Friday, November 30, 2012

My Responsibility

A couple of weeks before the election, I read Conor Friedersdorf's essay 'Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama'. I posted it to Facebook. I wanted people to read it.

In the election, I voted for Barack Obama. I don't have buyer's regret. I'm happy he won, although I admit the Romney campaign worked far harder to lose my vote than Obama did to win it. (I know I could have voted for a third party, but I looked at the two politicians who actually had a shot of winning and found Obama preferable enough that I wanted to influence the two-man race directly.) So why did I propagate Friedersdorf's essay?

Because I thought people needed to get the best anti-Obama case straight-up. Friedersdorf's not a silly Rush Limbaugh type going on about the government giving kids free birth control (and notably, he didn't find Mitt Romney acceptable either). Instead, he goes straight for the jugular, attacking the most uncomfortable aspects of Obama's foreign policy. A Republican President arguably would have been just as bad, but that's a weak excuse.

Friedersdorf did not convince me not to vote for Obama, but he did make me think. He made me more aware. That is a very good thing.

I'm a fan of both of podcaster Dan Carlin's shows. In the last episode of his political podcast Common Sense before the 2012 election, he said something to make me pause. Carlin, who is of the opinion that both major political parties are hopelessly corrupt, said that while he couldn't stomach the idea of voting for either Obama or Romney, he thought that if he had to choose one or the other, he would rather see Romney win.

Carlin is concerned about the erosion of American civil liberties under the banners of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, two 'wars' that he feels have done immense damage to American society. He doesn't think he would approve of Romney's policies any more than Obama's. However, he does feel that civil libertarians on the Left -- a large and substantial group -- would hold Romney accountable for the same actions that they give Obama a pass on. There would be far more demands from civil society to expose the government's dirty laundry under a Romney administration than there are under an Obama one.

Putting aside the issue of whether Obama has really been so bad for civil liberties or not, I do believe Carlin is basically right here. The three main points that Friedersdorf makes against Obama in his essay (terrorizing Pakistani civilians, extrajudicial killing of Americans, and authorization of military forces without Congressional approval) are ones that would have made many Democrats absolutely furious if the President for the last four years had been George W. Bush or John McCain.

This isn't some pathology endemic to left-wingers. What about all those Republicans who cheerfully went along with whatever George W. Bush did for eight years, but when Barack Obama became President they decided Our Country Is In Danger because of Ballooning Debt and Losing Our Basic Liberties?

That's why I've made a decision:

I stand by my vote for Barack Obama. I believe he was the clear better choice. But, you know those bumper stickers and T-shirts you can buy that say, 'Don't blame me! I voted for [name of loser of last election]'?

Well, I voted for Obama and I'm happy he won. Please, blame me.

Don't bother hurling random anti-Obama crap at me. What blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity say bears no relation to reality.

No, I want to hear the real stuff. I want to find out about government policy that makes real people miserable. I want to hear about the people who die. I want to hear the bad things my government is doing.

I don't want to be one of those jerks who thinks it's OK for the government to misbehave as long as the guy I voted for is in power.

I want to know the bad things. I want to be made aware. I voted for this government. It's my responsibility.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Little Fuzzy

Little Fuzzy
by H. Beam Piper
Published in 1962
Published by Avon
ISBN: 0-441-48498-0

On the Earthlike planet of Zarathustra, currently in the early stages of being colonized and exploited by human beings, crusty old prospector Jack Halloway befriends a little woodland creature who decides to move into his remote cabin. The creature, who Halloway names Little Fuzzy, likes the food and safety of Halloway's residence so much that soon he brings his whole family unit to live there as well.

Jack Halloway and his scientifically-minded pals are intrigued by the Fuzzies' tool use and problem solving skills, and declare that they believe the Fuzzies to be an indigenous sentient race.

Enter the Chartered Zarathustra Company, which owns the entire planet and supervises all economic activity conducted there. It seems that humans have colonized planets with Stone Age natives before, and while there is no Star Trek-style Prime Directive in this universe, there do exist laws meant to protect the interests of technologically-challenged aborigines. If the Fuzzies are sentient, the planet will become a protected area and the Company will lose their exclusive rights.

