved and when the regulators collude so closely with the regulated, corruption and abuse of workers naturally springs up. This is why the Chinese government regularly and publicly punishes various officials for corruption. It’s not a show, exactly, as real punishments are doled out (up to even executions), but one big reason for the punishment is showing the masses that the top 1% are keeping in check the 2-5%. Since the government is institutionally incapable of systematically preventing this kind of thing from cropping up, then it must make regular public demonstrations instead.

But I think the biggest thing Milanovic says, and the most controversial, is his argument that the biggest contribution that communism has provided to the world is providing the development to former colonies that their colonizers were unable to do, allowing the Third World communist countries to build themselves up so that they could effectively join the capitalist system as China and Vietnam have done. In effect, he argues that communism is a transition state to capitalism. It’s an interesting thought, though I would argue that colonizers weren’t incapable of developing their colonies but were uninterested in doing so, as the whole point of them was to transfer the resources of the colonial periphery to the metropole. Postcolonial states didn’t necessarily need to be communist to develop, they just needed to break out of sending their resources elsewhere and instead invest them at home, but seeing as how the leaders of non-communist postcolonial states tended to have strong ties to their imperial masters then we can say that it was probably better to go communist than not if you were in the Third World. And Milanovic points out that, Cold War 2.0 rhetoric aside, it’s a good thing that China is loaning development funds to African countries even if there are strings attached, since it’s not like anyone else is offering them any funds.

I do have to say that there are a bunch of things Milanovic wasn’t good on, especially when he tried his hand at sociology or literary theory. One thing that stood out for me was that he took it for granted that the populations of Western countries would inevitably be hostile to too much immigration, which despite being economically and demographically necessary is too much for domestic populations to accept culturally. The solution he proposes is to create tiers of citizenship, which sounds to me like existing systems of guest workers and temporary residents but perhaps he envisions more levels of participation and obligation.

The biggest thing that I disagree with Milanovic on is something that he implies by never mentioning it: he accepts that there is no alternative and that capitalism is our only option. I increasingly feel that anyone today who writes of capitalist development as an unqualified good without mentioning the hard limits our environment imposes on us – the negative externalities, in the language of economics – is doing us all a disservice. But perhaps that is a story for another day. As it stands, I feel Capitalism Alone was kind of an okay book to get back to reading stuff with lots of academic verbiage and statistics and shit, but I don’t think it was a banger. 7 out of 10, if I were to give it a rating.

King of the Hill

So Pathfinder: Kingmaker is actually pretty fun. I know that there were a bunch of bugs when it launched, but it’s been two years since then and I haven’t really noticed any so far. I think I may actually like computer role-playing game more than the classic Baldur’s Gate series (minus #3, which if I ever do get, will be years down the line).

The first reason I prefer this game to both Baldur’s Gate games is that I don’t need to install mods just to get it to look decent on current generation computers. I can read the text, I can zoom all the way in and see my characters clearly. I can actually see what they’re wearing instead of kind of squinting, and I can see the difference in clothes instead of the armour just looking like a slightly different shade. This is important to me since I like playing dress-up on these kind of games.

Second is that I understand the rules right off the bat. I’ve never played the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which is what Baldur’s Gate is based on, so I had to do a bunch of research to find out what stuff like To Hit Armor Class 0 was, and even when I did find out it was usually needlessly arcane and over-complicated. But the Pathfinder roleplaying ruleset is basically D&D 3.75 edition, so a bunch of stuff has been improved in the intervening 20-something years.

I’ve played a bunch of tabletop Pathfinder games, which also helps, but the game itself simplified the rules even more. It doesn’t have a million different types of Knowledge skills, all physical skills such as acrobatics and swimming have been subsumed under Athletics, and so on. I think all the options available can still be a tad overwhelming to a rank newbie but that’s more on the Pathfinder system itself needing, in my opinion, a really drastic streamlining and reconfiguration  (note that there’s a 2nd edition of the Pathfinder system which may have done this already but I haven’t tried it out yet).

