You’d think I’d be more embarrassed. I mean, I’m a little embarrassed, but not that much. This is my thing. Sci fi and fantasy pulps. And these particular ones are attributed to William Shatner, for whom I have a deep and abiding love.
The thread of these techno drug cartels (the titular ‘tek’) runs through all the novels and this one is no exception. While obviously science fiction, in a semi-near future way (more Neuromancer than Star Trek), I have settled into an appreciative groove by understanding these as decently crafted, fast moving detective novels. Jake Cardigan, the primary protagonist, is very much the archetype of a noir hero: middle aged, tough, haggard, former cop turned PI, formerly jailed for crime he didn’t commit, preternaturally good at his job, and not infrequently beaten up a little.
That all being said, this one had more of an international espionage flavor and I didn’t love that element. Felt more James Bond and less Continental Op. And there was a deus ex machina earthquake that felt unearned.
Well, just one more to go. And then maybe I’ll binge the TV movies.
This is the second time I have read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The first time was when I was a young man (late teens? twenties?) and was only the second book by Defoe I’d ever read (true to this day; the other being his book of the English Civil War, Memoirs of a Cavalier; incidentally, the use of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ is interesting; I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, wherein the use of the indefinite pronoun and the implied rejection of a certain authorial omniscience makes the works feel more trustworthy).
The first time was not, as it is now, a plague year in the United States (or, leastways, not for me; I don’t want to dismiss the damage being done to gay men and oft ignored by straight men in the 80s and 90s by AIDS). However much I might have loved the book before, I could not have understood the frightening prescience of his writing.
From complaints about the government withholding information (I’m looking not just at the president, but also at the governor of Florida), especially in the early days of its reaching our shores (I forgot to note that Defoe is writing an account of the bubonic plague outbreak with struck England, and especially London, in 1665, arriving, the narrator believes, from Holland); to the ways in which the wealthy were able to ignore the rules and insulate themselves; to the suffering of families forced to quarantine separately from one of more members. Towards the end, there is even an anecdote about a merchant who saw things getting better, to so ended his family’s social distancing (they were waiting things out in the country) and brought them back to London, opened his shop, and threw himself back into normal life. Then the whole family got sick and died. So, yeah… let’s reopen the country!
As cabin fever kicks in, I find myself envious of the peripatetic narrator. Taking most reasonable precautions known at the time (a writer from the first half of the 18th century, writing about about an event from the second half of the 17th century which he knows about from foggy childhood memories and, apparently, much research into what we would now call primary sources), he walks London and comments sympathetically in the travails of those sick with the ‘distemper’ and calls out the MAGA trolls of the day who ignored safety guidelines (which included congregating in large groups and social distancing). My own feelings of confinement are intense and I long to be a more active observer.
Which also makes his descriptions of the breakdown of safety measures pertinent. People became inured to the smells of death and the bodies being carted out and began to crowd churches. I won’t claim to be very religious, but during these times, the inability to take the sacraments is something I feel very keenly, to the point it becomes painful, and I am sympathetic to the desire, if not to the reckless pastors and parishioners putting communities at risk (I also feel a certain chauvinism; if you don’t believe the Eucharist is real, how urgent is it for you to attend services?). But the sort of faith people felt then is a driver in a way it is not now, even if the desire for societal connections denied by the plague played a role equal or greater than religious fervor.
Finally, the book is also a reminder that the 18th century was a time of beautiful and often very clear (to contemporary ears) writing. If you can make your way past certain spelling conventions, Defoe, Johnson, Hume, Addison, Gibbon, Burke, etc. are all easily understood and appreciated by the modern reader.
Finally… after two books, we see a colon used in the third volume!
More than ever, these books feel like Dungeons & Dragons tie-ins. I just finished a long campaign with my long time group, going from first to twentieth level. This feels like a campaign. But the thing is, there is a lot of filler that doesn’t really tie the true narrative together. When playing, it’s not that important because the real joy is the relationship with your companions and seeing your own character grow and evolve. But it doesn’t really work in a novel. This was possibly my least favorite of the three.
I picked this up before the pandemic hit (or at least before we knew it was hitting). I am sure that I have read A.E. Housman before. I didn’t read it for a while, but it has been something I have been keeping nearby lately and reading from. I even read it to my little one during dinner (poem XVII, which opens with a stanza about football [which I changed to ‘soccer’ when I read it my little soccer fan]).
Best in small doses, though. He was so deeply saddened that it’s hard to read a lot at once. I tried to explain to her about the losses of the First World War and a homosexuality he could not safely express.
I am not going to justify myself here. I really can’t, except for a sort of pact with the devil and a deep love of William Shatner. Also, a memory of it being on the sort of revolving wire book rack you used to see in drugstores in the Dunedin Library, near the card catalog.