Soon an exceptionally stupid Company bureaucrat kills a Fuzzy, Jack Halloway wants to see him tried for murder, and the court case which will determine the future of Zarathustra has begun.

Little Fuzzy is considered something of a classic among literary science fiction aficionados. It raises the issue of how one defines a sentient being, and what distinguishes a genuine Stone Age culture from merely a bunch of super-smart animals. (At times, the speculation on intelligence and sentience reminded me of the last novel I read, Peter Watts' Blindsight, though the two books couldn't possibly be further apart stylistically.)

The novel is engaging, and frequently amusing, and has a fast-paced plot. Apart from the one unavoidable bit of bloody violence, the book lightheartedly bounces along. For all of Jack Halloway's worry about the Fuzzies, the book doesn't have a whole lot of dramatic tension, and looking back afterwards, it's really not clear that the bad guys' efforts to have the Fuzzies declared nonsapient ever had a chance of succeeding.

I found the ending dissatisfying. I wonder if the book was showing its age. I get the feeling that in 1962, paternalistic attitudes towards non-Western, traditional cultures were still fairly acceptable, even in circles that considered themselves broad-minded.

Fuzzies are cute. Everybody in the book perceives them as adorable little things, and it doesn't help the case to have them declared legally sentient if people don't take them seriously due to their severe case of cuteness.

But I had a strong sense that even the most sympathetic characters still didn't take the Fuzzies seriously at the end of the book. In the final pages, the newly-appointed Commissioner of Native Affairs -- Jack Halloway, of course -- complains to a friend, 'Everybody wants Fuzzies; why, even Judge Pendarvis approached me about getting a pair for his wife. There'll be gangs hunting them to sell, using stun-bombs and sleepgas and everything. I'm going to have to set up an adoption bureau; Ruth will be in charge of that...'

So, if I'm understanding this correctly: Human colonists on Zarathustra think the darling little Fuzzies are adorable and want to keep them as pets, and Jack Halloway is going to let people do this legitimately, so as to prevent an illicit pet trade that would hurt the Fuzzies. His intentions are very noble and all, but does this seem right, given that the point of the whole book is 'Fuzzies are people'?

Even in the best-case scenario -- poor orphaned Fuzzy has no one to care for them, gets legally adopted by kind Human couple -- we're still displacing these people from their native culture.

A culture, I might add, that we know literally nothing about. By the end of this book, there still hasn't been a single meaningful Human-Fuzzy conversation beyond pantomime.

We know they're smart, conscious beings. We know shockingly little apart from that. And we're seriously talking about putting them in human homes to be raised by human beings?!

Piper wrote two sequels to Little Fuzzy, in which I can hope he dealt with some of these issues. (Even if he did, my view is that a novel ought to be able to stand on its own merits.) What I'm interested in reading, even more than the Fuzzy sequels written by Piper and others, is John Scalzi's 2011 reboot Fuzzy Nation, in which he retold Piper's story in the way he saw fit. Scalzi's take on the story will undoubtedly be entertaining and might help clarify my own thoughts on Fuzzyology.

Monday, November 26, 2012


by Peter Watts
Published in 2006
Published by Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1218-1

It's the late 21st Century, and the aliens have arrived. They made their presence clear by deploying thousands of satellites to conduct a full survey of Earth and its inhabitants. Humankind is thoroughly spooked and sends out a ship full of Earth's best and brightest to intercept the alien mothership, just discovered in the outer reaches of the solar system.

But because this is the late 21st Century, humanity's best and brightest are now weirder than the aliens in most science fiction novels not written by Peter Watts. There's a linguist who, to do her job more effectively, has split her mind into four fully independent selves. There's a biologist who has enhanced his sense perception to such a ludicrous extent that there's no brain left over to feel the tips of his own fingers. If you have a hard time feeling empathy for this bunch, that's okay; the feeling is most likely mutual.

