22 June 2008

Whores for Gloria: "Whores and undertakers are the only eternal optimists."

Whores for Gloria
William T. Vollmann
Pantheon Books, 1991

Difficult to read, impossible to put down.

That it came highly recommended by my good friend Michael "Berkeley Mike" McCamish, Ph.D. surprised me a little; after all, he's the same dude who recommended Mr. God, This is Anna a few years back, and that book is almost diametrically opposed to this one. I knew in the first few pages what about this novel had so gripped Mike, though, because I too felt its pull. Although I never lived in the Tenderloin or worked with the many homeless in San Francisco's Mission district like Mike did, I still experienced enough of that side of "the City" back in my years as a grad school poseur.

Whores for Gloria is sleek and obsidian, lit up like the marquee on the O'Farrell Theatre, gritty like the residue that flows down the gutter on Larkin, covered with bits of blackened bubble gum and the tang of stale urine. Its prose illuminates the sublime within a painful, despairing, unsparing reality--the street life of the homeless, whores, and junkies of the City by the Bay. This is shock value with substance, the darkest side of urban life--the ugly, the downtrodden, the "murdered whores with their cunts removed," the raped, the abused, the discarded. Vollmann's evocative prose and spare settings demand that the reader pick up the rhythm or get left behind. The story flows like a sewer (rather than a "stream") of consciousness, and even when the action takes place "outside" a character's head, it catches the flow of the streets, the lack of self-consciousness perhaps indicated by the consistent lack of quotation marks. Vollmann is definitely not a writer for those to whom the whole world must be "cutey all the time."
An aged blonde clopped by like a horse as she inhaled on her cigarette, and her face was lined with grief. --Laredo shifted her aching feet, wishing that the night would end although she was well aware that by the laws of astronomy the night would not end till morning; neither, it seemed, would the drunk on the pay phone. (p. 3)

The novel begins with Laredo, an undercover cop, watching Jimmy, one of the city's homeless thousands, laughing/crying into a pay phone.
The man laughed. He hung up. He winked at Laredo and sauntered off whistling. But Laredo was no fool. She knew that the pay phone had been broken for weeks. And she knew that the man was still crying. (p. 7)

Jimmy, a down-and-out Vietnam vet and full-time wino, pursues the mysterious "Gloria" (whose name made me think of the Christmas carol refrain, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo"). His regular visits to the streetwalkers, which vacillate between businesslike and brutal, are all carried out in her name.
The truth is that Jimmy tried never to stop thinking of Gloria. Even when he bent women over as they spread the cheeks of their buttocks apart so that he could fuck them up their assholes which bulged like the ends of sausage-casings, he was thinking of Gloria. (p. 18)

Jimmy begins to collect stories from his lady friends and seems intent on using these stories to "recreate" Gloria. One begins to suspect that perhaps Gloria is merely a figment of Jimmy's fevered imagination, rather than being a lover lost to whatever lament has brought Jimmy to this sorry state.
Jimmy was smiling; he was leaning back against a column of washing machines, fingering Melissa's memories as though they were breasts, the softness and succulence of them; he could twist them into different shapes as he sucked on them; he kissed their round pink areolae of sadness and tried not to mind them; he squeezed them and their nipples budded. (pp. 27-28)

Vollmann tears through the veil between the reader's perfect world and the unimaginable pain and desperation--that is still somehow also just everyday life--of those wandering through a fog of opiates, delirium, or shell shock.
Shit, he sighed. Every last one of us betrayed by the VC. Jimmy brainwashed, the Wrecking Crew all dropped dead, Riley God knows where, and me left to fend for myself here in the middle of motherfucking Hanoi, USA. Nothing to do, nothing to do. Wanna kill those Chinese Charlies! Come out and fight! he shouted.

Nobody came.

