Wednesday 17 January 2024

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 I find it puzzling.  Why do I struggle to connect with and enjoy certain amazing books?

By any objective standard, I should have loved Children of Time.  It has a fascinating premise,  a mind-alerting perspective, novel technologies, and a pair of intertwining plot threads that are by their very nature compelling.

And yet...reading it felt like a duty.  I had to force myself to complete the book.

Am I just old?  Brain ossified? Maybe I've just 'outgrown' SF, where by 'outgrown' I mean 'aged out of'?  (For perspective, I'm thinking of "aging out of" in the same sense that gymnasts (at least used to) age out of being competitive before they reached age 20, not in the sense of "leaving childish things behind.")

I don't know.  But I do think that with Children of Time there are several things going on, at least for me.  

To talk about them, I need to talk about the specifics of the novel. And apologies, there are going to be some spoilers.

The book takes place in the far future and has two main plot threads.  In the first,  (PT1) a grand star-spanning human civilization crashes, leaving behind a science project running on a distant isolated planet.  We then follow the artificially-accelerated evolution of a species of uplifted spiders across thousands of generations as they evolve from simple spiders to intelligent social beings with a planet-spanning civilization.  Plot thread two (PT2) begins centuries after PT1 begins, when an Ark ship from the reconstituted human civilization arrives searching for a new home for the last remnants of humanity. Earth (and every other human habitat) is dead. 

Both stories take place over thousands of years:  the spider story told as a series of vignettes illustrating key moments in their evolution and in the development of their society; the human story told as the human "sleepers" on the ship wake to deal with one crisis or another as their mostly-automated ship travels the cosmos looking for a home for its sleeping cargo of otherwise doomed people.

Here is the first problem with the story, at least for me -- it takes place over far too long a time span.  I couldn't read Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.  I simply got too frustrated with the structure of the book, which featured the same characters reincarnated again and again over the course of a long alternate history.  The story was interrupted over and over again, you had to figure out which character was which every time (names, of course, varied for each incarnation), and there wasn't a clear story arc for the overall book. I rapidly stopped caring.

The spider story arc (PT1) inherently has these same problems. Strike One.

However, Tchaikovsky does something clever.  The protagonists of each episode of PT1 have a consistent set of names, even though the actual players change with almost every episode: "Portia" is always our enterprising heroine, "Bianca" our spider super-scientist, "Viola" a political leader, "Fabian" a genius male spider struggling to advance the interests of males within spiderdom.  The consistent set of names gives the episodes a spurious feel of continuity, which was enough to keep me engaged -- at least after the spiders developed a degree of sentience. Strike two: this took almost 100 pages. 

The second plot thread  (PT2) should be a no-brainer -- lots of drama, a clear plotline, a consistent set of core characters throughout.  The problem? Holsten, the viewpoint character in PT2 (I hesitate to call him the 'protaganist') is one of the most passive characters I've encountered in fiction.  

Holsten is not one of the leaders of the expedition, involved in making decisions about the expedition, taking dramatic action, inspiring others, or in figuring things out.  Instead he is a specialist woken only when he is needed to decipher messages in the languages of the lost civilization. So he is not necessarily involved in the key events and crises that affect the human voyage. Even that might be okay, because after all, this book isn't really about the drama of those events.  It's about the <SPOILER, BUT I THINK YOU CAN SEE THIS COMING> events that lead the human ship into conflict with the spiders. So, okay, the events setting up the conflict mostly do involve Holsten, albeit only in a supporting role.

The real barrier? Holseten is personally incredibly passive.  When conflict breaks out on the Ark ship, he doesn't take sides:  he doesn't even have a clear sense of which side he thinks is correct.  When he discovers something earth-shattering, he sleeps on the decision about whether to tell the captain, even though the information is critical and the ship is operating under a time limit.  He doesn't speak up when he begins to suspect the true nature of the messages he is receiving from the planet of PT1, even though that revelation is also critical.  Over and over again he decides nothing, he says nothing, doesn't act, doesn't have an opinion, doesn't appear to care deeply about anyone -- not even the person who supposedly falls in love with him (I say supposedly because that deep love doesn't seem believable within the context of the book). 

