The Great Depression

The Churchill Memorandum by Sean Gabb

I recently read The Churchill Memorandum, by English libertarian Sean Gabb. I devoured most of it on a transatlantic flight, and finished the last bit on terra firma. I tend to like thrillers (some favorite authors include Nelson DeMille and, of late, Cherie Priest, author of Bloodshot); alternate history (e.g., Harry Turtledove, Brad Linaweaver’s Moon of Ice, L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach); and books with libertarian themes or influences (L. Neil Smith, Ayn Rand, Henry Hazlitt, Brad Linaweaver, Victor Koman, J. Neil Schulman). So it’s no surprise I enjoyed The Churchill Memorandum, which is very well written and which combines all three features (full disclosure: Gabb is a friend).

The novel is set in 1959, in an alternate history in which Hitler died in a car accident in 1939, thus averting WWII and changing the course of history. Gabb’s libertarian influences — he’s the head of the UK Libertarian Alliance — as well as his deep historical knowledge, are evident throughout the book. The novel depicts amazing technological progress — some of it rivaling or exceeding 2011 levels — in 1959, since WWII did not occur to sap away the economic strength and entrepreneurial innovations of tens of millions of individuals who would otherwise have been eviscerated in state war. So in 1959 there are magnetic bullet trains, home energy generators, and many other seemingly fantastic innovations.

The story follows the adventures of one Anthony Markham, a Churchill historian who, on a trip to the now-fascist police-state and isolationist America to research the Churchill archives at Harvard, stumbles across an explosive document that purports to document secret pacts that changed the course of American and world history. This leads to an intriguing geopolitical thriller informed by the author’s libertarian views. It is told in first person point of view (POV), my personal favorite for thrillers (and other novels) since it forces the narrator to show not tell, and not to omnisciently cheat and reveal details the protagonist would not know. Gabb’s ambivalent and somewhat bipolar English attitude towards America — at once a great power and friend of England, and a schizophrenic and dangerous destroyer of the ancient European order and institutions — is present throughout; and as a skeptic of the American mythos myself, I really enjoyed this foreign perspective. (Gabb recently presented a talk on “The Case Against the American War of Independence.”)

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BOOK REVIEW | The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick Thumbnail

Author Philip K. Dick

It seems to me that of the two most important elements of a story, plot and character, plot seems to be more masculine and character more feminine. That is to say, a story for men, if it skimps on either of the two, is more likely to skimp on character, while a story for women will shortchange the plot. The best stories, of course, are strong in both categories. Science fiction, being a more masculine genre — in fact the only genre of fiction whose readership is more male than female — has traditionally been solid on plot and hit or miss with the characters. There are exceptions, as one would expect, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a Hugo Award winner, is one of these.

The story takes place in what was the present day when the novel was written, 1962, but in an alternate timeline where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won World War II. The United States has been carved into puppet governments; Germany has sent astronauts to Mars, drained the Mediterranean for farmland and committed multiple genocides; Japan controls the west coast of North America, having become a cultural as well as political hegemon.

It is a marvelous setting, both in conception and in description. Dick’s prose makes it come alive with a few deft touches here and there, sparse but effective. Whereas in most stories the setting serves as a place for the plot to take place, the reader here gets the sense that the plot is just something to have happen in the setting. The world and its characters are the point; what they do in the narrative has less importance.

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MOVIE REVIEW | The Adjustment Bureau Thumbnail

The Adjustment Bureau

Some years ago I bought the first book of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, made it to approximately page 40 and tossed it aside.  The writing was unimpressive, but not so bad that I would have normally opted to leave it unfinished.  The problem for me was that I was not willing to suspend my disbelief so as to accept the author’s premises.  I did not see the point in exploring something so patently untrue, and if his prose was going to be that insipid, with nothing especially arresting about the early part of the plot, then the opportunity cost was too high.  I felt much the same as I watched The Adjustment Bureau, though I did sit through until the end.

In this film’s particular world, the human race has been guided through the centuries, off and on, by an entity referred to as The Chairman who has in his employ a number of beings, human in appearance, with extraordinary powers.  The Chairman took the human race from barbaric tribalism to the height of the Roman Empire before deciding to allow us to make our decisions for ourselves.  What followed were the Dark Ages, so this benevolent dictator assumed control once more and guided us through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment up to about 1910, whereupon we were given one more chance to be free.  We produced WWI, The Great Depression, WWII and brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust, so we lost our freedom yet again, presumably for good this time.

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BOOK REVIEW | Makers by Cory Doctorow Thumbnail

I didn’t like Makers. I wanted to like it. Cory Doctorow, the author, is a cool geek and something of an ally in the struggle against intellectual property, i.e., government grants of monopoly privilege. But overall I just did not enjoy the book for a number of reasons.

To be sure, there are things to like about Makers. If you’re an avid reader of Boing Boing, you might like it. I only dip my toes in occasionally. Reading Makers is a lot like reading Boing Boing in novel form. Cory excels at imagining interesting gadgets and cool new uses for current and upcoming technology — the kind of geeky tech and pop culture things he and his fellow bloggers share on Boing Boing all the time, only some unspecified number of years into the near near future. The book will probably date quickly, but this aspect of it was fun…for a while. When it comes to things, Cory has an expansive imagination and a deep understanding. When it comes to people and plotting, on the other hand, his imagination and understanding seem to me to be more limited.

Makers started out as a novella titled Themepunks, serialized on Salon.com, though it appears Cory envisioned it from the beginning as merely the first part of a novel. I wish he hadn’t. Makers consists of three parts and an epilogue, with Themepunks being part one, the first 100 or so pages. Like Luke Burrage, I enjoyed part one, for the most part, but thought the novel went downhill from there.

As the novel opens we are introduced to the first main viewpoint character, a tech reporter by the name of Suzanne Church (Andrea Fleeks in Themepunks1). Suzanne attends a press conference held by the new CEO of Kodak/Duracell (or Kodacell), Landon Kettlewell. Kodak and Duracell are struggling companies in the near future. There’s no longer a need or market for their products. I guess they failed to innovate and remain competitive in a changing technological landscape. Kodak I can see. But Duracell? People won’t need batteries in the future? Duracell will fail to develop new power cells for new products? Really? In any case, Kettlewell and his financial backers decide to buy and merge Kodak and Duracell and then essentially gut them. The idea is apparently to trade on the old companies’ good brand names and use their capital to back a creative new business model.

Under Kettlewell, Kodacell becomes a kind of Grameen Bank of venture capital, engaging in micro-financing of garage-next-door would-be inventors and entrepreneurs. The business plan is for Kodacell to find untapped creative geniuses throughout the country, provide them with funding and a business manager, and act as the central coordinator in a distributed network of small, independent teams. A pretty nifty idea. This relatively non-hierarchical business model, the focus on 3-D printers, and a number of other aspects of the novel will be appealing to many left-libertarians, I think.

Suzanne then takes on the role of embedded journalist and later blogger when she travels to Florida to follow Kettlewell’s star makers, two young guys named Perry and Lester. She befriends them and reports on what they’re doing and on their relationship with a resourceful local squatter community (another thing left-libertarians and off-the-grid survivalists will probably like). Thanks in large part to her reporting a new worldwide movement is spawned and later dubbed the New Work (too New Deal-esque, for my taste, but at least it was a voluntary private initiative). Kodacell quickly attracts imitators and the new venture micro-capital market is soon unsustainably flooded with an excess of money, credit, and competitors. Irrational exuberance, I suppose.

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  1. I’m not sure what else might have changed from novella to novel other than this character’s name. 

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