Guess I won that one, said Code Six, and he lay down on the sidewalk and went to sleep... (p. 124)

In the end we discover (or do we, given the tenuous grasp that so many of these wretches have on what we call "reality"?) that Gloria is real. And that Jimmy is no longer.
I turn around, man, and here comes Jimmy with his whore chasin' him! Usually were the other way around, weren't it? Damn! And she drilled his motherfuckin' ass, good and proper. Oh, man! --Code Six chuckled until poor Riley thought he must dissolve under the stench. -- Jimmy comes in, the bitch comes in, just lit him up, right there! And she killed him dead right in front of the whole goddamned restaurant, and there were about twenty people in there, cooks and all--right bare-ass from my eyes! I said, motherfucker, I was safer back in Nippon, man, 'cause at least that way I know where the field of fire is! And that was how Jimmy died. Died like a hero. I never did find out what he had done. But you might 'a' knowed his ass, man. And might 'a' knowed her! It was old Gloria! (p. 138)

As noted above, in spite of its incredibly dark, painful, and brutal subject matter, Vollmann's language and storytelling fill the entire book with a dark radiance that is redemptive if not hopeful. It turns out that, according to an interview with Vollmann, that there is a reason for this. He feels that prostitutes are very spiritual people, who give of themselves to save marriages and to provide comfort to the loneliest, most desperate among us. He noted that, at the same time they fill these essential needs prostitutes also spread disease and often rob their clients. If the ability to hold in one's mind two contradictory thoughts at one time defines genius, then Vollmann's novel certainly qualifies.

Thanks for the recommendation Mike!

The Empty Tank: Witty, grim, unflinching, hopeful --- essential reading when peak oil meets global warming

The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Global Financial Catastrophe
Jeremy Leggett
Random House, 2005

[W]hat makes the depth of the current global addiction especially bewildering is that, for the entire time we have been sliding into the trap, we have known that oil is in fact in limited supply. At current rates of use, the global tank is going to run too low to fuel the growing demand sooner rather than later in this century. This is not a controversial statement. It is just a question of when....

In a society that put a man on the Moon more than three decades ago, surely there can be no doubt that we could replace oil use if we seriously wanted to. I ask again, why have we not been fast-tracking the solutions to the problem long since? (p. 6)

I've read several books on peak oil, and this one is among my favorites. Geologist Leggett provides a compelling look at the coming topping point in oil production, the global catastrophe of global warming, and possible hope for the future, and he does so in a style that reads like well-crafted fiction. Interspersed throughout the narrative are Leggett's journal entries which reveal an intimate perspective on how all this theory and Big Picture stuff plays out in daily life.

First off, an admission. Based on the author photo on the book's dust jacket, I kept envisioning Leggett as the fired forklift driver in the British TV show The Office who challenges the wisdom of keeping Anton the midget on as a forklift driver. So that guy's voice was the one with which my mental vocalizer read the book. That, along with his absurdist, understated British wit (a la Monty Python and Douglas Adams), made the book a quite often funny read, in spite of the rather grim subject matter.

This wit is clearly on display in the Prologue, which tells the story of geological and human history from the Big Bang to the "The Two Oversights" of the 20th century. This account is told as if being related to alien anthropologists who have no vested interest in seeing history through the particular lens of their ideology or belief system. So along the way from creation to the present we encounter Apocalypse One, the catastrophic end of the Carboniferous Period which left behind a lot of coal; the "Two Great Underground Cookups," during which all oil and natural gas were created; and Apocalypse Two, otherwise known as the K2 Event or the end of the age of dinosaurs, 65 mya. Humans arrive on the scene in the last few milliseconds of the year that has been geological history, and develop agriculture and religion and urban civilization and almost continuous hostility toward one another:
Conflict avoidance was not, and never has been, our strong suit. At first we organized into tribes, and periodically killed the members of other tribes. Later we organized ourselves into city-states and built amazing cathedrals. But despite our inventing athletics as a potential substitute for war, we still couldn't think our way out of regular armed conflict, and our means of waging war grew steadily worse. (p. x)

In the last three centuries we learned to support all these endeavors by exploiting the fossil fuels from the Great Underground Cookups:
Just as [coal's dirtiness] was becoming very irritating, we found we could drill below the surface of the planet, pump oil, and burn that. We didn't even have to send children down to get oil. (p. xi)

(See what I mean about the wit?) The discovery of and reliance on oil lead to two big "oversights." Big Oversight One is that all the burning of this oil, coal, and gas has created global warming which has been ignored by the Number One Nation-State. This nation, not otherwise named (to protect the innocent, of course), happens also to be Number One Petroleum Addict, and in this capacity serves deeply entrenched vested interests:
[M]ore than 100 years of unconstrained burning of oil, and 200 years of coal, have created quite a set of vested interests....These vested interests have created a web of power that transcends the throw-weight of the nation states. This web has become, in effect, a kind of Empire. The Empire of Oil is loosely bound, and even capable of civil war, but is without the most powerful interest group on the planet.