Our narrator and chief protagonist has had such vast areas of brain removed and replaced with machinery that it's debatable whether he is still a fully sentient being or his life is one long extended Turing Test that he's done a pretty decent job passing so far.

And as for the crowning achievement in this novel's worldbuilding: Tens of thousands of years ago, there was a subspecies of humanity that was adapted to prey upon humans like us. Sort of like Neanderthals, but meaner. Because they lacked the ability to synthesize a crucial neural chemical, they were required to hunt and eat humans to survive. Their brains worked very differently from standard Homo sapiens, and they had remarkable pattern-matching abilities and animal cunning so that they could easily outwit their prey. So as not to exhaust their supply of food, they had the ability to hibernate for years, even decades at a time. They died out when we regular humans realized that the visual centers of these predators' brains couldn't handle Euclidian geometry, and if forced to look at right angles, they would have epileptic seizures. But we never forgot about them. In the 21st Century, we decided to clone these guys, Jurassic Park-style, in order to put their intelligence to work in fields that could use their unique cunning.

Anyway, long story short, they've put a vampire in charge of the ship. An actual, literal vampire. Think Nosferatu rather than Edward Cullen. I hope you all are okay with that and don't mind taking orders from him and sharing extremely limited living space with him. Vampires have been put in charge of most of the important stuff back on Earth, after all, so we know they're trustworthy.

Blindsight is an audacious novel that works remarkably well. The main theme of the book is consciousness, and intelligence, and what it means to have a high degree of the latter without the former being present. Is it possible for creatures who are not wired to think recursively about themselves to build an interstellar civilization? Watts has presented 'incomprehensible mindset' aliens about as well as anyone I've ever seen.

The book reminded me of Housuke Nojiri's Usurper of the Sun, which I read last year. Both delved into speculation on how truly alien aliens might operate. I was a little disappointed with the ending of Nojiri's novel, where the incomprehensible becomes comprehensible, articulate, even a bit cute, far too easily for my liking. Nothing of the sort happens in Watts' novel.

Blindsight has a 'love and cuddliness' quotient of zero.

There is no happiness to be found in these pages. No hope, and no optimism, and the only positive emotion is a purely intellectual spirit of discovery, unless you also count the sizable portion of black humor. Depending on your own mindset and background, you might find there are no sympathetic characters at all. You may or may not find that turns you off. Me, I found the book intellectually stimulating, and I look forward to finding more of Watts' work in the future.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel
by Milorad Pavic
English translation by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric
Published in 1984 (in English in 1988)
Published in English by Vintage International
ISBN: 0-679-72461-3

The Khazars were a people who ruled a large state in eastern Europe over a thousand years ago.

That much is true history. Everything that follows is fiction. I'm going to quickly summarize the plot as I understand it. Bear in mind that the novel is constructed very non-linearly, and I personally didn't grasp the 'big picture' until I'd nearly finished the book, so some might consider the next two paragraphs to be spoilers.

In the 17th century, three individuals (one Christian, one Muslim, one Jewish) attempted to compile a history of the Khazar people, particularly the details surrounding the conversion of the Khazar government to Judaism in the late 8th/early 9th centuries (possibly an actual historical event). This history was published and subsequently suppressed.

Three hundred years later, three scholars grew interested in the 'Khazar question' and attempted to instigate new research into the Khazars. All plotlines converge in a series of violent events in an Istanbul hotel one morning in 1982.

That much I am sure of. There is a great deal more going on in the book, much of it concerning the metaphysics of dreams, with (possibly) a great deal of eastern European folklore thrown in as well. I think.

The book is divided into three sections: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources on the Khazar Question. Within each section, entries in alphabetical order give varying points of view on: a) medieval Khazar history, b) the 17th-century individuals compiling Khazar history, and c) the 20th-century individuals compiling Khazar history.

Throughout, the writing style is one that makes liberal use of surrealistic asides and references to fantastical events. As I mentioned, I feel like a lot went right over my head due to my ignorance of folkloric traditions, although it is also possible that many of the odder asides are veiled references to other sections of the narrative, and might become clearer on a second reading.