Holsten is a very frustrating character to follow through PT2.

Strike 3 against the book.

I have some theories about why Tchaikovsky wrote Holsten this way.  One is that it was in the interests of  verisimilitude.  Who is most likely to survive a centuries-long voyage? Someone who is key to every decision and has to be awakened repeatedly to act (using up their lifespan), or someone less central? Okay, plausible but not definitive.  Any author worth their salt could work around that one somehow.

A second reason Tchaikovsky might have made Holsten so passive is that Tchaikovsky felt that a more detached viewpoint gave a more appropriate tone to story that takes place over eons -- Holsten's detachment lends the story a more eternal quality. Sure, but is that worth the potential loss of reader interest?

I think my third theory is the strongest one:  Tchaikovsky wanted to balance our interest in both plot threads even though our sympathies are naturally going to skew towards humanity in any contest of "human vs spider".  Holsten's detachment was Tchaikovsky's way of lessening our engagement with the  humans.

Unfortunately, that third strike against the book meant that even after I started feeling engaged with the fate of the spiders,  I kept procrastinating about reading the book. I didn't like the viewpoint character in PT2.  In fact, I didn't really like any of the humans.

I mean, I love SF for the way it explores ideas, but fundamentally, stories are about people. 

Okay, okay.  Counter examples: Foundation and anything else Asimov ever wrote.  In fact, almost any SF that predates the "New Wave" of the 1960s, and a good chunk of that too.  I mean, how long was it until anyone other than Ursula K. LeGuin focused on humans as humans? 

Which brings me back to the "aging out" comment.  Maybe my brain has degenerated to the point where I need a human story line in order to really engage with SF.  Or, hopefully, it's just a phase I'm going through.  :-) Because I don't think SF is ever going to be only human-centred, and I probably wouldn't want it to be.

Thursday 28 December 2023

One book leads to another: Half-Breed, The One and a Half Men, The Northwest is Our Mother

The Northwest is Our Mother by Jean Teillet: an activist political and social history of the Metis people

The One and a Half Men by Murray Dobbin: an extensively researched political biography of two Metis activists active from the 1930s through the 1960s

Half-Breed by Maria Campbell: a personal memoir showing the impact of Metis social and political history through the story of one Metis woman

OR, in reverse order....zooming out from the story of a few decades of a single life (Campbell), to one thread through political and social life of the Metis people over the course of two men's entire lives (Norris and Brady), to the story of a people (Teillet).

One book leads to another: Half Breed by Maria Campbell leads to The One and a Half Men by Murray Dobbin leads to The Northwest is our Mother by Jean Teillet

First I re-read Half Breed.

I read Maria Campbell's book many years ago, when I lived in Saskatoon.  Even then, before she was perhaps technically an elder, she was an honoured elder Metis, a noted indigenous activist, and a legend.  Our circles didn't touch, but that was because I was an unremarkable white juvenile activist who wouldn't have rated an introduction even if we had happened to be in the same place at the same time.  Maria was a celebrity, someone who people would name-drop if she'd been at their baby shower or potluck, or especially if they'd rated an invitation to her place at Gabriel's crossing at Batoche.

What did I think of Half Breed on re-reading it more than a half-century after publication?  First, how the book still resonates in so many ways.  The vividness of Campbell's stories leap from the page, especially as she tells the stories of her childhood living as one of the 'road allowance people' in North-Central Saskatchewan in the 1940s and 50s.  Those are stories of poverty and struggle, discrimination and official abuse -- but also of happiness and family and connection, at least until her mother dies and her father falls apart, leaving her and her younger siblings to struggle and ultimately be separated for many many years.  Broken families are nothing new for indigenous peoples in Canada.  Neither are the tough choices and unhappy circumstances that lead to sex work, addiction and often despair, as they did for Campbell in the 1960s.