Third is the turn-based combat. I initially stuck to real-time battles because that was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, but after trying out the turn-based fighting I’m not going back. Pathfinder in real life is obviously turn-based – six people rolling dice at the same time would get chaotic – and the CRPG just works a lot better when you follow this format as well.

Fourth is that I get to try out a campaign that I’ve been interested in for a while. Kingmaker is an adventure path in the tabletop RPG that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t found a group to do it with. This way I get to actually experience it for myself. Plus Wrath of the Righteous is already being worked on and that’s another campaign that I’d also like to try out.

I’d like to note that in Kingmaker you actually build a kingdom – you get advisors, build infrastructure like windmills and watchtowers, slay monsters threatening your land, and so on. However, I’ve yet to reach that part in the game and am just directing a party of adventurers as we explore the countryside. So I can’t comment on the kingdom-building mechanics yet, but the classic RPG party thing is already pretty good.

Anyway, I’ve got a Chaotic Neutral tiefling Inquisitor of Calistria leading a party consisting of an undead elf Inquisitor of Urgathoa, a halfling bard, a barbarian from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, a half-elf Wizard Rogue, and a half-orc Magus. There are a bunch more party members I benched pending their full recovery from being brought back from the dead or just plain because I don’t like them, but I think I like having a party where almost everyone is a magician of some kind. This is a pretty fun party to play and I like what I’ve seen of this game so far.

Kill or be killed

 I saw the Shane Black movie The Predator. It was a competently made movie that never rose above being mediocre. It can’t even dream of being as good as Predator 2, let alone the first movie.

I’m going to spoil the story because the movie isn’t good enough for anyone to care about being spoiled, but stop reading if this matters to you anyway.

So, in the movies the Predators are alien trophy hunters bagging human kills, right? And in this film, they’re stepping up their hunting trips because climate change will render Earth unlivable, so they’re taking the chance to harvest valuable human spines before the last of their cherished prey dies out.

One Predator wants to help humanity so it escapes to our planet with lifesaving technology to give us. It’s hunted by the other aliens as a traitor, hapless American soldiers get caught in the the middle, there’s lots of pro-military propaganda, a big shootout, and all the other cliches are as you would expect. So, in the denouement our heroes open the thingy the alien traitor was going to give us and what do they find? A high-tech cyber suit built for killing Predators.

So that was it? That’s what the Predator died to give humanity? It thought what our species needed the most in the face of mass extinction from anthropogenic climate change was a shitload of guns?

I mean, Jesus Christ but how many people does one of the Predators kill when they come by? A few dozen? Maybe a hundred? Is that even enough for insurance companies to adjust their rates to compensate for the increased mortality rates? I had thought we were going to get like cold fusion or something like that, but nope, the Predator solution to climate change was shooting it a lot.

Anyway, that’s it, that’s my main takeaway from the movie.

Sword and Sorcery and Titties

I watched Fire and Ice this past weekend. I thought I’d seen it before but I remembered nothing except the two seconds in the climax where the guy with the ax kills the evil wizard. Possibly my older brother rented it at some point in the 90s and I saw it then?

Anyway, it’s not very good, especially when considered with modern sensibilities. It’s about Conan-like mighty-thewed heroes fighting against the conquering hordes of an evil wizard, but honestly, the plot feels like an excuse to animate several disconnected Frank Frazetta sketches and paintings – Death Dealer on a horse, the one where a warlord sits on a throne while a chick in a bikini and a jaguar lie at his feet, the one where Conan leaps into battle roaring in defiance as he brandishes his weapons over his head.

Animation-wise, the movie is fine. It uses that Ralph Bakshi rotoscoping technique so if you find it off-putting, I do not recommend watching this. And speaking of Frank Frazetta, I hope you like his fixation on scantily-clad thicc women and equally scantily-clad large-muscled men. Actually, I hope you really like scantily-clad large-muscled men since I reckon 90 percent of the camera’s gaze is lovingly focused on their powerful bodies in action. But that 10 percent focused on scantily-clad thicc women is, uh, pretty misogynistic. If you’re not clear on what “male gaze” means I would suggest watching all the scenes with female characters in this movie. Thighs, asses, nipples poking through bikini tops – the gaze of the unseen male watcher savagely wanking behind the camera is suffocatingly present.