Another thing to remember is that author Milorad Pavic was Serb, and apparently his fictional Khazaria is to a certain extent a satire of Serbia. Pavic's Khazar state exists under an unusual administrative system that guarantees that non-Khazar ethnic minorities legally dominate ethnic Khazars, despite the fact that Khazars outnumber all other ethnic groups combined. Presumably this is a satire of Yugoslavia before it collapsed, although my knowledge of that part of the world and that period of history is far too meager for me to appreciate it.

To those who are midway through Dictionary of the Khazars and are struggling, do not worry! There is indeed a coherent plot, although you may be finishing up the novel's final third before you can clearly see its structure. As for me, I think the best thing for me to do might be to put it to one side for a few months, then pick it up again and start re-reading from the beginning. I suspect I'll get far more out of it on my second time through.

Monday, November 12, 2012

2012 Election Post-Mortem Rant #2

A couple of days before the election a friend shared a link on Facebook:

Chrome extension blocks political Facebook, Twitter messages | BG 
New Chrome extension replaces your friends' political Facebook rants with pictures of cute kitties

My friend's reaction was: Good because what we need is a less engaged populace. Idiots. This is the cost of having a democracy or constitutional monarchy. May I humbly suggest you move somewhere more despotic if you're annoyed by political engagement.

I agree with my friend. We need more people active and engaged in politics (and that 'we' applies to every country in the world, both democratic and non-democratic).

However, I also have sympathy for the people who would install this extension.

I keep coming back to this topic on my blog. Apparently I can't shut up about it. Last month I wrote:

I know that the culture is full of people who think that the way to discuss politics is to park their face two inches in front of their opponents and launch a tirade of nonsense. The loser is the person who flinches from the barrage of spittle. The winner might be vaguely aware that they violated some norm of civil behavior (or common sense), but they were justified, because the topic was important!

And I bring that up again because I like the mental image, but I'm not going to talk about them right now. Instead, I'm going to talk about a calmer sort of person.

And since I picked on Libertarians last time, now I shall pick on Democrats for fairness' sake.

In the just-finished presidential election, we Democrats defeated a comical villain named Mitt Romney. Among Romney's many characteristics that made him a cartoony bad guy, he believed that a corporation was a kind of human being. This belief can be seen here:

Now, of course the notion that Romney believes a corporation is a kind of human being doesn't actually make any sense. That is not a thing that sane human beings believe. Furthermore, most of us Democrats are actually aware that Romney, in the above video, was really trying to convey something like 'Corporations are made of employees, and when corporations are taxed, people are taxed'.

But that's not as funny.

So anyway, we know that Romney thinks a corporation is a kind of human being. Ha ha ha, what a maroon! And we Democrats incorporate this belief into the dismissive comments we make about him to each other, to make ourselves feel good. All in good fun. No feelings get hurt.

Then we talk to a Mitt Romney supporter, but we forget to stop talking like we're still in our own echo chamber.

Hilarity ensues.

Look, I've tried hard to get engaged in online political discussions this election season. I live outside of the United States, and Americans I know personally here tend to agree with me, in broad strokes at least, about American politics, so I looked to online comment threads to see some real political discussion. I tried to be smart. I didn't read YouTube comments or anything like that; I tried to read political threads on sites where I could be assured of a modicum of intelligence while still getting a diverse range of views.

But it always, always, always turned into people criticizing each other for mischaracterizing their views, or their favored candidate's views, or what their favored candidate said.

And the flight off the rails always, always, always started with some variation on the scenario I described above: one person unwisely saying to another, 'Mitt Romney says corporations are a subspecies of homo sapiens, you know.'

And I've seen the same scenario playing out on Facebook comments and blog posts. Probably happened in person in the USA, hundreds of thousands of times a day, every day, in the weeks leading up to the election. Again, I'm not talking about legitimate differences of beliefs; I'm talking about someone forgetting to keep their cartoon image of the politician they don't like stuffed away.

After a while, I can certainly imagine someone wanting to download that Chrome extension that replaces political rants with pictures of fluffy kittens.