Campbell overcame.  She reclaimed her life and her heritage, became politically active, and wrote the story of her life in the early 1970s.  In the process, she became one of the first indigenous voices to be published in Canada, and the fore-mother of a new literature.

So, how did this book lead me to One and a Half Men?  When Campbell talks about the forces that destroyed her father's life, she talks about his deep disappointment with the failure of political organizing by the Metis people in Saskatchewan in the 1940s, and his disappointment with the noted Metis organizers Jim Brady and Malcolm Norris.  She also talks of the many betrayals of the Metis by the CCF government (who are otherwise heroes of mine).  It made me curious.  I googled Brady and Norris, and discovered One and a Half Men, a political biography written by someone I had actually known in my long-ago Saskatoon days -- Murray Dobbin.

Murray wasn't someone I knew well -- he was of the notable political generation just ahead of mine.  But the combination of a book by someone I knew and a history I did not made finding and reading this book irresistible.

One and a Half Men by Murray Dobbin

My initial reaction:  Wow.  What an amazing book.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that everyone should drop everything right now to read One and a Half Men.  It's an extensively researched and competently written political biography, but it's probably not a book that will change how you see the world.  It isn't written with ground-breaking literary quality. It isn't the self-expression of an oppressed people and it doesn't tell a universal story of interest to people everywhere in the world.

But writing One and a Half Men was an extraordinary act of respect and service to the Indigenous communities of Saskatchewan and Alberta.   Murray Dobbin spent years diving into archives and interviewing friends, families, and political allies and foes of the legendary Metis political organizers and activists Malcolm Norris and James Brady.  Because he did so, a detailed record exists of their decades-long political struggle from the 1920s and 1930s in Alberta (where they were responsible for the grudging creation of the Metis Settlements by the Alberta government) through the late 40s, 50s, and 60s in Saskatchewan where they nurtured the spark of Metis Nationalism through dark times while mentoring and inspiring future generations of Metis activists and leaders.

This book is an important historical record of one part of the long struggle of Indigenous peoples against colonial settler society.  You can read it to learn more about the racism, neglect, hostility, and extraordinary vindictiveness* of mid-20th century government officials towards Metis and Indigenous peoples, particularly those who dared to advocate for themselves.  More importantly, it allows people today to see and honour the strength and dedication of two extraordinary men who spent their lives in service to their people.

Metis people would undoubtedly themselves tell this story differently -- and next I should seek out The Northwest is our Mother by Jean Teillet to see how.  But because Dobbin did the research, asked the hard questions, and donated his records to the Saskatchewan archives, researchers have much more detailed source information than they otherwise would.  

 * The supremely competent but politically outspoken Norris was fired from his Saskatchewan government job mere months before he qualified for a pension by the Liberal Ross Thatcher government -- who then went on to make sure that he was fired from his replacement job at the Prince Albert Friendship Centre.  Norris died of a stroke soon afterwards.

The Northwest is Our Mother by Jean Teillet

In her introduction to One and a Half Men Maria Campbell explains that her immediate and visceral reaction to the book was that she did not want Murray Dobbin to write about her heroes -- even though Murray was a friend and the book was excellent. She did not want a white historian to tell Brady and Norris's story.  

After reading Jean Teillet's history of the Metis People, I completely understand Campbell's reaction.  

Teillet's book is the story of the Metis people, told from the perspective of the Metis people.  

What does this mean?