In fact, aesthetically and politically, Fire and Ice reminds me of 300. I remember walking out after the end of 300 and remarking, “Boy, that was a really fascist movie”. Both movies are about perfect Aryan specimens defending their proud and noble people against hordes of dark-skinned degenerates. Women exist to be leered at but not have sex with while evil men exist to be killed and to be tempted into having sex with thanks to strong homoerotic undertones. It’s really hard for me to imagine how you could make a Nazi sword and sorcery film without essentially making this movie.

Anyway, the movie is an interesting look at what was considered politically acceptable to depict forty years ago.

Strongly Dislike the Police

Thanks to, you know, the thing, there have been a few ongoing discussions online and in other places about copaganda shows that invariably always show the police as heroes and minimize or erase real world issues of systemic racism, domestic abuse, etc among the police community.

The conversations reminded me of the show 19-2, which is set among the beat cops of a fictional Montreal police station. It does show moments of heroism – one of its best episodes is a harrowing depiction of cops responding to an active school shooting – along with regular work bullshit like the cops paying for a shoplifter’s frozen turkey because they didn’t want to deal with arrest paperwork. But it also shows cops being unequivocally shit.

The cops’ union rep, for example, is a wife beater. It’s not addressed in a single very special episode divorced from the larger story, either, but is an ongoing subplot over the series, and after an abusive incident so terrible that the violence can’t keep getting swept under the rug, the union negotiates a tearful public apology from the abuser to convince his wife to return to him, which is portrayed as exactly terrible an idea as you would think.

Another cop is an alcoholic and shows up to work drunk or hungover, directly endangering others, but when the protagonist brings it up with his partner, he’s told that reporting the problem is useless since the union knows how to address complaints which can make them seem without substance or taken out of proportion (of course implying that alcoholic cops are so widely found that there’s already a playbook for dealing with complaints about them). Yet another cop gets jumped by some youths and takes out her PTSD by being extra-violent to protesters later on while facing almost no consequences for it.

The biggest omission from the show, though, especially in light of the current protests, is its refusal to show police racism, at least in the episodes I’d seen. This reflects mainstream Canadian reluctance to discuss race beyond rah-rah self-praise for multiculturalism and the equally strong tendency to point to the US as being terrible and therefore that means things aren’t actually that bad (similar to the way white Europeans use the example of the US to avoid dealing with their own problems on racism).

Anyway, I had originally thought the show was just being anti-union, but in retrospect maybe it was being anti-cop union specifically. It’s rare enough to see the realistic bad stuff about police officers being shown in fiction that isolated examples stand out. It’s something to mull over regarding fictional depictions of the thin blue line separating us from the savage hordes of ourselves.

Starry night

Screenshot of Stars in Shadow showing options available to the player for planetary bombardment and invasion.

Feeling a bit rough today since I haven’t got enough sleep for the last few nights thanks to staying up too late playing Stars in Shadow. Folks, this is exactly the “Master of Orion 2 with nicer graphics and User Interface” that I wanted.

I’ve tried the Galactic Civilizations games (I think I played 2 and 3) and they were definitely decent turn-based strategy in space but they were a tad complicated. I mean, I spent hours just designing space ships (I made a Klingon bird of prey once). And most of the factions in Endless Space were different kinds of humans and robots so I kind of got bored with them.

But Stars in Shadow scratches my itch. It’s exactly as complicated as it needs to be for me to fire it up for a quick game on easy mode (quick being 10 hours straight on a Sunday, apparently) and I like the colourful cartoonishness of the art style.

Bottom line? It’s fun.

