Tentative Book Club Reading List

Science Fiction has played a powerful role in human culture’s relationship to new technological developments. It has not only foreshadowed the possibilities involved by applied scientific research but also delineated the potentials for conflict as a result of it. Issac Assimov’s works have inspired generations of scientists and politicians to unabashedly embrace the automation and artificial intelligence while as early as the 1920’s Karel Capek depicted the anxiety of such developments in Rossum’s Universal Robots that has since become one of Hollywood’s most recurring tropes. It is not just, however, in the inspiration of a select few that helped science fiction become a potent voice for expressing the varieties and anxieties of the human condition. Books such as Looking Backward played a large historical role in helping American’s to understand the possibilities involved in increasingly technological world and how best they could benefit from it.

The books I’ve chosen thus far for the SubCulture book club all represent modern iterations of Science Fiction/Science Fantasy that have each been heavily awarded for their aesthetic and intellectual content. Over the next 6 months we’ll look at new worlds, future Earths that’ve taken on an entirely new form due to technological changes, as well as a historical attempt to apply Science to all aspects of human relations. We’ll discuss what it means to the characters involved and what it means to us now in an age where each of is, to an extent, a cyborg.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The Windup Girl by Pablo Bacigalupi
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Red Plenty By Francis Spufford
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Review of "El Filibusterismo"

I approached El Filibusterismo knowing that it and Noli Me Tangere’s publication was the legal justification for the judicial execution of the author by the Spanish government. Incidentally the site of the execution was a ten minute walk from my apartment in Barcelona. I’d previously read Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination for my Global Histories course at NYU and was fascinated by the life of the author. After being so close to his execution site and having seen his former student residence while exploring the streets of Madrid, I decided that after I returned to the States I would finally read it. After having read it, all I can say is that it is possible that due to the working up of it in my mind of the novel that it wasn’t able to fulfill the expectations that I had of it. I wouldn’t say that it is bad, but more so that its emphasis of the political level tended to overwhelm the aesthetic dimensions of the novel, which while present aren’t given the same sort of attention. In stating this I know that I am not alone, as surely the Spanish government must have felt this way as well and am aware that this has much to do with Rizal’s changes in the urgency of the need for political change in the Philippines.

El Filibusterismo picks up the general narrative development from where Noli Me Tangere left it 13 years later and in such a way that the one misses little not for having read the first one. All we need know, and this is illustrated in the book, is that the innocent love of Ibarra has turned into a obsessive hatred against the Spanish colonial government. Rather than plan an outright guerilla rebellion himself, he seeks to pit foes against one another, defrauds the colonial powers and later attempts but fails to bomb a number of the government functionaries.

Some of the novel’s greatest prose comes from Ibarra, who in his new guise goes by the name of Simoun, when he describes to Basilo his rationale and plans for attack, and the conversations amongst the priests and students. The attempt by the students to use their own rhetoric of universal human brotherhood and various legal proclamations against the friars is met with the sophism that devolves into naked power games. The numerous Philippine youths that are attempt to play a positive role in the direction of their country are one by one put in a situation that forces them to kill themselves, be killed by the army or self-emasculate themselves to save their lives and futures.

Rizal’s criticisms of the colonial friarocracy are devastating. The educational system is shown to be a not only a farce but a true barrier to the proper education of it’s pupils, native women are sexually preyed upon by the friars – who are constantly trying to increase the extracted amount of forced labor or goods from the population. The image of the populations poverty and impossibility of upward mobility or peace due to these friars is indeed serious and Rizal shows that though there are bureaucrats that are willing to side with justice, with the natives, they are placed in a situation that to do so openly is conceived by the power apparatus as to be a traitor and cause for dismissal and immediate exit from the country. The flip side of this is the constant production of rebels, such as Cabesang Tales and the group of bandits that he soon turns more political, that must be continually fought against. Spanish colonialism is constantly shown to be a cancer on the native people. Despite all of this, Rizal manages to intersperse enough comedic phrases that it is not all moribund and depressing for the reader.

Humorous comments alight on the peculiarities of the Chinese living the Philipines, the intellectualism of the friars that is sizable only in this colonial provinces and shrinks to nothing once moved to the cities of Europe, the near autocratic powers of friars that have in many respects the same sociopathy of children and many more.
One of the jokes that I found particularly amusing occurred when a group of Friars decides to go visit a fair. Amongst the carved goods of people typical to the area is a statue of a one-eyed, disheveled woman holding an iron with puffs of steam coming out of it. What is the carving of this woman supposed to represent? The Philippine press.