The Northwest is our Mother is comprehensive and extensively researched, and tells the stories that are important to the Metis.  One example:  the book includes a few pages explaining the brief visit of a white grifter to the Forks in the early 19th century.  Why?  This is not a particularly notable event!  But there is a traditional Metis song mocking this man and his pretensions, so of course it is of interest to the Metis to understand the song's origins.  Another example:  Teillet describes in detail the Metis perspective on what she calls "the Northwest Resistance" -- when the Metis' heart-breakingly reasonable requests of the Canadian government were met by Gatling guns at Batoche.  She doesn't describe events during the Resistance that involved only First Nations peoples, even though those are important to understanding the overall arc of events. Teillet is telling the story of the Metis, not an objective history of Western Canada.  A final example:  Teillet focuses on a single decade of Malcolm Norris and Jim Brady's lives, the decade of activism and struggle that led to the creation of the Metis Settlements in Alberta.  In doing so she gives a much better perspective on the importance of those settlements -- because despite the profound disappointment Norris and Brady felt at their limited land and their limited autonomy, the settlements remain to this day the Metis' only secured land base and so remain profoundly important to the Metis people.

But it's not only the content of Teillet's book that is striking.  She speaks in a Metis voice. Her language is sometimes non-academic. She focuses on the perspective and experiences of the Metis in all situations.  She includes stories about how these historical events impacted members of her family, and how those events are remembered today. In telling the story of the Metis she not only explains the origins and history of her people, she tells us what the Metis remember, what they valued and who they are. 

Dobbin is alway sympathetic to his subjects, but he writes about Metis lives, Metis politics, and Metis history.  He is always at at least one remove, the objective observer.   Not to mention that the very title of his book is offensive: it is based on a historical story that positions the Metis people as 'other' and not entirely human: 

" the early 1850s...he asked a Catholic priest about a nearby group of boisterous men. They were dark skinned but obviously not Indians. 'They are the one-and-a-half men,' the priest replied, 'half Indian, half white and half devil.'"

And while Dobbin researched and wrote within 10 years of Norris and Brady's deaths, and so had access to people who knew them and remembered events described in his book-- reading Teillet's book reminds me that the stories important to the Metis would not have been lost.  Those men's families, their compatriots, their communities: they remember.  They told and continue to tell their own stories, both as inheritors of the oral culture of their indigenous ancestors and as descendants of highly educated and literate French Canadians and Hudson's Bay traders.

The Metis did not need Murray Dobbin to tell Malcolm Norris and Jim Brady's story, any more than the Woman's Movement of the 1970s needed Murray to create a 'Men's Auxilliary' and hold bakesales to raise money for them (which he apparently did in his youth).

So, in the end, the most amazing and impressive of the three books is undoubtedly Teillet's.  Not only does she tell the Metis stories about themselves that they need to know and remember,  her book clearly explains to white Canadians just who the Metis are.  Which makes it clear just how insulting it is when pretendians with some tiny random fraction of indigenous ancestry call themselves Metis.  

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Babel by R. F. Kuang

 I pretty much hated this book, and I am struggling to understand why. 

First of all, why would I expect to love this book?  Well, what's not to love?  

  1. Kuang is an award-winning author, whose books have been best-sellers.  Those factors should mean that her books are both well-written and engaging.  
  2. As far as topics go, Babel takes place in a fictionalized fantasy version of 19th Century Colonial Britain, featuring a hero who is a half-Chinese scholar born in Canton.  It's an interesting setting, with an interesting premise.
  3. Kuang is a first generation American whose parents were born in China. She herself is a scholar of Chinese history and culture.  The book should be told from a highly expert and insightful perspective. 
  4. Babel features an anti-colonialist hero who first joins a secret society designed to undermine British hegemony, and then builds a student-worker coalition as part of a rebellion against colonialism.

All good, right?  

Alas, in practise I stopped reading Kuang's first novel, The Poppy War, half-way through and I had the same impulse half-way through Babel. 

This time pushed to the end, trying to understand what wasn't working for me.

It's not that Kuang is a young academic, and that her books show it.  The protagonists of both the The Poppy War and Babel are brilliant, penniless young students, but the struggle of the heroine of The Poppy War to triumph in the imperial entrance exams kept my attention.  So did the beginnings of the academic journey of the hero of Babel, who is scooped out of China as a young boy, and set to intensive study of Latin and Greek to prepare him for Oxford and his future at the Institute of Translation.  Babel continued to hold my attention as 'Robin Swift' enters Oxford and encounters his first real friend -- fellow student Ramy-- and as together they build their academic careers through their first years of university.