And that's a tragedy. I am actually not one of those people who believes there is no difference between D and R beyond branding and window dressing. I believe there were important races that were decided on November 6. I believe important choices were made. I believe that some of the politicians running were, in fact, more putrid than others. But some people only hear back-and-forth yapping.

Our culture is failing them.

Incidentally, the reason I picked on the Democrats this time around for turning Romney into a silly cartoon is that I thought and I thought, and I thought some more, but gosh darn it, I just plain couldn't think of a single instance of the Republicans doing it to Obama.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

2012 Election Port-Mortem Rant #1

Here’s my first official 2012 Election Post-Mortem Rant. Yes, there will probably be more.

This is my attempt at explaining what gets under my skin about the way many, many people discuss politics. I tend to get more annoyed when it comes from Republican types, but that’s just because I tend to disagree with them more; what I’m about to describe also exists in many left-leaning people.

These people basically see all political discourse as a game. It’s a hobby for them. They themselves call it things like ‘intellectual debate’ and ‘free exchange of ideas’. (Please understand that I am not accusing all people who are fond of these terms of having this mindset; I am only saying that many people who have this mindset justify it using these terms.)

The key thing to remember about this mindset is that, deep down, these people see the topics of political debate as pure abstraction. They get emotional about politics for the same reason that people get emotional about sporting events (all human beings are programmed to support their teams). But there’s a level deep in their brains that doesn’t believe this stuff is real. And by arguing with them, you are implicitly agreeing to play by the same rules as them: they assume you don’t really believe this stuff is real either. It’s all just a game. Here are some specifics:

Firstly, everything in the debate exists only at the level of abstraction. If I advocate a playing strategy in a computer game that would inadvertently lead to the deaths of innocent virtual people, I would expect you not to waste your mental energy caring too much about them. They’re not real. In a shockingly similar way, though, if I advocate politics that could kill uninsured people / Pakistani villagers / people trying to immigrate illegally / other people in the virtual world of politics, and you act like you’re sad about that, then I assume you’re just employing a ‘faux outrage’ tactic and I am grateful to you that you are allowing me to be the rational one in this debate.

I’ve seen my wife argue universal health care plenty of times with Libertarian sorts who see the whole thing as an abstraction. And I always get the feeling that if they knew my wife really and truly believes that people without health care are real people and anecdotes about the travails of the uninsured are real stories that really happened in real life, they would grow very worried and perhaps commit her to a psychiatric ward somewhere.

(If I appear to pick on my wife a lot, it's because she's much less non-confrontational and more prone to discussing issues than I am. But it's not because she 'enjoys intellectual debate', it's because she thinks these things are real and cares about them.)

Secondly, supporting characters in politics like Shirley Sherrod and Sandra Fluke are public-domain fictional characters like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and therefore no objectively true information about them can exist. If I don’t like some aspect of how the Easter Bunny is portrayed in popular culture and go around saying that these facts about the Easter Bunny are objectively wrong because the real Easter Bunny isn’t like that, well, people would think I was crazy. The same goes for supporting characters in politics.

If (according to this mindset) you say that Sandra Fluke demanded that American taxpayers pay for her birth control so she could get laid more often, and I say that she said no such thing, then there’s no sense in appealing to any sort of objective reality to sort out who’s right. It would be like arguing over whether Santa Claus’s belt buckle is black or brown. And what’s more (according to this mindset) if I take issue with something that somebody says online about Sandra Fluke, then I am willingly participating in the game. That’s because people with this mindset are incapable of understanding that there are human beings who don’t share it.

