Saturday, June 30, 2018

Suicide of the West by, Jonah Goldberg

In Jonah Goldberg's latest book, he argues that tribalism, populism, and nationalism are ruining American democracy. But these -isms aren't new inventions. Drawing on extensive research, these -isms are actually the way things have historically been. It has only been since around the year 1700 that we have seen an explosion in freedom, respect for others, and staggering economic growth. Goldberg offers some theories about why what he calls “The Miracle” happened, but he's more interested in showing how the Miracle created the modern world and how it's in danger of slipping away.

The political left and right define freedom in different ways. The right prefers negative liberty, which is defined as freedom from government interference. The left generally strives for positive liberty, that is the state must guarantee things like health care, employment, etc. As Goldberg himself points out, “What often gets left out of the debate is the fact that economic growth and technological innovation do more to provide positive liberty than any government could.” The Miracle of democratic capitalism has done more to advance the relative wealth of society than anything else in all of human history. Once we started believing that all men and women were created equal and that each of us has certain unalienable rights, the standard of living, life expectancy, and technology we have at our fingertips accelerated at an incredible rate. The idea of negative liberty taking root has been the greatest welfare program in all of human history. I don't think he should have made a purely economic argument, but I wish he had spent more time on it instead of tucking it away in an appendix.

Goldberg spends most of the book showing where we were pre- and post-Miracle, leading to the theme of gratitude. We are not grateful for what the past has given us and, as a result, are in danger of losing the spark that made the modern world as great as it is. I think his core argument can be summed up in this passage found on page 66:
Under the best of circumstances, every important endeavor requires work. Every person who has ever been married understands that marriage requires effort. Every athlete understands the importance of practice and training. Every general knows that troops lose their edge unless it is carefully maintained. The Miracle of liberal democratic capitalism is not self-sustaining. Turn your back on its maintenance and it will fall apart. Take it for granted and people will start reverting to their natural impulses of tribalism. The best will lack all conviction and the worst will be full of passionate intensity. Things will fall apart.

I fear that the left will ignore this book because of its all-consuming desire for identity and grievance politics. Some on the right will ignore it because people view Goldberg as anti-Trump. This is one thing that Goldberg is arguing against. We must not view politics as an us vs them sport where we celebrate our team's win and our enemy's loss. That is our tribal brain at work. My hope is that we're not already too far gone to realize the great gift we've been given and have debates over the best way to preserve it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Year Zero by, Rob Reid

Human beings are the most musically advanced civilization in the universe. Even our crappiest earworm brings rapture to any alien species who listens to it. This is why aliens have been pirating our music since 1977. It turns out, however, that this piracy has racked up a giant royalty bill that would bankrupt the galaxy if the Earth ever tried to collect it. A group of aliens decides it would just be easier to destroy the earth. A second group of aliens enlists the help of a copyright attorney named Nick Carter to find a way out from under the crushing debt.

A lot of the press about Year Zero mentions it in the same breath as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'm convinced that the only people who make that comparison are those who know HHG2G is funny sci-fi, but who have never actually read Guide. The concept of Year Zero is good fodder for a funny book, but the execution was lacking. Here are a few writerly tips about what went wrong with this book.

1) Weighted more heavily toward summary than scene. A scene is showing what happens when two people go on a date. Summary is having a character say "I went on a date last night and this happened". A vast majority of the book is told via summary. You're in the middle of a scene when a character we haven't seen in a while comes on the page and explains what they've been doing while they were away. Some of this is fine, but too often it drags the story to a halt. There were even times where the narrator tells another character what he was up to between chapters. Why not just show it?

2) Over-explaining things. Science fiction is tricky. You come up with an alien species or sweet piece of technology and you have to communicate to the reader enough information so they're not lost. However, you don't need characters sitting around and reading the whole wikipedia entry about the topic. Think of it this way: if a visitor from 1600 shows up at your front door, could you explain how planes fly? Or how the internal combustion engine powers your car? Most likely not. And does the information further the plot? Do you really need five pages to describe X if it doesn't move Nick from point A to point B in the story? If the answer is no, give the reader enough to go on and then move on.

3) Appropriate reactions. This is more of an advanced tip. Early on it's good. Hey aliens show up! Holy crap, what's going on? But at a critical juncture in the story, an ally Nick recruited to help him out vanishes into thin air when it shouldn't be possible. Nick and the other characters shrug, say he/she is probably OK, and continue. Don't be afraid to have your characters freak out if a freakout is called for.

There were other things that annoyed me, but those are more likely a matter of personal preference.

This probably makes is sound like I hated Year Zero, but I didn't. There were parts that worked and parts that didn't. I would have liked to have seen the story handled by a more talented writer, but the book served its purpose.

Your mileage may vary.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Song of the Week: Can't Find My Way Home

This week's song is an acoustic version of the Blind Faith classic "Can't Find My Way Home".

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by, Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch is back and working two cases at once. In his capacity as a private investigator, he is hired by Whitney Vance, an aging billionaire, to find any possible heirs. It's a family saga worthy of Ross Macdonald with lots of twists and turns that I never saw coming. The second case has Harry uncovering a serial rapist while working as a reserve detective for the San Fernando Police Department. This is a straight police procedural and provides the opportunity for some gunplay. The PI case appeals more to my sensibilities, but both were good and riveting.

Another stellar book by Michael Connelly.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Song of the Week: Handle With Care

This is another one circling in my head. I like how the Traveling Wilburys is a complete band, but you can hear all the distinct parts. You've got George Harrison's verse that's fast and in a limited range next to Roy Orbison's soaring falsetto.

Who is your favorite Traveling Wilbury? Is it Jeff Lynne?