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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Uninhabitable Earth: LIfe After Warming (2019) by David Wallace-Wells


Book Review
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019)
 by David Wallace-Wells

  I spent most of my time listening to the distressing Audiobook version of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming thinking of the proper word that best describes Wallace-Wells' approach, and the one that came to mind is "jermeiad" which is defined as,  "a long and/or mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes." 

  That is indeed an accurate description of the The Uninhabitable Earth, which is part a forecast of the various impacts of climate change (Drought, Rising Sea Levels, Political Instability) and part an attempt to describe and address the failure of the world to do much about the problem.  Much of the individual pieces of The Uninhabitable Earth should sound vaguely familiar to all but the most ignorant- if you don't know the relationship between rising sea levels and global warming already, The Uninhabitable Earth will come as a huge shock, but Wallace-Wells takes a step further by explaining just how bad things could get.

  However, as horrifying as everything he describes might be, he also argues against what I think is the obvious end result of climate change if we fail to act:  Billions will die, and there will be significantly significantly less fossil-fuel driven activity as a result of the drastically reduced amount of humans on the earth.   I also found myself speculating about whether a global nuclear war- millions of death and the resulting "nuclear winter" might be another "solution" to the global warming crisis.

  Wallace- Wells is very specific about setting the time horizon of many of the climate change related disasters to "within our lifetime" and argues that our children, and certainly their children, will be doomed to living in the ruins of a collapsed civilization.   It sounds like those of who are adults today will be impacted, because it is all happening right now, but, unless we live in someplace like India, the Middle East or the low lying islands of the pacific (or along the coasts of the Eastern or Western United States) the change will probably not be enough to disrupt our lives in the dramatic way Wallace-Wells prophecies. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) by Shoshana Zuboff



Book Review:
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019)
by Shoshana Zuboff

  This is the first time I've listened to an Audiobook and then gone out and bought the physical book after listening to the Audiobook.  Zuboff's must-read exploration of the development of "surveillance capitalism" as pioneered by Google, Facebook and Microsoft is filled with references to fascinating books I've never heard of, and over the course of the 25 hour Audiobook I found myself moaning in frustration over not being able to look at the end notes.   Basically I bought the hard copy so I could look at the end notes and pull the sources that Zuboff relied upon in writing her book.

   The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is because Zuboff is giving a name to the previously unnamed, "surveillance capitalism" and using a variety of familiar techniques, unmasking, speaking truth to power in such a way that the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and in doing so, gives a concerned reader a template for further action at a personal, group and societal level.   It is clear, at a very basic level, that Zuboff is against surveillance capitalism in a way that many people- even educated, sophisticated consumers, are not, and I would guess that the very length and complexity of her argument, combined with the fact that her two main targets (Google and Facebook) control an immoderate share of our attention, will conspire to prevent The Age of Surveillance Capitalism from receiving the attention it deserves.

  It's also true that trying to recite the arguments Zuboff makes in casual conversation with friends makes you sound like the type of person who wears a tin foil hat to keep out alien radio waves.  To keep the analogy going, Zuboff would argue that not only are the aliens trying to control our minds with radio waves, they are making a ton of money by doing so.

   The depth and complexity of Zuboff's analysis make it difficult to summarize, but a major point she makes is that the architecture of the internet, which consumers perceive as being free to use, is not free to use, because using the internet allows many, many, many people to gather information about us that we leave behind when we use the internet, and they then use that information to make money.   They take what is left behind- our digital information- and make billions of dollars from it, and fight and scratch (and spend millions of dollars) to hide what they are doing from us.

  Fortunately, it seems as if authorities are catching on, at least in Europe, where the European Union issued the General Data Protection Regulation, which seemingly overlapped with the research and writing of this book, and has since led to massive fines and promised reforms.  Even the United States has begun to take notice- perhaps because the current administration is no fan of Silicon Valley.   

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Counterlife (1986) by Philip Roth


Book Review
The Counterlife (1986)
 by Philip Roth

   Philip Roth just has so many excellent books.  It's not a question of picking three along the lines of representing early, middle and late period Roth.  You really need to make it through a half dozen titles to get a feeling for just how good Roth was and for how long he was good (to the end.)  The Counterlife is a highlight of Nathan Zuckerman sequence- fifth in line behind the first three books and The Prague Orgy, which is a novella and a coda to the first trilogy.   The Counterlife is a favorite of literary critics because of the high modernist technique on display.  The Counterlife deals in multiple, conflicting "alternate timelines" that only escape being designated science fiction by the utterly quotidian similarities between the differing descriptions of events.

  In one timeline, Henry, Nathan's brother- who has figured prominently in other of the Zuckerman books up to this point- is unable to cope with being rendered impotent by heart medication, undergoes bypass surgery and dies on the operating table, leaving Nathan musing over fate and in conversation with Henry's widow.   In a second timeline, Henry has survived the surgery and emigrated to Israel, where he becomes involved in the West Bank settlement movement.  Nathan travels to Israel to try to woo him back to his life in suburban New Jersey, where he maintains his succesful dental practice.  In a third timeline, it is Nathan who has died from heart surgery.  Here, it is his love for the English wife of the diplomat living upstairs, improbably named Maria, that motivates the surgery, together with his newly expressed desire for a "normal life" with a wife and child.

   Despite being well received when it was published, the legacy of The Counterlife has suffered compared to the fate of his stand-alone novels.  Sure, it's a great book, but you 100% have to have read the earlier books in the series, particularly the sequences devoted to the relationship between Henry and Nathan, to make sense of the particular genius The Counterlife contains.

Inland (1988) by Gerald Murnane


Book Review
Inland (1988)
by Gerald Murnane

Replaces: Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard

   Like many of the authors that missed out on the original edition of the 1001 Books list but made it onto the second, Murnane is an author writing outside of a major literary marketplace who is well known as a difficult, complicated and experimental novelist.  Woe be unto those writers of difficult literary fiction who live and work outside of a major hub like London, New York or Paris.  Even for Murnane, who writes in English, the appeal for a would-be publisher outside of his native Australia is limited.  Who is going to buy a Gerald Murnane novel when every description is liable to begin with some variation of the description on the Wikipedia page of this book, "some criticize its repetition, lack of clear structure and reliance on writing as a subject matter."

    Perhaps he is an amazing writer, but I was unable to extract that from Inland, which mostly reminded me of a more laconic W.G. Sebald.   If you've read Sebald and not Murnane, trust me, it is a good reference point.  If you haven't read Sebald,  the London Telegraph defines "Sebaldian" as, "the mournful travel notes of narrators stumbling across Suffolk sands or through European cities, remembered meetings, fragments from books and plays, photographs and paintings; a cut and paste of cultural and personal memory."

    The only words in that phrase you have to change to make it apply to Murnane is to exchange "Suffolk sands" for "Australian outback" and voila. I'm sad to see Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard get the boot.  I understand the decision: Ballard is no doubt over represented in the original edition of the 1001 Books list; but I genuinely enjoy reading Ballard, and I like Cocaine Nights, as I also like Super-Cannes- both books about dystopian resort living in Southern Europe.

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