But about half-way through Babel my interest really began to flag.  There were lots of events -- so many events!  So much drama! -- as Swift and his classmates struggle with various challenges at Oxford, year by year, and as Swift encounters his mysterious brother Griffen and the even more mysterious Hermes Society.  

But at some point I stopped caring.  Maybe there were simply too many events?  It felt as if this story could have been several books.  Or perhaps the problem is that Kuang should have pruned this story to create a more satisfying overall story arc.  As it is now there were too many challenges, too many mini-crises and resolutions, with no clear emotional direction for the overall story.

It didn't help that I felt a limited emotional connection with the characters.

Only Robin our hero was fully-drawn.  To a lesser extent Ramy also comes alive on the page.  But we don't see enough of Griffen to understand him, or care about him and his passions.  (When we finally do begin to understand Griffen, it's because Robin tells us about him, not because Kuang shows him to us.) Dr. Lovell is an evil colonialist.  Letty is a caricature, and annoyingly, one whose character and life story don't feel true to 1830s England.   Victoire hardly existed at all until the very last pages of the book.

Then there are the plot problems that start coming thick and fast from the midpoint onwards. Why would Babel overlook what seems to them to be Robin's treachery? Why do they also send the other 4th year students to China alongside Robin, when those student's skills are irrelevant to the project at hand? And how does it happen that four of the most brilliant scholars at Oxford are so beef-witted about covering up a crime? 

And then Kuang suddenly kills off most of the characters to create a crisis point.  

I 'm so old I remember when it was considered edgy to kill off central characters!  But instead of it being a shock that enlivens the story, here killing off central characters feels like a contrivance -- one that makes it hard to feel invested in the story's ultimate outcome.  It doesn't help that our hero claims to be devastated but we don't feel that devastation.  Or that our Hero and his remaining brilliant colleagues (and their revolutionary working class allies) seem so naive about strategy.  

Am I a curmudgeon?  Undoubtedly.  Can I write a book as good as R. F. Kuang's?  Of course not.  Will her writing improve as she matures and gains both more life experience and more writing experience?  I hope so.  Or maybe I am just being far too curmudgeonly in even saying that!  She's writing relevant books that appeal to a best-selling-sized audience, an audience that cares more about her passion, her perspective, and her world-view than the flaws that I see.

Good for her.  May she write many more. I just doubt that I'll read them.


I attended the Surrey Writer's Conference this past November, and a comment that Mary Robinette Kowal made there stuck with me.  Roughly "Readers will love your work for what you do well."

Readers love R.F. Kuang for what she does well -- write stories from a uniquely Asian perspective, foregrounding the experience of People of Colour from non-Western cultures.

Babel does this extremely well -- it makes Imperial Victorian England an entirely new place to a Western reader situated in a culture that mostly sees this era through the eyes of contemporary authors like Dickens (where the Empire that makes his society possible is invisible) or modern authors like Neal Stephenson (who use the era to create a romanticized steampunk past). 

Even the annoying ahistorical Lety serves a purpose in this perspective:  she exists to allow Kuang to vividly illustrate the idea of 'white women's tears' and the impact on POC of supposed white allies who don't see their own privilege and whose words and actions centre their own experience instead of supporting those of POC.

I can see and appreciate those values.  I took them too much for granted in my previous review, perhaps because there remains something about how Kuang paces her stories that really doesn't work for me, making me focus on all of the elements of her books that annoy me, instead of all of the things that she does really well.

Monday 17 April 2023

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow

I expected to love this book.  I expected to want to write about it in some detail.  I began enthusiastically,  underlining passages and taking notes as I read.