I am reading another one of Shatner’s (sort of) Tek novels and I am watching a YouTube copy of the first movie (which I remember being on the USA network, but which the internet is telling me showed on the SciFI channel [side note: changing the name to SyFy was absolutely stupid]). Both are better than the you would expect and have their charms, but I neither is better than re-reading Neuromancer or continuing my rewatch of Farscape (which I actually never finished, but I’m chugging through season three right now).
Also, can I say that Neuromancer has some of the best scene setting descriptions ever?
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
I never ceased to be amazed by the brilliance of that line, which also ranks as one of the finest opening lines of any novel. The second one that also always gets me is still in the beginning section, but not the first page, if I recall. It talks about a bar being decorated in ‘pale Milanese plastics.’ Now, this is not a real decor. To my knowledge, there is no interior design school in Milan whose plastics are easily identifiable. But… isn’t it evocative? Your brain fills in the details.
The Tek novels aren’t that good. They are, safe to say, workmanlike. As is the TV movie. Workmanlike with a touch of invention that overcomes (some of) the constraints of budgets and mid-nineties CGI.
This particular novel, the fifth, feels more workmanlike the usual; less invested in the ongoing narrative threads of the series. But, I will say that, unlike the series or movies, the books do, at least give a sense that the Cosmos Detective Agency has real clients and real work and is less of a crude narrative device for the hero to continue his vendetta against the Tek cartels of future drug dealing.
To me, the heart of her argument’s current value (assuming that we can all agree that women are not inherently inferior to men and don’t need to be told that anymore; though it is still almost certainly true the we do still need to be told) is an educational one (perhaps why she take special offense at the educational writings of Rousseau). Proper education leads to people of any gender becoming fully moral creatures. The failure to properly educate women leads to them lacking, in most cases, full moral agency. At the same time, the rearing of children, who we want to be grow into moral creatures, is left to them, so shouldn’t we educate them properly so that they can raise the next generation of moral agents?
While usually coached in broader terms (we should educate women and here is why), towards the end she takes time to criticize boarding schools and being soul crushing and advocates for classless (that, without distinction between social classes), co-ed, local schooling. She even suggests school uniforms to erase socio-economic signifiers.
Rousseau is a special target of criticism (and his views on women, to modern ears, are outlandishly retrograde) and she quotes liberally and at length from him, particularly from Emilie (where he discusses the hypothetical education of a Sophie who, it’s safe to say, does not receive the same level of instruction as her male counterpart). But while reading her takedown of him, I kept going back to an anecdote I read: James Boswell (of Johnson fame) had sought out Rousseau and ingratiated himself into his company and eventually escorted his partner across the English Channel, but also either seduced or was seduced by Rousseau’s lover. Shallow of me, I know, but while being inspired by Wollstonecraft to reject him, it’s humorous to think of him being cuckolded.
She also takes some time to reject the value of Fordyce’s Sermons. I know of these because there are mentioned by characters in the novels of Jane Austen (I think the Bennett’s unpleasant cousin reads from them). She rejects them because his writing is too florid and encouraging sensibility. As you might guess, she does not mean by sensibility what we mean. You might think of it as meaning being too emotional or not sufficiently rational. To return to Jane Austen, the title Sense and Sensibility might give you a clue that she, at least, does not think ‘sensibility’ to be what we would call sensible.
It’s not all education, though. While not well advanced nor elucidated, she seems to make an argument for something like a minimum basic income and also notes what psychologists now understand about how poverty itself leads to bad decisions. She speaks of how poverty can lead to a ‘frigid system of economy which narrows both heart and mind.’
A touch of patriotism stirred my heart as I read this line:
But the days of true heroism are over, when a citizenfought for his country like a Fabricius or a Washington, and then returned to his farm to let his virtuous fervor run in a more placid, but not less salutary stream.
She takes a moment in the final chapter to advocate for healthy living. Nothing fancy: diet, exercise, and listening to legitimate medical professionals. I say legitimate because she singles out some quacks, among them ‘magnetizers.’ Interestingly, her daughter’s famous novel was inspired by curiosity about new and sometimes quackish ideas about life and health. Also, interesting: quacks are still selling magnets for health benefits today.
Though not stated openly, Sterckx, for the majority of the book, sets Chinese thought as a sort of rivalry between Confucianism and Mohism. You can easily see a bias towards the former, though he is not unkind towards the latter (Legalism, however, receives only a lukewarm defense).
He takes a topic and writes about the Confucian view and then (usually) Mozi’s view, with sprinklings of Legalistic and Daoist views (Buddhism doesn’t come up in detail until 3/4 of the way through the book).
Though he talks about Chinese philosophy, he is not really writing a book about Chinese philosophy. I struggled to best explain what he is doing and I settled on calling it ‘intellectual history of the elites.’ It was fascinating read and I love that he has some a long section with additional suggested reading, but it still felt just a little thin. For a thick tome, it was strangely shallow.