As a novel which praises suffering for a righteous cause in the face of a greater force than oneself, in it’s criticisms of Spanish rule, documentation of the immorality of the friars and call for action towards a national renewal that will eventually lead to their expulsion by any means necessary El Filibusterismo makes a political tract into a narrative. While to be sure it has it’s moments of description rather than narration, to use a literary distinction coined by Georg Lukacs, it is as the whole telling the story of the Fillipino, their enemies and hinting towards means to get them out. While Rizal doesn’t present a character in the book that it meant to substitute for his particular beliefs, but having so many characters in there that repent then prevalent political tendencies, ideas and showing their interrelation he is able to present a compelling piece of historical literature.

Review of "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution"

Considering how much of my grad school reading was Marxist in orientation, I decided to pick up a copy of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution to provide a more thorough biographical background. While I think the intensive study sessions gave me a thorough insight of his work, as Goethe inveighs, one best understands the idea by comprehending the milieu in which it emerged.

One of the books flaws, or strengths depending on how you interpret it, is it’s sparsity of exegesis of the qualities of the scientific socialism which differentiated Marx from his utopian or opportunist contemporaries. One could argue that Gabriel’s purpose is solely to write a biographical love story, but as is evidenced by books such as Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy on the life of Trotsky, this doesn’t mean that one must give only scant attention to the analysis of the subject’s contributions to human thought.

It is especially a flaw considering that Karl and Jenny’s motivation for getting up everyday for some forty years was the push towards the emancipation of humankind through the understanding of the laws of historical development and it’s harnessing by the proletariat and that because of this they lived an at times extremely precarious, impoverished and dangerous life this would be elementary. However as these distinguishing characteristics are given such scant treatment, Marx can be read as just another radical amongst many at the time and deserving only of attention for his ability to politic and stay alive, he can almost seem like a sick and neurotic intellectual with delusions of grandeur fed by, literally and figuratively, a small number of enablers such as his wife and Engels as well as those merchants that made the mistake of giving him items on credit.

Instead of this sort of treatment, she substitutes topical observations while predominantly relying upon the family, the motley revolutionary characters immediately around Marx and the various government infiltrators trying to probe his intentions and actions. This is of course done as a means of humanizing Marx, something that Mohr would not have been against, yet there is a certain type of banality to it that I find at times reminiscent of reality television. In this regard, it is extremely successful as the people depicted are not mere characters, but a whole coterie of individuals who helped bring about a greater level of freedom in world history.

These reservations noted, it should be said that Gabriel does an excellent job most likely not despite of but because of these stylistic choices prioritizing the microscope over the telescope. In the Marx family dynamic we see a profound love that takes the shape of rage and struggle against oppression. Through Jenny and Karl’s first flowering of romance to their later battles against German autocracy, French monarchism, Belgian appeasement of it’s mightier neighbors and British imperialism, not to mention the iniquities of a burgeoning and yet terribly powerful international capitalism, Gabriel writes in a highly involved manner. She vividly exhibits the grand passions of Karl and Jenny as lovers of themselves and as those involved in the nascent socialist movement. While in the streets there may be a raging battle, or a storm in the press or a uproar at an organizational meeting – their love acts a place of safety for both of them. And while Marx’s willingness to sacrifice comforts and security to arm and assist workers or further research on Capital seems to be evidence of his taking his wife for granted, she understands, commiserates and assists in such a way the shows that the nobility into which she was born was not just one of title but of character.

Marx’s other major assistant, besides his daughters, is of course Engels. After reading this book, I’m much more interested in following this up with Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. He is in many ways a scene stealer due to his joviality, rakishness, revelry, insightful commentary on Marx’s personality and of course because of his seemingly paradoxical position as capitalist and revolutionary. When Marx was together with Engels they behave like college students – drinking heavily and getting in fights, though of the literary kind. When Gabriel writes of their writings against those they dislike, displays of wit, sarcasm, irony, perspicacity and invective that is admirable. No wonder he was nicknamed “the General”.

Gabriel stings together a number of interesting anecdotes leading the attentive reader to see connections that would do disservice to the type of “neutral” biography she is trying to write (though she does interject at several points in a moralizing fashion). One of them that I particularly like was how Karl, even though wracked with bodily ailments due to the stresses of poverty, would give what little pocket change he had to neighborhood boys. This example of love, this habit of his seems easily juxtaposed against the love which similarly motivated him to call for international solidarity amongst workers and the creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a phrase amply misused by those who’ve not taken the time to read when he meant by it). She is also explicit in several points about the rupture of continuity. Specifically in the fate for the Marx daughter’s, who each look for and marry men of socialist inclinations that they imagine to be strong-willed like their father but instead turn out to be poor approximations in character and intellect.