Spoiler alert:  I did not love this book. It took me a long time to finish, and my notes have been sitting unread for weeks.  I also feel very unmotivated to revisit them and to write this review.

But waste not, want not.  Given that I went to the effort, I might as well share a few thoughts.

To start with, don't get me wrong.  The Dawn of Everything is eye-opening!  It may well change the way you understand human prehistory.  You will certainly learn a lot, even if you already have some interest in prehistory and/or have visited some of the archeological sites referenced in the text.  Not to mention that the authors are frequently amusing.  Graeber and Wengrow bring a sly sense of humour to what is literally 'ancient history'.

My fundamental problem is that the book failed to answer the question it set for itself -- not the question that they began their journey with ("what are the roots of inequality in today's societies?") -- but the question they circle through all 500+ pages of their text "are the kinds of deeply unequal societies we live in today inevitable?"

To be fair, it's a lot to expect an answer to that question and I probably shouldn't have expected one, despite the frequent promises in the text itself.  I might have been overall more satisfied with my reading if I had expected exactly what this book delivers: a re-examination of the evidence we have about human societies throughout history and prehistory, and a thorough debunking of the mythology of "human progress" that we are all familiar with. You know the one: "Humans started as hunter-gatherers, living in an idyllic state of nature in small groups.  Then we invented agriculture and settled down, developing task specialization, cities, and kings and armies along the way."  Or possibly the more Hobbesian view (shared by Stephen Pinker) -- "We developed civilization to protect ourselves from the unending 'war of all against all'".  

As it turns out, neither perspective offers much value as a description of human prehistory. 

As Graeber and Wengrow point out, it's easy to forget that human prehistory is very very very long.  Biologically modern humans have existed for somewhere north of 150,000 years, while our oldest written records date back only about 5000 years.  That means that there is time enough for human prehistory to be far stranger, more complex, and more various than we generally imagine.

For example, the more we learn, the more we discover that prehistory abounds with examples of settled groups of hunter-gatherers (Haida, people of Çatalhöyük),  peoples who adopted agriculture and then abandoned it (notably, the builders of Stonehenge), and even non-hierarchical cities (Teotihuacan does not contain the kinds of images of warrior-kings found in other MesoAmerican ruins, instead featuring vast complexes of apartment buildings that housed peoples of all social classes.  There are ancient large circular settlements in Eastern Europe that seem to be designed that way on the 'Arthur's round table' principle -- in other words, they seem deliberately designed to prevent any subgroup from claiming undue significance or prestige due to their location within the larger group.)

Which brings us to one of the other main points that Graeber and Wengrow are at pains to make: we have no reason to believe that ancient peoples were any less clever than we are, or any less deliberate in making choices about how, where, and with whom they lived.  Just because a people did not have a written language (or a written language that we still have evidence of or that we can still read), does not mean that those people somehow lived 'in a state of nature' dictated by their predetermined stage of 'cultural evolution'.   

So read this book if you're interested in learning more about recent discoveries about human prehistory, and if you're interested in a contrarian view about what those discoveries show and mean.  Also read this book for the many interesting perspectives and asides that the authors provide about human culture and cultural influences.  

One example: Wengrow and Graeber  examine the possibility that North American First Nation's way of life influenced and inspired the European Enlightenment.

After all,  how was it that European thinkers like Rousseau developed their ideas around liberty, equality, individualism, toleration, and rationality in the first place? There was literally no precedent for these ideas in the religiously rigid, hierarchical societies of late medieval Europe.  Could the rise of these ideas have anything to do with the contemporaneous contact that French society had with egalitarian North American cultures like that of the Wendat (Huron) people?  

The Wendat viewed with something between horror and disdain the idea that anyone had the right to compel obedience from another. Instead they chose to govern themselves via councils that featured endless articulate and philosphic debate.   

Sounds like a stretch to think that the Wendat helped to inspire the Enlightenment?  One of the most popular books in early 18th century Europe was a book written by a French priest (Lahontan) who had recently returned from what is now modern Canada.  The book is a scathing critique of French society written in the form of a dialog between Kandiaronk (a notable Wendat) and the priest.  