On her own blog, my wife recently wrote about the patronising attitude that others took with her when she used her own life as an example when discussing social politics:

And what I got told was that none of this was true: that if I didn't want to go to a known dangerous neighborhood then I was clearly racist, that I could go on my lunch hour to a "nearby" clinic, that I couldn't possibly have moved abroad in part because I wanted socialized health insurance, that I could have bought cheap OTC birth control at Wal-Mart (there was no Wal-Mart near me, thankfully, but I took his meaning to be 'a pharmacy'), that I was lying about how difficult/impossible it was to go to a clinic, that my story of "bad side effects" from OTC birth control was a "lie", and that America clearly has the best health care in the world, and that abortion was a non-issue because "we have Roe v. Wade" so, basically, quit yer whinin'. 
That right there is what I mean - this commenter was telling me what my life was like - despite not living my life, and not even knowing me. He was telling me what my options should be, what my choices are, what I could do, rather than listening to me when I told him what my life was actually like, and listening to the statistics on how accessible abortion really is to women across the country, despite Roe v. Wade. It was condescending, it was mansplaining (the commenter was male and thought he knew better than me what my own experience was), it was holier-than-thou, and it was not listening.

Of course, because what my wife posted wasn’t real to them. As far as they were concerned her story was a fiction, and a fiction that was written without regard to consistency with the story that they followed, which was also fiction but in their minds was more canonical.

In fictional universes which are densely populated with stories in different media by different authors, such as the Star Trek universe, some stories are considered more ‘real’ than others. The stories occupying the highest level of reality are considered ‘canon’, and in the case of Star Trek they include the TV shows and movies. Professionally published novels set in the same universe are considered less ‘canonical’; if there is an inconsistency between the two, the more canonical work wins out. Fanfic occupies the lowest rung on the ladder.

My wife’s mistake was to post social issues fanfic that was not sufficiently consistent with the established canon. That’s why it got torn to pieces.

You’re welcome to respond to me by saying that this is all nonsense. What I say doesn’t even make sense. Of course people who talk about politics believe politics is real.

Maybe, but it does explain a lot frighteningly well. It explains why people seem to think there is no such thing as objective reality, and can debate about issue X with such apparent passion while not actually caring about how issue X manifests itself in the real world with real people. If my model matches the way people behave better than one that actually makes sense, then we have a problem.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Video Game Villains and Arguing Politics

If you're a video game villain, the classic strategy goes like this. In the beginning, you throw your weakest underlings at the hero. As the hero defeats the weaker baddies, you send progressively stronger  creatures out to dispatch him or her. You save the truly elite underlings for the heroes who have proved themselves more than a match for the weaker guys. Why doesn't the villain just attack the hero with the strongest forces at the beginning of the game? Well, that would violate the logic of video games.

For some reason, there are people who approach debate about current events the same way. They start with their weakest arguments, and then bring out the stronger arguments only only after the weak ones have been pathetically defeated. Since there's no video game logic operating here, I've been wondering why they waste other people's time this way.

Some topics particularly seem to attract this. One example is arguments over the continued existence of the Electoral College in the USA. I'm not saying that everybody who thinks the Electoral College is a good idea does this; nor am I saying that this behavior is limited to one side of one issue. But I've seen supporters of the continued existence of the Electoral College do this time and time again, and it's what made the 'video game villain' analogy pop into my head.

National popular vote means that if you don’t live in New York City, L.A., or a handful of the other major cities, you might as well not even bother having a vote.

But why? That doesn't make any sense. If you're a resident of Smallsville, Ruralstate, you might feel bad that Smallsville won't have the same voting clout as, say, Brooklyn, New York. But select any given neighborhood or area of Brooklyn that's got the same population as Smallsville, and with a straight popular vote the two places will have exactly the same importance. Despite how it may look from a distance, large urban areas are not homogenous blobs but rather large agglomerations of people, every one of whom has the same amount of free will as an individual resident of Smallsville.

After several people rejected the above post, the same poster comes back with:

There are voting differences in every city, but in general in today’s climate, urban centers tend to vote differently than rural centers. As an example, I live near Seattle, which tends to dominate the politics of Washington state along with Tacoma and Olympia. The rest of the state doesn’t have enough population to counter-balance the voting bloc here in the Puget Sound metro area. At times, this has resulted in taxes being levied state-wide that really only benefit the folks in the Puget Sound area.

