MarkBernstein.org
Mar 18 27 2018

Farthing

by Jo Walton

After so much indulgence in the Mitfords, I wanted to revisit Jo Walton’s fine mystery of Nazi England. (I also have two writing projects in hand — one of them The Villain’s Guide To Hypertext And Web Science — for which some Jo Walton techniques might come in handy.)

Farthing is the best of the Small Change series, not least because its heroine is the most interesting. Jon Clute’s critique of the series is sensible: we never do learn how England’s sensible classes so readily acquiesced in fascism. It could perhaps happen, and we do see how some silly aristocrats could be persuaded, but Farthing doesn’t really show how stolid, sensible working folk would come to fall for it.

Then again, Clute was writing in late 2008, during the Obama transition. Reading Farthing while the Trump family loots the treasury (and sacks the Republican Party), at a time when our city’s unofficial Facebook forum is rife with anti-Semitism, the whole thing seems a lot more plausible.

Mar 18 26 2018

First Aid

What do we know about helping out when friends and allies are attacked on Facebook and Twitter?

There’s a ton of research literature out there that, as we have seen, usefully identifies people who are especially vulnerable to bullies. We have technology that automatically flags people for the possible sexual interests or political sentiments. We have tools that help coordinate mobs of attackers — the 21st-century brownshirts.

But what is known about effective ways to help when you see the brownshirts marching down the virtual street, bricks and broken bottles in hand?

by Laura Thompson

In the New York Times, Tina Brown hit this one on the head. “Oh no! Not another book about the Mitfords! That was my instant reaction,” she began, only to begin the next paragraph, “How wrong I was. “The Six” is riveting.”

The Mitfords were six famously beautiful daughters (plus a son, whom everyone always forgets), born to Lord and Lady Redesdale between 1904 and 1920. They knew everyone. They went to the best parties. They wrote. They quarreled, and because they wrote books about their quarrels, everyone eventually knew everything.

What Laura Thompson gets right here is that the group story of the sisters is a story of an unhappy family, and so the biographer’s chief task is to explain their specific, differentiating unhappiness. This makes the pivot of the tale the fourth sister, Unity Valkyrie Mitford, who became an ardent Nazi and who, when England declared war on Germany, shot herself in Münich’s Englischer Garten for love of Hitler. Unity tends to be an afterthought in other Mitfordiana, but of course her story is central: if this had been a large family of obscure Canadians, her tragic suicide would naturally be the central issue and her Nazi affinities the central problem. (Mom and Dad were pro-German anti-Semites, though that might have been a gesture to humor the girls: it’s nice to take an interest in your adolescent hobbies, and if your adolescent’s hobby is Hitler, well, you’ve got a handful, don’t you? Big sister Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Little sister Jessica started as an ardent Communist and wound up a Berkeley, California journalist and civil rights activist. Nancy, the oldest girl, spent most of her life as the paramour of DeGaulle’s chief of staff. Whatever olive branches and indulgences were attempted, they didn’t work.)

What Tina Brown overlooks, however, is that Laura Thompson’s own sympathies lead her repeatedly to excuse the fascist Mitfords while denouncing Jessica’ milder and less consequential sympathy for Communism. Time and again, we are reminded that Stalin (whom Jessica implicitly supported) was monstrous. Jessica’s elopement with communist Esmond Romilly was inconsiderate — for some days, her parents didn’t know if she was alive or dead — but marrying an aristocratic British leftist is not, as Thompson seems sometimes to believe, even worse than falling ion love with Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s enormity goes without saying, but Stalin’s is constantly asserted in a way that seems almost to excuse Unity’s absurd infatuation and the rest of the family’s fawning socializing with the Nazi ministry.

Mar 18 23 2018

Saltation

by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Sequel to Fledgling, we follow Theo to University where she studies to be a pilot. It’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays in space, with a modest measure of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower for good measure. Lee and Miller are more interested in genre and style than in speculative fiction or form, but they’re very good at genre. I’ve read a bunch of school stories: this is good.

by Gish Jen

Novelist Gish Jen sets of into the world of armchair sociology to distinguish the Western psyche — the “avocado-pit self” — from the more collectivist Eastern flexi-self. There’s some good plain sense here, and some gross generalization of concepts that Jen, the author of Mona In The Promised Land, can address with more safety and confidence than most.

The title comes from the protagonist of its framing story. A Chinese girl applies to Milton Academy. She has great test scores, a fluent essay, great recommendations. She’s admitted. When a school representative meets her plane, though, the student is nothing like her application. Eventually, it emerges that her sister got those scores and wrote that essay. What, Jen asks, made her (or her sister, or her parents) think this a good idea?