The book has traditionally been interpreted as being a liberal critique of French society that simply uses a mythical Wendat as an interlocutor.  Perhaps -- but Kandiaronk was a real person.  His existence is documented in First Nation's oral history, and in multiple contemporary European historical accounts.   Moreover, these historical accounts (letters, journals, church reports) are uniformly admiring of Kandiaronk's intellect -- one Jesuit calls him 'surely the most intelligent man who ever lived'.  And remember, Jesuits were the intellectuals of the Catholic Church. 

So why shouldn't we believe that the critiques of European society attributed to Kandiaronk were his own?   Particularly given that Lahontan knew Kandiaronk, and there is a plausible argument to be made that Kandiaronk himself actually visited France as part of an Indigenous delegation that visited the French court in 1691.  So why shouldn't we believe that a book that was widely read and widely translated affected the intellectual climate of its time? 

That argument gives you a taste for the kind of information and analysis that Graeber and Wengrow provide throughout the thoroughly entertaining (and well-referenced) pages of The Dawn of Everything.  Just don't expect their discussions to come to the conclusions that they claim to be pursuing.

Sunday 19 February 2023

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

It's absurd to write a critical review of a book that has endured for more than 1500 years.  It's even more absurd to do so without finishing that book, especially given how short it is (163 small pages in the edition I picked up from my closest little free library).

But I just can't.

Meditations is a foundational work of Stoicism, written by the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius in the second century AD.  The very fact that this text still exists after all this time is a testament to the wisdom that generations of readers have found in its words. 

But when Aurelius writes of accepting whatever life gives you with a quiet mind because it is what Nature has allotted to you, I can't help reflecting how much easier it would have been to do so as the adopted son of an emperor, and then emperor yourself than it would have been to do so as one of his own slaves. When Aurelius rates the "womanish" sins of desire (sins that are pleasurable) as worse than the (more manly) sins of passion (involuntary loss of control), I reflect first on the misogyny of calling such sins feminine, and then on how sins of desire primarily hurt the sinner while sins of passion like 'striking out in anger' hurt others.   And then there's the irony of the passages that speak of the futility of seeking lasting fame.  :-)  

This isn't a book that speaks to me, even if I could learn from the Meditations on procrastination, keeping an even keel, and the other lessons that I haven't yet read (and probably never will).

Sunday 11 September 2022

From Left to Right: Saskatchewan's Political and Economic Transformation by Dale Eisler

What happened to Saskatchewan?  I grew up in a province that was home to the NDP, the cooperative movement, the Wheat Pool, and Medicare. Last year my sister said to me, off-handedly, "Saskatchewan is a right wing province".  It startled me, but she's right: the NDP has lost every federal seat that they once held, and the right-wing Saskatchewan Party has a stranglehold on provincial power.  Voters don't care about serious financial and political scandals (Global Transportation Hub), or huge financial deficits (Grant Devine conservatives, current Saskatchewan Party), as long as the perpetrators are self-proclaimed conservatives. In 2021 pandemic policy became "Whatever Jason Kenney says".  The resulting wave of deaths and the near-collapse of the province's health care system reduced the current premier's popularity, but hasn't brought any real political consequences.

What the f* Saskatchewan?

When I saw this book I grabbed it, hoping for answers.  


I didn't want the answer to be "It's because people are stupid and easily led."

To be clear, that's my conclusion, not Eisler's.  Eisler blames the NDP itself, after outlining political events in Saskatchewan in some detail from the 1970s through the 2000s.  But while the NDP certainly had "fails" (that coalition with the Liberals in 1999 certainly looks daft for both the Liberals and NDP in retrospect), nothing the NDP did or didn't do explains a few mysteries.  