These vested interests have prevented research into alternative and meaningful political action. Big Oversight Two is that, because all the oil we have was created during the Two Big Cookups, and so therefore is limited in quantity by definition, discovery and production of oil is peaking. What this means is simple, if unpleasant to contemplate:
Humans will no longer be able to run their lives and their industries on growing amounts of cheap oil. All we can expect thereafter is shrinking supplies of expensive oil....We will look for the alternatives to come to the rescue, but the alternatives won't be able to, or at least not in enough volume to make a big difference, because the Empire of Oil and its Culture of Suppression has held them back all the years of the Great Addiction. (p. xiv)

One or the other "oversight" alone would be bad enough to face, but the possible threat posed by the synergy of both is chilling. Luckily, Leggett recognizes the role that each of us play in shaping our collective destiny, and so does not completely relinquish hope:
As the impact of the oil topping point joins with the first wave of assaults by a climate going awry, is there any hope that we can avoid an unpleasant outcome? I fear not. The chapters to come will show why. But what we can do, collectively, is to stop the rot and have a second crack at getting things right beyond the unpleasantness....Because changes of course need hands on the tiller, involvement matters. This book is a call to arms. Let us take our stupidities with oil, which will be put under such a necessary microscope when the topping point hits, and turn them into a new beginning before it is too late. (pp. xiv-xv)

With this book, Leggett seeks to address three related questions: (1) how close is the peak? (2) why haven't we done something earlier? and (3) what can we do about it?

So how close is the peak in oil production? Leggett distinguishes between "late toppers" and "early toppers," i.e., those who think we've got 2 trillion more barrels of oil to exploited (oil companies, financial analysts, etc.) and those who think we've got around 1 trillion more barrels (in other words, the downside of the production curve). The difference between the two is, in Leggett's word, seismic. If the late toppers are right, then we have a few decades in which to work out plans for a smooth transition from oil and gas to alternative; if the early toppers are right, though, the peak may actually be upon us now.

Leggett discusses some key witnesses in support of the "early topper" school of thought including veteran petroleum geologist Colin Campbell, Chris Skrebowski (editor of the trade journal Petroleum Review), and Houston oil investor Matthew Simmons. If these folks are correct in their reading of the available data, then the situation we face may be summed up in this sentence from a report within the Department of Energy's Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves:
"A serious supply-demand discontinuity could lead to worldwide economic chaos" (p., 50)

Worldwide economic chaos.
And even if the early toppers are wrong in their estimates regarding the peak in oil production, the discontinuity between rising demand and falling supply will still be a reality due to a lack of investment in exploration and infrastructure:
Stated simply, it seems that even if an early topping point doesn't hit us, the results of two decades of negligence in investment in infrastructure and exploration will. p. (59)

After thoroughly scaring the beejezus out of the reader by marshalling all this evidence that the age of easy, cheap oil is rapidly coming to a close, with potentially catastrophic results, he introduces a variable that no other peak oil author I've read has mentioned: global warming.

A pair of diagrams on pages 75 and 76 says it all. The first is a graph showing a jagged line fluctuating between two extremes of atmospheric CO2, a minimum of around 175 ppm and a maximum of around 300 ppm, showing that these quantities have changed within a relatively standard range over the last 500,000 years. The last fraction of a millimeter of the graph, representing the last century, shows the concentration at the beginning of the 20th century (near 300 ppm) rocketing skyward, out of the normal range and in fact off of the graph altogether. The predicted CO2 concentration for 2100, based on current emission rates, is over 700 ppm, effectively off the charts and into "seriously fucking things up" territory. The second graph plots temperature fluctuations over the last millennium and reveals that they too fly off the charts during the 21st century, leading to an average increase of over 5 degrees globally. Which is disastrous. This stuff ain't controversial folks, and it ain't a liberal plot. The temperature of the Earth is rapidly climbing, most likely due to our increase of atmospheric CO2, and all we know about the consequences is that they won't be pretty.