Color me crazy, but I don’t think it’s a necessarily sound policy on principle to elect leadership based solely on raw popularity. The Electoral College, while imperfect and in need of an overhaul, is still a method to inject some level of compromise into the process that allows for some level of balance that the tyrrany of the majority is not likely to provide.

If the first post was a low-level mook who could be killed to a bop to the head, this is a much more powerful foe from one of the game's later levels. There's a lot to argue with in the first paragraph -- for example, why must geography be the sole determining factor? As long as you're subdividing the electorate into different groups with different interests, why stop at geography? -- but that's entirely the point; there is a lot to argue with there. Very unlike the first post, which evaporates into nothingness the minute you think about it seriously, like a video game mook who just runs in a straight line and explodes harmlessly if you throw a rock at him.

The best explanation I can think of for why people do this has to do with the Colbertian concept of 'truthiness' -- people instinctively post what feels right to them, without regard to the fact that if it doesn't instinctively feel right to someone else, that person might think about it logically, and the post would never survive that.

I suppose one could extend this to the video game universe, and speculate that video game villains attack heroes with their weakest baddies first because these are the baddies that most potently symbolize the hatred the villains feel in their hearts. And so they send them out first, without regard for the fact that they just wander about randomly and can be killed by hopping on them.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

When Memory Dies

When Memory Dies
by A. Sivanandan
Published in 1997
Published by Arcadia Books
ISBN: 1-905147-59-7

A. Sivanandan, a Sri Lankan Tamil who left his native country for Great Britain in 1958, composed this novel about three generations of a Sri Lankan family who witness their country's descent into ethnic strife and the beginnings of civil war in the mid-20th century.

The narrative is divided into three sections, one for each generation. In the first section, Sahadevan, an educated Tamil, describes the trade union politics of the 1920s and 1930s through his friendships and family ties with those people who are in the midst of events. In the middle section, his son Rajan lives through the first years of independence. The entire novel is, in fact, narrated from Rajan's point of view, although he vanishes from the scene when he moves to Great Britain and disappears. The third generation is represented by Vijay, who, through some deft genealogical slight-of-hand on the author's part, continues the same family despite actually being Sinhala. He gets to witness the full-blown culmination of the disintegration of the social order that had so troubled his father.

What we have here, and what overshadows the book's actual narrative, is a political and social history of Sri Lanka from the 1920s to the early 1980s, from trade unions agitating against British rule early on, to the early years to Ceylon self-government, to the total breakdown of the country along communal lines in the late 1970s. Actual individual characters seem unimportant by comparison. Oh, there are plenty of characters about, but they all seem expendable. When something truly horrible happens (and many, many horrible things happen over the course of this book), you're warned of it several pages in advance by the shift in mood.

So I was never really able to get emotionally invested in this book. I found it a valuable read chiefly because it was educational. My wife and I are planning to visit Sri Lanka over next Chinese New Year, and when visiting a new, unfamiliar country, acquainting oneself with the basics of its culture and history are necessary to avoid being a bumbling, idiot foreigner. On one hand, the politics discussed in the book are now 30 years out of date. But on the other hand, they deal with the origins of the very same civil war which only ended in 2009, and remains the single defining event in the nation's recent history. The narrative itself may have left me cold, but When Memory Dies had true value for me for giving me a contextual framework upon which I can hang new bits of information about this nation of Sri Lanka.

Last month I wrote of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother that I found the novel weakest when characters ranted at each other about politics. By any objective measure, When Memory Dies is a hundred times worse in that regard, and the density of political ranting increases as the novel goes on, as characters shout cliched lines at each other. (I found it downright funny when, on page 360 of my edition, a character who appears nowhere else in the narrative pipes up to say of the Prime Minister, "Boy, that guy likes to play around with democracy, doesn't he?")

I actually didn't mind this so much, probably because it was far removed from my everyday experience -- hearing complaints about the dictatorial ambitions of Prime Minster Ranasinghe Premadasa was new to me, so my brain was able to contextualize it as data concerning political history. That said, by bringing this up at all I believe I have become both the first and the last person ever to draw a comparison between A. Sivanandan's When Memory Dies and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.