Why don't the Saskatchewan people care if conservative governments run deficits?  In the 1980s, Grant Devine took Saskatchewan from a surplus to the largest per-capita deficit in the country. Today's Saskatchewan Party has won 4 majority governments in a row while consistently running deficits -- mostly during an era of high commodity prices that should have made running surpluses a piece of cake.

Why don't the Saskatchewan people value competent government?  The Romanow government of the 1990s made some hard choices to eliminate the Conservative deficit. But apparently those choices completely destroyed the credibility of the NDP in rural Saskatchewan, despite farmers' supposedly hard-headed pro-business perspective on economic issues, and despite the depopulation of rural communities which made those policies rational. Why didn't the Calvert government of the 2000s get credit for the economic growth that they created?  Why does the credit instead go to Brad Wall, who simply continued or doubled-down on NDP economic policies?

Eisler's answer would be that politics in Saskatchewan is essentially populist.  Saskatchewanians feel like outsiders in the Canadian federation. They feel that their political and economic interests are subsumed to those of Ontario and Quebec, which gives them a sense of grievance that is core to Saskatchewan identity.  Tommy Douglas was successful because of his charisma, and because he understood that sense of grievance and offered a collectivist solution: in Saskatchewan we work together to build a better life in spite of indifferent Easterners and rapacious capitalists. Grant Devine was successful and defeated the fiscally competent Blakeney government (that was focused on the fate of rural communities, no less) because he spoke to people's immediate concerns about affordability (concerns derived from factors that were entirely outside the control of the provincial government).  Brad Wall defeated the competent, growth-focused Calvert government because he was charismatic and projected a vision that Saskatchewan could be "more".

In other words, people vote based on emotion, not based on facts.  Or, as I prefer to put it, people are stupid and easily led.  

Yes, I understand that phrasing the issue in this way means that I don't have a future in politics.  But I want politics to be about issues.  I want the art of politics to be about figuring out how to implement rational, intelligent policies in a competent way, and political difference to be about differences of opinion about priorities and the relative importance of certain shared values.  

Apparently that makes me either an alien or naive. 

Eisler certainly belongs to the camp that sees gaining political power as the sole point of politics, and  policy simply as a tool to keep that power.  I mean, he's not alone: the entire existence of the Liberal Party of Canada is based on those principles, and no political party is without adherents to that philosophy (looking at you Bill Tieleman).  But because Eisler doesn't doesn't see politics as being fundamentally about values, he doesn't really address the question of values in his book.  And I think that's a real gap.   

So I still don't know WTF happened to the province of my birth. Other than to believe that Saskatchewanians are stupid and easily led -- which, given that 40% of them don't believe that climate change is real, might actually be the answer. <tears>

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Everyone knows your mother is a witch by Rivka Galchen

This book has a great title.  Who wouldn't pick it up off the shelf? The title also really captures the voice of the protagonist and the tone of the writing.  It's thematically appropriate too.  If there isn't a book award for titles*, there should be, and Everyone knows should be nominated.

Title aside, Everyone knows your mother is a witch has a lot to recommend it. First of all, it's short.  Yeah for short books, and especially for short historical fiction!  There's a time and a place for wrist-busting world-building, but Everyone knows shows that you don't need to include pages of historical background, detailed descriptions of places, people, and things, or write in an accurate historical dialect to capture something essential about a time and a place and a person.  Instead, Everyone uses the voices of the accused witch (Katharina), her neighbour Simon, and the depositions of Katharina's accusers to build a compelling picture of an aged widow whose sharp eyes, sharper tongue, and complete lack of tact turn much of her community against her.

So read about Katharina Kepler, the illiterate mother of Imperial Mathematician (and famed physicist) Johannes Kepler, laugh at her observations of the ducal governor Einhorn (the false unicorn), smile at her fondness for her cow Chamomile, and ponder the fate of this "frighteningly intelligent woman -- also a fool". 

You won't regret it.

(*The Diagram Prize is awarded to the book with the oddest title, which is not at all the same.)