So how did we allow ourselves to get into this mess? Leggett provides an answer by way of an historical overview of the age of oil, divided into two chapters. The first, "Before the Knowledge," describes how we dug the initial hole, while the second, "The Complicity Years," discusses the last few decades, during which we have known better but let all our nation's policies be dictated by a consortium of vested interests. Our inability to change our approach to energy and fossil fuels is pretty clearly revealed in our national response to the first oil shock, which hit in the form of the OPEC embargo against the US, in retaliation for its uncritical support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
In the first three months of the [OPEC] embargo, U.S. gasoline consumption had decreased by more than 7 percent. But, after the embargo ended, consumption shot right back up again. Apathy instantly reasserted itself in Congress. Almost 800 potential bills concerning energy had been circulating on Capitol Hill during the oil crisis, many of them intent on promoting the prospects for renewable energy, renewable fuels, and energy efficiency. But by July 1974 only eight of them had become law, and two of those involved the suspension of anti-pollution laws and the opening of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. (p. 101)

Once cheap oil went back online, all alternatives were back off the table. By 1975 Exxon was the world's biggest corporation, with GM and Ford also occupying seats in the top 10. We didn't learn and so the Second Oil Shock followed the Iranian Revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq War. Although President Carter urged us to treat the fuel crisis as "the moral equivalent of war," Americans still didn't listen and willingly voted in Reagan and the last three decades of denial.

Of course, one could say that if these earlier oil shocks were survivable, even after a mistake like electing Reagan, then perhaps we shouldn't be too concerned about future oil shocks. Anticipating this, Leggett duly notes that the circumstances surrounding these first two oil shocks do not pertain to the coming megacrisis:
[T]he Saudis cannot pump faster as they did in 1980, there is no spare capacity anywhere, little oil is stockpiled, and there is little liklihood of new discoveries on the scale able to meet fast-growing global demand. Bad as it was then, it will be much worse when the next crunch hits. (p. 104)

According to ExxonMobil's Lee Raymond:
"I think the notion in the United States of energy independence, which was first proposed in the Nixon administration, was a poor concept thirty years ago and it is a poor concept today."There it is, just as he told OPEC. It couldn't be clearer. We choose dependency, and therefore overseas adventures by our military in support of our dependency. (p. 135)

There you have it. That's how we allowed ourselves to get into this predicament. The Empire of Oil made us into a nation of junkies who elect those promising to keep the fixes coming.

So what can we do about it? In his chapter astutely entitled, "What Can We Do About It?" Leggett outlines five basic arguments:

1. We can replace fossil fuels with renewable energies and do so rather swiftly.

Renewable energies comprise a big family of options including biodiesel, a hydrogen economy (energy storage with home solar-driven electrolysis), fuel cells, solar (electric) and solar (heat), wind power, etc. There are alternative, renewable sources for plastics too, which is important since more petroleum goes to those industrial uses than into fuel production. We can improve efficiency too. And of course, we can re-envision the situation to come up with some novel solutions:
    Currently, some 200 million of the world's 700 million hydrogen cars and trucks travel and park around America. If they were all hydrogen fuel cell vehicles they would have many times the grid's total generating capacity. What need then for nuclear, and coal- and gas-fired power plants? (p. 155)

2. We've waited too long, and so even with these technologies ramping up swiftly, we won't be able to cover the shortfall between now and then with any combination of fuel sources.

Economies will shrink, which is never a good thing for little people like me with jobs and families. Some are pushing for nuclear power to fill the gap (going so far as to discuss it in the pages of Mother Earth News), but Leggett thinks nuclear won't come to the rescue because (1) it will take even longer to get nuclear up and running to fill the gap than it would other sources of power, (2) investors don't want to back nuclear, particularly new unproven designs, (3) the threat of terrorism + nuke plants = bad idea, (4) disposal of waste is still an unsolved problem, and (5) nuke power's track record for accidents, cover-ups, etc. make it understandably unattractive. In short, nuclear is simply too risky in all ways to take seriously. (Although, sadly, that won't prevent our government from funding it, alas.)
Just think what renewable energy and energy-efficient markets could be doing by 2020, given even a fraction of the governmental and institutional support nuclear has been given for the last half-century. Come to think of it, just imagine what they could be doing tomorrow. (p. 159)

Renewable energy and fuel and energy efficiency will grow explosively.
Come whatever in other societal and economic sectors, people working in renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency will be in the front row of those who can help once widespread acceptance of the oil topping point and its implications had descended on the world. (p. 165)

Leggett makes the important point that looking at solar energy costs means comparing them to retail prices rather than generator costs, because PV solar power generation gathers the power right where it is needed rather than producing and shipping it over extensive power grids. The decentralized quality of solar means that it is incredibly competitive in terms of price when generating costs are factored in, something that nuclear and coal advocates never do.