The Emotion Engine

So Tales From the Loop is actually good. It’s set in a small town where everything is centered around a mysterious research facility. The whole thing appears to take place in the 1970’s, except there are decaying robots in the woods and inexplicable sci-fi encounters are a part of life. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it looks like there’s a core cast of characters loosely intertwined in each other’s lives, but with the protagonists shifting in each installment.

Even if I hadn’t known already, I probably would have guessed that this was originally a Scandinavian property as its general tone is off-kilter and contemplative. I understand the concept books focused more on the kids, but the show probably didn’t want to come across as copying Stranger Things since they’re both science fiction period pieces.

However, it’s way different anyway, since Stranger Things is awash in nostalgia for a specific period’s consumerism and pop culture, whereas this show feels more like it takes place in a timeless 20th century of no particular decade.

Also, Stranger Things foregrounds its plot elements – stop the Demogorgon, the commies, the thingamabob – whereas this show is all about the emotional consequences of the sci-fi twists. There’s no technobabble solution for letting your best friend down or having your mother break your heart.

Anyway, this is a hearty recommendation from me.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset

I am a sucker for nostalgia, but I’m also a sucker for not working too hard to complete a game. As such, I’ve been playing adventures games lately and have come across two that I rather liked.

A dark figure in a hooded robe faces a set of giant stone hands rising out of the rocky ground, fingers steepled together. The tips of the fingers are also hands and some clasp together while others reach to the overcast and cloudy sky. The hands shelter in their centre a hooded statue, its face hidden in darkness and its body pierced by multiple swords. In the ground in front of the giant hands are more swords planted into the earth. in the background, rocky spires stab into the sky.

The first is Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, a dark gothic tale set in a bizarre fantasy world. It’s rather steampunk Gormenghast in aesthetics. It’s a classic point and click adventure, but it’s barely a game and the puzzles are really quite easy to solve. However, I didn’t really care because I dug the weird-ass shit I kept coming across. It’s just so dark and baroque. Most people on the ball will have long guessed the twist before the ending, but it really doesn’t matter. I completed this game before the present state of exception, but I think it should provide decent entertainment in this time that demands distraction.

Around a room are arrayed strange gadgets - a hulking and aggressive military robot, a green hovercraft, a futuristic jet engine, and various other objects. In the corner stands a woman in a black leather jacket looking at a globe. At the top of the screen is the woman's portrait, which shows she is blond and sporting an undercut, with the left side of her head cut short to a buzz while the hair on top is combed over to flop over on her right side, reaching down to her eyes. At the bottom of the screen are various icons showing the items in the character's inventory as well as icons related to unidentified game options.

The second point and click adventure game is one I’m currently playing through. It’s called Whispers of a Machine and it’s a cyberpunk story set in Norway decades – perhaps centuries – after the golden technofuture of our dreams crashed to earth in some kind of catastrophic global backlash against AI. The world is much smaller, globalization is dead, and a train journey to a small town in the middle of nowhere is a big deal.

The protagonist is a cop from the big city sent to the sticks to investigate a murder and who uncovers a conspiracy that could shake the foundations of society. Along the way she meets several colourful characters that help her in her quest for the truth.

Yeah, this is basically the plot of like 70 percent of all police dramas. Like I said, I’m not looking to think too hard, so this story is just pleasantly formulaic. The cyberpunk thing gives it a fresh coat of paint so that it feels more novel than it would be if it was just another Scandinavian noir.

The somewhat novel thing about this game as a game is its mild inclusion of RPG elements. You can choose to be empathetic, aggressive, or analytical, and each path opens up new choices and new abilities which structure the way you solve puzzles in the game.

But the game itself doesn’t stray too far from the way point and click adventure games worked in their 90s heyday. The graphics are a bit nicer, but not as nice as Tormentum, and definitely not as nice as my gold standard for graphics in 21st century adventure games – Memoria, that rich and lush visual feast.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no specific technical limitation that demands adventure games remain pixelated as hell like they were back in the Sierra On-Line days. I understand that many developers use the program Adventure Game Studios, which in its base configuration can’t output images in very high resolution, but surely there are workarounds for this issue.