The problem with this story is it’s the best and most interesting part of the book. Another high point is a sociologist who went to visit Dafen, the Chinese town that’s dedicated to making copies of oil paintings. A civic leader praises the visitor’s interesting topic, and offers to write her dissertation for her; after all, he reasonably says, he is a good writer and knows Dafen and its painters intimately. Just tell him how she’d like it organized, and he’ll have it ready in a couple of weeks.

These are fascinating confrontations — just as good as Mona with her realization that she wants to convert to Judaism because the Jews, even more than the Chinese, have this minority thing figured out. But the language of nonfiction pop psych flattens everything, and because we’re making generalizations we spend a lot of time explaining that yes, there are lots of exceptions. Usually a stylish writer, Jen here develops a fondness for rhetorical questions to which she supplies an immediate, and usually obvious, reply. I’d have preferred a novel.

Mar 18 18 2018

Grant

by Ron Chernow

A comprehensive but pleasant biography, Grant never bogs down. That’s a challenge for the biography of any general, but especially challenging for Grant because his life before the war was far from notable and his postwar life was not entire successful. The axis of this book, it seems to me, revolves around the disastrous Johnson administration and its strenuous efforts to give the defeated South what it could not win in battle. The calamities of the Johnson era, in which one cabinet member barricaded himself in his office to prevent his replacement, are strikingly resonant today.

by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Theo, a charming, isolated daughter of two professors, lives on a planet dedicated to scholarship. This has advantages; everyone understands why tenure matters. It has disadvantages, too: Mom and Dad are splitting up in order to improve Mom’s academic visibility, the whole planet is governed by the Safety Committee, and because Theo is sometimes clumsy and sometimes just a bit too assertive, Mom’s rivals think it might be a good idea to sedate her for everyone’s safety. It’s a space opera, and if it’s not really adventurous science fiction, it’s a skillful exploration of coming-of-age with spaceships and telepathic bears.

Mar 18 13 2018

Borderline

by Mishell Baker

A Jason Snell recommendation and Nebula finalist, this faery noir saga pits a young film director with borderline personality disorder (and without legs, which she lost jumping off her dormitory roof in a failed suicide attempt) against a frightening magical conspiracy.

by Jihae Park

A fascinating, nimble play in which two Asian-American high school sisters, L and M, find that their plans to both attend The College are in trouble despite their 2400 SATs, amazing softs, and impeccable grades. (M, “the smart one,” has a 4.8/4 weighted GPA. L only has 4.6/4.) They’re both double-minority. But each year, The College only accepts one, and this year the fat early-decision envelope fell (from the heavens) on a classmate with a slight claim to American Indian descent and a brother with cystic fibrosis. Macbeth ensues, naturally.

by Noah Hawley

This polished, intriguing, and formally-innovative mystery brings a collection of interesting and colorful rich people together in a modern locked-room, country-house mystery. A small private jet crashes on a hop from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro, NJ. Something or someone caused the crash. Everyone wants to find out — the anchorman on the cable news empire whose owner chartered the jet, the NTSB chief investigator, the FBI whose had planned to arrest another of the passengers the following morning for money laundering. Scott Burroughs, who somehow swam to safety, and the network head’s 4-year-old boy whom he rescued, are the only survivors. Hawley takes an Agatha Christie format and updates it with a vengeance; his minor characters are sometimes synthetics but they’re detailed and though through.

I’ve been noodling around with Dying Light, an (more-or-less) open-world first-person zombie apocalypse game.

On my iMac Pro, it’s impressively immersive, and the immersivity itself is a ton of fun. In a way, that’s all the fun: as big foreign town filled with hostile monsters ready to chase you. There are lots of good narrative hooks here, but the designers don’t use them or don’t see them; the stories you get are mostly pretty dull. But, still, there’s a whole city there, one that doesn’t suffer terribly from repetitively reused elements.

I thought that that point of zombies was twofold. First, the engine’s tendency to get walking slightly wrong doesn't cross into the uncanny valley if that’s where you start. Monsters walk monstrously. And second, superhero games where you mow down legions are (slightly) less awful if the legions are irredeemable. And that’s the point of the zombie. The problem here is that the designers are also really interested in detailed gore and that good old ultra-violence. I’m not. And there's something deeply, deeply disturbing to me about pummeling (among others) young women of color with a baseball bat, even if those young women of color want to eat your character’s brains.

A show-stopper for me is that the game is built with chokepoint missions, and some of those missions involve doing extraordinary feats at great heights, all realistically depicted with extra vertigo thrown in. I hated that — enough that I said to myself, “this is supposed to be fun and it’s not required reading.” Ouch. It’s the only time I remember where I actually wanted a cheat code. (Oddly, there doesn't seem to be one!)


So, what do I want to play that’s not loathsome, reasonably open, and that offers this kind of adrenalin-spiked immersion? Email me.