4. Many will try to turn to coal to support the status quo --- this will basically be a life-or-death decision for the future of the planet --- renewables or polluting coal.
The coal industry is strangely hard-line. Here is a technology that is so clearly mortgaging the future--at best, torpedoing it at worst--and yet it continues to grow largely unapologetically around the world. Besides the future death toll from unmitigated global warming and dire air quality, there is also the actual death toll to date from getting the stuff out of the ground....In the face of all this, even if they genuinely reject scientists' arguments about global warming, you would think there would be a little humility, a little reluctance about the product, a little willingness to search hard for alternatives. No, not that I have seen. In all my years as an environmental campaigner, I have observed a clear distinction between the oil industry and the coal industry....The oilmen and women were capable of politeness, reasoned debate, and even changing their position. The coal men and women weren't; not that I ever saw, once. (p. 168)

So instead of looking at renewables, we get nonsense about "clean coal," coal gasification, carbon sequestration, etc. And for the effects of coal on the world, all you need to do is Google "Beijing" and "air quality." And yet coal looks easy and cheap when the energy panic hits, and it has lots of technoscience supporting the rush to "clean coal," usually from the same folks who want to put parasols between the Earth and the Sun to cut down on solar radiation. Very little systems thinking and a technoscientific culture that valorizes individual achievement (just think about genetic engineering and the lack of consideration of ecology) mean that the coal hoax may be perpetrated on an unsuspecting Earth at precisely the worst possible time.
[G]iven the research programs underway aiming to bolster the acceptability of coal in a warming world, the depth of denial in the coal and coal-related theocracies, and the scope for iconoclastic scientists to fan the flames of confusion--belief in the feasibility of burning a thousand billion metric tons of coal or more and getting away with it might be much greater too. (p. 173)

We can influence the outcome of the struggle over coal vs. renewables

Don't look to leadership from governments or corporations. According to Leggett it must come from individuals. (I must note that these options are not mutually exclusive, and that following merely the role of individual effort may be playing into the corporate trap of devaluing collective efforts.) One should follow Stephen Leeb's lead by encouraging enlightened self-interest when investing money--invest in a green future and lead the marketplace where you want it to be. We must act locally and in every way possible to reach the tipping point from which a new future is visible.

Legget concludes with another presentation for aliens, this time looking at the present and at a possible hopeful futures. Consumer Empire gets hit by warriors in commandeered civilian jetliners and retaliates, pitting its own Christian Fundamentalists against the Middle Eastern Muslim Fundamentalists in a Cycle of Hate.
In both the Consumer Empire and the Middle Eastern nation-states, Fundamentalism has thrived amid all this mayhem. In the Consumer Empire, many humans hold a belief that their version of God would let them trash the Earth and still join Him in His heaven. Indeed, the more quickly we trash it, the more quickly they would get to enjoy what they think of as the Rapture. Rapturist humans tend to care nothing about the fuel efficiency of their horseless carriages, tend not to give a damn about the alternatives to oil, and tend to be very keen on burning coal. They also figure that all-out war might be another way to join their version of God more quickly than letting things run their normal course, so they tend not to be averse to that either....

For humans who believe in Cosmopolitan Tolerance--simply stated, having a stab at learning from the lessons of history--things are beginning to look really very bleak as they stand today. (p. 189)

Oversights One and Two show up, the economy collapses as oil production peaks and there are no replacements, there's all sort of political repression taking place in Consumer Number One in the wake of the attacks, and then global warming kicks in and really fucks with everything. This is Leggett's prediction of what will happen. Not a lot of wiggle room in there, and as he has noted, it is definitely unpleasant. He doesn't end there, though. Rather he provides an optimistic vision of the sort of world we can bring about out of this wreckage, a new Renaissance in which the tipping point is reached and humanity chooses a future of alternative energy and power, which in turn leads to a general renewed interest in the local, in community, in place, and eventually leads to a stabilization of human population through the education and empowerment of women. Not a bad future at all, but one that will definitely take a lot of dedication and hardwork with no hope to see the results. Like building a cathedral or journeying toward the Promised Land.