The graphics aren’t a deal-breaker, though. I find playing this game rather fun and will continue to the end. I recommend it for everyone who wants a quick and easy adventure game to get through.

The Anointed One

I watched all of Messiah on Netflix, and man, I really liked it.

As you might gather from the trailer, the show is premised on the question, “What if the messiah returned today?” However, the trailer makes it seem like the character depicted is definitely Jesus Christ returned, whereas the show plays coy on whether its central figure is actually divine or whether he’s just a brilliant and charismatic leader using religious fervour and magic tricks to push a revolutionary agenda. As one of the characters on the show even points out, this same question of saviour or con artist would have been applied to the historical Jesus (if he existed) by his contemporaries as well – the character herself comes down on the side of Jesus being “a populist politician with an axe to grind against the Roman empire”.

Messiah begins as follows: as the Islamic State lays siege to Damascus (which is in rebellion to Bashar al-Assad), a street preacher appears claiming that despite all evidence, Daesh shall soon be destroyed. Immediately afterward, a great sandstorm covers the city for an entire month, breaking the siege and demolishing ISIL’s supply lines. Throughout the storm, the street preacher continues to proclaim the supremacy of God’s will, gaining himself followers, and after the storm clears he leads 2,000 people into the desert (and, it’s implied, away from the Syrian government’s retaliation). The people are all Syrian Palestinians and the nameless preacher, now called “al-Masih” (messiah), has led his starving and unarmed followers to the Israeli border to claim the right of return for Palestinians ejected from their homeland.

And this is all in the first episode. The show quickly gets very global in its setting and shows the tentacles of empire, moving between the centre and the periphery, from the site of imperial actions in the Middle East to the source of those actions in the US.

I realize that it’s possible to imagine a horrifically tone deaf Law & Order-style ripped from the headlines hour of TV from the description I’ve given, especially considering that the show’s producers are Mark Burnett of the Survivor reality series and Roma Downey, the lead actor of Touched by an Angel, and considering that this producer couple have apparently made mawkish and pandering Christian-focused sentimental shows.

With that in mind, it’s surprising that the show is actually politically engaging. I mean, just to run through a few plot points – Jesus Christ (potentially) returns to earth and gets interrogated by Shin Bet. The CIA sends out its agents to dig up anything to discredit the messiah. Upon meeting the president of the US, our Lord and Saviour tells him that the path to world peace means withdrawing US troops from all overseas deployments.

The interesting thing is that the question of al-Masih’s divinity is actually immaterial to much of what he says and does. Is he a Russian asset sent to destabilize America? Maybe just some radical with an axe to grind against the American empire? It doesn’t matter, because empires are immoral and you don’t need possess divine wisdom to see this. 

I realize, though, that I may be projecting more of own politics onto the show than what it wants to say by itself. For one thing, the show is mostly told through the point of view of a CIA agent, and she is basically what the CIA sees itself as: a passionate defender willing to make the hard choices in defense of the ideals of the Republic. Instead of, you know, Keystone Kops bunglers using unsurpassed money and brutality to enforce hegemony.

Thinking on this further, the show expresses discontent with America but is unable to fully grasp or articulate the causes of America’s sickness. It steps in that direction by using the language of millenarian religion but is unable to move further beyond individual moral failing to larger structural causes. However, it’s possible that the show will go further with that thread in a potential second season.

I admit that a large part of my enjoyment stems from having studied a bit of Biblical theology once upon a time. My religious studies class and I would discuss what it would have meant for a Palestinian Jew to be decrying Roman occupation and criticizing collaborationist elites, while keeping in mind that the Romans wouldn’t have given much of a crap about factional distinctions and probably thought Jesus was just one of countless desert nutjobs who needed killing for the Pax Romana. The show basically took those discussions and set my class’s imaginings in the 21st century. And of course the other part of the show I like is the whole poli sci/international relations nerd crap.

Bottom line? If there’s a second season, I’m definitely watching.