A number of prominent spies, socialists, assassins, anarchists, artists, aristocrats, counts, communards, and prominent 19th century intellectuals provide fascinating cameos amongst the betrayals, set-backs, triumphs and family drama. And while the devastating family drama here would likely not happen were it not for Karl and Jenny’s decision to pursue the life of career revolutionaries that they did, it is interesting aspect to note is despite all of the personal tragedies, neither gave in to despair and decided to abandon what they felt to be their calling. Though they may have desired changes in certain aspects, their incredible intellectual life and belief fortified them against poverty, illnesses and death.

The book closes with a then exiled V. I. Lenin addressing the spectators at the 1911 funeral of Marx’s last remaining daughter and her husband, Paul Lafaurge, Marx’s son in law and author of The Right to be Lazy. In just six short years Marx would see the successful application of his theories in the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy, followed by their revision and degeneration into something that was a horrific caricature that no longer resembled the first form of the subject. What he could and would have done had he witnessed it and was able to participate is the stuff of pure speculation, but what he did do, paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, is change the way we see the world.

Review of "A Place of Greater Safety"

Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety is set in the epoch-making French Revolution and centers on Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton and Maximillien Robespierre. There are guest starring roles by Marat and Lucile Duplessis and despite it’s impressive length, is never overwrought or dull. The human and political elements blend almost seamlessly in such a way that neither is privileged: it is neither a novel of ideas nor a romantic novel. It is simply a very enjoyable and intellectually edifying novel.

One of the unexpected aspects of the novel is the way in which Mantel uses the tropes of romantic fiction and soap operas to deepen conflict and drive characters. Based on her own historical research, the sexual tensions depicted are real and give color to the cheeks of the characters and illustrate that they are not uni-dimensional abstractions of ideals but desiring bodies. And as soon as mobs are authorized to act as a supplement to police power and the Guillotine makes it appearance, it becomes clear that these are bodies which not only desire political power but to live. When the politics one promotes can suddenly be cause for execution, the stakes of the game are raised and this can lead to complex and emotionally charged scenes. In this particular type of scene as Camille, consistently shown to be the least in control of his emotions, consistently pulls the reader in to empathize with him. As he tried to save his former lovers and adversaries that he respects for their personal qualities from the at time capricious whim of revolutionary energies let loose the repulsion at the Reign of Terror takes on a more personal tone.

One of the notable aspects of this novelization of history is Mantel’s masterful depiction of various vantage points amongst ideologically disparate characters. Through their commentary we can see with a degree of irony the Duke of Orleans attempting to undermine his dissolute brother’s kingship so he could usurp it by throwing money at radical agitators. In this process he goes nearly broke and in effect funds the political machine that would later take his head. Considering the magnitude of events, it is not just the irony of situations that Mantel uncovers, but questions of basic political economy in period of great social unrest as they try to form into a new status quo. For instance, Mantel shows amongst the flow of events that one of the problems of adopting an ethically based absolute meritocracy in the opening phase of a revolutionary struggle is to repulse men of skill and attract men of belief. It is too simplistic to cast it as the pragmatism of Danton vs the idealism of Robespierre and Marat as the historical context determines possibilities. And in this Mantel is masterful in showing that were it not for Danton’s quasi-criminal nepotism portions of the Jacobin clubs would have disintegrated into oppositional movements of greater size or intensity than they were to later develop. What this would have meant for the period following the storming of the Bastille and the foundation of the National Assembly and later the Convention, through the unfolding of new events related to national security, the costs of food and the introduction of new characters that were not “the old Cordeliers” is not speculated on. However the play of forces on the table does make it seem unlikely that the movement towards Constitutionalism would have maintained cohesion. Without being too heavy handed, Mantel also shows how the revolution of social classes is also a symbolic one affecting language in a way that is quite powerful and dangerous.

As a final note, as someone’s who’s already read Citizen’s Robespierre’s speeches and writing, the book gave me a fresh interest in reading the journalism of Camille Desmoulins. The Lanterne Attorney is praised and feared by all of the characters in the novel and is probably one of the most relatable characters amidst the pantheon of great men that were pulled together in this exceptional novel.

Book Club Reading List

For those in the South Florida area that are interested in reading some political science themed novels, I’d like to share my pleasure reading list. Starting mid-August we can arrange times for discussion and I can send a list of optional supplementary reading. The books were chosen to be arranged chronologically, thematically similar, include a variety of types of fiction, be reviewed positively for style as well as content and to include a variety of national perspectives.

A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel

Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution

El Filibusterismo

The Magic Mountain

All the King’s Men

Red Plenty

The Windup Girl