13 June 2008

The Man in the High Castle: Dick's postmodern masterpiece

The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962

Juliana said, "I wonder why the oracle would write a novel. Did you ever think of asking it that? And why one about the Germans and the Japanese losing the war? Why that particular story and no other one? What is there is can't tell us directly, like it always has before? This one must be different, don't you think?" (p. 216)

I think this one is definitely different. Dick had been writing novels for over a half-decade by the time this novel--his only Hugo Award-winner--was published. Every Dick novel published in the seven years following Solar Lottery shared a similar storytelling style and quality of language. F
or want of a better term I'll say Dick was a "hack"; his novels were cranked out at amphetamine speed in order to pay the bills. This is not to say that these novels are bad--to the contrary, as I've indicated in my previous reviews, even from the beginning of his career Dick was obviously gifted with both an intellect and an imagination that he put to good use in his short stories and novels. It's just to say that his writing really wasn't all that special.

Until he wrote The Man in the High Castle. Here Dick plays by different rules, writing alternate history rather than dystopian speculations about the 1990-2000s. (I read somewhere that he was initially inspired to write an alternate history of the post-Word War II world after reading Ward Moore's 1953 alternate post-Civil War Bring the Jubilee.) Dick, demonstrating the sort of self-referentiality that initially drew me to his work, even has two of his characters chat about alternate history and whether or not it is properly called science fiction:

"[It's n]ot a mystery....On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction."

"Oh no," Betty disagreed. "No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise."

"But," Paul said, "it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort." (p. 91)

And what an alternate present (i.e., 1962) it deals with. We learn about the history of this alternate world and how it diverges from our own through snippets of conversation and internal monologue. In 1933 President Roosevelt is assassinated and Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of the Third Reich. By 1942 the USSR has fallen, with the Slavs joining European Jews and Gypsies in extermination, and the Japanese have devastated the entire US fleet at Pearl Harbor. They subsequently conquer the West coast of the US, and the Nazis have taken over the East coast and begun the extermination of the Jews in NYC by 1948. Between the two coasts the high plains and Rocky Mountains constitute a buffer zone between the two global superpowers of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The novel recounts the chilling German holocaust on the African continent, the policy of high tech Lebensraum through space colonization, and the inevitable tensions in the marriage of convenience that is the Axis. And Dick reveals his suspicion, in the form of an aging and syphilitic Hitler, that literal rot and insanity lie at the root of the Nazi ideology:
And the horrible part was that the present-day German Empire was a product of [Hitler's syphilitic] brain. First a political party, then a nation, then half the world. And the Nazis themselves had diagnosed it, identified it; that quack herbal medicine man who had treated Hitler, that Dr. Morell who had dosed Hitler with a patent medicine called Dr. Koester's Antigas Pills--he had originally been a specialist in venereal disease. The entire world knew it, and yet the Leader's gabble was still sacred, still Holy Writ. The views had infected a civilization by now, and, like evil spores, the blind blond Nazi queens were swishing out from Earth to the other planets, spreading the contamination. (p. 29)

But Dick doesn't just stop with one alternate history of the world from 1933 1962. Within The Man in the High Castle is another novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy--a contraband alternate history of the world in which it is the US and the UK, and not Japan and the Third Reich, who are victorious in World War II. This world is not ours either, though, as Dick makes abundantly clear in a section that Freiherr Hugo Reiss reads in his office:
[I]n the U.S.A. the color problem had by 1950 been solved. Whites and Negroes lived and worked and ate shoulder by shoulder, even in the Deep South; World War Two had ended discrimination... (p. 135)

Any white American reading this sentence in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement, would surely have felt Dick's rebuke. By 1950, "[w]hites and Negroes lived and worked and ate shoulder by shoulder"? In 1960, white Americans in our version of history wouldn't even use the same water fountains and cafe counters! Of course this alternate world has its own problems with colonialism and the like, but to those living under the boot of the Third Reich, the alternative reality presented in Grasshopper appears nearly paradisiacal.

It is interesting to note that this is not the only book which is central to the novel; the other book that continually resurfaces is the I Ching. In fact, as we discover at the end of the book, the I Ching has basically channeled Grasshopper through a man who is little more than a medium, Hawthorn Abendsen, the so-called "Man in the High Castle." Again and again the novel reminds the reader of the importance and power of writers, particularly those who write "what if" stories. The aforementioned
Reiss is captivated by Grasshopper, and his comments reveal the subversive, compulsive force of science fiction:
How that man can write, he thought. Completely carried me away. Real. Fall of Berlin to the British, as vivid as if it had actually taken place. Brrr. He shivered.

