I just finished reading The Necessary Beggar by Susan Palwick. It’s about a family exiled from a parallel dimension who end up as refugees in post-9/11 Nevada. The blurb on Amazon compares it to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but I think that’s going a tad too far (especially since that book is one of my favourites).
Frankly, the science fiction aspect of The Necessary Beggar doesn’t figure that strongly into the story. Ghosts and reincarnation figure very prominently in it so it could actually be more easily classified in the fantasy genre.
To be honest, the alternate dimension thing could have been cut out completely and it would have worked out just as well by being a magical realist story about refugees from like Afghanistan or Somalia. But doing the story that way requires a lot more research to get the culture right and I can’t help thinking that was the main reason the family came from a made-up country.
If you’ve read immigrant stories before then a lot of this book will be familiar – it’s got migrants going through the everyday trauma of navigating a foreign culture, feeling an aching and unquenchable yearning for a lost home, clashes between tradition and American modernity, that kind of thing. I feel like there’s a Salman Rushdie novel in here struggling to break through.
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 to possess divine wisdom to see this.
I realize, though, that I may be projecting more of my 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 amounts of 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.
Elsewhere in the world I have been discussing the book Soonish, which is about incredible inventions that are on the cusp of making the world a better place. Some of the proposed technologies were interesting, some were ho-hum, and some were completely pie-in-the-sky. The thing about the book that most leapt out at me, though, was the politics that it was uncritically espousing.
Several times the book discusses how the inventions will be used by the American military, which made me pull back with some befuddlement – how, I asked while reading, is improving the way people kill each other making the world a better place? What I found especially striking was that it was clear that the authors took it for granted that supporting the US military was an unqualified good and most likely didn’t even consider it as a political act at all.
The other thing that struck me about the book, which shouldn’t be surprising considering its “science fuck yeah” tone, is that it insisted on technical solutions for political problems. The section on housing goes on about how outrageously outmoded the current construction model of building houses is, and what with the housing crisis in America today the best solution is some kind of modular houses that assemble themselves or some shit (I read the book months ago so I don’t remember the specifics).
In fact, the book argues, with the rising homelessness crisis and unaffordability of housing in places like San Francisco, it’s practically a moral necessity to get these robot houses approved and building themselves ASAP since they can do the job faster and cheaper than what we have right now.
That line of argument reminded me of how some people talked about fixing world hunger back in the nineties. If we could just develop the right fertilizer or right GM crops or whatever then we could increase crop output and famine would forever be eradicated. Of course, this ignores the fact that the world hunger crisis exists at the same time as the world obesity crisis. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food for everyone – if that were true, it would be impossible to eat enough to become obese. The problem is that food goes not to who needs it, but who has money to pay for it. Which is to say that the problem is political, not technical.
It’s the same thing with the current housing shortage. If developed countries really, really wanted to, then everyone who wanted a home could have one. But a host of of political problems – baby boomers who want real estate prices to stay high because selling their houses is their retirement plan, developers chasing luxury prices for wealthy international elites who just want someplace stable to park their money, widespread societal aversion to the idea of renting, a regulatory environment that makes approval of new construction so arduous that it incentivizes developers into only focusing on the absolutely most profitable projects, and so much more – combine to stymie efforts for change.
So my expectation is that if self-building robot houses or whatever are approved, the savings in time and money will just mean larger profits for the developers and no meaningful difference will be made in the amount of housing being constructed. But woo robot houses.
Legends of Eisenwald looks to be a fantasy roleplaying and strategy game about leading a noble family in medieval Germany.
However, while researching it I found out about its standalone spin-off, Eisenwald: Blood of November, which apparently is about the 2016 US elections.
No, I have no goddamn idea why or how the game developers did this but almost every review on GOG states that Blood of November transposes the electoral showdown between Trump and Clinton into a fantasy version of medieval Germany. According to one review the story works like this:
The gameplay and the low fantasy medieval setting has all the qualities that made me love Legends of Eisenwald. But this stand-alone spin off is also an absolutely hilarious rewriting of the recent American elections. Here it’s the Duke that died heirless, and the barons have to elect his successor. The 2 main contestant are a man named Dieter Horn , and a woman, Hanna Eisig , and you have to pick a side and help it win. The extravagant rumors about both candidates are often medieval views of the actual campaign events , and it’s amazing how medieval it does feel indeed! The game is still great even if you don’t want to pay attention to that double entendre, but much funnier this way.