Amazing, the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke. No wonder it's banned within Reich territory; I'd ban it myself. Sorry I started it. But too late; must finish, now. (p, 105)

Dick experiments in other ways. Most of the dialog in the novel is in a dialect of English that captures the flavor of Japanese, with the absence of articles, unusual word order, and a stilted choice of words. Those white characters who interact with the Japanese regularly (and so have become internally colonized to some degree) even think in this dialect. And while Dick has regularly written non-linear plots, at least to the extent that the stories begin in media res, this novel is almost postmodern in its avoidance of a single master narrative. Instead, there are collected plot threads interwoven with the various narratives of the POV characters.

We have Ms. Nobusuke Tagomi with the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, a regular patron of Robert Childan's high-end antique boutique American Artistic Handicrafts. Here he purchases a "genuine Mickey Mouse watch" for Mr. Baynes, a Swedish businessman who turns to be an officer of Reich Naval Counter-Intelligence who has travelled from Germany in disguise to meet with Tagomi and a mysterious Mr. Yatabe, who is himself en route from the Japanese "Home Islands."

Then there is Frank Frink (born Frank Fink, a Jew) who works at Wyndham-Matson Corporation creating fake Americana for such unsuspecting antique dealers as Mr. Childan. Frink's ex-wife Juliana is a judo instructor living in the Rockies, in the neutral zone between Japanese and Nazi spheres of influence. Frank and his coworker/friend Ed McCarthy quit their jobs at Wyndham-Matson and begin a jewelry business, creating beautiful, original pieces of American art. At roughly the same time, Juliana begins an affair with an Italian truck driver.

Mr. Yatabe arrives for his meeting with Mr. Baynes and Mr. Tagomi, who are surprised to find that their visitor is actually Japanese General Tedeki, formerly of the Imperial General Staff. Baynes reveals himself to be Captain Rudolf Wegener of Reich Naval Counter-Intelligence, whose mission is to warn the Japanese about Operation Löwenzahn/Dandelion. It turns out that Goebbels plans, once he assumes control of the Reich as the next Chancellor, to nuke Japan ("The Home Islands") and consolidate Nazi control over the entire world. After the death of Hitler's successor, and the possibility of Goebbels becoming new chancellor, Baynes seeks Japanese support for a different Nazi leader. After the meeting, Nazi agents attempt to attack Baynes and are instead killed by Mr. Tagomi using the Colt Army revolver that he previously bought from Childan.
"Part of personal collection," Mr. Tagomi said. "Much fooled around in vainglorious swift-draw practicing and firing, in spare hours. Admit to compare favorably with other enthusiasts in contest-timing. But mature use heretofore delayed." (p. 162)

Tagomi also retaliates against the local Nazi authorities by directing that Frank Frink, who is scheduled for deportation and subsequent execution as a Jew, be released. It turns out that Frink's artwork, which had been taken on consignment by Mr. Childan's store and subsequently mocked by a young Japanese client as being suitable for export to the Third World, is actually possessed of a soul stirring power and beauty, and that this power has made quite an impression on Mr. Tagomi.

Frink's ex, Juliana, gets more deeply involved with Joe, the truck driver and Italian veteran of war. He wishes to meet Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and so the two of them embark on a road trip to find his fortress home. As they approach their destination, she discovers that Joe is actually a Swiss assassin whose target is the Man in the High Castle. Juliana attempts to leave their hotel room. and when Joe bars her way, she slashes his throat with the razor with which she was previously going to kill herself. She makes her way to Abendsen's home and induces him to reveal the truth about his novel--it was written in collaboration with I Ching--and about life.
"The terrible dilemma of our lives. Whatever happens, it is evil beyond compare. Why struggle, then? Why choose? If all alternatives are the same...

Evidently we go on, as we always have. From day to day. At this moment we work against Operation Dandelion. Later on, at another moment, we work to defeat the police. But we cannot do it all at once; it is a sequence. An unfolding process. We can only control the end by making a choice at each step...