So, uh, yeah. I bought Legends of Eisenwald but now I wonder if I should buy this spinoff as well, since it sounds either stupid or brilliant. I don’t think I’d be able to catch every in-joke since these days I avoid consuming too much news about the minutiae of US politics, but campaign season for the 2020 elections has already started so playing it almost seems topical. And it’s only like $3. Maybe I can buy one less coffee next week?
Warrior is the shit. It’s a violent kung fu spaghetti western that’s so very over the top. It’s set in 19th century San Francisco and I think is basically what Bruce Lee had wanted the original Kung Fu TV show to originally look like. The protagonist is literally fresh off the boat from China, but unlike other FOBs he knows kung fu and starts kicking racist ass as soon as he arrives.
The show has a lot about the politics around Chinese immigration at the time – the way politicians stoked working class racism at lost jobs, the way the Irish workers shat on those lower down the ladder than them, the way the rich businessmen gladly exploited the Chinese, the resentment the Chinese had against their oppression, and the gangsters and criminals who didn’t give much of a shit as long as they profited. But all this is expressed in modern-ish language (in fact, very hip hop language), and thanks to the magic of TV we hear English when the Chinese characters are talking all funny among themselves.
Did I mention the show is violent? Because it is. It’s what I wanted out of Into the Badlands and damn if it doesn’t deliver. If nothing else, just watch the opening, it’s stylish as hell. I like the whole 70’s kung fu movie poster thing.
Fascinating article from The Guardian about the US-raised children of a couple in Russia’s infamous Illegals spy program. It would of course be mind-blowing to discover as a teenager that your parents were secretly Russian deep cover spies trained by the KGB, and the article covers that in depth. Peripherally related to that issue is the fact that the TV show The Americans is very loosely based on the Illegals Program.
It’s kind of interesting to think about how the fictional kids on that show would react to the same revelation of their parents’ secret lives as enemies of the state. The real-life sons are currently trying to regain their Canadian citizenship (their parents’ cover having been that of Canadian immigrants to the US) and on reflection I think I wouldn’t mind if they became legit Canadians. As they point out, they barely know Russia and have few personal ties there. Plus they seem eager to live in and contribute to Canada, so what the hell. There’s plenty of room.
Also interesting is this video of the father in the story, Andrey Bezrukov. There is a noticeable non-native accent in his English speech, but it might be that he is no longer trying to disguise his origins or that his speech patterns have been influenced by the people around him after he has returned home – or both, probably.
A proposal on reform for the United States Supreme Court:
My view of statutory and constitutional interpretation/construction, btw, is that appellate judges should always strive to figure out what a law could reasonably mean (by looking at the universe of possible meanings derivable from the text and the circumstances of its enactment) and then pick whatever meaning that Captain America would prefer. If the Supreme Court did this consistently, I am sure that we would live in a much better country.
Big Marijuana is coming like Big Tobacco did decades before, but it’s taking a detour through the 1920s and the Prohibition Era first. If and when marijuana is legalized in the United States, it will almost definitely join the other legal drugs in being pushed by profit-driven corporations willing to kill as many trees as it takes to be in the black. In the meantime, heavily armed pot growers are destroying the environment well enough on their own.
Although the original Northern California growers saw pot cultivation as an extension of their hippie lifestyles, their environmental values haven’t readily carried over to the next generation. “They are given a free pass to become wealthy at a young age, to get what they want,” Silvaggio explains. “And do you think they are going to give it up when they turn 20, with a kid in the box? They can’t get off that gravy train.” But with prices dropping as domestic supply expands, “you can’t go smaller; you’ve got to go bigger these days to make the amount of money you used to make. So what does that mean? You have to get another generator. You have to take more water. You’ve got to spray something because you may lose 20, 30 grand if you don’t.”
Odd fact No. 2,596,322 about the United States of America: Should George Washington return as a zombie, mummy, lich, revenant, poltergeist, or other type of undead, the armies of the United States are required to follow his orders.
Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington of Virginia commanded our armies throughout and to the successful termination of our Revolutionary War; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington presided over the convention that formulated our Constitution; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington twice served as President of the United States of America; and Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list; Now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
That (a) for purposes of subsection (b) of this section only, the grade of General of the Armies of the United States is established, such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present.
(b) The President is authorized and requested to appoint George Washington posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such appointment to take effect on July 4, 1976.