We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious." (p. 207)

As always, Dick explores some deep themes in this novel. The role that the tiniest chance has in determining larger outcomes is evident throughout the story. For one thing, it is built into the genre of alternate history; whether Franklin Roosevelt lived or died in 1933 had long lasting repercussions for the people of the US and the world. So it is with the I Ching which is used by several characters throughout the book to make sense of and determine the appropriate response to a given situation. Dick also interrogates the distinction between reality and artifice, particularly in regard
to antiques and a slippery quantity an object's "historicity":She said,
"What is 'historicity'?"

"When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?" He nudged her. "You can't. You can't tell which is which. There's no 'mystical plasma presence,' no 'aura' around it."... "It's all a big racket; they're playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it's the same as if it hadn't, unless you know. It's in here." He tapped his head. "In the mind, not the gun." (p. 52)

Embedding Grasshopper's alternate history of the world within his own alternate history allows Dick to take this question about reality and simulation to the next level, leading the reader to speculate on the meaning and possibility of multiple simultaneously interpenetrating realities and on the role of the individual reader in pinning it all down.

02 June 2008

Vulcan's Hammer: Interesting idea, too bad the novel kind of sucks.

Vulcan's Hammer
Philip K. Dick


Imagine. You write science fiction for a living. In the last seven years you've written at least one novel per year, along with dozens of short stories, and a good half of this output has described life in a dystopian future. In these visions of dark possibility, you've examined a handful of different ideologies around which we may organize a "perfect society"---whether randomness, relativism, "moral reclamation," or anti-space colonization prejudice---and found each wanting. So why not phase out the human element altogether and instead envision a planetary government run by a single omniscient machine, one free of our primate psychological hangups and irrational biases? What would that look like? Would it work?

Dick called this government Unity, this godlike machine Vulcan 3, and, in the format of a political thriller of sorts, he explored those questions. Alas, while there is a good deal of potential in the concept of a technocratic utopia gone bad (as evinced by scores of films about machines supplanting and/or annihilating humanity), there is little good about Vulcan's Hammer as a novel. It suffers from dull characters and a hackneyed, careening plot that would have left the rails if it hadn't been for that pat, sentimental conclusion at the end of the line.

There has been a third world war, and in its wake humanity has created a "one-world government" controlled by an artificial intelligence of almost unimaginable power. Unity is total in its scope: it educates the kids, employs many of the adults, levies taxes, and enforces its laws under pain of death by "pencil beam." Yet even in this paranoid panopticon, a movement of dissenters called the Healers has arisen, guided by a man called Father Fields. The novel begins when a young Unity agent is murdered while staking out a rally of Healers. The North American Director of Unity, William Barris, is perturbed by the absolute lack of response to the Healers on the part of Vulcan 3, but when his request for more information is refused on the grounds of a piddling technicality, his perturbation turns to mutiny and he travels to Geneva, to Unity headquarters, to meet with Managing Director Jason Dill face-to-face and find out why Vulcan 3 hasn't formulated policy regarding the Healers.

We discover that Dill has been secretly consulting with the predecessor to Vulcan 3, the aptly named Vulcan 2, and that the earlier model has warned Dill of a possible bug in the Unity system. Vulcan 3, it turns out, is so complex that for all intents and purposes it is not only intelligent but also alive; Vulcan 2 realized that if its successor were ever to learn about the Healers then it would do what any living thing does when threatened---defend itself. And with a near-infinite amount of resources, Vulcan's ability to wage war would be, like all other aspects of Unity civilization, total.

Dill's efforts to censor Vulcan 3's information intake fail, however, because Vulcan 3 realizes that there is something missing from all the data that Dill does feed it; its conspicuous absence is the very sign of its existence. Because his human attendant Dill won't do what is needed, Vulcan 3 devises flying robots ("hammers") equipped with pencil beams to be his eyes and talons. Vulcan 3 arouses the Unity organization to the presence of "enemies," in the form of Barris and Dill. The plot lurches from the heated trial of Dill before all the Unity Directors to the meeting with Father Fields where we discover that it was Vulcan 2, and not Fields, who was the mind behind the Healers to the scene wherein it is revealed that the wife of the murdered young Unity agent from the beginning is actually Fields' daughter, and, finally, to Barris' bombing of the central Vulcan 3 CPU. In the end, you can almost see the sunset they're staring off into as Barris, Fields, and Fields' daughters contemplate their rebuilding of a new Unity and a new world.

As my daughter would say, "Yawn."